Prat watch #7.5: No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

By Gareth Renowden 08/10/2012

This morning my breakfast reading included a marvellous short article at The Conversation from philosopher Patrick Stokes of Deakin University in Melbourne. Stokes riffs on that familiar justification for holding a view, “I’m entitled to my opinion”, and makes some interesting observations about how it distorts public debate:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Given my look at the strange inexpertise of Richard Treadgold at his Climate Conversation Group last week, Stokes’ analysis seems strangely apposite. So I did a little more digging…

My original criticism of Treadgold’s lack of basic knowledge of Arctic climate attracted a sadly ineffective response, and didn’t deter him from going further, reproducing an article from The Australian in full, with his own annotations added in tasteful green. The original is mainly a discussion of why Aussie scientists are continuing to investigate Antarctic climate, but leads Treadgold into revealing previously uncharted areas of his own ignorance. Here’s a basic geography fail. The article describes the Antarctic peninsula as one of the fastest warming parts of the planet.

…of course it’s warmer there, it’s not even in the Antarctic.

Ahem. It’s called the Antarctic Peninsula for a reason…

Then a combined ice/geography/history fail:

The Australian: “The break up of the Larson1 Ice Shelf in 2002 was a very timely reminder that there is rapid change occurring in certain regions of Antarctica,” Dr Massom said.

Treadgold interjects: No, Doctor, that is dishonest, for, as you must be aware, those ice shelves have been snapping off in tidal action for millions of years. It has nothing to do with getting warmer down there, for the simple reason that it’s been getting colder.

That’s not what happened to the Larsen B ice shelf ten years ago. An ice shelf that had been stable for at least the last 10,000 years broke up in the course of a single summer, and its demise (and that of many other ice shelves around the peninsula) is very closely associated with the dramatic warming over the peninsula — a warming that Treadgold earlier acknowledged by trying to move the whole place out of the Antarctic!

Of course, being unsullied by what you might be forgiven for thinking was the sort of general knowledge one might require to partake of a debate on Antarctic climate doesn’t prevent Treadgold from moving on to shoot the messenger. Just as his earlier post accused a professor of geography of making howlers, this time he feels free to malign a scientist in the strongest possible terms:

Massom is dishonest.

The dishonesty here is Treadgold’s. He does not possess the expertise that would allow him to make a cogent criticism of Dr Masson’s statements to the reporter from The Australian. This is exactly the false equivalence Patrick Stokes describes, and exactly what the judge in the NIWA versus cranks case saw through.

I will make a prediction, though. Treadgold’s response to my continued criticisms of his posts will be to accuse me of shutting down scientific debate, of wanting to silence climate deniers. Fortunately, Stokes has this covered too:

This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.”

Climate deniers/cranks/sceptics have every right to argue about what we do to address climate change, but simply do not have the expertise to argue about the facts. Treadgold may be an extreme example of the scientific incompetence of the opposition to climate action, but he’s by no means unusual. In some respects, this may be a good sign. When you get so far divorced from basic reality, it becomes harder and harder for anyone to take you seriously.

  1. Minor spelling fail for The Australian — it is of course the LarsEn Ice Shelf