Monday, 30 September 2013

Show Me The Evidence: Juggling Climate pseudo-skepticism and 'Wind Turbine Syndrome'

Last Friday, the IPCC report on climate change was released. George Monbiot of The Guardian describes it neatly:
"It's perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history."
The report is conclusive, and unnerving. For a good summary, try Graham Readfearn's article, 'IPCC climate change report by numbers', or The Guardian's interactive infographic.

If we keep injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Earth will continue to warm - the Earth being our domicile, that small rock, covered by a  concerningly thin film of liquid and gases, hurtling hastily through space. We ought to try pretty hard not to screw it up.

Earth is our only home, and it's worth keeping it liveable.
An updated image of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, taken from Cassini spacecraft from underneath the rings of Saturn 

Typically, we listen to experts, particularly when they're telling us about imminent danger. Yet, climate scientists have been burdened with an effective, angry and motivated crowd of climate 'skeptics' - fuelled by talented pseudoscience communicators like Joanne Nova and Andrew Bolt. They derail public confidence in the science of climate change by convincing people to demand 'evidence' that climate change is real. An excerpt from Nova's 'Skeptics Handbook' - a handy PDF guide to haranguing 'warmists':

The concept that actual scientists should be the ones engaging in scientific discussions is classified by Nova as the sacred ramblings of 'religious dogmatists'. Nova masks her arrogant dismissal of scientific expertise as distate for an 'appeal to authority'.

Through this fallacy, the discourse around climate shifts from those with the necessary expertise to understand and interpret the data to a large number of unqualified nom-experts. 
Climate' skeptics' have kept this force constant, and it's easy to see it happening on social media, like Twitter (immune to my attempts at sarcastic distraction):

The logical fallacy of equating expert consensus with a deference to 'authority' is frequently and unashamedly deployed by climate change 'skeptics', and they're rarely called out on this sly maneuver. They seem blissfully comfortable with the cognitive dissonance spawned by their assertion that thousands of climate scientists have reached their conclusions falsely, and that a small number of non-experts have avoided these falsehoods through their true dedication to evidence:

It's fairly obvious that their demands for evidence are tactical, rather than sincere. That it's literally written in a handbook, described as 'strategies and tools' should make this pretty clear. But this always hits home when I see climate 'skeptics' attempting to engage with the issue of 'wind turbine syndrome' - a brilliant example of a phenomenon that is assumed to be true by opponents of wind farms and climate 'skeptics' alike, despite there being a complete lack of evidence for its existence. The 'Galileo Movement', one of Australia's key climate 'skeptic' groups, makes this pretty clear on their Twitter feed:

Climate 'skeptic' site 'Watts Up With That' featured a post on the Portugese study mentioned by the Galileo Movement. This study reportedly shows that wind turbine vibrations cause deformities in foals. How do we know the wind turbines are responsible? The author, Ric Werne, explains the science:

"The wind turbines are obvious prime suspect, they were built nearby" 

Obviously. The problems with the study are outlined on this forum, and quite a few of the commenters on the original post, to their credit, took issue with Werne's adoption of the cause.

The difference between attitudes to the science of climate change, and the pseudoscience of 'wind turbine syndrome', are telling. The scripted demands for evidence simmer to the background, when a potential shortcoming of renewable energy peek temptingly over the horizon.

James Delingpole, one of Britain's most prominent climate change 'skeptics', bears no embarrassment in compartmentalising his approach to the two issues:

And Fox News demonstrated this dualistic, 'skepticism'-pseudoscience combination in the most comical, contradictory and utterly memorable way, last year:

Can't beat Fox News for instances of Poe's Law

Selective skepticism isn't limited to climate change 'skeptics' - it happens on both sides of politics, and isn't a function of your level of education. As described by social scientist and lawyer Don Braman, part of the Cultural Cognition project at Yale:

"It doesn't matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information"

Climate 'skeptics' angrily rejecting the scientific consensus behind climate change, but happily accepting the outlandish claims of wind farm opponents, seems to be a great example of this. Not all climate 'skeptics' are wind farm opponents, and not all wind farm opponents are climate 'skeptics', but the region in which those two groups overlap is a truly fascinating case study into how we filter evidence according to our respective worldviews.

Most importantly, it's a reminder that the public debate about climate change ought to be considered for what it is: fatally compromised by the rarely-acknowledged flaws in our cognition. What we ought to turn to is the discussion conducted by experts, in fields that are embedded with controls (like, peer-review) that control for the flaws that so ubiquitously infest the public discussion.

It's called science, and if we care anything for the acceptance of evidence and the rejection of arrogance and hubris, then we'd do well to pay close attention to the content of the IPCC's latest report.


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