Wednesday, December 16, 2009

UK 1; Australia 0: Monbiot vs Plimer on Lateline

A case study in the ancient art of avoiding the question
Yesterday, prominent Australian climate sceptic Ian Plimer debated UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot on ABC's Lateline. The result? UK 1; Australia 0. You can watch it for yourself here.

After some initial conversation about the hacked emails, the discussion turns to two of Plimer's best-known claims, that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human activity and that global temperatures have declined since 1998. Time and again, Plimer sidesteps the questions of both Monbiot and the host Tony Jones when they point to published studies refuting his claims. It grows increasingly comic.

Eventually, Tony Jones asks this in apparent exasperation: "Is it reasonable for journalists to ask questions about something which you repeatedly claim in your book and to actually get answers to those questions?" Plimer's response was, unsurprisingly, to dodge this question about his question-dodging.

Note that Plimer has repeatedly challenged Monbiot to a public debate, but like his evasive answers on Lateline, when Monbiot accepted, Plimer didn't follow through. From yesterday's showing, perhaps we can get some idea why.

UPDATE: Monbiot's summary of the experience.

17 comments:

One Salient Oversight said...

Just watched it. Geez.

I love how Plimer just spends his time trying to discredit everything that disagrees with him.

I also love the whole "you're just a journalist" attitude.

So Monbiot sends him some scientific questions to answer. Plimer returns the gesture by asking questions of his own. Monbiot says "don't ask me I'm not a scientist". Sounds terrible EXCEPT for the fact that Plimer is the scientist who is SUPPOSED to answer scientific questions.

byron smith said...

Have you read the emails between Monbiot and the Spectator when they were trying to set up the debate? That exchange alone convinced me that either the Spectator editor was a fool and/or Plimer a fraud. This confirms at least the latter.

Doug Forbes said...

I don't know who the current editor of the Spectator is, but previously it was Boris Johnson! Say no more!

Martin Kemp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Kemp said...

Ummm...
I just watched the interview, and it seemed to me that both journo's did some squirming and evading of their own.

A number of times Plimer makes mention of his time argument, and asks for an explanation as to why there was a warming in Roman times and in the medieval times. No genuine answer is given. Monbiot says that's its wrong, without any elaboration, and then when Plimer explains why he thinks it's worth considering (agriculture in Greenland etc) Jones blatantly changes the subject saying that he's going to stick to Monbiot's questions.

Sad that it wasn't entirely even handed. Sure Plimer was evading, but Jones and Monbiot also got away without providing an answer to Plimer's question. It's a shame much of the commentary on this episode hasn't picked up what I think is a significant inconsistency.

Hope the PhD is going well.

jessica smith said...

Marty - Plimer's point about the "medieval warm period" and previous changes in climate has been debunked many, many times before (I'd provide links, but am in a rusg. If you're personally interested in this, let me know and I'll provide some later), yet he keeps on using it. Monbiot was refusing to be sidetracked by Plimer's evasions. I don't think this was an evasion by Monbiot, since at least he said that there was an answer, even if he didn't give it in order to not justify Plimer's evasion.

jessica smith said...

Oops - That last post (and this one!) was me (Byron), but am using J's computer.

jessica smith said...

PS (Byron again) As for Tony Jones not being even-handed, only one of his guests was refusing to answer simple questions, and only one was making unfounded accusations against him (why would Plimer repeatedly claim that neither Monbiot or Jones had read his book?). I thought he did very well.

byron smith said...

Here is a good yet brief discussion of medieval climate from NOAA. This data is all publicly available and it has repeatedly been brought to Plimer's attention, but he continues to repeat the same misinformation. There is a point where his failure to engage with the genuine answers he is being given indicates a settled unwillingness to play a credible role in public discussion. He may well have passed that point.

Martin Kemp said...

Thanks for the link. Plimer's argument caught my attention as it reflects something I remember from my uni days, hearing that climate change has always been a part of human experience. What's interesting is the data showing a hike in temp over the last 50 years which is unusual for natural cycles. I seem to remember Al Gore making this point in his film.

But as for who scored the most points on the debate, Plimer still got in a punch that went unanswered on the night, which is ironic, given the insistence that he answer the questions given to him. We might say "but all those questions have been answered before", but if we are asking people to watch this episode and make a judgment, we can't expect people not to notice this apparent one-sidedness.

AND, if he's past the point of serious contribution, why is Tony Jones interviewing him? Maybe they should pick a firmer target, and not go for the sensationalism.

byron smith said...

AND, if he's past the point of serious contribution, why is Tony Jones interviewing him? Maybe they should pick a firmer target, and not go for the sensationalism.
There are none. Seriously, Plimer is probably the best qualified sceptic in Oz. Ignoring those who show little sign of being willing participants in a real conversation is fine, except for the fact that most of the rest of the media keep giving him so much attention. He is at the heart of the constant stream of sceptical articles in the Australian and Telegraph.

As for answering every issue he raised, if you try that, then you quickly run out of time and he just keeps moving the goalposts. I think it was good for people to see that this man, who holds the title of Professor and lends a significant measure of credibility to the sceptic case in many people's minds, was unable or unwilling to answer simple questions about the contents and references in his own book.

Pilmer's strategy is scattergun, making as many points as possible in the knowledge that not all of them could be addressed within the constraints of the format. This is exactly how most sceptics work, and the depressing thing is that I bet Pilmer will simply continue to make the same discredited points in other contexts.

As for natural variability in the climate, that has never been denied by any climatologist. It is a point made repeatedly by sceptics as though they are saying something shocking and relies on people not understanding the science to give it any force. The claim is not that the present warming is the first time the climate has changed, but is about the cause of this particular warming. We can explain many of the previous changes through some combination of wobbles in earth's axis, volcanic activity, solar variation and a few other causes (including natural releases of greenhouse gases), but the present changes have no coherent explanation apart from anthropogenic emissions. Many others have been suggested and all other contenders have widely accepted flaws. Of course, we might come across some other currently unknown factor, but the physics of greenhouse gases is well understood and fits the data very well. That is why the IPCC gives it a "very likely" (= 90-99% certainty) rating as the cause of the current trends.

Martin Kemp said...

"There are none"

Well, a quick search of wikipedia (for what its worth - it isn't a peer reviewed source after all) has turned up list of academics who are on the record as being sceptical, so it seems as if there are some.

At any rate, to simply say "there are none", and imply that such a position is impossible is, ironically, bad science in itself. Any scientific conclusion ought to be refutable, so to suggest a position is irrefutable seems to jump from science into dogmatism.

It seems to me that the sensible appproach is to say "the weight of evidence suggests there is something to worry about, and that we ought to move quickly". This is different to uttering absolutisms, and challenges the sense of refutability that science ought to carry.

byron smith said...

You got some names? You need an Australian sceptic with better academic credentials than Plimer, who is being quoted more often by the media. I'm not saying that there are not other sceptics with academic titles, but that I'm not aware of any more obvious choice than Plimer in Australia.

By the way, I agree entirely that not all sceptics are deniers. But Plimer is a denier.

It would be interesting to hear from one of these guys, who are actually interested in scientific debate, but unfortunately it is the "it's all a conspiracy" figures who get most of the media attention.

Martin Kemp said...

Why Australian? I mean, you can talk about moving the goalposts, but you can narrow them too much as well. What has being Australian got to do with anyone's ability to talk on the issue? Monibot is English, but that doesn't stop him from contributing.

Anyway...

That list I mentioned has a few people, one of which is an Australian from James Cook Uni: Robert Carter. I have found one peer reviewed article where he voices his scepticism. I haven't read it, but it seems from a glance that its basically a geological argument, ie there have been times in the distant past when it's been warmer than now etc etc...

byron smith said...

Why Australia? Because Lateline is Australian and because if you are running an Australian program, then Plimer is the obvious candidate, being quoted repeatedly in the Australian media. I don't think this is moving the goalposts.

I also haven't read the paper you mention, but it is worth noting that it is undisputed that there have been times in the distant past warmer than today. These are no evidence against present warming being either anthropogenic or alarming.

byron smith said...

ABC: Plimer's mistakes go into Hansard.

byron smith said...

I thought this scholarly article reflecting on the media's role in climate discussions (and with a particular focus on Plimer and this very event) was excellent. Incisive, insightful, and a thorough demolition of both Plimer's claims to credibility and the media culture that keeps him alive.