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New book aims to reclaim scientific skepticism

  • 08 May 2011, 11:00
  • Robin

An assertion frequently found in the comments sections of websites - and sometimes in national media - is that there is no credible evidence for climate change.

For several years now one of the best resources available to rebut this claim (and the many others that come with it) has been the blog Skeptical Science. Founded by Australian John Cook, the site sets out its mission on its home page:

"Scientific skepticism is healthy. Scientists should always challenge themselves to expand their knowledge and improve their understanding. Yet this isn't what happens in global warming skepticism. Skeptics vigorously criticise any evidence that supports man-made global warming and yet uncritically embrace any argument, op-ed piece, blog or study that refutes global warming."

So this website gets skeptical about global warming skepticism. Do their arguments have any scientific basis? What does the peer reviewed scientific literature say?"

The website specializes in laying out the arguments of climate sceptics, and in explaining patiently, honestly and accessibly the reams of evidence to the contrary.

Now Cook has released a book. Entitled "  Climate Change Denial: heads in the sand" it is co-authored with environmental scientist  Hadyn Washington and  billed as an "an in-depth examination of the social science behind denial" - particularly denial of climate change.

 


The introduction kicks off with some 'no-messing around' semantics -

"The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a skeptic is 'a seeker after truths; an enquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions'"

and that

"….refusing to accept the overwhelming 'preponderance of evidence' is not skepticism. It is denial and should be called by its true name".

Perhaps the strongest part of the book deals with a categorization of the main climate sceptic/denier arguments - separating them into five types: conspiracy theories; fake experts; impossible expectations; misrepresentations and logical fallacies and cherry-picking.

The evidence behind nine of the main skeptic challenges to climate science are then examined - including that "climategate proves conspiracy" (=conspiracy), "climate models are unreliable" (=impossible expectations), "temperature measurements are unreliable" (=cherry-picking) or the reliable standby, "global warming stopped in 1998" (=the ultimate in cherry-picking).

This is Skeptical Science's bread and butter, and Cook and Hadyn's book makes clear the inconsistencies and flaws in these arguments very well. The explanations are accessible and make use of some great metaphors - for example that the argument that "climate change has occurred naturally in the past and therefore must be natural now" is

"….akin to saying 'forest fires have occurred naturally in the past so any current forest fires must be natural'."

The publicists of "Climategate" continue to present climate science as a corrupt entity, separate from the rest of science and inherently uncertain and untrustworthy. "Climate Change Denial" rebuts this by giving a useful explanation of the scientific method as a whole - a discipline which "thrives on disagreement". Without putting "science" on a pedestal (or in an ivory tower), it argues that

"At least science tries to be objective, tries to seek the truth, and has a philosophy of challenging its biases and beliefs, not adhering to blind faith of blind denial. Denial does not do this, it is about refusal to believe the truth"

The second half of the book treats us to a whistlestop tour of the theory behind denial as a human condition, its history, its application to climate change and to environmental damage generally - both in individual psychology and in government. The book asks "why do we let denial prosper?" - emphasizing that is happens "because we let it".  

The industry of denial has been well covered elsewhere, but Cook and Hadyn are at pains to emphasise that there is also something in it for all of us in failing to look reality in the face. Finally, they take on some of the solutions - psychological, political and technological.

The book does not shy away from the big questions - like the need to change our worldview of economic growth ("…a fetish, even a God of both the Left and the Right"). Those more familiar with this area may feel they have read some of it before somewhere (it relies fairly heavily for example on previous work by George Monbiot, Mike Hulme and Naomic Oreskes amongst others) - but just as with Skeptical Science, that isn't really the point. The book is addressed, in its own words, to

"…people who are true 'skeptics' looking to for the truth. People who are willing to stop deluding themselves. People who will seek to bridge the gap between concern and action"

And with that in mind, the book has the virtue of thoughtful accessibility, and is an excellent primer for anyone getting interested in this area and looking for a good overview.

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