Stephan Lewandowsky: Why scientists won't debate Lord Monckton

165 comments
British climate change sceptic Christopher Monckton. Photo / AFP
British climate change sceptic Christopher Monckton. Photo / AFP

Whether at conferences or in the peer-reviewed literature, scientific debates are a crucial part of the error prevention and correction process that has served science and the public well for centuries.

Tellingly, so-called climate "sceptics" refuse to participate in scientific debates: by and large, they do not contribute to the peer-reviewed literature and they do not present their views at scientific conferences.

Meanwhile, Vaudevillian climate "sceptic" Lord Monckton, who has been scouring New Zealand and Australia for venues for his theatrical performances and searching fruitlessly for a debating partner, has given wide berth to scientific meetings. He has a life-long record of refusing to enter a scientific debate, not having published in the peer-reviewed literature.

The public suffers when good science is replaced by voodoo artists who shirk debate, as the tragic South African experience demonstrates, when president Thabo Mbeki fought AIDS with garlic and beetroot rather than antiretroviral drugs, thus contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Likewise, the global public will suffer for many years to come if the views of people who refuse to enter a scientific debate on climate lead to delayed action on climate change.

Notwithstanding their refusal to participate in scientific debate, so-called climate "sceptics" crave attention and want to engage in phoney talkfests, preferably with real scientists, at their public showings. Equally, the media who give a denier's opinions equal weight to that of an established climate scientist, need to re-examine the "balance" they purport to be representing. A review of the BBC's treatment of science stories last month found that Britain's state broadcaster had given too much air time to fringe views - particularly on the subject of climate change.

Scientists simply live up to their responsibility to the public when they decline to participate in such charades, or when they consider Mr Monckton's rhetorical exhibitions to be unworthy of an invitation by a university.

No one is out to censor Mr Monckton or any other climate denier, no matter how ignorant or misleading their utterances might be. Anybody is free to air their views; however, scientists have a duty to inform the public honestly about who the "skeptics" really are. Exposing their techniques is not censorship. Neither is it censorship for a serious university to make choices about what information it seeks to promote, and which to identify as unscientific, in the same public interest.

For scientists, there is no reason to engage with individuals in an academic setting who refuse scientific debate and accountability, and who demonstrably have nothing to bring to a debate.

In science, one has to demonstrate credibility before one can enter a scientific debate. Medical students must learn to tell the difference between HIV and HPV before being invited to a university forum to voice their opinions. Budding cognitive scientists must understand Prospect Theory before they can address experts on the effects of wage distributions on people's well-being.

In science, being taken seriously is not a right - it is a reflection of one's credibility and ability to rationally engage with scientific ideas and, most important, to update one's opinions on the basis of new evidence.

A demand to be taken seriously remains farcical unless accompanied by credible contributions to scientific debate.

Climate deniers, such as Mr Monckton, have not made a credible contribution to scientific debate.

Worse, although "sceptical" ideas are always taken seriously when they are first pronounced, none so far have been found to withstand scientific scrutiny. The fact that those same ideas continue to be recycled by "sceptics" identifies them to be deniers, rather than true sceptics.

Does this mean no debate is ever possible? No, of course not. Science is debate.

And the door to scientific debate, on climate or HIV/AIDS or Prospect Theory, is wide open to anyone. All they have to do is to become knowledgeable in a field and subject their ideas to scrutiny by publishing in the peer-reviewed literature.

If their ideas survive scrutiny, they are then worthy of the public recognition that deniers so crave but which they cannot responsibly be given until then.

* Stephan Lewandowsky is an Australian Professorial Fellow and Winthrop Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia.

- NZ Herald

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 21 Dec 2014 04:56:46 Processing Time: 1010ms