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← Thank you, Matt Ridley

SeanSantos's Avatar Jump to comment 33 by SeanSantos

I've loved much of Matt Ridley's work. I found "Genome" fascinating and inspiring in many respects, and in an indirect sense he may be one reason that I believe in evolution today.

But I was really put off by this speech. For example, he referenced Climategate (an incident which I feel is vastly overstated as a sign of corruption, popularized by quote-mining and cherry picking from a vast amount of text, and an indefensible generalization from a few scientists to a vast community).

I also was amused about the amount of money supposedly available to climate scientists. As a personal disclaimer, I do work for an organization that does climate research (not as a scientist or spokesperson of any kind). I see spending cuts in areas that rely on uncertain federal funding, and I do not see millions of dollars pouring in from Greenpeace and the WWF. I do not see status within the organization being predicated on how pessimistic your predictions about climate change are.

But I do see millions of dollars pouring into political think tanks and lobbying organizations whose goal is to promote any research, no matter how flimsy, that is ideologically convenient. (Something that surely happens on both sides. However, Ridley misses the point when he discusses whether all climate change skeptics are funded by fossil fuel interests; those interests don't need many scientists on their side. They mostly need publicists and a message that appeals to ideologues.)

There are a number of other, briefer claims that set off my skeptic alarm. One example: fears of climate change induced diverting grain to produce ethanol which caused an increase in grain prices? I didn't agree with those policies, but I know that in the U.S. they had as much or more to do with the politics of farming and the continuation of corn subsidies as climate change. And it's far from clear that, in the absence of these policies, the same amount of grain would have been produced, and instead gone to feed the hungry.

And of course, the push for alternative energy sources has never been driven solely by climate change. Concern about the other externalities of the fossil fuel industry (including other forms of pollution) is important. Having an energy supply that is based less on geographic luck and international politics is also important.

I was also amused by the logarithmic curves, plotted to fit two data points. I'm sure that they were not the source of his numbers, and simply meant to illustrate a point, but the point seems so excessively simplified as to be useless.

And then there was the Godwining. Climate science = eugenics? Lysenkoism? Really? Is there any point to that comparison other than the shock-value point about pseudoscience?

I appreciate that a speech to laypeople is not like an in-depth paper. But if you want to make a point about skepticism, it seems like a better idea to focus on a few, specific points and talk about sources, rather than run through a Gish Gallop of vague, oversimplified, uncited, and readily contested assertions.

Points like "experts can be stupid" and "sometimes the heretic is right" have been done to death by people who think they have disproven evolution or relativity, which should tell you that simply acknowledging these facts, without qualification or elaboration, does not produce proper skepticism at all. Nor is it reasonable to say "the experts are bad at making predictions" about politics or economics, and import that conclusion into a field of physics(/chemistry)! No sane person says that being an expert is irrelevant to how well you can predict eclipses, simply because it's hard to forecast election results. These sorts of appeal are all about undermining people's subjective feelings of confidence in experts, not exploring a rational epistemology, which would demand an exploration of the difference between science and pseudoscience, and not just a vague fussing over how similar they can look.

I think Matt Ridley is a decent skeptic. I also think that he commits one of the cardinal errors of skepticism, which is to lambast a particular view as confirmation-bias-fueled-pseudoscience without a clear explanation of his sources of information, and how he derives conclusions from them based on common, reasonable standards of evidence. Both sides in every debate engage in confirmation bias. To say that someone is biased is not evidence that they are more wrong than you, but simply an explanation of how they come to be wrong, that you don't get to outline until you've provided a decent, thorough case that they are wrong.

[Edited immediately after posting to fix minor errors.]

Tue, 08 Nov 2011 20:03:12 UTC | #888744