Climate science and policy: the tension between ‘argument’ and ‘debate’



Robert Manne’s important essay in The Monthly (August 2012) laments that in the climate change debate “the denialist campaign has won”, a sharp turn for the worse since 2009. Clearly, Manne’s primary purpose is not to haul up the white flag, but to inform and to shock. If “denialism” and its cousins (climate “scepticism” and “contrarianism”) are to be countered, we need to face some unpleasant political and psychological realities.

Faced with the onslaught of the few powerful ideologues and corporate vested interests identified by Manne, Naomi Oreskes and others, a significant section of the public is unpersuaded by the “science” alone. This is despite accumulating evidence including extreme weather events, many impacting on food security.

Much of the public also fails to understand the political economy of mitigating climate change at the national and international levels.

These failures of understanding and of explanation cannot be solved over-night. It is time to take a step back from the detail and focus on the fundamentals of knowledge and communication.

The first is about clear thinking and about recognising common forms of deception and dishonesty in debate. The second is about resolving a tension between scientific argument (about truth-seeking) and the practice of debate (essentially about persuasion or conversion).

“Clear thinking” and debating tricks

In the chapter on climate change in his Quarterly Essay on the Murdoch empire, Manne seized on an apparent decline of “clear thinking” as an educational goal (indeed, a “whole of life” educational objective).

It was not always thus. In the 1950s (at least in Victoria) the compulsory year 12 (matriculation) English Expression curriculum included a prescribed text by Robert H Thouless, Straight and Crooked Thinking. In the book, the author identified an a long list of dishonest debating tricks.

Drawing on an interview with the late and eminent climate scientist Stephen Schneider, Manne’s essay identifies one such dirty trick.

    [Schneider] had spoken about the tension between his obligation as a scientist towards nuanced truthfulness and his responsibility as a human being to fight for the future well-being of the Earth. One passage of the interview read, “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both”. A journalist published the first sentence and omitted the second. For 20 years, on this basis, Schneider was defamed on denialist websites as a self-confessed liar.

The necessary response, taught by Thouless, is to give a label to such dirty tricks: here, selective quotation out of context, where context is vital to meaning.

Of course, not all faulty claims and inferences are intentionally deceptive. Equally important is to address and expose fallacies and faults in our own reasoning and persuasive practices.

“Argument” versus “debate”: the discordant goals of truth-seeking versus persuasion

Part of the problem in the climate change debate (indeed in debates about the findings and impact of science generally), arises from this tension so well identified by Schneider.

Pioneering mathematical game theorist and academic psychologist Anatole Rapoport set out a first step in dealing with this tension in his classic text Fights, Games and Debates. Rapoport distinguished two distinct “ideal-types”: he called them “argument” and “debate”. He identified the objective of the former as truth-seeking; the objective of the latter as conversion (or persuasion).

Rapoport says rigorous “argument” is the province of science and scientists. This should be expanded to include serious scholars generally. By contrast, in his schema there are the experts in the arts of persuasive “debate”: politicians, barristers, evangelists (of all stripes), and PR people. Clearly, the rules and norms of these two broad types of activity are significantly different.

The (public) debate – with its objectives of persuasion, conversion and commitment – is too important to exclude either the scientists and scholars, or conscientious citizens. Both will face difficulties and challenges, notably because the practices of unfair debate are not consonant with the norms of science ─ or of ordinary conversation.

This was the first part of Schneider’s argument. The second part concerned an obligation for those scientists able to participate effectively in the open debate to do so, recognising that “debate” was a different kind of activity from scientific “argument”.

The tension between the two sorts of activities, both legitimate, will and should remain but also needs to be transcended. This means the public debate about climate change cannot take as its objective simply conversion and persuasion. It must also take aboard and strongly propagate the goal of truth-seeking.

This indeed is precisely the ethic of “clear thinking” and responsible citizenship that is implicit in the educational project defined by Thouless and others. The special role of scientists and scholars like Schneider is not only to provide expertise. It is also to expound, in the public domain, the scientific ethic of truth-seeking, and of honest and clear reporting.

On the other hand, access to the scientific argument poses particular difficulties for the conscientious citizen, because of the technical difficulties and complexities. Manne points out that many denialists with a non-scientific background seek to grapple with the science ─ and commendably so. However, not so commendably, they often do so as credulous hangers-on of a small cabal of scientific “merchants of doubt” identified in the important work of Naomi Oreskes and her colleagues.

This cabal uses the well-recognised uncertainties about the extent, timing and nature of future climate change, and its human-related causes, to discredit the many well-established findings in climate science. We need to understand both the latter and the (for now) irreducible uncertainties in climate science.

The findings of science are typically provisional at the margins even if the core is “settled”. The “complex systems” involved in the climate science can preclude accurate prediction, especially in those many cases where “tight linkages” and “tipping points” could cause catastrophe for human civilisation.

Against this potentially enormous cost and risk, the “premium” for this global and epochal “insurance policy” is the cost of mitigation, and the pricing of greenhouse emissions. The leads and lags are such that it is prudent to begin paying the premium now, where this ‘premium’ is the cost of sufficiently slowing emissions growth.

Contrary to the “denialists”, it is fitting that as an affluent OECD economy, minimally impacted by the GFC, with the highest per capita emissions, profiting immensely from the export of steaming coal, and especially vulnerable to climate change, Australia should be among those at forefront in the mitigation effort.