Beyond the shouting

Poles apartBook Review: Poles Apart by Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal

RRP: NZ$39.99;
ISBN: 9781869790455
Published: May 15, 2009
Publisher: Random House New Zealand.

Can you trust the advice of an economist or financial adviser when it comes to the science of climate change? After all, we even suspect their advice on economic matters these days.

That might be a natural reaction to the new book “Poles Apart” by Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal. Gareth is a well-known New Zealand economist and investment portfolio manager. John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and researcher.

Surely they can’t offer anything useful on climate change? Well, strangely they can.

But what about their obvious prejudices? They certainly start as sceptics of human caused global warming and appear sympathetic to critics (referring to them as their “friends”) of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments. They even label scientists who propose anthropogenic causes of climate change as “Alarmist” – without the quote marks! While the critics get away with the more neutral, many would say positive, “Sceptic” label.

With these attitudes can we trust what they say? Well, actually we can.

That’s because of the process they used. They admit their ignorance in this area – describing themselves as a “pair of climate dummies.” But, recognising its importance, they consulted the experts – on both sides of the debate. And this was no minor exercise, as it required significant time and money. The Morgan Family Charity invested $500,000 in the process. Two panels – one of 10 “Sceptics,” the other of 11 “Alarmists” were used. The authors also recognise the special support of three local climate scientists from the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University. Dr Dave Lowe, Adjunct Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, Dr Lionel Carter, Professor of Marine Geology and Dr Peter Barrett, Professor of Geology served as “a consultancy on basic (and not so basic) science and a sounding board for our misguided ideas and interpretations.” Morgan and McCrystal make much of the material used available on their Poles Apart website associated with the book.

It is this process, rather than the status of the authors, which makes this book so important. It presents to the layperson quite a thorough discussion of the science of climate change. This comes “warts and all” – with all the qualifications and criticisms. But it’s very readable. They make the science accessible, even interesting. They give an idea of how the science is done, the methodologies used. I feel this helps bring this science to life.

Science behind climate change

And as well as being interesting this information is useful to the layperson seeking information on the subject. “Poles Apart” deals with questions like: “Is there warming?” “Is the temperature variation natural?” “Is temperature change cause by CO2?” “What does the historical record show?, etc. There is more coverage of the evidence presented by “Alarmists” than by “Sceptics” but that is, I think, unavoidable given the science. As they say “in more recent times, much of the effort expended under the aegis of climate scepticism has been directed toward raising doubt rather than testing veracity.”

And they do give some in depth consideration of the “five tests” used by geologist Bob Carter from Queensland University (and often quoted by climate change deniers in New Zealand) to disprove anthropogenic climate change. Their conclusion – “straw man testing.”

The approach of “Poles Apart’ is quite unusual for science books which, after all, are usually written by experts in the field. Morgan and McCrystal compare themselves to a jury of rational men and women who, despite their lack of expertise, must decide an issue using the evidence provided by experts. Perhaps not a desirable procedure for scientists but one that will appeal to many who find themselves in the position of those jurors.

So after all this what did Morgan and McCrystal conclude? After all the time and money invested in listening to the expert (sometimes contradictory) submissions and consulting their sounding board of local experts, do they think humans are contributing to climate change? Their conclusion comes on the last page:

“On the balance of evidence, observations of the natural world would support a coherent theory of why increased concentrations of greenhouse gases due to human activity will produce significant global warming, in which case policy initiatives to address global warming and its consequences were worth evaluating.”

And at last, after surviving what I felt was the disparaging labelling used throughout the book:

“Alarmists were right, and we shouldn’t call them alarmists any more — or at least, not all of them! And further, it has to be said that only a few of the Sceptics are actually sceptics: too many are mere gadflies and deniers.”

Public communication of science

The authors raise two important issues about science communication and the public opinion of science that I think need addressing.

Like any group of professional experts dealing with complicated and abstract ideas it’s easy for scientists to ignore the public. To use precise but specialised language and to concentrate on communicating with colleagues. Morgan and McCrystal compare this to the high priests of a religion who carry out their worship with their backs to the congregation and use a language that only a “tiny, educated elite” understand. Continuing the analogy the book points out the four IPCC assessment reports “may as well have been written in Latin for all the use they are to the layperson.” They warn that climate scientists and the IPCC must confront this problem because the issue has become so political and is of such importance to humanity’s future:

“Under these circumstances, only the science, clearly explained and made available to anyone who is interested, has the power to change hearts and (far more importantly) minds. Yet not enough has been done to address the knowledge gap that exists between the scientific elite and the rest of us, and this gulf ultimately threatens the entire IPCC mission.”

So true! Scientists must, and many do, turn around and speak clearly to the public – especially on such important issues. And this may not always be easy because, especially on such topics, scientists can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. When they make the science more accessible the unavoidable omission of many qualifications normally involved in the scientific process can lead to unwarranted criticism and attacks. Especially from political or ideological motivated opponents who wish to distort or discredit the science.

However, let me say that I think “Poles Apart” makes an important contribution to the public communication of science. Sure, the authors are not scientific experts but experts informed and helped them. In a real sense those scientists who informed and helped Morgan and McCrystal have made an important contribution to the popular understanding of the science of climate change.  In this case “the priests turned to face the congregation.”

Scientific peer review

A final niggle about the presentation of the scientific peer review process in this book. Morgan and McCrystal seem to argue against peer review – or at least that “a slavish insistence on publication in peer-reviewed journals” may “seriously skew” the data supporting the conclusion of anthropogenic global warming. They base this on the fact that most ‘prestigious’ journals like Science and Nature may reject over 90% of submitted papers. They seem to assume that scientists always submit to ‘prestigious’ journals and may give up before working their way down to the lower ranked journals.

However, in this case the authors must have ignored their experts as any scientist would have told them that they submit to appropriate rather than ‘prestigious’ journals. For example, have a glance at the references listed in The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report from the Working Group “The Physical Science Basis” Chapter 3 “Observations Surface and Atmospheric Climate Change.” Of about 900 references only 30 are from Nature and 41 from Science. This is only about 8% of the total – I don’t think this justifies any claim of data-skewing by the publication policies of ‘prestigious’ journals.

For most journals a ‘rejection’ may just be a request for improvement of language or logic, inclusion of more data or removal of superfluous data, etc. Most credible scientific papers are published after revision.

Silencing the shouting

“Poles Apart” is an important book because it does go beyond the shouting. The shouting has occurred because scientific findings on climate change raises questions about human attitudes and lifestyles. There are feelings of judgement and guilt and therefore subjective reactions. Attempts to rationalise away the problems and justify personal positions. We can recognise the same denial tendencies as we see in reactions to evolutionary science and the scientific investigation of human consciousness. (It’s interesting that climate change denial is common among creationists and religious fundamentalists). Only good science communication can overcome this shouting.

Despite my niggles, I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It does fulfil the authors’ aim of “an interested layperson’s guide.” There is a good and fair coverage of the science behind climate change. And the style is very readable, even at times displaying a wry humour. (They were joking when they referred to economics as “a deeply respectable and empirical science” weren’t they?)

Despite the cynical portrayal of the scientific process, or even because of this, “Poles Apart” will communicate to a wider audience and improve public understanding of the science of climate change.

And that’s important.


Other reviews of “Poles Apart”:
Morgan’s run in with science
Poles Apart

See also:

Poles Apart – wrong process, right conclusion?
Gareth Morgan on climate change
Poles Apart website: for information on the book and the expert reports used
Gary Taylor: One thing’s certain – life as we know it is going to change
Morgan family give $250,000 to Antarctic Research
Gareth Morgan delivers his climate change verdict
Philanthropic sector thrilled with Morgan donation
Morgan ‘s “alarmists”: Poles Apart worth the effort

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6 responses to “Beyond the shouting

  1. Thank you Ken. Excellent review. I’m going to have to pick this book up and pass it on to my friends (many of whom are deniers) to give them a chance to have both sides of the argument laid out before them.

    Before even knowing any of the arguments for or against human-caused climate change I smelled a rat in the arguments of the ‘skeptics’ because they were exactly the same ilk as those of creationists; where they provide no science of their own and focus on trying to pick holes in outdated reports, etc, etc.

    My wife pointed out the other day that because whenever we, the general public, see a discussion on climate change the arguments are presented by two opposing talking heads and that causes us to think that these two heads represent an even split in the scientific community. Sometimes I think that debates like this (and on creationism, etc) can mislead our natural mental ‘argument-weighing’ software and even cause us to side with the ‘underdog’ (i.e. the person who’s not part of the establishment) and can do more harm than good. Imagine how a debate would look if on one side of the room there were 500 scientists and on the other only 2.

    The best thing we can do is train this mental ‘argument-weighing’ software to look for arguments based on reason and evidence rather than the weight of a crowd or the person you like the look of or the underdog. It sounds like Poles Apart does just this.

    As a side note, I think that the blogosphere is working very much in favour of the pseudoscientific community (and I include the religious in this) in the same way that the two-talking-head debate does. Especially so when ‘normal’ people are see to be entering into debate on topics that would normally get laughed out of the room at your average after-work drinks.

    I’m getting off topic.

    Cheers for the review!


  2. Speaking of the religious, we also have to watch out for the extremist, fundamentalist alarmists – some of whom are talking about killing skeptics!


  3. Ross, if there are people who are talking of ‘killing skeptics’ then I disagree with them (as I presume you do). But I sense that you are bringing this up in a way to speak against the science of human-caused climate change and I thank you for amply demonstrating what I meant by the kinds of arguments used by creationists.

    I’ll let this stand as a giant QED.


  4. Ross, denying science is bad.

    Global warming denierism is as dumb as evolution denierism or HIV denierism or Holocaust denierism.

    You have no evidence.
    Nothing coherent on the subject to say.

    You make a snide little comment and then vanish away about once every couple of months or so.

    Grow a pair and make a scientific argument.

    We’re all waiting.

    Explain to us how the scientific community is wrong about global warming and how you, the vanishing Ross and a couple of no-name web-sites understand science better.
    Go for it.


  5. Thanks, Ken. Great review 🙂 I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet as my Significant Other is hogging it. He went to hear Prof Baker speak in Hamilton & came back very enthusiastic & positive about what Baker had to say. It will be interesting (to say the least!) to hear what he has to say on finishing the book 🙂


  6. Thanks for this review, Ken. It’s VERY encouraging to see this positive contribution! Well worth the $500,000 to make it happen.


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