Taking fire from both sides

I began last week under fire from folks on the right and ended it under fire from folks on the left (click here to skip right to that). The common thread? Inability to focus on important facts and a willingness to be cavalier with the truth.

Under fire from the right

The week began at the University of Minnesota, where I was hired to participate in a Monday night debate with climate skeptic Marc Morano. I did a significant amount of prep for this debate: online research, getting advice from colleagues (thanks everyone!), and reading his recent book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change.

For those who want the play-by-play, here are my PPT slides and a video of the first hour of the debate (before my videocamera battery died). [Update Sept 26: See also this 10 minute highlight video and this debate review from NCSU rhetoric professor Jean Goodwin, who has written extensively about previous Morano debates.]

For those who want the quick-and-dirty, here are my take-aways and advice for anybody debating Marc or his compatriots in the future:

1. Try to get paid. I was happy to participate in this debate with Marc in front of a very modest audience of about 15 people at the University of Minnesota because I was getting paid, and I would happily debate him again in-person as long as the finances work out. If you’re going to debate him, you should try to get paid, too, in part because that will make it more likely that you’ll do your homework to prepare. Now, would I have an in-person debate with Marc without getting paid? Almost certainly not. (What’s in it for me, or for the world at large?) Would I debate him on TV? Probably I would—because the alternative is to give him the stage by himself—but I would spend a lot of time preparing sound bites.

2. Treat Marc like a normal human being. Calling him “evil personified” will simply earn you a plug on the cover of his book, and it will turn the audience against you. Plus, as far as I can tell, Marc is actually a nice guy. We chatted before the debate and had a beer afterwards; I’d have a beer with him again just about anytime, simply because his worldview is so different from what I usually encounter. (PS. I’ve heard similar advice about debating President Trump: treat him like a normal human being.)

3. Have fun. Go into the debate thinking (probably correctly) that it’s much less about “who’s telling the truth” and much more about “who would you rather have a beer with”. So have a good time and try to be entertaining. I told a few zingers, including that Marc’s book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change, should just be called The Incorrect Guide to Climate Change; I even included a graphic of that in my PPT slides! I also noted that Marc’s book is pretty much just quotes from people talking about how you shouldn’t believe quotes from people… and I said that Marc and those people have a point: you shouldn’t believe quotes from people, you should look at the data, especially graphs, but if you take out all the pages of Marc’s book that don’t have graphs you’ll find out his book only has five graphs in 400 pages. (At this point I shook out in front of the audience a copy of his book from which I’d torn all the pages that didn’t have graphs—email me if you’re in a debate with Marc and I’ll loan it to you!) And Marc has admitted that one of those graphs is flawed, meaning that 20% of the graphs in his book are flawed. I had fun going over those points, and hopefully it showed.

4. Don’t go in expecting to engage in an actual debate, much less convince him of anything. IMHO Marc believes what he believes and his goal is to share those beliefs with the audience: the IPCC is political, the National Academy of Sciences can’t be trusted because it’s 100% dependent on government funding, climate scientists are corrupt, in the 1970s everyone was worried about global cooling, temperatures have been this high during the Medieval Warm Period and during the 1930s, the coral reefs are fine, the polar bears are fine, the ice sheets are fine, everything is fine… but it’s pretty much impossible to get tenure or get anything published without kowtowing to the “consensus”, and that’s why it’s so amazing that there are still so many (supposedly over a thousand!) brave scientists willing to stick their necks out and tell the truth about the global warming fraud. He will machine-gun these claims out there, you will not have much time to argue any of them, much less all of them, and if you go down that road he will simply say that you’re wrong and then shift to a different line of attack. So what should you do instead?

Focus your attention on the audience, not on Marc, and focus on these two things:

5. Tell the audience a story and try to bring them on your journey. What I tried to emphasize over and over and over again in the debate (and what I wish I’d emphasized even more!) was that I have confidence in the “consensus view” of climate change because that consensus view has successfully predicted the future. I told the story of my favorite experiment, the Spot of Arago, and then connected that with climate science: the consensus view predicted that surface temperatures would increase by about 0.2C per decade in the early decades of this century, and sure enough surface temperatures have in fact increased by about that much so far. Even the satellite data measuring atmospheric temperatures (the UAH data set, a favorite of Marc and his crowd) shows warming of about 0.13C per decade.

6. Cast doubt on Marc’s credibility. This is most easily done not by comparing Marc’s views to the consensus view–that will just get you into a “he said, she said”–but by pointing out errors or exaggerations in Marc’s book. In my PPT slides I showed a graph of the satellite data and pointed out that a simple statistical analysis of all 38 data points showed a trend line of 0.13C per decade… and then included JPEGs from Marc’s book, which claims that temperatures have been “holding basically steady” because when you look at only 2 data points (1998 and 2016) you can see that “atmospheric temperatures for 2016 [were] statistically tied with 1998″. Most reasonable people are not going to side with Marc on that one. Then I showed a graph of declining trends in Arctic sea ice, again with 38 years’ worth of data… and then included a JPEG from Marc’s book, which again used only two of those data points (2016 and 2012) to argue that “Arctic sea ice was 22 percent greater in 2016 than in 2012″. Again, most reasonable people are not going to side with Marc on that one. Then I showed a JPG from Marc’s book in which he takes issue with an op-ed I wrote and calls me a “professor at Florida State University”; I’ve never even been to Tallahassee. (He mischaracterized my op-ed, too, but the FSU stuff was more blatantly wrong.) Then I showed a JPEG from Marc’s book in which he quotes Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin saying “Please remain calm: The Earth will heal itself–climate is beyond our power to control…” That’s not actually a fully legitimate quote–it’s bits and pieces cobbled together from this article–but never mind because in the exact same article written by the exact same Nobel-Prize-winning physicist it says this: “Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This buildup has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets.” That’s a pretty decent “consensus view” statement, and it casts doubt on Marc and his claims of having over a thousand “brave scientists” who don’t buy into the consensus view. As above, most reasonable people are not going to side with Marc; instead, they’re going to question his credibility, which is what they ought to do.

Under fire from the left

The short version is that I’m being attacked for “harass[ing] women scientists” by a woman named Sarah Myrhe who (1) doesn’t seem to respect the truth, (2) just happens to be a woman and a scientist, and (3) seems to accuse anybody who takes issue with her or with anything she says of “harass[ing] women scientists”.

The long version is below, but it’s not as interesting to me as these random thoughts, which I will toss out first:

  1. It will be interesting to see if folks on the left can take a reasonable view of this situation, or if they will circle the wagons because Sarah is “one of them”. Based on initial responses on Twitter, I’m not hopeful.
  2. I’m curious about how academia is dealing with the world of social media. (See this article in The Atlantic.) Sarah’s defenders seem to think that social media should be totally separate from academic work, but I wonder if they would feel the same way about somebody who was said terrible things on social media about women or gays or minorities, etc. I’m not saying I know the answer here, I’m just wondering what a good, reasonable, consistent policy looks like.
  3. I wonder if the #MeToo movement will be able to deal with people like Sarah who are attempting to co-opt it to cover up their own shortcomings. For the record: I totally support the #MeToo movement when it comes to exposing misbehavior by men, of which there is plenty. But I do not believe that it’s misbehavior to follow up on somebody who doesn’t respect the truth to find out if they are (1) employed where they say they are employed or (2) following employee policies at their place of employment. (Similarly, I totally support the #BlackLivesMatter movement when it comes to exposing misbehavior by police officers. But I do not believe that it’s misbehavior to state a fact about carbon pricing policy, and I think the #BLM movement has gotten sidetracked because people like #BLM co-founder Alicia Garza seem willing to levy accusations of “blackwashing” at people like me because of disagreements about carbon pricing.)
  4. As long as I’m jumping on current political issues (!), let me ask a hypothetical about Christine Blasey Ford. If it turned out (purely hypothetically!) that Dr Blasey was a hard-core Democratic operative (which she’s not!), would that be relevant? My answer is Yes, because that would call into question her credibility, and I think the vast majority of human beings would agree. But I fear that Sarah and many of her supporters would say No, because they want to “believe all women all the time no matter what”. But it turns out that all women don’t always respect the truth: Sarah’s case shows this, and Sarah’s effort to co-opt the #MeToo movement also shows the dangers of going down this path. (PS. Before moving on, let me recommend the NYT opinion pieces by Bret Stephens, Maureen Down, Jennifer Weiner, and the columnist our family invariable refers to as Ross Doughnut. And let me also express my optimism that senators like Susan Collins and Jeff Flake will do the right thing; call me old-fashioned or muddle-brained, but I trust them. Without knowing what will happen this week, I’m not going to presume to know how this will turn out, but if (to quote Ross) “if his accuser testifies publicly and credibly, if her allegation isn’t undermined by a week of scrutiny and testimony, if it remains unprovable but squarely in the realm of plausibility” then I think Kavanaugh will not be confirmed.)

Okay, now on to the long version of how I’m being attacked from the left.

Background: I founded and co-chaired the first-ever carbon tax ballot measure campaign in the United States, the I-732 revenue-neutral carbon tax measure in Washington State. I-732 was endorsed by three Republican state senators, by other leading Republicans like Rob McKenna and Slade Gorton, and by a host of Democrats as well, but it lost at the ballot in 2016, in part because of opposition from the environmental left: folks like the Sierra Club, Washington Conservation Voters, Naomi Klein, and Governor Jay Inslee. (See this Washington Post editorial: “The left’s opposition to a carbon tax shows there’s something deeply wrong with the left.” For even more, see the three-part Sightline series that begins here and the book-length articles in ThinkProgress and Vox. See also Jim Hansen’s post about how his endorsement of 732 resulted in a conversation with Van Jones in which he [Hansen] was “accused of condescension and racism”.)

More background: The folks on the environmental left who opposed I-732 are now taking their own swing at the ball with Initiative 1631, a revenue-positive “carbon fee” measure that will appear on the ballot this November. I have (respectfully) expressed my concerns about I-1631 but otherwise have pretty much stayed quiet about it. (I will, however, offer up a prediction: given that opponents have $16 million for ads and proponents only have $3 million, I think I-1631 will go the way of the Measure 97 tax-for-schools initiative in Oregon in 2016, polling near 60% support in September and ending up with about 40% of the vote in November. But that’s just a prediction; I haven’t seen any recent polling and I could be wrong… that’s why we hold elections!)

End of background.

One of the arguments made by one of the quasi-supporters of I-1631 (a woman named Sarah Myrhe who as far as I know has never actually come out and said she supports I-1631) was that I-732 was “white supremacy” because it was “written by white men in a closed room”. I had a Twitter exchange with Sarah, who works part-time as a climate scientist at the University of Washington, and asked her where she got the demonstrably false idea that I-732 was written by “white men”. Instead of correcting the record, or even responding in a reasonable way, Sarah responded by insulting me. Her lack of interest in the truth set off alarm bells in my head, so I tracked down her CV, which claimed that she worked at UW. But there was (and is) no listing for her in the UW directory—an unusual situation that I can’t remember encountering in my 10 or so years of grad school and teaching at UW—so I emailed some climate faculty to see if she actually worked there. They said she did. Then I emailed her superiors at UW to see if her climate policy writings violated UW policy on outside employment. They said the UW policy doesn’t apply to part-time staff.

End of story… except for Sarah’s claim that my inquiry amounts to “harass[ing] women scientists”. You’ll have to decide that one for yourself, and I’ve got a Utah carbon tax effort to go work on. My closing thought, however, is this, and for the sake of the climate movement I hope it’s not prescient: The fact that somebody shows no respect for the truth when it comes to climate policy absolutely has bearing on whether that person should be trusted to show respect for the truth when it comes to climate science.

6 responses to “Taking fire from both sides”

  1. Yup, contacting someone’s employers to try to get them in trouble for disagreeing with you is harrassment. [YB: Thanks for sharing your opinion, Brad. I contacted UW to try to verify if she actually worked there, and to see if she was violating UW policy. You'll have to work harder to convince me (or just about anybody else) that this is harassment. More generally, there are some issues here that I think are more difficult than you make them out to be. For example: Would it be harassment to contact someone's employer if you found out (say) that they were a member of the KKK? What if you knew (as I do) that someone employed as a climate scientist has a blatant disregard for the truth in their writings about climate policy? I'm happy to discuss all this more, but you should know that your view is in the very small minority from the many folks I've talked to about this.]

  2. I’m old (63) and have come to regard the Shakespearean thought that the “truth will out” (Merchant of Venice), no longer holds in this era of social media. I hope that I am wrong and the a carbon neutral tax will spread nation wide.

  3. Right

    I listened to the whole debate and thought you did awesome. But to focus on the part I think could’ve been improved the most: Morano tried to pin you down on what good a carbon tax actually does. You answered in terms of reduced emissions and he was like “but what good is that? fewer tornados? what?” and you never gave that answer, I don’t think. So that probably wanted spelled out, the relationship between emissions and temperature. Maybe something like the interactive graph on this page — http://worrydream.com/ClimateChange/ — if you search “carbon budget”. [YB: You're right that my answer to that question could have been much better. In part I think it's because of the Tragedy of the Commons: any individual action (even by a whole state, or even a whole country) is limited in its impact. But I was thinking about it yesterday, and I made a mental connection with a question I often get from folks on the left about carbon taxes, namely "How much is a carbon tax going to reduce emissions?" And it's a little hard to answer that question because it depends on market forces and market outcomes, i.e., on the uncertainties of capitalism. And I think if I were to take a stab at that question again I would try find common ground with Marc somewhere along these lines: "You know, your question reminds me of questions that economists sometimes get about capitalism versus central planning. If we had higher taxes, we would generate this many dollars and that money could be used to create this many jobs. The impacts of the higher taxes themselves are a bit more fuzzy, but of course that doesn't mean those impacts don't exist. As an economist I'm happy to argue for the job-creating and wealth-creating aspects of capitalism, and I'm happy to argue along similar lines about the impacts of a carbon tax: I can't give you a number, but I can tell you that putting a price on carbon and getting the market involved in reducing emissions and promoting sustainability is the single most important thing we can do to tackle climate change." What do you think?]

    Left

    It was super gross that that person wrote an article evoking white supremacy to attack your valuable work on climate change. I didn’t read it and maybe it was only the title that was gross, I don’t know, but I don’t blame you for being pissed about that. And your email trying to learn about her affiliation sounded pretty reasonable. But even if that were uncool, it obviously had nothing to do with anyone’s gender. So for that person to attack you for “harassing women” is not only out of line but really damaging to the cause of social justice. Because it’s blatant wolf-crying.

    PS: Ok, I decided that before running my mouth off I’d actually read Myhre’s article. Turns out I’m not really bothered by anything in it except the kind of throwaway white supremacy evocation, annoying as that is. And I loved the line about how “political realities should not fucking trump reality realities”. So maybe I disagree with you a bit after all. But you’re absolutely right that trying to whip up a Twitter mob and calling a purely intellectual disagreement harassment (let alone gender-related harassment) is really bad. If it does blow up, hopefully it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad press! [YB: Thanks for your thoughts, we'll see what happens. FYI the factual disagreement I have with Sarah concerns her characterization that I-732 was written by "white men". That is factually incorrect, and she has refused to correct the record.]

    1. I like your analogy with central planning and the uncertainty of the market! What’s really frustrating is how little understanding the public has about Pigovian taxes in general. I often think we could drastically improve the world just by giving that concept a sexier name. Badness tax? Market-failure tax? Make-capitalism-great-again tax? Just brainstorming…

      As for the “white men” thing, I see now how it’s especially galling, but holy cow is that a dumb debate to even have! :) And so unwinnable. One side rolled their eyes at the white supremacy thing from the start and the other side will just switch to another excuse to make it about racism. Better to ignore all that and focus on the climate science and economics!

  4. A couple more comments…

    Politicizing Climate Change

    In general it’s baffling and infuriating to me that climate change is politicized. Literally saving the world ought to be pretty unifying!

    The craziness of the politicization of it really hit home when I read this:
    http://dreev.es/climate (excerpted from Scott Alexander)

    Maybe for the good of humanity, liberals can help recast climate change as a conservative cause and then graciously lose? Would that work?

    Washington State and The Defeat of I-732 (reposting my thoughts from 2016)

    I think there are only 2 reasons not to support I-732: (1) you’re a climate science denier, or (2) you care more about politics than the planet. I’m frustrated by liberal opposition to this, quibbling about how it includes tax cuts. Everyone agrees that it puts the appropriate price on carbon, so objecting because it doesn’t *also* accomplish various other political goals… Shamefully short-sighted.

    The whole point of I-732 is to accomplish no other political goals besides putting a price on carbon. I’m sure Washington state could and may in the future pass a much more liberal-friendly version. But it doesn’t matter to the climate what just Washington state does. I-732 is a template that other states and then the rest of the world can follow. And for that to be realistic it needs to be as politically neutral as possible.

  5. Yoram,

    Given that you have asked for comments from your followers:

    I was a big supporter of I-732 and continue to be interested in revenue neutral approaches to dealing with climate change. It is out of expediency that I take this position–we have to use the most politically plausible ways to make progress in this country. And if we don’t make progress in this country, I’m not sure how we solve the problem worldwide.

    There is a lot of back and forth here on issues that are not central to climate policy, e.g. debates via twitter, responding to pejorative descriptions of your work and posts, etc.

    What concerns me is that while there may be legitimate things for you to contest about how people have represented your work and activity, I do think everyone has to recognize and state that there are perfectly defensible varying routes to addressing climate change.

    Defend yourself, of course, but do state that you recognize that are multiple ways for us to get there. Indeed, I’ve heard you state such in conversations we have had. [YB: Great to hear from you, Walter, and thanks for your support of I-732 and climate action, and Yes I agree that there are multiple ways to get there. I have tried hard not to rain on anybody else's parade.]

    Also, please be careful of generalizations about what the left wants, e.g. climate policy that includes a wish to create bigger government. I’m not sure if those are your exact words, but that’s the inference I have captured. I had some very long conversations with thoughtful progressive friends who did not support I-732, and came away with a sense of their earnestness in dealing with environmental injustice. I didn’t agree with their conclusions, but I saw nothing cynical in their arguments. [YB: I'm not saying they're cynical. I'm saying that they're unwilling to consider small-government climate action, and that politically speaking that's a mistake for the reasons you lay out above. "My way or the highway" is not a good approach if you think the future of the planet is at risk.]

    Glad you are working on efforts in Utah. I lived there for four years and was active in a number of environmental causes, e.g. stopping the Provo Canyon highway. There’s something incredibly heartening about finding common ground on environmental issues with folks of quite different political persuasions. [YB: Yes!]

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