Led by lunatics

Mark Lawson’s new book “A Guide to Cli­mate Change Luna­cy” (Con­nor­Court Pub­lish­ing, 2010) arrives with bril­liant tim­ing, just as Aus­tralia gets anoth­er chance to make a choice on cli­mate change poli­cies in the 2010 elec­tion. Based on his cre­den­tials as a respect­ed jour­nal­ist — he’s a lead­ing sci­ence jour­nal­ist and edi­tor for the Aus­tralian Finan­cial Review — Law­son has a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to influ­ence the uncom­mit­ted vot­er on a cru­cial point of dif­fer­ence between the par­ties and lead­ers.

But this book has nar­row appeal. As its title sug­gests, it is a mem­o­ran­dum for the cli­mate skep­tic; a parade of fol­lies meant to scorn the doubt­ful claims of glob­al warm­ing sci­ence rather than weigh them dis­pas­sion­ate­ly. If you agree with him, you’ll pluck Lawson’s book from the shelf; if you aren’t already con­vinced, the title may sug­gest pro­pa­gan­da.

… I’m not sug­gest­ing any­one is lying or behav­ing deceit­ful­ly,” Law­son con­cedes in the intro­duc­to­ry chap­ter, “but if you sub­sti­tute the world ‘luna­cy’ for ‘lie,’ you have a good expla­na­tion of the fuss over cli­mate change. A lot of peo­ple who would not believe lit­tle luna­cies, because they are used to them, have fall­en for a gigan­tic luna­cy.”

Law­son builds his case against glob­al warm­ing ‘luna­cy’ from brief accounts of many recent sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions, sup­ple­ment­ed by phone and email inter­views with some of the authors. The Guide exam­ines the pre­ten­sions of cli­mate mod­el­ling; the sci­ence behind CO2 and water vapor cli­mate forc­ing; the pre-his­to­ry and his­to­ry of cli­mate prox­ies; the role of solar, ocean, sea-ice and car­bon cycles; the poten­tial of wind pow­er; the dura­bil­i­ty of the Bar­ri­er Reef; the threat of cli­mate-borne dis­ease, and; the cor­rupt con­nec­tions between mon­ey and ‘noble caus­es’.

Sum­maris­ing all of this dif­fi­cult mate­r­i­al in the space of only 220 pages is a chal­lenge wor­thy of a good jour­nal­ist; albeit a biassed one. Even so: “There is so much that I was sim­ply not able to look at all of it, so I apol­o­gise if I have left out the pet hates of some read­ers.”

I didn’t notice many omis­sions; but I was dis­ap­point­ed by Lawson’s book for two rea­sons. First, despite his expla­na­tion that ‘luna­cy’ is an error falling some­where beyond good judge­ment but this side of actu­al fraud, I found it dif­fi­cult to fol­low Lawson’s appli­ca­tion of the idea. Sec­ond, giv­en his rhetor­i­cal approach of heap­ing exam­ple upon exam­ple to dis­cred­it the ‘main­stream’ sci­ence, I thought Law­son need­ed to give his account more struc­ture. I’m famil­iar with many of his exam­ples, but I found his habit of bounc­ing from punch to counter-punch, string­ing his para­graphs togeth­er with slight con­nec­tive claus­es rather than an ana­lyt­i­cal frame­work, uncon­vinc­ing and con­fus­ing. As a result, I think, his best shot comes too late in the book and fails to hit home.

In some parts of the book, Law­son describes as ‘luna­cy’ things that have proved to be sim­ply wrong (for exam­ple pre­dic­tions about the start of solar cycle 24, since reluc­tant­ly aban­doned by their pro­po­nents) or a ten­den­cy to per­sist with a the­o­ry when there is at least some con­trary evi­dence. At oth­er points — for exam­ple when describ­ing the insis­tence of the IPCC on the verac­i­ty of the sim­u­la­tions in the gen­er­al cir­cu­la­tion cli­mate mod­els as fore­casts — he uses ‘luna­cy’ to describe some­thing that is clos­er to decep­tion (because the mod­els, in his view, assume the cli­mate mech­a­nisms they are said to con­firm). At still oth­er points he seems to use ‘luna­cy’ to mean the insu­la­tion of physi­cists ih their spe­cial­i­ties and their fail­ure, in his view, to see the wider pic­ture; as when the main­stream debate ignores ‘incon­ve­nient’ evi­dence on the non-anthro­pogenic evi­dence of much of the CO2 in the atmos­phere.

Is it rea­son­able to call this sort of thing ‘luna­cy’? That’s a pugna­cious term for what many of us would say is just the way sci­ence is done in real­i­ty. The­o­ries per­sist beyond their use-by date; many fall out of fash­ion rather than suf­fer any cru­cial dis­con­fir­ma­tion; sci­en­tists make errors that they are unwill­ing or unable to recog­nise; data is jeal­ous­ly kept from com­peti­tors; ‘tricks’ are employed to score an unsup­port­ed point; unpro­fes­sion­al behav­iour such as the Cli­mate­gate shenani­gans some­times earns an offi­cial white­wash and fraud hap­pens, too (but no one calls that ‘sci­ence’).

None of this is sur­pris­ing or new. Since the ear­ly 1950s (and W.V.O. Quine’s shock­ing lit­tle paper on the the ‘dog­mas’ of empiri­cism) the­o­ries of sci­ence have acknowl­edged that the con­cep­tu­al bag­gage and biasses we bring to obser­va­tion weak­en the capac­i­ty of empir­i­cal mea­sure­ment to resolve the­o­ret­i­cal con­flicts. The same obser­va­tions can be — and are — made to fit into con­trary hypothe­ses, at least for quite a long time. So sci­ence does not pro­ceed — nev­er has — by the neat dis­con­fir­ma­tion of mea­sur­able fore­casts or by the over­turn­ing of ‘par­a­digms’. It’s a great deal messier than that, at least at short range. Call­ing this ‘luna­cy’, as Law­son does, doesn’t illu­mi­nate the prob­lem much less count as an eval­u­a­tion.

There is, in fact, a much bet­ter can­di­date for ‘luna­cy’ than the errors of cli­mate sci­ence; the dis­turb­ing agen­das of cli­mate pol­i­cy. Law­son knows this but it is not until p. 110 — half way through his book — that he spells it out:

There is still a great deal to argue over in all of this, but the main pur­pose of this brief layman’s tour of the sci­ence, is to estab­lish whether there enough hard, set­tled sci­ence to require that every­one must pay a steep price to pre­vent prob­lems, what­ev­er those prob­lems may be.”

Set­ting aside whether a ‘brief layman’s tour’ could estab­lish any such thing, and ignor­ing the jar­ring cliche about ‘set­tled sci­ence’, the read­er might won­der why Law­son waits until this point to reveal ‘the main pur­pose’ of his book.

Here, at last, is a patent ‘luna­cy’. It would be mad­ness to take the par­tial results of all this incon­clu­sive, con­tro­ver­sial and per­haps impos­si­ble mix­ture of cli­mate physics and pale­on­tol­ogy as a sig­nal to rip the guts out of the car­bon econ­o­my on which Australia’s wealth depends. I could only wish that Law­son had seen his ‘main pur­pose’ ear­li­er and had paid the same detailed atten­tion to the cru­cial, and some­what more clear-cut, pub­lic pol­i­cy ques­tion that he pays to the phys­i­cal sci­ence.

An accu­mu­la­tion of com­pet­ing sto­ries needs some more struc­ture than Law­son gives us to help us to eval­u­ate the debate and, pre­sum­ably, accept his con­vic­tion that the main­stream sci­ence is not mere­ly wrong or short­sight­ed or cor­rupt­ed by human frail­ties (pride) and research grant incen­tives, but actu­al­ly ‘insane’.

A Guide to Cli­mate Change Lun­ca­cy”, by Mark Law­son. Con­nor Court Pub­lish­ing, Bal­lan, Vic­to­ria, 2010.

One Comment

  • Leslie Brix-Nielsen wrote:

    Can some­body of exper­tise please stand up against the cli­mate change & cli­mate tax­ing fraud­sters in this coun­try ???  Please !

    Regards

    Leslie Brix-Nielsen

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