I lost some time arguing with a bunch of these climate change skeptics, and I thought it would be interesting to share what happened here for future reference.

To give you some context, this happened in a political debate FB group. Someone posted a comment praising Trump for walking out the Paris Agreement. I immediately commented that global warming is real, and that it is man-caused.

This was met by the following:

  • Someone posted a picture of varying levels of CO2 throughout the millenia (Starting 600 million years ago), saying ironically that "Haha, see how CO2 affects life", plus a picture of some dinosaurs.
  • That the models are just designed to fit the past and always fail in their predictions.
  • Someone saying that global warming is real, but that there are other factors (sun, cosmic radiation...) that are the main drivers, and that States are interested in using climate science to justify more state intervention.
  • Thisvideo
  • That there is no need to know climate science to know that politicians have incentives, and have acted on them (and same for climate scientists) to twist the facts.

I then said that unless one has really studied climatology and actually understands the debate, one is not justifying in disbelieving a scientific consensus. After all, the consensus represents the efforts of thousands of people dedicated to finding the truth about something. In turn, this got...

  • Scientific consensus was wrong before! People initially disagreed with Louis Pasteur, scientific consensus agreed on geocentrism, scientific consensus agreed on lobotomy.
  • Scientific consensus in economics rejects the Austrian School too!
  • Truth is not dictated by democracy. Believers in global warming are sheeps who follow ecohisteric propaganda and blindly believe in it. It has been proven, even by ex-UN officials that global warming is a political farce.
  • You are taking a stand on a scientific issue without having read the relevant literature.

 I argued then that one need not do literature reviews all the time. For example, I say that homeopathy doesn't work without having read what homeopaths say. I talked about this here and here. I was asked if I understand how homeopathy is claimed to work, and I do in the same way I understand the basics of climate science, but I have not read the papers wherein homeopaths specify molecular-level mechanism through which homeopathy is supposed to work (Yes, those papers exist).

  • But how can you then reject homeopathy! You cannot say anything about homeopathy if you haven't read their papers!
  • But there is consensus among homeopaths that homeopathy work

I just said that I am not arguing for any conclusion of my own, just pointing to the consensus, and I was told that one can't make claims without adequate formation. I was then pointed to a rather long documentthat I was supposed to read before saying anything. The text is written by a known climate skeptic and it is over 200 pages long, and insisted that something cannot be made true by consensus. (Something that I didn't say, and something that I think is generally obvious) Ad furthermore he said that there is no consensus.

How so, I asked?

I was then linked to alist of scientists that signed a 2007 letter saying that climate warming is a hoax, and that there is no warming since 1998, etc. This was supposed to show there is no consensus, and some others praised that comment, saying ironically that "Oh, we shouldn't believe in these scientists, only in public employees and bureaucrats from UN..."

I then linked to a skepticalScience debunking of that list, here, and the claim that there has been no warming since 1998 here but I was reminded quite vehemently that consensus doesn't exist, being linked to this video that purports to prove that there is no consensus. Once again I replied  with this and this. Essentially, the consensus on global warming does not depend on  a single study by John Cook, and that saying that there is no consensus because just a fraction of the total number of papers express an opinion, is nonsense given the rest of the evidence, that someone who thinks of a theory as settled won't be explicitly endorsing it, and that if one takes papers that do have an opinion, still 97% endorse the consensus. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This was met with laughter.

Most people get even more irrational than they already are when discussing topics close to their own identity. Climate change look to certain people like something "defended by leftists", "pushed by governments", "something that would imply massive state intervention". It could well be all those things. Indeed, agreement with the reality of climate change is greater among leftists, and governments do fund climate science and implement measures to fight it, but the right attitude to this is "So what". One has to be a tremendous cynic to reject a consensus by postulating a conspiracy across a whole field, and would need substantial evidence that there is.

This case is interesting because the skeptic in question seems to have done some reading, and I was admitting to having done little, beyond ensuring that the consensus is what it looks like it is before accepting as true the belief that global warming is manmade and real. How would this look like from the skeptic's perspective?

Insulting, perhaps. The skeptic thinks he has done the work of going through the evidence, carefully weighing the official truth and contrarian dissenters, thinking about the incentive structure of policymakers and scientists, and on the basis of that, he has concluded that the consensus is wrong. Then someone who has done little reading on the topic comes and points out, without caring about examining his efforts, that he is wrong and the consensus is right. I might have came across as ignorant or something like that, from his side.

How are we to solve these disputes? Of course, one could read about climatology, read all of the skeptics, and then come back to the debate and argue whatever has to be argued with precision. But that takes time. As I linked above, a key skill in practical rationality is to be able to reject or accepts beliefs swiftly and without extensive research, thanks to picking good second hand sources. How can we solve these disputes then if I am not going to read what the skeptic says? I did of course try to link to skeptical science, where all this analysis has already been done for me, but those links were mostly disregarded.

Instead, what one can do is to just analyse one argument and see what happens. In that case, I analysed the video from PragerU, and explained why it is wrong, and why the consensus still holds even after Alex Epstein's nitpicking. This is important, because the skeptic has been saying that there is no consensus. After showing that one core argument is wrong (it took just some minutes), shouldn't the skeptic reconsider? Well, not in this case. But no counterargument was made, I was merely laughed at. This case is hopeless, and I stopped arguing at that point. I also updated my views slighly towards the "it is really hard to change people's minds with minimal effort"

Could it have been done better? Let's say I were a climatologist. I wouldn't have been perceived as ignorant, but how do you counteract generalised cynism about about a field of scientific inquiry? Maybe you cannot. Maybe some skeptics are really hopeless, but hopefully some people who read the exchange and were undecided thought I was correct and he wasn't.

I stopped debating on twitter a long time ago, as it is completely pointless. Maybe I should extend that everywhere and limit any debates to fields where I have actually done the relevant research. In that, I endorse this post by Michael Huemer.

Comments from WordPress

  • perrinwalker perrinwalker 2017-06-05T05:06:17Z

    This is a great write-up. I had a similar argument with a very well-read anti-vaxxer, and I came to the same conclusion as you did. They're desperate to talk about 'vaccination in general' or 'climate change in general', because it enables them to flit from assertion to assertion without ever subjecting one argument to close examination. Or they'll send you a collection of 1000 (literally) abstracts from studies that, taken as a whole, are supposed to prove vaccination is dangerous, even though the individual studies are things like 'aluminium toxicity in mice after chronic exposure' etc. Choosing one argument or point or study and then doggedly drilling down on it is the best way to go, because it forces them to consider that they might not be subjecting the rest of their reading to the appropriate level of actual skepticism.

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