I’m not a scientist but …
For a number of reasons, having “made my bones” in permanent employment, the rest of my career would be termed freelance. I deliver measured amounts of expertise for clients of my choosing in the areas in which I know I operate well. The point is, you have to step out of your comfort zone and think about things like profits, presentation and marketability. For any professional, this is a natural extension of your maturity in your chosen area of work. The big benefit is you do get the opportunity to see how a diverse number of businesses and organisations operate and over time, certain patterns emerge. With the passage of the years, you recognise these patterns quicker and start to make decisions based on your familiarity with them. That’s when you know you have what’s called professional judgement. Some patterns are good, some are bad.
You’ll see the title phrase of this article frequently in the global warming debate. It is what any person will prefix to expressing what they think is a reasonable reservation they have in the face of an opinion being voiced by an expert. If you have an expertise in an area in which you make a living, it can be one of those danger signals too. Sometimes, what that person is saying and what is actually happening are two different things. What they’ll go on to say could be anything but perhaps what’s occurring is they are beginning to lose trust in you and therefore the advice you’re giving them. Once trust in you is gone, out goes trust in anything else you’ve ever told them as well.
I’ve seen this situation handled in two ways. The first is the expert taking offence that their expert opinion is being questioned by someone with no particular expertise in the area, so they pretty quickly go on the offensive. This takes the form of dismissing the objection, however reasonable it might seem to an onlooker, as being based on ignorance and then proceeding to ignore anything further they say. This never works and indeed, if you’re working together on some cooperative enterprise, it tends to polarise the group into two camps. Welcome to the house divided which cannot stand.
I repeat, it never works and not only that, in the long-term it is counter productive.
The constructive response is to stop everything and address their concern honestly and patiently. You have to engage with them and explain why their objection, while it may appear to be valid, is either groundless or is addressed in some other way. This will involve an effort on your part to explain sometimes quite technical things in a form you are confident they understand. The explanation may not be exactly technically correct, and you should always say that, but that’s what you’ve got to do. If you really are on top of your subject, this is not difficult to do.
Sometimes, you don’t know or are not sure of the answer and you should simply say that. It’s my experience that if you’re dealing with people in business or on a personal level, honesty lasts forever; dishonesty only lasts until the first time you’re found out, which will happen eventually. After that occurs, you’re playing catch up with any remaining trust they have in you and that’s a race you rarely win.
The really hard thing to explain is the pure judgement call because it really can’t be done. They only way it can be justified, is if you have a history of making the right choice and you’ve never made a particularly wrong one. People come to trust your judgement or they don’t. Make one badly wrong call that hurts people who trusted your judgement and you’re gone though. It’s that possibility that keeps you on your toes.
If, after a decent and honest effort on your part, you’re still going around in the “yebbut” loop with them, then it becomes obvious to everyone else present that either the person shouldn’t be there or they’re just pissing testosterone. Mostly, if their objection was honest, you can move on, having addressed their concern and that’s a good inclusive thing. You may have locked horns with a specialist in another discipline but it’s an opportunity to show to them and everyone else, you actually know what you’re talking about and have the manners to take the time to articulate that. It’s a normal part of putting together a good team with diverse skills and strong personalities.
That was all sorted out very nicely and comfortably, don’t you think? Well, let’s go at it from the other side and explore it a bit further. A thing I like doing is getting inside the head of the opposite argument; it’s how I learn things.
In this situation, where I’m the one asking the awkward question, there are certain things I watch for. If I see any one of them, I start to get uneasy. When I see more than one of them cropping up, I eventually go and have that very direct conversation with my client to the effect that they’re moving into the danger zone. That’s happened a few times and the one occasion when my judgement was ignored, I exercised my get out clause and while we parted amicably enough, the client subsequently went on to have a nasty and very expensive experience. From a certain viewpoint, it was good for my reputation professionally but it wasn’t a good result to my way of thinking.
So, what are those signs? Invariably the first one is the experts don’t feel they have to address any flaws pointed out to them by others. Indeed, they’re nearly insulted at anyone having the temerity to raise such awkward points. Word gets around pretty fast too. Soon, people stop voicing any concerns publically although that certainly doesn’t prevent them from doing so in private. Rumour control is lost but the seriously harmful thing happening here is the enterprise has lost that ability to identify and therefore address problems; it is no longer self-correcting. This is lethal.
Things start getting secretive. Policy is set and decisions are made or reversed behind closed doors with only a select cabal of supporters present. The communication of these changes to other people becomes spotty and at times nearly verges on a need-to-know basis. Not only are the goal posts moving around but the ground beneath your feet is starting to boogie woogie too.
You begin to lose the good people because what makes them good at their job is they really care about the work. They feel they’re being prevented from giving of their best for political reasons totally outside their control, so they move on. You get left with a lot of time servers; the nine to fivers who really don’t give a damn about what happens between those times as long as there’s a steady paycheck coming in.
If there’s anyone talented left in the joint by now, they’ve usually been marginalised by the dreaded not being a team player label. Talented people can always find employment elsewhere but the best of them hang on in there and try to tough it out to protect their people from the worst excesses of an increasingly irrational management. It is an example of that sort of lonely leadership courage under pressure I respect greatly.
Things are delivered late, over budget and the quality is highly suspect but all of that no longer seems to matter anyway. Corporate politics have become the overriding priority. As the product gets shoddier, more and more of the management’s time is spent defending it against an increasingly jaundiced customer.
You end up with a workforce who dutifully turn up every day but have long since lost any interest or enthusiasm in the whole enterprise. Above all, they dislike and deeply distrust the management. They are the real victims.
In the commercial world, such projects eventually get cancelled because they’re costing money, not earning any and appear to be going nowhere. By that stage, the smart ones in the management, who saw it coming, have already left the ship to go on to bigger and better things and what’s left are the true believers who are usually shifted sideways into obscurity or discreetly paid off.
Not a nice process, is it? I think of it as thug management and it always costs any organisation its greatest asset; its talented and motivated people. If you get parachuted in to turn around a mess like that, it’s obvious in the first week what strategic changes need to be made but that’s the easy part. The really difficult thing, which will occupy most of your time from then on, is rebuilding the morale and motivation of the staff. Get that right and everything else will follow. You have one big thing on your side when faced with that task; people like to do a good job and when finally given a leadership which knows what it’s doing and which genuinely listens to them, are just raring to go after months or even years of frustration. It’s like watching flowers suddenly bloom in the desert.
In the last few years, public belief and concern about global warming has plunged to decade lows and the numbers are still going south. Given it is such a seismic shift in the political landscape, nobody seems to be wondering why this is happening or why it happened so quickly. Beyond bickering about the numbers, what simplistic analysis I’ve seen of it invariably suggest the Climategate leak of emails was the root cause but while this was a significant event, it demonstratively can’t have been the prime cause. This is obvious since the vast majority of people are not aware of the event and indeed, have never heard the word Climategate. A real world experiment I do on an occasional basis, is asking a new acquaintance what they “think about Climategate”. You’d be surprised at how little is known about it outside science and the blogosphere. I’d encourage you to try that simple experiment for yourself. You won’t even need a computer model to do it.
So, if it wasn’t Climategate, what caused such a sudden collapse? Did the general public suddenly look into global warming for themselves and decide it was rubbish? Of course not. They are neither more nor less informed about climate science than they were years ago.
It was a combination of three things in my opinion.
The first is that genuine concern about global warming was never as deeply embedded in the public consciousness as it appeared to be. This fact was obscured by a decade’s worth of overwhelming environmental propaganda in the mainstream media and a succession of highly dubious opinion polls which appeared to point to some massive majority that in my opinion, never really existed outside certain social classes. If you looked critically at the demographics of the movement and stripped out the media, the people who were making money out of environmentalism and those for which it represented a radical political opportunity, you were left in the main with the young. Any decent politician worth his salt knows exactly how to whip up enthusiasm in the youthful first time voter and this they did ruthlessly and rode it to positions of power. The hordes of young people who flocked to Copenhagen demonstrated this for all to see.
The thing is though, sudden enthusiasms fade just as quickly as they appeared, especially in the young. The hordes of young people who didn’t flock to Cancun demonstrated this too. Environmentalism as a fashion meme of youth, is already well on the way to becoming just soo yesterday. It’s had its fifteen minutes or as the Romans would say, they’ve lost the mob.
The second major factor was the recession. In an effort to forestall a complete meltdown in the world’s financial system, governments worldwide have indebted themselves to the point where some of them are technically bankrupt. While a few still think they can spend money they’ve no longer got on a possible danger to generations in some distant future scenario, most of them have quietly been cutting subsidies and funding to green initiatives. If politics is the art of the possible, then politics on a budget is the art of the necessary. What little money they’ve got is being funnelled into getting their stalled economies back on their feet and although I think they will eventually succeed, I also think that won’t happen for a few years yet.
Look around you, by which I mean get your head out of the blogosphere for a moment and into the real world. People are scared. Their concerns have contracted down to those two old eternals of life; jobs and money. Jobs are scarce and a lot more insecure these days. There are too many young people who want to work and have never had a job. We have older workers on the unemployment line who are breadwinners and beginning to wonder if they’ll ever have another decent job. Even for people in work, anything with eco or green on the label is now at the bottom of their priority list. It’s all about keeping a roof over your head and food on the table. As I remarked in a previous article, if that food has to be roast Polar bear, then there won’t be much pulling out of hair or rending of garments over it but I suppose that’d finally be a good reason for such a remarkably successful species being on the endangered list.
Before moving on to the third and final reason the bottom dropped out of belief in any looming eco Armageddon, I first have to say something which may surprise a lot of people. The blogosphere in my judgement, has little or no influence on broad public opinion because, simply put, the overwhelming majority of people don’t use it at all. They barely know it exists. How can it therefore be a mass opinion former? What compounds the problem is that it’s an essentially self-absorbed and inward-looking community as well.
It is this self-evident fact that made me think long and hard before deciding to start a blog myself. A good blog, even the best of them, is the equivalent of putting a message in a bottle, throwing it far out into the tide and hoping it might wash up on some distant shore and be opened by someone who actually frames policy or makes a few big decisions. Beyond informing the occasional open mind, that extremely improbable outcome is about as good as you can hope for. This blog you’re reading now represents the triumph of a personal optimism over a cold assessment of its effectiveness in the real world.
What you have to take on board is the simple fact that the blogosphere was not a major contributor to the change in public opinion. Both sides, having invested such a lot of time and effort in what can only be termed blog wars, will find this an unpalatable truth but I’m afraid it’s a truth nonetheless. If there’s an upside to blogging, it’s being able to tell it like you see it, right or wrong. As internet access becomes universal, which it will, that situation may very well change but I feel we’re still a long way from that point at this time. Sorry folks but at this moment, we’re not opinion makers and Earth shakers, we’re just people airing their views. We’re actually not that significant.
The third thing and it is the main thing that actually caused the implosion of the credibility in global warming, was the process I’ve went to some trouble to outline above. I’m not aware of any neat term in management studies that identifies it beyond my rough name of it as “thug management”, so I’ll stick with that.
Science was to be used as the battering ram to effect what was in essence political change, which would also make a lot of people a lot of money. If you weren’t a scientist, how on Earth could you possibly raise any objections to it? A hitherto obscure and nascent area of science obligingly allowed itself to become a compliant and willing whore to politics and it was lavishly rewarded for its services. It was to be thug management with its usual characteristics of arrogance, hypocrisy, lies, intolerance, deceit, intimidation and ruthless self-interest.
People who did know something about science and cared about it, did start asking those awkward questions but given the overwhelming bias of the mainstream media, there was simply no platform in it for them. The peer-reviewed journals were strictly on message and most disgracefully of all, academia had toed the line too. It took a brave university to give a notable dissenter tenure. The single remaining way to get the message out was to start flinging bottles into the surf via this new blogosphere thing. A few people started doing that and it was another one of those lonely leadership things.
The early blogs concentrated on examining the basic science behind global warming and other ones soon followed to look at the economics and politics of the thing but the science blog is still the mainstay. With regard to the validity or not of the science, that’s a judgement call you’ll have to make yourself. Standing back from the details of the debate, two things led me to having deep misgivings about it. The first one is that the essential science seems to rest on nothing but the predictions made by computer models of the climate and climate is a non-linear complex system, which means it’s inherently unpredictable. Nothing, not even the most powerful computer in the world, will help you to predict the unpredictable, especially when you don’t fully understand it anyway. The second one is the behaviour of the scientists pushing the theory. It exhibits all the worst characteristics of thug management; secretiveness, deceit and intimidation of any dissenters. It’s taken years to get some of the raw data from them on which they based their predictions and that was only after the intervention of the Information Commissioner’s office. They basically don’t want to show their working out, as schoolkids say, and every schoolkid knows what that means.
The skeptic blogosphere fought against the thug management of climate science and in my opinion, put a dent in its credibility it’ll never recover from. It’s now that Pythonesque black knight hopping up and down on its one remaining leg. Yes, the debate will go on for a few years more but the damage has been done. However, for the reasons I’ve already stated, the blogosphere can only have played a slight part in its downfall.
You see, the silent killer who was there all along, was indeed thug management but operating at a higher level, the level of the ordinary person. There was an agenda being presented to them which was being rammed down their throat and any questioning of it was strictly forbidden. There was absolutely no alternatives on offer and they knew sticking their head up to ask any awkward questions about it wouldn’t be a good idea. People resent being treated like that.
They looked at Al Gore in his thousand dollar suits and with his five or six mansions, telling them how they needed to save the planet and you know what? They didn’t need anyone’s help to see him for what he was. They listened to the media’s take on the latest “scientific” research and instead of being impressed, began to wonder who in their right mind paid for such unbelievable drivel. They listened to the latest alarm story from that oh so earnest spokesperson from Greenpeace about the emergency on the imminent demise of the lesser-spotted three-toed thingy that lived in the upper canopy of a jungle in some place they’d never heard of until a minute ago and instead of getting really really angry, as they were supposed to, wondered in the end if they were actually that bothered about the bloody thing anyway.
They were well on that road travelled by all victims of thug management and it led in the end to that same deep and abiding distrust of the thugs.
Above all, it was that preachy and holier than thou tone that really began to grate. They’d all met people like that and they all know what hypocrites or maniacs they’ve always turned out to be. They watched ABC, the other ABC, NBC and BBC incessantly screaming a none too subtle message at them for years and after a while, they reached for the TV remote with its mute button. No amount of repackaging of the message will get around that mute button once it’s been pressed and lads and lassies, it’s been pressed.
When you step outside the bunker and look around, things are a lot different.
Related articles by Pointman :