I have on occasions left myself open to attack on these pages when writing about matters of science and politics. I posted on how vaccines have been one the most important contributors to human health and I received a salvo on social media from those of the opposite opinion. I have posted on the UK’s referendum result to leave the UK which attracted an equally vociferous response. In this post I present a personal view on the similarity of approaches from those denying climate change and those who believe Brexit will not damage the UK economy.
If you want me, I’m the guy with the steel helmet running for the bunker.
It’s an anecdotal observation but I do see similarities in the reasoning of those who argue climate change is not real and those who argue that Brexit will not cause economic damage to the UK. Just to be clear I recognise there are those who say climate change may be real but the consequences are not as alarmist as some claim. I also recognise there are those who say Brexit, leaving the Single Market and Custom’s Union in particular, will cause economic damage but it will be worth it in the name of freedom. I don’t agree with either of these positions but they are another story. Here I am only concerned with those who say climate change isn’t real or deny it is caused by human activity (anthropogenic climate change) and those who claim leaving the Single Market and Custom’s Union (so called hard Brexit) will not adversely impact on the economy, or even say that the country will be better off as a result.
In matters of pharmacology I believe I am equipped to deal with spurious claims directly, as I have been a pharmacologist for at least 20-years in both industry and academia, culminating in a visiting professorship in the subject. If someone claims that alkaline water can treat cancer, I can refute the claim pretty much chapter and verse to a molecular and cellular level. But when it comes to climate change and Brexit I am neither a climate scientists nor an economist. So how can I make an assessment?
In the case of climate change the vast majority of climate scientists agree that it is caused by anthropogenic effects. The figure is put at a 97% consensus, which has been supported from a number of different sources. So apart from the fact that these scientists probably know more about climate science that I do about pharmacology, and there are millions of data points and thousands of studies from multiple disciplines over several decades, all run through the rigour of the scientific method, why should anyone believe them? Two reasons. The first was eloquently expressed by Bertrand Russell: “… the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion”. The second is the depth of the arguments. Anthropogenic climate change is explained in a series of cause and effect steps from wavelengths of infrared absorbed by the carbon-oxygen bonds in carbon dioxide (and similarly with methane and water vapour), the amount of absorbed energy versus temperature increase can be calculated, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be measured, global temperatures can be measured, the proportion of human-derived carbon dioxide can be determined by several methods including isotope analysis….. and so on.
Similarly, the vast majority of the World’s economists and constitutional lawyers are of the opinion Brexit will damage the UK economy. They explain a series of causative steps starting with what’s called a negative supply shock where the UK will be unable to purchase the same volume of goods for the same amount of money that was previously available, in particular with the UK’s largest and nearest trading partner. It will lose significant investment previously made on the basis it was an English speaking country and a doorway to the EU markets. The UK looses the regulatory homogeneity it enjoys within the EU single market and will have to operate under World Trade Organisation rules… and so on.
Counter argument tactics for both anthropogenic climate change and post-Brexit economy are, it seems to me remarkably similar and are as follows:
- Rejection of the experts, typically on the grounds that they have been wrong before. Examples of being wrong are cherry picked and the majority instances of being right are ignored. Comparisons are not equivalent, such as Newton was wrong about gravity and economists said oil would run out by 2000.
- Scientists or economists are found that support the view and then quoted endlessly. The fact that these people are the rare outliers is ignored. Moreover, these minority are often called "reputable" scientists or economists, in an attempt to validate their minority views.
- Reasons for the counter claims tend to be vague or at least lack the cause and effect details of the experts. Climate change is natural, or it’s something to do with the sun. The UK economy will be fine because we British know how to trade and we’ll exploit new markets. Arguments are often appeals to emotion and quantitative factors such as the sun’s output or the size of alternative markets are typically not dwelled upon.
- More rarely but still a common factor is the Dunning-Kruer effect where the denier believes they know more than they do and so claim they can hold the same level of argument as the expert - or at least their opinion is just as valid.
Perhaps climate change denialism does have one up on those who do not believe a Brexit economy will be damaging and that’s the old favourite, conspiracy theory. The proposal that scientists are all conspiring to fool us and climate change is a just a hoax. I can’t claim the same for the Brexit argument, although “Project Fear” and claims that it’s “just the establishment” leans in that direction perhaps.
The politics behind all this are a very different matter but political opinion does not affect reality. If a referendum abolished the law of gravity, we wouldn’t all just float off the planet. As Louis Pasteur said, "the greatest derangement of the mind is to believe in something because one wishes it to be so.”
Also interestingly some social research correlates those in favour of Brexit with a denial of climate change. I rest my case.