Science vs the Right: state of play

I stopped arguing with self-described “skeptics” on the topic of global warming some time ago, and I don’t intend to start again. I am however interested both in trying to promote sensible policy outcomes and in considering the broader political and cultural implications of the debate. For this purpose, there is no need to argue about hockey sticks, global warming on Mars or any of the other talking points that chew up so much time on the Internets (for anyone who is actually in doubt on any of these points, this is a useful resources

I’ll start with some facts that are, if not indisputable, at least sufficiently clear that I don’t intend to engage in dispute about them
(i) All major scientific organisations in the world[1] endorse, in broad terms, the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which states that the world is getting warmer and that, with high (> 90 per cent) probability, this warming is predominantly due to human action
(ii) Most prominent politicians[2], thinktanks, activists, commentators and bloggers on the political right in Australia, the US and Canada (along with a large section in the UK) reject, or express doubts about, this analysis. The uniformity of views is particularly notable among conservative thinktanks.

The dispute between mainstream science and the political right has now been going on for at least fifteen years, and has already had some profound impacts. At the beginning of this period, the right could plausibly present itself as the pro-science side of the “Science Wars” in which the enemies were the massed forces of leftwing postmodernism (a powerful force, given their near-total control over departments of English literature), sociologists of science and the wilder fringes of the environmental movement. However, this was always a storm in a teacup, ignored by the vast majority of scientists.

By contrast, the current war is being fought for high stakes, with the end result either a disastrous defeat for the institutions of mainstream science or the intellectual discrediting of the entire political right. There has been no significant convergence between the two sides. On the contrary, even as confidence in the mainstream scientific consensus was solidified be the released of the IPPP Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the rightwing opponents of science were buoyed by the La Nina event of early 2008, which produced a sharp, but temporary drop in temperatures, particularly in the Pacific. Comparisons with the El Nino peak of 1998 enabled them to announce that global warming had stopped, a point which was amplified in vast numbers of opinion pieces, blog posts and public statements, though not, to my knowledge, defended by any peer-reviewed statistical analysis.

Even such an obvious fact as the melting of Arctic ice, confirmed in the most direct fashion possible by the announcement of regular shipping routes around the Pole, with associated territorial claims, has been the subject of endless quibbles (attempts to restate these quibbles in comments will be deleted).

Furthermore, unlike the endless culture war disputes where the debating tactics of the right have been developed, there is a fact of the matter regarding anthropogenic global warming, which will sooner or latter become undeniable. Either global warming will continue, finally confirming the mainstream scientific viewpoint, or it will not.

Given the accumulation of scientific evidence, the odds are pretty strongly in favour of the first outcome. Scientific conclusions supported by a diverse range of independent theory and evidence sometimes turn out to be wrong, but you wouldn’t want to bet on it. Even more rarely, non-scientists with an axe to grind turn out to be right where scientists are wrong, but you really wouldn’t want to bet on that.

This raises the question of why the right has been so keen to double down on this issue. Of course, there’s no organised process by which an anti-science viewpoint on climate change and other issues is agreed on as a central orthodoxy from which dissent is prohibited, but you only have to look at the output of the political right in the English speaking countries to see that this outcome has been realised.

There are many explanations, perhaps so many that the outcome was overdetermined – powerful economic interests such as ExxonMobil, the hubris associated with victories in economic policy and in the Cold War, tribal dislike of environmentalists which translated easily to scientists as a group, and the immunisation to unwelcome evidence associated with the construction of the rightwing intellectual apparatus of thinktanks, talk-radio, Fox News, blogs and so on.

The issue is not going to go away, regardless of the short-term success or failure of attempts to reach a global agreement to stabilise the climate. The more clearly the political right is identified with the anti-science side of this debate, the harder it will be to salvage any of its existing institutions.

In a two-party system, even total intellectual incoherence will not prevent a political party from winning office when its opponents fail. But I’m surprised at the extent to which supporters of free markets have been willing to tie their case to an obvious imposture.

fn1. The only partial exception of which I am aware is the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which takes an equivocal position
fn2. For reasons of political necessity, some rightwing politicians occasionally make statements endorsing mainstream science on global warming. But only a handful (John McCain being the most prominent) give more than a half-hearted assent, and many (Brendan Nelson is an archetypal example) give different positions depending on the audience and the way the political wind is blowing on the day.

143 thoughts on “Science vs the Right: state of play

  1. Tony G#

    Refers to JQs

    “posse of PHD wielding elitists mates” and his “hubristically elite grant seeking ‘mates’

    really its not worth replying to Tony and his flag waving anti global warming wacko website delusionist PHD challenged cadres.

  2. I shouldnt have done that but nothing short of an apocalypse would shift some people’s doggedly wrong opinions.

  3. Ender

    I think we differ on how to respond with caution. Certainly for me it would require a cautious approach not only to the science but economic and social responsibility.

    Secondly the way the climate change discussion is entertained by the the AGW advocates needs to be re thought. You can’t say things like “climate science has been declared to be 1) A Consensus and 2) Settled.” “But settled consensus can’t, by definition, have disagreements and falsified forecasts.”

    I think in regard to the question of the anti-science view of the right you should read an attempt by “Joe Romm” at Climate Skeptic blog, to address the ‘anti-Scientific label”.


    “The idea of a risk assessment is to identify particular risks to manage them. It hasn’t worked well in the financial sector.”

    Your right about that. It is also applicable to either side of the AGW argument. Their still remains a large uncertainty factor that can’t yet be addressed fully by risk assesment, as I mentioned previous at#113.

    Secondly, your comment that the “denialist delay mitigation efforts”. As far as I can see implementation of climate change policy is happening as we speak, the fact that it may be “watered down” is another issue. Delays are inevitable in a democratic cooperative effort. They shouldn’t be frowned upon so much as seen to be a “check and balance” process.

  4. Tony G:

    Ok, I will insert the words or hotter after ‘cooler’


    “it does seem to have been getting cooler or hotter over the last decade”

    Thank you for your substance-free contribution.

  5. Ubiquity:

    “The idea of a risk assessment is to identify particular risks to manage them. It hasn’t worked well in the financial sector.”

    Your right about that. It is also applicable to either side of the AGW argument.

    The argument is highly assymetrical as regards risk. Mitigation amounts to spending a knowable cost to reduce a risk with a lot of uncertainty. The laissez-faire approach to carbon emission is the high-risk approach.

  6. Alanna@ 126

    “delusionist PHD challenged cadres” with “doggedly wrong opinions”

    There is AGW, I’m right BECAUSE I’m not (a) “PHD challenged”.(sic)

    Alanna, that seems like a pretty intelligent argument. Unfortunately, like the AGW ‘science’ your argument is floored, people with PhDs like this prove it.

    The lefts obsession with driving metaphysical agw arguments as a substitute for physical ones demonstrates the calibre of their ‘science’. Their post script to enforcing this modus operandi is highlighted by the Ad hominem abusive above.

  7. Tony G # 131

    Provides us a link at 131. But lets go through her publications and see what else she writes and who she writes for. You guessed it in one – the IPA

    Here is the list of her publications.

    A List of IPA Publications – 04, December 2008
    The Loss of The Baiji – 01, October 2006
    Save the Whaling – 01, September 2005
    Changing Agriculture’s Approach to the Environment – 01, August 2005
    Australia’s Environment Undergoing Renewal, Not Collapse – 01, July 2005
    Are Koalas in Decline? – 01, June 2005
    Campaigning Against Our Cultural Heritage – 01, March 2005
    Why “Save the Murray”? – 01, December 2004
    Myth & the Murray: Measuring the real state of the river environment – 01, December 2003
    Deceit in the Name of Conservation – 01, March 2003
    WWF Says ‘Jump’ Governments Ask ‘How High?’ – 01, March 2002
    Early Scientific Publications – 01, January 2000

    Good one Tony. You excelled yourself this time. I hope the IPA paid you a bonus.

  8. Tony#131, why do I suspect you of being a very energetic little branch stacker amongst your other less obvious intellectual talents?

  9. Tony – you dont fool me. The directors of IPA are a disgrace to this country. They hide the fact that their anti science is specifically meant to get them advantages for their business interests. All they mostly are is a lot of representatives of the coal and gas and mining industries and the odd liberal party minister. But having said that I notice most of them have appointments on public boards and they were no doubt put there by Howard.

    Thats why your party got thrown out Tony G. Because there was way too many vested interests rubbing shoulders influencing the Howard Government who returned the favour and it was a disgrace that these people are even sitting on public boards.

    Their mmagazine is a rag of propaganda so they can get away with no regulation and lower taxes no matter what happens to the environment or to infrastructure – thats all. Why should my taxes pay for these environmental vandals to throw their moneyed weight around, distort scientific fact, and put their hand out for public positions?

    They make me totally ill and they symbolise everything that is wrong with our political system. It hasnt been governing for the public but for bullies like that who think they can take the Australian voters for a ride.

  10. Tony, a PhD in biology hardly makes her an expert.

    Yes, there are scientists with relevant degrees that deny or minimise AGW, but denialists can’t win the PhD arithmetic game when the overwhelming majority of scientists think the warming trend is real, and think it’s worrying.

  11. Whats worse is where does IPA (Idiots read Propaganda Army) get its money from? If last year was any indicator 150,000 came from donations if you check their accounts. Its all their website. Google the directors names and you will see it all. Whats 150,000 to a few mining, oil or ming service companies – damn drop in the bucket of what they have been hauling out in the boom.

    There is the BS Australian anti science anti global warming science industry for you – in one fell swoop in one shabby little building somewhere with a printing outfit with a sprinkling of lackeys getting paid to write the garbage and get it into papers and submissions to government departments.

    They are all going to end up in the same place those people.

  12. They IPA boast they got 183 articles into Australian newspapers last year – 183 articles leading people up the garden path. Thankyou Mr Murdoch.

  13. I have one further point. The very essence of why they attack established researchers and scientists and attempt to marginalise them as “dangerously left” is because they dont want real science. They dont want the evidence. They want favourable concessions for their business interests to keep their profits high. Its so simple, vested interests attempting to lean on the government and lean on voters with no regard for the longer term consequences of their actions. Greed knows no bounds.

  14. Jarrah @ 136

    “Tony, a PhD in biology hardly makes her an expert”

    Exactly the point I was making.

    “denialists can’t win the PhD arithmetic game when the overwhelming majority of scientists THINK the warming trend is real,”

    Why the left assert that parading a posse of PhD wielding proponents of AGW is ‘scientific proof’ of causation in AGW is anybodies guess?………On the other hand, “I think that, of the explanations I’ve offered “hubris” is the best”….

    Alanna @ 134

    “Tony#131, why do I suspect you of being a very energetic little branch stacker amongst your other less obvious intellectual talents?”

    Alanna,you’ve seen my picture before, how else would you know I am just an average Joe from bondi and a bit stiff?

  15. Tony G.

    I know who you are and I know what you are and I dont like branch stackers and political activists that distort truth no matter what their colour. But what I like even less is the vested industry interests, the corrupt behaviour, the attempts to pressure governments, and the attacks on real science and real academics in Australia by big oil interests, big coal interests, big gas interests and the two penny paid liars that work for them. Those already wealthy inidividuals seek to line only their own pockets at the expense of Australia going the right way forward. As Obama said in his inauguration speech (not direct quote – I just heard it) “those who corrupted themselves in the hall of congress.. and those who seek to silence dissent are on the wrong side but we will offer you a hand if you will unclench your fists”

    There is no left right culture war. Its all been a complete propaganda fabrication (so much bigger than the Hoax on Windschuttle) and an attack on the institutions of our civilised society in Australia for nothing but greed.

    You have been working the dark side Tony G. The lies and the war is over.

  16. […] John Quiggin says he has stopped arguing with the sceptics. Now if Miranda had blogged her column, she might have an incentive to be up to speed on this particular debate. As you can see, I have fallen well behind. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)TRUTH AND POLITICSScientists meet to dispute global warming theoryScientists move to the skeptical sideABOUT A YEAR ON […]

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