In the Cask of Amontillado, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, we hear of a man named Fortunato who is bricked up alive in a wine cellar, and left to die.
Imagine for a moment you find yourself in that wine cellar a couple of hours later. You can hear Fortunato’s cries for help, but before you can rescue him, you must find a way to break down the brick wall. It doesn’t matter how much you want to rescue him, unless you find a way to break down the brick wall he is doomed.
We find ourselves in a chillingly similar circumstances today, with the issue of “climate change” (Anthropogenic Global Warming – AGW). No matter how scientifically literate you are, and no matter how good your polemic skills may be, you will repeatedly come up against the brick wall of “but the science is settled – (insert name of Prof or research institution here) says so.”
And no class of person is more prone to this than politicians. I was once at a Liberal Party meeting where I chatted to Linda Reynolds, one of the Senators from Western Australia. When I attempted to raise the issue of climate change, I didn’t even get to finish asking my question before she cut me off and replied with “oh, I think we all accept the consensus view.”
The issue of how to argue from the position of the sceptic is a huge topic that I don’t have time to go into here, but I am just going to attempt to make some suggestions as to how we can begin to break down this brick wall.
In general, there are two ways that we may know something is true. Either we have seen evidence for it our self, or we trust the opinion of an authority on the matter. The first of these is known as “argument by evidence” and the second is “argument by authority.” For most of us with most issues, our opinions are a mixture of the two. The car you drive may be because you drove it yourself, or you read a review of it, but usually it is both. There are, however, two professions that are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Science operates exclusively by argument by evidence and law operates exclusively by argument by authority. That is, in science precedent is nothing and in law precedent is everything. So that if a particular legal case comes up, the lawyers will look for a similar case that has occurred in the past. If they find one, then this case is quoted as gospel truth and there is not the slightest whisper of a suggestion that the issue be re-examined. In other words, the notion of the first opinion being wrong is just not on the radar.
And this is the first problem we face, because most politicians are lawyers. Therefore, if a distinguished professor states something to be the case, they don’t even consider the possibility that he may be wrong.
Combating this is difficult, but is best handled by a Socratic approach. This is a gentle approach where you do not appear to be disputing openly, but rather lead the person down the path of their own logic. How it is done depends on the circumstances and situations, but here are some suggestions for some of the questions that could be asked (note that the approach here is to gently try to make them see that they have blindly accepted things without looking into them too deeply. So when you kill one of their sacred cows your response is not a triumphant “ha ha – see I told you so” but rather an empathetic. “Yeah – I was surprised when I discovered that too”):
- Do you know where that figure of 97% of climate scientists agree with this came from? (gently bring them around to telling them that it’s only the opinion of 79 people).
- You know that scientist bloke who was on the news tonight (e.g. Will Steffen, Tim Flannery et al)? I wonder who pays his salary? What do you think might happen if he gave the opposite view from the one that he just gave? (this is to bust the idea of independence and expose the self-interest).
- You know how we’ve heard for years that saturated fats are bad for us? Well, did you hear the latest research says that they aren’t?
- Have you heard of the book “popular delusions and the madness of crowds?” It tells of instances throughout history when the entire population had something wrong, and some of them are scientific.
- You know when you hear that something has “disappeared into the ether”? Do you know where that came from? Scientists used to think that vacuum was filled with stuff called luminiferous ether, and that’s what light moved through. But Michelson and Morley accidentally proved it wrong in 1887.
- Did you know that science used to think that diseases such as cholera were airborne? It was called the miasma theory.
- There was once this bloke called Ludwig Boltzmann. He had a theory about electronic energy levels and everyone in the world thought he was wrong, and he copped so much crap for it that he took his own life. But as it happened he was right.
All of these are instances where science got it wrong – completely wrong. Those of us that are scientists wouldn’t have it any other way. We love being proved wrong because we learn something.
The key here is that the approach you take is non-combative. Unfortunately, in the public sphere this subject has resulted in a polarising of views. People are labelled as either believers or sceptics. Most punters only believe this because they have been bombarded with it constantly by the media. If I were not a scientist, I would probably have believed it too. Hell, I did for a while – it’s only my natural scepticism as a scientist that ever caused me to start questioning it in the first place, but not many people have this luxury
Therefore, to take the approach of gently questioning the status quo with phrases like “yeah, I used to think that too” or “I came across this quite by chance – I was surprised too” or “yep, that’s pretty surprising isn’t it” is far more effective than an aggressive, polarising approach.
Personally I think the best service that’s ever been done to scepticism in the Australian political landscape by a politician was Stephen Fielding (FF Senator). He didn’t come across as a hard-core sceptic but simply as a punter who was a little unsure about the popular view, and felt that he had to look into it.
On the other hand, from time to time you will come up against a hard-core Greenie – hopefully in a public debate (I wish..). In this circumstance being gentle won’t work. You need to get the sledgehammer out. In my view, the simplest, cleanest, most effective way to do this is to target the phrase they often use “we need to take action on climate change”
The response to this is still Socratic but far more direct in nature:
“Great – let’s take some action. What will we do and what effect will it have?”
A lot of punters aren’t familiar with the numbers so I’ll run through them so you understand how strong an approach this is: CO2 concentration is about 400 ppm. In percentage terms, that is 0.04%. Of that, about 3% is man-made. Of that, 1.3% comes from Australia. And our government wants to reduce emissions by 5% at a cost of about $10 billion by 2020 (I’m unable to find exact figures).
In other words, we are going to spend $10 billion to cut CO2 concentration by 5% of 1.3% of 3% of 0.04%. That works out to roughly a change of one part in 120 million. The effect that this will have on global temperature is 0.0038° C.
And here’s the point – these are the IPCC calculations. (You could mention that these calculations are based on computer models that have already been shown to overestimate the influence of CO2, but let’s not confuse things).
In this kind of environment I like to resolve the issue into an indisputable fact and say so. So you could say something like “it is a statement of fact that the government’s direct action policy will change global temperatures by an amount so small that it can’t even be measured.”
This is a point that most non-scientists will not understand. Some things can be measured down to very small numbers (like mass and distance), but temperature is not one of them. The reason is simply that the technology does not exist, mainly because there is no need for it. I’ve seen temperature measured down to the second decimal point, but that’s it. Nothing, but nothing has a stable temperature below that point.
Armed with these figures, what you can then simply do is keep bringing them back to the central point whenever they try to change the subject (which they will do). I use phrases like “I noticed you changed the subject – why did you do that?”
Well, that’s pretty much the mechanics of it. But as we all know the hardest part about this is to actually get a hard-core believer to debate with you. Discussing it with a punter I think is a lot easier, if it can be approached gently. If we all learn how to do this, then sooner or later the politicians will wake up and smell the roses and realise that the tide is turning. Based on several surveys that I have seen, it looks like it’s starting to happen, mostly I think because people are getting sick of being told about world ending scenarios that never come to pass. If we can help out with some of the information I’ve covered in this article, it may help to speed things up.
Dr Mark Imisides is running for the Senate in Western Australia as a candidate for the Christian Democratic Party (CDP). Among other things, Dr Imisides has a PhD in Chemistry and writes for The West Australian.
Please note, the views expressed by Dr Imisides do not necessarily mirror those of The Marcus Review and the presence of this post should not be taken as an endorsement of the CDP. With that said, TMR thanks Dr Imisides for taking the time to tell us more about what he stands for and wishes him all the very best for the upcoming election.
Dr Imisides has also made an appearance on Andrew Bolt’s blog if you would like to read more.
If you’re a Western Australian voter and find yourself looking for the CDP, you won’t have to look far: Dr Imisides and the CDP occupy the first spot on the Senate ballot paper.