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Truth vs Truthiness: Debating Global Warming with those beyond convincing

November 17th, 2008 · No Comments

We see this in blogging spaces, in coffee pot conversations, from right-wing talk show hosts to any conversation in the Senate including Senator James Inhofe (R-Exxon), the ever increasing frustration of those speaking with science and fact in their efforts to speak with, to engage, to convince those rejecting the science in relation to Global Warming.

For the second time, a climate-skeptic is hosting a “debate” between climate skeptics and those immersed in the science. On 13 January 2008, Iq2US will be sponsoring an “Oxford-style debate” Major reductions in carbon emissions are not worth the money (see the poll there on the question, deniers (yes vote) dominating).

  • Speaking for the motion: Peter Huber, Bjorn Lomborg and Philip Stott
  • Speaking against the motion: Daniel Kammen, Oliver Tickell and Adam Werbach
  • Very simply, if one follows the links from their names, the three “for” voices are major climate skeptics, engaged in a propaganda war to delay action in the face of mounting risks from Global Warming. They are bright, have lots of data on the tip of their tongues, and don’t seem to let the truth get in the way of too often persuasively aguing their assertions.

    The three “against” the motion are each of real substance. Dan Kammen is a nobel prize winner participant in the IPCC, top Berkeley professor, and advisor to President-Elect Obama. Oliver Tickell is an environmental activist writer and author of the intriguing Kyoto2. Adam Werbach was president of the Sierra Club at the age of 23 and now head of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a global green marketing firm.

    There is a great risk, of course, getting into a debate structure with “skeptics” like these three. Most importantly is a simple weltanschauung issue. Unlike those in the scientific community, these three (and others of their ilk) have little to no interest in the search for truth and are not prepared to (ever) acknowledge errors and shift their views if confronted with evidence that proves their points wrong. To quote from a great modern philosopher, Stephen Colbert, they focus on “truthiness”.

    The past record of such “debates” is not favorable to those focused on truth and honesty. The debates turn to the trivia as skeptics throw out some outlandish claim driving those seeking truth to can get caught up in minutia seeking to “prove” some seemingly arcane point, often enabling those selling snake oil answers to the challenges we face to set the discussion terms and, by doing so, in essence “win” the debate before the first verbal shots are fired.

    Debates like these trivialize important issues …

    And, yet people engage …

    Let us focus, for a moment, simply on Lomborg and his snake oil medicine sales effort. Lomborg is a particularly ‘dangerous’ foe in a debate format where there is, in essence, ‘equivalency’ and ‘two sides’ granted by the structure of the discussion. Why ‘fear’ Lomborg in a US, English-language debate environment on these issues? [NOTE: Somewhat stereotypical comments, but not out of line with comments heard from people unsure about global warming after they see Lomborg speak, on TV or in person.]

    1. Lomborg is, reasonably put, suave and debonair. He is witty and eloquent. He comes off extremely well, people “like him” … Everything else being equal, Lomborg “wins” in most situations due to his “charm”, wit, and (to be blunt) good looks.

    2. For the US audience, it matters that Lomborg is a Dane for several reasons. (A) A foreigner who is so eloquent in English — gains points by his fluency and articulateness. (“If he is this good in English, how much more convincing would he be if speaking in his native language?”) (B) The Danes (even compared to other Europeans) are some form of ‘socialist, left wing lunatics’. If an academic (another crowd of ‘left-wing lunatics’, no?) from Denmark is saying this, we really should listen to him.

    3. Lomborg’s ‘skeptical environmentalist’ argument sounds so reasonable and ‘appeals’ to the liberals in society (take care of poor, solve disease, etc …). Thus, those most ready to find appeal in his arguments for acting to solve the world’s ills are those most likely, based on reality-based policy making, to be on the side of science when it comes to Global Warming. Writ large, deniers find Lomborg appealing not for any call for resources for the poor of the world but as a tool to undercut calls and efforts to act to reduce fossil fuel pollution.

    4. Lomborg’s arguments appeal to basic human nature: focus on today while discounting tomorrow.

    5. Lomborg has a lot of “facts” on hand and is ready to thrown out statistics after statistic. It doesn’t really matter that they might not be factual and that they are typically not truthful. Any digging to the root truth of his comments is simply beyond the give-and-take of a debate environment (for 99+% of us) and comes off as ‘footnoting’ academic pickiness, rather than a basis for seriously questioning of the central points and validity of his argument.

    Without a doubt, the three getting on the stage are far better armed than I/most others to confront these three.

    Even so, I would strongly recommend an approach based on a single simple truth:

    The three skeptics are not interested in the truth.

    Nor will the truth sway them.

    With that in mind, I would recommend that all three supporting the urgency of action on Global Warming go into the debate with a series of statements and material that fundamentally call into question the very legitimacy of the three others. This might not seem “nice”, but we are in a knife-fight for the future and people like these three are not following “academic honesty” or any norms of a search for truth in their writings or public discussions.

    What might such a questioning include? Sticking with Bjorn, here is a rough draft of a ‘detailed’ comment using David’s Sasson’s excellent blog post as a source:

    Bjorn Lomborg has taken some real heat for his misrepresentations within and truthiness permeating his fantasy work Cool It. Over at SolveClimate, the typically excellent David Sassoon has taken the time to pull the string on the “evidence” for one of Lomborg’s key claims, that cold kills some 1.5 million Europeans each year and that extreme cold is more dangerous than extreme heat. At the end of the process, David finds: nothing there.

    From page 17 of Lomborg’s work of fiction,

    In Europe as a whole, about two hundred thousand people die from excess heat each year. However, about 1.5 million Europeans die annually from excess cold. That is more than seven times the total number of heat deaths. Just in the past decade, Europe has lost about fifteen million people to the cold. That we so easily neglect these deaths and so easily embrace those caused by global warming tells us of a breakdown in our sense of proportion.

    I recommend that you check David’s discussion out, but in brief:

    • Notes section refers to a WHO study.
    • The WHO study says there were 1,865,000 million deaths in Europe in 2002, or 365,000 deaths more than Lomborg’s claims for just the deaths by excess cold.
    • The WHO study lists out 45 causes of death, from malaria to iodine deficiency.
    • Neither excess heat nor excess cold were “even listed as a cause of death.”

    As David Sassoon points out:

    Bjorn has sent us on a wild goose chase. There is no evident foundation to his preposterous argument about deaths from excess cold.

    You might think this a minor little item, simply an obscure academic battle over footnotes. This obscure item, however, highlightst the difficulty that I will have in debating Bjorn, because everything he says merits this form of examination and scrutiny. Sadly, nearly every page of Bjorn’s work requires this sort of checking, this sort of detective work. Simply put, there is a reason that a Danish academic has created and maintains a website “Lomorg errors“.

    Yet another example of the misleading, even directly dishonest, nature of Bjorn Lomborg’s work. That his work often takes the truth out of truthiness will not, sadly, keep him from the pages of newspapers like the Washington Post nor from NPR’s radio waves let alone the friendly denialist spaces of The Wall Street Journal. No, Bjorn is smooth and debonair, a quite charming man who will be on talk shows and in editorial boards and at debate forums with the three of us, even though he is peddling recklessly false information.

    Of course, it is against the ilk and nature of scientists and (staid) academics to go into a public debate with such a stark rebuke to someone on stage with us. It is hard and discomfitting. But unless there is an effort to, in essence, cut Lomborg / Huber / Stott off at the knees, the battle to win this debate could be half-lost before it begins. Simply by appearing on stage with them, their viewpoints and legitimacy to be heard is validated. Again, they are not part of the search for truth but (for whichever reasons) are perfectly willing (and are actively) peddling disingenuous truthiness. And, that truthiness can be convincing for those not schooled in the issues or perhaps desiring an easy path out of confronting the realities of the challenges before us.

    Sigh …

    A simple question: Can truth win an Oxford-style debate against truthiness?

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    Tags: analysis · climate change · climate delayers · Energy · Global Warming · global warming deniers · skeptic