Science *is* Believing

by | Mar 26, 2012

Bishop Hill has an interesting comparison of two perspectives on the climate debate.

In his Radio 5 interview, James Delingpole correctly framed the argument over AGW as being over (a) how large the effect is (b) how much warming there will be and (c) how much of a problem it is.

Vicky Pope at the Met Office has taken a different approach in an article in the Guardian today.

Indeed she has. Whatever you want to say about Delingpole’s style and politics, his three questions about climate change are faultless. And as this blog has attempted to say (perhaps more verbosely), is that the third question – how much of a problem [climate change] is – is one which is not a question for science alone. How much of a problem we believe climate change is depends on how much we believe we are dependent on natural processes.

Here, for instance, is an instance of unmitigated bullshit being spoken about climate change, reproduced entirely uncritically in the Guardian:

Water wars could be a real prospect in coming years as states struggle with the effects of climate change, growing demand for water and declining resources, the secretary of state for energy and climate change warned on Thursday.

Ed Davey told a conference of high-ranking politicians and diplomats from around the world that although water had not been a direct cause of wars in the past, growing pressure on the resource if climate change is allowed to take hold, together with the pressure on food and other resources, could lead to new sources of conflict and the worsening of existing conflicts.

There is so much that anyone, left or right, could say about Ed Davey’s specious claim. There is no shortage of water in the world. End of. There may be local shortages of water. So the first question relates to whether climate change is a global problem, or are the consequences (i.e. problems) of climate change regional? Obviously, they are regional. If problems ever do materialise as a putative consequence of climate change, they will be different in any given place. Second, If the means exist to move water from A to B, then the problem is not one of ‘how to deal with climate change’, but merely ‘how do we organise getting water from A to B’. If the means don’t exist, then the problem is not climate change; the problem is ‘why does this economy not have enough capital to invest in vital infrastructure’. There is enough water in the world, and there is surely plenty of capital, and plenty of opportunity to make more. Climate change is not the problem in any sensible reading of Ed Davey’s speculation. The Minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change sees — or rather, imagines — problems in the world to each be problems of climate change. Of course he does. But water shortage is a problem for people with or without climate change, and it is a problem which has very little to do with the climate.

But back to the two ways of seeing the debate…

Vicky Pope at the Met Office is another person who sees the world only through the prism of climate change

Given the overwhelming evidence for man-made climate change, it could be argued that it shouldn’t be necessary to keep going over old ground to prove it time after time. In fact, it’s essential we move on and focus on the future, because climate change will pose challenges for humanity.

Pope’s words are printed in the Guardian, in an article called ‘Do you believe in climate change?’, which carries the tag-line, ‘That’s not a question you should be asking – it’s a matter of empirical evidence, not belief’.

It is testament to the utter mediocrity of today’s most influential scientists that they believe (yes, ‘believe’) that ’empirical evidence’ speaks for itself. It. Simply. Does. Not.

‘Evidence’, just like facts and numbers, needs interpretation. ‘Evidence’ means nothing without a hypothesis or theory that it pertains to. And indeed, you have to have some kind of theory to go out and hunt for evidence for it, to process the evidence, and to present it in favour of the argument. It does not knock on your door, gift-wrapped, or screaming ‘I AM EVIDENCE’. Global warming is simply not a theory that someone could have developed merely by looking out of their window, nor even noticing changes in a particular climate. It’s not like gravity: a phenomenon which any individual can experience, and which calls for an explaination. Global warming and climate change are beyond our senses as individuals.

All the evidence in the world that ‘man made climate change is happening’ does not make an argument that ‘climate change will pose challenges for humanity’. Granted — and it has never been ‘denied’ here on this blog — climate change may well lead to problems. But — and it is a massive ‘but’ — those problems are problems if and only if there are no means to overcome them. Climate change is not a problem in and of itself.

For instance, the water shortages described by Ed Davey could be easily answered by desalination plants and other water recovery and distribution infrastructure. The problem comes where such solutions cannot be found, due to lack of capital, which is a problem, whether or not the climate changes. The ‘challenge’ facing ‘humanity’ then, does not come from without — the climate — but is the same problem that has always ‘faced humanity’: how to get better at building things and economies.

The question about what kind of a problem we think climate change is, then, depends on two kinds of things. First, contrary to Pope’s claims, it depends much less on material science than it depends on circumstances that are better understood through the social sciences. I.e. it is not the magnitude of the climatic phenomena which is important, but a society’s readiness to deal with it. Second, the way one attempts to understand the problem depends very much on political outlook: for want of a better term, ‘ideology’. Davey and Pope have a tendency to emphasise the importance of the ‘environment’ in understanding ‘challenges’, or ‘problems’. And they also have a tendency to emphasise the need for institutions to deal with these problems.

Pope believes (yes, ‘believes’) that all you need to do is take a measurement of the atmosphere’s temperature, observe that has warmed, and… that’s it… case closed. And she says that ‘it shouldn’t be necessary to keep going over old ground to prove it’. But she has not answered Delingpole’s questions. She believes (yes, ‘believes’) that sceptics argue only that ‘climate change is not happening’. Delingpole, who is famous for being outspoken on the subject, and who is the object of many cartoonish depictions of ‘denial’, has a far more nuanced argument than the climate change expert, Pope, gives him credit for. Vicky Pope, then, simply does not understand the debate she is attempting to engage with.

It is interesting then, to see Pope emphasise that this is about ’empirical evidence, not belief’.

… The scientific evidence that humanity is having an effect on the climate is overwhelming and increasing every year. Yet public perception of this is confused. A Cardiff/Ipsos Mori study on public perceptions of climate change, published in 2010, identifies a number of possible contributory factors: the move from being a science issue to a political issue may have introduced more distrust; “cognitive dissonance” – where people modify their beliefs about uncomfortable truths – may be a factor; people may have become bored of constantly hearing about climate change; or external factors such as the financial crisis may have played a role. There is also increased activity among sceptical groups to obscure the scientific evidence in order to influence public opinion.

Let’s imagine that it really is true that ‘scientific evidence that humanity is having an effect on the climate is overwhelming and increasing every year’. Does the statement tell us anything? No. It could well be that the scientific evidence is increasingly convincing; but at the same time the same evidence could reflect an impact that is less than previously thought. Delingpole’s third question is ‘how much of a problem it is’. Pope cannot say that the better evidence points to a bigger problem.

And indeed, we know from things like ‘Himalagate’ and ‘Africagate’ that the problem of climate change has been over-emphasised. I recently tried to explain to someone of a green persuasion that the extent of ice loss in the Himalayas had been vastly over-stated. He accused me of cherry-picking, and said that the remaining evidence of climate change was ‘overwhelming’. Maybe so, but what my counterpart had forgotten is that many impact assessments and political arguments in favour of policies to mitigate climate change had supposed that the Himalayan Glaciers supply a billion people with fresh water, which they would soon be deprived of. Climate change was now one billion people less of a problem than it had been.

So the public’s perception of climate change was not quite as confused as Pope believed. In fact, it was fairly accurate, if Delingpole’s third question is an important one. She blames ‘cognitive dissonance’, the politicisation of climate science, boredom, the financial crisis, and sceptics distorting ‘the science’ for the change in public attitudes. But she doesn’t seem to take responsibility for politicising her own ‘science’. She suggests that the ‘media’ are responsible:

Around three years ago I raised the issue of the way that science can be misused. In some cases scare stories in the media were over-hyping climate change and I think we are paying the price for this now with a reaction the other way. I was concerned then that science is not always presented objectively by the media and interested parties (even sometimes scientists themselves) in important areas, like climate change. What I don’t think any of us appreciated at the time was the depth of disconnect between the scientific process and the public.

Pope doesn’t take responsibility for having herself been either involved in over-stating climate change or failing to confront naked alarmism. But it is surely her own ignorance of Delingpole’s third question that epitomises the disconnect between science and the public. In her rhetoric, ‘climate change is happening’ is treated as a simply binary matter of true or false. Nobody — apart from senior scientists and environmental activists, it seems — believes that the problem of climate change is so straightforward. Even when she’s trying to set the record straight, to distance herself from alarmism, to call for a sober reflection on the evidence, Pope simply reproduces the same problem as all that hysteria and climate alarmism: she fails to assert that there are degrees to the problem, fails to see nuance to the debate, and fails to provide the debate with perspective.

Delingpole’s outspoken style raises the passions on both sides of the debate, but he sheds more light on it than a senior scientist at the UK Meteorological Office.

No wonder then, that the public no longer find climate change science quite so convincing. The phenomenon of disengagement is not caused by sceptical commentators such as Delingpole ‘distorting’ the debate… unless, that is, pointing out that climate change and its consequences are matters of degree and interpretation is ‘distortion’. The phenomenon of disengagement is owed to the sheer mediocrity of the climate change establishment — for want of a better collective term for Pope and her colleagues. It’s not even worth calling her analysis intellectually dishonest: I don’t think it is dishonest; it is simply daft.

So who is she pointing her ‘cognitive dissonance’ finger at?

Pope moves on to struggle with the concept of ‘belief’:

Which brings me on to the question, should you believe in climate change? The first point to make is that it’s not something you should believe or not believe in – this is a matter of science and therefore of evidence – and there’s lots of it out there. On an issue this important, I think people should look at that evidence and make their own mind up. We are often very influenced by our own personal experience. After a couple of cold winters in the UK, the common question was “has climate change stopped?” despite that fact that many other regions of the world were experiencing record warm temperatures. And 2010 was one of the warmest years on record. For real evidence of climate change, we have to look at the bigger picture.

Pope wants us to look at the evidence — for us to make the evidence part of our ‘own personal experience’. Then we will be persuaded. But how is this different from ‘believing’?

It isn’t. A belief is simply an idea about the world. It doesn’t matter whether the idea is about something that exists or doesn’t exist; they are both beliefs. Moreover, I can no more experience ‘global warming’ than I can experience unicorns. Looking at the evidence for climate change does not make it any more real than looking at pictures of unicorns. I need to trust the evidence — be it temperature records or drawings of mythological creatures — and I need to trust the individuals who produced it before I can say that I believe it accurately supports the idea, theory, or hypothesis about the world. I completely trust Vicky Pope to tell me that the world has warmed about 0.7 degrees C over the last 100 years. I trust the data, the individuals who compiled it, and the processes that were used to analyse it. But I think she completely overstates the significance of the data.

The significance of the warming is predicated on another idea about the world — our vulnerability to change. This was the subject of a post here about ‘belief’ and climate change, two years ago (when this blog was co-authored, hence the uses of ‘we’ and ‘our’):

The expression, “climate change is happening” seemingly stands for a scientific theory, empirical observation, a projection and its human consequences, a moral imperative, and of course, a political response – all at once. We have pointed out before how this progression works and the problems that exist with it. Unpacking the argument reveals (in our view, at least) a presupposition that climate’s sensitivity to CO2 (and other GHGs) is equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. That is to say that society is as vulnerable to atmospheric CO2 as the world’s climate system’s current state is. As we have pointed out, this statement of equivalence in turn presupposes society’s impotence, or put more explicitly, it denies human agency. If this isn’t clear, what we’re saying is that the getting from climate science to climate politics in less than one step – by saying “climate change is happening” – presupposes a great deal.

“Climate change is happening” means different things to different people. Ask what it means, and get as many different replies back as people you asked. It is not, by itself a statement with any scientific meaning, but one which clearly carries many political consequences. It allows people to express certain ideas about the world – anything between generalised grumble about things, to a design for the entire world’s organisation – in one neat little declaration. And interestingly, it seems to bring together the establishment and radical subversives (they like to think) in one, hollow, hollow slogan.

For all her years of scientific study, it seems that Pope has failed to examine her own preconceptions about our relationship with the climate. This leads her to somewhat arrogantly ignore what sceptics argue, claiming that it is simply a ‘distortion’ of the science. But surely this self-reflection is the first job of any scientist? Surely the point of science is to rule out such subjectivity? The job of science is to unpack all of those presuppositions, prejudices, preconceptions.

So Pope is wrong in two important respects. First, she is talking about beliefs. Second, the beliefs do not pertain to any empirical observation. And indeed, when we try to make sense of what she says, by unpacking it, and then seeing if the implications are supported by empirical observation, we find very good evidence that she is — and many others are — wrong about the likely impact of climate change. In other words, she overstates the sensitivity of both the natural world, and human society to changes in climate. This leads her to a terrible conclusion:

Given the overwhelming evidence for man-made climate change, it could be argued that it shouldn’t be necessary to keep going over old ground to prove it time after time. In fact, it’s essential we move on and focus on the future, because climate change will pose challenges for humanity.

Climate change does not create new ‘challenges for humanity’. Nothing produced by climate change science tells us that we face any challenge whatsoever. The idea that climate change presents humanity with challenges comes completely, totally, 100% from climate change ‘ideology’. It rests on ideas about how humans relate to the natural world. And it is in that messy, incoherent and weird space that ideas such as Ed Davey’s notion that ‘Water wars could be a real prospect in coming years as states struggle with the effects of climate change’ are formed. Such idle speculation begets yet more idle speculation, and policy-makers and scientists — who we imagine should be immune to it — become wrapped in their own fantasies. Pope finishes:

The more appropriate questions for today are how will our climate change and how can we prepare for those changes? That’s why it’s important that climate scientists continue their work, and continue sharing their evidence and research so people can stay up to date – and make up their own minds.

We can say now, stuff the science. Before any more ‘science’ is done, scientists like Pope need to reflect on the presuppositions they have already brought to the science. When Pope can answer Delingpole’s questions without claiming that he and other sceptics ‘distort’ science; when she and her colleagues stop blaming a stupid public and ‘cognitive dissonance’; when she and her colleagues develop a little bit more modesty and self-reflection about their political ambitions; only then will there be any point doing any more science. Until then, Pope might just as well be looking for unicorns, and be claiming that these mythical creatures represent ‘challenges for humanity’.


  1. Donna Laframboise

    idle speculation begets yet more idle speculation, and policy-makers and scientists — who we imagine should be immune to it — become wrapped in their own fantasies…

    Well said!

  2. Charlie

    That’s an amazing pack of lies from Vicky Pope. Take this one sentence –

    “You can see research by the Met Office that shows the evidence of man-made warming is even stronger than it was when the last IPCC report was published.”

    Let’s look at some of what’s happened since the last IPCC report, 2007.

    1. In 2007 there was a record low arctic ice extent, leading to terrifying predictions about its imminent disappearance. Since then it has recovered, as the Met Office page she links to admits.

    2. Since 2007 we have had another 5 years with no warming.

    3. In 2009 and again in 2011 we had climategate showing the so-called scientists fiddling the graphs, keeping out anyone who didn’t agree with them, and breaking FOI law.

    4. In 2010 statisticians McShane and Wyner published their paper demolishing the stats behind the hockey stick graph. (The only evidence the warmists had that anything unusual was happening).

    5. Several errors have been found in the IPCC report. A couple of them have even been admitted by the IPCC.

    6. Latest data from satellites shows sea level rise is slowing down.

  3. Vinny Burgoo

    Davey took his ‘[in 2025] 1.8 billion people will live in areas suffering from absolute water scarcity’ (official transcript) from promotional materials distributed for World Water Day. This ill-defined and unsourced estimate is being touted on the Web as a ‘new UN estimate’ but it has been knocking around a decade or more, similarly ill-defined and either un- or mis-sourced. It’s a little orphan, really. Pillar to post and nobody knows where it came from. I suppose it’s heart-warming, in a way, that so many people have been so keen to embrace it with such unconditional love, if only for a little while.

    Its most likely ultimate sources are a document produced in 2000 by a Sri Lankan NGO and a CD produced in the same year by the World Resources Institute. (This same CD was a link in the chain of Chinese Whispers that ended with the ‘billion people rely on meltwater from Himalayan glaciers’ nonsense.) Less likely candidates include turn-of-the-century research papers by Vorosmarty and Shiklomanov – but if one of them is the ultimate source, it has been badly misrepresented.

    There’s nothing intrinsically unlikely about 1.8 billion being short of water in 2025, indeed that’s probably an underestimate.

    But it’s very naughty to suggest that such large numbers will be short of water mostly because of climate change (as the Guardian hack did when misreporting Davey’s speech). Vorosmarty has said that 80% of future water-stress will be due to development and population-growth not climate change, and a new paper by Parish et al tentatively reinforces this: ‘future per capita water availability may be more a function of population change than climate change.’ (May? It’s common sense that it will be. But that’s science for you.)

  4. Chris T

    Advocates for action on climate change have never understood the real debate, human psychology, or political and economic realities. As a consequence, they have shot themselves in the foot on every occasion and wasted their time and resources pursuing absolutely insane political objectives.

  5. geoffchambers

    Three years ago Vicky Pope wrote almost the same article:
    in which she said:
    When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.
    This time she says:
    “…. which brings me on to the question, should you believe in climate change? The first point to make is that it’s not something you should believe or not believe in – this is a matter of science and therefore of evidence – and there’s lots of it out there”.
    She says (twice) that it’s not a matter of belief, but “a matter of science and therefore of evidence”. She’s opposing belief, not to doubt or scepticism, but to blind, unthinking acceptance. She has grasped vaguely that there is a resistance to accepting the reality of climate change, and has only the argument from authority to fall back on. Her argument can be summed up as: “Don’t ask yourself if you believe, just … believe, (and move on)”.
    People are doubting whether she and her colleagues really understand the complexities of climate, and she counters with a demonstration that she can’t handle a simple everyday psychological concept like “belief”.
    The first link at the article is to the Guardian’s climate change FAQ, which is attributed to two graphic designers and a musicologist, thus destroying at a stroke Pope’s carefully constructed argument from authority. She’s a senior Met Office scientist, and must be feeling humiliated by her treatment by her friends and allies in the media. Will she cut her links ith the Guardian, or will she be back in 2015 with the same article?
    You have to wonder who’s using who in the complex game of climate change.

  6. geoffchambers

    Here’s something off-topic, but interesting. I was trawling through the Skeptical Science “back room” discussions that have just been released, and found a reference to Vicky Pope. At 5AM 8th December 2010, “ Albatross” alerts his colleagues to a Mail article by David Rose: “What happened to the ‘warmest year on record’: The truth is global warming has halted” and suggests that someone should alert Vicky Pope at the Met Office.

    John Cook replies two hours later: “The climate science rapid response team have been discussing this article and working on a response” and later:

    Here’s the response from the CSRRT. Specifically, George Monbiot put in a response, a bunch of scientists sent back answers and Monbiot assembled them into this article in the Guardian:

    (Coincidentally, it so happens that Ben and I both independently did a fair job of demolishing Monbiot in the comments, and, unusually for him, George didn’t join in). But the intriguing thing is this:
    Monbiot’s article is full of direct quotations from scientists, e.g.
    “Phil Jones tells me:”
    “Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University says:”
    “Anthony del Genio of Nasa also tells me ..”
    While John Cook’s comment on Skeptical Science’s back room thread clearly suggests that Monbiot simply pasted material provided for him by the Rapid Response team.
    There’s a note at the bottom of Monbiot’s article:
    “On 8 December we amended this article to take out links to third party content.”

    At least part of Monbiot’s article was definitely written by George himself. He says:

    The only hope journalists have of retaining any kind of self-respect is to question themselves repeatedly, ask whether they are being manipulated…

  7. Lewis Deane

    Ben, you’ve said this before, in equally a well expressed manner, but thank you for repeating it and, please, however boring or moving through ‘tar-sands’ it might seem, keep repeating it. We are not the passive subject of an ‘environment’ – nor is the environment a passive ‘object’. Nothing, in any sense, is passive. Nor has it been nor could it be in ‘equilibrium’. On Keith Kloors site they were discussing Chris Mooneys new phrenology, which I won’t go into (because it’s too nauseating) but I’ve tried to remind them that what ‘Chris Mooney is too obtuse to understand is that the Republicans’ stance on this issue is purely contingent and purely States side, ie, like all things in history, specific to a time and place.’ and that ‘how absurd to talk about the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, Republican and Democrat, when it comes to ‘environmentalism’ and the ‘Green Movement’. Only last week, the so called ‘Left Greens’ were feinting in ecstasy over a speech made by our Prince Charles about so called ‘food security’. In this country, ‘AGW’ is absolutely synonymous with the ‘Establishment’ and our ‘Republicans’, the Conservatives, have stated there ambition to be the ‘greenest government in history’. How would Mr Mooney put that in his pavlovian nonsense? It sometimes seems to me, in my own reductive moments, in this country, at least, that the so called ‘green movement’ is an unholy alliance, once again, between the petite bourgeois and what’s left of the landed aristocracy (both old and parvenu) against the productive, creative middle – progressive capitalism. But, of course, that is almost as simplistic and absurd.’ But contingent on ‘human agency’. History is ‘ours’.

  8. Lewis Deane

    However, we must be careful of thinking, that because ‘science’ and politics is completely intertwined, so much so, that, for Vicky Pope etc, it is an unquestioned ‘fact’ that, having once conceded the ‘science’, the ‘policy’ follows, that being thus brittle, like Blackpool rock, and we snap it, it makes much of a difference. This is an emotive, unquestioned nexus of needs, unexamined and unacknowledgeable. As such it is a question of political forces and the drift of history, ie you cannot reason it out, though reason plays its part and has force, here. One can only reason and wait it out.
    As I say, ‘error is not stupidity, error is cowardice’ and cowardice is unarguable!

  9. Lewis Deane

    And, yes, aren’t the ‘press’ by definition petite bourgeois? It’s always difficult to completely comprehend this taxonomy!

  10. Lewis Deane

    By the way, Ben, (sorry for the multiple posts but my neighbours, as usual, don’t let me sleep and lack of sleep means lack of ability to concentrate!) I called Chris Mooney a ‘fascist ideologue’ on Keith Kloor’s blog, which Keith took umbrage to – am I precise, from your point of view, in my terms? Surely, it is fascistic to say of a large proportion of humankind that they are ‘genetically’ ‘programmed’ to be ‘stupid’ and ‘wrong’? But are my terms correct? I would like to be ‘correct’.

  11. Lewis Deane

    Fallen down – and last night, bashed about:

    To forgive, is what you meant: a step on a bone

    And that is ‘history. To forget is what you meant

    For nothing can unwrite what is written and

    Too much has been written – let us examine ourselves,

    Let us go forward and walk in the ragged streets

    With our ragged trousers and our ragged smiles

    Let us say “hello”, “Thankyou” and “Please”.

  12. geoffchambers

    Lewis Deane
    Yes, I think you’re correct to say that it’s fascistic to say of a large proportion of humankind that they are ‘genetically’ ‘programmed’ to be ‘stupid’ and ‘wrong’?
    Eaplugs, or a hot chocolate at bedtime, might help with the sleep and the multiple posting.



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