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.