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Lavoisier, again

November 29th, 2004

Tim Lambert links to a not-very-flattering profile of the Lavoisier Group, whose members appear to be mostly elderly gentlemen who believe that, if we all wish hard enough, Tinkerbell will summon the ghost of Lavoisier and make that nasty global warming go away.

Connoisseurs of the Australian network of right-wing front groups will not be surprised to find the inevitable Ray Evans, former executive officer of WMC, President of the HR Nicholls Society, Secretary of the Bennelong Society and Treasurer of the Samuel Griffith Society has found time in his busy life to act as secretary of, and main contact for, the Lavoisier Group.

The front groups I used to deal with thirty years ago, Concerned Stalinists for Peace and so on, made a bit more of an effort than these guys, who even, according to commenter Julian Russell, share the same IP address. I feel sorry for the handful of genuine sceptics who’ve been sucked into this deplorable scam.

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  1. Alex
    December 4th, 2004 at 20:07 | #1

    Sorry, Ken, no misquoting intended. It’s not easy to keep track of everything everyone has written on a long thread.

    As regards Kininmonth, my raising of him was meant to elicit a comment on his sincerity, not whether you thought he was right or not.

    Finally, you asked some time ago for evidence of anthropological climate change proponents who were lacking one of the virtues of intelligence, knowledge and honesty. You disputed my raising of the Union of Concerned Scientists as a relevant example. Maybe you should read the article by Lindzen I linked to earlier. He also mentions Stephen Schneider, another prime example. A quote from Schneider “To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have…. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest.”

  2. Ken Miles
    December 6th, 2004 at 10:27 | #2

    Alex, the Schneider quote is the last refuge of those without an argument. The context of the quote has been removed. Considerable portions of the quote have been removed. The full version is available here:

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest .I hope that means being both

    What followed this quote was a discussion about how to do “both”; ie. use of analogies etc.

    However, since you brought it up, do you actually have an example of Schneider doing something dodgy? I’ve come across this quote a multitude of times, but never has the quoter been able to back it up with an actually checkable example.

    Your reference to the UCS isn’t convincing. Lindzen asserts that a newspaper ad in the 1980′s didn’t include a reference to nuclear power as a possible solution. Without seeing the petition (I can’t even find a 1989 petition – maybe he refers to the 1992 Warning to Humanity petition?) and the ad, I can’t make any sensible judgment – however, my experience with Lindzen is to not trust what he says without reading the sources – the link which I supplied above is the reason why.

  3. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 10:40 | #3

    Sorry, Ken, but in my view Schneider is condemned by his own words. He says “I hope that means being both (effective and honest)”. But immediately before that he says “we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have”. If that’s what he did, then in my opinion that is dishonest, however effective it may have been.

  4. John Quiggin
    December 6th, 2004 at 11:11 | #4

    Alex, I think you need to give this one a fair bit more thought. If you search on Schneider you’ll find a lot of posts by me on this topic, including more on the context of the quote

    Yours is the common reaction among people who’ve reacted to the doctored quote, then seen the corrected version. But ask yourself: if the correct version is self-condemnatory, why is the quote never presented in full by Schneider’s critics?

  5. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 11:23 | #5

    thanks John, I took up your suggestion. The second quote the search came up with was this “here’s my bottom line. He’s an alarmist who tends to overstate and overdramatization [sic] environmental threats, and he doesn’t always argue fairly,…”.

    Says it all really.

  6. Ken Miles
    December 6th, 2004 at 12:00 | #6

    If that’s what he did, then in my opinion that is dishonest, however effective it may have been.

    But Alex, you haven’t provided any evidence that this is what he did.

  7. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 13:06 | #7

    Ken, let me get something straight. Do you (a) actually believe that Schneider didn’t follow through with his stated agenda (in which case maybe you should check with JQ, who says he did) or (b) agree with me that he did, but like the idea of swanning off to have a latte with your mates, while sniggering over conning another RWDB into a tedious and pointless afternoon trawling through thousands of Google references?

    My point is that I don’t think that there is a huge amount of difference between the left and right over what Schneider and his followers have done, the debate is more over whether it was justified or not. So in challenging me to produce the evidence of his sins, you are simply setting up a straw man.

  8. December 6th, 2004 at 13:16 | #8

    Alex, you implied that Schneider was dishonest, a characterization that JQ specifically rejected. Lindzen, on the other hand, is a liar.

  9. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 13:55 | #9

    JQ may have rejected that characterization, but if I think it’s dishonest for a scientist to “overstate and overdramatize environmental threats” that is surely my prerogative. I repeat my point that what is really at issue is whether what he and others have done is justifiable or not. You and Ken (and JQ) apparently think it is, I do not.

  10. John Quiggin
    December 6th, 2004 at 14:04 | #10

    Dishonesty is a much more damaging accusation than overstatement, Alex. People on this blog regularly suggest that I’m overstating and overdramatizing concerns about the current account deficit. Maybe they’re right and maybe not, but I don’t take offence.

    If they said I was lying about it to promote a political agenda, I’d flame them to a crisp.

  11. December 6th, 2004 at 14:21 | #11

    Alex, do you think it is justifiable for Lindzen to lie about the findings of the NAS panel?

  12. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 14:34 | #12

    Sorry, John, you’ve lost me. If you consciously overstate something – for example, you say that man-induced global warming will lead to a rise in temperature of 5 degrees by the end of this century, when you know full well that the evidence points to something less than that – then you are being dishonest. This is what Schneider seems to have set out to do, and according to you he did so. On the other hand, when people accuse you of overstating concerns about the current account deficit, they are usually using shorthand to say they don’t agree with your concern. They are not saying that you actually know that the evidence is more equivocal than you suggest, but you are promoting an extreme position to further your political ends. There may be a few who take the latter view, but you haven’t given them any reason to think so by overtly stating a political agenda.

    There is a big difference in motive between your raising of concerns about the current account deficit and Schneider’s alarmism. And Schneider made clear his agenda right from the start.

  13. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 14:35 | #13

    Tim, no.

  14. December 6th, 2004 at 14:43 | #14

    Alex, please can you tell us where Schneider said that GW will lead to a rise of 5 degrees by 2100?

  15. John Quiggin
    December 6th, 2004 at 14:49 | #15

    Alex, I didn’t assert that Schneider *consciously* overstates things – I think he is just one of those people who tends to see the worst case as more likely than it actually is.

  16. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 15:03 | #16

    Tim, don’t be daft. That was a hypothetical.

    JQ, I never said that you accused Schneider of consciously overstating things. I pointed out that he said that was what he intended to do. Then I drew attention to your comment that he had, in fact, overstated things. This might not pass in a philosophy tutorial, but it will do for me.

  17. December 6th, 2004 at 15:11 | #17

    Alex, let me get this straight. You are certain that Schneider is dishonest, but you can’t actually point to any dishonest statement that he has made. Do I have it now?

  18. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 15:21 | #18

    So Tim, the alternative is? Are you proposing that Schneider said he was going to deliberately overstate his case, then when he subsequently overstated his case (I’m happy to take JQ’s word on that) he forgot that he had deliberately intended to, and it was just a case of overenthusiasm?

  19. Ken Miles
    December 6th, 2004 at 15:54 | #19

    Tim, I think I’ve narrowed it now.

    Schneider is hypothetically dishonest.

  20. Ken Miles
    December 6th, 2004 at 16:10 | #20

    Alex, my point about Schneider is that I just don’t know if he is dishonest.

    I really don’t place much stock in the quote. He could have worded it better, but my interpretation was that it is hard to explain scientific concepts to the public without radical simplification and a gripping angle. It should be noted that one of Schneider’s research interests is scientific communication.

    However, whether or not my interpretation is correct, the quote itself is irrelevant – Schneider could have said “I have no ethical problems with lying for a good cause and I also eat puppies”, and it still wouldn’t make him dishonest unless you could demonstrate him lying.

  21. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 16:28 | #21

    Ken and Tim, JQ has a useful summary of common ground (which it might be more productive to focus on) here
    http://www.johnquiggin.com/archives/000216.html

    I would have no trouble agreeing with that summary in so far as it deals with what is happening and going to happen.

    As to Schneider’s lying or not, I didn’t accuse him of that. I referred to him exaggerating deliberately, which I categorised as dishonest, in my opinion. Not the same as telling an outright lie, imho.

    BTW, Tim, although I only mentioned 5 degrees temperature rise as a hypothetical, I note that JQ’s summary says that Schneider is in the camp that postulates a 3.5-5 degree rise by the end of the century.

  22. Ken Miles
    December 6th, 2004 at 16:51 | #22

    Alex, I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect that John is incorrect in labeling Schneider as being at the upper end of the spectrum. I’ve only seen Schneider disagree with the IPCC on one substantive issue (whether or not probabilities of likely effects should be examined), and likely temperature rise isn’t it.

    In 1997 Schneider has stated that the climate sensitivity (this is a measure of how the earth reacts to a doubling of CO2 concentrations) is 3 degrees C plus or minus 1.5 degrees with the best numbers being 2-3 degrees C.

    This would put him in line with the IPCC’s estimates.

  23. simon
    December 6th, 2004 at 21:34 | #23

    First to John- it’s fine if lay people want to be agnostic about GW or the environment but unless you have a substantive case for not believing what those qualified in their fields are saying, wouldn’t you think the safer bet is to let them direct what we should do rather than those whose main concern is their profit margin?

    I not qualified in these fields so look at respected mainstream science media/publications who publish peer reviewed scientists qualified in their fields. Luckily enough I find reading publications like New Scientist, Scientific America, Ecos-CSIRO interesting. I think I would have a good case that doing this regularly would give you a better estimation of what is going on in the earth sciences and climatology than any coal or oil lobbist has to say.

    The scientific community isn’t infallible and peer review is perfect but it is a hell of a lot better than relying on groups with conflict of interest or people, who even while qualified in some other profession lack a complete understanding of the subject to make an informed judgment.

    BTW your page is down.

    As far as Schneider goes, even if was dishonest to some degree as far as getting the publics attention does that invalidate the foundational claims of IPCC’s. Personally speaking though, I think he hurt his own cause. Given the trouble the world is are having with fresh water, even small changes in precipitation patterns is going to cause huge problems. So offering ‘scary’ or extreme scenarios is unnecessary.

    Whether you like it or not, either you will be paying through the nose for your water or drinking your recycled piss in Asutralia within 50 years.

  24. Alex
    December 6th, 2004 at 21:45 | #24

    I suppose this is rather than paying through the nose for your piss and … oh, never mind.

  25. December 7th, 2004 at 08:49 | #25

    Simon: but unless you have a substantive case for not believing what those qualified in their fields are saying, wouldn’t you think the safer bet is to let them direct what we should do rather than those whose main concern is their profit margin?

    The scientists (or military people) are not good at public policy. They are good at science and war. Actually… I am a professional public policy analyst, so I guess I should ask why you don’t simply accept my conclusions regarding Kyoto? :)

    I do not distrust people simply because they make a profit. And the scientific community makes a huge profit from global warming scares.

  26. Alex
    December 7th, 2004 at 12:36 | #26

    simon, I agree with you that the global warming alarmists may have hurt their own cause. Schneider himself may have realised this and moderated his earlier views (or his presentation of them), judging by the balanced testimony he gave in 1997 (I presume to a Senate committee) which Ken Miles linked to above. The problem with scientists exaggerating the dangers of global warming (or anything else) is that public policy makers tend to become aware of the exaggerations, and subsequently apply a discount to other evidence on the subject. Further, this tends to spread to scientists in other fields as well, lowering the reputation of science generally.

    John, as to your point that the scientific community makes huge profit from global warming scares, I don’t think there is actually much evidence of this. Funding for climatology research has not increased as a result of the global warming issue, rather the reverse if anything (certainly in the US, which probably spends as much on research as the rest of the world combined). And as I noted above, it’s hardly promoting your cause, even if you do get increased funding, if nobody wants to listen to what you say. However, I agree that public policy should be left in the hands of those charged with it, rather than scientists. It may be frustrating to scientists that politicians have to deal with the possible, rather than the perfect, but that’s politics.

  27. julz
    February 27th, 2005 at 10:13 | #27

    this is a crap site!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    im surprised its still working, it is no help at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…

  28. John Quiggin
    February 27th, 2005 at 12:06 | #28

    Before I delete this moron, can anybody determine if this is some new form of spam, or just random abuse from someone with a defective keyboard ? It fails the Turing Test, but that’s far from decisive evidence.

  29. Tom Davies
    February 27th, 2005 at 12:26 | #29

    A disappointed chemistry student with urgent homework? :-)

  30. Paul Norton
    February 28th, 2005 at 08:41 | #30

    The insurance industry doesn’t think it can afford scepticism about climate change.

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/World/Unnaturally-vicious-year/2005/02/27/1109439457158.html

  31. Fyodor
    February 28th, 2005 at 09:05 | #31

    Paul,

    “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

    If you want people to insure their homes against storm damage, do you:

    a) donwplay the risk of volatile weather, thereby reducing the incentive to insure; OR
    b) exaggerate the risk of volatile weather, thereby increasing the incentive to insure?

    The source for the article, Munich Re, is the world’s largest reinsurer, i.e. the company that picks up the tab for lots of catastrophe losses. They have a significant incentive to encourage the purchase of insurance.

    The figure for insured losses is a bad indicator for the volatility of weather given it only measures damage to INSURED property, most of which happens to be located in North America, Europe and Japan. Specifically, the single largest natural hazard to insured property is windstorms – one bad hurricane season in the North Atlantic (like we had last year) can generate massive insured losses, but have little connection with weather volatility elsewhere on the planet.

    The article also didn’t mention that the years 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 were unusually benign for natural catastrophes, both in total economic losses and insured losses. But good news isn’t always newsworthy, is it?

  32. Greg Byrne
    July 10th, 2005 at 13:31 | #32

    Regarding Ray Evans (H R Nicholls Society and Lavoiser Society) the output of has hardly been prodigious. Labour market reform has hardly gone one notch since Fraser lost in 1983 and even if the govt is not signing Kyoto it is talking about limiting emissions on what I believe are spurious environmental grounds. I know that many people on the right are disappointed with Evans’ efforts and believe he should move over and let someone else have a go.

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