Science, dogma and dissent: Ross Garnaut’s Heinz Arndt lecture

Ross Garnaut seems to believe that ‘scepticism’ about climate change is analogous to… or is, ‘dissent’. That is, he prefers to describe critics of his views using a term drawn from religious history, identifying someone who rejects a dogma. Myreaction on first reading was surprise at the use of a term that implies acceptance of man-made global warming is really a faith from which critics may ‘dissent’. Did Ross Garnaut understand that (obvious) implication, I wondered?

Of course, he would not be alone in describing climate change conviction as a faith. Charles Krauthammer recently offered a similar observation in his Washington Post OpEd. But it was not a view I expected Prof. Garnaut to adopt.

Answering the question whether it is possible for ‘dissenters’ can be scientists, Ross Garnaut invokes Gallileo, whom he wrongly describes as a ‘dissenter’—Gallileo was no such thing; Gallileo’s conflict with the Church was about the appropriate role of empricism and contained no basic doctrinal dissent—as an exception that proves his rule. Garnaut agrees that dissenters may have scientific points to make, but he adds that this contrary example tells us little about modern science. The illustration does, however, tend to confirm that he considers those whom he describes—a little pompously—as being in the majority with the ‘learned academies in the countries of greatest scientific accomplishment’ (p.6), are in some sense an ekklesia.

It would, I suppose, be fair to call ‘skeptics’ dissenters if they were merely aesthetic or doctrinal opponents of the environmental religion. But the ‘small minority [some minority — pwg] of reputed climate scientists’ whom Garnaut acknowledges reject the vague, over-blown claim of the IPCC (dignified by Garnaut as ‘bayesian uncertainties’) do so on the basis of emprically refutable claims. These claims include, for example, the entirely scientific (because testable) assertion that the statements in his Interim Report about an alarming acceleration of increases in global temperature are wrong in fact (witness the evidence of the temperature record for the past decade) or based on basic statistical errors in sampling and estimating a time-series trend.

When Prof. Garnaut concludes ‘the Dissenters are possibly right, and probably wrong’, what evidence does he adduce? None. Not a shred. This is depressingly consistent with the approach taken in his Interim Report. He does not consider that the science offered in contradiction of the IPPCC pronouncements (the hypotheses of ‘those who are best placed to know’—see p. 5 of his address) calls anything into question because it is ‘dissent’ and not science.

So much for name-calling. What positive reason does Prof. Garnaut offer for accepting the ‘uncertainties’ of the IPCC as reasonably indicative of a probability? No scientific reason, as it turns out. This is the most curious argument of all in his address. His reason for accepting the need for elaborate, ‘impossible-to-measure’ schemes of carbon-emission mitigation (the second two-thirds of his address) is a religious reason.

Prof. Garnaut invokes “Pascal’s Wager” (p.7)—a sort of bargain struck de profundis in the heart of this brilliant but deeply disturbed 17th century philosophe—to accept the existence of God on the basis of faith alone, rejecting the counsels of reason, out of fear of the (metaphysical) consequences. Pascal resolved to accept the existence of God out of an irrational fear of an eternity of torment in hell should he deny God and happen to be wrong.

This is a sympathetic tale, of course. It’s a ‘wager’ that many adolescents face at some point in dealing with a personal crisis. But as a psychic convenience, it is the abnegation—the abjuration—of science. Disagreements about climate change polices are not a personal crisis. They are a challenge to rational, democratically-informed, public policy. They deserve informed assessment and a careful dissection of interests (of present and future generations, in this case). In his address, Ross Garnaut has promised us elaborate economic models and detailed regulatory schemes based, ultimately, on an irrational framework (the models might not be all that reliable, either).


  • Thanks for your summary, from attendance of the lecture I take it? 

    If he draws the parallel of the motivation for carbon cuts with Pascal’s Wager, a motivation through fear, then the motivation of the dissenters is love, of Science.  My dissent is with the incredible hubris of much of the so-called science behind AGW.

  • Hi David,

    I did not attend the leacture (I’m in Melbourne). I read the document available from It’s also available from the Heinz Arndt website (sorry, perhaps that could have been more clear).

    I think you’re right that the motivation of the ‘dissenters’ is often a love of science. Or (less grandly perhaps) a love of empiricism and disenchantment with state-sponsored ‘spin’ and bamboozlement that has too often replaced good public policy in domains such as global environment, global security … and religious affairs.

    I certainly don’t mean that Ross Garnaut is a spin-merchant. I think he’s a serious economist who writes in good faith. I can understand his reluctance to re-do the physics. His review is big enough as it stands. But I think he’s veered too far toward accepting the ‘creed’ rather than supporting genuine enquiry in this case (showing, in my view, a rather naive understanding of how science is done).

    I hoped he would try, in view of the reasonable doubts (and the vagueness of the IPCC claims and imprecision of the CGM-modeling results) to devise a risk-management strategy that had, for example, a layered set of mitigation and adaptation measures that started slowly—- to give us time for a ‘decades-long’ perspective on our understanding of the data and our speculations about the physics.

  • Thanks for the clarification. I found only a cover page on the Arndt website the first time I looked. 

    What I (and others) are asking for is not to redo the science, only to check parts of the statistics, to determine degree of justification for confidence. Its a bitter pill he is asking us to swallow, and I want to know if the pill works or if its necessary.  Were the trials sound? Carried out with enough subjects? Unbiased and double blind? 

    Moreover, given the poor confidence in estimating most of the important parameters, and the lack of the Earth to cooperate with reliable warming, I think we should wait. Right now I think Garnaut’s stance dermined by the in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound idea.

  • cohenite wrote:

    You may wish to update your list of sceptical scientists; the ‘Petition’ has got a lot of bad press at such places as Tim Lambert’s blog because of the lack of quality control about the signatories; here’s a start;

    In regard to Ross ‘Pascal’s Wager” Garnaut; he and anyone who boasts of the certainty of AGW ‘science’ should read the Executive Summary of IPCC’s WG1;

    WG1 is a farrago of uncertainty and speculation; they assign an ‘extremely likely’ to human caused warming, and an ‘exceptionally unlikely’ to natural forcing being the same as humans; they say the scientific understanding of LLGHG’s is high and then proceed to admit that their scientific understanding of every vital context for AGW, H2O, clouds, solar irradiance, albedo is low or poor.

    Garnaut already has dirt on his hands from his New Guinea exploits; if he kowtows to the orthodoxy on this AGW garbage he will have a lot more.

  • One type of uncertainty in the AR4WG1 is admitted uncertainty that you mention (clouds etc).  The other is claims of confidence that are not supported by evidence (e.g. RF by CO2):

    They say:

    “Past emissions of fossil fuels and cement production have likely contributed about three-quarters of the current RF”

    but there has been virtually no warming of the upper tropical troposphere where CO2 increases are supposed to manifest (ala Douglass et al 2007).  If there is no warming there, there is no RF by CO2, period.

    So its not just uncertain, its simply wrong.

  • Garnaut not only ignores the absence of conclusive evidence for the IPCC’s fundamental claims and an underwhelming (!) level of support from reviewers, but he fails to entertain the notion that the IPCC is a single-focus organisation whose reports are crucial to its own survival.  In these circumstances it would seem very wise to closely examine the credibility of its claims, but no that’s not what Garnaut proposes.

    Garnaut, like shadow-minister Greg Hunt who has academic qualifications in law & the environment, are trying to build a reputation on the flimsy thesis of dangerous man-made climate change.  To recant or even question this would be to admit that a major focus of his last 5 years(?) was a waste of time and that he has trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.

    The only sensible option would have been to have a Royal Commission, run by former judges or people with similar backgrounds who can distinguish between evidence and claim.  Unfortunately that was never an option for the state Labor governments who initiated the Garnaut “Kangaroo Court” nor for the new federal government which insists on keeping electoral promises regardless of how ill-founded they may be.

  • ‘The Dissenters are possibly right, and probably wrong.’

    I had to check the pdf to see if you trimmed. But, that’s a full sentence.

    So one might ask Gaurnault: They are probably wrong about what? 

    As far as I can tell, he is referring to dissent over the “broad wisdom” of the IPCC—which he doesn’t specifically identify. He also doesn’t specifically name who dissenters are. So, how are we to begin to guess who he claims is wrong, and which of their points are incorrect.

    Then, to “prove” how confident he is whomever the dissenters maybe are wrong about whatever they may be wrong above, he brings up Pascal’s wager?!

    Pascal’s wager is an example for why one should chose to believe in God, even if the evidence suggests God does not exist. That is: Garnault is, by analogy, suggesting one should believe and act as if global warming were real, even if (or though?) evidence supporting the idea may not be (or is not) strong.

    So, does Garnault really believe the dissenters (who ever they may be) are probably wrong (about some unstated thing?)

  • Hi Lucia,

    Yes, it’s curious, isn’t it? Ross doesn’t seem to have considered the implications of his terms for the alarmist view of warming:

        dissent => dogmatic claims
        Pascal’s wager => unreasonable belief

    His full report is out this week. I’m hoping for much better (but not really expecting it, to be honest).

    Thanks for your terrific work on the data series over at The Blackboard


  • Hi Lucia.  I would like to know the quantitative estimates of probability for being “possibly right and probably wrong”.  Dissenters are going to be right about something, and most published research is wrong.

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