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The Trivialisation of Denialism – Climate Theories vs. Holocaust Fact

July 15, 2009 – 11:08 pm9 Comments
Amazonian rainforest consuming carbon dioxide

Amazonian rainforest consuming carbon dioxide

By Anthony Frosh

In recent times, the climate change debate has become highly topical.  It wasn’t always this way.  The first time I ever heard about this thing called the “greenhouse effect” was in 1989.  I was in year seven and we learnt about it in school.  That same year I also read about this greenhouse effect in the newspaper and came across it in television documentaries etc.  Human combustion of fossil fuels created carbon dioxide, which locked in the heat from the sun, and this would lead to rising sea levels.  That is to say, this theory was taught and learnt as fact, without any scrutiny whatsoever.   Karl Popper would have been rolling in his grave.

I’m not here today to argue my own position on the veracity of anthropogenic climate change, and it would require a far longer article than I intend.  Nevertheless, for the purposes of disclosure, I feel I should give a brief outline of my views. I am a committed environmentalist (ride my bike to work, flush the toilet with water collected from the shower and the laundry, pay extra to get my electricity from renewable sources, don’t eat meat – but sadly fish remains a weakness; and unlike Kevin Rudd and Al Gore, I refrain from travel in private jets) who nevertheless remains sceptical of focus on carbon dioxide and anthropogenic climate change.  I think there are much clearer and present environmental dangers such as water pollution, particle-based air pollution, toxic contamination of soil from heavy metals etc).   To read what I believe is a good short article on the topic, you might like to read this.

Despite my scepticism, I am generally very happy about carbon dioxide reduction efforts.  Even if carbon dioxide is not the threat so many people claim it to be, the fact is that the burning of fossil fuels that produces carbon dioxide is frequently accompanied by various other pollutants; so reduction of carbon dioxide usually involves concomitant reduction of other pollutants.

The problem I have is with the term “climate change denialist.” This is a term that some proponents of anthropogenic climate change have linked with the term “Holocaust denialist.”   For example, as far back as early 2007, Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe wrote

“I would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.”

This type of nonsensical equivalence concerns me for two reasons.

Firstly, it is an attempt to stifle scientific argument by likening sceptics to Holocaust deniers.  Agree or vehemently disagree with the likes of Professor Ian Plimer (and I have mixed views myself), but likening him to David Irving or Frederick Toben is simply absurd.

Secondly, and what is particularly alarming, is that it may serve to diminish people’s perceptions of just how ridiculous, mendacious, and insidious Holocaust denial is.  It might send the message that denying the Holocaust (what ought to be an obvious undeniable fact) is not really that different to questioning a scientific theory, even one that makes predictions about the future.  And should anthropogenic climate change be revealed to be another Y2K (1990s), or fears about global cooling (1970s), then the term denialist will become far more trivialised than it already is.

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9 Comments »

  • Jon says:

    Whilst I would not compare climate change sceptics to holocaust denialism, I do not think you can say that there is a rigorous debate between scientists who support or don’t support human induced climate change – there is not. The overwhelming consensus of scientists support human induced climate change with a small minority taking the opposite view, many of whom have never published anything in any peer reviewed scientific publication on climate change, such as Plimer.

    I would compare the debate as similar to say the debate between evolution and intelligent design, a small minority pushing a view, which is thoroughly repudiated by most scientists.

  • The two should never even be mentioned in the same sentence. Any discussion about the merits or otherwise of the theory of climate change (and bundle Y2K and global cooling in the same bucket, in their times), and the numbers of scientists on either sides of those debates is completely irrelevant to the point.

    All of those are theories about what might happen in the future. They only way to verify those is to wait.

    The Holocaust was a historical event with mountains of evidence, and plenty of recorded testimony.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Jon,
    I’m glad that we agree on the central premise of the piece – that sceptics of anthropogenic climate change should not be compared with Holocaust deniers.

    However, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with your perceptions of the level of debate on climate change. Up until less than a year or so go, I would have shared your view on this too, and I’m sure most educated Australians still do agree with you.

    While one could get the impression that there’s no rigorous debate from watching the ABC, SBS, and reading Fairfax papers, in The Australian there are frequently eminent scientists published who either disagree completely with the theory of anthropogenic climate change, or who do not think carbon dioxide emissions are as central to ecological concerns as is frequently portrayed (see the link I posted in the original post).

    While I have an open mind on the matter, I am yet to read a really good causal explanation for CO2 levels being the central driver of temperature (despite numerous efforts to find one). Even on a correlational level, C02 is just not a great predictor of climate change. How would you explain the Roman warming period, as well as the even more recent Little Ice Age by the CO2 paradigm?

    In fact, the arguments generally put forward in favour of the CO2 paradigm are arguments by consensus. In science, consensus ought to count for very little indeed. And as we have seen recently, the same can be said for the study economics. A scientific argument is worthwhile based on its own merits; how many people agree or disagree has nothing to do with science.

    A final note on Ian Plimer: While his popular book Heaven + Earth may not have been peer reviewed, I can assure you that he has had numerous works published that have been peer reviewed. One does not become the Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne without a successful publication record. Heaven + Earth has not been peer reviewed as it is a book, not a journal article.

  • Jon says:

    Frosh,

    Just a few observations to your response:

    1. I don’t accept there is really any serious debate amongst scientists about the causes of climate change, the debate that they are primarily having is over the degree of change to the environment due to climate change;

    2. you are correct that the ‘The Australian’ is unique amongst the major newspapers in Aust. (and event amongst the Murdoch press) for giving space to the views of climate sceptics. This has been going on for many years now, and reflects in my view, a rather outdated position taken by its editors that this is part of some broader “culture war” between the left and right (its interesting that amongst the promoters of the sceptic viewpoint in this regard are generally conservative commentators such as Bolt,Christopher Pearson, Miranda Devine etc);

    3. I agree consensus in of itself is not a reason for a scientific paradigm to be prevail. However, the reason for the consensus is the accumulation of evidence from thousands of scientists. Whilst I do not work in the scientific field, I understand that scientists are a rather cautious bunch, and before making any conclusions, are likely if anything to be conservative in their assessment;

    4. Lastly, I am not convinced that Plimer is such an expert as he claims he is. My point was not that he hasn’t published in scientific publications before, but he hasn’t on issues associated with climate change. Outside the conservative commentariat, his book has been savagely critiqued by fellow Aust. scientists.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Jon,

    From what I can tell from your writing style, I think it’s safe to assume that you are a well educated and intelligent person.

    Thus you owe it to yourself not to simply rely on consensus arguments, as you have thus far. An intelligent and educated person ought to be able to find and understand an explanation for a scientific theory that they believe in. If you make this effort, I’d love to hear how it goes.

    A basic principle of science is that a scientific theory ought to be able to be falsified. The CO2 paradigm is scientific in this sense, as it does lend itself to falsifiability. The problem is that its proponents have not made sufficient efforts at falsification. While I disagree with some aspects of Plimer’s style, such as his failure to emphasise the non-C02 dangers of burning fossil fuels, and his book looks like it was slapped together in a bit too much of a rush, I nonetheless think he should be applauded for making the effort of putting the CO2 paradigm through the falsification process.

  • Science guy says:

    frosh,

    you have it exactly wrong in your last post. Climate scientists have for decades been vigorously attempting to falsify the anthropogenic global warming theory. The trouble is, the theory remains intact after every attempt to demolish it. This sort of thing happens in science when an idea turns out to be right. If it is right, then attempts to falsify it will fail!

    As for Plimer, surely you are joking. He is not attempting to “falsify” anything (which would be a legitimate scientific endeavour). If he was legitimate, he wouldn’t stoop to using fake graphs copied from fraudulent sources.

    If you want to see what real scientists think of Plimer, here’s the link:

    http://www.complex.org.au/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=91

  • frosh says:

    SG,

    You have not actually produced any scientific arguments in your above coment (diclosure: my background is in scientific methodology). If you can provide a decent causal explanation in terms of the CO2 paradigm that takes into acccount such recent pre-industrial climate change as the Little Ice-Age and the Roman warming period, we’ll gladly publish it on Galus Australis as its own article.

    Otherwise, you’re not convincing me, and I’m not convincing you, and we are both just off the topic of the original post, which was about the misappropriation of the term denialism.

    p.s. Have you still got that sticker on your mircrowave that says “This Product is [now] Y2K Compliant”? ;-)

  • Science guy says:

    frosh,

    you have got to be kidding me. Global warming science takes into account all observed data on all time scales, both historical (=very recent) and geological. That’s the whole point. You imply that selected events such as an Ice-Age here or there are being ignored. Ludicrous. Did you even look at the link I provided? You say I’m not providing scientific arguments: I provided a link to dozens of pages of detailed arguments, data and citations. That’s what science actually looks like up close, except that the published literature is more detailed & specialized than the document I linked to.

    You say your background is in “science methodology”. Unfortunately that is not the same as science. Real science doesn’t proceed according to the trivial recipes put forward by “philosophy of science”. I can assure you that real scientists (eg physicists who do climate modelling) pay no attention at all to philosphy of science.

    In high school they teach you that there is such a thing as a “scientific method” and since you say your background is in “scientific methodology”, I guess you believe it!

    If you tried some real science you’ll discover that it ain’t so. If there was a “methodology” then you could program chimps to do science and the rate of scientific discovery would depend only on how many chimps we could breed. Or forget about chimps, just use robots. Oddly enough, it doesn’t work that way.

  • frosh says:

    SG,

    Your comment dismissing the value of the scientific method only exposes the absurdity of the pseudonym under which your write. I suggest you change your pseudonym (after all, it will hardly be the first time for you to do that) to something more appropriate. Perhaps “Troll Guy,” or alternatively, your real name.

    You clearly know very little about science. I have read the page that you linked to. They are not scientific arguments, but merely highlight some incidents of sloppy editing in Plimer’s book, which I had already brought up myself in my comments to Jon (whom I might add is at least a genuine commenter, and not a troll like yourself).

    Either meet the challenge I put to you (from my previous comment), or go away and get yourself a basic scientific education before returning to this thread.

    It’s a good thing for you that you are writing under a pseudonym and not your real name or you would have truly embarrassed yourself with your most recent comment.

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