Here come de judge

judge 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 “debates” 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, that’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 “debate” – the Avenues debate – seems to me to be entirely sterile. It centres around the “it’s not happening/if it is, it won’t be bad” 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. It’s politics. And it distracts from the really important stuff going on.

26 thoughts on “Here come de judge”

  1. Thanks for that Gareth. I do sometimes wonder about the process that goes with a legal perspective on scientific issues – not something one typically associates with judges.

  2. Good points Gareth.

    While it’s good that the judge, a climate layman, did manage to see through the cranks’ smokescreens fairly easily, climate science isn’t something that should be decided through legal means rather than peer review process

    …but how the media goes about reporting on the issue is definitely down to politics. Bit like Prime News running an interview with Vincent Gray on the ETS… makes me wonder who is the sceptic behind Prime News.

  3. You don’t think it was just part of the usual quest for journalistic objectivity in a story cindy?

    Tea/screen interface situation.


    Almost as funny as watching Steve Wrathall’s videos (see yesterday’s comments).

  4. Cindy, citing from a novel (about global warming) that I wrote several years ago: “All the scientific evidence (in relation to environmental problems) in the world isn’t worth a dime unless you have the legislative muscle to enact and enforce change.”

    The legislative process is often a necessary tool to enact science, and it should do so cautiously. Unfortunately that delays time-dependent actions. Frankly, if not for the time consuming legal process, I’d love to see deniers in the witness box explaining away the compelling physical evidence, including, as of 2005, some 943 species across all taxa and ecosystems exhibiting measurable changes in their phenologies and/or distribution (1). That’s evidence any layperson in the jury box can understand.

    (1) Parmesan, C. “Ecological and Evolutionary Response” 2006.

  5. Stephen

    the “usual quest for journalistic objectivity” is what the deniers have been taking advantage of – it’s been central to their strategy for 20 years now. Would you give the Jews 15 minutes and Hitler another 15 minutes? Would you give the tobacco-funded scientists equal weight to those who say that smoking causes cancer/is addictive (etc)? Gareth linked a while ago to a great lecture by Naomi Oreskes where she explains this strategy in detail. I’ll include it again here in case you missed it…

    Sonny: yup – agree – my point was that it shouldn’t be a non-scientific judge deciding which way to jump, but rather a proper peer review process. The legislators must legislate on the basis of the science – and they’re trying to do this. Just as negotiators in the Kyoto and UNFCCC process are trying to do. What’s stopping them is the business interests of those who either produce or use large amounts of energy.

  6. Yeah cindy I just kinda took issue with your explanation for Prime interviewing Gray – you asked “who is the sceptic behind Prime News.” Because it must be a sceptic right? I just thought it was, as you say, someone looking for ‘balance’. Hard to know.

    Your link didn’t quite work, but i can find it.

  7. Stephen my reference to Prime includes its decision to run The Great Global Warming Swindle, when TVNZ and TV3 wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. It’s an ongoing trend at Prime… not just a one-off.

  8. cindy: “Sonny: yup – agree – my point was that it shouldn’t be a non-scientific judge deciding which way to jump, but rather a proper peer review process.”

    The problem is that, in the mind of many of the public, the credibility of that peer review process is in question. This is why there has been so much effort in attacking the hockey stick, and its adoption by the IPCC. And in a process like scientific peer review, you can always find imperfections. So “the IPCC is corrupt and Al Gore is fat” is a convncing argument to some people.

    If we’re going to have debates like this in the media, bringing in a judge to weigh the evidence on both sides seems like a very good idea.

  9. I f I thought the sceptics would pay any attention to the verdict, I’d agree with you Mark. But they don’t – and won’t. Van der Lingen will not stop spouting his septic tripe because he “lost” the Avenues debate.

    Simply having the debate achieves the sceptics objective – which is to make the general public believe there’s still a debate worth having.

    On the other hand, I do believe there’s a strong case for a public process of consensus building on climate change – both the need for action and the nature of the actions to be taken. The current government failed to do that before embarking on legislation, and so has been hamstrung by lobbying. If as a part of that process was to get general buy in on what the science is telling us, it would remove the sceptics from the picture, and make it much harder for Hide and ACT to use “scientific uncertainty” as a cover for ideology.
    Not that the sceptics would disappear – I think we’ll have to wait for Father Time to do his work for that to happen – but they would not be treated as anything other than cranks by the media (which would be a part of the process).

  10. …okay, looks like my attempt to add href tags failed, and the ‘click to edit’ function doesn’t work on my computer, so here’s the manual link:

    “The threat of global warming is so great that campaigners were justified in causing more than £35,000 worth of damage to a coal-fired power station, a jury decided yesterday. In a verdict that will have shocked ministers and energy companies the jury at Maidstone Crown Court cleared six Greenpeace activists of criminal damage.”

  11. That’s remarkable Sonny! I’m also flabbergasted, and the precedent it sets for damaging private property is very unsettling, even if it was only paint. Would love to know how removing that costed £35,000, maybe they should shop around in future…

  12. Brown would probably rather less people knew who the PM was, seeing as then less people would know who to vote against 😀 . There was a similar example with that group that busted the spybase dome a few months ago – I forget their name, but they were left off a few times in the UK for similar property damage costs because it was to prevent ‘an illegal war’ (Iraq)!

  13. Coal plants damage private property (and people, and the rest of the biosphere) much worse than a bit of paint. Who will compensate me for breathing coal emissions, and for the cost of climate change to me and my descendants? Oh, I see, for the coal companies that’s a freebie. How special for them.

  14. Steve and rata, you raise good points. I can’t see anyone trying to quantify the damage coal does to you/biosphere anytime soon, because it’s just wwaaaaay too hard! Re: health, they are taxed, and to some extent the taxes go towards your healthcare costs, for what it’s worth.

  15. The “lawful excuse” was also used some years ago when women in the UK broke into an airbase and smashed the windows of Hawk aircraft destined for Indonesia. They got off because their damage was less than what the Hawks would ultimately cause. It was also successfully used by Greenpeace to defend the ripping up of a field of GE maize.

    Greenpeace got NASA’s James Hansen to testify for them in the case. In his statement released in response to the verdict he said:

    “The main point, that the government, the utility, and the fossil fuel industry, were aware of the facts but continued to ignore them are more generally valid worldwide. It raises the question of whether the right people are on trial.”

    Here’s the long version of his testimony.

    Apparently the verdict has thrown a cat amongst the pigeons in the UK Govt which is in the final throes of deciding whether to allow EON to build a new Kingsnorth coal-fired power station.

  16. Good question Stephen.

    The UK, of course, is part of the European ETS, which is starting to bite (Drax, another coal-fired power station, had profits slashed in half because of the ETS starting to kick in there).

    EON argues, on one hand, that CCS will take care of emissions, and is proposing to build a CCS demonstration plant there. However, it seems that it has done a deal with the UK Govt to get consent without a CCS condition attached to it.

    Usual industry/govt connivance: happens everywhere it seems.

  17. erk – sorry about link – this should be better done a deal with the UK Govt

    Gareth: still can’t “click to edit”..

    [Gareth says: fixed your link, and I’ve been trying make that edit function work properly -but the solution evades me. It’s a server issue, I think, but the support team are being very slow sorting it out…]

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