Confusing ignorance for the burden of proof: the key to successful anti-science claptrap

kingdom-of-anti

If it is true, where then is the evidence?

It is noble and dignified to stand firm not to an idea but the pursuit of certainty. It is humble to acknowledge the less-than completeness of our knowledge base.

Yet such an enlightened cap is too easily placed on the scalp more fitting a dunce’s cone.

Anti-science is the core kingdom of all phyla of irrationality, be it climate change “scepticism”, 911, Obama birth or moon landing truthism, creation, anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation. A central trait of this kingdom is wilful ignorance.

Interestingly, the anti-climate-science movement has marketed itself cleverly in this regard through the tacking on of the word “scepticism” to their cause.

However, there are light years between wilful ignorance and this pretence of scepticism.

How Ignorance Differs

Whether it is the creationist demanding for the “missing link”, the climate change sceptic insisting they merely want the evidence, the anti-fluoridation advocate pleading that the science has not yet been done convincingly… whatever the anti-science angle may be; in each case the individual attempts to mask their wilful ignorance behind the burden of proof – a core scientific method.

It sounds reasonable; if the evidence is so compelling, give it to me and make me a believer.

Firstly, it is not a matter of belief, but entirely a rejection of bad belief / ideas. One accepts that all other known alternatives have been tested and found to be erroneous and thus is drawn to the pool of ideas that remain and cannot be refuted – to the best of our current knowledge.

What exposes such people for their position however is not merely that they ignore the body of scientific evidence when presented to them, not simply that they jump feverishly to the odd paper hot off the peer-reviewed press that their media outlets inform them is the “final nail in the coffin” of the given topic and not just that they continue this argument against the scientific literature completely outside of the peer-review / scientific method process; but because they do all these things simultaneously.

Choosing ignorance or to avoid scientific understanding is not scepticism of presented proof at all.

Where the Debate is Now

We have moved pass this burden in the public “debate” or better termed, conversation and are now really talking about the burden of understanding. The ball is in the court of the anti-science advocate – the burden of proof has been fulfilled – and it is not the fault of science if the enthusiast came without a racket.

Simple tests prove what greenhouse gases are and that we emit them. Only slightly more complex tests show that these greenhouse gases we emit are changing their concentration in the atmosphere. Simple tests show the world is warming. More complex tests have removed the solar or astrological radiation or other meteorological processes as the source of this change. Regardless of whether the result will be 1, 2 or 5 degrees Celsius, we are witnessing anthropogenic climate change.

Equally, the fossil record, genetics and geology all place evolution beyond a shadow of a doubt. Furthermore, Richard Lenski’s work and the body of ecological science have truly left the ball bouncing around the creationist’s court with their response little better than a Three Stooges slap-stick performance.

Again and again, the various phyla of anti-science prove that they have yet to critically review and illustrate fundamental lapses in the science, but rather attempt to pass off ignorance as valid scepticism of the body of evidence provided as proof.

This is what I spend my time writing about on NewAnthro. The anti-science advocate will not challenge the science, but offer another position instead as a competing idea and suggest that the science isn’t settled. In other words, it’s doubt mongering, it’s a sleight of hand designed to distract and confuse. Yet, I take their hypothesis, test it and show why it fails to provide a convincing argument and avoids the science completely.

Science is not about absolutes, but about drawing reasonable conclusions from the highest level of certainty available… with the error bars noted. The kingdom of anti-science instead doesn’t like the conclusion and would like something else to be concluded instead. And so all anti-science phyla ignore inconvenient evidence to pretend they stroll along the high road; sceptics surefooted on the burden of proof. Of course, the only proof they can accept acknowledges their conclusions and so they are walking backwards, down the road of dark age myth.

Eugenie Scott: Frustrations, distortions and teaching bad ideas in schools

Eugenie Scott is always an interesting and thoughtful communicator. In her recent interview with Inside Climate News, she provided a number of gems, including;

“The thing that frustrates me, and is a constant annoyance, is when you see science distorted. As a scientist, I know the process that scientists go through to come up with the conclusions. It is not like we wake up one morning and say, ‘I think it is getting warmer.’ There is a long process of data collection and analysis, constant questioning from your colleagues, and the back and forth of disputes, and presentations of more data and more models. Finally you reach a consensus. That is the way it was with evolution. That is the way it was with climate change.

But people just show up with an ideological agenda, whether political or religious or something else, and distort the conclusions that have been so hard won. This is the sort of thing that really pisses off scientists, and me.”

and;

“Creationists certainly have a right to challenge the science and present their own views to the public for consideration. And the climate change deniers can do the same thing. It is free speech.

However, you really need to think about the goal of education. We are trying to teach kids the basics of the scientific fields. You barely have time to teach them these basics, so why would you argue that students should be learning information that the scientific community has looked at and rejected as being not valid?

Geographers have concluded that the earth is not flat… just as they’ve concluded that species have common ancestors and that climate change is happening. But you don’t see anyone still arguing that we should teach that the earth is flat.”

Read the full interview here.

Sourced from the current issue of Nature, 'Evolution makes the grade'
Sourced from the current issue of Nature, ‘Evolution makes the grade’ by Lauren Morello

In short, she is ever calling for the fair weight of opposing ideas, not equal weight. Interest groups are entitled to their opinions, but this does not instantly elevate the credibility of their ideas. Such credibility is “hard won” and earned through the scientific process.

There’s consensus and then there’s consensus: Climate “Sceptics” Just Don’t Get It

Every single time researchers go to the otherwise wasted effort of reviewing the standing position of climate research in relation to anthropogenic climate change (for, in what other field of science do scientists undertake such analyses?), we hear the same backlash from the committed sceptics.

In fact, looking at the dismissal charges of conservative columnists in relation to climate change, Elsasser and Dunlap (2013) found that attacking the scientific consensus was by far the favoured approach. This illustrates just how much such anti-scientific groups understand the scientific consensus hurts their position, if it is against them.

And it is against them.

Time and time again, I comment that these committed sceptics just don’t get what scientific consensus is. Without blinkers, when one reads such consensus research papers as the recent Cook et al (2013) they find that such an analysis is NOT the result of questionnaires sent to scientists. It is in fact asking, “what is the position drawn from the conclusions of the paper and are these conclusions pro-anthropogenic climate change or not?”

Scientific consensus here is weighed by the evidence presented within peer-reviewed literature and not merely the expert opinion of a few. This is why it hurts the committed sceptic so much and needs such venomous denigration. Donna Laframboise sounds silly when she says, “science isn’t done by consensus” when one looks at what real scientific consensus is.

Moreover, local gold hoarding conspiracy theorist, Jo Nova, presents just how little she gets science in her reply to Cook et al (2013) by referring to her beloved, Oregon Petition Project;

“You want authority? Skeptics can name 31,500 scientists who agree, including 9,000 PhDs, 45 NASA experts (including two astronauts who walked on the moon) and two Nobel Prize winners in physics.”

Righto – is that what’s supposed to challenge empirical evidence? A bunch of names of people – the vast majority of which, regardless of their other achievements, are without any relevant training or contributed any relevant analysis to the related fields of science – signing on the dotted line…?

The Oregon Petition Project is a one-sided vote. It is irrelevant.

Science isn’t done by consensus and the scientific consensus isn’t done by people. It is done through evidence. Hence the print in Cook’s infogram; 97% of climate papers stating a position on human-caused global warming AGREE global warming is happening – and we are the cause.

Nowhere do the positions of people come into it. It’s an argument made on evidence, not opinion.

Yet the climate sceptics attempt to denigrate it as opinion, whilst providing evidence that IS based purely on opinion!!

There’s consensus and then there’s consensus. The body of scientific evidence simply does not support  the committed climate scepticism and the sceptics know this fact and do whatever they can to present a sideshow and misrepresent the body of scientific evidence because of this.

There is no debate over consensus because the definition of it is different for those who accept scientific evidence and those determined to remain “sceptical”.

Dead-Head Denialism: Challenging “Sceptics” of Climate Change to Fluoridation is Zombie Warfare

It has been a while since I’ve commented on much in the way of climate science and the denial movement. Although aware of the recent noise regarding the supposed “proof” of the unfounded “scare” regarding anthropogenic climate change, citing Otto et al (2013) or foaming bile in reply to the Cook et al (2013) study illustrating that experts within relevant fields of science simply do not share the popular “scepticism” and, in fact, have moved beyond proving it – simply taking it for granted – I’ve chosen to say nothing. (see reflections on each, here and here respectively)

Why?

Because it’s the same damned nonsense that proliferated the internet when I started blogging.

The “Sceptics”

The self-titled “sceptics” illustrate their denialism in this continual rejection of the standing body of evidence. The loathed consensus is nothing more than the body of relevant human knowledge which illustrates that our emissions include gases that have a greenhouse effect and those gases are in concentrations great enough to increase the energy load within our atmospheric reservoir, changing our global climate.

The “sceptics” pretend to be reasonable – stating that all they want is sufficient proof for the position – but then reject the available body of scientific evidence and consensus (not simply two sides to the same coin, but effectively, the same thing). Yet, they up and down jump hysterically whenever they catch a whiff of a paper that sounds like it supports their position. That is not scepticism; that’s denial of the potential that one’s position could be wrong.

They don’t wait for sufficient evidence of any position, but instead for their favoured position to be proven right. And just like the creationists, they’ll have to wait for the second coming which will never happen.

The Dead-Heads

On zombies and denial, I came upon a great article by Readfearn, in which he links to a recent publication of the American Behavioral Scientist devoted entirely to the climate change denialism phenomena, which I’ve since been reading.

It all comes back to the same point; denialism, regardless of the subject matter, from climate change or evolution to what I’ve recently challenged – water fluoridation – such positions, that is, a rejection of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are simply symptomatic of deeper ideological biases.

Creationists understand that they need creation to validate their faith (the most honest of the Abrahamic followers). The anti-vax, anti-fluoridation and even the anti-wind farmers all share a fear in the unknown; “they are exposing us to something – it must be a trap!”

And climate change feeds on many, be it, free market ideologies, fear of imposing governmental input, generational differences that rub people up the wrong way etc.

As such, correcting the wrongs, as we tend to attempt within media, is like wiping the puss without fixing the infection. Or burying the zombie still intact.

This is why the zombies exist; we fail to realise that you must lob off the dead brain within (no Mad Monckton, I’m not suggesting you should be killed – it is a metaphor).

All humans are susceptible to such leanings. We all want to think we have a good handle on the workings of the world and often don’t take too kindly when core principles of this are shattered. It’s easier to go on believing in our core values / beliefs and instead to shoot the messenger, than take the time to reflect on ourselves, admit to personal fault and adapt.

Deniers keep on denying not because they are deniers, but because they are human; individuals with certain principles that make sense to them.

Sceptics will change and can remove themselves from personal attachment to ideas where they need to, but there are far fewer of them than anyone of us is likely to admit.

So, what is the answer?

Change is a slower moving creature than we wish it were.  I have no doubt the deniers of climate change, evolution, anti-vaccination etc will exist beyond my life span. The same will be for individuals and groups opposed to same-sex rights, as do exist pockets of racists and sexists today, even within generally progressive states.

However, to challenge them with any potency, it isn’t enough to expose their denial. In fact, it’ll have little to no effect on the very people one aims the effort at.

Rather, the best approach must be to work instead on the core values leading the charge. If you promote the scientific accuracy of evolution, your primary focus must be the Book of Genesis. Without that, there is no justification for creation.

If it is one of the “they are exposing us to…” mobs, you need to refer to epidemiology as well as get to the root of “they” and the motivations of this entity. For instance, the anti-fluoridation crowd suggest fluoridation is marketing. However, one of the primary benefits pointed out by WHO, alongside the obvious health benefits, is its cheapness. Where are the fat fluoride barons?? These are very much a secret enemy conspiracy ideations.

With climate change, in reality, the question is clearly pointed at how well the free-market ideology can sustain human activity. One doesn’t need to look at climate change, but can look at the accelerated need for primary resources, increasing waste production, the rate of population growth and environmental degradation (from where many goods and services are derived); each one of them is essential to the free-market currently promoted. The nine planetary boundaries highlighted by Rockström et al (2009) are all negatively impacted by our current economic objectives.

Zombies die when you remove the dead head driving the drooling creature aimed solely at bringing everyone down. The dead head in this case is the thoughtless ideological principles driving denial against overwhelming contrary evidence. These outdated memes are the undead that really need to be challenged.

China’s Coal Power and Australian Devotion to Obscurity

Climateinst

“Why should we do anything when China is building a new coal power station every week?”

I had this one hurled at me just the other day over dinner. It is both misleading and irrelevant, but serves the point of misinforming.

Moreover, the Climate Institute / GE Low-Carbon Competitive Index, released today shows that China is actually a high performer, rating 3rd (up from 7th) on the index. On the other hand, Australia  rates 17th and the US has declined from 8th to 11th.

Far from world leaders, we seem devoted to a carbon economy that is quickly being left behind. This would seem especially so if the LNP come into power and Mr. Abbott lives up to his promise of scrapping a market-based mechanism designed to decouple economic activity from carbon emissions, namely, the price on carbon.

This is the reality behind such banter as, “they’re telling us what light globes we can use!”

Well, no. If you’d like, why not use a washboard or go all out and move next door to the Amish?

The money to be made in the 21st century will increasingly be carbon neutral and the trend setters will be on the cusp of such technologies and social changes. By fighting against the inevitable economic and social trends, we are damaging our own long term prosperity.

Unlike much of Europe and the US, our economy has not faced as much hardship in the last few years. We ought to have been investing in tomorrow’s industries and exporting it to a hungry world.

Instead, we’ve decided to pitch up tents on either side of the political soap opera being played out, while people like Rinehart make a healthy dollar from common resources and pay for the priests of misinformation to carry out an Orwellian-styled sermons around the country, with equality, progress and unity the antagonist and business-as-usual the messiah.

We should want a globally competitive economy. The pro-business-as-usual message that seems to have sucked many Aussies in just isn’t in our national interest.

Building more dams will bring a bigger emissions headache

In mid February, a Coalition draft dams plan was leaked to the media. This plan suggested the potential for an additional 100 dams across Australia to help with water security and flood mitigation as well as provide hydro-power.

While this plan does not officially form part of the Coalition’s environmental strategy, Tony Abbott has thrown his support behind it, suggesting Australia needs to move beyond it’s “extreme greenism” and “dam phobia”.

One aspect of reservoirs that is not widely appreciated is that they are a source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the inundation of land with a storage of organic matter. If the water column is highly oxygenated, the degradation of this organic matter will produce CO2. If there is little available oxygen, methane is produced. Both are greenhouse gases.

To explore this, I combined data on Australian large dams with a recent comprehensive review of reservoir emissions within the science literature.

Initially, I used the global average surface area emission rates for the comparison, but found that the estimates were unrealistically high. This number was more than 860 million tonnes of CO2 annually. This is probably due to the poor quality of Australian soils in general, which in turn reduce productivity and lead to lower than average organic material storage and thus resultant emissions.

Instead, I used the global total emission from reservoirs (upstream only). This comes to 163 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, of which Australia is currently responsible for 2.1%, or, 3.42 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Within the dam database, 564 large dams are listed. This returns an average of 6069.15 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per dam, annually. Therefore, an additional 100 dams could provide 0.61 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.

To provide some scale; if this sequestration was achieved through tree plantation, the annual yield required to compensate the average greenhouse gas emissions of 100 new dams would be an additional 0.55 million m3 of wood. This translates to more than 15 thousand hectares of plantation.

As this is utilising the same overly optimistic assumptions as that of my analysis of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, the real world figure would likely be much higher.

Data on Australian reservoir emissions came from the height of Australia’s recent prolonged drought, where many reservoirs were far from full and thus covered less land. Emissions downstream (that is, degasing water once it has left the reservoir) were not accounted for in the data also. Additionally, no data on greenhouse gas emissions from dam production is included within this analysis.

Lastly, with the potential for these additional dams to support a new “food bowl” in northern Australia, it is likely subtropical and tropical dams will be favoured. A review of the reservoirs studies globally found that tropical reservoirs produced more greenhouse gases than subtropical which in turn produce more greenhouse gases than temperate dams.

This difference has been suggested to be related to water temperatures, which tend to be warmer closer to the equator, which in turn, speed up the process.

For the reasons listed above, the estimate for average emissions from Australian dams derived above can be seen as conservative (it should be noted that boreal dams were the second highest emitters, due to the tendency for organic rich peat land inundation, however this is irrelevant to Australian climates).

Coupling this with my previous analysis of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, if this dam plan is implemented, this additional greenhouse gas contribution would require sequestration above the proposed 85 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation, Australia naturally experiences shifts between drier-than- or wetter-than-average years. Generally, though, Australia is an arid country. Climate change due to increasing greenhouse gas forcing is likely to reduce precipitation globally. For this reason, Australia has strong motivations to lead the path of climate change mitigation.

Should the Coalition win the upcoming September election, my previous analysis illustrated the immense scale and thus cost required to implement the Direct Action Plan. The selected path, soil sequestration, is notably less certain scientifically than other methods, such as plantation. This also comes at the expense of removing the price on carbon which in turn can be utilised to provide market based motivations to decouple carbon emissions from industrial activities and economic growth.

It is not unreasonable therefore to raise concerns about the ability of the Direct Action Plan to assist with climate change mitigation.

Alone, the draft dam plan will contribute a comparatively small greenhouse gas contribution. But by building more dams, the Coalition is making its direct action plan even more difficult to implement.

Find the full report here.

So, What Do I Think of the ALP’s Price on Carbon?

I know I’ve focused upon the alternative. This is due to it being an election year, with the Coalition doing so well in the polls with initiatives that are contrary to the interests of Australia (I say this, not as a personal opinion, but based upon my analysis of their Direct Action Plan, which seems too immense and thus ineffective as well as expensive to carry out).

So, what of the ALP’s price on carbon?

In my criticisms of the alternative measures, I often state that I see sense in a price in carbon. It is a method that provides a market-based incentive to decouple economic activity from carbon emissions, which is the ultimate goal for a prosperous markets place into the twenty first century.

That said, I fear the ALP’s approach is weak and ineffective at best.

Sure, we need to buffer the market as it moves in the right direction and so using the revenue obtained from the carbon price to provide a safety net is essential. Yet, where does this buffer simply blinker spending activities, thereby undoing the motivational force behind such an initiative?

I think the APL have failed to answer this point correctly. Moreover, a large part of the revenue would better be used to subsidise alternative markets that have low greenhouse gas emissions (I do not rule out nuclear for a transitional power source, although I suspect it will end up like fossil fuels whereby we will exploit it ever more efficiently, but use more per capita, depleting the supply far quicker than initially anticipated, leaving us with an even greater deficiency beyond peak nuclear fuel).

It is here where the initiative fails the process entirely. Providing avenues for cheaper alternative markets is by no means stimulated as much as it could be.

It is likely, regardless what Tony Abbott says, that whichever party is elected in September, they will push to bring in an ETS as quickly as possible (it will be very difficult to actually remove the carbon pricing and so, by moving quickly to an ETS, the Coalition can say that the price on carbon, as it was, is now gone). However, an ETS, in my opinion, is not essential.

We hear a lot about our competitiveness on the global market, but at the same time, we sell our fossil fuels, uranium, wood and meat often in an unprocessed state at the lowest price, where instead, we ought to refine our resources, producing more local jobs and sell these resources at their deserved premium. While it remains as it is, such noise regarding our global competitiveness should rightly be ignored. In the same way, this should include the price on carbon or an eventual ETS.

So while I believe the price on carbon is the only sensible market-based method to motivate us away from a carbon base economy, the approach we currently have is sorely lacking. It is stuck within a political culture more akin to competing soft-drink brands than public representation and leadership. We have the answers, but lack the political will to achieve any meaningful and inspiring targets.

“Carbon Tax” Successful Reframing at its Best

I got into a debate over the weekend with a family friend. I learnt fairly quickly that nothing I said could alter the frustration the other felt over the “carbon tax”. This included pointing out an absurdly obvious fact; it’s not a tax.

I shouldn’t need to say it, but we all know the basics of tax. Put simply, a tax collects a fragment of one entity’s wealth for certain reasons, from establishing a “common wallet” to fund public based goods and services to the outright repugnant sequestering of wealth and lands by yesteryears lords and kings to pay largely for their lavish lifestyles.

What we have with carbon is unrelated directly with wealth, but instead the amount of greenhouse gases one’s activities are responsible for. A carbon neutral business could laugh themselves to the bank, because they do not pay, per unit, for their emissions. What we have on carbon is a price paid to emit. It is a price on carbon.

It continually amazes me how the most vocal against the price on carbon tend to want a market-based strategy; when that’s exactly what they bark so feverishly at! At the same time, they tend to be silent in the face of the real cost increases with power supply, of which, the carbon price is small.

As stated above, the cost effective approach is to reduce the emissions one is responsible for or, in other words, reduce one’s overheads! The price on carbon is a good place to start.

Yet, as I found over the weekend, no matter what I said, the word “tax” stuck. People hate tax, obviously (but one wonders how much this hatred compares to that six-month old pothole that has not been repaired due to a loss of public revenue) and so labelling it the “carbon tax” is a wonderful tool to mislead people into thinking that a portion of their hard-earned money has been swiped by the federal government against their will.

In reality, the price on carbon is essentially avoidable. And, if it works well, eventually it would fade itself out of existence.

I’ve harped on about it, however, the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan is entirely funded by the taxpayer, either through increasing taxes or by removing standing services instead. Either way, it is an initiative entirely funded through the taxpayer’s expense. It is, unavoidable regardless how small your carbon footprint is. It is the true tax paid by everyone.

It remains, however, that the spin, “carbon tax” has seem to have worked, without any rationale behind it.

Associating a market-based strategy with mythical overbearing government propaganda has, in this case, switched off the minds of many, to crassly parrot back the same absurdities time and time again.

The Coalition has continually called it a “big fat tax” on everyone and “the economic wrecking ball” (that never was), with Greg Hunt dedicating a blog to the “carbon tax”. Christopher Monckton, too, has enjoyed this bandwagon with his latest tour; Carbon tax, climate scam, Agenda 21: can democracy survive all three? Lord Monckton does due diligence.

The “carbon tax” stands as a success campaign to mislead and ultimately undo the standing political leadership within Australia. It has been an excellent political manoeuvre that threatens to lead us well and truly to a carbon tax paid directly by the taxpayer. Sitting on the sidelines to this crazy affair, I’m amazed at how well the opposition have successfully plugged this bait and switch. They could put many marketing gurus to shame.