Pages

Saturday, 5 December 2009

In Praise of George Monbiot

One feature of partisanship is the closing of ranks when one of your own is attacked: in this way tribalism becomes a form of mutual protection.

In this respect, and as a newcomer to the controversy on climate change and global warming, I have been greatly impressed and heartened by one article in particular by George Monbiot.

In his Guardian piece Pretending the climate email leak isn't a crisis won't make it go away, Monbiot decided not to take the course of offering reassurances, or making arrogant statements that laypeople cannot understand the science, or attempting to down play it all as some inconsequential teacup storm.

Some seem to regard Monbiot as having over-reacted, as his trenchant article is not easily reconcilable with an instant urge to say nothing is actually wrong there. Others seem concerned that Monbiot's reaction may be playing into the hands of the "denialists" and "sceptics".

In my view, Monbiot's approach was refreshing and engaging.

For, as an onlooker and layperson, it was for me the best thing that Monbiot could have said.

By taking the apparant scandal with utmost seriousness, and by saying that not everything done for a good cause is always defensible, Monbiot at a stroke made me feel far more confident about anything he says on any other environmental subject.

And, it must be said, I am yet to come across similar intellectual honesty and self-criticism from those opposed to the theory of human-caused global warming.

Without such evident openness and integrity, the charge of partisanship is always difficult to counter.

In a way similar to Monbiot, Ben Goldacre's critique of the "dodginess of drug company trials" renders him with credibility when attacking complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for their dodginess: a credibility which is simply missing from almost all CAM enthusiasts in turn attacking mainstream medicine.

It is painful when someone on your "side" seems to be under attack; the greater good may seem to require that the victim be protected, the attackers countered, and the attacks discounted.

But such manifestations of partisanship and tribal loyalty do not necessarily assist in public engagement. Instead, I believe exhibitions of integrity and consistency will probably have a wider and more persuasive effect.

This does not mean that the climate scientists caught up in this alleged scandal should all now be hung out and dried; but it does mean that the first and best response to the attacks is to investigate the apparent misconduct fairly and transparently.

And it looks like Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will do this.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the IPCC, is quoted as saying, "We certainly don't want to brush anything under the carpet. This is a serious issue and we will look into it in detail".

Much the best way forward.


From now on, please see my new Blog, Jack's Climate Quest, which will be devoted to my attempts as a layperson to make sense of the global warming and climate change debates.

12 comments:

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Monbiot article I read explicitly called for this good and honest scientist to be hung to to dry. I don't rate Monbiot myself, he's one of those anti-capitalists who has found AGW useful as part of his wider agenda. These revolutionary types love drama, tearing things down, people being sacrificed for the greater good and so forth.

One good thing about Monbiot is that when he has been shown to be wrong often enough and long enough he sometimes comes around to reason. For example he has reversed his position on nuclear energy which he used to oppose vigorously.

For the moment he hates capitalism more than science so happily uses the latter when it suits his goals. But like the Molotov-Rippentrop pact he will turn on his 'allies' in the scientific arena eventually. I think we can be sure of that.

gimpyblog said...

By taking the apparant scandal with utmost seriousness, and by saying that not everything done for a good cause is always defensible, Monbiot at a stroke made me feel far more confident about anything he says on any other environmental subject.

Ironically Monbiot's credibility on environmental subjects has been declining in my eyes for a number of years over his shoddy reporting on subjects where I feel he is on the wrong side of the evidence divide, particularly pesticides and GM. E.g. this shameful article (read the comments, particularly from OsborneJ & AndrewCoker) in which it is clear Monbiot didn't do his research properly, may have been confused about the sequence of events and is distinctly high handed in his brush off of criticism.

You seem to like Monbiot writing something you agree with, but have you checked he accurately represents the situation? Shouldn't the sceptical response be to check his arguments against the evidence?

William Satire (Jr.) said...

Yup. Like you I'm happiest with the truth and facts. They are enough for people like me. The evidence I've seen so far points to mad made global warming. I see the silencing of inconvenient points annoying.

James Mackenzie said...

I await with interest the leaked documents from Exxon and the like which would show how they've tried to influence the science!

Jamougha said...

"making arrogant statements that laypeople cannot understand the science"

Hum. I'm a knowledgeable layman. I did a degree in physics, I'm attentive to climate issues and I think I understand the debate much better than anyone could from the rather poor coverage in the mainstream media. Basically, I know a lot more than the typical non-climate scientist.

If I wanted to really understand all the central evidence on climate change, it would take me months. If I wanted to get to the point of being able to make a worthwhile critique of the work the IPCC does, it would me take years of full time work.

Is it arrogant to think that someone with zero scientific training would take longer than me?

Or is it arrogant to think that decades of hard work by brilliant people with enormous resources can be matched by a layman in a few evenings on the Internet?

There is a genuine debate surrounding climate change that everyone can engage in, one surrounding time preference, risk tolerance, morality and expectations of future technological progress. But that's not the debate we've been having. Instead we're mostly stuck on the level of 'is global warming real', as if you could block part of the transmission spectrum of the atmosphere without affecting the climate.

Jack of Kent said...

Thanks for your comments and observations.

I have decided to start an entirely new Blog which will be devoted to my attempts as a layperson to make sense of the global warming and climate change debates.

I have copied this post over there and I would be grateful for any further comments to be posted over there too :-)

http://jacksclimatequest.blogspot.com/

middleclassmayhem said...

Hey wooly minded liberal
we have no choice but to go with science...what else is there?
we may hate or love capitalism but going against science is, by defintion, going against reality

gyg3s said...

I wonder whether the IPCC investigation would lead to a satisfactory conclusion. I don't think it will.

There are megabytes of emails at large, of which, some appear to be highly damaging. As you point out, two tribes have emerged each claiming that they are proof of something or other.

I think that one of the UK's prestigious Royal Societies should embark on a private prosecution (fraud, misconduct in public office, section 77 of the Freedom of Information act) against the scientists involved.

This process, if done in an open and transparent manner, would go some way to restoring the reputation of science in the UK.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

middleclassmayhem said...
Hey wooly minded liberal
we have no choice but to go with science...what else is there?
we may hate or love capitalism but going against science is, by defintion, going against reality


Science is a system and a method of working that helps us identify what we can reasonably say we know about nature. It is not the only guide to action, science cannot tell you why slavery is wrong for example.

There are many things other than science, there are ethics and morality, there is art and history and philosophy too. In the case of AGW science can tell us the consequences of our actions and make some predictions as to the future. Maybe one day Sociobiology will give us a definitive answer as to how we can solve the 'Tragedy of the Commons' and prevent overfishing but I don't think it can today.

History and Economics suggest that emissions trading worked for CFCs and the Ozone layer will recover one day. Therefore it seems likely that the same approach is the basis for future action on the climate but that's for the politicians to negotiate and science doesn't yet tell us how to do politics sadly.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

gyg3s said...
I wonder whether the IPCC investigation would lead to a satisfactory conclusion. I don't think it will.

The kind of people who still Deny reality after 4 comprehensive and irrefutable IPCC reports are not going to be satisfied by anything.

Appeasing the Deniers only feeds them and strengthens their own conviction that they are right and scientists are dishonest incompetent conspirators. Appeasement has not been an historically successful strategy and I doubt it will become one any time soon.

valdemar said...

'I am yet to come across similar intellectual honesty and self-criticism from those opposed to the theory of human-caused global warming.'

Precisely. The mark of a crank conspiracy theorist is that nothing can change their mind. To a true sceptic, the question: 'What would convince you you're wrong?' is a reasonable one. To a crank it is not.

Annette said...

"James Mackenzie said...

I await with interest the leaked documents from Exxon and the like which would show how they've tried to influence the science!"


Have you seen this report?

http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf