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Finally, a politician doing what politicians should do

Posted By JoNova On June 8, 2009 @ 3:11 pm In AGW socio-political,Global Warming,Science Communication | Comments Disabled

This is a big step. Steve Fielding in Australia holds a crucial senate vote on the proposed Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). Astonishingly (for a politician) he stands out from the crowd for simply saying the obvious. He wants to “hear from both sides of the debate.”
senator fielding watches the Heartland conference

A simple statement like this should not be remarkable—but it’s so rare. Steve Fielding assumed the mainstream thinking was right, but is now doing what anyone who hasn’t looked at the debate in detail ought to be doing. Some research. It’s a rare occasion when you can see the good side of democracy and free speech in action. He paid for himself to fly to the far side of the world to attend Heartland’s 3rd conference on Climate Change to hear from scientists who are not convinced carbon has a large role to play in our climate.

The Australian newspaper covered it. And Steve expanded today in the Australian on why he went to Washington.

His visit to the Heartland conference has given the Australian ABC enough reason to bother sending a journalist to it (unlike the two previous conferences). See their short coverage from Washington. (Look out for the glimpse of The Skeptics Handbook.)

Tony Jones

Wednesday night on Lateline Tony Jones interviewed Steve Fielding. Remember that Steve Fielding is an engineer and they are talking about a scientific topic, yet Tony Jones feels he can ask whether Fielding’s mind would ‘remain open at all’ after meeting sceptics, as if Fielding could be bowled over by the risky event of listening to sceptics for a day. And this is after Fielding has repeatedly said he’s there to get to the bottom of this.  The only mind that’s closed in this room is Jones’.

Jones is so sure there is no story in the science that he tackles this as if it were a political story. His first question is about Fielding’s opinion, and his second question is about the people—not the science—he asks “Who impressed you?” Which suggests Jones was prepared with a list of the scientists names at the conference and he was ready to comment on their credibility (the predictable, unscientific, ad hominem attack). This is what political journalists do, they research biographies as if that could tell us about planetary temperatures. Several times Jones also refers to the ‘vast majority of scientists’, the ‘most respected’ Hadley Centre. He was unafraid to wield the intellectually lazy argument-from-authority, without acknowledging the caveat, that authority proves nothing on a scientific topic. This was his chance as an investigative journalist to see if there could possibly be anything to the sceptical case, but when he had a trained engineer in front of him who had changed his mind, Tony Jones wasn’t looking.

Early on in the interview, Steve Fielding speaks generically about evidence and facts and instead of asking for details, Jones’ scornfully dismisses it: “You just spent the whole day listening to people who claim global warming is essentially all a conspiracy, and we don’t need to do anything about carbon.” Skeptics Handbook on table

It’s not possible to get to the bottom of the science without asking about the evidence, yet most journalists like Jones, are asking the wrong questions. They talk about the people, the funding, the organizations, anything but the planet. And when they do finally talk about the planet, most points they mention are evidence of warming, but not evidence that carbon caused that warming. And when they talk about the ‘organizations’, it’s not to investigate them (unless it’s EXXON), but to use them as a weapon to cut off debate.

We have the illusion of ‘free press’, but when the press is untrained in logic and reason, free press is just free propaganda

The muddy thinking in journalists is not just unfortunate, it’s dangerous. We have the illusion of ‘free press’, but when the press is untrained in logic and reason, free press is just free propaganda. And it’s worse because it’s disguised.

Heads up to John Happs, Anne-Kit Littler and Brian Valentine for the links.


What Fielding could have said

Fielding commented that temperatures have not risen, and Tony immediately came back with ‘yes but’ and then listed the eight or so top hottest years since time began (well… since 1880 when we first got reliable temperature records). Here’s the answer to that:

1. 1880 isn’t long in geological terms. Most climate cycles are far far longer than that, and we know that this current warming trend started in the mid 1700′s or early 1800′s. Glaciers have been melting and sea levels have been rising since long before General Motors Holden was even dreamt of. We don’t know what caused the warming trend 200 years ago to start, so we don’t know if that factor has stopped. If we look back 5000 years, these temperatures are not records.
2. It’s true but it doesn’t mean much. If temperatures have reached a cyclical high for some other reason, then the warmest years on record would all cluster together. This current clustering doesn’t tell us if the warming trend will continue or if it starting to turn down. Trying to argue it from that point alone is like predicting stock prices based solely on a ‘reverse candlestick formation’. It’s just a game of extending lines on graphs without understanding the forces that control the changes. (Actually, this does technical analysis a disservice, after all, stocks can be affected by investor psychology and points of ‘resistance’. We played with this line of thought more here.)

Tony Jones asked: “You’ve heard from a whole range of sceptics, some of them scientists and some of them not… how do you make up your mind?”

For a change, this is a surprisingly good question (if loaded with an unnecessary aspersion to ‘non-scientists’…). It’s a shame Fielding didn’t have The Skeptics Handbook at hand then, because he would have known that the only answer to this is… I’ll look for empirical evidence… I want to see if the data from the real world fits the theory. (Note: Fielding obviously understands the foundations of science… I’m humbly suggesting The Handbook might have just helped him phrase the answer.)

Don’t get me wrong, Fielding is doing a great job, and my faith in democracy is renewed. Here is a man who does his job with intelligent dedication. Who can ask for more?

[The full set of official and unofficial documents arising from the meeting are all listed and linked to here.]


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