Prat watch #7.5: No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

This morning my breakfast reading included a marvellous short article at The Conversation from philosopher Patrick Stokes of Deakin University in Melbourne. Stokes riffs on that familiar justification for holding a view, “I’m entitled to my opinion”, and makes some interesting observations about how it distorts public debate:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Given my look at the strange inexpertise of Richard Treadgold at his Climate Conversation Group last week, Stokes’ analysis seems strangely apposite. So I did a little more digging…

My original criticism of Treadgold’s lack of basic knowledge of Arctic climate attracted a sadly ineffective response, and didn’t deter him from going further, reproducing an article from The Australian in full, with his own annotations added in tasteful green. The original is mainly a discussion of why Aussie scientists are continuing to investigate Antarctic climate, but leads Treadgold into revealing previously uncharted areas of his own ignorance. Here’s a basic geography fail. The article describes the Antarctic peninsula as one of the fastest warming parts of the planet.

…of course it’s warmer there, it’s not even in the Antarctic.

Ahem. It’s called the Antarctic Peninsula for a reason…

Then a combined ice/geography/history fail:

The Australian: “The break up of the Larson1 Ice Shelf in 2002 was a very timely reminder that there is rapid change occurring in certain regions of Antarctica,” Dr Massom said.

Treadgold interjects: No, Doctor, that is dishonest, for, as you must be aware, those ice shelves have been snapping off in tidal action for millions of years. It has nothing to do with getting warmer down there, for the simple reason that it’s been getting colder.

That’s not what happened to the Larsen B ice shelf ten years ago. An ice shelf that had been stable for at least the last 10,000 years broke up in the course of a single summer, and its demise (and that of many other ice shelves around the peninsula) is very closely associated with the dramatic warming over the peninsula — a warming that Treadgold earlier acknowledged by trying to move the whole place out of the Antarctic!

Of course, being unsullied by what you might be forgiven for thinking was the sort of general knowledge one might require to partake of a debate on Antarctic climate doesn’t prevent Treadgold from moving on to shoot the messenger. Just as his earlier post accused a professor of geography of making howlers, this time he feels free to malign a scientist in the strongest possible terms:

Massom is dishonest.

The dishonesty here is Treadgold’s. He does not possess the expertise that would allow him to make a cogent criticism of Dr Masson’s statements to the reporter from The Australian. This is exactly the false equivalence Patrick Stokes describes, and exactly what the judge in the NIWA versus cranks case saw through.

I will make a prediction, though. Treadgold’s response to my continued criticisms of his posts will be to accuse me of shutting down scientific debate, of wanting to silence climate deniers. Fortunately, Stokes has this covered too:

This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.”

Climate deniers/cranks/sceptics have every right to argue about what we do to address climate change, but simply do not have the expertise to argue about the facts. Treadgold may be an extreme example of the scientific incompetence of the opposition to climate action, but he’s by no means unusual. In some respects, this may be a good sign. When you get so far divorced from basic reality, it becomes harder and harder for anyone to take you seriously.

  1. Minor spelling fail for The Australian — it is of course the LarsEn Ice Shelf []

15 thoughts on “Prat watch #7.5: No, you’re not entitled to your opinion”

  1. Some spanish philosopher whose work I read in translation in my youth said as I hazily recall “I know few people with opinions but I know many opinionated people”

    A friend of mine once told me he found it useful to invert whatever was the common opinion. This helped him get things right. It does not always work.


  2. More seriously –
    Everyone without exception engages in modeling. The result is what is often refered to as one’s world view. It is packed with beliefs, idealizations, attachments, unexamined prejudices, rationalisations, and the artifacts of conditioning. People can kill to defend their world views, whatever they are and too often do. We tend to call our models reality, compare everything with them and adopt positions accordingly.

    I make this point about modeling to people who attack science modeling and ask them how much research has gone into the model on which they are making their judgements? Looking within is not something that comes easily to most people. I sometimes tell others I have spent my life unlearning what I supposed I knew.

    I organised a conference on human rights in Auckland years ago. There were various people about who made a point of attending and often disrupting any public meeting or demonstration in pursuit of their ideology. The committee was understandably anxious about the agitators and wanted to exclude them from contributing to the conference. Eventually they came reluctantly to recognise that there could be no grounds for excluding anyone. Instead it was made a condition of attendance and contribution that a policy of goodwill ruled. Any attempt to attack any government, group or person would be ruled out of order. All the local agitators paid ther fees and behaved impeccably. One person was ruled out of order who was subsequently arrested for fraudulently soliciting donations for a non-existent anti-apartheid ‘movement’, himself.

    Then and since I have often proposed the above scenario to groups and asked what policy they would adopt if they could not exclude people from attending. Only once did someone come up with a similar answer, the then 12 year old daughter of a North Shore politician. As a journalist I employed the same rule of goodwill and harmlessness, which does not prevent one from confronting hard matters. The rule disciplines the ‘good guys’ as well.

    Many sites these days rule out adhominens and do a fairly good job of encouraging good-faith discussion.


    1. Exactly.

      All Dixie Too does is cobble together piles of material that he claims somehow supports his case and then start chumming them around – reading them is not the point and might well spoil the fun!

      Those with half a brain and half a minute to spare might wonder what the relevance is of the following, or how it might further Dixie’s benighted cause:

      An adequate treatment of thermal radiation heat transfer is essential to a mathematical model [oh, the irony!] of the combustion process or to a design of a combustion system…

      Heat TransJer[sic] in Steam Boiler Furnaces…

      Detailed reviews of radiation heat transfer in pulverized coal-fired furnaces are available….

      Emissivity data for the major emitting gaseous species CO2 and H20 are generally adequate.

      And then the pompous wally adds –

      That’s in addition to the 8 that you’ve asked if I’ve read and no I haven’t read any of these either. Now Nick, don’t you think it would have been a good idea for the IPCC to have reviewed “the fundamentals of radiation heat transfer”

      Yeah, right! In freakin’ combustion furnaces…

      Let’s leave the atmosphere to the atmospheric scientists, eh? Now, there’s a novel idea! If Mike Mann ever starts telling furnace technicians how to do their jobs I’ll be among the first to complain.

      I put it to you, Dixie, that you have no real awareness of any of the science at issue, and are just playing Gish-Gallop with vast wads of half-digested fragments – or, by your own admission, completely undigested fragments! – of wholly or mostly irrelevant material whose authors would most likely be horrified to discover the misuse to which they are being subjected.

      1. Yep…. not reading the papers one quotes first is a surefire strategy to end up breaking an axle or two in the potholes ahead.

        On the other side… for the utterly convinced of their own opinion reading anything could be dangerous to the soul…

        Plus reading is not equal comprehending and comprehension of science papers is predicated by a reasonable education…

        The Deniers Dilemma! All roads leading to Damascus seem utterly blocked by some Hydra or the other… 😉

        1. It’s not about persuading anyone but themselves. RT provides an environment where everyone shares the same world view, where the denizens can indulge in mutual back-slapping and support. When Rob and others turn up there to challenge them, all pretence at politeness and rationality is dropped and they turn on the interloper. It’s exactly what happens at µWatts, but on a much smaller scale. Their epistemic closure is complete, and can’t tolerate challenge.

  3. And speaking of the power of self-delusion, Prof Lewandowsky has just had one of his papers on the subject written up in Sci Am.

    It’s entertaining to watch the comments thread immediately set about demonstrating the process in question, reinforcing the research while desperately claiming to contradict it.

    One wonders how the write-up of the same research (I note one J Cook is a co-author) will fare at Shaping Tomorrow’s World, given the remarkable – and ironically confirmatory – over-reaction to Lewandowsky’s last publicised study.

    (Read any of the comments threads under the previous Lewandowsky/Oberauer posts listed on the main page at STW to get the idea.)

Leave a Reply