Planet Earth

Games People Play

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 18, 2011 5:33 PM


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I know the climate change debate is emotionally charged, but the ugly politics and paranoid thought processes that flow from it are breathtaking. People have become so blinded by their own sense of righteousness that it often makes rational debate all but impossible. What's doubly disappointing is when this behavior is exhibited by those who have science pedigrees and claim the mantle of clear-thinking, science defender. The blogosphere, of course, is where these shenanigans regularly play out. Two recent examples are notable. The first highlights the ugly politics aspect, the second the paranoid thought processes. Exhibit A is from a serial offender who has waged a personal war with Andy Revkin for some time. Rather than summarize the latest bit of Rommian theatrics, I'll let you go have a look yourself, including this from Revkin. Truth is, many of the saner folks on Romm's side of the climate debate have grown weary of his antics. They tune out the rants. To them, he's like the outlandish, bombastic uncle at Thanksgiving that everybody tolerates because he's part of the family. But behind his back, they're rolling their eyes at his unseemly outbursts. Exhibit B is this post and thread from Michael Tobis at his new home, Planet 3.0: Beyond Sustainability. I have much higher expectations of Michael, and have previously expressed great hopes for the site he has created. But in the aforementioned post's discussion on recent scholarship that has challenged Jared Diamond's eco-collapse narrative for Easter Island, Michael made a startlingly biased and willfully ignorant argument. It's so unbelievable that I'm going to excerpt the highlights. They occurred during an exchange with the two archaeologists who came by to discuss the findings of their book with Michael in the thread of his post. (For background on this debate, see this, this, and this, in order. I also wrote up a related post here.) So Michael's post is called The Statues that Walked, which happens to be the title of the recently published book by archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt. As I mentioned, it calls into question much of what people think they know about Easter Island, in particular it's validity as a popular environmentalist metaphor. Here is an excerpt from Carl Lipo's first comment at the thread, addressed to Michael:

I agree we should all be wary of "denialists" who challenge scientific findings simply to further some agenda. Many of these are exactly what you describe "” pseudo-science, arguments by authority and common sense logic. Our evaluation of the archaeological record of Easter Island (documented in our book, The Statues That Walked) was not done to simply "deny" the Collapse story that has been long associated with it. As archaeologists, we went to the island fully expecting to be able to study the growth of the island's population after colonization and eventual collapse that was reported to have occurred ca. AD1680. It was much to our surprise that the archaeological record simply didn't have evidence that supported much of what has been claimed "” no evidence for cannibalism, no evidence for widespread lethal warfare, no evidence for the 10,000+ population that has been argued to have once lived on the island and so on. Our best explanation of what we could find in the record is that there never was a prehistoric collapse and much of the features associated with "collapse" come from the effects of contact and post-contact history.

Lipo closed with this:

I urge you to evaluate the book on its own merits "” examine the evidence we present and see if you can find a better explanation then what we arrive at. We greatly appreciate any dialogue on these grounds.

Here's the first sentence of Michael's response:

The tone of reasonableness in your reply, which we have learned to expect from the most egregious misrepresenters of climate science, is less reassuring for me than it might be for someone who hasn't engaged in that way.

Now if I was Lipo, right there I would have concluded that Michael is not interested in having a discussion in good faith. Then, after cataloguing a list of bullet points he feels that Lipo did not adequately answer, Michael ends on this note:

In short, Diamond has drawn a tightly coherent picture and you have replied with a scattershot set of critiques that leaves a plethora of loose ends. Your argumentation is thus very remeniscent of the "climate skeptics", (leaving aside that you reference the work of one of them in their pet journal) providing, in answer to a coherent theory, a whole slew of doubts on particulars and a barely plausible scenario with little underlying structure. It's, at best, intellectually dissatisfying. That isn't really evidence against your position. However, it matches my prior expectation that emotionally resonant results about sustainability will always end up challenged and obfuscated. Therefore the burden of proof, in my estimation, lies with you. Would you be willing to identify who funded your research?

Now I had already been participating in this exchange, and became incredulous at that point. I asked Michael if he had read the book that lays out the argument he was crudely disparaging ("reminiscent of climate skeptics..."), and what he was insinuating about the funding issue. He responded:

I haven't read the book. I am trying to decide whether it is worth reading. Consider that if Diamond is wrong about Easter Island, I have little intrinsic interest in Easter Island. I do want to know if he was totally wrong of course, but I don't want to read a book about it.

Yet Michael feels free to pass judgement on the argument and evidence made in the book, without actually having read it. What's more, even though he wants to know if Diamond is wrong, he's not sufficiently interested in Easter Island to read a book by respected scholars that lays waste to the Easter Island mythology. Oh, and about that funding question he posed:

My question is whether they got funding from a private source because somebody disliked Diamond's 2004 book. If they went through normal channels with an interest in Easter Island that would refute my suspicion that their mission was postnormal as opposed to normal science.

Carl Lipo responded:

If you are not willing to read our book then there is precious little to discuss since you apparently know what the answers are already. If you would like to discuss the evidence of the record and how archaeologists have been explaining it for the past 10-15 years, I would be happy to talk. But if you want to keep to your faith-based approach, there little hope of finding a common ground. Your suspicions about funding sources also makes me wonder if you also prefer tin-foil hats.

Michael, finally revealing that he has no interest in "scientifically informed conversation" on Easter Island (the quote is from the blurb about what the Planet 3.0 website strives for), comes back with this:

My interest is not in the substance unless Lipo & Hunt make a dramatically more compelling case than they seem able to. My interest remains mostly about what Peiser and E&E have to do with it.

Let me get this straight. Michael is not interested in the substance of the debate, unless the two archaeologists can make a more compelling case. But he doesn't want to read their book. Well, maybe the authors should act out the evidence for him. Perhaps that would be more compelling. As for his abiding interest in a single source (who is an ardent climate contrarian), Lipo addressed that issue in one of his comments:

I should also note that while we are aware of Peiser's argument (and others e.g., Rainbird) we did not in anyway rely on his claims. We are not stooges for anti-environment corporate entities. Both of us are faculty at public universities. Our intentions are archaeological in nature and in doing science the best that we can. If you examine our cumulative academic record of publications you will find that we are both ardent supporters of science (and have even been criticized by some of our colleagues as been "too scientific" in our demands for constraining our explanations to descriptions of the empirical record).

Another commenter offers this advice to Michael:

I think we'd need to read their book before claiming that they're offering scattered contradictions rather than a coherent thesis.

But that would mean acting like a scientist, and actually examining the evidence for yourself, rather than being cavalierly dismissive. Not all scientists want to do that, it seems.

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