A house collapsed after the 2008 Wisconsin Floods. Photo credit: US Air Force via the Great Lakes Echo.

the rules of engagement

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.

3 thoughts on “the rules of engagement”

  1. The trouble is, you been fooled. No, not by climate science, by opinion poles. Those ones that try to pretend that a measure of people’s commitment to a theory can be sampled by ticking a box. People see Watts as a threat to action on AGW because the numbers of those concerned about climate change flux up and down. Unfortunately he’s a symptom not the disease. People don’t really believe in CAGW.

    They don’t. They really don’t and they demonstrate it on a daily basis. Any cuts to CO2 are largely cosmetic and even when a country has cross party support for action, very little happens. Even the most ardent supporters live almost unmodified lives.

    Now you could say that there’s nothing you can do about it and you might be right but not debating sceptics makes it worse… actually maybe it doesn’t if you agree with Dr Hayhoe it needs 49 consensus supporters to best 1 sceptic. Your side likes to argue that the debate is over, the decisions made, but unfortunately it was never climate sciences’ right to hold that debate in secret. You guys have not earned the right to be taken at your word. If the only way you hope to convince the public is by hiding the holes in the science then forget it, the skeletons are not going to stay buried. The media might be impressed by the PhD but the rest of us aren’t. We want to make sure that you’ve done your job properly and initial examination isn’t encouraging.

    The public isn’t as fast on the issues as sceptics but the bills are beginning to roll in and they realise that cutting CO2 requires personal sacrifice. They start thinking ‘do we have to do this?’ What are you going to tell them? Now you could say to that the debate was held long before Anthony Watts emerged as a sceptic and they should just pay up, but I don’t think they’re going to be very impressed by that answer.

    1. Wow David Johnson! You seem to have missed the entire point of the post. Erin is writing about raising the quality of discourse by not responding to paper tiger arguments meant to drag a nuanced issue into the mud of irreductible differences. She even admits that academics have their heads up their butts sometimes- that doesn’t make the academics wrong. It simply makes them poor communicators.

      Also, why are you getting personal with the blogger? What kind of childish nonsense is that?

      The more I look at your one line hateful post, the more I am convinced it must be meant ironically (Do you have a sporting moustache?) because no one would say something so ridiculous after such a well thought out post. Would they…?

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