Between Scientists & Citizens

Should climate scientists fly? 1. The skeptics’ hypocrisy argument

with 2 comments

TL;DR: Climate scientists aren’t skeptics’ main targets; the skeptics’ hypocrisy argument is sophisticated; it’s aimed primarily at undermining the existence of a climate emergency.

1. Who are the skeptics targeting?

The first data set for this study consists of a decade of tweets mentioning both “climate” and “fly”–75K posts in all (stripping out retweets).  Of these, 2.5K include “scient*”–i.e., some variant of the term “scientist”. About 650 of these were focused on the issue of  scientists flying, about 200 accused scientists of hypocrisy (although not necessarily using the word), of which about 150 were from skeptics. In other words: scientists are not on the top of skeptics’ minds when they think about hypocrisy.

Who are they thinking about? Here’s an automated topical analysis based on a 10K sample of the full set that confirms the relatively low interest in scientists:

Topics from 2009-06-11 to 2020-04-30

The major topic is elites telling us what to do flying on private jets to the Davos talks. Climate scientists is a distinguishable topic, but the least significant of the bunch. Further, it’s not clear that scientists are being targeted with hypocrisy accusations; the tweets could be neutral reports of climate scientists flying, or speaking about the impacts of flying.

2.  What is the skeptics’ argument?

There is no single source articulating the whole of the skeptics’ argument about climate scientists’ flying, although an extended blog post at Watts Up With That? comes close. Instead, I’ve reconstructed the following argument from drive-by tweets and longer blog comments, each of which picks up on two or more of the following themes.

Figure 1

The core of skeptics’ hypocrisy argument is an alleged “pragmatic inconsistency” between scientists’ utterances in the climate controversy and their behavior in the rest of their lives. This inconsistency is often expressed through maxims that emphasize the need for, or absence of, coherence between words and deeds: “‘do as I say, not as I do,’ practice what you preach, lead by example, walk the talk, actions speak louder the words, put your money where your mouth is.” What evidence do skeptics offer for scientists’ inconsistency? Often, none; scientists’ actions and words are put forward as if common knowledge.

No more log/wood burners maybe NO one talks about banning aeroplanes indeed climate scientists and politicians are quite happy to fly all over the place to tells US what to do about saving the planet.!! When they get the act together I will be convinced. #henley
The haughty, self-important Prof. …, like so many other noisy AGW advocates are hypocrites, HYPOCRITES, HYPOCRITES!

Their flying, when mentioned, is generally for a specific climate-related conference (Poland, Paris, COP14) or research purpose (Antarctica). By contrast, the scientists’ talk is almost never directly referenced. Instead, it is characterized: as overbearing (“tell, preach, lecture, push”), intrusive (“scream, screech,” or as in the second sample above, “noisy”), baseless (“claim, propaganda”) or mercenary (“sell, hype”).

By contrast, the significance of the inconsistency is elaborated in much greater detail–the argument diagram above branches out to the right.

One way to resolve an inconsistency between “walk” and “talk” is to infer that the scientists do not actually believe what they are saying. Assertions that scientists do not believe in the existence of climate change are rare when skeptics make the hypocrisy argument; instead, the emphasis is almost entirely on scientists’ lack of confidence in a climate emergency [1]. For example:

Why do any climate scientists still fly? It’s almost as if they don’t really believe that there’s a CO2 climate crisis.
Climate scientists lack conviction – why do they fly to meetings & expect others to stop flying/driving/etc.
When [people] point out the hypocrisy of climate alarmist jetsetting around the world for these conferences[, t]hey’re saying if they truly believed what they preach, they wouldn’t be increasing their carbon footprint by jetting (or boating, train-ing, car- ing or any other form of CO2 spewing transporting) off all over the world, they’d hold their conference in the virtual space which would have minimal impact on their carbon footprint. They don’t hence they don’t really believe that which they preach.

In an emergency we expect people to take extraordinary actions, e.g. to run to put out a fire. When climate scientists continue business as usual, even continuing activities that they themselves say will make the emergency worse, skeptics profess to find it hard to credit their statements. Their conclusion: there really is no emergency [6].

When ‘climate scientists’ like David Suzuki who own multiple homes and constantly fly all over the world start living as if we’re in any sort of danger I’ll start believing them.
Im sick of this climate change hoax I wonder if the scientist will fly on jets to their destination to study the pollution they just expelled. If they walk to France I will think about their stupid planet warming claims.

Note here a typical feature of the skeptics’ discourse: the “if/when” phrasing. A reasonable person changes their minds when they find new evidence. Skeptics portray themselves as reasonable by committing themselves to thinking differently, if only scientists would change their behavior. This opens the door for a nice take-down, which I’ll talk about in a later post.

The inconsistency between “walk” and “talk” could still be puzzling, however, so some skeptics go on to propose explanations for why scientists are saying things they don’t believe [2]. The narrowest explanation offered is that scientists want to maintain their funding stream: the government grants they get as a result of climate change being seen as an emergency. This account fades into a more comprehensive narrative drawn from broader cultural discourses. Climate scientists are participants in a vast, international conspiracy that is trying to make money, take away liberties, and overturn capitalism by perpetuating a climate hoax. (These themes are familiar, and I won’t bother giving examples.) As such, they are not credible [5], and what they say should not be attended to, taken seriously, or considered.

You have a credibility problem when the climate scientists travel in private jets.
Climate scientists fly all over the place which they would never do if the threat were real. Ignore those who project fanatical paranoia to make you feel guilty & threaten your happiness/joy.
How can anyone take seriously anything any climate scientist says when you people don’t practise what you preach?

But without their testimony, there is no evidence supporting a climate emergency [6].

There is a second approach skeptics can take to resolve the apparent walk/talk inconsistency: take scientists as sincere (or at least, refrain from openly questioning their sincerity) and conclude that they are bad people for not being able to live up to their beliefs. This is the core form of the hypocrisy argument evident in the first quotations above, and is frequently expressed as a direct insult or accusation using that term. But bad people are not credible [5], so again—no emergency [6].

A slightly different take focuses less on the outrageousness of the inconsistency and more on the flying itself [4]. Flying is an elite activity, especially flying first class or in private jets, to exotic locales, with limousines at the other end (as scientists are imagined to do).

celebs & scientists fly around the world to latest climate meetings but we must live in mud huts. #SCUM
You can’t fly coach & then ride around on limos while you’re at the climate conference! How peasant-like.

Here skeptics are again drawing from broader populist narratives, portraying climate scientists as bad people due to membership in an out-of-touch or arrogant elite. With another slight shift in emphasis this characterization can morph into a concern for the reasoning scientists are using when they call for flying limits for thee, but not for me.

Actually living a low carbon lifestyle is what the peons are supposed to do, not the elites. Guess who decides who the elites are?
Hypocrites always have an excuse why they should be excused from the rules that they wish to impose on the rest of society. If you actually thought carbon dioxide was a problem, you could always telecommute. Then again, your actions show that you don’t believe CO2 is a problem either.

Here the emphasis is on scientists’ self-rationalization or use of double standards. Whether justifying their own bad behavior or just being elitists, scientists are seen to be bad people, not credible [5], and there is no emergency [6].

In sum: Gunster et al. (2018), in their review of climate hypocrisy on print journalism opinion pages, found hypocrisy accusations “more nuanced and layered than is often acknowledged” (2018, p. 2). This analysis of the skeptics’ hypocrisy arguments confirms that view. Some branches of the argument are conspicuously spurious, e.g. the conspiracy theories in [2]. Some of the rest may turn out to have some merit–at least when presented in more civil language, by an arguer worth listening to.

Next up: How should climate scientists and their friends respond?

Written by jeangoodwin

June 25, 2020 at 3:31 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] often express their hypocrisy argument as a willingness to believe scientists “if/when” they start walking the talk. In response such a pious wish here, @flyingless generously responds by granting it. This creates a […]


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