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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Floundering in denial

This has been a long, strange week, centring around the words denialist, and various signficant figures in the little bit of my world that is web based.

I've heard and read a great deal, but I don't know enough about the science to want to go into it in detail. The only conclusions I want to draw are that no one has covered themselves in glory, and that the only people who have gained are those with a vested interest in seeing the talks at Copenhagen fail.

First up, Johnny Ball went a bit Pete Tong and outstayed his welcome at the 9 Carols for Godless People at the Bloomsbury Theatre, having a good rant about global warming. I should say right out that I didn't see it, but Salim Fadhley did and has covered it in detail for this week's Pod Delusion.

What struck me was what the complete lack of grace in his actions. Had he used the time to question how much people really know about the science, caution against arrogance and illustrate the topic with his undoubted charm and ability, I genuinely think he could have sparked a debate, and he might have made his audience pause for thought.

I went last year, and they are really joyous events, full of science and wonder, and Ball is absolutely associatied with those things in the British psyche. Presumably that's why Robin Ince asked him to do the shows. Instead, it sounds like the audience got a short whimsical routine followed by anger and incoherence, which the organisers graciously put up with. And, as Robin Ince has tweeted, the outcome? Johnny Ball will be a poster boy for those who actively seek to deny AGW.

But that's only a bit of the story, because next up was James Randi. And, if we are honest, while Johnny Ball has a certain profile, he is only about a twentieth as famous as every skeptic's favourite uncle.

Randi has written two articles this week, and they are much more nuanced than what Ball is reported to have said, full of qualifications and statements about his own lack of knowledge, but still hugely problematic. I'd invite you to read the first four paragraphs here and tell me that they don't remind you of the kind of arguments we hear from creationists when talking about the teaching of evolution.

Randi is something of a hero of mine, and I found these articles hard to read because they feel so clumsy . To my mind he places a great deal of weight on his own (understandable) distrust of academia, when the weight of consensus among climate scientists is so overwhelming. I don't see how this is different to evolution, where I assume Randi would come to the opposite conclusion? He also then cites the number of PhDs scientists in the Petition Project as a positive indication, and he can't have it both ways.

Randi goes into more detail in the second article, where some points have been corrected through conversations with Phil Plait or others. Here, I can only say I would expect Randi to do more research before writing . By adopting such a reasonable, superficially skeptical tone but compounding it with errors, Randi opens the door to climate change deniers to count him as one of their own, piggy-backing on his reputation. Skeptics are right to call him on it - it's an error of judgement.

But does that make Randi a denialist?

Well, no I don't think it does, and it achieves nothing to call him one.

JackofKent has been questioning whether we should ever use the word, arguing that it represents a failure of public engagement. I understand where he is coming from, but I think the word retains its usefulness, but only if we reserve for extreme cases. It allows useful comparisons of people's behaviour accross such diverse subjects as Aids, the Holocaust, climate change and evolution.

When that word is used well, it captures the sense that someone is 'in denial' - that they are actively and aggressively taking steps to avoid accepting reality, either subconsciously or cynically for personal gain. There's no meaningful way in which one can accuse Randi of it, given that all he has done is write two questioning articles, no matter how misconceived, the second of which clarifies his position substantially.

And by labelling him a denialist, as PZ Myers and others have done, I think they compound his error. The article allows those who are really do seek to undermine AGW to tie themselves to Randi. Now, they can also laugh off accusations that they are denialists, by pointing out how freely such a label is attached to people with Randi's impeccable credentials.

As I write, I see from the news that there is some kind of agreement in Copenhagen. What kind I don't know yet, but one can only hope it is more uplifting.

And finally, PZ Myers really did get it spot on when he linked to this today.

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