Phelim McAleer is a film-maker who has produced a documentary challenging the climate change consensus. He appeared on an Irish political program this evening to  debate with a climate scientist, Dr. Kieran Hickey. Now I haven’t watched much of this guy’s documentary yet, but even so, his argument was full of glaring logical fallacies.* 

1) A key plank of McAleer’s argument by the sounds of it is that because the scientific consensus got DDT so badly wrong that they must be wrong this time. 

Rubbish. Even if the scientists did get DDT wrong (and I’ll bet there’s a bit more to this story than meets the eye), that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong on climate change. Methinks there is some selective thinking going on here. What about other scientific consensuses he omitted to mention? The connection between HIV and AIDS? Cowpox vaccination and Smallpox? Microbes and cholera? Smoking and lung cancer? Indeed, when it comes down to it: Gravity, Genetic theory, Plate Tectonics, Quantum Mechanics and Evolution are all scientific consensuses. It’s just a classic case of poisoning the well

2) Scientists have an agenda. 

The allegation here is that climate change is a big liberal conspiracy. This is an odd one, because the biggest vested interests in the climate change debate have always come from the other side! Get this: the combined revenue of the top 5 oil companies last year was 1.5 trillion dollars. 1,500,000,000,000 dollars. 1.5 million million dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of Canada. Climate scientists were persona non grata in the White House for most of the last 8 years of the Bush presidency. If it’s a big conspiracy the financial backers must be an odd bunch indeed. Just because scientists are (according to you) bad people, it’s doesn’t make them wrong, Phelim. 

3) Climate change is a fad.

Apparently Phelim was taught in school in the 1970’s that the Ice Age was approaching in our lifetimes. In between there have been lots of fads, many of which have never come true. This argument attempts to conflate fads with real science, which is just ridiculous. Many of these fads never had any sort of consensus scientific backing. They were just media baubles – minority views that caught the imagination of the press for a period of time. Climate Change originated in the 1970’s as a seriously minority view. There was an activism bandwagon on climate change in the 1980’s which was often shone more heat than light. Cultural fads like this come and go, but the difference in this case was that real science began to weigh in over the past 20 years or so. This has swung the pendulum away from pure fad and into the realm of fact. An analogue is Wegener’s continental drift model that began as a minority view, but became in time accepted as a valid scientific theory when the science began to validate many of his arguments. Fads are not science. They lie on the margins, waiting to be validated or disproved. A lot of hard work needs to take place for a fad to become science, and in the case of climate change, this work has been carried out, with the argument pointing in no uncertain terms towards a deeply worrying future for us all. 

Here’s my biggest gripe with the whole thing. Debates are good when one person’s opinion is pitched against another person’s opinion. So if you bring the audience around to your point of view, you’ve won. Well done. A big prize to you. However, when you have a debate against a scientific consensus, then it doesn’t work so well. Even if the audience all agree with you, even if they carry you around on their shoulders in adulation, that doesn’t make your argument right. Science is not determined from public opinion. It has nothing to do with public opinion. It’s based on evidence, and the only way to challenge the science is to use the tools of science against it. These challenges do happen, but they don’t take place in public debate forums. No, they happen in scientific journals, conferences and papers, where each piece of evidence is scrutinised and debated until, you guessed it – a consensus emerges. So, even if the science is wrong in this case, Phelim, what is your alternative? Film-making?

* If you have never heard much about logical fallacies, I recommend you to take a look through this site. It may be the most educational hour or so you will spend this year.

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