UPDATE 18 July – see end (Royal Society)
This is the second instalment of a review of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s speech of 9 June, entitled Integrity in Science: Implications from and for the Climate Change Debate. The first instalment was Gluckman stumbles on the truth.
In using the term “denialist”, our Chief Science Advisor descends to the sludge at the bottom of the barrel of scientific debate. It is a matter of profound regret that the CSA imports this malignant, divisive term to his prestigious office and the hallowed halls of the Royal Society.
Soaked in fallacy
There is no reason for an honest man of science to employ erroneous techniques of observation or debate, for what would it profit him? They would only ensure, first, that his argument fails and, second, that his credibility is damaged, the greater for being the higher in rank. So this is an enormous lapse in judgement by our top scientist and deserves the firmest reproach. Endorsement of Sir Peter’s comments, such as by the Royal Society (see below), is similarly reproachable.
In adopting the technique – or logical fallacy, whichever you prefer – of the ad hominem argument by labelling those who disagree with him as denialist and rejectionist, he engages in the worst scientific conduct. It is no less than poisonous, and that this toxic stuff now emanates from the summit of our scientific pyramid gives it a cachet it should never receive.
Whatever familiarity the term has achieved under relentless repetition, the ad hominem fallacy it is soaked in is undiminished and thus it can never be acceptable among the well-educated.
In introducing the term, Sir Peter explains:
While the motives of those who reject the science are variable, the responses within climate change, evolution, HIV, smoking, ozone holes, immunisation and so forth have been remarkably stereotypic, so much so that they been [sic] the subject of study – the field has been given the general name of denialism. It is not a term I like very much as it conflates people with a variety of motivations but I will use it through the rest of this talk. In general, denialism involves vocal rejection of the consensus reached and to do so some denialists actively confuse or convince the public and the media that the consensus is not based on sound science.
Such rejectionists, when they have some form of scientific qualification, can provide strong voices as alternative authorities who appear credible but in general their credentials are not the same as those of active researchers in the field. Sometimes special interest groups will establish institutions with pseudo‐scientific credibility such as the Discovery Institute in the USA to bolster their position. A frequent tool is an excessive focus on outlier extreme papers or irrelevant observations. Other tools are misrepresentation, selective use of the literature and the use of false analogies. The use of false experts is common and serious attempts are made to harass and denigrate real experts.
Mere enquiry vilified
Thoughtful people will recognise this as an attempt to categorise disputants of Sir Peter’s views, even those with honest motives, into a small number of contemptible groups, and he himself tacitly admits this in declaring “it conflates people with a variety of motivations.” Thus does he hazard a lethargic reluctance to use the word, but his intention remains transparent and could not be more crassly unscientific. Casting aspersions on the opponent ignores the substance of the argument and is therefore the antithesis of science.
Shame on him.
There are people with genuine questions about global warming who would nevertheless by their mere enquiry be vilified under Sir Peter’s prescription. For instance, someone who asks to know the evidence for mankind’s dangerous interference in the climate before they form an opinion on the subject (and shouldn’t that be all of us?) is called a denier. In just asking for the evidence, they are setting aside any talk of consensus in favour of considering the matter for themselves, but instead of being given the evidence, they are mocked – held guilty of “rejecting the science.” By this simple technique are even sincere enquirers classed as denialists and silenced.
It is a shameful practice.
Simple rebuttal ignored
In claiming to “study” the various classes of rejectionists, Sir Peter employs a singularly weak argument in support of dangerous anthropogenic global warming (AGW). For merely complaining that “some denialists actively confuse or convince the public and the media that the consensus is not based on sound science” neither clears up the alleged confusion nor constitutes proof of AGW.
Sir Peter is far from ignorant, so it is ridiculous that he ignores a simple rebuttal: describe the so-called sound science that underlies the consensus. In other words, briefly state the evidence for AGW – for what could be easier? The fact that he refuses to do this raises doubt that he can, for this was a premier occasion before an august audience – there could be no better opportunity.
Refuses to provide evidence
I say “refuse” deliberately, for the first response of a trained scientist upon being challenged is to give the evidence – he must have considered doing so and he must have refused.
There can be but two reasons for his refusal to provide the evidence: either he does not know it, or no sound science exists. A third possibility, that the evidence is too highly technical to describe for this audience, is absurd. Sir Peter is an excellent communicator who I’m sure could, if he wished, fully describe the human immune system to six-year-olds.
He raises some climate issues in discussing evidence of a human influence on the climate. However, this consists mostly of evidence of warming or the consequences of warming, not of a human causation. There is mention of correlation between our emissions and the temperature, but, again, not of causation. I will address that separately.
Keep asking for evidence
Sir Peter describes underhand techniques which are indeed employed by some on both sides of the climate debate, but it is his linking of them all together in an attempt to tar all questioners with the same filthy brush which is execrable – illogical and immoral. He does not exempt the naturally curious from his opprobrium – presumably everyone should have heard of and thus echo the IPCC.
We note with some irony that, since none of the “denialist” techniques he describes is present in the question “what is the evidence,” though he wants us to label such innocent questioners denialists, he gives us no reason to.
Since his argument fails in that case we ourselves shall with a clear conscience continue to ask for the evidence.
As a public servant Sir Peter is obliged to make a reasonable response to valid questions from the public of New Zealand and as a scientist he owes no less to his scientific colleagues. But his unsatisfactory approach to climate enquiries surely contaminates the dignity of the Chief Science Advisor.
Or tell me: what mistake do I make?
UPDATE – 18 July
Royal Society complicit in disreputable science
The NZ Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC), prompted by Sir Peter’s intemperate description of contrary scientists as denialists, has been trying to persuade the Royal Society to discuss climate science issues. The effort has been spearheaded by Dr Doug Edmeades, himself a member of the Royal Society, who has exhausted every private avenue in attempts to engage the CSA and/or the Royal Society in a dialogue.
The effort arose from disputing Sir Peter’s 2009 position paper on Climate Change. Dr Edmeades sent the CSA a letter outlining ten disputed points; he set out some of the issues in a press release from the NZCSC. Since early this year Dr Edmeades has written numerous letters to the CSA’s office and the Royal Society.
A few days ago Dr Edmeades received this reply from Stephen Goldson, Vice President Biological and Life Science, Royal Society of New Zealand, confirming their refusal even to talk to us:
The Royal Society of New Zealand sees the comments made by the Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman in his 9 June 2010 speech at Victoria University of Wellington entitled Integrity in Science: Implications from and for the Climate Change Debate, as usefully addressing the issues you have brought up and has nothing more to add.
Nothing more to add? How about answering our questions? (More on those later.) All that is left to us is a public dispute – well, amen. So it begins here.
The Royal Society, whose governing legislation defines its purpose as “the advancement and promotion of Science and Technology in New Zealand,” thus confirms it has no interest in debating the issue of climate change – for years now one of the most important scientific topics of our time – with suitably qualified scientists. It is similarly reluctant to discuss and justify its description of members of the Coalition and others, many of them leading scientists of long standing, with the pejorative term “denialists”.
The Royal Society thus specifically endorses the CSA’s technique of ad hominem arguments against those who question global warming.
This is a continuing scandal that blackens the very heart of science and it is occurring around the world.