Monday, October 24, 2011

Climate Skepticism and Epistemic Closure

For some time now I've been regularly reading the postings of a blog called Bit Tooth Energy, run by a former professor at the University of Missouri. While I initially read for excellent descriptions of energy technology, I was also impressed by the way the guy has systematically gone through temperature data for different states in the US and investigated trends - running a weekly, independent analysis of temperature trends, which in the continental US are quite varied. What impressed me more was that it was (and still is) done in a very data-oriented, neutral and technocratic manner.

It's both a confirmation of my own biases and of my ignorance that I was surprised to recently find that he places himself in the camp of climate change "skeptics." I had simply assumed someone running the data on his own would at least feel that the jury is out, if not be leaning towards the climate change-is-real-wake-up crowd. I stand corrected.

But that's not really what this entry is about. Bit Tooth Energy's writer may be a climate change skeptic, but he has thankfully kept any hint of confirmation bias out of his analysis and (most of) his writing. Hell, in order to try and find a broader perspective, I've been trying to find an honest skeptic out there whose interests lie with data analysis, and who values civility and not ad homoniem attacks. Stephen McIntyre may have started out that way, but now he's a jerkwad. Anyway, upon reading this entry, it appears that I've found what I've been looking for, someone who deserves the title of skeptic - even though that post is one that leaves a sour taste in my mouth, it's at the very least reasonable. That's why my visit to the website of a book he recommended, a supposed expose of the IPCC in its relationship with the WWF, was all the more jarring.

The author is a Canadian founder of, and her blog is No Frakking Consensus. I post the link only with the caveat that I am going to talk about why I think the woman who writes it is symptomatic of the epistemic closure I see in the climate change debate.

On her "about" page, she claims that Climate Skepticism is free speech and deserves to be heard. Fine. But reading her posting content it becomes increasingly apparent that not only does this woman preach to the choir, but encourages the choir to cut off all alternative sources of information. The most recent one, visible on the front page, is her publication of her decision to not renew The Economist. Her reason? That it no longer reflects her views on climate change. She calls her views "facts," and the other views "drivel," and because The Economist, a publication that I think deserves a great deal of respect, has stuck with the majority of qualified climatologists in its reporting on climate change issues, she finds the reading in it "distasteful."

Were I living in a parallel universe, I think that if I read a publication like The Economist but held opposing views to climate change, my disagreement would not come out so virulently. In fact, I do disagree with TE, frequently, mostly on its occasionally woefully misinformed technology writing and science/energy policy. But I keep reading it because I understand the caliber of mind thrown into it and because the writing style isn't a series of bombastic and absurd accusations made without attribution, in either direction - no matter what the No Frakking Consensus blogger says.

The woman who writes No Frakking Consensus is not an actual skeptic, she is a partisan. Despite claims of free speech, it is obvious that were her own position in a scientific majority she would not be hesitant to crush opposition just as vociferously as she implies might be visited on her. Writing like that is the surest way to convince me that whatever you write, it is not worth reading*. Not that I didn't read the excerpts (top sin: undistributed middle fallacy, a.k.a. guilt-by-association).

But what's depressed me more is that this is a familiar story from comments I read on TE. There a significant number of reasonably well-educated and well-spoken people who have posted similar ragequits on The Economist in every article about climate change. It's become so bad that I anything concerning climate change has become one of the two no-go areas for me in terms of comments, where I am otherwise active on their online site - the other one being articles concerning China. In each topic, there are legions of commenters - many of them regulars - who repeatedly spam predictable tropes so far removed from their original sources that if you played a drinking game with them, you'd reliably die of alcohol poisoning by the third page. All civil discussion, otherwise widely prevalent on the site, is drowned out. The articles about China are only distinguished by the poor spelling of the 五毛党,which are at least occasionally funny because of hilariously distorted worldviews.

The words "epistemic closure" have come to mind more than once. I first heard those words bandied about last year regarding right-wing American media, but it's becoming more and more apparent that such a phenomenon is not only widespread in the English-speaking world, but accelerating in all corners. Places that give an opinion but remain resolutely professional are few and far-between, which is why that people now ragequitting TE, a great example of that kind of publication, over treatment of a minor topic bothers me so much.

And it really isn't just in the climate change crowd. I quit reading, an otherwise superb science/news/internet humor site, because I realized that its 2/7 of its authors and a small fraction of its full-time moderators removed any comments espousing moderate-to-conservative views shamelessly (or to put it less charitably, they removed anything that pointed out anything that made them look bad, or edited out the offending bits and made the criticisms seem off topic). It took that little to poison the whole damned atmosphere.

Why is it that people can't handle any opposing view? And more importantly, why have most people given up on trying to keep discourse civil and unemotional? The only sources of online editorial content I've found that haven't been balkanized into packs of screaming teenagers are so resolutely technical that they can't have an audience of more than a few thousand dedicated readers by virtue of the intellectual prerequisites (e.g. macroeconomic theory, deep tax policy analysis, corrosion engineering).

In other news, I think I'm going to give up on trying to find another decent alternative source of information in this arena. It is now well within my intellectual bounds to upgrade both extremes of the climate change debate from "assholes with ideas" to "conspiracy theorists" and start ignoring the whole debate. It's not that I no longer want any new information, but that it's now become impossible to read a balanced view of anything.

*The woman also isn't quite qualified to talk about "facts," since her education is in women's studies, but since she focuses on purported institutional corruption I'd be willing to give her a pass.

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