Objectivity is Subjective
One of the most frustrating things about this business is the politicisation of environmental issues, and how difficult this makes getting objective analyses. Whether you want a view on climate change, acid rain or peak oil, objectivity seems in short supply. Distorted graphs, cherrypicked data and straw man arguments are plastered across the web and much of the media.
For example I read a piece on peak oil this week which described the concept as “idiocy” as oil “will never run out” because long before it did, prices would rise and force investment in alternative energy sources. Er, that’s peak oil theory you’re agreeing with there, pal, if you bothered to find out what it actually is.
- Individualist: believes the environment is robust and there to be exploited – the red ball will always roll back to the safe centre – typical of free marketeers and those who ‘disbelieve’ in climate change;
- Hierarchist: believes the environment can be exploited within safe limits – the red ball is OK unless you push it too far – typical of Governments and scientists;
- Egalitarian: believes the environment is fragile and should be protected at all costs – the red ball is doomed if you move it even slightly – typical of green pressure groups.
The problem with the extreme mindsets is that people tend to develop them and stick to them tribally, exaggerating data which supports their position and ignoring anything that disagrees with it – a phenomena known as confirmation bias. Conflict happens when the hierarchists start to see society nearing one of the safe limits – then from the viewpoint of the individualists, they start to look like the destested egalitarians and all hell breaks loose.
I find all this tremendously frustrating, as I’m basically a hierarchist and I’d really like to know where exactly we are in relation to, say, peak oil. It takes too long to check out every ‘sceptical’ argument from individualists or wild claim from egalitarians yourself (and I’ve been through a hell of a lot of them on climate change), so it comes down to trying to find someone you trust to be objective. So I have these rough rules of thumb:
- Never trust a think tank or pressure group – you can tell what the Adam Smith Institute and Greenpeace’s position will be on renewable energy before you open the report, so why bother?
- Dismiss any argument derived solely from commentators – if anyone validates an argument using either James Delingpole’s or George Monbiot’s words (to pick two from opposite ends of the spectrum above) then I stick my fingers in my ears and sing “la, la, la”;
- Peer reviewed science is more reliable than non-peer reviewed science, but peer review in itself doesn’t mean it is ‘right’;
- Consensus of evidence is more important than consensus of opinion. The important point about climate change science is not so much that 98% of qualified scientists believe climate change is real and manmade, but that they can validate the theory using lots of different methods and evidence;
- Analyses which acknowledge their own limitations and provide error bars etc are usually more reliable than those which don’t;
- Watch out for University press releases which are increasingly often exaggerating the findings of ‘controversial’ academic papers to make them more newsworthy (which is a disgrace and undermines the whole idea of scholarship);
- Any piece which contains personal abuse should be disregarded, especially if evokes the Nazis.
Well that’s my (subjective) view anyway.