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Questions for Michael Shermer

Written by Sherwin, published on August 3, 2011

Arctic ice is melting

I’ve been a big fan of Skeptic Magazine for many years. And I am a big fan of science. My thesis was about, in part, science and the philosophy of science. I have some science training and I have some understanding for the way various institutions of science operate.1

I say all of this because I have questions for Michael Shermer.2 He has assessed the science surrounding climate change and published saying that: 1. the Earth is warming, and 2. this warming is caused by human activity, in particular CO2 production. This is great. 3

But Shermer has also published saying that there will only be “moderate warming with moderate changes.” He leans heavily on the analysis of Bjorn Lomborg and concludes that:

In my opinion we need to chill out on all extremist plans that entail expenses best described as Brobdingnagian, require our intervention into developing countries best portrayed as imperialistic, or involve state controls best portrayed as fascistic. Give green technologies and free markets a chance.

I should note that Chris Mooney of Desmog Blog has a podcast and an article about his interactions with Shermer and it’s definitely worth a listen and a read.

But my questions for Shermer have a slightly different approach. Like Skeptic Magazine readers, I am deeply interested in the way folks form beliefs about reality. And I am also interested in public relations and professional influence peddlers. And like the Tobacco industry’s interests in government spending and regulation of cigarettes, the oil industry has always had interests when it comes to government spending and regulations relating to climate change.

Continued retreating denial

I respect Shermer’s credentials and his approach on countless topics. From religion to dowsing rods to priming and junk science, Shermer is, in my opinion, right about many things. And he’s the first person to say that we shouldn’t believe him simply because he says so. Kudos.

But it does seem to me a little suspicious that he espouses a particular political ideology. He is a libertarian. Now I too have a political ideology (not libertarianism). 4 My point is not to say that clear thinking individuals can’t or shouldn’t have ideological leanings. My point is that is does seem to be a bit more than a coincidence that Shermer’s ideology is also the ideology that informs Conservatives and Republicans who are aligned against accepting or doing anything about climate change.

That is to say, Republicans and Conservatives have been lead deniers of climate change for thirty years. And now that denying climate change is untenable, they are denying that it’s worth doing something about it. So my question to Shermer is, is this grounds for suspicion?

There appears to be a structure and purpose to the shape that denial takes. The stages of climate change denial are well documented. The denier first denies that the Earth is warming. Then when they can’t sustain this, they deny that it’s caused by humans. Then when they discover that it is caused by human consumption, they deny that there is anything we can do about. Then when they realize that this is untenable, they deny that it’s worth doing anything about it. Then when they are forced to admit that we can and should do something about it, they deny that government should have any real active role in doing something about it.

The goal, at every stage of denial, is to deny that we should do something collectively. This defense of the status quo, is a defense of oil industry interests. It is also a defense of Libertarianism. Let’s call this continued retreating denial.

Warrant for skepticism

Shermer himself agrees that Republicans and Conservatives need to stop denying the fact of anthropogenic climate change. But he aligns with Republicans and Conservatives to affirm that we should continue to deny doing anything about climate change.

But here’s the thing. There is a huge oil lobby. There is a massive cover up campaign. The oil industry has intentionally confused the public about the scientific consensus. The Conservatives and the Republicans continue to deny the fact of climate change, and they do so because they deny that government ought to be in the position of regulator. And Shermer shares a political ideology with the Republicans. And Shermer denies that government ought to do something about it. Perhaps most importantly, Shermer relies heavily on Bjorn Lomborg, who’s other books and analysis on the topic of climate change have fit the pattern of continued retreating denial. Lomborg’s recent book, Cool It, which Shermer purports to be depending on for his analysis, was reviewed by economist Frank Ackerman of Tufts, saying that, “Lomborg has a weak grasp of some of the essential details and commits elementary mistakes, with little or no citation of sources that would explain his results.”5 Finally, and also importantly, many of the groups that lobbied against tobacco reform are the same groups lobbying against climate change mitigation and energy reform. They are also the same groups lobbying against other state interventions, like healthcare. They are the same groups.

So, Shermer. This appears to be enough evidence, structured in a predictable manner, to warrant deeper investigation into your social and political bias on this matter. Isn’t it? Wouldn’t you be skeptical?

  1. On some future occasion I plan to entertain various criticisms and defenses of science. I plan, as well, to put forward my defense of objectivity (no, not absolute objectivity!) in plain, blog, language.
  2. Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. Check out this great TED talk with Shermer.
  3. By affirming these two points, he has already come out far ahead of the collective intelligence of numerous Canadian journalistic organizations. The National Post and the Calgary Herald continue to run pieces doubting climate change. Actually the Globe and Mail also has an unfortunate narrative on the issue of climate change.
  4. And I too am sometimes blinded by my social and political interests.
  5. Wikipedia entry on Cool it with links to Ackerman’s devastating review.
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Archived comments

  1. [...] on the world. This even leads them to endorse bogus “evidence” for things like DDT and climate change that put them at odds with [...]

  2. klem says:

    “You’ve just demonstrated that you have no idea how science works. It’s all a matter of “equivocation”. It’s ‘highly likely’ that humans evolved from ape-like creatures ”

    Ok, but it’s also a matter of time, Evolution has been tested for 150 years and it has stood up to the closest scrutiny, ACC hardly 40 and it falls apart on the most cursory scrutiny. Climate science is not in the same league.

    “All credible, expert opinion predicts the effects of unmitigated climate change will be somewhere between extremely bad for society to society-ending. It will also increase the rate of the ongoing mass extinction.”

    I agree, unmitigated climate change will produce the next glaciation which could bring ice all the way down south of the 44th parallel like it did last time. Society ending, I have no doubt. Increase mass extinction? Most likely. Blaming it all on burning fossil fuels? Sorry, not getting on that bandwagon. And good luck mitigating it.

    Cheers

  3. BlueRock says:

    klem:

    > …I have no idea.

    There’s a lot of truth in that.

    Every national science academy of every major industrialised country on the planet confirms recent climate change is due to human activity as per the IPCC. No scientific body of national or international standing offers a dissenting opinion.

    ~98% of published climate scientists confirm the same. The tiny handful who dissent are all (??) employed directly or indirectly by fossil fuel interests.

    > Back in 2007 when the UN IPCC released their AR4 report I was an ardent climate alarmist.

    No, you were not. No one goes from a position of accepting overwhelming science to denying it when the science gets stronger with each passing year.

    > Their conclusions were not unequivocal at all; they were one equivocation after another.

    You’ve just demonstrated that you have no idea how science works. It’s all a matter of “equivocation”. It’s ‘highly likely’ that humans evolved from ape-like creatures – and the evidence for this is so compelling that we now consider it fact… except for those who are in denial of it for ideological (religious) reasons.

    In exactly the same way it is ‘highly likely’ that by increasing atmospheric CO2 by 40% in ~200 years that we are heating the planet. The mountain of evidence supporting this also makes it as good as fact – except to deniers, like you.

    All credible, expert opinion predicts the effects of unmitigated climate change will be somewhere between extremely bad for society to society-ending.

    It will also increase the rate of the ongoing mass extinction. Are you in denial of that as well? I find that the sort of person who denies ACC, denies *anything* that spoils their illusion of infinite ‘growth’ and wealth on a finite planet.

    > …the deniers like myself will continue to hold sway.

    You’re in a minority – a tiny minority in most countries. It’s only a few sociopathic billionaires, funding disinformation campaigns that are slowing down the action that is urgently needed.

    P.S. Anyone who ‘cites’ Bjorn Lomborg, whose work has been utterly destroyed by climate scientists and economists, is not a trustworthy commentator. Shermer is not trustworthy. He’s a ‘skeptic’ as far as his libertarian, ‘free market’ tunnel vision allows him to be – which isn’t very far when real-world constraints are considered.

  4. Sherwin says:

    So even though most scientists, working in the field of climate studies, agree that AGW is a fact, you do not. And even though Michael Shermer, who has spent his life in the pursuit of skeptical scientific fact, agrees that AGW is a fact, you do not. What are your credentials?

    And you claim to have once been a climate alarmist. Do you think I am an alarmist?

  5. klem says:

    “is it possible that we have proof of global warming, and you have resisted seeing it with a little help from vested interests?”

    Global warming was proved long. Anthropogenic global warming not so much, so no, I do not believe we already have the proof of AGW.

    Actually I have not resisted it with anyones help other than the IPCCs AR4 report released back in 2007. Back in 2007 when the UN IPCC released their AR4 report I was an ardent climate alarmist. . The UN IPCC released the AR4 report to much media fanfare; they said that the report showed that AGW was unequivocal and the time for discussion was over, it was time for action. I cheered. Then I downloaded the report and read it, I was stunned. Their conclusions were not unequivocal at all; they were one equivocation after another. The conclusions were distorted, the science was weak and to conclude that humans were responsible for climate change represented a leap of faith. It took me 6 months of research and wrestling with myself before I realized I had crossed to the denier side. When one gives up ones religious belief I suppose it usually takes more than 6 months, but that’s what I required. So to answer your question, it was the iPCC which moved me to the denier side but I am not really that comfortable here, I wait for the big hammer to appear and bring me back.

    Cheers

  6. Sherwin says:

    Ha ha, always controversial Jim! Nice.

    Klem, is it possible that we have proof of global warming, and you have resisted seeing it with a little help from vested interests?

  7. Grandpa Jim says:

    Hey, you might need a big hammer for a klem, however for a republican (I cannot grace them with a capitol!), you might need chainsaw a chunk of hemp rope …etc, to convince them of anything.
    Some republicans still haven’t gotten further than accepting god! Dragons, billions of years of creation, dinosaurs, hippopotamus, bipeds which are in the same species as humans are all alien concepts so forget global warming other planets etc. ………….I am not sure that their gods of politics even let them know that the space program was real.
    I think global warming is a disguise to allow the oil companies to justify higher prices!
    Let’s push for an obscene wage tax!!!
    light life love and truth gj

  8. klem says:

    That’s a good question, I have no idea.

  9. Sherwin says:

    Okay, that’s a little closer. So I say we’ve had the “big hammer.” Michael Shermer says we’ve had the “big hammer.” And you say we haven’t. You claim to be waiting for the big hammer though.

    So what would it look like if the “big hammer” arrived? How would we know if the proof was in our possession?

  10. klem says:

    What would change my mind? The big hammer, the big proof that CO2 is driving changes in the climate. If the alarmists found a proof which shuts the door on skepticism, that would change my mind. To date it just does not exist. Remember a while ago it was believed that there were many planets outside our solar system but there was much skepticism of this claim, however when the first exo-planet was found, almost all skepticism vanished. That’s what I mean by the big hammer, the big proof. Most of the time we hear about overwhelming evidence for ACC or we hear claims that there is a preponderance of evidence. That’s not the big hammer, it does not change my mind. We hear claims that droughts and hurricanes are consistent with climate model predictions. Yet they fail to mention that climate scientists have predicted just about everything, so no matter what actually happens the model predictions are correct. That does not change my mind. They show images of melting glaciers and polar bears as evidence of anthropogenic climate change, but these are merely evidence that the climate continues to change, they are not evidence that CO2 is the cause. So I wait for the big hammer, the big proof which will change my mind.

  11. Sherwin says:

    Okay. I say AGW is a fact. Michael Shermer says it’s a fact. You say it’s not a fact. What would change your mind?

  12. klem says:

    “Shermer himself agrees that Republicans and Conservatives need to stop denying the fact of anthropogenic climate change.”

    What planet are you living on? Climate change is a fact, anthropogenic climate change is not a fact. Until ACC becomes a fact, the deniers like myself will continue to hold sway.

    Cheers.