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Dr Paul Bain replies about the use of the term “denier” in a scientific paper

Dr Paul Bain has replied to my second email to him which I do most appreciate. (For reference, see the letter he is replying to here: “My reply to Dr Paul Bain — on rational deniers and gullible believers” ). He deserves kudos for replying (it’s easier to ignore inconvenient emails), and also for taking some action to improve the article he published.  I will reply properly as soon as I can. For the moment, and for fairness’s sake, it’s here for all to see.

Please be constructive and polite in comments. No, I don’t think there is any scientific reason (or definition in the English language) that validates the term “denier”, but Nature is going to publish an addendum this time, and that will be noticed by other researchers in the field. That is progress. Though there is a long way to go. — Jo


Dear Jo (if I may)

I apologise for my long and delayed response – while I would like to be more succinct, I have to resort to Pascal’s excuse that I’m writing a long response because I didn’t have time to write a short one.

First, an update. As we all know, after publication it quickly became clear that the “denier” label was causing offence, and I contacted the journal’s editors to canvass options for addressing this. As the article was already published, it was agreed that the most practical option would be to include an addendum to the paper where we publicly expressed our regret about any offence we caused. This will be appended to both the online and printed versions of the paper. As you said, you yourself did not mention a link with Holocaust denial (and I myself did not hold such a link), but this was by far the most common association made by people who took the time to write to me personally to express their offence. By doing this, I don’t expect this to resolve (or even reduce) any issues (I fear that the damage is done), but I thought this was an appropriate thing to do nonetheless.

To your point about the issue being only about climate science (specifically that this is the “only real point”), I am definitely not saying that it is invalid to debate climate science and the reality of anthropogenic climate change (or its extent or causes). However, I do believe that the technical aspects of this debate should be between climate scientists, as with complex multi-disciplinary issues it is very easy for findings to be misconstrued by non-experts. Whether you like it or not, the majority of climate scientists agree that there is a high likelihood that anthropogenic climate change exists and is likely to be a problem. You and your fellow-travellers may not be fans of the IPCC, and all institutions have their faults, but that is their overall conclusion. Further, through the IPCC and other sources, scientists have provided evidence that may not convince you, but has been of a sufficient standard that governments over the world are prepared to act, often despite its political unpopularity.

Now perhaps you might claim (and some of your fellow-travellers do claim this) that the IPCC is a corrupt political institution, and that scientists are dramatizing the problem to gain funding, etc. However, this would be admitting that there is a social and political dimension to the issue, and such assertions directly contradict your claim that the issue is only about the science. So if you were to be consistent, you should be chastising not just me, but your supporters/commenters who make claims that go beyond the science, and even revisit some of your own blogs to see where you have strayed from just assessing the science and delving into social and political issues.

Returning to the science argument, I don’t begrudge your view that there is insufficient evidence – this befits the idea of skepticism. But if you and others truly believe the science is wrong, then in my view the most productive approach would be to produce an alternative expert report (say the ISPCCE – Inter-Scientist Panel on Climate Change Errors) – I expect you could find a source of funding for it. In this document (contributed to by experts on climate science, not the general public) you would need to come to a consensus on what the issue is (is climate change occurring, is it anthropogenic or not, if anthropogenic – is it harmful or not, if harmful – how harmful), and to a consensus on the scientific basis for that view (or for a plausible range of views). On each of these matters I was emailed with widely diverging views from climate skeptics, which will probably represent quite a challenge for such a document. But if you could produce a coherent scientific document that faithfully summarizes skeptics’ views on climate change, and provided a better explanation of the science than the IPCC, then I expect you would have a much better chance of stopping the policies you oppose. Some might argue that you shouldn’t have to –it is the responsibility of the proponents to prove their point. I would counter that while this view is defensible as a debating point, it is unproductive in advancing scientific understanding – and to change the field in the “right” direction requires replacing dominant theories with better ones.

Of course the scientific issue is necessary, but it is one with political and social implications, and it would be foolish to deny these. Indeed, in blogging about bias in the IPCC and among climate scientists, and commenting on politically-motivated actions, it seems you don’t really believe it’s only about the science either. So it’s a bit bold to claim it is invalid for us to do research on broader social and policy perspectives, when it’s ok for you to comment on the same. Some might even say it’s doctrinarian, though I won’t go as far as making the Soviet comparisons you incorrectly imputed to us. It is also sending a message that those in the climate skeptic community who think about the social and policy implications beyond climate change itself should be ignored.

And finally to our study and it’s supposedly manipulative deception. Our original submission to the journal only had the first study, where all we did was ask about what the effects of taking action on climate change would be. Our finding was that some people, though unconvinced that anthropogenic climate change was occurring, were willing to support action because they thought it would have some positive social benefits. This is just a description of the pattern of responses, and describing people’s reaction to a neutral question can hardly be called manipulative. The editors, as scientists, wanted more than correlational evidence, hence the second study. We were wary of not being too leading in this study, so all we did was tell participants that there were a range of views of the effects of taking action on climate change (a true statement), and that they were going to read one of these views. It is no more manipulative than if they heard the views of a real participant from Study 1 on the street. What is interesting is that I don’t see these views expressed publicly – possibly because they are seen as unacceptable in the skeptic community, or perhaps because the most prominent public skeptics such as yourself portray such views as illegitimate. But back to the study, being exposed to a broader perspective must have been valuable to some of them at least, as they were more supportive of action when they considered these broader consequences. Now this outcome was not inevitable – they could’ve thought such arguments were garbage and have been unaffected or less supportive. But some of them didn’t, and this was probably because they were able to reflect for themselves on a perspective that they may not have heard before. It is not manipulation to give someone a different perspective on an issue that reflects a real view, and let them draw their own conclusions from it.

Now you seem to find the views of these people as illegitimate because they do not address the only real point, and those who hold those views are probably not the people represented in your blog. But our research suggests that there are a substantial number of skeptics who have this view, and I would encourage them to speak up in these debates. That’s democratic.





Thought from Jo: What about NIPCC?

I will do a proper reply soon, but in my email reply to him I wrote: “I’ll mention only one point now, though I have many I could make, and that’s when you suggest “ ISPCCE – Inter-Scientist Panel on Climate Change Errors” – I agree, but it’s such a good idea, that it’s already been done. See NIPCC (Nongovernmental-International-Panel-on-Climate-Change): cumulatively more than a thousand dense pages of peer reviewed references, purely scientific, non-politicized discussion of all the evidence. Unlike the IPCC it doesn’t quote activists, magazines, or ignore important papers.

PS: I have asked mods to [snip] unhelpful comments. This is your chance to help Bain understand the group he studies.

PPS: Dr Bain sent this Friday, but I held his reply to post first thing in business hours his time. It seemed a fairer thing to do that having the conversation over the weekend.



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