There’s been a massive sh-t storm in the blogosphere since a left-leaning Melbourne lawyer, Legal Eagle, outed herself as a climate change sceptic on the SkeptiClawyer blog last week (Climate change, scepticism and elitism).

Legal Eagle also appeared on SBS’s Insight program a week ago when eminent climate change scientist, Stanford University’s Professor Stephen Schneider, was confronted with an audience of non-believers (sadly, Professor Schneider died a few weeks after the show was recorded).

Legal Eagle explained on her blog why she’s sceptical:

I am a lay person, not a scientist. I can’t make any effective judgments about the science behind Professor Schneider’s figures and projections.

I don’t have the scientific or the statistical capacity to judge the various accounts as to what is going to happen with our climate. I don’t know who is right or wrong about the “hockey stick graph”.

She goes on to say:

Just because there’s a broad consensus about something doesn’t mean that it’s right: sometimes the 1% of scientists who put forward an unpopular hypothesis, with which 99% of scientists disagree, happen to be right. Think of Alfred Wegener, whose theory of continental drift was rejected by most scientists at the time. Or think of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were in a minority of those who believed peptic ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection, and who turned out to be right. If we didn’t allow people to question the status quo, we’d never make scientific progress.

Now unlike Legal Eagle, I am persuaded that the probability the scientists have got it right on climate change is high and that we need to take action sooner rather than later (most of my concerns are about what we should be doing about it). Here’s one blogger advising her on where he thinks she’s gone wrong.

But I don’t think she’s either a conspiracy theorist or a “denialist”. She’s really a climate-change agnostic rather than a sceptic. She worries that she will be labelled as a right-wing, Holocaust-denying lunatic. While things don’t seem to have gotten that bad, some of the negative reactions to her outing were strikingly judgemental, for example the same blogger says:

I can’t speak for Legal Eagle’s friends, colleagues and students, but I for one will continue to look more than a little askance at somebody who declares that they’re both a progressive and a climate sceptic.

Legal Eagle bemoans the fact that the public discussion of climate change has become politicised:

The main thing that worries me about the science is not the science itself, it’s the tenor of the debate. It’s so polarised. It seems to have become politicised in an ugly way. Maybe it’s inevitable in academia. In my own field, I see certain people’s viewpoints shouted down because they’re not mainstream or popular in various camps. I don’t like that, regardless of whether I agree with someone or disagree with them.

And even though I’m not a sceptic on climate change, I have always loathed the easy and glib way that dissenters are labelled as “denialists”, as if they’re up there with the likes of David Irving or Lord Christopher Monckton. That’s an awful term. This post is an example of what seems to me to be a pretty reasonable tone (Do the recent floods prove man-made climate change is real?).

I think there are parallels in this episode with some of the debate about urban issues. People get wedded to ideas that are emblematic of how they see themselves and how they want to be seen. There’s an element of group identification around key policies and the values they are presumed to represent.

I think this is seen in the views of some sections of the road lobby and the public transport lobby, both of whom are so certain of their point of view that they’ll happily engage in spin and politicking to advance their beliefs. The mission becomes the overriding objective and any conflicting information is avoided or even demonised.

That’s probably “just life”, but we’d all be better off I think if we strive to keep an open mind and to follow the scientific practice of listening to the evidence.

As an aside, the Legal Eagle “outing” episode shows just how big the non-mainstream media world is. SkeptiClawer got 287 comments on this issue, Larvatus Prodeo got 195, Catallaxy got 164, Tim Blair’s blog got 53 and the Insight web site got more than 500. Anyone not plugged into the net wouldn’t even know this debate had happened.

This story first appeared on the Melbourne Urbanist website.