Skeptics Conference: An Ideological Battleground

Now that the dust has settled over the Skeptics Society conference, the Environmental Wars, it's easy to see it as a microcosmic skirmish in the ideological war that is subsuming the U.S. (and increasingly the Canadian) debate about climate change.

We at the DeSmogBlog are guilty of sometimes oversimplifying this debate by suggesting that it is occurring between the most accomplished climate scientists in the world (as exemplified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a band of self-interested dissemblers who will do anything to defend the profitable status quo (as exemplified by ExxonMobile and Peabody Energy).

It's no particular surprise that Exxon and Peabody failed to identify themselves among the participants at the Skeptics conference, but the debate still raged (and rages still) among three camps. In reverse order as they appeared at Caltech conference on the weekend, those three camps are:

Christian Fundamentalists: This group is driven by doctrine and faith. They are sincere, committed and willing to accept that God created the earth 6,000 years ago – apparently with the 100-million-year-old dinosaur fossils already in place. The scientific arguments about climate change are not necessarily compelling in this crowd. They were represented on the weekend by blogger Randy Kirk, whose work can be found at his blog, The Truth About Everything. And they have a frightening amount of influence in the current U.S. administration.

Free Market Fundamentalists: This group is increasingly led by High Priests of Commerce who reign in modern libertarian churches - think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute or  the National Centre for Public Policy Research. These folks are just as ideologically blinded as the Christians, so devout is their faith in the free market system. (At the conference on the weekend, the avowed libertarian TV personality John Stossel gave a good example of this faith by saying that he would give anyone in the audience $100, on the spot, if they could identify a single thing that government does better than the free market. When someone stood up to claim the prize, pointing to the record of public health care in every developed country other than the United States, Stossel insisted that the health care market in the U.S. is not free because the government offers tax deductions for health care insurance. It's the sort of debating school slipperiness that will relieve Stossel and company from ever standing seriously to account for their own faith-based positions.)

Secular Scientists, Skeptics et al: This is a group that, in the word of Skeptic Society founder Michael Shermer, “follows to where the evidence leads.” As Randy Kirk noted in his blogged coverage of the conference, a defining feature in this crowd is “hubris,” the often erroneous presumption that we can gather enough evidence to reach useful and reliable conclusions. For example, the gardeners of Eden (now Iraq) knew that they could irrigate their lush breadbasket and create a great society. They didn't know that over centuries, salt leeching would render the whole area into a sterile desert. (“Get thee from the garden.”)

This sort of historic scientific haplessness is what makes the Christians wary: you can only believe in irrigation until it destroys you, where you can always believe in God.

The scientists' failure to fully understand the complexities of our universe also gives ammunition to the High Priests of Commerce. Against a background of scientific uncertainty (a background that can never be wholly removed), the priests don't have to present a superior argument, they just mount a campaign of doubt and demand greater freedoms for their revered market mechanisms. And if the market seems ruthless, uncaring and incapable of dealing with externalities like polutants capable of destroying human life on earth, well, it's just that we have not yet established quite enough freedom. And in any case, government intervention is always worse.

The DeSmogBlog exists to watch for PR trickery that muddies the climate change debate (and debating school slipperiness counts), but we are also convinced that the issue of climate is real and the danger imminent. (And if you weren't convinced already, 12 hours in the hands of Michael Shermer's “skeptics” would certainly sort you out.)

Where does that leave us? Well, the hubris of science is still a problem. Nearing the end of the day at the conference on Saturday, at a point where I was really beginning to despair at future facing my children, Dr. Gregory Benford stepped up with a potential climate change solution: you broadcast chaff into the upper atmostphere and deflect ultraviolent rays. (The link will take you to a quick, explanatory podcast.)

In a state of despair and exhaustion, I was delighted to think that there is a technical fix. My colleague Sarah Pullman was instantly more skeptical, pointing out that our ability to change the climate is what got us into this problem; maybe it would be smarter to stop, or at least curtail our negative activities, rather than start meddling even more aggressively.

She has a point worth debating, but I fear it is one that will only be resolved if the other parties drop the dogma and start taking this issue seriously. People like Jonathan Adler seem prepared to do so. And others, like Mike Shermer, are clearly capable of at least getting everyone into the same room.

In the end, maybe there is still room for optimism.


You mention Michael Shermer. You were aware that he changed his position on Global Warming, right?

There was an interesting opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun on June 8 discussing the interpretation of “GLOBAL WARMING.

It would seem as though the Science behind “Kyoto” has always been in question and there is every reason to dispute the idea that human contribution to green house gases are the main culprit in this debate. There are myths being perpetrated by both sides so it is difficult to wade through the debate to make an accurate personal assessment.

This is a good place to explore MYTHS AND ENVIROTRUTH. Take a look and make up your own mind.

It would appear that some over over-bloated environmental movements are playing political policy with their massive budgets. Mainstream media is quick to pick up a SIERRA CLUB BALLOON and some people feel compelled to sign up when it would appear that the sky will be falling. This when it would appear that the whole issue of climate change is miles away from being close to concise.

As Professor Tad Murty points out , $40 BILLION can buy a lot of science. 

The hysteria being generated filters all the way down to our little Hamlet where our Mayor went so far in her last innaugural address to state that one of her main goals this term was to plant trees to MITIGATE TEMPERATURE CHANGE. Our Mayor has also asked council, in this same address to make “Climate Change and its effects on Delta a priority in the coming three years”. How can we take this seriously when there are so many more critical issues at stake? 

In my opinion the idea of our continued degradation of our climate and of the environment has become so mainstream that the cause has taken on an aura of the very culprit it is trying to harness. The environmental movement has all the earmarks of an “environmental Enron” gone bad including the LARGE SALARIES that go along with it. 

Wanton rape and pillage of the environment is no longer tolerated in western democracies and it would seem that the business world and developers are making good effort to adapt to 'friendlier ways” of doing business. 

That, of course, is my opinion. What is yours?

Mike Schneider

Look here for our answer on the points raised in that Vancouver Sun piece – a triumph of PR driven spin.

As to the “large salaries” paid to environmental leaders, Exxon President Lee Raymond could have dipped into his own 2004 pay packet, paid off the top nine Enviro-CEOs on you list, and had a tidy $36 million left over to keep the wolfe from the door.

We agree that self-interest is driving this “debate.” But I think you should reconsider which side’s judgment is most seriously obscured by the pressures of their country club fees.

I think you’ve categorized the attendees a bit narrow-mindedly.

First, you neglected the many non-skeptic attendees that made themselves known during the question sessions. You know, the righteous who couldn’t figure out why a conference on global warming (which is not an accurate description of this conference, BTW) wouldn’t recycle and why we don’t all have a house covered in solar panels.

Second, I believe the majority of members of the skeptics society are indeed quite willing and able to draw conclusions when evidence is sufficient.

Hubris is certainly a trait that most people think skeptics possess, but there are a great many scientists in the organization. Scientist MUST draw conclusions; what scientists (and TRUE skeptics) do is file all beliefs away as tentative – we will certainly change our minds given new evidence.

Only the closed-minded are subject to “hubris”, and the closed-minded are not true skeptics.

On the question of camps, yours is reasonable criticism, to be sure. It is usually unfair to try to shorthand a whole, complicated and intelligent group into boxes. (And I had to physically hold Sarah down so she didn’t start cheering when the “righteous” person challenged our host on the lack of recycling. Bad form, indeed.)

On the second question: asserting that your skepticism perfectly insulates you from hubris indicates to me a dangerous warning signal of false pride. I recommend that you submit yourself to two bouts of second-guessing and call us again in the morning. 

As a long-time Climate Change skeptic, I can only be glad to see that no less a skeptic than Michael Shermer had been unwilling to jump on the CC bandwagon, until a few weeks ago. So there is no need to provide evidence that I am not paid by evil Oil companies to air my views: especially when I doubt the more catastrophical claims

In any case: having literally read it all both on DeSmogBlog and The Commons), my impression is that the debate remains as polarized as ever, with each side seeing what they want to see.

At the end of the day, it may go down to a communications issue.

Some people simply refuse to be cajoled into intellectual submission by scare stories and depictions of upcoming disasters.

Some other people think those disasters are coming but are failing to identify how to communicate it without resorting to “the end of the world is nigh…repent!”.

And so, after realizing their message is not being heard as expected, the latter group try to coherce the former a little stronger, with several insults thrown in the process

So here’s my plea to all Climate-Change-is-awful-let’s-act-now People: Please change your ways at communicating. This is no way to conduct an intelligent debate. And it is no way to obtain results

If you guys and gals really believe to be right, find a way to get things done.

And stop asserting that “the debate is over”. It doesn’t work, either.

The question is not global warming, but rather what actions to take:1.  Government domination.2.  Academic domination.3.  Idealogical domination.4.  Recognition that our actions are miniscule.Choice?