Monday, October 18, 2010

So this is what scientific scepticism looks like

How appropriate that when Kim Hill took a day off, Radio New Zealand should rope in Finlay Macdonald to fill the gap on her Saturday morning show. It obviously wouldn’t do to startle Kim’s listeners, who I would guess are generally of a soft-left political persuasion, by bringing in a host who might challenge their world view.

And how appropriate too that one of Macdonald’s interviews should be with Australian climate change alarmist Tim Flannery, who promotes the apocalyptic view that the world is going to hell in a handcart and unless we urgently change our profligate ways – and by this he means within the next couple of years – we’ll all be toast.

“The science is dire,” Flannery pronounced. “We need to act now.” Just as we did, presumably, with acid rain, world starvation, nuclear war, over-population and all the other threats that were supposed to wipe us out during my lifetime.

When someone like Macdonald stands in for Hill, you just know you’re not going to hear an interview with a climate change sceptic (a word I use in preference to “deniers”, the loaded term the alarmists use to denigrate their opponents). This would go against the grain. And in the highly unlikely event that a sceptic was invited onto the show, you can be sure the questions would be a lot tougher than the ones put to Flannery.

Here was a reminder of what Radio New Zealand used to be like across the board: left-leaning hosts asking left-leaning guests soft questions, in the comfortable assurance that like-minded listeners would all be nodding their heads in agreement. How cosy and self-reinforcing it all was.

Thankfully RNZ seems to have tried hard in recent years to shed its image as a platform for left-wing views. Both Morning Report and Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon strive to be neutral and balanced (I can’t speak for Checkpoint because I never hear it, Mary Wilson’s graceless interviewing style having driven me away years ago). On Jim Mora’s afternoon panel discussions you hear a range of views that would have been inconceivable when RNZ was a citadel of the left.

Left-wing views that used to irritate the hell out of me on RNZ no longer bother me because although we still hear plenty of them, they are mostly balanced by other opinions that reflect the political diversity of the New Zealanders who own and fund Radio New Zealand. I don’t mind listening to left-wing ideologues as long they don’t have the state broadcasting apparatus to themselves; in fact I welcome it, since there are few things more boring – or dangerous – than hearing only views that echo your own.

But pockets of the traditional bias remain in RNZ. No one will ever die wondering what Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw’s politics are, and there’s rarely anything on Hill’s programme that challenges leftist orthodoxy.

That Macdonald agreed with Flannery was implicit in his line of questioning. It was taken as a given that climate change is a real and immediate threat. When sceptics were mentioned, it was in a dismissive and incredulous tone. Since it seemed to be assumed that the audience shared this stance, there was clearly no need to waste their time or disturb their certainty by questioning the dubious science and dodgy statistics underlying much of the climate change hysteria.

In fact Flannery assured listeners that “all scientists are sceptics”, as if to say he and his fellow believers wouldn’t be pushing climate change theories unless they were certain that the science was rock-solid. So I had to smile when, only moments later, he earnestly expounded what many scientists would dismiss as a downright loony theory – a variation of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – in which he predicted that earth in the near future (sometime this century, in fact) would function as one whole organism, with a brain, self-consciousness and a nervous system.

Speaking as if Gaia already existed, Flannery theorised that this super-being was approaching puberty and in time might even reproduce. He added that it also needed to form a brain, but the internet and mobile phones might enable that to happen (exactly how wasn't explained). Only squabbling nationalistic governments, he suggested, were preventing the flowering of “global consciousness and unity”.

Whoa – what was that again? This didn’t exactly sound consistent with the hard-boiled scientific scepticism Flannery had been talking about a couple of minutes earlier. Even Macdonald seemed slightly taken aback and suggested Flannery was getting into the realm of science fiction. But if it occurred to Macdonald that this excursion into the outer reaches of New Age fantasy raised doubts about his guest’s credibility, he didn’t show it. And why would he, since the whole interview would have been negated if Flannery had been exposed as a complete flake. Better to move on and pretend it hadn’t happened.

Interestingly, Flannery revealed that he had been brought up Catholic. Though no longer practising, he gave the impression this background had left a lasting imprint. This led me to think about the number of Catholics who have renounced the faith but then embraced quasi-religious ideologies with an almost evangelistic fervour. Some of the staunchest socialists I know are ex-Catholics, which leads me to suspect that people brought up in a strong belief system, which they have later rejected, feel the need to find something to take its place. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.


Nicola Young said...

Having been brought up as a Roman Catholic, and educated by some of its better educated nuns, I think your drawing a connection between nature abhorring a vacuum and lapsed RCs is very perceptive. So many lapsed RCs are fervent; many are left wing...they've just found different belief systems.

Bill Forster said...

(This comment is by Bill Forster, who is having great problems posting it:)

First let me apologise for only commenting when I disagree. I really enjoy your columns and blog posts because so often you express (much better than I ever could) exactly what I think about issues.

Not on this occasion though! Initially I was also disturbed to hear Finlay's otherwise very sonorious voice. I have no doubt Kim's politics are quite different to mine but I still find her an enormously talented and enjoyable presenter. Her breadth is breathtaking. Finlay McDonald though, I always find disturbing at some deep emotional level. I think it's because he seems to communicate an effortless sense of moral superiority that I find deeply irritating for some reason.

Anyway, moving right along, I must say I found Tim Flannery most impressive. For a start I think his credentials are impeccable. I don't think the Gaia thing makes him a flake at all. I think it's just a tool for thinking outside the box a little. The network effect means that any sufficiently diverse, dense, huge network exhibits characterstics of a life form (which after all is just a diverse, dense, huge network of cells).

That's not the main beef I have with you though. As a fellow curmudgeon, my instinctive first reaction to the anthromorphic global warming controversy was identical to the one you portray in this post. I suspect as much as anything I reacted this way because I suspected that the most vocal people in the debate were those who wanted a simpler, less technological, less globalised, less energy intensive, less luxurious society anyway. And they were latching enthusiastically onto a way of making their pre-existing preferences more compelling. I naturally reacted adversely to that.

But more recently my views have been in flux. For a start I don't really believe this should be a left versus right issue. It's a scientific issue. Right away that creates a problem for a layman, because how is he to judge? But there are some possibly analagous controversies where a layman can judge. For example evolution versus intelligent design/creation. It turns out there is no controversy there at all, any intelligent layman with an open mind and an ability to do some research can work that out.

I am starting to suspect that there is actually an overwhelming consensus on AGM, amongst those who have serious expertise in climate science. I admit I could be wrong. But I am worried about the future and worried that I have been sitting in the wrong waka with respect to the controversy.

What if my (former) fellow waka travellers are not noble sceptics at all ? What if they are actually (innocently and unknowingly in most cases) actually making fools of themselves in the same way as various creationist nutjobs, holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists ? What if the opinions you presented here on climate change have as much credibility as the deluded fools who dispute the moon landings or insist that 9/11 was a US Government plot ?

This is just me thinking out loud. I am not really an advocate for anything in this debate, just an intelligent (but worried) layman.

The probligo said...

Well said, Bill!!

The whole problem as you have said is that it is science; and new science to boot.

However, unlike moon landings, holocaust et al, this is science that truly falls into the category of "We really, truly, do not know..."

When the human population realises this to be the case, we might start getting past the conspirital accusations of political interference, falsification of evidence, or invalid process, and start achieving some real scientific results.

BTW National radio is the only media outlet available in NZ that is worthy of the time to listen. And if you leave Checkpoint out of the mix you miss one of the more detailed presentations of news as distinct from entertainment audience generation.

Karl du Fresne said...

No need to apologise. It would be a dull old world if we all agreed with each other.
In response, several points:
First, I share your respect for Kim Hill as a broadcaster. She's fiercely intelligent and well-read. I often enjoy her interviews, though her mannerisms seem to become more affected and exaggerated with the passage of time and have driven off some listeners. My main concern is the tone of her programme, which is best described as chardonnay socialist.
I also share your unease about Finlay Macdonald, who comes across as polished, articulate and eminently reasonable, but whose voice sometimes drips with contempt for anyone whose views are at variance with his own. You get the feeling he could slip a knife between someone’s ribs (metaphorically speaking) without even momentarily shedding the fa├žade of urbane intellectualism.
On Flannery, we can only agree to disagree. I believe any claim he might have had to scientific credibility was blown out of the water by his Gaia
As to anthropomorphic global warming, I agree that we lay people are largely at the mercy of scientists. I'm not a climate change denier, but I can only point out that the science is by no means settled, as the climate change alarmists would have us believe.
What has troubled me about the global warming theory from the start is that it seemed to be as much about ideological propaganda as it was about science. The giveaway, for me, was the shrill, emotive language used by the alarmists, which seemed calculated to panic us into accepting extreme counter-measures. It was not the language of dispassionate, objective scientists carefully weighing all the evidence.
This is all part of the leftist agenda, which is aimed at whipping up fear and alarm over supposed health/environmental/human rights issues (cross out whichever is not applicable), and by doing so, creating the conditions for passive public acceptance of further controls on our behaviour (and, of course, curbing the wicked excesses of capitalism, whose global sway riles the hell out of the left). The current agitation for tighter liquor laws, which greatly overstates the extent of New Zealand’s drinking problem and ignores any evidence that doesn’t suit the wowsers’ agenda, is a textbook example of this process in action.
To Probligo, I can only repeat what I've said more than once, on this blog and elsewhere: that without Radio New Zealand our quality of life would be greatly diminished.

Bill Forster said...

@The Probligo,
Since you seem to disagree with my main point I'm a little puzzled about your complement, but thanks anyway!

Thanks for replying. I knew I should have looked up anthroPOmorphic and not guessed :)

Incidentally, I wasn't apologising for disagreeing, I was apologising for posting now when I disagreed but not posting on those many earlier occasions when I thought your posts merited a pat on the back.

Yes Kim's mannerisms have become more exaggerated, I really enjoy them as a reflection of a woman who's really enjoying her work, though I can imagine others wouldn't feel the same way.

Putting aside the credibility of Tim Flannery, there's one thing that worries me;

"I'm not a climate change denier, but I can only point out that the science is by no means settled, as the climate change alarmists would have us believe."

I hope you're right, I really do, but how can you be sure of this ? What if the science is absolutely settled ? Isn't it possible you are being deceived by the tendency that's developed in the internet age for apparently well intentioned and credible people to noisily disagree (about anything really) when a completely dispassionate analysis reveals a complete absence of credibility to this disagreement ?

I'm actually not saying this is the case, but then again I'm not *sure* this isn't the case. It's a subtle point.

Vaughan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl du Fresne said...

I'm quite satisfied from the reading I've done that the science isn't settled - not by any means. This isn't an argument for doing nothing, but neither does it mean we should be stampeded into extreme measures that might gratify the climate change alarmists but have very damaging economic consequences.
Incidentally, I should have added in my blog - though it's hardly necessary - that if the global warming proponents had a compelling case, they wouldn't have needed to resort to the falsification and dishonest manipulation of data. They blew their own credibility out of the water.

Bill Forster said...

Did they really blow their own credibility out of the water ? I was under the impression that the people in question have largely been vindicated by subsequent sober analysis, and that their accusers were guilty of outrageously selective cherry picking of email quotes.

Imagine that the future of civilisation somehow depended on whether the Apollo program had successfully landed man on the moon forty years ago. I am worried that the exasperated manner which climate change alarmists (as you label them) treat dissenting opinions exactly mirrors the way the good guys would behave in my hypothetical scenario.

I desperately hope that you are right and I am wrong!