A lot has been made of often toxic ‘debates’ that often accompany news items and blogs on the web. You do not have to look far. Take many news items on the BBC and you will often find that a journalist’s blog is leapt upon by all manner of often uncivil, anonymous and barely moderated posts that degenerate into all manner of speculations on the motives of him or her, and conspiracies about this or that.
This is no more so than when the topic involves science, and in particular, climate science. The vitriol of many posts means that people with a genuine understanding of the science are too weary to engage in these discussion threads. When they do, and try to build a bridge with so-called sceptics, they will find that their motives are questioned. The problem is that comment threads on the web seem to be about as far from the norms of ‘debate’ as it is possible to get.
For a debate, the protagonists must start from at least some areas of common ground, and then debate their differences using a common language, where the words from each side are understood within common norms and frameworks. Yes, it can get heated but debate can remain ‘on subject’ and not resort to personal attacks.
At the Hay book festival a few years ago two prominent historians, Eric Hobsbawm and Niall Ferguson, debated the origins of the First World War. Despite their serious political differences, a civilized debate ensued, and they actually ended up agreeing.
Now imagine if a senior scientist at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore wanted to challenge a motion “There is no prospect of commercialized fusion power making a significant contribution to mitigating the current pathway towards dangerous anthropogenic global warming (AGW) ”, he would start with several agreed points, such as the reality of AGW and the dangerous pathway part too, probably. But imagine that this was a blog ‘debate’ and then: firstly, someone jumped in who said that cold fusion already worked and there was a conspiracy to hide this truth from the world; secondly, a guy pops up with an argument saying that AGW is a lie, because it defies common sense that 400 parts per million of CO^2 have so much effect, and he has references to prove it!; etcetera.
There are a number of factors at work here that will prevent genuine debate:
- To have a debate, there must be common norms, language and frameworks that enable constructive focused debate e.g. in the AGW ‘debate’ a basic understanding of the kinetic theory of heat; the laws of thermodynamics; the absorption spectra of molecules; etc., before one can ‘debate’ the way in which models use this basic physics. I can imagine Professor Betts of the Met Office having a debate with James Lovelock of Gaia fame on a motion “The lack of modelling of sub-surface ocean circulation undermines the ability of general circulation models of the climate to make useful predictions of future warming”. A fair challenge at first sight, but I bet Professor Betts has plenty of arguments to have a sensible debate with Lovelock. Lovelock would not jump in with “but CO^2 is not a greenhouse gas”, because that is not true.
- The casual use of crooked forms of argument that have been studied for as long as debate has been with us (for a survey, see the sadly out of print book by Thouless: http://neglectedbooks.com/Straight_and_Crooked_Thinking.pdf ), which pepper many political arguments but are now used routinely in these ‘debates’.
- What philosophers call ‘category errors’ abound: these discussion threads often conflate so many apparently random points that debate is well nigh impossible. Given that, as my mother used to say “empty vessels make the most noise”, is it any wonder that the substance of any debate gets lost in the noise of ignorance and vitriol?
One feels bound to ask “Who is a debate for?”. For students campaigning against investment in Fossil Fuels there is little interest in ‘debates’ as to the truth of AGW, as they are convinced that there is a serious AGW issue and have moved on from debate to action.
Lord Lawson, on the other hand, probably spends little time going through discussion threads. His language and framework is not a science-based one, but is based on a liberal view of economics: human progress and the market will save the day, so the details of the science are really not something he is equipped to debate or is fundamentally interested in. He probably regards AGW proponents as at best unwitting tools of anti-free market forces which must be defeated at all costs.
For those ‘sceptics’ who are genuinely interested in challenging the science, rather than the motives of scientists, there needs to be a forum for genuine debate, and we must stop pretending that the un-moderated threads that largely populate blogs that challenge AGW can provide this platform.
You may well ask, are not the people who are genuinely interested in challenging the science, the scientists themselves! After all, they do this day in and day out using credible scientific venues, such as refereed journals, conferences and so forth. That is indeed true. They have the training, skills and experience to enable them to challenge the science effectively, and to reach solid conclusions. By that process, a consensus has emerged that the Earth is warming, and that it is largely or entirely due to human activity.
‘Sceptics’ who are genuinely interested in challenging that consensus will have to participate in the same scientific process. This requires a minimum level of knowledge and skill – putting in the time and effort required – before they can “challenge the science”. If they’re not willing to do that, they can hardly be considered genuine sceptics. Scientists are quintessentially sceptical. They are the uber ‘sceptics’!
But what about those who are ill equipped to challenge the science, but perhaps find themselves challenged or befuddled by the science!? In this broader realm concerned with communicating what is established science, to those who have an interest in the science but lack the knowledge and skills – including some journalists, politicians, University of the 3rd Agers, etc. – there is a need for credible scientists to engage. This is more likely to be achieved using old fashioned forms of discourse – village halls, or video talks, that are as close as possible to face-to-face discourse – and far removed from the un-moderated, of anonymous ‘debates’ on the web. This is not debate, it is an open form of communication.
The debate comes, of course, for all of us when we come to consider the options we face when confronted by science. Do we continue with nuclear or push to scale renewables? Valid topics for political debate. There is no reason, and actually some advantage, for this discourse to be done in concert with those sceptics who are able to engage in genuine debate about those things worth debating, with those who share sufficient norms, language and frameworks needed to facilitate genuine debate.
I would welcome a debate with Lord Lawson, but that is impossible while he remains in denial about the science. So, just as Ferguson and the now departed Hobsbawm, were able, on an historical topic, to engage in useful debate that lead to a conclusion despite a huge chasm between them (politically), so too, even on a complex and challenging topic like AGW, discourse is possible – given a suitable topic for debate.