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The Truth Is Relative

Image Credit : BBC

Many ordinary people, when asked about global warming and climate change, offer views they’ve read or heard somewhere, often using the word “could”, because that word appears a huge lot in public communications and media, especially television. “The world could warm by as much as four degrees by the end of the Century.” “Rain-fed agriculture in southern Europe could be gone by 2050”. “Thames Water could end up having to buy water from Scotland”. That kind of thing.
However, when asked about their own personal views, people often show reluctance to commit. And so it appears that the one thing they really believe is that truth about global warming and climate change is relative.

So, for many people, the truth is relative. And why should that be ? Maybe people don’t want to be known to have an actual opinion because they fear that if they show commitment to one view or other, they might cause an argument because other people around them think differently. After all, it’s hard to know which people are climate change “accepters”, and which people are strongly against the facts emerging from the science of atmospheric physics.

So people, when surveyed, will not state their own views on what they think is a hot button topic. They will cite public scientists, and other well-known public figures – regardless of their actual knowledge. By deferring to the opinions of others, people delegate the matter of deciding where they themselves stand. People often admit that they themselves don’t know the truth, but somebody else, surely, does.

It is for this reason that curmudgeonly anti-science activists have gained a claw-hold on the public consciousness. To somebody who doesn’t know any different, the views of Nigel Lawson carry the same kind of weight as the views of Peter Gleick, both public figures of late. (Note : I must apologise if you haven’t yet heard of Peter Gleick – clearly you don’t read the anti-science weblogs).

And yet the views of Nigel Lawson on the science of global warming and climate change are wrong. Not evil, just wrong. He does not appear to have studied the nearly two centuries of climate change science and research, because he utters statements that are and have been well-refuted. Yet because media programme commissioning agents think that he and his group, the self-styled Global Warming Policy Foundation, have something valid to say on the subject, he is asked to talk on the television and radio. How can the average listener possibly determine whether Nigel Lawson knows anything of any significant relevance on the subject ?

So why do TV and radio staff think that Nigel Lawson has views that are important to air ? Are they too convinced that truth is relative ? It is probably because they have rules about “balance” – so if they want to provide information about climate change, they feel obliged to consult both scientists and faded, crinkled ex-Chancellors – because they must have some sort of credentials, mustn’t they ?

TV and radio staff have looked at the topic of climate change and global warming and decided that there are two sides to the story, and want to provide voices that speak to both sides. I ask again – why do they believe that truth is relative ? There is science, and on the other hand there is non-science.

Scientists are always careful to say that there is no absolute scientific statement. New data and evidence can always emerge that overturns current theories or models. What can be validly claimed is sometimes (deliberately) lost in that caveat. The current scientific statements on climate change and global warming are based on an incredible library of research and data. Scientists speak with confidence about the effects of mankind’s activities on the climate, because they are drawing these conclusions from data. The projections of complex computer models have been validated against this data, doubling up the confidence in the theories.

The consensus position on the science of climate change and global warming is very strong, but as in all areas of science there are always people who stray away from the common position – for a variety of reasons, not always connected to the data. Should we accept the views of these people and ignore the Nigel Lawsons ? Not necessarily. First, we should try to establish why they will not accept the consensus position – if it’s not based on evidence and data, it may be that their opinions are expressed solely to keep alive the idea that truth is relative.

Doubt is their product, and it can be quite lucrative.

“The dice are now being loaded”, intoned the narrator on a recent BBC 2 Horizon programme “Global Weirding“, as the script tries to encapsulate the idea being put forward by Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist. Climate change is increasing the chance of rolling a six for the most extreme weather, is in effect what she says.

This is a fairly good visual aid for summarising what appears in the recent SREX report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the special report “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”. (Here’s an ultra-summary.)

Many scientists concur with the general thrust of the report – that climate change is already having an impact on the risks of extreme weather events, so we should be prepared to deal with more of them (and not just cancel or raise the premiums on flood insurance for millions of people).

Some scientist commentators are a bit critical of the way the report is written, but there is one in particular who appears to like it because there are statements in the report that can be quoted out of context, statements, which if taken at face value, throw doubt on the consensus of the science, and support those downplaying the seriousness of climate change. That scientist is Roger Pielke Jr, and my opinion is that he has been using poor arguments based on narrow selections of the data for years – yet I still don’t know why he does it.

Maybe he feels excluded from the academic brotherhood for some reason. Maybe he feels that there should always be opposition to a scientific consensus that is so strong. Maybe he is still looking to impress his father, Roger Pielke Sr. I don’t know. What I do know is my impression that his conclusions are as biased as loaded dice. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. There is quite a consensus.

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