Experts, Texperts

One of the most prevalent arguments used against climate change scepticism is the presupposed lack of genuine expertise that lies behind expressions of doubt. On the one hand you have 97% of the world’s most sciency scientists, and on the other hand you have John Cook’s cartoon creation, Cranky Uncle, every family’s know-it-all proselytizer, wallowing in the ‘moral and rhetorical morass that is climate change denial’ [1].

This assumed dichotomy between the true expertise of the 16 year-old Greta Thunbergs of this world and the phoney expertise of the merchants of doubt features across all aspects of the climate change debate. Indeed, I am advised that for every saintly David Attenborough [2] you will find an ungodly horde of sadly deluded geezers, sat at their computers in their underpants and tinfoil hats, anonymously banging out ill-informed vitriol designed to condemn Mother Nature to an underserved climate apocalypse. Worse still, there is a suspicion that some of these scoundrels are actually quite clever and have learnt a number of sneaky tricks to give the casual onlooker the impression that they know what they are talking about. That’s why Lewandowsky and Cook’s Debunking Handbook was so important to the activists. It was the Climate Outreach Bible, guaranteed to put those pesky climate change deniers firmly back in their grubby little place – and not once does the handbook appear to descend into propagandist twaddle (an impression, alas, that is only sustainable by overlooking its content).

Announcing the Uncertainty Handbook

Just as important, however, was the same organisation’s Uncertainty Handbook. If anything, this was even more important than the Debunking Handbook, since uncertainty and its proper understanding lies at the heart of the matter. As the handbook itself puts it:

“Have you ever struggled with the communication of climate change uncertainties? Are you frustrated by climate sceptics using uncertainty – inherent in any area of complex science – as a justification for delaying policy responses?”

Yes, this really is a problem to ponder whilst tucking into your avocado and quinoa salad. And given how many pseudo-experts there are alleged to be out there, pontificating upon uncertainty and how it subverts good decision-making, it is vital that there should be true experts on hand to demolish such a misconception. That said, I only refer to ‘experts’ because that is how the four authors of the Uncertainty Handbook wish to be known. For example, this is how Dr Adam Corner refers to himself and his three fellow musketeers:

“All are experts in their fields and have expertise relating to the role of uncertainty in climate change or how best to communicate it.”

But just what does it take to become one of the finest swordsman in the land when it comes to uncertainty in climate change? What qualifications are needed to write a handbook on the subject – other than, of course, the tinfoil hat and an internet connection? Come to think of it, what background would one need to claim expertise in uncertainty analysis, full stop?

The Making of an Expert

Well, firstly you could be a psychologist from Bristol University, like Dr Adam Corner or Stephan Lewandowsky. Not convinced? Well, perhaps you could be ecofeminist, Dr Mary Phillips of Bristol University’s School of Economics, Finance and Management. With such a background, surely she would have a veritable portfolio of research papers on uncertainty analysis under her belt –  but apparently not. Finally, you could be Olga Roberts, schooled in anthropology before moving onto political science. I’m sure the importance of delineating aleatoric and epistemic components prior to propagating uncertainty looms large in all good anthropology texts.

So, in conclusion, to claim expertise in uncertainty analysis and climatology, one doesn’t need to have actually studied either subject at any stage, and one certainly doesn’t need to have earned a living by demonstrating an ability to apply the precepts of uncertainty analysis in practical applications. Admittedly, the two psychologists will know a thing or two about cognition under uncertainty but, believe me, you would need an awful lot more than that to decide upon the safety of a proposed civil construction built using partial information. As for risk management, I wonder which of these fine individuals is a member of a relevant professional body such as the Institute of Risk Management (IRM). Methinks none. And yet here we have a publication alleging that it:

“..distils the most important research findings and expert advice on communicating uncertainty into a few pages of practical, easy-to-apply techniques, providing scientists, policymakers and campaigners with the tools they need to communicate more effectively around climate change.”

Wow! That’s a mighty fine achievement for a quartet of laymen. Not just ‘important’ but ‘the most important’? But, of course, the proof is in the pudding. Despite their lack of credentials or a track record of putting their understanding to the test, just how good a document have they managed to produce?

Denouncing the Uncertainty Handbook

Sadly, I have to declare that their efforts are every bit as good as one would expect from four individuals who are blagging their way through a subject area that is as technically complex as they are educationally and experientially challenged. And this despite the authors’ unsubstantiated claim that their handbook “was vetted and reviewed prior to publication by five leading experts in risk research and two climate communications practitioners”. Add to that the “anonymised” quotes from “11 stakeholders who work in the science-policy arena”, and a picture begins to emerge of industrial-strength con-artistry and wholesale quackery. Who are all of these experts that were so keen to contribute but so happy to be distanced from the results? Perhaps a clue is given here:

“Although public debate often cites uncertainty as a reason to delay policy action, the reality is very different: several recent scientific papers have shown that greater scientific uncertainty provides a greater, rather than lesser, impetus for climate mitigation2.”

Unfortunately, upon consulting the handbook’s footnote 2, one finds that the ‘several scientific papers’ turns out to be a single, two-part paper written by serial self-citer Stephan Lewandowsky! Really Stephan? You think your handbook enjoys independent scientific endorsement because it peddles the same flawed logic you came up with when pushing your ‘uncertainty as knowledge’ thesis?

I could give a blow-by-blow account of what is wrong with the handbook, but life is too short. I will say only that it comes from an assumption of superior understanding that is as much founded upon misplaced self-esteem as it is upon a withering lack of respect for the group that it is targeted against. Its arguments are often facile, its assumptions unsound and its analogies inappropriate. Nothing is revealed about the foundations of uncertainty and how it should be measured.  Accusations of cognitive bias are thrown around with little regard for how they could apply to both sides of the argument. Wild accusations are made, such as:

“A common strategy of people who reject the scientific consensus is to intentionally confuse and conflate different types of uncertainty.”

This coming from an author (Lewandowsky) who has shown not the slightest understanding of the taxonomy of uncertainty in any of his publications. In short, apart from revealing some good framing tricks to nudge the unsuspecting towards the ‘right’ conclusion, I see little of merit within the handbook’s twenty overweening and tendentious pages.

Let’s Just Finish With an Example

Rather than labour the point further, I will leave you with an imagined interchange that the handbook confidently provides, illustrating how the well-informed communicator of climate uncertainty should deal with the denier:

Communicator: “Do you have house insurance?”

Denier: “Of course – pretty much everyone does.”

Communicator: “Well reducing our carbon emissions is exactly the same. It’s an insurance policy against the risks that scientists tell us climate change will bring.”

Denier: “But how sure are we?”

This quaintly acquiescent response from the denier – if the handbook is to be believed – provides the communicator with the perfect opportunity to introduce the 97% consensus statistic, guaranteed to silence all rational sceptics. But, of course, what the denier would say in real life is this:

Denier: “No it isn’t. The insurance policy comparison is completely inappropriate. Insurance policies are taken out by a party that seeks to transfer non-ergodic risk to another party that is positioned to handle the risk ergodically. In climate change, there is no risk tolerant insurance broker to which the human race can transfer risk, and the situation remains non-ergodic because the risks associated with the so-called policy are as potentially damaging as those originally confronted. Reducing carbon emissions is not an insurance policy, it is a course of action based upon a risk-based decision that hinges critically upon the risks and uncertainties associated with the alternatives. It introduces what risk managers are referring to as ‘transition risk’. I really do think you ought to have learnt some basics before you took on the job of expert communicator of uncertainty.”

Oh hum. Even a texpert is allowed to dream [3].

Notes:

[1] Thanks go to Stephan Lewandowsky for this particularly temperate and non-confrontational precis of climate scepticism.

[2] In case you didn’t know, David Attenborough is the quintessential Mr Avuncular and true sage on all matters environmental.

[3] A texpert, if you haven’t already worked it out, is someone who appears on the internet claiming to have expertise. The word has its origins in the lyrics of John Lennon: “Expert, texpert, choking smokers, don’t you think the Joker laughs at you?” The authors of the Uncertainty Handbook may be the egg men, but I am the walrus. Goo goo g’joob.

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September 30, 2020 at 09:00AM

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