Last night I watched the Horizon programme on Science Under Attack in which climate change denying journalist James Delingpole is pwned by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, who asks him if a dear relative was suffering from a fatal disease, would he opt for the "consensus" treatment recommended by doctors, or advice to drink more orange juice offered by a fringe maverick quack?
This results, pleasingly, in a halt to Delingpole's verbal diarrhoea, and a request to change the subject. You can enjoy the 5 minute clip here.
Delingpole, having had time to think, responds on his blog:
Nurse’s analogy is shabby, dishonest and patently false. The “consensus” on Climate Change; and the “consensus” on medical care bear no similarity whatsoever.
In the field of medicine, treatments are tested in a semi-open market. Those with more favourable outcomes (the patient gets better) will quickly gain popularity over those with less favourable outcomes (the patient gets worse). Sure there are market distortions (eg the vast marketing budgets and rampant greed of the big drug companies; inefficiency and incompetence in the public healthcare sector), but generally in the field of medicine, the “consensus” on what constitutes good, bad or indeed “quack” treatment is a fair representation of the facts as they are currently known and empirically tested.
Note the way he brings the market model in. His argument skims over the detailed work in medical research designed to eliminate the placebo effect. For him, the test of efficacy for a treatment is whether it sells on the market. Market consensus is most definitely not the way that medicines are validated. All too often, invalid treatments prevail because of false consensus, and the scientific approach is to test every statement to see if it stands up to experiment.
But every analogy is only an analogy. The real issue is whether man-made climate change is a problem. There most certainly is scientific consensus on climate change.
Delingpole rejects all the science, and fights the idea that there is consensus, because if AGW is happening, his fixed ideology, the free market, cannot address it; we need a common international approach that will guide the energy market. Therefore AGW in Delingpole's view is a Communist/Green conspiracy, and the plotters have somehow subverted the scientific community to create a false picture of what is happening to the earth's climate in order to achieve their goals.
This being the case, the prospect for a reasonable dialogue between scientists and deniers is not rosy. On the other hand, the general conclusion of Nurse's Horizon programme is correct: scientists need to communicate their findings to the masses. We have to debate with the deniers in order that the Undecideds will be able to make a reasonable choice between the conspiracy theorists and the community of scientists who have been assembling millions of bits of climate data for three or more decades.
The question is - how? The media is geared up for sensation. Their eyes go all glassy when facts are on the table. They judge their output not in terms of whether it is true, but whether it sells newspapers. Still, we must keep trying.
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