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).


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?)

  8. 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


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