We have had another week of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) “raising awareness” by blocking roadways, gluing themselves to bridges and airplanes and generally behaving in a manner intended to get lots of publicity. Having watched and listened to XR leadership, I remain frustrated by it all. While XR likes to shroud their actions in the mantle of “the science” as I showed in my last post their major claims aren’t supported by the science. Stephen Colbert coined a term: “truthiness” which he defined as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like”. XR does a similar thing I will call “scienciness” which involves using the language of science to say things that aren’t true, but sound like they should be true. In this they remind me a lot of the practitioners of Homeopathy. They use a lot of sceincy-sounding words but when you dig more deeply you discover that most of what they are saying has no foundation in scientific fact.
What do I mean by this? Well, consider their favourite argument that billions will be killed this century (the whole extinction part of XR). Here is Roger Hallam making the claim on the BBC:
“I am talking about the slaughter, death, and starvation of 6 billion people this century—that’s what the science predicts.”
The reputable science says nothing of the sort. The IPCC certainly doesn’t say this nor does any reputable scientific organization. The closest explanation of this argument I can find is from Rupert Read on the BBC:
The risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including human extinction” – the Eco-extremists at the International Monetary Fund.
However, Mr. Read’s argument is simply an example of exceptionally bad scholarship. Let’s start with his source. The quotation is from a paper by Signe Krogstrup and William Oman titled: Macroeconomic and Financial Policies for Climate Change Mitigation: A Review of the Literature. Now admittedly both individuals work at the IMF, however, the work is not from the IMF nor is it the position of the IMF. Rather, the article includes a massive disclaimer which says:
IMF Working Papers describe research in progress by the author(s) and are published to elicit comments and to encourage debate. The views expressed in IMF Working Papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF, its Executive Board, or IMF management.
Reading the article itself you discover that the authors have made a general point and attributed it to a previous work:
There is growing agreement between economists and scientists that the tail risks are material and the risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction (see, e.g., Weitzman 2009).
The problem is the paper they are drawing from says no such thing. It is taken from the 2009 paper On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change by Martin Weitzman. In that paper Dr. Weitzman discusses extremely unlikely risks to explain how the statistics makes it impossible to rule them out altogether.
The point of the Weitzman article is that these risks are essentially nil, but are not exactly nil. Weitzman argues that
Perhaps in the end the climate-change economist can help most by not presenting a cost-benefit estimate for what is inherently a fat-tailed situation with potentially unlimited downside exposure as if it is accurate and objective
This is not what is being argued by Krogstrup and Oman.
To understand what Weitzman means by a “fat-tailed risk with potentially unlimited downside exposure” consider that there is a similarly low chance an asteroid will destroy the earth in the next decade. If you were following Mr. Read’s logic our only response would be to abandon all other activities while developing a protective system around our planet, but science-based policy doesn’t work that way. We don’t spend all our time trying to eliminate de minimis risks.
As for the topic of our biodiversity crisis, the XR web site says this:
The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report produced in 2019 shows the biodiversity crisis is on a par with the threat posed by climate change. The main direct causes of biodiversity loss are habitat change, direct exploitation (e.g., fishing, hunting and logging), invasive alien species, pollution (including nutrient loading), and climate change.
The thing they appear to miss is the IPBES lists ecological risks in order and places climate change as a tertiary risk. We could eliminate climate change tomorrow and it would not have a significant effect on the biodiversity crisis because the primary causes are human land use decisions and human exploitation of species. XR tries to muddy the water but the IPBES is extremely clear on this topic.
The other thing the XR people like is the trappings of science. Consider this Reuters story where the academics try to portray themselves as something they aren’t.
Wearing white laboratory coats to symbolize their research credentials, a group of about 20 of the signatories gathered on Saturday to read out the text outside London’s century-old Science Museum in the city’s upmarket Kensington district.
The actual list of scientists is a mishmash of academics in the humanities with a smaller number of biologists and a limited number of academics in the natural sciences. What is most amusing is almost none would wear lab coats in their academic work, which explains why they would think wearing a lab coat in public makes them look like real scientists.
As someone who had to wear a lab coat in my lab, the thing to understand is that no serious scientist wears their lab coat in public. A lab coat is intended to protect the wearer from dangerous chemicals and in doing so it thus poses a serious risk to anyone who comes in contact with that lab coat. To explain, lab coats are designed to protect the user from spills by keeping the spill on the outside layer of the fabric. That means the outside fabric of the lab coat is potentially dangerous since any spilled material will remain on the outside of the coat. If you are wearing a contaminated coat and it touches someone, the compounds on that coat will then be transferred to that person.
As such you never wear your lab coat outside of the lab unless you want to expose your colleagues to nasty contaminants. To do so would be like a surgeon wearing blood-soaked scrubs around the hospital. Admittedly, some old-school academics used to wear a spare lab coat to teach, but that was usually to protect their clothes from chalk dust and the result was their offices were always full of chalk dust that came off their coats. These poser academics wearing lab coats “to symbolize their research credentials” are doing so much in the same way as my son wearing his Whitecaps jersey symbolizes his soccer prowess.
Earlier in this post you heard me talking about homeopaths. Well, in my opinion, the homeopathy’s relationship to medical science effectively parallels XR’s relationship to climate science. Put another way, XR activists are the homeopaths of the climate community.
Homeopathy derives from the science of the early 1800’s. That would be the era of luminiferous Ether and pre-dates the establishment of the germ theory of disease. It was an era when blood-letting was still regularly practiced and is based on an entirely faulty understanding of the chemistry of liquids. Most Homeopathic tinctures don’t even contain the active ingredient being used to treat the malady because the process of making the tincture dilutes the active ingredients completely away. Because homeopathic remedies are made up of either clean water or sugar pills, Homeopathy only works via the placebo effect.
So why are so many willing to trust Homeopathy? Because practitioners can really talk up a good story. Take a read of this word salad from a Homeopath
Homoeopathy does not search out the disease in material human organism, but penetrates deep into the plane of Will, Intelligence (understanding/judgement) and Memory to reach to find out subjective individual symptoms, and find out homoeopathic indicated potentiated medicine.
You can read that sentence a dozen times and get a dozen things out of it, but none are real because Homeopathy is all about convincing users that there is some unknown scientific truth behind their sugar pills.
In a similar way, XR is all about confusing and scaring the public with information that is not supported by any reputable academic or institutional bodies. XR doesn’t believe the IPCC because it isn’t extreme enough for them. They claim to follow the science, but in reality they simply like the sounds and trappings of science but don’t want to be constrained by the limitations of the science. Their credo is scienciness. They are the homeopaths of the climate change community. They try to sound like they have a scientific basis for their extraordinary claims but any detailed examination of their claims show those claims to be full of gibberish.