Why They Don’t Debate on TV

I read an interesting article not long ago that claimed that scientists were not debating climate change enough. It said that they were refusing to debate skeptics on television and in the media, as they “knew they would lose”. Examples of “believers” who apparently refused such debates were Al Gore, David Suzuki, and well-known climatologists such as Hansen and Weaver.

Could it be that these advocates are refusing debates not because they “know they will lose”, but because they know that such a media-ravaged spectacle will have no scientific value?

If you look at these people, two – Gore and Suzuki – do not specialize in climatology. They are purely lobbyists and media figures (Suzuki is also a geneticist). For the purpose of determining how much debate goes into creating working conclusions on climate change, we should look at  the top of the credibility spectrum. Let’s exclude An Inconvenient Truth, editorials, films, and narrative non-fiction (such as Keeping Our Cool by Dr Weaver). These have not been peer-reviewed. They are (hopefully) based upon scientific conclusions, but would not be acceptable to cite in a research paper about climate change. They were created purely to reach the general public and to relay a certain political or ethical message.

What we will include are the documents which drive government policy, which have been peer-reviewed (or are peer-reviewed compilations of peer-reviewed science, such as the IPCC reports) and which have been created by sources at the top of our credibility spectrum. NASA is a good source. So is the IPCC. So are the 32 national academies of science that have approved the IPCC. Peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature, Science, or EOS are also credible.

This is where it all starts. This is where climate change theory began. It wasn’t cooked up by the government, the media, or someone like Al Gore. These are the people that objectively study details of global warming that you or I can’t even understand.

Back to the debate thing

There would be no point in Al Gore facing down a skeptical journalist in a “scientific debate” on prime-time TV. One of two scenarios would occur:

1) The debate would be of a true scientific nature (which would be surprising as neither of the sources are even climatologists). They would be talking about things like Dansgaard-Oeschger events, Milankovitch cycles, and the solubility of carbonic acid in water as a function of temperature. To the average viewer, it would be really boring. They wouldn’t understand a word of it. Nobody would watch. The television station would declare it a failure.

2) The debate would resort to name-calling and ridiculous claims. The journalist would go on about it all being a liberal conspiracy. Al Gore would go on about ethical responsibilities. The journalist would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that, as CO2 levels often lag behind temperature, climate change wasn’t real at all. Al Gore would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that Hurricane Katrina could be directly attributed to a warming planet. Scientists all over the world would shake their heads. The public would get even more confused.

You can have a scientific discussion. You can have a debate that becomes a media spectacle. It’s much harder to do both at once.

Scientists aren’t lawyers. They don’t each try to prove opposing arguments. Scientists aren’t politicians. They don’t try to make their ideas interesting for the general public. Scientists are seekers of truth, or the closest to truth humans can get, regarding the physical world.

Getting closer to that truth requires a lot of second-guessing, a lot of checking and revising and admitting that you’re wrong. It requires looking at every possible outcome and deciding which is the most probable. It requires inspecting new evidence whenever it comes up. It is “debating” in a gentler, more objective, more dry sense of the word.

So yes, scientists do debate in their own way. It’s called peer-review. It involves all that second-guessing, checking, and revising we just mentioned. It involves considering every objection. It involves addressing every objection that is deemed relevant. The sources we listed above – NAS, IPCC, Nature – peer-review all of their publications.

If this skeptical journalist had a new idea about climate change, he or she should get a degree, study their idea meticulously, write it up in the form of an article and submit it to a peer-review institution. That’s the normal scientific practice. Spreading their scientific hypotheses around the media without first passing their work through a peer-review process shows that they’re trying to influence the public, not educate them.

Go do some reading about how claims like “climate change is caused by the sun” or “it’s a natural cycle” have stood up to peer-review. Go see what the qualified, credible, objective scientific theories have found. Go see just how much research the scientific community has done about solar activity or natural cycles.

Yes, scientists do debate about climate change.

They just don’t do it on TV.

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6 thoughts on “Why They Don’t Debate on TV

  1. Nice post. Thank you.

    Dealing with the “why don’t they debate” line of attack is one of those painful discussions that, in casual conversation, seems so tough to deal with. (Stating that “it is really hard to debate with someone who is ready to distort and lie” just doesn’t seem to convince people who are, well, unwilling to be convinced.)

    FYI — You are relatively new, it seems, to the blogging. You might want to track back on some comments. The “With this diet” comment is a spam … wonderful to get a comment like this but look at originator. (Painful to delete nice comments like this but this is almost certainly machine generate spam.)

  2. Let me agree first of all that a TV debate will do nothing to further anyone’s argument. A meaningful debate on this subject must go into very complex details, which are understandably beyond popular understanding.

    Here is where I disagree: “For the purpose of determining how much debate goes into creating working conclusions on climate change, we should exclude everyone below the category of “publishing climatologist” in our credibility spectrum. They don’t have much of a voice in the scientific realm.”
    -ORLY? Why don’t they have a voice? Attempting to undermine someone’s credibility adds nothing to the debate, this is a simple argument to authority fallacy. The only thing that should matter are the person’s arguments plain and simple, ability to present and defend them. Al Gore can too be a great person to debate if he can stick to salient arguments. If he’s not adequately educated in the matter — it will show up in the debate by inability to present or counter arguments (i.e. owned!). Seems like a very elitist statement to me, if you’re not a climatologist – you add nothing to the discussion. I may be a Random Internet Dude paid by Big Oil; my arguments are somehow invalid because of this?

    Another mistake that you’re making is assuming that climatologists are uberscientists that know the mechanisms of every process that are the bases of their theories. A great example of this is here on RC:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=58
    “Why does the stratosphere cool when the troposphere warms?
    14/Jan/05: This post was updated in the light of my further education in radiation physics.
    25/Feb/05: Groan…and again.”

    So considering that radiative heat-transfer is probably the cornerstone to the whole GHG forcing theory, let me ask you, who has more of a “voice” in this matter: a climatologist, paleoclimatologist, or a radiation physicist ?

    This is what’s disturbing about the “relevant scientific consensus”, that unless you’re a beer-reviewed climatologist or hurricane expert, you may just be irrelevant. Freeman Dyson and others gets criticized and dismissed for this all the time — even though they happen to be experts in a plurality of very important fields that prop up the AGW theory.

    • One part of credibility has to do with the audience. If the audience is experts in the field, they will see straight through “someone paid by Big Oil”. However, if the audience is average non-scientists, which would be the case in a TV debate, as long as the argument seems logical they often accept it. It could be full of holes that they don’t understand because they haven’t had the relevant training. Check out the post Normal Scientific Practice for more on scientific debate.

      If you are a scientist who has training in the topic, “their arguments plain and simple” is all that matters. For the general public, though, we have people bombarding us from all directions saying different things we don’t have the education to assess purely on their content. We simply need to assess using credibility. We can’t trust our own analysis when we know next to nothing about the topic. Greg Craven’s video Nature of Science may interest you.

      I think I may change that part about excluding everyone who’s not a publishing climatologist. It does seem a little harsh. I meant to ignore people like doctors or engineerings, not radiative physicists. That’s so relevant to climatology that it’s almost climatology. Every scientist specializes in a particular area, so of course they can’t know everything about every aspect of a study. However, something like the IPCC does incorporate experts from every area relevant, which is why it is much higher on the credibility spectrum than any individual, no matter how well trained.

  3. I wonder what disciplines a “climatologist” has studied. I think the study of the climate involves many more disciplines than that which is often claimed.

    Best Regards,
    Royce R. Vines

    The average man is a nice fellow, as long as he doesn’t have the vote. – Lucious Prn

  4. Can anyone tell me “where the sea level is rising”? Since water seeks its own level, apart from the pull of gravity (of the sun, moon and other planets) and the effect of centrifigal force. Therefore, of the sea is rising, it should be rising all over the planet, not just the Maldives. Actually, Bangladesh is actually gaining land as the sea appears to be falling somewhat. Then again, Sydney Harbour hasn’t altered its levels for 100 years. So please explain.

    Best Regards,
    Royce R. Vines

    “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” ~ Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

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