Deconstructing Skepticism: The True FLICC

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As part of the anthropogenic climate change debate, and when discussing the proposed plans for transition to Net Zero, efforts have been made to analyse the thinking that underpins the typical sceptic’s position. These analyses have universally presupposed that such scepticism stubbornly persists in the face of overwhelming evidence, as reflected in the widespread use of the term ‘denier’. Consequently, they are based upon taxonomies of flawed reasoning and methods of deception and misinformation.1 However, by taking such a prejudicial approach, the analyses have invariably failed to acknowledge the ideological, philosophical and psychological bases for sceptical thinking. The following taxonomy redresses that failing and, as a result, offers a more pertinent analysis that avoids the worst excesses of opinionated philippic. The taxonomy identifies a basic set of ideologies and attitudes that feature prominently in the typical climate change sceptic’s case. For my taxonomy I have chosen the acronym FLICC:2

  • Follow data but distrust judgement and speculation

i.e. value empirical evidence over theory and conjecture.

  • Look for the full risk profile

i.e. when considering the management of risks and uncertainties, demand that those associated with mitigating and preventative measures are also taken into account.

  • Interrogate causal arguments

i.e. demand that both necessity and sufficiency form the basis of a causal analysis.

  • Contrariness

i.e. distrust consensus as an indicator of epistemological value.

  • Cultural awareness

i.e. never underestimate the extent to which a society can fabricate a truth for its own purposes.

All of the above have a long and legitimate history outside the field of climate science. The suggestion that they are not being applied in good faith by climate change sceptics falls beyond the remit of taxonomical analysis and strays into the territory of propaganda and ad hominem.

The five ideologies and attitudes of climate change scepticism introduced above are now discussed in greater detail.

Following the data

Above all else, the sceptical approach is characterized by a reluctance to draw conclusions from a given body of evidence. When it comes to evidence supporting the idea of a ‘climate crisis’, such reluctance is judged by many to be pathological and indicative of motivated reasoning. Cognitive scientists use the term ‘conservative belief revision’ to refer to an undue reluctance to update beliefs in accordance with a new body of evidence. More precisely, when the individual retains the view that events have a random pattern, thereby downplaying the possibility of a causative factor, the term used is ‘slothful induction’. Either way, the presupposition is that the individual is committing a logical fallacy resulting from cognitive bias. Others, however, prefer to emphasise the role of motivated reasoning and therefore resort to terminology aimed at condemnation; such reluctance to draw a conclusion is simply dismissed as self-serving denialism.

However, far from being a pathology of thinking, such reluctance has its legitimate foundations in Pyrrhonian philosophy and, when properly understood, it can be seen as an important thinking strategy.3 Conservative belief revision and slothful induction can indeed lead to false conclusions but, more importantly, the error most commonly encountered when making decisions under uncertainty (and the one with the greatest potential for damage) is to downplay unknown and possibly random factors and instead construct a narrative that overstates and prejudges causation. This tendency is central to the human condition and it lies at the heart of our failure to foresee the unexpected – this is the truly important cognitive bias that the sceptic seeks to avoid.

We know of Pyrrhonian philosophy primarily through the writings of Sextus Empiricus, a philosopher who probably lived in the second or third century CE. He describes an extreme form of scepticism that denies all bases for belief. To the Pyrrhonian there is the evidence and nothing else. Any attempt to draw a conclusion is destined to be contradicted by an alternative, and so peace of mind is only possible through abandonment of the attempt. Whilst this mode of thinking may not be prevalent in modern day thinking, much of the sentiment survives in what Professor Nassim Taleb refers to as ‘empirical scepticism’.4 The empirical sceptic is cognisant of evidence and allows the formulation of theories but treats them with considerable caution due to the many ways in which such theories often entail unwarranted presupposition. The drivers behind this problem are the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns, to construct narratives that hide complexities, to over-emphasise the causative role played by human agents and to under-emphasise the role played by external and possibly random factors. Ultimately, it is a problem regarding the comprehension of uncertainty — we comprehend in a manner that has served us well in evolutionary terms but has left us vulnerable to unprecedented, high consequence events.

Contrary to the Pyrrhonian assumption, the desire to draw conclusions is so strong5 that remaining an empirical sceptic is quite a difficult and effortful undertaking. As Taleb puts it:

“It takes considerable effort to see facts (and remember them) while withholding judgement and resisting explanations. And this theorizing disease is rarely under our control: it is largely anatomical, part of our biology, so fighting it requires fighting one’s own self.…Try to be a true sceptic with respect to your interpretations and you will be worn out in no time. You will also be humiliated for resisting to theorize.”

This quote should resonate with the climate change sceptic for two reasons. Firstly, there is the use of the term ‘true sceptic’. It is often said that a true sceptic is one who is prepared to accept the prevailing theory once the evidence is ‘overwhelming’. The climate change sceptic’s reluctance to do so is taken as an indication that he or she is not a true sceptic. However, we see here that true scepticism lies in the willingness to challenge the idea that the evidence is overwhelming – it only seems overwhelming to those who fail to recognise the ‘theorizing disease’ and lack the resolve to resist it. Secondly, there cannot be a climate change sceptic alive who is not painfully aware of the humiliation handed out to those who resist the theorizing.

In practice, the theorizing and the narratives that trouble the empirical sceptic take many forms. It can be seen in the over-dependence upon mathematical models for which the tuning owes more to art than science. It can be seen in the readiness to treat the output of such models as data resulting from experiment, rather than the hypotheses they are. It can be seen in the lack of regard for ontological uncertainty (i.e. the unknown unknowns which, due to their very nature, the models do not address). It can be seen in the emergence of story-telling as a primary weapon in the armoury of extreme weather event attribution.6 It can be seen in the willingness to commit trillions of pounds to courses of action that are predicated upon Representative Concentration Pathways and economic models that are the ‘theorizing disease’ writ large. It can be seen in the contributions of the myriad of activists who seek to portray the issues in a narrative form laden with social justice and other ethical considerations. It can be seen in the imaginative but simplistic portrayals of climate change sceptics and their motives; portrayals that are drawing categorical conclusions that cannot possibly be justified given the ‘evidence’ offered. And it can be seen in any narrative that turns out to be unfounded when one follows the data. Climate change may have its basis in science and data, but this basis has long since been overtaken by a plethora of theorizing and causal narrative that sometimes appears to have taken on a life of its own. Is this what settled science is supposed to look like?

Looking for the full risk profile

Almost as fundamental as the sceptic’s resistance to theorizing and narrative is his or her appreciation that the management of anthropogenic warming (particularly the transition to Net Zero) is an undertaking beset with risk and uncertainty. This concern reflects a fundamental principle of risk management: proposed actions to tackle a risk are often in themselves problematic and so a full risk analysis is not complete until it can be confirmed that the net risk will decrease following the actions proposed.7 When such issues are raised by the sceptic, the counterarguments offered by the activist typically take one of two forms:

a) The physical risks associated with unchecked anthropogenic global warming are potentially existential or so severe that the precautionary principle applies. No cost benefit analysis need be performed in these circumstances.

b) The transition risks and costs are well understood and so a cost benefit analysis, were it to be performed, would still show that the actions proposed for Net Zero are both practicable and achievable and will result in a net reduction of risk.

The sceptic accepts neither of the above arguments, and for very good reasons.

Firstly, the narrative of existential risk is rejected on the grounds of empirical scepticism (the evidence for an existential threat is not overwhelming, it is underwhelming). Secondly, even if the narrative is accepted, it has not been reliably demonstrated that the proposal for Net Zero transition is free from existential or extreme risks. Indeed, given the dominant role played by the ‘theorizing disease’ and how it lies behind our inability to envisage the unprecedented high consequence event, there is every reason to believe that the proposals for Net Zero transition should be equally subject to the precautionary principle. The fact that they are not is indicative of a double standard being applied. The argument seems to run as follows: There is no uncertainty regarding the physical risk posed by climate change, but if there were it would only add to the imperative for action. There is also no uncertainty regarding the transition risk, but if there were it could be ignored because one can only apply the precautionary principle once! This is precisely the sort of inconsistency one encounters when uncertainties are rationalised away in order to support the favoured narrative.

The upshot of this double standard is that the activists appear to be proceeding with two very different risk management frameworks depending upon whether physical or transition risk is being considered. As a result, risks associated with renewable energy security, the environmental damage associated with proposals to reduce carbon emissions and the potentially catastrophic effects of the inevitable global economic shock are all played down or explained away. This selective blindness to risk is even more pronounced when seen from the perspective of individual nations who are determined to press ahead, seemingly oblivious to the lack of competitiveness they invite when compared to countries who are less committed to the transition. These issues are also explained away in a bluster of moralizing and beguiling tales of green dividend. However, this just demonstrates that there isn’t a risk in the world that cannot be ‘managed’ by using a sufficiently simplistic narrative.

Looking for the full risk profile is a basic of risk management practice. The fact that it is seen as a ploy used only by those wishing to oppose the management of anthropogenic climate change is both odd and worrying. It is indeed important to the sceptic, but it should be important to everyone.

Interrogating causal arguments

For many years we have been told that anthropogenic climate change will make bad things happen. These dire predictions were supposed to galvanize the world into action but that didn’t happen, no doubt partly due to the extent to which such predictions repeatedly failed to come true (as, for example, with the predictions of the disappearance of Arctic sea ice). Seeing that no one was particularly bothered about the far future, the IPCC re-drew the line to bring the point of no return closer to home, until it finally decreed that extreme weather attribution studies were confirming that it had already arrived (although, of course, there was still worse to come). The narrative states that this reappraisal was science driven, but that claim is somewhat undermined by the fact that the IPPC declared up front its intention to employ this tactic (in AR5, WG3, Chapter 2, to be precise). This is one good reason for the empirical sceptic to distrust the narrative,8 but an even better one lies in the very concept of causation.

A major purpose of narrative is to reduce complexity so that the ‘truth’ can shine through. This is particularly the case with causal narratives. We all want executive summaries and sound bites such as ‘X happened because of Y’. But very few of us are interested in examining exactly what we mean by such statements – very few except, of course, for the empirical sceptics. In a messy world in which many factors may be at play, the more pertinent questions are:

  • To what extent was X necessary for Y to happen?
  • To what extent was X sufficient for Y to happen?

The vast majority of the extreme weather event attribution narrative is focused upon the first question and very little attention is payed to the second; at least not in the many press bulletins issued. Basically, we are told that the event was virtually impossible without climate change, but very little is said regarding whether climate change on its own was enough. Despite the fact that climate change forms a backdrop to a great deal of natural variability, and it is the latter that is often the dominant causation, we are nevertheless always treated to the stark warning that Y was due to climate change. This problem of oversimplification is even more worrying once one starts to examine consequential damages whilst failing to take into account man-made failings such as those that exacerbate the impacts of floods and forest fires.9

The problem of the oversimplification of causal narrative is not restricted to weather-related events, of course. Climate change, we are told, is wreaking havoc with the flora and fauna and many species are dying out as a result. However, when such claims are examined more closely,10 it is invariably the case that climate change has been lumped in with a number of other factors that are destroying habitat. The extent to which climate change is sufficient for the decline in species is usually very low but that does not stop the press (and scientists who should know better) from issuing grossly distorted attributions on the often flimsy pretext that climate change can’t be helping.

When climate change sceptics point this out they are, of course, accused of cherry-picking. The truth, however, is that their insistence that the extended causal narrative of necessity and sufficiency should be respected is nothing more than the consequence of following the data and looking for the full risk profile.

Contrariness

The climate change debate is all about making decisions under uncertainty, so it is little surprise that gaining consensus is seen as centrally important. Uncertainty is reduced when the evidence is overwhelming and it is tempting to believe that the high level of consensus amongst climate scientists surely points towards there being overwhelming evidence. If one accepts this logic then the sceptic’s refusal to accept the consensus is just another manifestation of his or her denial.

Except, of course, an empirical sceptic would not accept this logic. Consensus does not result from a simple examination of concordant evidence, it is instead the fruit of the tendentious theorizing and simplifying narrative that the empirical sceptic intuitively distrusts. As explained above, there are a number of drivers that cause such theories and narratives to entail unwarranted presupposition, and it is naïve to believe that scientists are immune to such drivers. As Nassim Taleb puts it:

“Now, if you think that science is an abstract subject free of sensationalism and distortions, I have some sobering news. Empirical researchers have found evidence that scientists too are vulnerable to narratives, emphasising titles and ‘sexy’ attention-grabbing punch lines over more substantive matters. They too are human and get their attention form sensational matters.”

I could add to the above that scientists are also social animals who are prone to congregating around ideas and can develop consensus for reasons that have more to do with social cohesion than anything else. This is not a conspiracy theory. Nobody is conspiring to deceive anyone, with the possible exception of themselves. However, the fact remains that consensus on beliefs is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for presuming that these beliefs constitute shared knowledge. It is only when a consensus on beliefs is uncoerced, uniquely heterogeneous and large, that a shared knowledge provides the best explanation of a given consensus.11 The notion that a scientific consensus can be trusted because scientists are permanently seeking to challenge accepted views is simplistic at best. It is actually far from obvious that in climate science the conditions have been met for consensus to be a reliable indicator of shared knowledge.

All of this matters because the IPCC has taken the view that high levels of consensus add to the evidential weight in favour of a theory.12 The difficulties in this approach should be obvious; strength of agreement is not a reliable substitute for strength of evidence. It is of considerable concern to see that the IPCC has committed this basic error because it is bound to fuel overconfidence in the conclusions drawn. It is bad enough that a theory may be based upon unwarranted presuppositions; it is worse still that the number of people who fail to appreciate this may form part of the evidential weight in its favour.

Given these difficulties, the sceptic should make no apologies for challenging consensus. It is easy to accuse such sceptics of being in denial because they fail to appreciate how close 97 is to 100. It is also easy to accuse them of engaging in conspiracy theory. However, neither accusation is valid. Consensus may or may not be a fact, but even if it is, what that fact indicates is often an open question. The term ‘contrarian’ is now used as an alternative insult to ‘denier’ since it implies a stubbornness against accepting what everyone else can see. However, contrariness simply comes with the territory of being an empirical sceptic. The evidence of consensus is there to be seen, but the amount of theorizing and narrative that requires its genesis, together with the social dimension to consensus generation, are enough for the empirical sceptic to treat the whole matter of consensus with a great deal of caution.

Cultural awareness

There has been a great deal said already regarding the culture wars surrounding issues such as the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change. Most of the concerns are directed at the sceptic, who for reasons never properly explained, is deemed to be the instigator of the conflict. However, it is the sceptic who chooses to point out that the value-laden arguments offered by climate activists are best understood as part of a wider cultural movement in which rationality is subordinate to in-group versus outgroup dynamics. The debate as to whether the slothful induction of the empirical sceptic is justified or not in the light of the current evidence is a question of rationality. The sceptic’s concerns regarding risk profiles, causal narrative and consensus also have a basis in rational judgement. However, when one steps back and observes the nature of the accusations levelled at the sceptical, it is difficult to see how rationality applies. We would be deluding ourselves in thinking that societies that owe their cohesion to a sense of shared values, and are populated by individuals who are all chemically addicted to their own opinions, would allow a debate such as that regarding anthropogenic climate change to progress in accordance with the imperatives of rationality. Ultimately, what matters most is that the cultural underpinnings of the human project are secured against the dissent of the outgroup. Professor Mike Hulme once wrote:

“Because the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs…We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us.”

Psychological, ethical and spiritual needs lie at the heart of the development of culture and so the adoption of the climate change phenomenon in service of these needs has to be seen as essentially a cultural power play. The dangers of uncritically accepting the fruits of theorizing and narrative are only the beginning of the empirical sceptic’s concerns. Beyond that is the concern that the direction the debate is taking is not even a matter of empiricism – data analysis has little to offer when so much depends upon whether the phenomenon is subsequently to be described as warming or heating. It is for this reason that much of the sceptic’s attention is directed towards the manner in which the science features in our culture rather than the science itself. Such are our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs, that we must not underestimate the extent to which ostensibly scientific output can be moulded in their service.

Conclusions

Taxonomies of thinking should not be treated too seriously. Whilst I hope that I have offered here a welcome antidote to the diatribe that often masquerades as a scholarly appraisal of climate change scepticism, it remains the case that the form that scepticism takes will be unique to the individual. I could not hope to cover all aspects of climate change scepticism in the limited space available to me, but it remains my belief that there are unifying principles that can be identified. Central to these is the concept of the empirical sceptic and the need to understand that there are sound reasons to treat theorizing and simplifying narratives with extreme caution. The empirical sceptic resists the temptation to theorize, preferring instead to keep an open mind on the interpretation of the evidence. This is far from being self-serving denialism; it is instead a self-denying servitude to the data. That said, I cannot believe that there would be any activist who, upon reading this account, would see a reason to modify their opinions regarding the bad faith and irrationality that lies behind scepticism. This, unfortunately, is only to be expected given that such opinions are themselves the result of theorizing and simplifying narrative.  

Notes and References:

[1] My views on the value of such taxonomies can be found here.

[2] In ‘honour’ of a certain John Cook. If nothing, this demonstrates how easy it is to contrive a taxonomy. I didn’t even need to think of my own acronym.

[3] It is not without significance that the page image used on Climate Scepticism’s about page is of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis.

[4] A full account of the important role played by empirical scepticism when making decisions under uncertainty can be found in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A good precis can be found here.

[5] The brain rewards itself with dopamine whenever a conclusion is drawn. That’s why a sense of certainty in one’s position feels good. The open mind is not nearly as rewarding. The neurology of decision-making is covered at some length in Jonah Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment. A discussion of some of the issues can be found in this interview.

[6] As evident in the shift towards a story-telling framework for risk management, as outlined in AR6.

[7] In safety risk assessment this is known as the Globally At Least Equivalent (GALE) principle.

[8] I have reviewed AR5, WG3, Chapter 2 in some detail, starting here.

[9] The problem of the oversimplified causal narrative, as applied to accounts of forest fires, is discussed here.

[10] As, for example, here.

[11] For this choice of words I am indebted to Aviezer Tucker and his paper The epistemic significance of consensus.

[12] My views on the IPCC’s guidelines for the communication of uncertainty can be found here.

via Climate Scepticism

June 14, 2022

Deconstructing Scepticism: The True FLICC – Climate Scepticism (cliscep.com)

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