Friday, June 15, 2007

The Global Warming Debate Part One: Bill McKibben's Bad Start

I linked a week ago to a video debate between skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg and environmental activist Bill McKibben, giving you time to think about it before I inserted my opinions.

I have little ability to evaluate the conflicting scientific claims – I imagine few of us here other than akafred do. Not that I can’t grasp the concepts, but the attempts each side makes to undermine the claims of the other creates enough uncertainty that I dare not make any pronouncements about who to believe. At the end of the Q&A, the conflict seemed to be boiling down to “new studies have shown that global warming alarmism is unwarranted/ newer studies than that have shown that it’s justified/those studies have weaknesses/no they don’t/yes they do.”

What I can do, however, is evaluate the debate itself, to see if that gives us any clues. I formed definite opinions about which person was arguing more reasonably and what the type of arguments might mean. As both Lomborg and McKibben are prominent figures in the ongoing debate I will use them as proxies for the two sides of the political discussion. That may be unfair to somebody, as each side might have representatives who could do the job better. But as long as you keep these two caveats in mind, we can proceed.
There might be excellent arguments and counterarguments that never made it to this video.
The better debater (smarter, more charming, better prepared) might yet be on the wrong side of the truth.

Lomborg speaks as a trained professional in one of the many related fields bearing on the subject, who isn’t cautious about crossing over the line into places he is not an expert. McKibben speaks as an advocate, a smart amateur who relies on his wit and breadth of knowledge.

McKibben, complaining about the lack of time and promising to hurry, nonetheless devotes his first point to poisoning the well against Lomborg. He wants the audience to know immediately that Lomborg is more an advocate than a dispassionate scientist, and not an honest advocate. I find this extremely irritating. Lomborg had made a presentation criticising no one (except Al Gore), making the case for his ideas. Bill McKibben starts off saying, in effect, “my opponent is a paid liar.” I fantacize having the power to stop debates right there, being the moderator and interjecting “We can’t have that. You’ve lost. Everyone go home.”

There is another side to that argument, though. If your opponent is a paid liar, you should be allowed to work it into your presentation somehow. Would I have objected if McKibben done the same thing more artfully? I’m not sure. Being less blunt might give the appearance of rational debate, but it’s the same thing in the end, and style shouldn’t count when processing truth.

It is clear that Bill McKibben is trying to negate the perceived advantage he thinks Lomborg might have with the audience. “My opponent is just an advocate. He’s no better’n me.” I doubt that is a mere rhetorical device on McKibben’s part, either. His tone certainly communicates he believes there is danger that the students of Middlebury might be taken in by some plausible person who sounds scientific.

This pattern persists throughout McKibben’s comments, including those in the Q & A. He conjures with images that are not quite pertinent to the announced issue, raising their spectres but not tying them in. Exxon…War In Iraq…appointed by Bush…appeared on Glenn Beck. He loses enormous ground with me every time he does this. I expect that if people have solid points to make they don’t resort to this nonsense. Why won’t you argue the point, Bill? I wonder, when is style an indicator of content, or lack thereof?

There is another side to this argument as well, though. Advocates and journalists do think like this. To them, the sources and associations matter more than the data. Speaking at Middlebury College, arguing as an advocate instead of as a scientist may be more persuasive to that audience. I was not the intended audience, so what strikes me as extraneous and low may not matter much.

To wrap up on the metacommunication issue of how Mr. McKibben is arguing, and whether it is an indicator of content, it is also clear that McKibben is not listening carefully to what Lomborg is saying. At at least four points in the discussion he refutes something that was never said. He hears some of the words and leaps to conclusions about what he heard. Lomborg challenged a quoted scientist’s statement in a very specific way; McKibben angrily answered with a general defense of his credentials. He didn’t listen, yet answered with condescension.

Next Up: Bill McKibben’s Strongest Set of Arguments


Giacomo said...

Thanks - I've got the link to the video and I've started watching it, but at two hours it'll require several starts and stops over several days.

That said, it doesn't surprise me that Mr. McKibbon's first thrust was a dishonest one. If the facts help you win a debate, argue the facts. If they don't, then sow seeds of doubt about the opponent.

Alex Mansfield said...

I stumbled on your blog while doing a Google search for "Bill McKibben is an Ass".

I really like you analysis of the debate in terms of presentation styles. Lately I have been feeling that this is what it comes down to. The politicos have done so much to blur the science that the average citizen can no longer make informed judgments. As a result we are left with making our decisions based on a gut feeling we get from the presenters.

So back to my Google search. I am an environmental scientist. I work primarily on water resource issues, but lately that involves a lot of climate change components. The media static from both sides surrounding these issues has made it extremely hard to get a simple, valid point across. I'd like to blame those on the 'other side' but the fact is it is the so called advocates of 'my side' of the story that are doing the most harm. Bill McKibben is the king in this category.

It seems like you already picked up on this when you said, "That may be unfair to somebody, as each side might have representatives who could do the job better." So all I ask is just please ignore that ass Bill McKibben and don't let him be your source for sound climate change science and policy.

Keep up the good work.