My now traditional annual pilgrimage to the South coast of New South Wales saw the rainiest weather I can remember. While it was nothing on the scale seen in Queensland and Victoria over recent weeks, it did take its toll on some of the wildlife: we saw dozens of dead porcupine puffers washed up on the beach, apparently the victims of an algal bloom triggered by the rains. On the plus side, the lack of sunshine did help me to catch up on a bit of overdue reading, including a review copy of a Beginner’s Guide to R which you can expect to hear more about when I manage to finish writing the review.
I also read two books about climate change, which were very different in style and content.
Merchants of Doubt
The first was Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt (How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming). The book is not really about climate change per se, but rather the modus operandi of a number of key climate skeptics. In the process it sheds some interesting light on a question I considered here on the blog about a year ago: why does belief or disbelief in the reality of climate change tend to be polarised along political lines? Most of the protagonists in the Merchants of Doubt are scientists, many of whom were physicists involved in the original US nuclear weapons program. The thesis that Conway and Oreskes build is that these scientists were committed anti-Communists and as the Cold War began to thaw, they saw threats to freedom and capitalism in other places, particularly in the environmental movement. That, at least, is the explanation given as to why the same names appear in defence of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defence scheme, in defence of the tobacco industry (first arguing against claims about the health risks of smoking, later about the health risks of second-hand smoke), dismissing the idea of acid rain and finally casting doubt on claims of human-induced climate change.
While I would not expect the book to sway any climate change skeptic, it should at least encourage people to think a bit harder about messengers as well as the message. It certainly prompted me to do just that. When reading the chapter on the second-hand smoke controversy, I immediately thought of an episode of the Penn and Teller’s very entertaining pseudo-science debunking TV series Bullshit*. The episode in question, as I remembered it, did a convincing job of portraying the risks of second-hand smoke (SHS) as dubious at best. Watching it again was eye-opening. Looking past the scathing treatment of the anti-SHS activist, I focused instead on the credentials of the talking heads who were arguing that the science was not settled. The two main experts were Bob Levy from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, and Dr Elizabeth Whelan, the president of the American Council on Health and Science.
Levy’s voice immediately suggests he is a smoker, which does not, of course, disqualify him from questioning the science of SHS. More intriguing is the fact that the Cato Institute regularly appears as a company of interest in the Merchants of Doubt. Conway and Oreskes draw a number of links between the Cato Institute and both the defence of the tobacco industry and skepticism of global warming, particularly in the person of Steven Milloy who, before joining Cato, worked for a firm whose main claim to fame was to provide lobbying and public-relations support for tobacco giant Phillip Morris.
As for the American Council on Health and Science, it sounds at first like some kind of association of health professionals (which is presumably why Warren chose the name). It is in fact an industry-funded lobby group…sorry, I mean an independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt organisation. Exactly how much of their funding comes from where is now shrouded in mystery, but here are the details as of 1991.
Of course, scrutinising the backgrounds Levy and Whelan does not prove that their claims are wrong. It does, however, raise the question of why Penn and Teller did not interview anyone more independent, perhaps even a scientist, who expressed the same doubts.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
The second book on climate change that the rain helped me to read was Greg Craven’s book What’s the Worst That Could Happen?. I bought this after watching Craven’s amusing, if flawed, video “The Most Terrifying Video You Will Ever See”. Craven, a high-school science teacher in Oregon, has clearly workshopped the issue of climate change extensively with his students and the insight he wants to share in his videos and his book is essentially that the whole problem can be viewed from a game-theoretic perspective. Rather than trying to decide what is true or not (are the skeptics right or are the warmers right?), the important question is should we be acting or not.
In his video, Craven uses an action versus outcome “decision grid” to argue that the consequences of not acting in the event that global warming turns out to be true are worse than the consequences of acting (i.e. economic costs) if it turns out to be false. The argument is entertaining, but unfortunately flawed. The problem is that it can be applied to any risk, however remote. As he writes in the book:
Simply insert any wildly speculative and really dangerous-sounding threat into the grid in place of global warming, and you’ll see the grid comes to the same conclusion–that we should do everything possible to stop the threat. Even if it’s something like giant mutant space hamsters (GMSHs).
The book is an attempt to rescue his idea by developing a series of tools to help sift through the arguments for and against climate change without having to actually understand the science. Along the way, he includes an extensive discussion of confirmation bias which I enjoyed as I am fascinated by cognitive biases. Ultimately though, his conclusions rest on an argument from authority. While he makes an excellent case for the important role that authority plays in science, this approach will not win over the skeptics I know: I can already hear their riposte in the form of the establishment’s rejection of Albert Wegener’s theory of continental drift.
Skeptics aside, What’s the Worst That Could Happen? is an extremely accessible book (perhaps even too folksy in its style for some) and is probably best read by those who are not already entrenched in one camp or another and are just sick of the whole shouting match.
* Long-time readers may remember that Bullshit has been mentioned on the blog before in this post about bottled water.