The cost of debunking “Climate alarmists”

The starting point of the Guardian article “There are genuine climate alarmists, but they’re not in the same league as deniers” is a tweet from Richard Betts (screenshot taken from the article):

Betts writes that he considers skepticalscience political because their “misinformers” page doesn’t include those on the climate action side. Culminating in the question whether skepticalscience also should debunk climate alarmists.

This is the reaction of Dana to this tweet:

There is some validity to these critiques, and in response, Skeptical Science is renaming the page Climate misinformation by source.‘ But the site is run entirely by a team of international volunteers, and as such, opportunity costs must be considered. Time devoted to refuting alarmists is time not devoted to debunking the constant deluge of climate denial.

That “response” of skepticalscience didn’t make much sense to me initially: simply renaming that page doesn’t counter the “no alarmists refutations” critique of Betts. Unless they added some climate alarmists to that page of course. So I visited that “misinformers” page to see whether this was the case. That page looks a bit different now than it did before. In the past, that page was a simple list of “misinformers” with their photo:

This is how it currently looks:

They now list the “misinformers” in categories (scientist, politician, meteorologist, media/journalist and other), but I don’t see a category “Climate Alarmists”, nor do I see a link to Peter Wadhams or Guy McPherson in the category “Scientist” (these were the two scientists identified in the Guardian article as “Climate alarmists”). There were 41 “misinformers” in the previous version and there are 41 now. No “climate alarmist” has been added, yet they gave the impression to the readers that they somehow complied to Betts’ critique.

There was something in that quote that caught my eye. The tweet mentioned critiques. With an “s” at the end. But there was only one critique that was shown. Becoming curious, I followed the link and landed on Lewandowksy tweet and, indeed, I noticed another critique just below the Betts’ critique:

Aha! Now that made more sense.

The response of Dana was most probably not on the critique of Richard Betts, but on the critique of Roger Pielke Sr. He said that the skepticalscience team “mix politicians with climate scientists”. By creating categories, they seem to have countered this criticism. Of course, Dana could not show that specific critique to the public, since Roger Pielke Sr is on that list of “climate misinformers”.

But then, why didn’t skepticalscience make such a page debunking the arguments of Peter Wadhams and/or Guy McPherson? There were already several links to pages debunking the two scientists in that thread. With such a wealth of information, writing one or two pages debunking them shouldn’t be that much of a problem. The reason they give for not writing such pages is that “opportunity cost” must be considered (see the quote above). It is also repeated in similar wording in the last paragraph of the Guardian article:

There’s certainly nothing wrong with debunking overly alarmist claims – in fact, it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and some groups like Climate Feedback do just that. But debunking uninfluential alarmism comes at a cost. It diverts resources away from addressing the never-ending flood of misinformation coming from climate deniers who currently control the climate policy platform of the party in charge of one of the most powerful countries on Earth.

There is much more to say about this paragraph, but for now, I understand that debunking alarmist scientists means that time could not be devoted to debunking other “misinformers”. I also understand that they are volunteers, so probably also have other things to do with their time. But when I look at their About the team page, then I count 32 collaborators and they managed to churn out one post per day in the last several weeks, so writing a couple pages devoted to debunking these overly alarmist scientists should be piece of cake. Especially knowing that they already have plenty of information on Wadhams and McPherson.

I think that, by only stating this sole (minor) objection, he is grossly understating the “costs” they have to worry about. In fact, loosing some time over writing such pages should be the least of their worries.

Strange that he didn’t mention that debunking climate alarmists will undoubtedly weaken his case. This will be a major cost when skepticalscience decides to debunk climate alarmists. Currently, they are in the extremely comfortable position that no opposition is covered and this creates an atmosphere of consensus and agreement. Debunking alarmists could make cracks in that perceived agreement. The more alarmist misinformers are debunked, the bigger the cracks will get. So if they want to debunk climate alarmists, then they have to choose these alarmist misinformers very wisely.

They also will have to be very carefully how to debunk those climate alarmists, especially when these are scientists (as is the case of McPherson and Wadhams). The article in the Guardian is an excellent illustration of that. Peter Wadhams and Guy McPherson were not even once called “scientists” throughout the article, although they both are investigating scientists and experts in their field. They were introduced as, ahem, “individuals”.

Probably to avoid eroding the credibility of the scientists on the action side. Debunking experts could give the impression that these scientists are not correctly informing the public. You can’t have that when one of your arguments is that we should trust the scientists and those on the action side may not be criticized since they are part of the consensus and they know best.

For the same reason, Dana also emphasizes that we shouldn’t be too worried about climate alarmists, that it is uninfluential. Not sure whether I can believe that, but I think it is his best option. Since the alarmism can not be hidden, it is better to minimize it or suggest that it has no influence on policy. I also has the advantage that it suggests that the gain is small (since this alarmism is uninfluential anyway), justifying their reluctance to actually write those pages.

Concluding. I agree with Dana that debunking climate alarmists on skepticalscience will come with a cost, but I am sure that this cost will be a lot higher than he dares to admit in the Guardian article.

via Trust, yet verify

July 21, 2018 at 07:47AM

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