I follow Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, on Twitter, and I respect both her work and her efforts to engage the evangelical community with the issue of climate change. She works at Texas Tech, in a part of the country not known for its fierce commitment to climate science, and has endured considerable harassment because of her job. A few days ago she got this reply during an exchange on Twitter from Anthony Watts, a climate skeptic blogger:
She did exactly what I would have done if I had gotten that response, which was block Watts from following her. As far as I can tell, Watts is essentially a troll who enjoys harassing and insulting members of the reality-based community until they ignore him and then he accuses them of “refusing to engage in debate”. But Watts has no interest in debating the ideas; blocking him is a refusal to engage in the kind of petty bickering a number of climate skeptics seem to enjoy so much. Richard Tol, an environmental economist, responded with a “nice work” and a link to the page on Watts’ blog where Watts is clearly trying to shame Hayhoe or goad her into a response or whatever it is that people do when they’re all pissy because they insulted someone and got blocked for it.
Because it was late and I was insomniac and bored, I chose to step in here and ask what exactly he was trying to do here, other than being snide. I know that Tol works with Bjorn Lomborg to discourage people from taking action, I know where he stands, but I was genuinely curious as to what his rationale was here. He argued that
He then claimed that, because he is paid with public money and thus engages with any citizen who wants to talk to him about climate change no matter who they are. Which (1) I doubt and (2) being an academic who studies climate change in Europe is very very different from being one here. Anyway. What have I learned from this ridiculous online tiff?
I don’t think it’s a good use of time to engage with trolls like Watts who was clearly just trying to pick a fight. I don’t think it’s a good use of time to engage with people who refuse to accept rational engagement with the issue, clinging instead to ideological blindfolds. The end result is, at best, agreeing to disagree. At worst, sustained harassment. i’ve seen both.
I’m happy to talk to Tol about whether or not the costs of adaptation are merited by the gains in resilience to an expected increase in risk from natural hazard. But I’m not willing to trip down the rabbit hole of whether climate change and global warming are occurring, whether they are anthropogenic, whether we can take action to ameliorate the problem. Engaging an argument is a mark of respect, and though it doesn’t signify agreement it is a mark of legitimacy. I don’t think people who are consciously ignorant of the reality – that our planet is changing and it’s because of the way our society lives beyond its environmental means – are making legitimate arguments any more. And as time and intellectual inquiry goes on, I think it will be almost impossible to make a rational argument that humans shouldn’t put on their big-girl-pants and start preparing.
I think that Tol has a point, though. Academics in general are seen as arrogant and closed off from regular public life, and I think that reputation is often warranted. I do think that being funded by public money – which, let’s be honest, all academics are to a greater or lesser extent – does oblige you to work in the public interest and engage with the people who pay the taxes. But I don’t think that latter obligation is unlimited. I think there are basic standards for rational debate: decorum and respect. When these rules are consistently violated, it poisons the whole marketplace of ideas. We see it in American politics on both sides and we see it in the climate change debate on both sides. It’s sad. It’s harmful. It degrades the good work that people do. Educators and thinkers should remain open-minded to, tolerant of, and thoughtful about disagreement. But this doesn’t imply the same about disrespect.
Maybe this does make me an aloof egghead, but I don’t think it does. I put a lot of effort into treating people the way that I want to be treated, and I think that goes both ways. In life, in debate, in the workplace, in the exchange of ideas, in general. Including on Twitter.