Monday, June 7, 2010

Merchants of Doubt and Conspiracy

Oreskes devotes pages 197-213 to the "IPCC Chapter 8 Controversy." This was, in my opinion, a tempest in a teapot over the revision history of the 1995 IPCC chapter on attribution. The whole thing comes down to a few editorials in the Wall Street Journal, as well letters in the Journal of the American Meteorological Association.

According to Oreskes the attacks on the IPCC were an important event, and part of a long time conspiracy by a few scientists to distort the science on warming.

Interestingly Myanna Lahsen, who Oreskes references,wrote an entire paper on the Chapter 8 issue. Unlike Oreskes, Lahsen saw it as evidence of group thinking on all sides of the issue. She also felt that in the end it wasn't at all clear whether IPCC procedures were followed or not, but that in her opinion it didn't seem to change the meaning all that much. Also the attacks on the IPCC had little or no policy impact.

But the most interesting thing Lahsen wrote was the following. Which she clearly meant in a neutral way. Perhaps Oreskes should have read the whole thing rather than selectively quoting.

"Whether meant seriously or simply used as means [sic] of achieving political gain, attributions of conspiracy are unhelpful for constructive discussion about the state of scientific knowledge about climate change and about possible 'no-regrets' policy action (policy responses related to energy consumption that have environmental and economic benefits aside from reducing the potential risk of global warming). The vilification inherent in such attributions of sinister motives rarely resonates with the self-perceptions and intents of the accused, and hence further polarizes the groups involved in this already frequently antagonistic debate. One lesson to draw from this case study is the care with which charges of conspiracy must be received and their factual basis examined for assumptions of sinister plotting applied to a reality of much more complexity and much less coherence. Charges and suggestions of conspiracy spread with little resistance among sympathetic audiences in a social and scientific context characterized by uncertainty, fragmentation, complexity, and competing interests; who was who, and who said or provoked what and with what authority and expertise, is not always easily established. As a result most controversies around human-induced climate change--including this one concerning Chapter 8--remain unresolved, competing claims rarely verified but allowed to fester with the general effect of reinforcing preconceived suspicions and positions."
(Myana Lahsen, "Direction and Attribution of Conspiracies" )

Truer words were never spoken.