Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ron Smith: A Wingnut fights back

The latest issue of New Zealand Skeptic, features a major article by Michael Edmonds, entitled ‘Dealing with Wingnuts – which way to turn?’. It purports to be about the problem of communicating science to the layperson. It is, in fact, an arrogant and self-satisfied diatribe against those who have the temerity to disagree with him. Wingnuts, we are told, are political extremists, ‘unhinged activists’, ‘hardcore haters’, and paranoid conspiracy theorists’, who ‘propagate misinformation to confuse public understanding’. Clearly, they are persons who constitute a serious threat to society.

In the very first paragraph, Edmonds gives two examples of the sort of ‘wingnuttery’ he is talking about. One of these is resisting the challenge of ‘climate change’. I suppose he means by this, expressing doubt about the thesis that the planet faces a serious problem concerning anthropogenic global warming. I also suppose that he intends us to understand that persons that have such doubts, such as, for example, Associate Professor de Freitas at Auckland University and Dr de Lange at Waikato (as well as all members of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition) are unhinged activists, etc... The 31,486 American scientists who recently established a website dedicated to this same proposition, presumably fall into the same category.

Readers who wish to check on the occupations and professional qualifications of these malicious propagators of public misinformation may do so at their website (

In regard to the second example of ‘wingnuttery’ (also in the first paragraph) it is less clear what the offending thesis is. Edmonds refers simply to the challenge of ‘resource depletion’. He presumably has in mind some form of denial that contemporary humanity faces a resource crisis, rather like the well-known feed shortage which was about to cripple (horse) transportation at the turn of the last century, or the earlier anxiety about peak coal, and I am taking it that the offending propagators of misinformation are those who are optimistic about humanity’s potential to supply its future needs by innovation and discovery.

But Edmonds’ article is not so much concerned with exposing the follies of climate change sceptics, or resource optimists, or even homeopaths or purveyors of natural remedies. It is rather to advise a threatened scientific community on how to deal with such persons. He has ten wonderfully patronising rules, which reveal no capacity for self-awareness on his part, whatsoever. ‘Use simple language’, he tells us in rule 2. Of course that is important when dealing with simple persons of limited education, like the thirty thousand American scientists, mentioned above. Rule three is: ‘Respond to rudeness in a calm manner’. By rudeness he presumably means referring to persons with whom you disagree as ‘wingnuts, or ‘unhinged activists’. It seems like a good principle, to me and I am certainly attempting to follow rule 3 in my response to Dr Edmonds article. ‘Remember-wingnuts are people too!’, he tells us in rule 4, going on to observe that, ‘no one is completely rational’, and that we may all suffer from ’intellectual attribution bias’. What is astonishing about this, is that Edmonds himself does not appear to consider the possibility that it may apply to him. There may be a problem in attempting to discuss the complexities of science with a person who has no science background, but to conflate this with the difficulties that arise in the highly-politicised scientific debates that are a feature of modern life is a great mistake, or simply a malicious slur.

In the end, though, the most surprising thing about Edmonds article is that this most intolerant piece should appear in the official journal of New Zealand Skeptics. ‘Irrationality waxes once again’, said the last editorial. It sure does, and it is close at hand.


Kiwiwit said...

Excellent blog, thanks. The simple and calm language used by the likes of Dr James Hansen, who recently came to New Zealand, includes describing climate change as "intergeneral crime" and saying "it pits the rich and the powerful against the young and the unborn, against the defenseless and against nature." Simple language yes, calm no.

John said...

Thank you Ron, I agree.
Of course everyone believes what they want to believe, but there are those who believe that science is omniscient (all-knowing). Wrong. Science is, by nature, learning all the time. Mr Edmonds should be more humble given his privilege of working in such a noble profession. Humility is an important asset when working in science. Many a wise lay person moved science forward.
Dr Denis Burkitt had 6 PHDs but you would never have known it. He had an audience with Queen Elizabeth but his wife never even knew. People in Dr Burkitt's league certainly don't suffer from Mr Edmonds' superiority complex brought on by capping.

GJ said...

With all respect, I think trying too hard to attack the person, rather than what was actually written (which seems considerable milder that how you present it), and have applied ‘wingnuts’ in a wider scope than Edmonds' use of the term.

GJ said...

‘I think you are trying’ - my apologies for the omission.

Anonymous said...

From Michael Edmonds

Your blog posting shows you completely misunderstood my article. For your readers who would like to make their own, hopefully less biased, interpretation of my article it can be found at
There is also a link from my article which addresses some of the misinterpretations you have made in your blog above,

james said...

Edmonds' article was about how to have a reasoned debate with a wide audience and how to deliver your point of view in an increasing number of debates dominated by emotive language, personal attacks and creative scientific referencing.

I realise I have learnt something from this exchange and I hope you have as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, clearly the AGW proponents are loosing. This appealed to me.