The Climate Change ‘Debate’ on one of the Internet’s Biggest Blogs, and What it Tells Us

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Boing Boing, one of the most widely-read and respected blogs on the internet, recently hosted a guest blogger who posted his skepticism towards global warming, strongly contesting the standard viewpoint of the site. The editors quickly responded with rebuttals of their own. Did we learn anything?

The Debate

It all started (and finished) on February 4th, 2009. Boing Boing, the self-described “directory of wonderful things” and one of the most popular blogs on the internet, began running a series of guest posts by MAKE magazine editor Charles Platt.

Platt is a well-respected blogger and MAKE magazine is great both in print and online–it recently won a British Insurance Design Award for best overall magazine. Platt seemed like a nice fit for the site, with its eclectic and interesting mix of technology, politics (much on digital rights), and design.

Sites like Boing Boing usually slant to the left politically; they’re a reflection of their creators’ interests and the general political mindset that makes up the web’s more avant-garde creative set. It’s rare to find an open-minded technology blogger with a set of highly conservative views.

As such, it was jarring, if quite interesting, to see a series of posts entitled “Climatic Heresy” appearing on the site, all guest-posted by Platt, all creating a massive debate in the comment section afterwards. Things got even better after that.

 

Climatic Heresy

After four “Climatic Heresy” posts in a row (Platt later explained that they would have been spaced out, except that he had a limited time to blog and thus decided to post them all at once), one of Boing Boing’s main editors, Cory Doctorow, responded with a post that, while not mentioning or referring to Platt’s series of posts, was titled “Top independent, peer-reviewed research indicating that climate change is real, deadly, and caused by humans.

More posts, all by Doctorow, followed immediately after:

Does the Medieval Warm Period mean that climate change isn’t real, dangerous and caused by humans? (No)

and then

Understanding the economics of climate change mitigation

followed quickly by

American Institute of Physics’ history of the science of climate change.

Four rebuttals in total, none of which addressed Platt’s posts directly, but were intended to serve as direct responses. Platt answered back in the comments:

“First, you are not responding to any of my specific points (such as Al Gore’s undeniable conflict of interest). Instead you are appealing to authority, basically saying “My experts trump your experts.” I don’t think this is a strong argument, if indeed it is an argument at all. Second, I think it is a little odd that a principal of Boing Boing feels he has to rebut some posts that deviate from the party line. I’ve never seen that before.”

 

What Are We Arguing About?

And the debate kept on, always coming back to this question: is there any room for skepticism in current debates over climate change? Many would say no: all skeptical queries are now solely political and a distraction from the point at hand, and potentially-dangerous stumbling blocks towards a better future. As Doctorow responded in the same comments section of his last rebuttal:

“I do believe that skepticism of climate change has been all but invisible in peer-reviewed journals — which says more about the science of the skepticism than the journals’ editorial boards, I’m afraid.”

The whole debate provides a nice microcosm of where the science vs. skepticism debate currently rests. Most of the skeptics, now somewhat resigned to the fact that their dissenting views will be shouted down by an ever-swelling chorus, now protest that the ‘demonization’ of their minority viewpoints is unduly swift and harsh, and see this as a sign that the movement to stop climate change has abandoned its rationalism and become irrevocably one-sided.

 

Why Evidence for Climate Change is More Important

The response, as Doctorow framed it, is simply that all the evidence presented by the dissenters, in every single possible case, is simply not anywhere near as provable, peer-reviewed, or conclusive as the yes-it-is-happening evidence, and therefore on an issue as important to the survival of the planet as this one, the continuing presentation of small slivers of sometimes-shifty dissent is a distraction at best.

Where does this leave us? Here, I think: the dissenters have one good argument on their side, which is that the universal shouting-down of dissenting views is not the kind of tone that rational scientists should be taking. Skepticism is healthy and fundamental, and no one should ever accept the contrary just because “this time it’s really important, and we can’t afford it!” But that’s not really the issue at hand.

Once we move past these arguments about the necessity of skepticism, and past the fact that the few actual dissenting scientists out there currently face serious career hazards and threats to their funding (something that is notoriously hard to prove, of course, but can’t be ruled out), we are finally left with the science at hand. And the yes-it’s-real side absolutely, lopsidedly, and unequivocally trumps the other.

 

Tone Does Matter, Somewhat

Yes, it would be much nicer if the tone of all this wasn’t so vitriolic, but that’s life, and politics. For those of us who believe, firmly, in the fact that global warming is real, man-made, and dangerous, a certain level of panic inevitably informs our feelings on the matter, no matter how hard we try and stifle it.

It would be a wonderful world if every single scientist could be given the same amount of scrutiny and attention as any other, the same amount of peer-reviewing and focus that each piece of scientific research theoretically deserves, but we don’t live in that world.

 

Science is not English Literature

Science isn’t the humanities, where something like post-colonial literature, written far outside the traditional English canon and not conforming to traditional definitions of ‘good’ literature, can receive thorough and serious scholarly attention by a wide range of academics.

This kind of diversity is possible when we’re talking about literature (partly because evaluating novels is not an empirical exercise in the first place, and the Western Canon isn’t infallible), but the model simply isn’t applicable elsewhere.

To continue this analogy a little further: the climate change dissenters are fond of saying that the entire ‘global warming orthodoxy’ is flawed and therefore compromised and invalid, just as new students of post-colonial literature might make the same claim for the entire Western Canon.

 

Relativism vs. Rationalism

The problem with arguments like this is simple: defending the Western Canon is actually quite hard, on an objective or imperial level. It’s essentially impossible to explain why Shakespeare is objectively better than, say, Derek Walcott, but it’s not impossible to explain why 1,000 peer-reviewed reports proving one thing are more useful, as a model, than 4 proving the opposite.

We live in a world where we have to base our decisions and voting habits on slightly less-than-perfect conclusions. But we still have a massive consensus, one built up through hundreds of empirical, peer-reviewed studies. It’s not perfect. Nothing is. But it’s all we have to work with right now, and it can’t ever be invalidated just because its tone is slightly off.