My short and "boring/mundane" article a couple of days ago generated a lot of interesting discussion, some of which related to the hows, whys and wherefores of directly engaging with people who reject climate science. I hope the people I quote here don't mind my doing so. Let me know if you do.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
Don Brooks asked a question, which a lot of us ask ourselves whenever we respond to contrarian comments:
...what is it that you're hoping to accomplish by engaging with the contrarians?
What are your experiences?
K.a.r.S.t.e.N echoes some of my experience in face to face discussions with climate science deniers about science. Some extracts:
... Being a working scientist in the UK (but not British), I do have the impression that many of my colleagues are fairly open-minded when it comes to discussion with "Sceptics". I admire their patience, but I haven't figured what keeps them going. I started to engage with "Sceptics" more than three years ago, and it took me quite a while to get into the "game". Tried polite, tried snarky, tried ironic ... to no avail in most cases. Went further meeting one of the self-proclaimed "lukewarmers" (twice) in order to figure how they think. Despite the fact that we get along very well on a personal level, it's a hopeless enterprise when it comes to the science. He just wouldn't trust me. That's the point where I finally gave up. I don't see any point in discussing the science with someone who clearly doesn't know the science well enough, but isn't willing to learn (regardless of the reason) at the same time. Hence my strict rule: No science argument with ANYONE who is unwilling to listen, while I can't learn a shred for myself from them in return. Ruthless ignorance! Works very well for me. There are other things than science which we can still talk about ;-). ...
I've had (short) discussions about climate science with people with whom I've worked who reject climate science, including people for whom I have a lot of respect. I found the same as K.a.r.S.t.e.N. We are talking at cross-purposes. I find their thinking process on that topic is emotional, trapped by their ideology or world view or whatever, which makes reasoned discussion impossible. If I were a climate scientist I would be wary of having any discussion about climate science with a professional disinformer like David Rose or Andrew Montford or Marc Morano. I would assume ulterior motives based on what they've done in the past.
When it comes to virtual conversations, here is K.a.r.S.t.e.N's comment about "sceptic" blogs:
However, I have to point out one important aspect: I never even bothered to go to a "sceptic" blog to have a "discussion". Rather, I kept engaging in a fairly neutral forum (knowing that at least lurkers will learn something). How some colleagues endure the hostile tone in "sceptic" blogs or on twitter towards mainstream science and scientists is waaaaaaaay beyond me. Based on the experience I had in the past couple of years, I would probably watch the "sceptics" in their "home ground" a while in order to learn more about particular psychological conditions, but I would certainly not waste my time trying to have some sort of reasoned debate. Ideology and reason is mutually exclusice. If other people have a more optimistic point of view in that regard, fine with me. I'm afraid I can't share it. Most importantly, I am not willing to accept the smear and the utter disrespect from many contributors there. Smear and disrespect against the science, the scientist, and, sure enough, myself. Again, if some of my colleagues don't have a problem with it, perfectly fine with me. I do have a problem with it! And they shouldn't be surprised that others have a problem with it too. Disclaimer here: The problem is not with the particular person who makes weird claims, but with their opinion, which I am sure you agree are two seperate things....
What tactics work and do they "really" work?
John Russell also raised some good questions:
...I'm interesting in exploring why some scientists like Tamsin Edwards and Richard Betts have, let's say, a 'working relationship' with contrarian/sceptic/denial websites; while the relationship, both ways, between those sites and scientists like Mike Mann is akin to warfare.
Let's say first that I completely understand why the latter warfare exists. I guess I've been part of it myself as I cannot (I readily admit) keep my cool when dealing with people who are in denial, once they start making snide comments in my direction. For Mike Mann, to read the vitriol heaped on him by people who are frequently uneducated must be unbearable. To me his robust stance is very understandable.
When it comes to scientists like Tamsin and Richard Betts who are willing to engage, I have always admired their willingness to, let's say, 'build bridges' with the bloggers and commenters who create/frequent those sites. I think I understand their tactic and indeed I hope they are successful.I'll interrupt here to ask Don Brooks question again. For people who engage with climate science deniers on their own turf, what is it you are trying to achieve and how do you judge whether or not you've achieved it?
But it does raise the question as to what gives them the ability to interact with these sites when other scientists cannot/will not. Given their unquestionable scientific knowledge and their input into the IPCC reports they surely must accept that one possible outcome—should the long-term worst-case climate projections turn out to be the most accurate—is a prognosis for society that is, at least, somewhat compromising. I know they won't be drawn on policy as scientists but do they, just as members of society, have concerns and worries about what the future might hold in a worst-case scenario? And if they do, how do they manage to keep civil when dealing with people whose agenda is to play down the possibility of human caused climate change doing it's worst and stall action to deal with it?
In my case, I credit engagement with "contrarians" for learning much of what I have about climate science. (My disposition is such that I have a thick skin when it comes to being attacked. Got much thicker through lots of flames from climate science deniers. These days I'm more able to choose whether or not to be civil rather than let my emotions dictate.) I began discussing climate science on a share trading website, HotCopper, until eventually being banned from there (basically for not conforming to management's right wing extremism). That led directly to HotWhopper.
My experience with WUWT is known to some of you. It takes very little for Anthony Watts to ban people. I speculate (based on observation) that he has an unwritten quota for people who accept science. No more than two at any one time. Any more and he picks them off and bans them. It's simply a numbers game with him. He needs one or two because it helps stoke the flames of denial. It gives his mob an extra target. Much more than that and he fears losing control, so he bans people he deems least useful for his purpose.
Nick Stokes is an example of someone who manages to post comments at WUWT and only rarely responds to all the vile comments and personal taunts directed at him, and even then he responds in a calm manner and refers to science. He doesn't sink to the level of the WUWT regular.
When I thought about it, the reason for my commenting at HotCopper was twofold:
- Researching comments was a really good way to learn about climate science. The denier myths provided a focus for my reading.
- I figured it would help inform lurkers who were interested in climate science. Not everyone at HotCopper was an extremist science denier, though you would not know that if you went by the comments on the board or by the attitude of the forum moderators.
I learnt a few things, some to my chagrin. For example:
- Lurkers do learn from good comments. I got some positive feedback from people who said I helped expand their knowledge and prompted them to learn more about climate science.
- Don't be fooled. I'd often respond to people's questions and get into a long discussion in which they hinted that they understood and accepted a facet of climate science. I'd give myself a pat on the back. But it's like finding mica and mistaking it for gold. Next thing those same people are back to libelling climate scientists and talking nonsense. It's like their minds sometimes bend a little to accommodate a rational thought only to have their brain spit it back out again at a later time. Climate science doesn't fit their ideology so it's rejected. I doubt I made any difference at all to the ideas of hardened science deniers.
So although more than one of my staunchest foes at HotCopper were subsequently complimentary, in private and in public, and said they missed my posts, being "liked" or "admired" is not sufficient to affect the opinions hard-core deniers have about climate.
There are a lot of theories being bandied about in the cognitive science arena, including research by Stephan Lewandowsky and Dan Kahan. "Talking with contrarians" may or may not do anything to change the mind of contrarians but, depending on the topic, it might make a difference to people who haven't much knowledge of the subject.
I think the best fora these days for public comment are probably the discussions sections of mainstream media or letters to the editor. As well as adding to discussions on proper climate discussion boards at places like realclimate.org and skepticalscience.com. Discussions on climate blogs help tease out the details of climate science. For climate impacts, climate policy and climate solutions there are lots of excellent avenues like ClimateProgress, the Conversation, mainstream media etc. In Australia two good places are ClimateSpectator and RenewEconomy.
In my view, commenting at niche denier blogs does not provide a lot of "value for money". I rarely visit them except for WUWT. Having said that, I'm not suggesting they be avoided. For example, it pays to keep Anthony Watts' quota filled if only because sometimes normal rational people accidentally stray there :)
How do you judge success? What works and what doesn't?
Getting back to Don Brooks' question - why do other people engage with contrarians and where? What do you hope to achieve? What have you found that works and what doesn't? If you don't engage, then is that a deliberate decision and if so, why don't you?
I'm not referring to outlets that are primarily an information resource on climate science. I'm referring more to people who do more proactive outreach. Who comment on contrarian/disinformation blogs (eg Judith Curry, CA), science rejecting/conspiracy blogs (like WUWT or Jo Nova or Bishop Hill) or in the mainstream media, or who respond to tweets from hard-core "skeptics".
Finally, if you do engage with contrarians, how do you judge how successful your efforts are? That question pre-supposes you've got a specific objective for your engagement, so it would be good see the different objectives people have too. For example:
- To change people's thinking - that of lurkers or posters
- To change the "flavour" of a thread - playing the numbers game by inserting posts about science into an anti-science discussion - shifting the "balance"
- Other reasons.