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Questioning assumptions

In our everyday lives, we make certain assumptions that allow us to get on with things without having to decide on every simple issue from scratch. Some assumptions are very well grounded, for example that the Sun will rise and set at known times, that our electricity supply will be there when we want it and that train and bus timetables will be at least approximately right.

However, this trait extends far beyond the commonalities of everyday life. Most of us have an opinion on a wide range of topics (there are rather few professional ‘don’t knows’ among us) and in all cases, having come to a conclusion, it is quite difficult for us to question the underlying assumptions. Certainly we rarely question them simply because of someone else’s rational argument; it’s more a question of occasional Damascene conversions.

This is understandable for issues such as EU membership, on which the UK electorate will vote in a little over a month’s time. Political debate is hardly ever grounded in objective fact and, in this case, it is extremely difficult to come up with reliable quantitative information. Most projections are little more than guesses, based on whatever biases the presenter has. No wonder that the majority of people who vote on 23 June will put their cross based on a gut feeling that, for example, leaving the EU would give us back control over our affairs or, conversely, that remaining a member state helps us punch above our weight.

Voting in such a referendum – in either direction – is fundamentally an act of faith, since the consequences of exit are effectively unknowable. When it comes to science – where views should be based on hard evidence – we might hope that things were different, but all too often they aren’t. Evidence is rarely black and white; it is open to interpretation, and that interpretation depends on our individual preconceptions and assumptions.

For no issue is this more true than climate change, where the degree of unwarranted extrapolation and personal invective invites comparison with the current unedifying referendum campaigns. There is what I suppose I’m going to have to call a ‘narrative’ about the unprecedented and dangerous impact the human population is having on an otherwise relatively settled climate system and the absolute imperative to take radical action to reduce the risks.

For the IPCC, the scientific establishment, environmental activists and many politicians, this assumption is now deeply ingrained, making even the most nuanced and carefully constructed arguments questioning current climate change policy a sort of heresy. Not only is there little chance of swaying this view by reasoned debate, but also the debate is deliberately shut down.

In the UK, the BBC has effectively removed all comment by climate sceptics from the airwaves, having apparently been convinced by the argument that there is no scientific balance to be struck; dangerous Man-made climate change is real and the underlying assumptions cannot be questioned. Print media fortunately do not always take such a one-sided view. But, in return, we see that the Establishment has seen fit to try to nudge the Times in the same direction as the BBC (Climate change lobby wants to kill free speech).

The effect of this intolerance of dissent is, in some cases, to stop people putting their head over the parapet; they keep their heads down, pay lip service to the ‘consensus’ and keep their doubts private. In other cases, it can push perfectly reasonable people with a legitimate point to make to become more vocal and, in many cases, less tolerant of the mainstream. The overall effect is to polarise opinion and make a meeting of minds increasingly unlikely.

At one level, even those with the most polarised views should be able to agree on the need to identify the extent and root cause of any problem and then take the most effective (and cost-effective) action possible. Mainstream opinion does not like to be questioned because it believes this weakens the case for the urgent action it deems necessary. This leaves it wilfully blind to any deficiencies in the underlying arguments. If there is to be any real change of opinion, it will be a Kuhnian paradigm shift over the next generation.

Nevertheless, in a free society we need to make room for people who want to rock the boat, even if we disagree with them. It is the very weight of credible criticism that will eventually change the climate change paradigm unless, in the meantime, we find a return to sustained and rapid warming as projected by the IPCC’s climate model array.

An important critical contribution was published recently by Michael Kelly, professor of engineering at Cambridge University. Despite its somewhat opaque title (Trends in Extreme Weather Events since 1900 – An Enduring Conundrum for Wise Policy Advice) this is an important study which concludes that, based on official statistics, there is no evidence for the claim that extreme weather events are becoming more common. If so, supporters of the received wisdom shouldn’t be making routine claims linking floods or droughts to the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

On the other hand, the Scientific American reported recently that Sea level rise swallows 5 whole Pacific islands. This story was focussed on this being an example of what can be expected more widely from climate change and the need to take action to combat sea level rise. However, the danger of leaping to the obvious conclusion is shown by a story in the Guardian: Headlines ‘exaggerated’ climate link to sinking of Pacific islands(for which they deserve congratulation for honesty, as they were among the original culprits).

The author of the original scientific study points out that there are factors other than climate change which are making the sea level around the Solomon Islands rise particularly fast. As the Guardian puts it “The major misunderstanding stems from the conflation of sea-level rise with climate change. As a scientifically robust and potentially destructive articulation of climate change, sea-level rise has become almost synonymous with the warming of the planet.”

This nicely sums up the problem: if you continuously feed people a black and white picture based on rigid assumptions, they will inevitably jump to the wrong conclusions from time to time. If countries are going to stop pouring resources into costly and ineffective renewable energy schemes and concentrate on finding a post-fossil fuel energy system that works, there can be no sacred cows.