Won’t anybody think about the sceptics?

Annabel Crabb asks “Who will speak for the sceptics now” and concludes “Watch this space, because it won’t be empty for long”.

In my view, Crabb is relying on two dubious assumptions. The first is that the denialist position adopted under Abbott reflected the “scepticism” of the party base, rather than vice versa. The great majority of “sceptics” are, in fact, credulous believers in what they are told by trusted authority figures, notably including conservative political leaders. Since most LNP voters appear to be happy with the shift to Turnbull, it seems likely that they will adjust their opinions to fit with those of the government. The minority who are seriously unhappy have nowhere else to go.

The second assumption is that any view which is widely held in the general community will inevitably get some political representation. That simply isn’t true. To take a couple of examples, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests strong support (not from the same people, though I’m sure there’s overlap) for the reintroduction of capital punishment and for the renationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank. Those views aren’t represented in the political process and aren’t likely to be.

Coming back to Crabb’s question, if we were going to see a significant backlash against Turnbull on this issue, there would be background leaks from senior ministers, not snarky tweets from insignificant backbenchers. People like Robb, Frydenberg and Dutton, who presumably would prefer the Abbott line, have stayed quiet, as far as I can tell.

The one option for denialists is a minor party run for the Senate. That would create some nasty complications regarding preferences, but wouldn’t really change anything, any more than the election of an LDP senator did last time around.

50 thoughts on “Won’t anybody think about the sceptics?

  1. Notwithstanding the fact that vocal “skepticism” seems to be confined to the fringes of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, the Turnbull cabinet has not exactly moved swiftly to dismantle the Abbott Government’s “skeptic”-friendly policies. That suggests to me that the Turnbull government is still quite constrained by the “skeptics” within its ranks. It remains to be seen whether that will change.

  2. Not swiftly, but they’ve already dumped the jihad against wind, signed up to a 1.5 degree target and 5-year reviews, and signalled moves on international permits and vehicle fuel efficiency standards. That’s an adequate start, in my view.

  3. Capital punishment advocacy is down to moral perspective, among other things; it doesn’t really make anybody rich, however. Coal mining and coal-fired power production, on the other hand, can and do make people filthy rich, a great motivator. From this filth, we get the lobbying groups and the political interference that is deemed necessary for continuation of the great rivers of filthy lucre.

    The CP advocates lack political power, whereas the coal and fossil fuel people have the cash to splash, and the capacity to create fictoids to generously sprinkle about, all in the selfish interest of the merchants of filth.

    As for wind, more money is being found to fund some windy bottoms:

    The Government has also increased the funding allocated for the establishment of the National Wind Farm Commissioner and the Independent Scientific Committee on Wind Turbines, up $600,000 over four years to a total of $2.5 million.

  4. Actually, the telling quote is “Who speaks for climate sceptics and hip-pocket-protectors in this environment?” – Crabb conflates/perpetuates the idea that doing something about climate change is wasting money.

    Honestly, how many more decades and how many more decimal places of certainty with the science before the penny drops that the “trusted authority figures” have screwed their constituencies and failing to act has already cost us.

    Sure, its a “valid” political position, but certainly one that in the future will be held in the same esteem as championing slavery or ethnic cleansing.

  5. I completely agree, Professor Quiggin. Turnbull’s approach seems to be to proceed with policy reversals at a pace that allows the government to pretend to its authoritarian follower base that nothing is really changing, a job made pretty easy by their gullibility. So, a prohibition on investment in wind farms is overturned by simply pretending that it never existed. The support base for loony positions will always be there, but it will remain dormant in the absence of a leader who articulates them.

    Anyway, annoying people by making pointless small talk with polarising political figures is pretty much Crabb’s only thing, so she has an obvious interest in their emergence and success.

  6. I have to disagree. Denialism (misnamed scepticism) is about holding irrational views in the face of ‘rational facts’ and that human society trait isnt going away soon.

    John Quiggins’ position is like claiming irrationality is about to disappear or there wont be new charlatans ready to exploit what people want to believe in the face of threats to their way of life. While it might be nice for this to happen to a greater degree (the witch hunts, eugenics and Eichmann make me wary of extreme ‘rationalism) we still are left with the majority (all?) of people starting their reasoning whole or in part with some mad ideas or ‘faith’ in a starting thesis from childhood or adolescence – that can still be twisted into denialism or at least significant doubt.

    To wit here are some remaining examples of starting beliefs which lead to crazy, potentially climate change denial or minimization positions:

    – guilt by association – the alliance between mad greenies and scientists is self evident therefore climate science has been hijacked by the commies and so we can ignore them
    – God is wise and therefore He wouldnt let this happen.
    – whatever the Labor Party is smoking when it tries to ‘harmonize’ its coal mining and power worker interests with complete shutdown of these industries driven by climate change imperatives – leading to CCS
    – ‘commonsense’ – “I can see with my own eyes things arent changing so why” OR “2oC – so what – now the weather in Melbourne will improve”
    – Conspiracy theory – “all these ideas on climate change are coming from NASA who gave us the phoney moon landings” OR “the IPCC is clearly a branch of the UN and hence the great neoliberal new world order Bildeberg 200 families conspiracy”

    And finally my favorite – the market is the wisest force in the universe and will right things automatically with a little tweaking of the budgets and accounting – essentially the thesis promoted all those years ago by Kyoto.

    The last is very interesting as it is held by the prime minister the Labor Party and an awful lot of economists as I understand it. This denialism is more subtle slippery and dangerous like our shiny new PM and many would argue COP21. It goes like this.

    “Yes climate change is a threat but we are wise people who have the solutions and meeting of minds so all is well in the best of worlds” (apologies to Voltaire).”By the way the madness of the Cold War and its threat to the global environment and the near misses were just abberations which we’ve solved illustrating our new wisdom and demonstrated by our KPI – we only have 20,000 nukes now instead of 50,000″

    “Never mind that we have tested the trading idea over the past 25 years of post Kyoto and still not turned the Titanic. Lets still believe in trading and scholastically select our examples like North American acid rain control while dismissing counter examples were trading has been promoted like the ongoing mess of water exploitation policy (e.g. Murray Darling) or the conditions for water wars being set up by competition for this resource in dozens of spots across the globe – the Mekong, Aral Sea, Mesopotamia etc.)”

    This for me is the most dangerous denialism of all. A refusal to accept the results of the powerful Kyoto test/failure and propose rather more of the same.

    In a phrase – Climate scepticism still rules OK.

    [being ‘rational’ about climate change is better described as accepting science based observations and models which only a few specialists actually ‘understand’ in detail and the rest of us including most scientists and engineers have to take on ‘faith’ or at best indirectly accept based on related knowledge and personal experience of the scientific method – there was a time in the 60s/70s when climate change science indicated cooling or no significant impact – an amusing example where this was exploited for fun and profit was John Gribbin’s ‘The Sixth Winter’ rationally reflecting ideas floating around at the time)

    This highlights that rationality and even science alone isnt enough if you start from a problematic position – a more extreme example – the witch purges were perfectly rational provided you believed in devils and demons which in the good old days was all we had in the way of a cosmology].

  7. Will the Kochs and other paymasters of denialism now pull the plug? Whatever your take on the efficacy of the Paris Agreement, on the level of symbolism it was an absolute catastrophe for the movement. They couldn’t buy a single one of 196 governments. Contrast whaling and FIFA. The Saudis didn’t need to be bribed, but failed miserably. Murdoch and Ailes will carry on, because their interest is in conflict and ratings, not success. But overall, the movement should fade from now on.

  8. All Turnbull has to do is reinstall the Carbon price and he will have filled some of the hole in his budget while also being a responsible environment manager, after the disaster of Abbott.

  9. What if the government just goes quiet and continues on its current path? They did it with refugees. Nobody speaking against climate change – just refer to “Paris 2015.”

  10. J.Q. nailed the article but it was bit like nailing a blancmange. Annabel Crabb’s article was an inchoate mass of undifferentiated nonsense. She seemed to be wishing more denialist idiocy into existence as a pretext for further flippancy. An odd Freudian wish to see Malcolm in his pyjamas somehow crept into her argument.

    J.Q. said; “The great majority of “sceptics” are, in fact, credulous believers in what they are told by trusted authority figures, notably including conservative political leaders.”

    A number of studies have shown this to be true. We would expect that such “sceptics” are largely the same group as those Altemeyer calls “authoritarian followers”. Altemeyer’s work is probably well known to people who read this blog but I offer a link anyway.


  11. I expect Jacqui Lambie, and some of the other “populist” cross-benchers, would be in favour of both capital punishment and bank nationalisation.

  12. J.Q. says;

    “The second assumption is that any view which is widely held in the general community will inevitably get some political representation. That simply isn’t true. To take a couple of examples, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests strong support (not from the same people, though I’m sure there’s overlap) for the reintroduction of capital punishment and for the renationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank. Those views aren’t represented in the political process and aren’t likely to be.”

    This raises some issues we ought to be concerned about. First however are these contentions correct? Namely that there is strong support for capital punishment and renationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank? On deathpenaltyinfo we find;

    “A slight majority of surveyed Australians support the use of the death penalty in terrorism cases. According to an Australian SMS Morgan poll, when asked “If a person is convicted of a terrorist act in Australia which kills someone, should the penalty be death?” 52.5% of respondents favored use of the death penalty in such cases while 47.5% did not favor its use. (Roy Morgan Research, September 19, 2014)”

    The question matters and the construction of possible multiple choice answers matters. Here it obviously was a question about death penalty for terrorism (so-called). I am very suspicious that Yes plus No add up to 100%. Was “don’t know” not offered as an answer option? This could skew results.

    “2/3 of people in Australia believe people convicted of murder should not face the death penalty, according to a poll by Roy Morgan International. 67 % of respondents think the punishment for this crime should be imprisonment, down 2 points since December 2005. The last execution in Australian soil was carried out in 1967, and capital punishment was abolished in 1985. On Oct. 8, Robert McClelland—the opposition’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) foreign affairs spokesman—said an ALP government would campaign against the death penalty across Asia, in coordination with 5 Asian nations that have abolished the maximum penalty. McClelland said that in order for this to be possible, “At the highest levels, Australia’s public comments about the death penalty must be consistent with policy. (…) This is especially the case if we are going to tactfully and successfully drive a regional abolitionist movement.” Australian prime minister John Howard, leader of the conservative Coalition of Liberals and Nationals, has said he opposes capital punishment at home and for Australians overseas, but supports the death penalty for terrorists. Polling Data: Next about the penalty for murder. In your opinion, should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?
    Oct. 2007: Death Penalty 24%, Imprisonment 67%, Can’t Say 9%
    Dec. 2005: Death Penalty 25% Imprisonment 69%, Can’t Say 7% (Angus Reid Global Monitoring: October 22, 2007)”

    On balance, 2/3 of people disfavour the death penalty for murder according to these results. Overall, there seems no argument that Australians favour the death penalty as J.Q. apparently claims.

    I can’t quickly find data on whether Australians favour renationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank. I certainly do just to state my position.

    Now to the substantive point. J.Q. said “The second assumption is that any view which is widely held in the general community will inevitably get some political representation. That simply isn’t true.”

    If we are talking about majority views (which J.Q. goes on to give as examples, one arguably incorrectly anyway) then this is a concern. Why do majority wishes (like no more public asset sales) struggle to find representation in our political system? I wonder if J.Q. thinks this is a problem and illustrates a failure of our system? I certainly think it does illustrate a failure and that the failure is clear. Corporate capital and the richest 1% or so have an inordinate influence on policy development and what is permitted in received public discourse. It illustrates the relative failure of bourgeois representative democracy. Of course, it is better than totalitarianism but our social-democratic evolution is far from complete. Indeed, matters are regressing markedly in the direction of oligarchic and corporate or inverted totalitarianism.

  13. @John Quiggin
    That’s true, Prof Q, but I guess my concern is that the Turnbull government might find a point beyond which it is not willing to go, for fear of creating too much internal strife and instability, and that point may be well short of sufficient. However, it’s also possible that the influence of the strident “skeptic” contingent within the Liberal party will decline, and that Turnbull will adopt more robust climate policies if he wins the next election (as looks likely). Time will tell.

  14. @Tim Macknay
    My crystal ball is rosy enough to back the latter fork in that road. Remember Abbott only got into the leadership with 1 vote and that was primarily thanks to (Mr Fossil himself) Minchin more than an organic shift away from meaningful action IMHO anyway.

  15. @Troy Prideaux

    I agree with Troy. The spin coming out of Turnbull’s office is that commitments made to the right expire on election night. If he wins, he’s in charge, and anyone who opposes him can be painted as disloyal/disgruntled/not a team player. If he loses, and Labor is in for three years, it will probably be too late for a successor to change course again.

  16. It is weird and getting weirder.

    The head of Europe’s coal lobby has said that his industry will be “hated and vilified in the same way that slave-traders were once hated and vilified” as a result of the Paris climate deal, in an extraordinary diatribe sent to his members and press outlets.


    “The world is being sold a lie, yet most people seem to accept the lie, even if they do not believe it,” Ricketts warned. “The UN has successfully brainwashed most of the world’s population such that scientific evidence, rational analysis, enlightened thinking and common sense no longer matter.”

    “You might be relieved that the agreement is weak,” he went on. “Don’t be. The words and legal basis no longer matter. Fossil fuels are [being] portrayed by the UN as public enemy number one. We are witnessing a power bid by people who see the democratic process as part of the problem and have worked out ways to bypass it.”

    Personally, I can’t wait for the show trials to start. The point is, though, this freak actually believes what he’s written. Maurice Newman is merely the tip of an inverted iceberg of privileged thinkers.

  17. @Newtownian

    I’m not saying denialism is going to disappear. Rather, it will become like creationism in Australia – a widely held tribal belief with essentially no practical consequences.

  18. The skeptic mob happened to get into power which gave an outward appearance of substance but didn’t have the vision, brains or even management capability to maintain it. They weren’t a mainstream movement but weird corner of the Liberal Party that was briefly fashionable and have disappeared into a historical note. Abbott’s main claim to fame was that a significantly worse PM than everyone expected. (Even me, and I had an extrememely low opinion of his competence.) No one wants to resurrect him, or even identify with him, and not just because he’s dead.

    Likewise, no one with any future would want to identify as a skeptic. The party’s over, it’s clearly on the wrong side of history. There might be a hole in Australian politics but it’s not prime real estate, more like a open grave waiting wistfully for another body or two to fall in before the dirt is thrown on top.

  19. Much like don Quixote Abbott seems to have struck out on his own, writing angry letters to the editor before retiring to a greens area pub for steak beer and chips. His crazy and embarrassing solo cavalry charges have led to his being publicly abandoned by his associates and, like Bronwyn Bishop, it’s lucky if he makes it to the next election.

  20. @anthony nolan
    In a way, it’s not surprising. I would be hard to function as the head of a coal lobby if you accepted the science of global warming. The cognitive dissonance would be overwhelming.

  21. John Quiggin :
    I’m not saying denialism is going to disappear. Rather, it will become like creationism in Australia – a widely held tribal belief with essentially no practical consequences.

    Thanks for the response. I take your point. Hopefully we will indeed see the current monsters like Bolt, Murdoch, the IPA and other reactionary politics driven ‘sceptics’ increasingly marginalised and be viewed in a similar fashion to creationists.

    This said though my comments were coming from a different (broader?) view of what constitutes climate change denial politics and who are the climate change sceptics. Crabb framed the politics of denial as primarily a movement/push within the coalition.

    My personal view of the politics linked scepticism is more along the lines of it being a bipartisan movement (or even tripartisan if you count the Greens which I do) where most of the scepticism is default/she be right mate. Our current political system seems to reflect a dominating belief on the part of both left and right wing politicians and their supporters/voters that while climate change is a bit of a problem, a. its really not that big a deal say compared to economics which drives conferences where all leaders attend full time – the G20 etc. – b. we can put off acting on climate change for a few years yet again and c. in any case it wont do much harm to our existing (free market growth economy) way of doing things because we just need to tweak our infrastructure a little with renewables.

    An indicator of this truism is how wildly the polls on belief in climate change have fluctuated in recent years – about 15-20% if I remember. This points to public understanding of the problem and its implications still being superficial and not incorporated into people’s lifestyle

    I include the Greens in this because when I last looked at their economics policies they were only a set of disparate motherhood statements rather than a detailed thought out ‘Steady State Economic’ plan reflecting the changes needed.

    Crabb’s piece is somewhat smart arse wimsey to be sure. But her underlying question I still find valid. If climate change mitigation is to happen who is to pay for it all and how will they react and coallesce politically? Who will lose in this zero or even negative sum game? Trading and taxes could provide partial drivers but what level will they have to rise to disincentivise consumption ?$500 per tonne? and what will be the impacts and the backlash? How practical is it really to decarbonise the whole economy? What will be the political reaction when some shark employs the rallying cry that ‘our way of life is threatened’? These are questions for which convincing answers are not yet available.

  22. Is it safe to start reminiscing about the good old days of climate change “sceptics” looniness? Does anyone remember twits like Austin Williams from the LM Group that the ABC gave a platform to – arguing among other nonsense that solar panels were destroying the community solidarity nurtured by coal fired power plants. These people need to be remembered.

    I hope it’s over as a political force, but it’s lasted longer than I expected. I think it was pretty clear that reality would re-assert itself and Abbott wasn’t going to remain leader full term or win another election despite labor doing it’s best.

  23. @Michael
    Remembered? We should be compiling lists of names. Especially of those judged as ‘most cynical mouths for hire’; we could do that by popular acclaim as an fb page.

  24. @Michael

    I wasn’t aware of “Living Marxism” until I searched for Austin Williams. “Living Marxism” apparently promoted an “Against Nature” stance. This demonstrates they understood nothing about Marxian or eco-s o c i a l i s t thinking. Actually “nothing” is far too generous. It would be more like -n where n is a very large number.

    It leads me to think that LM might not have been a bona fide group. It’s at least equally possible they are far right provocateurs as they were a group honestly attempting to be s o c i a l i s t.

    It seems George Monbiot thought they were a front group.

    “It has been stated by environmentalists such as George Monbiot[5] and Peter Melchett that the group of writers associated with LM continue to constitute a ‘LM Network’ pursuing an ideologically motivated ‘anti-environmentalist’ agenda under the guise of promoting Humanism.”

  25. I know I’ve asked this question before but I’ll ask it again – who in the LNP apart from Mr Turnbull, has, with any sense of conviction, argued strongly for more and stronger action on climate rather than less and weaker? Not grudgingly, not with endless caveats or in contradiction to other things they’ve said, but clearly and unequivocally? When they dare to raise their heads and look like they mean it I might believe climate science denial and obstructionism is on it’s way out. Until then it looks like supporting Turnbull’s small steps is the price they’ll pay to get re-elected, not indicative of any conviction, or indicative of real change within the LNP.

  26. LM is better known for its successor group Spiked. The big names are Frank Furedi and Brandon O’Neal. They grew out of something called the Revolutionary Communist Party, but are now firmly on the far right. As I observed a couple of years ago, these guys had spectacularly bad timing. They started out as Marxists just before the collapse of communism, then jumped ship at the high water mark of right wing intellectual confidence. Now, they are stuck with membership of the global party of stupid

  27. When Malcolm Turnbull declared he has no need for the business adviser Maurice Newman, I took it as a sign the traditional meaning of sceptical, prevailing during much of the 20th century, will be gradually recovered at least locally.

    During the past decade or more I used two different spellings, skeptical and sceptical – more often than not being worried I would forget which spelling I had assigned to which meaning. It was my way of avoiding going to the fundamentalist versions of ME religions vs science while reading a bit on this topic.

  28. “Trading and taxes could provide partial drivers but what level will they have to rise to disincentivise consumption ?$500 per tonne?”

    $50/tonne would be enough to produce a fairly rapid shutdown of coal-fired power. $100/tonne (25 c/litre on petrol) combined with some supportive interventions (eg a publicly-financed EV charging network) would drive a pretty big shift towards low-emissions vehicles, electric cars, public transport etc. The price implied by the Renewable Energy Target is around $40/tonne and no one minds very much.

  29. @Michael
    The Brendon O’Neill who frequents Q&A, The Drum, etc, is a libertarian; while not identical to the IPA’s political views, it’s no surprise that IPA members have views that are common to libertarianism. Birds of a feather, and all that.

  30. @Ernestine Gross

    Strange, Ernestine, because I always thought that (1) skeptical is a Greek word and (2) it is spelled skeptical because there is no letter ‘c’ in Greek, just good old ‘kappa’.

    Therefore to spell the word ‘sceptical’ is simply ignorance. Or am I missing something ?

  31. Newtonian, an implied price of around $40 a tonne from the Renewable Energy Target plus a lack of a coal industry has resulted in South Australia now generating electricity equal to 40% of its total consumption from wind and rooftop solar. And both wind and solar power are much cheaper now than they were when we started the shift from almost 100% fossil fuel electricity a decade ago. It is very clear that the rest of Australia can quickly and easily reduce its fossil fuel emissions at low cost.

    A carbon price of $50 a tonne is enough to eliminate coal use and end most natural gas use. And I am confident that I can remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it for around $100 a tonne or less, so that is probably an upper limit for Australia, and the world, to go carbon neutral.

    Note there will need to be a period of adjustment. A carbon price of $50 a tonne tomorrow it won’t end coal use overnight, but it will cut coal use overnight and lead to its elimination.

  32. @GrueBleen

    Therefore to spell the word ‘sceptical’ is simply ignorance. Or am I missing something ?

    “Sceptical” is the standard English and Australian spelling of the word. “Skeptical” is the standard North American spelling. Although, in line with Australia’s tendency toward American usage, “skeptical” is now increasingly acceptable here.

  33. Skeptical, with the capital “S” and “k” is now a seperate term to describe those who have gone way beyond “sceptical” into full blown beligerent anti science denialism. To be thorough I prefer to refer to this group as SCD’s, Skepical and Contrarian Denialists.

  34. @John Quiggin

    A quick followup to the problem of broader climate change skepticism that concerns me. The Guardian’s Giles Fraser has just put out this nice article on the problem.

    I commend this to you if only of the principle that professional journalists are much better writers than I am.

  35. @BilB

    Skeptical, with the capital “S” and “k” is now a seperate term to describe those who have gone way beyond “sceptical” into full blown beligerent anti science denialism.

    It appears to be used that way in some circles, but in general the meaning has not changed.

  36. Yes, “skeptical” is Yankish while “sceptical” is Pommish. But, as surprisingly often, it is the yanks who have the spelling etymologically correct.

  37. @derrida derider

    But, as surprisingly often, it is the yanks who have the spelling etymologically correct.

    Presumably you mean that the American spelling, because it contains a ‘k’, slightly more closely resembles the way the ancestral Greek word would have been written. That’s true, although personally I wouldn’t characterise it as being necessarily more ‘correct’.

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