A Climate ‘Skeptic’ Objects to Ideology, Politics as Motives

A scientist/professor’s assertion that politics, rather than science, motivates most skeptics leads to an e-mail exchange … and then to the seemingly inevitable ad hominem criticism.


What appeared to get the goat of the U.K.-based* retired-banker-turned-climate-”skeptic” is the American scientist’s statement that most of those people dismissing climate change do so “for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.”

The quote, attributed to Colorado State Atmospheric Science Professor Scott Denning and taken from a Yale Forum post April 5, is not in question. Denning stands by it and says that he has had talks “with literally thousands of people who don’t ‘believe’ in climate change …. Nearly all of them have been opposed almost entirely on ideological rather than scientific grounds.”

“This is not hearsay,” Denning wrote in an e-mail to Douglas J. Keenan of London. “It’s simply been my personal experience.”

Denning was responding to an e-mail Keenan had sent to Denning and to the publisher of The Yale Forum. In that e-mail, Keenan pointed to an op-ed piece he had published on April 5, 2011, in The Wall Street Journal. He pointed in particular to the Journal‘s subhead for the “How Scientific is Climate Science?” op-ed piece: “What is arguably the most important reason to doubt global warming can be explained in plain English.”

For his part, Denning was having no part of it. He acknowledged that some who reject the dominant views “have specific scientific objections to scientific results on climate,” but said he finds each individual person’s objections “to be rather idiosyncratic.” Keenan’s own arguments, based on autoregression in timeseries amount not to a “unified ‘contrarian’ critique of mainstream of science,” but rather, like other such contrarian objections, amount to “merely a thousand tiny details without a theme other than anger.”

Denning wrote that Keenan, in his Journal column, had picked “a tiny issue (autoregression in timescales analysis) and analyze[d] it in detail, giving the false impression that this is somehow an important objection to mainstream science.

“The false premise is that concerns about future warming are based on extrapolation of recent trends,” Denning wrote. “This is certainly not the case, as the mainstream science is based on laboratory spectroscopy of CO2 gas that is backed up by 150 years of experimental data!”

Denning’s advice to Keenan? “Spend some time really listening to scientists, as I’ve spent countless hours listening to contrarians. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, and I’m sure you could broaden your horizons as well!”

It was now Keenan’s turn at having no part of it. And he wasn’t. Denning’s reference to a “tiny issue,” Keenan wrote, “is untrue and you know it to be untrue.” He objected also to Denning’s point that “CO2 molecules emit heat,” making warming substantial. “You know all this,” he reprimanded after making several additional points.

Honesty … and Fallibility

And then the zinger, Keenan’s closing line: “I previously wondered if you were dishonest or just confused. I no longer wonder about that: your reply is substantively dishonest.”

So much for civility? Denning on April 9 wrote back: “If you wish to be taken seriously, please keep your correspondence respectful. I don’t claim to be infallible, but I assure you I am not dishonest …. I am more than willing to listen and discuss, but I am not interested in trading insults.”

He wrote that concerns over CO2 emitted from burning of fossil fuels are based “on very simple physics, not on rising temperatures or timeseries analysis.”

“It is perfectly reasonable to ask how sensitive (in degrees Celsius) the Earth’s climate is to changes in heating (in Watts),” Denning wrote. “But it seems disingenuous to assert that heat doesn’t change temperature. Everyday experience with teapots, hands, and feet refute such a claim.”

After further laying-out his science-based convictions, Denning concluded his e-mail by saying:

Personally, I believe in capitalism, freedom, and the power of market incentives to drive innovation. I’d be interested in your thoughts about how these principles might best be used to provide a decent standard of living for billions of people without dramatic changes to the energy balance of the Earth’s surface.

To be continued? Stay tuned. But, if so, hopefully in the tone of civility and mutual respect that can inform, rather than inflame.

* This adjective lightly edited 4/12/2012.

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15 Responses to A Climate ‘Skeptic’ Objects to Ideology, Politics as Motives

  1. GWS says:

    For most who follow the “debate”, the above description is nothing new, but still important to hear again and reflect.
    One has to realize that “skeptics” come in many flavors. The denialists, such as at WUWT et al., do it for a living, sometimes in the literal sense of making money off denying reality. Their followers have become very good at one of the dominant denialist tactics, cherry-picking scientific findings; anyone familiar with the science and visiting such blogs, and there are many, can check that for themselves. However, the denialosphere does not just effectively reinforces itself, it also acts as a multiplier, which is why its main purpose, sowing doubt about the science, is so effective. As has been pointed out by Scott and many others, there is no point in trying to convince anyone in that sphere, however often you point out an individual’s logical faults in assessing the science. Most of the people commenting in those blogs lack a basic skill: being critical about their own convictions.
    Thus, contrary to science itself, they cannot progress. But then they are not a majority of the population, and I venture to say not even the majority of conservatives. But they are loud, they have leadership that is loud and that is willing to take extreme positions. And they MUST attack the science, because giving up that option fundamentally undermines their goal as it would expose their activity as purely politically driven.

    I live in a deep red state. I talk and interact with conservatives. The loudness of the denialists and those who have internalized their message, makes them doubtful of the science (remember: that was the denialist’s goal!). But don’t get them wrong. Most strongly support science in general, and if and when they hear that the science is strong and the projections are worrying, they will reconsider their positions. Those are the people we scientists need to address and that Scott and many others are after.

    The shouting matches are not completely pointless as long as we keep in mind that those most loudly opposing the science do not do so for scientific but ideological reasons. Some of them know they are wrong, some are so smart they have convinced themselves they are right (check out “Fred” on a previous post, who suffers from the “backfire effect”). But many who are listening on the sidelines and have not lost their ability to think critically, will respond to the calm voices; voices that reiterate the scientific reality with humility.

    I think we scientists must be more of those voices, because, if not us, who is better trained in recognizing our own confirmation bias, explaining it, and conveying why listening to the unified voice of science is a better choice then listening to the the shrill naysayer?

    • jim karlock says:

      GWS—–I think we scientists must be more of those voices, because, if not us, who is better trained in recognizing our own confirmation bias, explaining it, and conveying why listening to the unified voice of science is a better choice then listening to the the shrill naysayer?
      JK——–OK.
      Please start by showing us real evidence that man’s CO2 is actually causing dangerous warming, instead of stories of crazy weather, melting ice, cuddly carnivorous and results of unproven (back projection does NOT infer skill) models.

      Still waiting for actual evidence of CO2 caused warming.
      JK

  2. PRC says:

    Don’t you just love it when non-physicists simplify the most complex physical system we know with the words “very simple physics”. Non-physicists should leave physics to physicists who understand the processes involved. Therein lies the big problem with the abysmal state of climate science.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    I’m ready and waiting to see the evidence for “disastrous climate change coming soon”.

    What puzzles me is this: if there is some strong and robust piece of evidence then why do the alamists mix it up with weak evidence and things I can easily disprove.

    Like Al Gore’s claim that Pacific Islanders were evacuated to New Zealand when their country disappeared beneath the waves. Very easy to refute so why did he even make the claim?

    I will say it again: if there is some strong evidence then start with it and then say no more. Do not mix it with rubbish or people will attack the rubbish.

  4. Mad Scotsman says:

    There is no direct evidence to support the existence of a HOT SPOT in the tropical troposphere. Here is the place of all places where the AGW hypothesis fails. We can all agree there is additional atmospheric CO2, but the molecules there, as opposed to those in lab-based experiments, do not appear to absorb and re-radiate heat (energy) as hypothesised.

    If CO2 is considered to be a potent greenhouse gas then it is doing a lousy job. Surely there should also be general agreement about that.

  5. Orson says:

    I would be glad to join GWS and professor Denning in agreeing to “clear and convincing evidence” for CAGW, as James Hansen puts it – but does not show to me, at least – in his recent book.

    I also know that Denning is not Hansen (fortunately). But the cherry picking claim GWS stands on against critics does not fit my experience – rather it comes from orchestrated AGW blogs (from DeSmog down to RC, SS and ), none of which display Denning’s exceptional equanimity or respect. But perhaps both are blind to the substance of scientific objections?

    Denning “wrote that concerns over CO2 emitted from burning of fossil fuels are
    based ‘on very simple physics, not on rising temperatures or timeseries analysis.’”

    Indeed they are, but it is the water vapor fueled acceleration of climate cycle claims of IPPC science which is objected to by skeptics – not these fundamentals.

    Denning stands by it and says that he has had talks “with literally thousands of people who don’t ‘believe’ in climate change …. Nearly all of them have been opposed almost entirely on ideological rather than scientific grounds.”

    <They are “opposed almost entirely on ideological rather than scientific grounds.”

    That is a rather extraordinarily sweeping statement. Furthermore, how could anyone possibly know? I think that without a deeper knowledge of many, many people, this inductive claim could not withstand circumspection.

    A friend of mine graduated in physics from Colorado State University a few years ago and took two courses from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, where Denning teaches. He said that when AGW arose, students debated with the professor – skeptics versus a Believer in AGW alarm. It was two halves arguing past each other!

    I wonder if Keenan’s ire isn’t raised simply by the offense of being reduced, not to a stereotype, but caricature? I mean shouldn’t scientific objections be answered scientifically? Could Denning be reducing his half of the debate to caricature too?

    If so, then Denning’s ‘respect’ may fail to be conveyed to those he’s trying to reach – much as if I reduced climatologists like Greg Holland and himself to being no different than James Hansen, Peter Gleick, or Tim Flannery, as scientists – simply the same ideologically motivated Believers. Activists are not the same as scientists.

    So why can’t Denning perceive differences among skeptics? (eg, the ideological, the naively informed, the well-informed, etc.)

    One alternative explanation for what Denning claims rests on two or three factors: self-selection and the secular affinity of libertarians (ie, the individualists of the American right). Here I’m mindful the three groups composing the political right as detailed in “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America” (by Micklethwait and Wooldridge). In this account, the right is composed of three value-groups: the Evangelicals, traditionalists, and individualists.

    In other words, in contrast to the the first two groups who are more religiously motivated, the latter are more secular and ‘scientifically sensitive’ and more mindful of threats to individual and economic freedom. These sorts are uniquely sensitive to the science claims made by the most prominent of climate activists – like those mentioned above (eg, Hansen: CAGW is as morally important as slavery), as well as a recent SciAm column on the environmental necessity of world government to save us from CAGW, and University of Oregon sociologist Kari Norgaard (sp?) who advocates re-education camps for “Deniers” – whose antics amply justify serious questioning.

    But leaving interpretation of political sociology aside, I defy anyone to show that climatology Professor Murray Salby, author of one of the textbooks on atmospheric physics, holds objections that are anything that could be termed “ideological.”
    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrI03ts–9I&feature=youtu.be)
    Namely, the IPCC gets the facts wrong: that tiny anthropogenic CO2 changes do not drive the earth’s climate – but delta-temperature and soil moisture does. View his presentation from last August and decide for yourself.

    • Bruce says:

      Prof. Denning seems like a reasonable guy but let’s examine his claim about the “thousands” of talks he’s had with climate sceptics. If we’re to assume these talks were meaningful in any way then they must have lasted a reasonable amount of time. What is a reasonable amount of time in this context? Let’s say 15 minutes. The Prof doesn’t say how many thousands of talks but I get the impression it’s possibly something like 5,000. That’s just a guess and obviously it could be higher or lower.

      Prof Denning doesn’t speak to many sceptics when he’s at work, sleeping, eating or using the bathroom so we’ll give him a daily window of six hours during which he might be exposed to climate sceptics. That means that Prof Denning has spent 208 solid days using all his available non-working, non-eating, non-sleeping and non-showering/dumping time garnering the views of climate sceptics.

      Personally, I think Mike Mann should move aside and make way for Prof. Denning as the CAGW poster boy. He’s probably better looking than Mann as well.

  6. Orson says:

    Denning again: “The false premise [of Keenan? or most skeptics? is] that concerns about future warming are based on extrapolation of recent trends,” Denning wrote. “This is certainly not the case….

    Certainly, extrapolation of trends is not the sole IPCC/Dr. Susan Solomon claim. Indeed, both claim from AR4 that global warming was accelerating recently.
    http://sites.google.com/site/globalwarmingquestions/_/rsrc/1259250343991/faq3.1fig1.jpg
    SOURCE Figure 1 from FAQ 3.1.
    (I should add that this graphic was inserted by lead editors; the graphic approved by scientists in first or second draft drew a different, singular trend line.
    http://sites.google.com/site/globalwarmingquestions/_/rsrc/1259250344586/faq3.1fig1orig.jpg)

    This acceleration of increasing warmth since 2007 has not happened.

    I have to wonder if Denning or the above writer has not dropped a more specific context that Keenan had in mind.?

    One point made by Pat Michaels is that simple extrapolation of recent decadal trends have better</i< described real observed trends than computer models have. (I believe that John Christy has made the same point, too.)

  7. Jean Demesure says:

    Orson : “Denning “wrote that concerns over CO2 emitted from burning of fossil fuels are
    based ‘on very simple physics, not on rising temperatures or timeseries analysis.’”

    Indeed they are, but it is the water vapor fueled acceleration of climate cycle claims of IPPC science which is objected to by skeptics – not these fundamentals.”
    ——————
    I noticed also that same old tired strawman typical of warmist talking points !
    And note Denning’s leap of faith from “simple physics” (of an increase of 0,01% of GHG from CO2, compared to the huge natural 1-2% of GHG from water vapor!) to “dramatic changes to the energy balance of the Earth’s surface”. If Denning claims not to be dishonnest, then he has a common psychological problem called catastrophism.

    • GWS says:

      Boy, boy, what old falsehoods get recycled … Shame on you Jean: You cherry-picked the ABSOLUTE increase for CO2, which is actually known much better than 0.01%, and the RELATIVE increase of water vapor, which is much less well known. The CO2 increase is actually from approx. 280 ppm pre-industrial to roughly 395 ppm by today. I’ll let you do the math.

  8. GWS says:

    Sigh.
    All the above comments after mine essentially confirm the main point of the post. They are full of unrelated attacks on the science instead of addressing the post’s point; some more sophisticated than others but all are red herrings.
    To reiterate:
    ” … they MUST attack the science, because giving up that option fundamentally undermines their goal as it would expose their activity as purely politically driven.”
    Let me say that differently: To hide the fact that the attack is ideologically driven, the science is questioned, usually through a series of logical fallacies (e.g. red herrings (“This acceleration of increasing warmth since 2007 has not happened.”), cherry picking (ibid), ad hominems (“alarmist”), etc.), consciously (as by denialists), or unconsciously (by most others).
    But wait: Why is that?
    It think it does not have to be like that. Just because ideologies differ that should not (and does not) mean that a problem cannot be solved together. But that requires that we agree at least to some extent that there is a problem in need of solution (such as the fact that fossil fuels are limited). Many on the right, like the posters above, deny that but do not realize that by doing so they effectively delay a solution in the case they are wrong. That is not right, but self-righteous. Many on the left do not realize that hammering the facts down the right’s throat does not do any good either. It just hardens the positions. Some even do it on purpose, and that is even more self-righteous.

    The self-righteous right needs to realize that fighting the facts will backfire sooner or later and that the values the right pursues may come under threat much more then than they perceive it now (again: the science as such cannot threat the conservative mind, it is the perceived consequences of that science that threatens people’s minds). The self-righteous left need to realize that arguing facts does not solve the problem, but instead invite the right to contribute to solutions. One of the things the right is opposing is that many solutions coming from the left are related to government regulations etc.

    So, you see, I am not arguing the red herrings etc. with you. That would be fruitless. And this will be my last comment on this thread.
    But maybe you want to comment using something actually related to the thread?

    • jim karlock says:

      GWS says:
      All the above comments after mine essentially confirm the main point of the post. They are full of unrelated attacks on the science instead of addressing the post’s point; some more sophisticated than others but all are red herrings.
      JK Replies:
      How is asking to see some actual evidence a red herring?

      So far your side has presented evidence of warming, but has been unable to link it to man’s CO2 emissions. Of course this is especially difficult because man’s CO2 emissions are under 5% of the total annual emissions and nature emit CO2 with old C too.

      So, I repeat:
      Please start by showing us real evidence that man’s CO2 is actually causing dangerous warming, instead of stories of crazy weather, melting ice, cuddly carnivorous and results of unproven (back projection does NOT infer skill) models.

      Still waiting for actual evidence of CO2 caused warming.
      JK

      • Bud Ward says:

        Jim: PBS stations next Sunday, April 22, will begin airing a three-part “Earth: The Operators Manual” narrated by Penn State climate scientist Richard Alley, an IPCC author and member of the National Academy of Sciences. In Part I, to be
        aired first (conveniently), Alley provides what he and many other IPCC authors conclude is compelling evidence on CO2, based on its isotopes, and he/they conclude that the warming can be the result only of human causes. You may or may
        not accept his conclusion, but it likely will be of interest to you. I believe that section starts around the 13-minute point of Part I….but watching the full one-hour — along with remaining Parts II and III — likely will be well worthwhile. Thanks.

  9. Bruce says:

    It’s probably true that both sides of the climate change divide are idealogically-aligned. People who support conservative/libertarian views do so because they have a particular view of the world and the way it should work. They believe in the individual and have a natural distrust of group think and consensus-type arguments. It’s this way of looking at the world that causes them to hold their positions on politics and climate change. It’s their interpretation of the individual’s place in society that shapes their politics, not their politics that shapes their view of climate change. This might seem like semantics but it’s not really.

    The flip side of this, which Scott doesn’t seem willing to recognise, is that left-leaning people tend to support the alarmist position on climate change because it fits in with THEIR world view. They instinctively are more prepared to accept group think, appeals to authority and state intervention as a solution to problems. They do not place as much faith in the value of the individual, preferring instead to place greater emphasis on groups, communities, NGOs, governments and the UN.

    It’s quite odd that Scott claims to recognise ideology as the driving force behind scepticism but cannot see the same thing working in reverse where alarmists are concerned. In this article there is the criticism that climate change sceptics are all ideologues but no mention of the role ideology plays in the alarmist position. Quite clearly, anyone who is a climate sceptic, in Scott’s opinion, just has to be defective in some way. Allowing for the fact that sceptics might hold their views for perfectly sound reasons would upset Scott’s own ideological apple cart.

    Scott has to be watched closely: he gives the impression of being quite a reasonable chap but if you read his articles carefully you will be able to detect the underlying condescension which is perhaps a more subtle put down of climate sceptics but a put down nonetheless.