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?
- 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. ↩
- Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. Check out this great TED talk with Shermer. ↩
- 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. ↩
- And I too am sometimes blinded by my social and political interests. ↩
- Wikipedia entry on Cool it with links to Ackerman’s devastating review. ↩