He thought his beliefs about global warming were based on science. Science proved him wrong |310|

Rick Archer from Buddha at the Gas Pump provides a demonstration of challenging beliefs on global warming.

photo by: Khuroshvili Ilya

As I was putting the final touches on this show, I was reminded of a story I heard on the terrific podcast and NPR radio show, This American Life. It featured a person who had grown up in a conservative, Christian family and then went off to college and discovered conflicts between what he was told coming up in the church, versus  what he was learning in college. As he digs into the real history behind his religious beliefs he becomes both angry and driven to learn all he can about biblical scholarship; archaeology; Nag Hammadi Library…everything.

He digs into it the data and gets his ducks lined up because he wants to go back and confront his family with “the truth.” When he returns for Thanksgiving he has his chance. It’s at the end of dinner with his uncle–a very pious, conservative, religious guy who prides himself on really knowing the Bible; and really knowing scripture. Well, he just lets [his uncle] have it, both barrels: conflicts in the Resurrection Story; James, brother of Jesus; contradictions with the Nag Hammadi Library. He has his uncle skating backwards in no time and he shows him no quarter. He buries him. At the end of dinner he’s feels a surge of victory.  He’s like a prize fighter who’s knocked out his opponent. But hey, this is just the warm up. Christmas is coming up and his dad will be there. So, he goes back to studying and he lines up all of his books and facts. Then, he sits down at the end of Christmas dinner and he’s ready to let him have it. Bam! Both barrels. The whole thing. Finally, after he’s done, his dad pauses and looks at him, and says, “Gee, son. I’m sure you’re right. But you see, when I found the church I was at one of the lowest points in my life. In fact, I was considering suicide. But then I found all of these great people, and they loved me and cared about me. Next thing you know, I found your Mom. We fell in love. We got married. I’ve had this great life since joining the church.”

At this point, everything changes for the son. His anger vanishes. He sees his dad, and his dad’s connection to these beliefs in a totally new light. It’s not about the data for his dad; it’s about everything else.

The reason I bring up this story is that in today’s episode we have a pretty dramatic demonstration of whether data and evidence can change beliefs. The belief in question is whether 97% of climate scientists believe man-made global warming is a major concern. But this belief is just a backdrop for the larger story of why data alone often isn’t enough to change our beliefs — even if we think it will:

Alex Tsakiris: I have to nail that down a little bit more, Rick. The position I’m taking is that the 90 or 97% consensus is completely false. That’s the position I’m taking. So if I am able to significantly undermine that fact–that data point–then you think your beliefs will change?

Rick Archer: Yes. We’re not going to do it in the course of this conversation. We’re obviously going to do it in subsequent exchanges.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. And I just have to share with folks, I’m going to lay my money on the fact that we will prove that conclusively, and your beliefs will not change at all. But that’s just my opinion based on the exchanges that we’ve had. We’ll see how it all turns out.

(this next excerpt is from the follow-up interview)

Alex Tsakiris: … now that you’ve conceded on the 97% consensus idea (after reviewing the data Rick agreed that the study by Dr. John Cook showing a 97% consensus among climate scientists was bunk), has that significantly changed your opinion on man-made global warming?

Rick Archer: No, not significantly.

Alex Tsakiris: Perfect.


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Click here for Rick’s BATGAP website

Read Excerpts From Interview:


Alex Tsakiris: After this latest exchange, I really got to thinking about it more deeply because it was kind of upsetting, like these can be. Let’s get real. We have these exchanges with people and we disagree about things even if we like that person. It can be unsettling. Why can’t this person see the light? How can they be so blockheaded about this issue? I started thinking more deeply about that. In particular, the kind of work you do explicitly in Batgap. That is, the deeper, spiritual transformation work. And that’s a much more subtle aspect of Skeptiko but it’s there in my journey as well. And I did that kind of thinking and thought you know what, there’s some unfinished business here between Rick and I regarding this topic. I really tied it back to this broader issue that we deal with on Skeptiko: Following the data wherever it leads and then realizing that sometimes the data isn’t enough. Sometimes the data isn’t what’s really driving our beliefs. It’s a bunch of other stuff that we’ve built up around the data. And that’s what I was hoping to explore today and through this demonstration we’re going to do. And do this through the lens of global warming because it’s an issue that has seemed to have really impassioned both of us quite intensely.

Rick Archer: We should probably preface this by saying there is all kinds of data out there on all kinds of subjects. We’re not climatoligists, we’re not nuclear physicists, we’re not statisticians. There are all kinds of things that we’re not, each of which has it’s own world of data. So we’re kind of going at all these things from a layman’s perspective doing our best to suss out what the experts are actually saying, and to a cetain extent, relying on what they have to tell us. I’ve never used the large Hadron Collider in Geneva but [scientists] say they’ve found the Higgs boson, so I guess they have. But how do I know?

Alex Tsakiris: That’s a great point. One of the first points I wanted to make is that following the data isn’t easy. Any piece of data that we might pick in this larger question of global warming is going to be very complex and hard to pull apart. That’s why I think we really have to narrow our focus in terms of what we’re going to deal with. I had a specific idea in mind. In the course of these emails that you’ve sent me, which, I really have to say, you can really lay it on pretty hard at times. And I guess I can too. But one point that seems to pop up again and again is this idea that there is this overwhelming consensus among science and among scientists: manmade global warming is real and it’s something that we really need to worry about. I’ve gotten that consistently, over and over again. And I think that’s a really important point because if the data really is as you say; if it’s really 90 or 97% of scientists who think that manmade global warming is real and is something that we really need to worry about, I tell you, I will definitely switch my vote in favor of the global warming position that you take, and we really need to amp up all of our resources and make this a world, political agenda-number-one kind of thing. But I guess the first question I have for you that I’m teeing up here: would it be the same for you? If that’s the topic that we took and it turned out that it isn’t the case at all–the global warming consensus among scientists wasn’t really there, but was more like a 50-50, Clinton versus Trump kind of thing, would that change your beliefs?

Rick Archer: It would but every time you send me something–some article or some YouTube video–it usually takes me about five minutes or less to find a really compelling rebuttal to it. For instance, the other day you sent me a YouTube video in which someone was testifying before Congress saying that in fact only 52% of climate scientists think that global warming is manmade. So I did a little research and I ended up on NASA’s website and that was rebutted very effectively. I heard a climatologist on Bill Maher’s show not long ago saying that in fact there has been virtually no peer-reviewed scientific study suggesting that global warming is not actually happening, and it’s not manmade. Whereas there have been thousands indicating that it is, and has been. So show me something that I can’t rebut with five minutes of Googling and I’ll maybe start edging toward your position.

Alex Tsakiris: I have to nail that down a little bit more, Rick. The position I’m taking is that the 90 or 97% consensus is completely false. That’s the position I’m taking. So if I am able to significantly undermine that fact–that data point–then you think your beliefs will change?

Rick Archer: Yes. We’re not going to do it in the course of this conversation. We’re obviously going to do it in subsequent exchanges.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. And I just have to share with folks, I’m going to lay my money on the fact that we will prove that conclusively, and your beliefs will not change at all. But that’s just my opinion based on the exchanges that we’ve had. We’ll see how it all turns out.

[easy-tweet tweet=”you’ve conceded on the 97% consensus,has that changed your opinion on warming? Rick Archer: No, not significantly.”]

Alex Tsakiris: So Rick and I are going to be digging into this 97% consensus [idea]–that is that 97% of scientists agree that manmade global warming is a very important [and] problematic thing. But what I think what we’re really going to be looking at is a demonstration of what it means to follow the data wherever it leads. So Rick with that, why don’t we start with you. Tell us what you found.

Rick Archer: Sure. First, I feel like I’ve just dipped my little toe into the whole thing because there’s such a vast amount of stuff that one could look at. There’s so many [conflicting] things. For everything you find on YouTube you can find something that contradicts it. Not only YouTube but elsewhere on the Internet. But I would grant you that from my very unprofessional, very part-time review of links you’ve sent me and things I’ve had scarce time to poke around in since we last spoke, it’s a naive and sort of blunt over-exaggeration to just keep parroting the 97% thing. I grant you that. It may be 97% but there are some good arguments that it’s not. I’m flexible enough to acknowledge that probably it isn’t. The percentage is somewhere else, and actually, it’s also a very blunt thing to just lump [that number] for several reasons: it’s blunt to throw out a percentage like that because firstly, you’re not just talking about climatologists, you’re talking about a whole spectrum of people with some scientific background who’ve voiced an opinion on this [issue]. And I’ve actually seen breakdowns [where] according to their professional focus, the percentages differ. Those who are strictly and qualified climate scientists tend to have higher percentages. Those with other fields of specialty tend to have lower concurrence of their agreements. Again, you have to break the whole thing down into what we’re actually talking about. Are we talking about ice cover? Are we talking about tornado frequency and hurricane frequency? So there’s different opinions about all of these different things. As my friend John Collins said to me, whom you interviewed with me on this show awhile back, if the proposition is that man is at least having some influence on climate, then you would get a 95% vote. But if you ask is human intervention heading us toward disaster, then it’s going to be a much lower percentage–like 65%. And I’m sure that those percentages are debatable. There are people out there who would strongly disagree with what I just said. So just to wrap it up, neither you or I are professionals, I have a layman’s interest in this [topic] because everything I’ve heard has convinced me that it’s a pretty serious problem that we need to address in some way. However, especially since I’m not a professional it’s foolish of me to go parroting percentages with any sort of adamant certainty because I could easily be proven wrong by somebody who has a better idea of what he’s talking about.

Alex Tsakiris: There’s a lot of ground to cover there. Let me first before I dive into all of your points, say that now you’ve conceded on the 97% consensus idea. Has that significantly changed your opinion on manmade global warming?

Rick Archer: No, not significantly.

Alex Tsakiris: Perfect.

Rick Archer: Hang on, as [Bob] Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. If you basically look out the window these days–I just showed you the other day–Aspen, Colorado, the ski season is a month shorter than it was.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s not do that. I want to pull apart what you said because again, it touches on so many issues that we talk about here. You said that it’s really complex and you’re not a professional, and I’m not a professional all and the rest of it. Number one, I don’t think this was very complex at all to get to the bottom of it. We’re going to pull apart what we were really looking at and look at what that 97% means; or what we thought it meant. What you thought it meant. When I say ‘you’…you were just reciting the standard shtick; the standard line that you hear from President Barack Obama, from members of Congress, from all sorts of advocacy groups; certainly from the mainstream media, over and over again: “Ninety-seven percent consensus among scientists.” Then when I really pushed you on that in the last interview, and I did set you up a little bit because I had done a little bit of research and knew where this was going. I said, Rick, they obviously went out and talked to sceintsits to be that confident. You said, yes, they’ve talked with scientists. That’s what they’ve done. So now let’s roll up our sleeves and get into some of the details here to kind of flesh this out a little bit. Then I want to get to the most important question in this: the ‘how can this be?’ question. Because I think you’ve glossed over that a little bit more than I think we should. So, 97% consensus–when I first confronted you on that and said, Rick, that’s not the case. Look, here’s this highly regarded climatologist from Georgia Tech, Judith Curry. She’s challenging the center and saying that’s not the real figure. And [you said], she’s a conspiracy nut. Anyone who believes that it’s not 97% is a conspiracy nut and I just looked up Judith Curry. She’s a conspiracy nut, too. Now, to your credit in this email exchange that we had, you dug into it and said hey, I’ve looked into Judith Curry. She seems pretty credible to me. She seems like a top-notch scientist. She’s at a good institution. She’s been there for a long time. Her track record isn’t one of being this, off-the-wall, over-the-top climate denier. She isn’t today. She believes there is some manmade global warming effect going on but she’s much more moderate. So you backtracked on that, but here’s what you did: you said look Alex, I did just a few minutes worth of research. I found on the NASA website, right on the top this study by John Cook, and it concludes that 97% of climate scientists think manmade global warming is real. Again, you did what everyone else did. You’re not unique. It isn’t just Rick Archer coming up with this wild idea. So, what do we find when we look at that John Cook study on the top of the NASA page? The first point I’d bring your attention to, you said that this study went out and asked scientists. Did the study go out and ask scientists?

Rick Archer: No. From what I gather from the things you sent me that I read and listened to, it was a study in which the guy reviewed 11,000 abstracts or something like that, and made a pretty snap judgment based on his assessment of those abstracts. In many cases [it] must’ve taken him no more than a few seconds of perusing them because he had to do so many–as to which side of the issue these various authors stood, and then came up with this 97%.

Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. So right off the bat I think you would agree, anyone would agree, that’s a pretty inferior method to actually going and asking a climate scientist. Right away you can see how that’s prone to err. It’s highly subjective, right? It’s like layer upon layer of subjective. It’s reading somebody’s abstract, which isn’t even the full paper, and then making some judgment about what you think that person was saying. Again, as I’ve pointed to you and to many people who’ve done this research, and of course this is my original criticism, there have been a number of climate scientists that have come forward and said, wait a minute, your analysis Dr. Cook, puts me in the camp of a proponent of global warming and I am not at all in favor of that. And you cited my paper as evidence for your case and it’s evidence of the opposite. And what Dr. Curry did in her article–she said, here’s a dozen people who are not by any means considered proponents of the man-made global warming thing, and let’s look at how they rank. They came out very high, like 85% would be evaluated as being in favor of the proposition. Clearly, right away we can see this is a severely flawed figure, this 97%. So we both agree on that?

Rick Archer: Is Dr. Cook the only one? Obviously you sent me a couple of figures: [Dr. Curry] thinks 52 [percent] and this other guy that you sent me thinks a much smaller percentage. So those two would be opponents to Cook. But has there been anyone who has really done it the way Cook should have done it to your knowledge?

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know. But here’s the point I wanted to get back to because I think this is really the heart of the issue, and I think you’ve glossed over here: How can this be, Rick? Again, you’re not going out on a limb. You didn’t invent this stuff. You’re just saying what everyone is saying. How can they all be making this mistake? It took you a short period of time to come to this conclusion. It’s self-evident as soon as you look at it. Everyone listening, it’s now obvious to them. Why is that paper on top of the NASA website? Is NASA that dumb? That naive? Is President Obama that misinformed? He has a lot of smart people around him. He’s a smart guy himself. Are they somehow just making an honest mistake here or is something else going on? How can this be?

Rick Archer: Let me ask you a question: how can it be that year after year now, we keep hearing that this was the ‘warmest year on record’; this was the warmest December on record; this was the warmest July on record? This was the worst typhoon ever. This was the worst hurricane ever. As I tried to say a minute ago, the ski season in Aspen is a month shorter than it was in 1990. There’s so many things you could say … the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be completely gone before too long. So obviously the planet is warming up–to what degree and what exactly is causing it, are points of contention, but something is happening. And I would even go far as to say that even if man had nothing whatsoever to do with it, we’ve got a pretty serious situation on our hands. We should find a way [to] deal with it or we’re going to have vast amounts of suffering. I’m afraid I’m taking you off your topic but to me the issue of–

Alex Tsakiris: You’re taking yourself off your topic.

Rick Archer: To me the implications of what it’s going to mean for humanity are paramount. So I’m working back from that sentiment.

Alex Tsakiris: This is the Skeptiko moment. This is what it means to follow the data wherever it leads because we’ve reached a point where the data can take us, and it causes all this consternation; all this cognitive dissonance; and we’re faced with the ‘how can this be?’ Rather than address that head-on, because like I said, you know the proposition kind of makes you shake in your boots a little bit. How can Obama be lying about this? How can all of these guys be lying? How can they be pointing to the study on the NASA website that they know is bullshit? How can that be? Then you scramble around and you try and reformulate your opinion and bolster it with some data–we haven’t looked at that data–we could go and look at every piece of that data and pull all of that apart; find out what that means; what the variability is and all of that. But what we’d really be doing is avoiding the part that really scared us which is the ‘how can this be?’ I’ll give you the last word. Tell me what you’ve learned or taken away about following the data and how beliefs change.

Rick Archer: What I’ve learned from the experience, I guess, is that it’s really fun talking to you and I enjoy a lively debate. I shouldn’t be cocksure about things in which I am not an expert, parroting percentages and so on. But I’m not at all in your camp with regard to doubt about climate change regardless of its cause. I really think that something very serious is taking place and it’s nothing to play around with. I mean, two percent would be pretty disastrous; six percent would exterminate humanity.


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