What Does "Non-Skeptic Heretic" Mean?

Gosh, I have so much work to do, I feel like blogging.....

A dialogue/debate is starting up over this whole concept of a "middle ground" on global warming, or the idea that one can be a "non-skeptic heretic." See here and here and just generally all over the place.

Labels are dangerous, so let me just tell you briefly how I think about all this. I am a "non-skeptic heretic" if it means the following:

1. The kind of person who thinks global warming is real and human-caused, but gets really uneasy when environmental groups and their ilk oversell the science, whether it's by blaming global warming for individual weather events or just generally by trying to make everything seem more certain than it actually is. Don't get me wrong, environmental advocates are generally my intellectual "allies"--but that's precisely why I want to hold them to a higher standard. I've spent a lot of energy criticizing the James Inhofes of the world, but Inhofe-type abuses do not justify similar abuses on the other side.

2. The kind of person who thinks there is going to have to be some sort of cap on emissions but who also realizes that we're committed to plenty of global warming already no matter what we do, and who remains dubious that Kyoto alone can get us out of our problems. There isn't one solution to global warming, there have to be many solutions, some combination of adaptation, mitigation, and innovation (technologies that can help get us out of this fix).

3. The kind of person who thinks, as Matt Nisbet does, that the global warming debate has been poorly and damagingly framed as a big "science fight," and that arguments over uncertainty have bogged us down and distracted us from finding the solutions we needed yesterday. The global warming debate desperately needs re-framing, and I'd very much like to see that happen.

If this is what "non-skeptic heretic" means, sign me up. If not, I'll continue to go un-labeled, thank you....

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James Annan summarizes the whole non-skeptic middle heresy thing with: "No, I'm in the middle". The RealClimate team check the list Revkin gives and find that they also qualify as NSMHs. (See also Revkin's response.) Andrew Dessler (who was one of the people Pielke Jr originally labeled as a NSH)…
I am quoted at length in this recent Boston Globe op-ed column by Cathy Young, entitled "Common sense in the warming debate." (Via Prometheus.) I really appreciate the attention from Young, but without necessarily intending to do so, she appears to have put me in a box that I don't wish to occupy.…
The HuffPost has an amusingly written blog entry by David Roberts, of Grist, over all the new-middle-in-the-climate-debate stuff. Roberts thinks I have allowed myself to be co-opted/duped by those wanting to construct a false equivalence between science abusers on different sides of the issue:…
You may be aware that there is a huge discussion about framing science going on in the blogosphere. It has gotten out of hand. But, for those who want to dig in, or want to analyze the posts and comments (that is a lot of data!), here is the comprehensive list of links (excluded are links to…

I think there is an attempt by the global warming deniers to assert that there is scientific controversy in climate science in the same way that creationists assert scientific controversy in evolutionary biology. I have at least some doubts that the "middle ground" of climate scientists are really quite so worried about exaggerations of the effects of global warming. Where are the data that show that? (See my comment on Matt's blog about the Revkin article.)

The problem here is that the issue has already been "framed" by the Exxon-mobil sponsored think tanks and other similar groups.

We know how it works. You have an Exxon-sponsored think tank focusing on "scientific uncertainty" of global warming, which a "balance"-obsessed journalist headlines as "Scientists Uncertain" and the public interprets as, "Scientists have no clue what will happen" (which was precisely the goal of the think tank).

If "re-framing" the issue in this case means letting the people who actually know something about the issue (the scientists) -- have a say in how it is dealt with (the way things should work), then I agree it needs to be "re-framed".

On the other hand, if it means defining the problem to the liking of the policy wonks, I say forget it. Most of them are not scientists and should have no more say in what happens than the average person.

The whole "framing" concept was designed for political campaigns and is really quite inimical to science.

As soon as I hear talk about "framing", the term that immediately pops into my mind is "propaganda."

Is that what some journalists and policy wonks are after, a "propaganization of science" like everything else?

By Dark tent (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

I'm not sure where the current usage of the term "framing" (as it is used in the political context) came from, but in physics, "framing" (from "frame of reference") is a particular way of looking at a problem -- usually, in order to clarify and simplify it.

If the latter is the origin of the word now used in the political context, that would be the ultimate irony. Scientific framing is done to shed light on a problem, political "framing" to cast shadows.

By Dark tent (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

I've spent a lot of energy criticizing the James Inhofes of the world, but Inhofe-type abuses do not justify similar abuses on the other side.

As I think David Roberts stated well, it's not the case that there are "similar abuses" being committed by environmentalists who may be overselling our certainty about global warming. Those people are guilty of, at worst, exaggerating the threat in the hope that action will be taken sooner rather than later.

The sins of James Inhofe, who claimed that global warming is a conspiracy of leftists and the UN to destroy America, are not a simple matter of exaggeration. They're the rantings of an unhinged lunatic who occupies a totally different level of wrong.

Yeah, Steve, but can't I expect more of my own allies than I do of someone like Inhofe? We don't *need* to oversell the science to get what we want, do we? Isn't the science strong enough?

Chris, I agree wholeheartedly, but this dust-up is primarily about claims of establishing a "third way" because, up until now, the debate has supposedly been bipolar, with each side making the same mistakes and being unwilling to seek consensus. As I think you'd agree, that's a very misleading way of looking at things. Part of why it's misleading is that there is no intellectual or moral equivalence between the exaggerations of some environmentalists and the inane conspiracy mongering of James Inhofe (who is admittedly one of the more extreme examples, but I would contend that the pattern holds more broadly).

In talking about Global Warming, we're talking about a real "big picture" idea. Quite honestly, I think it's much too complex an issue for the average person to get his brain around. My question is, then, when did topics like air pollution become unfashionable? Why doesn't more of the debate turn toward things everyone can readily observe, see published measurements in newspapers and the internet, and actually have steps in place to do something about? I don't know about you, but I can see people I interact with getting more up in arms about brown air than about an incremental increase in temperature.

The bonus is that taking small steps on readily observable phenomena makes inroads into dealing with the larger problem. We all have to understand that the only way change comes about is small steps. We need to start where the apparatus for change is already in place.

I don't accept an "equivalence" framing. After all, I'm the author of The Republican War on Science!

But let me tell you why I'm still keen on making sure that "our side" doesn't abuse science: Because it strengthens the hands of the Inhofes of the world immmensely if they can *validly* critique someone like Al Gore....lends them powerful ammunition. That should never be done.

I definitely sympathize with reframing the climate debate. Right now, Exxon Mobil has framed it as an ideologically loaded subject. If we can offload some of that ideology and make people see that there's actually a healthy spectrum of scientific opinion, all agreeing that there's a problem, that would be good. It might get people's minds off of the false notion that ideology is the driver of this subject--something that Exxon Mobil has worked very hard to cultivate.

I think the problem comes if the reframing fuzzes things up. You could be discrediting some and crediting others who might not merit it. And this could dilute public's understanding and hence dilute the solutions we arrive at. This is the view of some of the posters at Grist (See: http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/1/3/14539/76760 ).

One thing to keep in mind is the way the right and the right-leaning media have been operating. They don't care whether Gore or Obama's brief mention of tornadoes has any merit. They would toss that factoid out in a second if they can get find something more dramatic to replace it. It's mostly not debate; it's theater. If it's not one fact in dispute, they find another and play that out. I think if Nobel prize-winning scientists vetted every single Obama or Gore speech, you'd still have this problem.

Dark Tent--Framing as a technical term in this context comes from cognitive psychology (George Lakoff, Marvin Minsky, and others). But as a non-technical term I think it's pretty old, as in "How do we frame this argument?"

In cognitive psychology, you can't go and abstract things from the frames you invoke. The frame is either there with all its associated images or it's not. In his classes, Lakoff tells his students "Don't think of an elephant." You can't stop from doing it. You automatically think of one. Some other examples--you can't think of a father without thinking male, or a mother without thinking female.

So you're always using frames--they're part of language.

I thought Chris framed the storm causality message brilliantly in his recent talk when he said that there's a difference between weather and climate. This is instantly graspable and compelling. He could have gone into a technical explanation with more data points, but it wouldn't have been as effective. Because if you had people thinking in terms of probability, they would instantly think of the guys in white lab coats who would be measuring that probability for them. But if you get them thinking in terms of "weather vs. climate", people can visualize the problem for themselves. It's more direct and persuasive.

Framing can cast shadows--e.g., famously, Luntz's "death tax". You can't think of "death" without thinking "that's bad." But framing can also illuminate. You could say that teachers do this every day. They use their students' existing mental models (a cognitive psychology term) to bridge the gap so that student can grasp things that they otherwise wouldn't have any context to know about.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 04 Jan 2007 #permalink

Thanks Jon,

I have familiarity with the use of "reference frames" in science to provide a new angle for thinking about something.

Typically, one changes reference frames because it makes a problem easier to solve.

After reading you explanation, I can see that this really is no different from "framing" in other contexts. In all cases, it can help people better understand an issue.

I think the problem is that the term has been given a bad name through its negative use in political campaigns. "Political framing" seems to have a meaning much closer to the gangster use of the terminology "To frame someone", as in to "pin a crime on them".

I have no problem with framing when it illuminates, but I do have a problem when politicians, corporations, journalists, and others use it to manipulate. Then it essentially amounts to a propaganda technique.

I guess when it comes right down to it, I don't need or want a politician, policy wonk or journalist deciding for me the way I should look at an issue, particulalry not a scientific issue. Chris Mooney is clearly the exception in the journalism trade, but in my experience, most of these people have no clue about science and the ways that they frame scientific issues are just nonsensical.

By Dark tent (not verified) on 04 Jan 2007 #permalink

"We don't *need* to oversell the science to get what we want, do we? Isn't the science strong enough?"

Yes it is and I don't think many scientists are debating whether "To oversell or not to oversell."

Kevin Vranes may have heard whispers from a few people at a conference who indicated otherwise, but that does not mean that climate scientists in general are concerned that there has been overselling -- and it certainly does not mean that there has actually been significant overselling by the climate science community.

Besides, there is huge difference between statements made about the science of global warming and statements made about what should be done about it (policy).

Policy calls are subjective so the idea of "overselling" loses much of its meaning in that context. People can have very different ideas about what should be done and science can not say who is right and who is wrong.

By Dark tent (not verified) on 04 Jan 2007 #permalink

Tahnks for the link Jon and I will say that Chris's peice is very well written and to the point.

First, let me say that I taught high school science for several years so I am well aware that, as Chris says

"Facts alone, note Aubrun and Grady, aren't enough to educate people. Instead, facts must be carefully packaged (or "framed") in the context of narratives or explanations if they're to enhance knowledge."

I also think most scientists are ware of this as well -- any who are engaged in teaching, at any rate.

Where I would draw the line, however, is "pakaging" that compromises the integrity of what you are trying to get across.

Perhaps I am being unrealistic, but I disagree with Lakoff's call to have a "believer" somehow act as the spokepserson for evolution, just so they will be more attractive to other believers.

No scientist should be excluded from this effort based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof. That's just silly. A huge number of people read Carl Sagan's book Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. he was wildly popular and unecelled at getting people interested in science. Was he a true believer? I don't think so.

When one plays such games -- excluding people so that the messenger will be more palatable to the public -- that is actually a kind of "manipulation", in my view.

I also disagree with the idea that the National Academy somehow made a poor choice when they said the school board could no longer use their copyrghted material.

That is a separate issue from whether scientists should be out there explaining evolution to people. scientists should certainly be engaged in explaining evolution to the public, but when their hard efforts to explain things accurately to the public are being abused, they should not tolerate it and they should let the public know that in no uncertyain terms.

Given the current political climate, I think they did the wise thing, because, as a result of actions like that over the past few years, people are now seeing that such abuse is part of a larger pattern.

I don't know where Lakoff got the idea that the public somehow perceived that as "elite scientists taking their marbles home". Scientists have very good standing in the public eye and they rarely make a fuss, so when they do, the public tends to listen. The same is true with James Hansen's going to the NY TImes with his charges of censorhsip. Given the choice of believing a government bureaucrat or a scientist, I have little doubt that the public will choose the scientist every time.

So, I agree that scientific knowledge needs to be presented (I hate the term "packaged") in such a way that people will relate to it. But I think there are ways of doing that which will not compromise the message or the messenger.

By Dark tent (not verified) on 05 Jan 2007 #permalink

Dark tent brings some much needed warm sunshine to the intersection. When Georgie Lakoff or Matt Nisbett remind us that cows eat grass, all I can say is; "But, of course."

From Garrett Hardin; "If your mind is completely open, it is by definition - empty."

By gerald spezio (not verified) on 06 Jan 2007 #permalink

This is a very interesting concept, but I don't think the terminology is correct.

You do not have to park your scientific skepticism to agree with the consensus. In fact, the only reason to accept the consensus is that it has survived your skepticism.

Likewise, you are more conservative than heretical when you argue against abusing science--whether that is "overselling," distortion, or denial--in the service of a political agenda.

In short, you are a conservative skeptic in the best sense of the words. That is precisely the kind of thinking we need in making national policy, and it is been in woefully short supply in the over-politicized environment in Washington.

Some of these words (conservative, liberal, skeptic, heretic , even science) have been bastardized so much in recent years that they have essentially lost all meaning.

It's no longer sufficient, in the common parlance, for example, to say that someone has based their argument on "science". They have to have based it on "sound science" to be believable.

Now people are even combining some of these redefined terms to create yet another layer of mumbo-jumbo: "non-skeptic heretic".

How about this one? -- "non-conservative skeptical heretical liberal"

I'll let you fill in your own definition.

That way we'll maximimize the chance that next time I use the term in conversation the rest of you will have no idea what I really mean -- though you will think you know because you have your own definition, and that's all that matters, right?

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 06 Jan 2007 #permalink

Dark Tent,


All this nonsense about terminology and framing can end up destroying any meaning, I agree.

In fact, "non-skeptical heretic" turns the meaning of both skepticism and heresy inside out. Why? Because it implicitly assumes that scientific consensus is dogma rather than agreement among skeptics.

I hope the phrase soon dies a well-deserved death.

Fred Bortz, a scientific skeptic and linguistic conservative


My first reaction is that you're falling into the trap of "the reasonable middle". This is the modus operandi of the right wing ideologues and corporate sponsors. Their goal is to maximize corporate profits (always!) so they "frame" the debate in the most hysterical fashion possible. People merely presenting scientific reality are derided as "hysterical" and the few scientific voices that are outliers are funded by industry and presented as if their opinions are "equally valid". (No, I don't have to tell you this stuff since you cover it all so well in your book.)

One of the aims of this approach to politics is to move the "center" away from reality to a "compromise" position somewhere between reality and whatever nonsense the corporate funding is promoting.

So, as a scientist, I would have to oppose the idea behind the "non-skeptic heretic".

That begs the political question: is it a wise move to cede ground to the hysterical forces of anti-science? I think people who say "yes" are thinking of one of a few possibilities

1) It is much easier to move one's personal career forward by "going with the flow".

2) The "willingness to compromise" is always seen as a wise strategy in politics, even if it is utterly inappropriate for science.

3) Some people just don't have the stomach for a fight.

Nisbet seems to fall into the third category. He thinks that the public doesn't respond well to the "Pandora's box" approach.

I would really have to disagree strongly here. If there is any lesson to be learned from the past ten years, it's the the public can be scared into practically any policy position. So, if you want to argue that you don't want to pursue alarmism, do so because you think alarmism is irresponsible, not because it is ineffective.

Nisbet makes the curious argument:
"Given that citizens often use their partisanship as an information short-cut, polls unsurprisingly show that Democrats are significantly more worried about global warming than their Republican counterparts."

I had always thought this equation was driven in the other direction. Republicans are less concerned about environmental issues because they are, in general, not as well educated. Rather than blame partisanship for the differential in beliefs, it would seem to make more sense to note that the difference in beliefs leads to partisanship. The former attitude is rather "futilitarian", as I call it, as it dismisses rational argument entirely as a force in politics. Indeed, this is a fairly arrogant attitude to take.

I don't quite see any need to water down the anti-global warming message in the name of self-aggrandizement. Many social movements come against loads of resistance in the public arena. Trying to cut down on carbon emissions, for example, is going to be one of these fights, since corporations are run by people who simply don't give a damn about global warming or the environment.

I would suggest that people who want to do something about carbon emissions stick to the plot and try to do something about carbon emissions, and not wander off into the world of "framing" or trying to pretend a superior understanding of the public mind. The public mind is not something that is "understood" in the sense of "citizens use their partisanship as an information short cut". The devil is always in the details, which is why so many "social scientists" and "policy experts" are continually taken by surprise (at least seemingly) when their predictions and prescriptions for the world fall flat.

I think people who want to fight global warming should simply fight global warming. Trying to figure out the "framing" for what "the public understands" seems like a recipe for being too clever for one's own good. The end result of this approach is going to lead to compromise of scientific principles, after which everything is fair game.

Excuse me;
I have not read all of the above regarding Global Warming but the arguement as presented by Mooney is similar in presentation to a whole host of issues presented on the MSM over the past 25 years.
This is the issue of "balance, bipartisnship, middle ground etc.

From Broder at WAPO to Mooney above there is this "quest to the middle as if it is sanctified as if taking a partisan position or extreme position lacks credibility and is wrong because of its position.

There is a name for this position and it is "Argumentum Ad Temperantiam".

This is a fancy Latin name for a logical fallacy commonly called the English or Moderate position fallacy. (For a more articulate definition then I could possibly give just Google it)

The use of this fallacy has been used effectively by the MSM to silence, the dirty Hippies, VP Gore, Dr.Dean and a whole host of people and issues that dont fit into what the MSM thinks is proper.IT has been used to shift the whole discourse of the country to a direction that I believe is not healthy.

By michael heit (not verified) on 18 Jan 2007 #permalink