The recently-released BEST* study—which led prominent climate skeptic Dr. Richard Muller to finally accept that “global warming is real“—carries an important lesson for all communicators: Don’t drive honest skeptics into a corner.
Staying respectful and welcoming toward open-minded skeptics allows them space to rethink their position and a face-saving way out, to accept the science without humiliation. (Sun Tzu offered the same advice to generals 2500 years ago). Otherwise, we risk pushing honest skeptics into closed-minded denial, a world with no exit.
There are two kinds of skeptics: Open-minded skeptics who are willing to consider new information vs. closed-minded deniers who seek only to defend their position. The latter are impervious to facts or logic, so it is fruitless to argue with them, except to correct misinformation if there’s an audience listening in.
In contrast, it is important to engage skeptics who show even the slightest open-mindedness, and to allow them a path of retreat. Muller is a classic example. Until he led this study, he was one of the tiny handful of climate scientists still questioning whether the earth is warming. The top funders of climate skepticism — the Koch oil barons — were so confident that Muller was “one of them” that they helped fund his study.
That backfired, of course, because Muller had enough integrity, as a scientist, to follow the evidence wherever it led. When he announced his findings, and change of heart, in the Wall Street Journal, he naturally insisted that “there were good reasons for doubt, until now.” This spotlighted the difference between a genuine skeptic who, though highly critical of mainstream science, genuinely seeks the truth vs. ideologues (or hired guns) who arrive with a pre-determined conclusion then search for arguments to support it. It’s the difference between a scientist and a PR agent, or a detective vs. a trial lawyer.
*Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature
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Postscript regarding this video clip: Ironically, this accurate, comprehensive and entertaining retelling of the BEST story, from Peter Sinclair’s “Climate Crocks” series, sometimes points slips into ridicule of deniers and some “I told you so” to Muller, violating the very principle I’m stressing above.
It all depends on your audience. If you are just talking to the already-convinced, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But why waste energy on that? It’s precisely the undecideds and open-minded skeptics who need to be reached, and most of Sinclair’s excellent videos are perfect for reaching that group. This one isn’t. There was a short debate at Skeptical Science about this clip. I added my 2-cents there:
Tom Smerling at 03:36 AM on 30 October, 2011
I absolutely love Peter Sinclair’s work — his careful research, editing, entertaining presentation and even tone so often “strike a blow below the waterline” at skeptical arguments.
Yet I have to weigh in on the side of those arguing that it’s better to leave out snarky references to the “Junior Woodchuck Society” etc.
“Climate Crocks” is too good to squander solely on entertaining the already-converted. And the fun of name-calling is not worth the price of alienating partially-open-minded skeptics (yes, there still are some) out there.
Watch it and see if you agree. Bottom line: When in doubt, stick to the high ground.