Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bill McKibben's Strongest Argument

In the video debate on our responses to climate change, Bill McKibben returned often to a single general point: the majority scientific opinion, especially as evidenced by the IPCC report, regards global warming as real, anthropogenic, and potentially serious. Amidst all his sneers and irrelevancies, McKibben gravitates back to this in almost every comment. There is good reason for this – he thinks it’s a killer point, dwarfing smaller objections.

Yeah, it is a good point. Even granting all the caveats about the IPCC report – that it is a highly politicised document, especially in its summary, that it is badly reported to emphasize the worst possible outcomes, that its certainty is overestimated, that there is credible scientific challenge to some claims – the report, and the scientific consensus it represents, is a big deal. The evidence that it is big is the amount of energy skeptics devote to challenging it. If it didn’t mean nuthin’ no one would pay any attention to it.

We come immediately to enormous difficulties in the debate. There are many fields of expertise which bear upon the issues. Even the people well-qualified to speak on the various pieces are not necessarily positioned to speak about the whole. Most of the loud voices on all sides are not experts in any of the relevant fields, but bright generalists who attempt to synthesize information from disparate areas. Choosing among the many generalist voices comes down to epistemological questions of what we think we know and how we think we know it.

While it is true that most of the researchers and theorists studying the overall issues are not experts in all relevant fields, it’s not as if they know nothing at all about related fields. The closer a question comes to their specialty, the more likely each is to understand far more than the average bear about it. They are subject to the same prejudices, social pressures, and confirmation biases as the rest of us, even in their own fields, but they are also able to weed out some absolute idiocies and have at least an ability to understand the mechanisms involved. If they tend as a group in a particular direction, that is formidable evidence even if it is not unassailable proof.

For a generalist such as I, following the debate becomes a balancing act, evaluating credentials that I have only a superficial understanding of and following the arguments and counterarguments to see who seems to make more sense. To make up an example, when reseach about the glaciers in Greenland is cited, I have a long series of questions to which I have only very approximate answers.
Is a glaciologist the trumping expert in this discussion, or something else?
Is an atmospheric scientist more likely to know about this than a climatologist?
Is this PhD teaching at U of Aberdeen a well-known crank or contrarian or a mainstream guy? Has he been right before when others are wrong? Does U of Aberdeen have a good department in this, or are they a third-tier player in the debate? Do any of these guys have historical, financial, or institutional ties to other players in the debate? What is the context in which the claims were made? Is anyone being evasive in their answers?

Worse, once I’ve made my poor estimates, I’ve only answered one small question. I have to restart this seat-of-the-pants estimating when I read the two guys arguing about whether sunspots have anything to do with all this.

In such situations, we often revert to superficial markers to choose who to believe. Our balancing of trust from various sources may be complicated, but this does not make them deep.

She’s a professor, so she probably knows what she’s talking about.
He’s written books that I’ve liked on other things.
I am reading this in a reputable journal.
They make lots of money by ignoring pollution.
They raise lots of money getting people excited about stuff.
She sounds pro-business.
He sounds anti-business.
I believe my smart friend.
I believe/disbelieve the UN/ the EU/ Bush/ NASA.

We do not choose these simplifications at random. Each of us has reasons, perhaps very good ones, for putting our trust in certain sources. Significantly, even when we try to expand our knowledge, digging in to an issue like climate change to understand the science and economics, we usually start with the sources we believed anyway. This is likely to reinforce our previously-held beliefs rather than challenge them.

Yet not always, and this is where the techniques of an Assistant Village Idiot may help us out. On any controversial issue, there are clues that can be examined even if much of the subject is beyond your ken.

Who is fighting fair? Politeness is only a part of this. There are people who interrupt or are insulting in argument, which is certainly not quite fair, yet at a deeper level are discussing reasonably. Understanding one’s opponent’s actual claims is foundational. When people habitually misrepresent the other side I begin to disregard everything they say. False equivalence is fairly common. “My opponent believes the poor should be given nothing; she would be happy with a rebuilding of poorhouses.”

Who has modified their views over time, and why? Have any prominent authorites moved from one side of the debate to the other? Did this personally benefit them in any way, or has it cost them? What are the facts from position A that challengers B and C have come to acknowledge? If someone cannot even acknowledge why alternative views at least look plausible, or that enthusiasts on one’s own side have made foolish claims, or that those who disagree might at least mean well or have found an important portion of the truth, then there is no point in listening to them, is there?

Who is unnecessarily dismissive? In my own field there are theories which are meritless and deserve to be dismissed from serious discussion. Yet even these always have something understandable about them, reasons why a person might believe them if she didn’t know better. I would not recommend anyone pursue EMDR for PTSD – but I acknowledge that it might have some benefit unrelated to the eye movements. I am desperately weary of patients who want to treat schizophrenia “naturally” – but I can of course understand that medications have uncomfortable, even miserable side effects; or that it is a very hard thing to believe one’s brain is broken; or that doctors make mistakes; or that older psychological theories are equally bogus. I think disability rights advocates are often motivated more by their desire to kick the system than to help the patient – but I don’t count their gentler motives as nothing, and gladly acknowledge that they do some good.

I simply don’t trust the rationality of a person who is unable to budge 1% on even the minor points. There is something narcissistic or autistic about that.

You will note that none of these techniques is an infallible guarrantee which POV is correct. They are just indicators of the rationality of the arguer.

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