Tim Flannery on Engaging Skeptics

February 28th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the FT today, Tim Flannery, an Australian activist and scientist, indicates that he has learned that the tactic of chasing skeptics around is a losing proposition. However, judging by the frenzied excitement over George Will this week, few others seem to agree. An excerpt, with emphasis added:

Apart from anything else, Flannery feels that talking one-to-one with a chief executive gives him greater leverage than delivering media-friendly sound bites. “There’s only so much you can achieve through using the media. Quite often there’s no way you can develop an effective argument of the right [level of] intellectual integrity,” he says. Does he worry about being co-opted by money and power? “I suppose there’s always a risk of that,” he says. “But I try to keep a strong vision of what I do and operate within that framework.”

Back at the café in Sydney, Flannery had said his decision to focus on a business audience reflected a growing awareness that he needs to be more selective in the way he engages with the world. “I think I now understand a little bit better how to actually do something about the problem. It’s not the scattergun approach of dealing with every sceptic that turns up in the local papers or magazines – you waste your time chasing your tail doing that. If you can get business acceptance for the need for change, then you’ve really done something.

5 Responses to “Tim Flannery on Engaging Skeptics”

  1. stan Says:

    CJR has this on the George Will column and Rivkin’s Algore comparison. http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/the_george_will_affair.php
    Jaw-dropping stuff.

    The reactions from the left in the last week have been extraordinary in their fury and their vitriol. Bizarre that a political opinion column should provoke such anger and denunciation. And given all the whoppers Gore told in his movie (see UK findings), the assertion that he is a fount of truth compared to Will just amazes. A lot of folks seem to have completely lost their minds.

    Whatever happened to some logic and perspective? Whatever happened to a focus on facts, an acknowledgment of our uncertainty and a respect for opposing views?

    The screaming and shrill demands for censorship that poured into the Post and the Times ought to frighten every scientist (and every citizen for that matter) right down to the very core of their being. This is chilling stuff. The claim that this isn’t a demand for censorship is Orwellian. Humpty Dumpty would be proud. (“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”)

    Unless a responsible adult or two emerges from the left to provide sensible counsel and encourage respect and tolerance for debate on climate issues, this is going to end badly for everyone. Science will likely be the biggest loser.

    Of course, this type demonization is part of a wider problem with politics today where opponents are not just “wrong”, but slandered and vilified as evil. See e.g. the shouting down of conservative speakers on campus or the Obama campaign’s efforts to rally supporters to muscle critics off talk radio programs.

    Science, however (and hopefully that includes climate science), has the potential to avoid being immersed in the worst of this dung fight. In science, facts still matter (or should). “Fake but accurate” should never be tolerated by scientists, regardless of their political leaning. Those who employ slander and character assassination should be rebuked (see e.g. Mann’s response to Solomon). Scientists have a special duty to police falsehoods and exaggerations from their own side.

    Politics is about power. Science should be about an honest search for truth. Unless scientists make a special effort to police those in their ranks who seek to overwhelm the science with politics, they will all get tarred as political tools.

    Science will be the loser. And that will hurt us all.

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  3. Maurice Garoutte Says:

    Well said; but I would like to modify your last line a little.
    Science is the loser. And that has hurt us all.

    When the United Nations (a political organization) sponsored scientific research that justified a political position (more central control) the separation between science and politics was blurred.

    When carbon control became a liberal vs. conservative issue the science was indistinguishable from politics.

    Last week the countries best known climate scientist called for civil disobedience to advance a political cause. Only the politics remain.

    What passes for dialog today between the proponents of AGW and the skeptics reminds me of the arguments between Methodists and Baptists of my childhood.

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  5. stan Says:

    I think you’re too hard on the Methodists and Baptists. Compared to AGW, their arguments are less driven by faith. ;)

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  7. kkloor Says:

    For days I have been arguing that the fury hurled at Revkin and Will has ranged from histrionic to misplaced.

    See, for example, this: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2009/02/27/climate-furies/

    and this: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2009/02/25/passion-of-the-scold/

    It’s been interesting to see how many bloggers from all over the spectrum have taken the bait. But I think it’s important to draw a distinction between two different camps on the same side of the debate. For example, what motivates a highly respected science journalist, such as Carl Zimmer, from stepping into the fray, is quite different than what motivates a bloviator such as Joe Romm.

    Zimmer (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/), I believe, is just plain offended by Will’s columns and feels compelled, as a science writer, to set the record straight.

    Romm (http://climateprogress.org/), though, is an advocate/activist and he has been so zealous and over the top in his responses that it’s impossible to take him seriously. He sees a climate bogeyman lurking everywhere and screams like a five-year old child. (He’s still urging, at every opportunity,that Andy Revkin apologize to Al Gore.)

    So I would just caution people not to lump all the George Will bashers together.

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  9. TokyoTom Says:

    Roger, I will agree with you and TIm Flannery.

    However, I would simply note that in a political battle our emotions rather naturally heat up, so it is quite difficult to keep a cool head and a focus on being effective.