Scepticism seems to be the hardest word

I’ve listened to – but never taken a side in the climate change debate for as long as it has been raging. The science is just so complex that, without sitting down to spend the time to understand it enough, I found it difficult to have an independent opinion.

At some point it seemed that a critical mass of scientists made a collective judgment that the evidence was amounting to a stronger indication of anthropogenic change. Fair enough, I thought, and with some hesitation began to climb down the fence towards that side.

It’s partly for this reason that the recent controversies drew so much of my attention. In articles and blogs everyone seems to be breaking down everyone else’s arguments and positions, or calling for better communication, different roles for stakeholders, etc. Some very familiar, some very sensible, and I have to admit that in the end, all somewhat tiresome. Nothing seemed to cut through to the core of the issue; just dance around it.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when I stumbled across James Lovelock’s interview in the Guardian online. It resonated. He seemed to put into words the mass of indistinct thoughts and reservations that niggled me for some time.

“What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: ‘Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?'” And he goes on to say: “The good sceptics have done a good service – but some of the mad ones, I think, have not done anyone any favours.”

Yes, there can be good scepticism! Why has it been branded the devil? I suspect it’s because the stakes are so high (more on this later).

Lovelock broaches another question: How can we be so evangelical about understanding and modelling such a complex system?

“We are not that bright an animal,” he says in the interview. “If you make a model, after a while you get suckered into it. You begin to forget that it’s a model and think of it as the real world.” […] “I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change.”

Yet he does not seem to discount the weight of evidence for an anthropogenic influence on changes to the global climate. Any absolutist tendencies are, however, channelled towards the proper conduct of science.

There may be one good thing coming out of this controversy. It’s forcing stakeholders on all sides to defend their position with more transparency, to break down the issue into something other than, ‘the preponderance of evidence is showing that…’ or ‘another powerful model tells us…’. One might counter-argue that scepticism, checks and balances, are inherent in scientific practice. I wonder, though, if that can stretch out enough in science that tackles complex phenomena – what Lovelock calls “big and monolithic”.

We may well accept that anthropogenic change is happening – but does it follow necessarily that forecasts of the sequelae are equally defensible? Or do we need to work harder to produce the evidence to back them up? This does, of course, get us into the all-familiar question of how much evidence is enough. The calling for ‘more research’ can be – and is – so easily used to detract from action, that saying it comes with a great weight of responsibility. I think that again, the role of uncertainties is key – whether they should be detracting from doing something about a problem.

In this case, incomplete information about the risks needn’t detract from anything. In this case, if there is a problem, the consequences could be catastrophic. Perhaps this is what makes this particular issue all the more pressing despite the unknowns. Few would object to inconvenient protection measures in air travel if there was any indication of a higher chance that something would go wrong – because it’s one of those cases where if something goes wrong, it’ll really go wrong. Lives would be at risk and there wouldn’t be much that can be done about it.

Plus: in climate change, much of what is proposed for mitigation and adaptation can bring many other benefits. Ideally there shouldn’t even be a question about whether it’s worth doing.