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One should always doubt the Sceptics

better world cartoon

If you have a choice between a conspiracy and incompetence, according to popular wisdom, it’s generally safer to presume incompetence. Mind you, conspiracy theories are always entertaining, if not reassuring. Even though we may rail against it, in some ways, it’s nice to think there’s an elite group of people out there who actually know what they’re doing.

Evidence of conspiracies, I’ve always thought was a little bit oxymoronic. Surely the best conspiracies would leave NO evidence. “There’s a group of people who are doing something that none of know about because they’ve hidden their tracks so well that not only don’t I know who they are, but I don’t know what they’re doing either! What evidence do I have that they exist? None, which just shows how effective they are!”

And so when it comes to climate change we have believers in a conspiracy on both sides of the debate. One conspiracy argues that energy and mining companies are conspiring to muddy the evidence and to dispute the science, so that they can continue to make massive profits destroying the earth. Whereas, the other conspiracy is that scientists have decided that they’d like funding to study something which they all know doesn’t exist, because there aren’t enough things that do exist to study. Of the two theories, I know which I find more plausible.

However, I don’t think that either is true. I suspect that big business hasn’t conspired to do this. I suspect that they think that there’s nothing really wrong with what they’re doing and when they look at the evidence, they find what they’re looking for. It’s human nature to ignore what doesn’t suit us. (“They tell us that smoking is (cough, cough!) bad for you, but (cough, cough!) Uncle Harry smoked forty two packets for twenty years and when he died at fifty it was from a car accident, so I reckon the evidence it unclear!”)

When it was a minority of scientists talking about climate change, it was argued that they were a minority. Now, the same people argue that scientists are victims of “group think”, and besides there isn’t a consensus because a geologist in Woollongong says he agrees with Andrew Bolt. Of course, the people who once said that being in a minority doesn’t make you wrong, now argue that having the majority of scientists agree with you means that there’s no need for a debate any longer.

Science is not about consensus or voting. It’s about developing theories and putting them to the test. With something like climate change, the difficulty comes about when both sides confuse climate and weather. Weather is a day-to-date event; climate is measured over a period of thirty four years. Picking a date and then measuring temperatures from that date means that you can manipulate the data so that it looks like the climate is not changing. If the summer of 2013 was the hottest on record, the fact that the next three years aren’t that hot doesn’t mean we aren’t experiencing climate change, any more than it’s only 19 degrees today and it was twenty yesterday, means that the planet’s “cooling”.

Predictions, of course, will be wrong. Why? Because there are so many of them, all using different assumptions. Sceptics of climate change jump on the extreme nature of some of the predictions as “evidence” that the whole notion is inaccurate. But this is like arguing that there are no precious metals underground, because some mines fail to find what they’re looking for.

There’s nothing wrong with being sceptical, but one needs to look at the consequences of being wrong. Arguing that I’m sober enough to drive in spite of two scotches and seven wines, may seem very sensible at the time, but I should, at least, consider the possibility that my judgement may be impeded and taking a taxi will only put me a few dollars out, whereas the consequences of my driving may be far worse. Should I, by good luck, get home safely, scoffing at the people who predicted I’d lose my licence, or worse, doesn’t mean that their concern was misguided, or that they won’t be right into the future.

I particularly liked the views of one sceptic I encountered on the Internet. Anyone who believed in climate change was gullible and left wing, and therefore needed to be personally attacked, because telling someone that were a moron is a pretty effective way of changing their mind. He thought that Climate Change didn’t exist, but had always happened so wasn’t man-made. Australia was “going it alone on action”, but Global Warming was a UN conspiracy to impose world government. And that people were brainwashed by mainstream media and unable to think for themselves. He’d then post a link to website or Youtube clip which had enabled him to think for himself.

Scientific debate allows for different viewpoints. It shouldn’t be personal or vindictive. And when a hypothesis is shown to be wrong, it contributes to our knowledge. Compare that to the rantings of Andrew Bolt, or the climate science is crap viewpoints. With anything, we should ask: how do we know we’re right, and what are the consequences if we’re wrong? If someone asserts, Bolt-like, that they’re never wrong, it’s time to worry about their sanity, not their intellect.

 

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