It’s all in the Head…lines

by | Feb 22, 2010

David Adam in The Guardian, 11 March 2009:

Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts

David Adam, Guardian podcast, 13 March 2009:

The scientists, they have been saying it for a while, and we’ve been saying it in the media for a while… but I think the scientists have lost a little bit of patience almost. I mean one said to me here that we’re sick of having our carefully constructed messages lost in the political noise. You know this is the scientific community standing up and saying enough is enough, we’ve lost patience, get your act together.

Jeffrey Sachs in The Guardian, Friday 19 February 2010:

Climate sceptics are recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain. We must not be distracted from science’s urgent message: we are fuelling dangerous changes in Earth’s climate.

David Adam in The Guardian, 21 February 2010:

Climate scientists withdraw journal claims of rising sea levels.

Adam Corner, Guardian, 22 February 2010:

Do climate change sceptics give scepticism a bad name? There is a crucial difference between scepticism and non-belief in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Sachs and Corner, like many alarmists, are continuing to hide behind the idea that the climate debate divides on a single point of difference: “Climate change is happening” versus “climate change isn’t happening”.

Even as shorthand, this is a clumsy, clumsy polarisation of the debate. There are many points of disagreement between perspectives within each putative ‘side’, and many points of agreement across them.

The implication is that people framing the debate in this way – as between people saying “climate change is happening”, and “climate change isn’t happening” reduce themselves to the level of their least sophisticated opposition. Very, very few commentators in the ‘sceptic’ camp in fact make such an argument.

The argument is really about how climate ‘science’ turns into ethical imperatives and politics. Our argument here is that ‘catastrophe’ is the premise of climate politics, not the conclusion of climate science. It is only if we presuppose certain things that we can see agreement between what “science says” and what climate alarmists say. But science is expected to do much of the ethical and political work for those investing their moral authority in the inevitability of looming catastrophe.

Since ‘Climategate’ we have seen problems emerge with the catastrophic storyline. Suddenly, the human cost of Himalayan glacial melt, and reduced rainfall in Africa have been substantially diminished, if not completely dissolved. And now sea level rise has been reconsidered. These first order effects of anthropogenic climate change have been challenged, and so, logically, the effects that they are understood to cause need to be reconsidered. Yet Sachs and Corner pretend that the debate is still about the principle cause of so many Nth-order effects. This has another curious implication.

It has for a while been the argument of such people that ‘the debate is over’, and the science is in’. We can see clearly now that the science is not in. Yet the debate that Sachs and Corner seem to want to have is the one that they have already had, and it is claimed has been won. Sachs and Corner do not want to move on.

And it is easy to see why.

Head to the profiles of the authors in question, and you will learn that

Adam Corner is a research associate at Cardiff University. His interests include the psychology of communicating climate change

And that

Jeffrey Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a special adviser to United Nations secretary-general on the millennium development goals.

Take “the science” away from these two non-scientists, and what would they be left with? The prospect of climate catastrophe has been used to construct a ‘special’ perspective on economics and human psychology. It is this perspective – not “science”, and not “the planet” – which Corner and Sachs are protecting. Yet notice how they cannot do it on the terms of their own disciplines.

Sachs: Today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer. Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain.”

Corner: But embarrassingly for climate change sceptics, the people who have thought longest and hardest about what it means to be a truly sceptical thinker seem in a hurry to distance themselves from their fellow sceptics. Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptics group that organised the homeopathy overdose is clear about the legitimacy of climate change sceptics: “In our view, climate change sceptics are not sceptics. A sceptic looks at the available evidence and makes a decision, and for homeopathy the evidence is that it doesn’t work. But the sceptical position on climate change is that it is happening.”

Corner and the sceptics he chooses to qualify his opinion share the same tragic conceit. “where are the voices of the truly sceptical thinkers that the climate sceptics claim to represent?”, he asks, rhetorically, to imply that ‘true’ sceptics aren’t on the side of the climate sceptics. It turns out that they – the true sceptics – are busy organising protest-stunts against homeopathy – a die-in “homeopathy overdose”. It’s not even climate change – the “most important issue facing mankind” – which moves these “defenders of science”. They are too busy trying to save people who think that sugar pills might cure them of trivial maladies from themselves. Oh, what important work!

It would be easier to believe that Corner was a paid, academic, researcher of psychology and communication if his own communication didn’t communicate such an inane psychology all of his own, not to mention his desperately shallow research. Sachs too, makes a facile argument to defend the ground he stands on. We’ve covered the “tobacco” argument before, here and here.  How can an academic in such a prestigious and privileged role make such a bullshit argument – the kind that you’d be disappointed to hear in a pub, never mind uttered in the academy?

With arguments like this emerging from academia, it is no surprise that people sense the snake oil, and head for the science as the object of the debate. We’ve said before that this is a mistake that sceptics make. They mirror their counterparts such as Sachs and Corner, who believe that the debate begins and ends in “the science”. As we point out, probably too often, the politics is prior. It is Sachs and Corner’s politics which stinks. “The science” is an afterthought.


  1. Donna Laframboise

    This made me laugh out loud:

    “It turns out that they – the true sceptics – are busy organising protest-stunts against homeopathy – a die-in “homeopathy overdose”. It’s not even climate change – the “most important issue facing mankind” – which moves these “defenders of science”. They are too busy trying to save people who think that sugar pills might cure them of trivial maladies from themselves. Oh, what important work!”


  2. Mooloo

    It reminds me of the academics who defended Marxism, both political and economic, through the later part of the 20th Century.

    Rather too many thought the evidence was in then as well. They confidently predicted capitalism to collapse under its own weight for decades. No amount of contrary evidence appeared to dissuade them. They knew in their bones that any sensible thinking person was left-wing, and only evil haters would vote for the right.

    Back then I suffered from “false conciousness”. Now I am a “climate denier”.
    The annoying thing is that I am more-or-less left-wing. Certainly I have never voted right of centre. What I am not, is a puritan.

  3. Christopher K

    Sachs has based his career on opportunism.

    No wonder he seems terrified as the edifice collapses around him.

  4. geoffchambers

    Since the three articles you quote by Adam, Sachs and Corner, all to be found at
    they’ve added another by Mark Lynas, who distinguishes between good and bad sceptics, good ones being those who have alternative proposals for dealing with catastrophic climate change, (i.e. who agree with Lynas) and bad being those who are, well, sceptical, or, as Lynas puts it “obsessive trolls [and] unpleasant, twisted extremists”.
    Anthony Watts has a moving personal reply to Sachs’ article at
    and reveals that the Guardian has made overtures to him with a view to writing for them.
    Bother. Since I started writing this, they’ve added another by Adam. It’s like swatting flies, though less fun.

    ps They’ve still got that rotting carcase at their masthead, despite my comment a week ago. They’re stuck with it now, since taking it down would amount to Environment Editor Adam admitting that they read the comments here.

  5. George Carty

    The alarmists frame the issue as “climate change is happening” versus “climate change isn’t happening”.

    What about “we should curb CO2 emissions” versus “we should adapt to the changing climate”?

    Or even “we should curb CO2 emissions by reducing our energy consumption” versus “we should curb CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuel power with nuclear power”?

  6. Luke Warmer

    Nice post – EU referendum quotes the WSJ along similar lines:

    “As a refreshing change, therefore, we see today an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. It tells us that sceptics “don’t doubt science -they doubt unscientific claims cloaked in the authority of science.”

    Seeing Mooloo’s comment about political persuasions, I suggest that this blog’s point about the prospect for climate catastrophe, that it “has been used to to construct a ‘special’ perspective on economics and human psychology” should actually be that, for many, climate change has been used to to reinforce a ‘pre-existing’ perspective on economics and human psychology.

    In essence, the right has ‘conspired’ against AGW but the left has unwittingly ‘conspired’ with it. Oreskes et al keep identifying right wing ‘plots’ against AGW but fail to see that the left is not concerned about the detail of the science since it provides a blank cheque for an existing policy direction.

  7. Chuckles

    The Sachs article is copyright Project Syndicate, which some of us might find deeply ironic, given the content.

  8. artwest

    To be fair, it’s entirely worthwhile to be sceptical about homeopathy and similar “treatments” – not least because people believing in assorted medical scams often refuse potentially life-saving conventional treatment.

    However, the “sceptics” quoted by Corner are the half-hearted, self-righteous sceptics who love the independent, clever image the word “sceptic” lends them but don’t really rock the boat that much.
    Ben Goldacre is a prime example. It’s not so long ago that he admitted that he wasn’t much of an expert on climate change but still felt qualified to launch a dogmatic “denier”-laden attack on true sceptics. He is a sceptic only to the extent that he doesn’t upset the reigning scientific orthodoxy. He’ll pick apart an obviously-biased study paid for by a drug company in order to flog more pills, but his questioning of peer review goes no further. Like may others, he is sceptical about companies and people who he distrusts – Big Pharma, obvious quacks and anyone questioning his cherished beliefs mainly, but entirely gullible when faced with the average peer review paper from an apparently respectable source.

  9. Editors

    Artwest, spot on. The sceptics in question have totally failed to develop an understanding of the phenomenon they are objecting to. Worse still: what *are* the sceptics without homoeopathy? In the same way, what is their Pope, Richard Dawkins, without a church?

    What such sceptics appear to be responding to is much less the prevalence of “bad science”, and much more their own feelings of diminished authority.

    Curiously, however, their feelings that religion, quackery, and snake oil are running the world are coincident with the institution of science being the last seat of authority. Even quacks attempt to express their ideas in scientific terms.

    Of course we should turn our noses up at homoeopathy, but we should understand it for what it is. In their struggle, both homoeopaths and angry sceptics reinvent humans and human psychology to give themselves authority.

  10. Editors

    Lukewarmer – “In essence, the right has ‘conspired’ against AGW but the left has unwittingly ‘conspired’ with it. Oreskes et al keep identifying right wing ‘plots’ against AGW but fail to see that the left is not concerned about the detail of the science since it provides a blank cheque for an existing policy direction.”

    Our view is that Left and Right are unhelpful categories in the climate debate, principally because they don’t hold. There are many right thinkers who have absorbed eco-centric ideas, and developed them as their own, and have influenced the environmental movement. And there are splits within the green movement about things such as emissions-trading, in which the market is proposed as the solution to climate problems (E.g. Stern) and opposed to by those seeking anti-growth green economics (E.g. NEF/Green Party, Hansen etc.).

    To what extent are the positions ‘pre-existing’? We think that the climate issue has been absorbed by the contemporary Right and Left for contingent reasons, that owe little to their traditions, and much, much more to the political problems of the day. We could even ask whether there exist a Right, and much less a Left, to identify. In fact, the UK Green Party (PKA “Ecology”, PKA “PEOPLE”) was established by former Conservatives in the ’70s, moved by Paul Ehrlich (a Republican) to set up a political axis against the Left/Right continuum, and its emphasis on economic and industrial growth.

    It is their inability to identify themselves that has turned Left and Right ‘Green’. Oreskes, for instance, in locating “right wing plots”, defines the “left” she belongs to negatively. The collapse of the Left and global communism throughout the ’60s to ’90s was not matched by the world that the Right had promised, and people withdrew from political engagement, and politics transformed. Arguably, the legacy “left” movements are Greener in character, but this can be explained by their more comprehensive defeat, not by a regrouping. The Right started off from Greener territory, but its collapse has been slower, yet now Cameron, here in the UK, is Greener than Brown.

    In the US, things are different, of course, complicated by the fact that the US has always had more success in creating policy out of insecurity. Yet there these categories hold even less. Anything left of right is held by much of the Right as equivalent to unadulterated Stalinism. This lack of nuance has the unfortunate consequence of giving some of Oreskes’ hypothesis some credibility. Moreover, while Right-sceptics make the “science” the focus of their criticism, they are tacitly acknowledging that “the science” can determine what climate policy ought to be, and making a huge concession to environmentalists.

    This view puts us at odds with many sceptics, because it is also a criticism of them. To summarise our position, we think contemporary environmentalism is a peculiar phenomenon that has not emerged under its own steam, but has emerged out of the vacuum left by the collapse of old political frameworks and institutions. In this respect, then, it is for people who still cling to categories such as left and right to take responsibility for it.

    {Apologies for the rushed nature of this comment.}

  11. Sam the Skeptic

    I have been hammering the “it’s all about the politics” argument for ages. Sooner or later the message will get through especially if blogs such as this keep the pressure on.
    George Carty — you make the right point (and one that needs to be pushed to the limit). The Greenies’ argument about CO2 reduction is a fake as you rightly point out: it is the “reducing energy consumption” that they really want and the “need” to reduce CO2 to achieve it is what drives the rest of the whole AGW scenario.
    If it was possible to control any other substance or circumstance in order to achieve their manic urge to unpick the Industrial Revolution then they would be pushing that line instead.
    Look no further than this: “Giving society cheap abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” Usually attributed to Paul Ehrlich (though one has to be careful these days!)
    Not “fossil fuel energy”, note; energy of any sort.

  12. George Carty

    Sam the Skeptic,

    Many people seem to believe that major reductions in energy usage can be effected by a tolerable reduction in First World standards of living (and little change in the condition of the Third World), and the residual Calvinism of the English-speaking cultures means that people are reluctant to speak up against this. However, the bastards who want to undo the Industrial Revolution never mention certain little facts: like that at least two-thirds of the people on this planet owe their lives to the Haber-Bosch process?

    They need to be exposed as the genocidal devils which they are, then sent to the gallows where they belong. How many lives would have been saved if Hitler and his henchmen had been whacked before they got into power?

  13. Sam the Skeptic

    And the “bastards” are more than keen that the Third World should not even aspire to the standards of the First. There are enough quotes from Club of Rome et al on the subject that if translated into simple everyday language would immediately be condemned as racist.
    The complaints from the underdeveloped parts of Africa that global warming is all “the West’s” fault and the West must pay have been avidly encouraged by the NGOs, not least the Christian ones. And before anyone accuses me of bias I happen to be a Catholic and I believe that CAFOD and its Scottish equivalent are among the worst offenders.
    Whether the project to ensure that the poor of Africa remain poor is deliberate policy or just the subconscious effect of a paternalistic mindset I couldn’t say but I have long since stopped donating to either of the above ‘charities’ and Oxfam and Christian Aid as well. My donations now go in the direction of Water Aid or Mary’s Meals or through organisations like Rotary where I know it’s going where it is going to do some long-term good.
    Sorry, your Grace, I seem to have wandered mildly off-topic but it’s a subject I feel strongly about.

  14. Mike J

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the alarmists who gave us the label of sceptic? Then denier, then contrarian.

    Now they seem to be trying to win their pathetic arguments by denying that we are true sceptics. Hmm. Whatever.

  15. Luke Warmer


    I think we’re basically agreeing – the vacuum you describe is the pre-existing (human) condition I perceive.

    Whether left and right are valid constructs is indeed a complex issue even between UK and US, and Cameron’s green plans highlight this. But think of the use of right wing think tank as a counter attack or any reference to George Bush and sadly it still has relevance. And the use of terms like deniers (think holocaust/nazis/right wing) (Godwin bingo) also bears this out.

    And the very important point is that this isn’t simply a smear campaign. For example, if you watch the Plimer/Monbiot exchange, Plimer pretty much opens with a comment about it’s all to do with raising more tax. This is a red rag to the left and pigeonholes Plimer as nominally right wing, whatever his actual shade. As a skeptic even I roll my eyes at that point.

    Oreskes has built some of this but see Myanna Lahsen’s chapter on “the detection and attribution of conspiracies” which presents a similar case history. If you do consider yourself left wing you can find proof, nay peer-reviewed proof, that right wingers are actively attacking climate science.

    It could end there (and does for many) but my fundamental point is that the overlooked corollary to all of this is that the left should be expected to welcome AGW with open arms – green new deals, climate justice and the like. All fit with a pre-existing policy direction but now done in the name of science.

    Whilst this does not answer any questions about the validity of the science iself, I think it is an under explored element of the sociology of climate change. It begins to answer why it is so important for the science to be settled so that Corner/Sachs/Milliband can continue to peddle their views. It might also answer why those on the ‘left’ are inherently less prone to critical analysis of the facts.

    This is a fly-by hurried response, but I hope it makes sense.

  16. Sam the Skeptic

    Perfect sense, Luke Warmer.
    The left (we need to stick with these terms if only because they are a useful shorthand) are instinctively authoritarian; the right instinctively libertarian.
    Global Warming provides the perfect excuse to extend political control and since another trait of the intellectual left (think the Webbs et al) has been that the end justifies the means it is not surprising that their intellectual descendants see no reason to examine the minutiae. It sounds plausible; it’ll do. We must, after all, act for the good of the sheeple who don’t know any better (so the warm-mongers’ rage when someone without a string of degrees in their chosen field suddenly starts to talk a bit of sense).
    The right, conversely, rebels against this approach which is why broadly its adherents say awkward things like “prove it”.
    There is a perfectly good case to be made for many of the proposals being put forward on the back of climate change but climate change is not the right way to go about implementing them and the difference points up another philosophical divergence.
    Recycling, energy efficiency and other ecological activities can be justified on the grounds of enlightened self-interest. I’m happy to do it because it saves me money.
    To the eco-extremists that is per se a wrong decision on my part. I must do it because it is good for the planet; to do it because it is good for me is “sinful”.
    Hence, as George Carty said above, reducing CO2 by cutting energy production is “good”; reducing it by finding a new way of producing the same amount of energy ‘cleanly’ is “bad”.
    We could, of course, also talk about the level of corruption which is becoming inherent in this whole charade but another day perhaps!

  17. George Carty

    I regard myself as left-wing because I hate Social Darwinism and dislike imperialism — how does that make me instinctively authoritarian? And what about fascists and other right-wing authoritarians?

    I suspect the problem of authoritarian dominance of left-wing politics is because the non-authoritarian forms of leftism cannot obtain sufficient wealthy and/or influential backers, because they cannot appeal to greed for control (as the authoritarians do) or to greed for money (as the right-wingers do).

  18. George Carty

    Oh, and to give another example of where environmentalists and leftists would advocate the same policy for different reasons:

    Environmentalists hate car-dependent suburban sprawl because of the CO2 emissions and oil consumption inherent in massive use of cars.

    A non-environmentalist argument against car-dependent suburban sprawl is that it destroys the sense of community (because people cannot interact with each other when they are in their cars), leading to an undesirable atomized consumerist society.

  19. Editors

    Lukewarmer: “But think of the use of right wing think tank as a counter attack or any reference to George Bush and sadly it still has relevance. And the use of terms like deniers (think holocaust/nazis/right wing) (Godwin bingo) also bears this out.”

    On the first point, it really wasn’t just the “left” who disliked GWB. And yet more problematically for the categories “Left” and Right”, it was the party of the “Left” in the UK – the Labour Party – which was most closely allied to him. As many have pointed out, people who were, just a generation or so ago, marching with the CND, protesting against apartheid, Or the Vietnam war or members of far-Left groups were sitting down with Republican Hawks, planning the invasion of other countries. More problematically still, it is not possible to argue that the US/UK “Right” were united behind the invasion, or the War on Terror. Yet Bush was a godsend for the Greens as an epitome of “the right”. And in fact, that it was the party of the “Left” seemingly abandoning its traditional positions has been a major factor in the unspectacular rise of the Green Party. They maintain an image as the UK’s “radical” party, and so have absorbed many of the legacy Left, whether or not its politics are truly Left.

    References to “right wing think tanks” were attempts to frame the issue within the more radical parts of the green camp, and identify the ‘poles’ as it were: left and right. But these are by now almost arbitrary assignments. The Green Party and its members are indeed particularly fond of the epithet, yet it is harder to locate continuity between them and the “Left”, on account of their own parties beginnings on the Right, and its ambition to move away from the Left/Right axis, and finally, it’s anti-growth, anti-industrial agenda. Here, it might be argued, this agenda is something it shares more closely with the anti-capitalist Right. Prince Charles – no stranger to criticising “big business” happens to be the heir to a big parcel of land. But he isn’t calling for a revolution, and won’t be manning any barricades. Some of the richest people in the world are among the loudest critics of globalisation.

    “ if you watch the Plimer/Monbiot exchange, Plimer pretty much opens with a comment about it’s all to do with raising more tax.”

    The Monbiot-Plimer debate left a lot to be desired. It’s not the kind of debate we like watching, anyway. Let’s not identify the debate by the locking horns of just two commenters. Tax is older than ‘the left’, and Plenty of The left can be found making arguments against tax, and plenty of Conservative governments have raised taxes. The history of the battle between Left and Right is not a history of a battle “about tax”.

    “corollary to all of this is that the left should be expected to welcome AGW with open arms – green new deals, climate justice and the like. All fit with a pre-existing policy direction but now done in the name of science.”

    But the opposite is true. The concept of “climate justice” stands against arguments for political, economic, and industrial development in the third world. It allows instead neo-colonial and imperialist ideas to dominate the development agenda. The concept of the “Green New Deal” nods in the direction of the political ground that Roosevelt is supposed to occupy (which is questionable, frankly) but really the term is an attempt to borrow the gravity of a historical moment for a movement that is unable to create its own history. We’ve called this “pastiche politics”. And in the UK, at least, the “Green New Deal” here, and the “low carbon industrial strategy” is being used to lower expectations, not being sold to “the masses” as the key to their liberation.

    “It might also answer why those on the ‘left’ are inherently less prone to critical analysis of the facts.”

    Than whom?

    Sorry to argue so forcefully, but the point remains that the categories do not adequately account for the phenomenon we are attempting to look at. What does explain it – or, at least, begins to explain its context – is the *collapse* of both Left and Right.

  20. Editors

    Sam: “The left (we need to stick with these terms if only because they are a useful shorthand) are instinctively authoritarian; the right instinctively libertarian.”

    But that’s not even remotely true.

    Historically speaking, it was those on the Left who challenged the authority of both Church and State. It was the Left which challenged the authority of class and money. Meanwhile, the Modern state is the invention of capital. Just go and read some Marx!

    “Global Warming provides the perfect excuse to extend political control and since another trait of the intellectual left ….”

    The desire for “political control” isn’t unique to the Left.

    The problem here, is that people seem far to keen to fit the phenomenon of climate alarmism into a neat history of two, binary opposed movements of goodies and baddies. Frankly, this sort of bullshit causes you to lose purchase on the present as you re-invent and re-invent and re-invent the past.

  21. tom.harrigan

    I think you are too harsh on the anti-homeopaths. These “skeptics” are genuinely doing something useful: saving people money and perhaps a life. Their cause is indeed one of science versus politics and I applaud them for scoring one for rationality over consensus. I hope Prince Charles and his establishment cronies don’t get too upset.

    The other theory where tiny amounts of a poison have an enormous effect is of course AGW. Like homeopathy, there is no actual direct evidence for its efficacy. Indeed so few anecdotes are available that support the notion that a little CO2 has an enormous effect, that AGW adherents are reduced to fraud.

    People forget that the whole AGW hysteria is based on computer models which predict a temperature increase which has not happened. To regard the model results with anything more than interest is plainly opportunism. To question the models, particularly in the light of their failure to predict the current lack of warming has nothing to do with scepticism. No fundamental physical understanding needs to be questioned, only the skill with which the laws of nature are replicated in computer code (plus accuracy of initial conditions etc. etc.)

    That celebrity skeptics prefer to target low-lying fruit like homeopathy is not surprising. Tackling big companies, which are by definition evil, is definitely good for your street credibility! It is a testimony to the power of politics that wondering aloud about the accuracy of climate models could signal the end of your career.

    The beginning of the AGW argument was in science, and it will end there too if politics gets out of the way!

  22. Editors

    “I think you are too harsh on the anti-homeopaths. These “skeptics” are genuinely doing something useful: ”

    Our argument was that they failed to understand the phenomenon they were objecting to. In many cases, it seems, “sceptics” may well be simply responding to their own emotions. Are they really “useful”. It’s hard to see how. They haven’t really challenged whatever it is that turns people towards homeopathy.

    “The beginning of the AGW argument was in science, and it will end there too if politics gets out of the way!”

    What do you think it would mean, for politics “to get out of the way”? Out of the way of what?

    We argue that the AGW argument didn’t begin in science.

  23. tom.harrigan

    Through their campaigning activity, the skeptics have managed to raise the profile of the issue of homeopathy in the NHS. There are growing calls for this waste of public money to cease. It seems to me that they have achieved a degree of success. I suspect people turn to homeopathy through desperation or ignorance. The skeptics could probably help with the latter. You might not think this important, but I think all victories for rationality over a political consensus are significant.

    Climate science has become highly politicised. The last 30years has given enough time to manoeuvre the people with the right views, producing the desired results into the most influential “scientific” positions. Forget the fact that they can’t even keep their raw data, so long as they tow the party line. This does a disservice to science, and in this particular case to humanity and the planet. Instead of burning fossil fuels we are burning food, starving people and destroying rain forest for biodiesel.

  24. Luke Warmer

    Editors, please be as forceful as you like – it’s your blog! I take all of your points about post-left/right politics but my comment was not to provide a contemporary taxonomy of political thought.

    And I certainly agree that facile splits muddy the water, as you commented to Sam “binary opposed movements of goodies and baddies”, but I think this is how some on the alarmist side have framed the issue and in as more formal way than the skeptics have. I simply wanted to counter their simplistic take with the observation that it should be recognised that if you’re an interventionist (of left or right persuasion, I hope that covers it for now:-) ) then AGW is a policy wet dream.

    I think skeptics (of presumably right wing bent) are also damaging debate by using water melon comments and talking about tax and so on.

  25. Peter S

    Politics may be prior to the science, but psychology is prior to the politics. What is of possible psychological interest about homeopathy is not the content of the sugar pills used in its practice but the supposed malady for which the sugar pills are taken as a self-cure. In that sense, the malady (and the apparent conviction of its physical reality) is the same as the malady self-diagnosed for the planet.

    The person taking the homeopathic dose as a stab at self cure does not want to know it is fake because its real function is to sustain the belief that the illness exists – and that, somewhere, there is a fantastical state called ‘wellness’ which the sugar pills will deliver the taker into. That is, the belief in the sugar pills qualify the belief in the illness… along with the felt need for a self cure and a fantasy (or memory) of what being ‘cured’ might feel like.

    The malady of man-made global warming follows an identical pattern. And, as with homeopathy, the alarmist condemns ‘development’ as his means of protecting the malady from that which threatens to sabotage it – rather than cure it.

    A more thorough psychology than Corner’s might wonder what it is about development that brings out such an imaginative array of symptoms in those who suffer from it? Such a psychology might also point out that another term for development is ‘growing up’… and try a we may (through sugar pills, face creams, children’s clothes and toy windmills etc)… there is NO cure for that.

  26. Editors

    “but psychology is prior to the politics.”

    Is that true?

    We have to remember that homoeopathy does have its – however flawed – “scientific” account. It’s not as if we could say that it’s medicine vs homoeopathy – many clinical practices offer homoeopathy, my own included, until I moved. Many well-qualified doctors seem to have found something in it. In informal debate (and in opposition, I might add), I’ve met many very qualified scientific researchers who are ‘believers’. Disappointingly, the angry sceptics were there too, and were extraordinarily inarticulate and hectoring, and were the real impediment to understanding what was going on.

    We can’t rule out that there’s a psychology to angry scepticism too, then. (Actually, I would argue that the phenomenon is the same, political one).

    The question we have to ask is why people seek answers in homoeopathy, rather than in medicine. Here are two rough replies: 1. They aren’t really sick. 2. They don’t trust medicine.

    These would be at first glance things that we could consider from the psychological perspective. But I would argue that this is a mistake.

    In the case of 1. People aren’t sick, but are seeking remedies to feelings or functions that are entirely normal, it seems that alternative therapies offer some kind of ritual that owes something to the practice of medicine, but isn’t. It’s worth pointing out again how people attempt to make the scientific – rather than overtly mystical – argument for homoeopathy. Isn’t there a parallel phenomenon of the medicalisation of many of normal experiences, and isn’t this phenomenon largely political in character? I think it is.

    In the case of 2. People do not trust medicine, some historical perspective might be useful. Trust in the institutions of medicine and science is not ‘default’. You go to your doctor because you believe that he has your best interests in mind. Yet, concomitant with the medicalisation of many social and political problems (see 1) is that the role between doctor and patient is transformed. In fact, it in some cases transforms the relationship between individual and state to that of one between doctor and patient. Put bluntly, politicians have appropriated the authority of medicine.

    This converges with the climate issue (at last), because – according to us, at least – certain politicians and other organisations and institutions have appropriated the authority of climate science. And in many respects psychologists and angry-anti-homoeopaths now locate their authority in these crises, but fail to interrogate the political dimensions to the problem.

  27. geoffchambers

    You say in your last comment:
    “politicians and other organisations and institutions have appropriated the authority of climate science”.
    Surely, they’ve INVENTED the authority of climate science, at least as practiced by Jones, Briffa, Mann and co. They seem to be no more than glorified technicians, trying to measure things which resist being measured, motivated by the hope that their measurements will confirm a preconceived idea.
    On homeopathy and angry scepticism: I once saw a French TV debate between Jacques Benveniste, “discoverer” of the phenomenon of water memory at the root of homeopathy; a sceptical scientist; and a very angry sceptical science journalist, obviously determined to demolish Benveniste. Benveniste modestly admitted his embarrassment at findings which seemed to offend common sense, which just made the journalist angrier, until he withrew into a steaming sulk, leaving Benveniste and the sceptical scientist to carry on a sensible, though inconclusive discussion on scientific method.
    Nothing like this is likely to happen with climate science, since the problem of a rise of 2 to 6°C in average global temperature by 2100 is not that it offends common sense, but that it has no meaning outside itself, until that meaning is provided by someone other than the man with the thermometer and the computer model.

  28. Chuckles


    Might I ask why you find it necessary to denigrate and insult technicians?

  29. Editors

    Geoff, “Surely, they’ve INVENTED the authority of climate science, ”

    You’ve probably better identified the dynamic here. my previous comment was written in something of a hurry, and “appropriated” was the word I decided on after a bit of a struggle. You’re right, further, because it’s not clear that climate science ever had the same kind of authority as medicine. Many alarmists have attempted to make equivalents of them, as the “cancer analogy”/”the earth is sick, it needs a doctor” nonsense shows.

  30. geoffchambers

    to Chuckles:
    Sorry. No denigration intended. I have every respect for technicians and engineers (who are incidentally at the fore in the sceptical analysis of climategate). I used to measure things myself as a market researcher. If I’d ever announced to a client that I’d lost or adjusted the data, or arbitrarily reduced the sample size by two thirds, I’d have been drummed out of the market research society. It’s a serious business, conducting longitudinal studies of attitudes to dog food.
    To Editors:
    My remark about climate science being an invention only applies to the “let’s plot a graph and watch it wiggle” school of statistical jugglers, and not to what I imagine is the vast majority of researchers examining precipitation, hurricanes and the rest.

  31. geoffchambers

    …or, to satisfy Peter S’s demand for a psychological analysis, we might call it the “I can make mine go higher up the y axis than yours” school of climate science.

  32. George Carty

    Could the problem be that ever since the West began to secularize at the time of the Enlightenment, Western civilization has been stumbling in the dark looking for something to give it a sense of purpose?

    Manifest destiny was a bust as soon as there was no more “empty” land to settle.

    Nationalism/racism ran into a brick wall in WWI, but didn’t get the message and ended up bashing its own brains out in WWII.

    Utopian socialism was discredited by the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism.

    The dream of a high-tech utopia was thrown into doubt by nuclear weapons.

    Anti-communism (the main thing that gave the West a sense of purpose during the Cold War) is now irrelevant.

    Extreme environmentalism won’t do it (very few people will think killing off the bulk of humanity is a good plan).

    Even the old standby of capitalist development is looking shaky, as wealth has become increasingly concentrated at the top in the last 30 years or so…

  33. Peter S

    ““but psychology is prior to the politics.””

    “Is that true?”

    If politics is a concern with the type of relationships we need to have with one another if the space we live in is to succeed, then psychology could be said to be a concern with the deeply felt ambivalence humans have towards the need to relate at all. If ‘relationship’ is another word for ‘negotiation’, we can begin to see this ambivalence re-emerging in the Green movement – where any such exchange is seen to be (and claimed as) an obstacle to the collective (or, rather, complicit) will of the group.

    Politics can only begin when negotiation is surrendered to, and psychology wonders (amongst other things) what makes the idea of getting rid of negotiation – or ‘ending the debate’ – such a promising one for humans? What would we rather be doing with other people instead of negotiating with them?.. and why does this preoccupation so excite otherwise sensible adults like Adam Corner?

    Homeopathy could be seen as a self-cure for negotiation if the ‘ill’ body (like the ‘ill’ planet) is used to demand a change in the claimant’s relationship with others… from that of equals (with a mutual authority) to that of omnipotent child to submissive parent. Going back to nature is all very well, but it’s worth asking (from a psychological perspective) which nature it was that so magnetises those for whom AGW is a fitting cover-story?

    This may point towards the true malady of modern (and Godless) man – and what erodes the value and usefulness of our political structures.

  34. Editors

    George: “Even the old standby of capitalist development is looking shaky, as wealth has become increasingly concentrated at the top in the last 30 years or so…”

    On the other hand, maybe what we are seeing is anti-politics’s own denouement.

  35. George Carty

    To what extent is British environmentalism a smokescreen which conceals NIMBYism?

    Britain desperately needs more housing, roads and railways, but these aren’t being built because it would be political suicide. Millions of NIMBYs (many of them in marginal constituencies) are hell-bent on preventing any development that could reduce the value of their houses. Perhaps the politicians use environmentalism as an excuse to block development, because it sounds better than admitting that they are just serving the narrow selfish interests of current homeowners…


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