No Climate of Decorum

It seems the heat of the Global Warming issue is threatening decorum worldwide.

Andrew Revkin recently posted on his blog, Dot Earth, an article about misconduct, climate research, and trust. This drew, from what I had previously read by him, an uncharacteristically derogatory and profane response from Steve Easterbrook.

I made the following comment to Steve:
I have followed Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog for a long time and there is little doubt in my mind that he tries to express all viewpoints on the climate change problem in as a coherent, rational way as possible. That is, he tries to present all arguments, from denier to alarmist, in the best and strongest possible way. (That he is imperfect he explicitly notes.)

He also makes his own beliefs quite clear. In the blog post in which you suggest he shut up in the most vulgar possible way, he states: “Do I trust climate science? As a living body of intellectual inquiry exploring profoundly complex questions, yes. Do I trust all climate scientists, research institutions, funding sources, journals and others involved in this arena to convey the full context of findings and to avoid sometimes stepping beyond the data? I wouldn’t be a journalist if I answered yes.”

So I find your rant completely baffling. Revkin is a journalist. You should calm down and offer an apology.

Very few of us can spend a lot of time hanging out with climate scientists. And I have commented before on how much I appreciate your extensive, detailed posts on the various climate conferences you attend. And the thinking and attitudes you find at them.

But you should never tell anyone to shut up or that they are too ignorant to say anything but parrot the views of others. Much less Andy Revkin in such vulgar terms. Why? It hardens attitudes instead of changing them. Just what the status quo wants. And I don’t want the status quo.
Of course, I am referring above to the Principle of Charity. Dr. Easterbrook replied:
Expressing all viewpoints "in the best and strongest possible way" is downright irresponsible, when some of them are lies and smears. That's exactly the problem I'm calling out. It's called false balance, and it has to stop.
Steve then added:
George [said]: “But you should never tell anyone to shut up [...] in such vulgar terms. Why? It hardens attitudes instead of changing them. Just what the status quo wants. And I don’t want the status quo.”

Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. The status quo is completely unacceptable and has to change. But I disagree with you on what it will take. The most important thing that has to happen is that those who understand the big picture, who understand the risks of delaying strong action on mitigation policies, have to get a lot more passionate and a hell of a lot more “in-your-face”. We have to shift the Overton Window, and the only way to do that is to ramp up the action at the space beyond what is currently considered politically possible. We’re not going to get there by being polite and agreeable, when those who would delay action are busy using every machiavellian tactic they can think of.

Oh, and the swearing? If there are delicate souls out there who can’t cope with a few swear words, how the hell are they going to cope when the shit really hits the fan with climate disruptions? The genteel won’t survive the collapse.
To which my reply was:
Steve [said]: “The most important thing that has to happen is that those who understand the big picture, who understand the risks of delaying strong action on mitigation policies, have to get a lot more passionate and a hell of a lot more ‘in-your-face’.”

If a journalist or scientist were to make such a declaration, should not my opinion of their journalistic or scientific credibility and trustworthiness diminish? That is, would not the risk of bias increase?

Anecdotally, I have known a lot of passionate people and in my experience their sense of conviction has nothing to do with reality. (To think otherwise means we need to make our climate model software more passionate!?)

Emotion is a driving force, not a deciding force. A passionate call is a call to action. It is useless when trying to convince someone about scientific facts.

So criticizing Revkin for not considering it his job as a journalist to “shift the Overton Window” is being very harsh on Revkin. Andy is trying to be informative — helping people to decide for themselves. IMHO, that’s what journalists ought to do.

Is everyone who is not actively a strong mitigation policy advocate at risk of verbal abuse? Is decorum dead?

I would like to add here further anecdotal evidence that such "in-your-face" writing as Steve's is counterproductive when trying to change people's minds about an issue. See Anthony Watts recent blog posting about Quote of the [expletive deleted] week. IMHO, the post puts Easterbrook in a bad light. And none of the comments to the post are of a "since Steve is so impassioned about the issue, I'm changing my mind about the Global Warming issue" flavor.

2 comments:

  1. Hi George,

    I like what you've done with the place.

    I think your point about changing minds is spot on. People are certainly influence by being ranted at, but for the unconverted it's probably not in the direction the ranter would like.

    Rants like the ones you reference aren't really for convincing though. They're for rallying the troops.

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  2. Thanks Josh.

    I'm not so naive as to disagree about the actual goal being rallying the troops. Look how often and how intensely the political party operatives (Republicans and Democrats) engage in what amounts to rants. Such behavior is calculated. They realize part of the price they pay is to be held in low esteem. (Voting nowadays seems entirely an exercise in choosing between the lesser of two evils.)

    But I am not yet concerned about climate policy implementation strategies because, IMHO, the predictive skill of the climate models have not been formally and empirically demonstrated (as in IV&V). Ethically, I can't interfere with someone's life-style based on a hunch. My hunch is that someday man-made climate change will likely be a problem. But my hunches are sometimes wrong. Way wrong.

    And even if "the science were settled," I would still not recommend the approach being taken by Easterbrook. As a practical matter, it will take nearly everyone's cooperation to mitigate climate change. So an overwhelming consensus is needed and many people remain unconvinced. Secondly, it is unfortunately human nature to take an irrational risk to protect what one already has. So reaching a consensus that involves people making sacrifices will be doubly difficult. So in a democracy, I just don't see how the "Joe Romm" approach can work. (I toy with the idea that guys like Joe would entertain a "gun-in-your-face" approach to the climate issue.)

    So I think we agree on more than one level.

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