How does an intelligent layman decide between the competing claims of the climate cranks (including Rodney Hide), and the position presented to us by scientific institutions and the IPCC? It’s easy to assume that there are “two sides” to the story, and that both should be heard. This is the idea that Avenues – a glossy freebie magazine in Christchurch – decided to use for a series of articles earlier this year. The editor, Jon Gadsby (who has since left), lined up NZ C”S”C veteran Gerrit van der Lingen to take the crank side, while Professor Bryan Storey, director of the University of Canterbury’s Gateway Antarctica programme took the IPPC position. In his introduction to one of the pieces Gadsby said:
This whole project is a major one, and something Avenues has not entered into lightly. We are though, if one side is to be believed, facing the single greatest threat to life in the history of humankind. If the other side is correct, we are in the midst of the single greatest, stage-managed deception in recorded history.
Nicely put, Jon. The final judgement appeared in the magazine’s August issue, provided by the recently retired High Court judge, Justice John Hansen. His summing up is interesting for the approach he took, even if his finding comes as no surprise.
The “debate” took place over four issues. Van der Lingen kicked off in February, followed by Storey, and then in classic debating style each was given the opportunity to rebut the other’s arguments. Van der Lingen’s articles (opening, rebuttal) were quickly made available on the web via the NZ C”S”C, because, he claimed there “was much interest internationally for this debate“. Avenues doesn’t publish its full content on the web, so I asked Professor Storey if I could make his articles available for the sake of balance (and for this post). He kindly agreed, and you can find his opening statement here, and his rebuttal of van der Lingen here (both PDF).
I’m not going to attempt to sum up the arguments deployed by both sides, but van der Lingen kicked off with some Gore-bashing (comparing An Inconvenient Truth to Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will), while Storey gave a very concise run through of the evidence for human causation of climate change. The contrast in tone was somewhat marked…
Sadly, because of Avenues limited web presence, I can’t provide a link to Justice Hansen’s judgement (I did email the editor for permission to reproduce the article in full, but got no response), so I’ll have to restrict myself to picking out the key points.
To begin with, Justice Hansen is upfront about his ability to choose between the arguments:
I claim no scientific knowledge or insight whatsoever. I can do little more than apply the same level of judgement and common sense available to any reader.
He proceeds to approach the task as he would a case in the civil court, but instead of applying a standard of the “balance of probabilities”, he applies the higher standard of criminal proof – beyond reasonable doubt – because:
The consequences if Dr van der Lingen and his cohorts are wrong are potentially far too damaging, in my view, to be simply based on a 51% to 49% decision.
Strike one to van der Lingen. Storey has the harder task. Unfortunately, the good judge also applies some courtroom common sense, and finds van der Lingen’s playing of the Nazi card rather extreme.
Firstly, I have to say, as a sitting judge I was always uncomfortable with experts who descended into rhetoric and emotion. Yet this is a continuing feature of Dr van der Lingen’s article…
Comparisons to Nazi propaganda, unproven claims of deliberate falsehood, an alleged stifling of free speech – really? How is it then that his views, and similar views expressed by others, can be readily found not only in Avenues, but in other mainstream media as well?
Justice Hansen also finds van der Lingen’s arguments inconsistent on several points, notably the question of falsifiability.
Interestingly, in his second article Dr van der Lingen refers to Sir Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability. […] In this sense he alleges that the ‘warmers’ proposition, which is emotively described as dogma, is false, but no one on that side of the debate is prepared to acknowledge this falsity. Yet nowhere in Dr van der Lingen’s articles do I find any hint of his applying Popper’s theory to his own argument.
Ouch. After that, it is not perhaps surprising that Justice Hansen finds in favour of Professor Storey.
Whether on a criminal or civil standard of proof, Dr van der Lingen has failed to convince me I should do nothing. On the other hand, Professor Storey has convinced me that we have created this mess and should all do our best to turn it around.
Amen to that. Strangely, there’s no reference to the outcome of the debate on the NZ C”S”C site. Can’t live with the facts, eh…
So where’s the lesson here? There are several. The first and most obvious is that even if you frame the issue as a “debate” with two sides and only one outcome, someone with an open mind who looks for the truth – even if not scientifically qualified – can readily determine where the balance of evidence leads. This is why calls for a Royal Commission to determine the underlying reality of global warming are just a delayer’s tactic. It demonstrates that politicians, who seek election to govern the country, should have no difficulty determining the truth if they really have the best interests of the country at heart and are not wearing ideological blinkers.
Finally, there’s the question of how we define the climate debate. It appears to me that there are three very different â€œdebatesâ€ being conducted simultaneously, and that they get mixed up in public perceptions.
The first is the scientific debate amongst the people working in the field. This is the detailed nitty-gritty stuff about measuring things, figuring out how things work, and seeing where that takes you. To me, thatâ€™s fascinating, and I try to convey that here.
The second debate is the policy debate that flows from accepting what emerges from the science, usually taken to be the IPPC findings. This is, more or less, where governments are, and where politicians should get stuck in. It’s not their job to second-guess the best scientific advice. This stuff is also really fascinating, and needs to be robustly discussed and debated.
The third â€œdebateâ€ – the Avenues debate – seems to me to be entirely sterile. It centres around the â€œitâ€™s not happening/if it is, it wonâ€™t be badâ€ viewpoint. The motivations of those who make that sort of argument are interesting, but only from a political science point of view. It’s an argument that involves science, but is not itself a scientific argument. Itâ€™s politics. And it distracts from the really important stuff going on.