Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference

There's an old saying in politics – that explaining is losing. Which is why it's best to have nothing to do with Viscount Monckton's search for publicity

It's fair to say that "Lord"/"Viscount"/"Grand Wazoo" Monckton is a somewhat polarising figure. Google "Monckton lies" and you'll get some flavour of why that might be. At the moment, he's over here in New Zealand seeking a platform for his "skeptical" (read, "denialist") views on human-induced climate change.

Problem is, he hasn't been able to find one, because no-one on the "pro" human-induced climate change side of the issue will come out to play with him. In the words of Jim Salinger,

"I'm perfectly happy to discuss the science with someone who fully engages in the science and who is a scientist. But when you have someone who cherry-picks and changes the subject, it's pointless."

Over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar (whilst hastening to note that he thinks the science behind human-induced climate change is sound) bemoans this refusal on the grounds that:

You win people over by debating. If Monckton uses cherry picked facts, then you point that out. Why should anyone listen to people unwilling to debate?

I think he's wrong about this, and that the refusal to engage with Monckton is the right move to make. But by way of background, it seems to me that there's two separate questions here:

  1. Is human-induced climate change occurring and what are/will be its effects on the world's climate? That's a valid question that, while there's a large measure of consensus amongst the relevant expert community, is not fully resolved (especially the latter issue - hence the ongoing uncertainty regarding things like sea level rises, etc). However, it's a question that can only be resolved by the relevant expert community applying the tools of their discipline - which is then presented in the form of peer-reviewed research. While that research then needs to be broadly accepted in political circles (and thus, in a democracy, by the public) in order to be transmitted into policy action, the "selling" of it is a quite separate issue to whether or not it is true ... which leads to:
  2. In terms of informing the general public about the state of the research on question 1, should persons with expertise in climate science enter into public debates with Monckton? Is this likely to be an efficacious way of spreading the word about the present state of knowledge amongst the relevant expert community to an audience? Are Monckton's views on the matter sufficiently informed by a robust research platform that his counter-views pose a genuine challenge to the consensus position? Is Monckton engaged in a good-faith effort to find the best possible approximation to underlying empirical reality, or is there good reason to suspect he has other intentions in proposing the debate?

It seems to me that the mistake David Farrar makes is to elide the relevant expert community's answer to (2) with that to (1), and to somehow portray the refusal to debate Monckton as part of a false effort to pretend that the issue of human-induced climate change is "resolved". Or, at the least, to suggest that just because there remains a measure of confusion in the public's mind over the issue, the best way to combat that confusion is to accept all and every invitation to discuss the matter, irrespective of its source. I think this is wrong,

First of all, just because the public is confused or uncertain over some scientific issue is not in itself a reason to treat everyone who proclaims a view on that issue with equal respect. As Danyl McLachlin puts it:

"the belief that Earth is visited by aliens is also widespread amongst the general public – that doesn’t make it incumbent upon the Minister of Science to debate every visiting crank claiming they’ve been abducted and probed."

Second, the substance of any debate may be less important than the fact that the debate is seen to be happening at all. In this respect, I can't really see any difference between Monckton and his ilk and those "creation scientists" who claim that the refusal of evolutionary scientists to debate with them somehow is proof that the basis for the theory of evolution is weak or unsound. Richard Dawkins has pretty convincingly refuted that position:

"Winning is not what the creationists [read: Lord Monckton] realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don't. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist."

So, good on those who treated Monckton and his views with the lack of respect they deserved. By all means, let's debate human-induced climate change and its foreseeable consequences - but let's do it with the seriousness and the care that it deserves, rather than treat it like a vehicle on which a clown can ride into town, peform a few verbal tricks and then ride off with a nice big appearance fee.

Oh ... one last thing. Seeing as we're discussing the merits of open and public debates on matters of great social importance, perhaps David Farrar could use any small influence his blog may have in National Party circles to help out the good people of Hampden with this little problem:

"Time is running out for a team from the National Party to front up to a debate in Hampden in September to argue in favour of asset sales.

Hampden Community Energy, which organises the popular annual debate, has been trying since early this year to get the Government to enter a team, even writing in May to Prime Minister John Key, who declined the invitation and suggested an approach to individual MPs.

Debate organiser Dugald MacTavish yesterday said Hampden Community Energy took that advice and sent individual invitations to the 40 National MPs most likely to accept, asking for a response by the end of this month.

As of late this week, about half had declined, most of the others sending acknowledgments of receipt of the invitation."

After all, as a great man once said, why should anyone listen to people unwilling to debate?