How not to do climate change PR

I went to a talk last week by Stephan Lewandowsky entitled “Climate Change: Consensus or Dogma, Hoax or Religion?” I can only assume that someone other than Lewandowsky wrote the title, because his view was fairly simple. Not dogma; not hoax; not religion. Just consensus.

Lewandowsky is a psychologist, not a climate scientist, and so his contribution is meant to be an understanding of why people believe what they do. Unfortunately, the talk I attended offered absolutely no insight into this topic. Instead, it was seized as an opportunity for climate-change evangelism, and as a chance for ad-hominem attacks on others.

Lewandowsky spent his time attacking “climate-change deniers”. He began by saying that there is a difference between skepticism and denial, but that everyone who calls themself a “climate-change skeptic” is actually a denier. Initially he claimed they fell into three different categories: tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists on the internet, publicity-driven politicians, and those who actually publish in peer-reviewed journals. His punch-line, however, was that in fact all three groups are exactly the same, and that tinfoil-hat crazies get published in scientific journals from time to time.

One of the specific issues he addressed was the location of ground-based temperature measurements. Warming skeptics have repeatedly criticized such measurements as inaccurate because of the “urban heat island effect”: if you set up a thermometer in the woods but then chop down the trees and put up buildings and parking lots (and air conditioners and cars), the thermometer will give higher readings just because of its vicinity and not because of any underlying change to the weather. Lewandowsky described this criticism as “a bunch of people posting pictures of thermometers on the internet”, and claimed that there was lots of research that the whole idea was nonsense.

I don’t know very much about the heat island effect; I probably fall into the Google-h-D category Lewandowsky derided. But it strikes me as a reasonable hypothesis, and a bit of googling suggested that it is an effect that is typically incorporated into statistical analysis of data from such thermometers. I had a very brief conversation with someone doing atmospheric physics here at Oxford, and while he admitted that he was not an expert on the topic he said he’s seen some papers suggesting that the heat island effect was smaller than anticipated, and that the bigger problem with ground measurements was that they were almost all on land, so you need to do a lot of interpolation to get a global picture of temperature. Ground-based measurements are useful, but satellite temperature measurements can be better when they’re available, and the warming trends are the same in the satellite data.

Lewandowky also offered some very specific attacks on a few people in particular. He described Christopher Monckton, for example, as someone who “claims he won the Falklands war”, and offered up a silly photo of him (even taking the trouble to make fun of his hat). The only “skeptical” peer-reviewed paper he cited included an author without a PhD whose web site describes him as (among other things) “a travel photographer”. During the discussion after the talk, Lewandowky dismissed Bjorn Lomborg as “dishonest” and all respected academics who questioned climate change as “old” and “sad”.

There was actually a member of the audience who seemed to be a climate scientist, and who at one point mentioned that the probability models for climate change included a very small but non-zero chance that global temperature would decrease over the coming century. Lewandowsky told him he was simply wrong. The audience member protested that the chances were much, much better that temperature would go up, but that all the models he worked with did include a potential decrease with very low probability; Lewandowky told him that it simply wasn’t possible. This is a psychologist telling someone who works with climate models what those models say.

So I asked the last question of the Q&A: the case for climate change isn’t one single thread of reasoning, it’s a mountain of evidence. In this mountain, has there ever been even a single study or data set that’s turned out to be wrong? Have the skeptics ever been right about any of the details or made any significant contributions?

Lewandowsky’s answer: no. Every single piece of climate science points in the same direction.

I’ll concede that Christopher Monckton seems like an obnoxious guy, and that a “travel photographer” probably doesn’t have as deep an understanding of climate modeling as an academic, and even that Lomborg and climate skeptics have been wrong about some of their contentions. I’ll even consider the possibility that the audience member—who otherwise completely supported the premise of anthropogenic global warming—was wrong about current climate models. But it was Lewandowsky who had the chance last week to speak at length, make his case, and respond to questions. And the verdict is clear: he is the one refusing to consider evidence contrary to his position. He is the one ignoring scientific debate in favor of political grandstanding, attacking people instead of evaluating ideas. He is the one who views climate change as a religious crusade. A propensity for defensive dogma is not confined to the skeptic/denialist camp.

I also asked Lewandowky whether he thought the stridency of some climate change rhetoric might be feeding into the denialist conspiracy theories. He said he just couldn’t understand why people would develop such delusions of persecution. Even if Lewandowsky didn’t undermine my respect for climate science, he did undermine my respect for academic psychologists.