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Solar

Filed under: — stefan @ 4 May 2010

The new novel Solar by Ian McEwan, Britain’s “national author” (as many call him) tackles the issue of climate change. I should perhaps start my review with a disclosure: I’m a long-standing fan of McEwan and have read all of his novels, and I am also mentioned in the acknowledgements of Solar. I met McEwan in Potsdam and we had some correspondence while he wrote his novel. Our recent book The Climate Crisis quotes a page of McEwan as its Epilogue. And of course I’m not a literature critic but a scientist. So don’t expect a detached professional review.

In interviews McEwan describes his difficulties in approaching the topic of climate change: “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with moral intent.”

One solution is that he makes his protagonist who tries to “save the world”, the Nobel laureate physicist Michael Beard, thoroughly pathetic and unlikeable. (Actually quite unlike any scientist I know, but certainly less boring than us at Realclimate.) The only redeeming feature of Beard is his sarcastic humor. When his business partner is worried that claims of global warming having stopped will ruin their grand solar energy scheme, Beard (after expertly refuting the “no warming since 1998″ myth) retorts:

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

This is McEwan’s funniest book. The humour in it is another way around the moral gravity of the subject. In an interview he said:

The thing that would have killed the book for me, I’m sure, is if I’d taken up any sort of moral position, I needed a get-out clause. And the get-out clause is, this is an investigation of human nature, with some of the latitude thrown in by comedy.

Half-way through the novel Beard gives a riveting speech on climate change to an auditorium full of pension-fund managers (representing 400 billion dollars of investments) – a speech that I’d be almost tempted to steal and use verbatim myself at some occasion. But what could have been tedious – a whole lecture embedded in a novel – is turned into a hilarious scene where Beard is engaged in a losing battle with his bowels, trying to continue speaking while swallowing down “a fishy reflux rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile”.

McEwan showing off that he can write such a speech better than a scientist is reminiscent of his novel Enduring Love, to which he appended an entire scientific paper about a psychological disorder (De Clerambault’s Syndrome) that allegedly inspired the book. Later he admitted this “paper” was part of the fiction. He’d even submitted it to a journal, but one of the reviewers smelled a rat.

McEwan’s deep (and often playful) affinity to science is one of the hallmarks of his writing and of course one reason why I like his novels. The other is his stunning power of observation; he seems to be reading people’s minds, cutting right through their delusions to get to the deeper truths. In that, his analytic work as a writer resembles that of a scientist.

McEwan is a forceful rationalist and well-versed in science culture, and his witty observations on that are a big part of the fun of his books. In Solar, for example, he pokes some hilarious fun at the social constructivists. Beard chairs a government committee to bring more women into physics, and a social scientist on his committee introduces herself with a speech on how a particular gene is not discovered by scientists, but is rather a social construct.

Beard had heard rumours that strange ideas were commonplace among liberal arts departments. It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology. He had always thought that this must be a slur against his colleagues on the arts side. The results surely spoke for themselves. Who was going to submit to a vaccine designed by a priest?

This develops into my favourite subplot. At a press conference of his committee, the journalists are “slumped over their recorders and notebooks” and “depressed by the seriousness of their assignment, its scandalous lack of controversy”, as “the whole project was lamentably worthy”. Beard makes some fairly harmless remarks about the efforts of bringing more women into physics perhaps reaching a ceiling one day, because they may have a preference for other branches of science. The social constructivist explodes (“Before I go outside to be sick, and I mean violently sick because of what I’ve just heard, I wish to announce my resignation from Professor Beard’s committee.”) Predictably, that makes the predatory journalists spring to life, and in the following McEwan spins a completely credible story how Beard’s remarks turn into a media storm where Beard’s love life is dragged into the tabloids and his “genetic determinist” views are linked to Third Reich race theories. One journalist, “more in the spirit of playful diary-page spite”, calls him a neo-Nazi.

No one took the charge seriously for a moment, but it became possible for other papers to take up the term even as they dismissed it, carefully bracketing and legalising the insult with quotation marks. Beard became the ‘neo-Nazi’ professor.

McEwan knows what he is writing about: he became subject to a media storm about his Islam-critical views a few years ago. I read Solar in February (thanks to an advance copy that the author had sent me), in parallel with the unfolding surreal, but real-world media campaign against IPCC, and found that McEwan dissects the mechanisms beautifully.

McEwan says that the idea to make a Nobel laureate the main character of his new book came to him in Potsdam, when attending the Nobel Cause Symposium organised by our institute in October 2007 (and on page 179 his hero Beard returns from a conference in Potsdam). At the time I discussed with him whether this wouldn’t be a good topic for a novel: humanity facing an existential threat that is well-understood by its scientists, but largely ignored by a population who prefers to delude itself in creative ways about the gradually unfolding disaster. McEwan responded: everything there is to say about this situation has already been said by Thomas Mann in his novel Death in Venice.

I’m glad he tackled the topic of climate change nevertheless. It’s McEwan at his best. Intelligent, funny, and full of insights. Read for yourself!

Link: Here is McEwan speaking about Solar (and about his views on climate change) in a TV interview.


726 Responses to “Solar”

  1. 1
    Ibrahim says:

    “In my view, it is the responsibility of our entire community to fight this intentional disinformation campaign, which represents an affront to everything we do and believe in.” (Michael Mann 2003)

    [Response: Are we to assume you disagree and therefore approve of deliberate disinformation then? – gavin]

  2. 2
    Kate says:

    I wasn’t planning on reading this book but your review makes me want to – sounds like a fun read that won’t make me cringe anywhere. The antithesis to Michael Crichton. Nicely done.

  3. 3
    ZZT says:

    Will you be reviewing Pachauri’s ‘Return to Almora’?

  4. 4
    David B. Benson says:

    Danke, Stefan.

  5. 5
    Doug Bostrom says:

    ZZT says: 4 May 2010 at 3:44 PM

    Will you be reviewing Pachauri’s ‘Return to Almora’?

    Perhaps it would be better to have a review of Newt Gingrich’s Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less: A Handbook for Slashing Gas Prices and Solving Our Energy Crisis first? For the next edition I understand Newt’s adding a special chapter on how to barbecue over oil-soaked brown pelicans.

  6. 6
    JM says:

    Try to imagine the scenario in which Ibrahim’s quote would be embarrassing, or damaging, to climate science.

    Go on. Try.

  7. 7
    pjclarke says:

    I’m another McEwan fan, and devoured Solar over a couple days. I would endorse everything Stefan says, and encourage people to read it. I would guess that the climate change material contained therein would be familiar to the average RC reader, but nonetheless it works as a good story nonetheless. A lot more lightweight that ‘Saturday’ or ‘Atonement’ which are modren classics IMHO, McEwan denies having written a comic novel, nonetheless the comedic set pieces had me ROFL more than once. Enjoy.

    PS For ZZT: http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/04/leakegate_leake_based_story_re.php

  8. 8
    Gary Bohn says:

    Somewhat off topic:

    Speaking of Michael Mann, I hope he is getting some significant support from non scientists in addition to the support I assume he gets from fellow scientists. I would hate to think the twit brigade could possibly force him into a different line of work.

    More on topic:

    I’m hopeful this book and the coming flood (fingers crossed) of similar books will trigger wide support for climate scientists in general. Their work is essential and is appreciated by many lay-people who voices are unfortunately being drowned out by the rabid mass of deniers.

  9. 9
    Chris Squire [UK] says:

    Re: ‘ . . Actually quite unlike any scientist I know . . ’:

    I agree; I only persisted in order to find to what happened. Why couldn’t McEwan create a protagonist who resembled real scientists? Is it because he can’t imagine such a person or is it that such a person would be too boring to create a fiction about?

    I am scientifically educated but have never worked as a scientist so my opinion is not worth much: what do those who know think?

  10. 10
    ZZT says:

    Clearly, Pachauri has his adherents too.

    Which works of fiction then do people prefer?

    ‘Return to Almora’ or ‘Solar’ ?

  11. 11

    I started writing a novel, “The Silicon-Burning Day,” about an outside scientist warning people in a domed colony around Alnilam (46 Epsilon Orionis) that their sun was about to supernova. Nobody believes him, and the colonists come up with one ridiculous pseudoscience argument after another while time ticks away. But it was too much like real life. I gave up around page 60.

    Oh well, my SF romance “I Will” comes out in paperback this month. Human civilization may well last for decades, so maybe someone will read it.

  12. 12
    A.E. says:

    Doug Bostrom says:
    Perhaps it would be better to have a review of Newt Gingrich’s Drill Here, Drill Now, …

    I assume you mean as another humorous work of fiction.
    A.

  13. 13
    Roger Albin says:

    I rather hope his treatment of climate science in this book is better than his treatment of Huntington disease in Saturday, which was poor. The structure of Saturday was a knockoff of Mrs. Dalloway. Derivative and inaccurate is a poor combination.

  14. 14
    CFU's mentor says:

    #1
    benefit of doubt? – nah
    #2
    we certainly don’t want you to suffer
    #3
    very funny indeed
    #4
    yes vielen dank indeed
    #5
    only funny once
    #6
    you got me
    #7
    eventually everything comes down to sex
    #8
    MM gets plenty of support- even from mcIntyre – must be a conspiracy
    #9
    good boy – if you stay humble enough nobody will beat up on you

  15. 15
    Shirley says:

    I wouldn’t have had any interest in this book (just not big on fiction much these days, too busy with research) but it sounds kind of Vonnegut-esque and worth reading for being offbeat and scientific. Maybe it will be the first book I buy for my Kindle which isn’t open access or costs more than .99 cents ;) So far, I’ve just used it for reading required PDFs and open source stuff like Nikola Tesla’s and other early 19th century science writings.

  16. 16
    Russell Seitz says:

    What a novel–orange-colored cheese dipped in batter, rolled in breadcrumbs and salt, and deep-fried, with a creamy dip of pale green.

    If only o few lawyers were fed to reptiles in its pages, it might have the makings of a PBS special.

  17. 17
    Thomas says:

    Like Kate at 3, you sold me on the Novel, perhaps I will visit Barnes and Nobel this weekend -hopefully its not too early.

    Off topic. I started some speculative angst on another blog by speculating about the effects of the oil spill on Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures. The proposed mechanism is, a thin layer of oil inhibits evaporation, and the underlying water can then heat up anomalously -as it is no longer losing latent heat via evaporation. So, if the oil sheen is extensive enough long enough you might get two effects. One is lower humidities, and the other is an anomalously warm upper ocean. The first effect would suppress hurricanes, but the later might provide them with high octane fuel. So the question naturally arises: “Is this something that can happen? Or is the effect too small, and or the sea state breaks up oil films or whatever that there is nothing to worry about?”. There was a much larger spill in the Gulf (Ixtoc-1) June 79 to March 80 (Bay of Campeche), and I don’t think there were outsized hurricanes. Perhaps the people at RC can make some intelligent comments about this speculation.

  18. 18
    Mark A. York says:

    I worried that McEwan made light of the subject too much and thus play into the sceptic hands. I may be wrong. I now have two global warming novels. They’re not satires but techno-thrillers where the characters are faced with the consequences of global warming and politically connected militant deniers who stop at nothing, including murder, to stop the general acceptance of the culprit: carbon. People as a whole are averse to change, yet throughout history change has created new frontiers of advancement. Such is the case here too. I show it happening. Stay tuned.

  19. 19
    Gareth says:

    See also Bryan Walker’s review in Hot Topic’s burgeoning climate book section

    I’ve been reading McEwan since his first two collections of short stories, and generally find much to enjoy in any of his novels. He really is an excellent writer – worth reading purely for the way he puts words and ideas together. Solar is, I think, not among his most successful works: slapstick with a message is a very difficult thing to pull off, rarely done well since Tom Sharpe’s early South African comedies. Solar is well worth reading, but a bit like the latest CD from a long time favourite – Elvis Costello springs to mind – there are always songs worth listening to, but seldom anything that really fires the imagination in the way of earlier works.

    Of course, I look forward to Ian reviewing my new warming-influenced satire, if I ever finish the damn thing. My hero’s stuck in Thule at the moment, with a long trip ahead of him.

  20. 20
    Ron says:

    Like Stefan I am an Ian McEwen fan and thoroughly enjoyed Solar. Whilst the background of the novel is climate change it really is, as the author says in the quote above, about human nature. In a sense it is the literary equivalent of Mike Hulme’s book “Why we disagree about climate change”. It is an examination of the motives and beliefs which drive our actions rather than about the science behind, or consequences of, climate change.

    Kate suggested it might be a “cringe-free” antithesis to Michael Crichton’s climate of fear. This is only true in so far as it is balanced – he lampoons advocates on both sides of the debate: Crichton had all the good guys on one side only. Depending on your view of climate change I can’t guarantee that it won’t make you cringe.

    Ian McEwen is not only one Britain’s leading novelists he is also one of the most perceptive. If you want to understand how a member of the liberal intelligentsia views the posturing and debate around climate change read this novel.

  21. 21
    Steven Sullivan says:

    I tend to love McEwan’s stories and books, but I’m slightly leery of ‘Solar’ as it’s been getting some of the least ‘stellar’ reviews of his career, e.g, the vivisection in the NY Times Book Review by Walter Kirn a couple of weeks back

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/books/review/Kirn-t.html

    Still, I’ll probably read it. McEwan has never totally disappointed me.

  22. 22
    Ibrahim says:

    “Are we to assume you disagree and therefore approve of deliberate disinformation then?”

    How could I not be (part of) “we” Gavin?

  23. 23
    Andy S says:

    I’ll second Gareth’s assessment @19. I always enjoy McEwan but the plot contrivances seemed a little clunky in this novel. The satire was very reminiscent of David Lodge’s style. And, yes, if only there were a Tom Sharpe writing about climate…

    There’s a good review in the Times Literary Supplement.

  24. 24

    The problem of science as a belief system also came up briefly at the EGU session “To what extent do humans impact the Earth’s climate?”.

    Science, unlike mathematics, is a belief system. When one of its beliefs is overturned then you get a what Khun called a paradigm shift. Because scientists believe that science is not a belief system, they feel superior to the ordinary Joe Bloggs, which makes it very difficult for them to get their views across to the general public.

    Older people know that in the 1970’s some scientists believed that another ice age was imminent. Denial of the idea that scientists can be wrong only leads to distrust of them by general public.

    Cheers, Alastair.

    [Response: No. Distrust is fed by people creating strawman caricatures of science and knocking them down with feathers all the while claiming that science is some monolithic single-minded dogma. No-one here has ever claimed that ‘scientists can’t be wrong’ or that no scientist ever thought an ice age was imminent in the 1970s. Indeed, George Kukla stills thinks it’s imminent (and he is as wrong now as he was then). The claim being objected to is that there was some huge consensus of scientists who believed that – this is false and has been demonstrated clearly. – gavin]

  25. 25
    J Bowers says:

    #3 ZZT says: “Will you be reviewing Pachauri’s ‘Return to Almora’?”

    I believe the next fiction review is Ian Plimer’s Heaven & Earth. Here it is: “He got his own name right. The End.”

  26. 26
    MalcolmT says:

    McEwan is interviewed about Solar in a recent New Scientist but manages to say very little about the science. Reviews of the book that I’ve seen in newspapers’ literary pages have generally been tepid at best – but you should take my lack of enthusiasm with the fair warning that I’m not a McEwan fan.
    #18 Mark, when you say you now ‘have two global warming novels’ do you mean ‘have written’ or ‘am about to read’? If the former, congratulations. If the latter, why only two? There are quite a few around.

  27. 27
    Foobear says:

    Has Solar suddenly become cost effective, then? Has the Sierra Club stopped suing companies trying to build solar plants in the desert?

    Spoilers, please.

  28. 28
    Margaret says:

    I’m also a McEwan fan, having been assiduously reading his work since his short story days.

    Interestingly, I think that short stories remain his forte, even in his novels. So often, his novels contain beautifully crafted “set pieces” that could stand alone, magnificent gems of narrative and characterisation. There are quite a few in this novel. It’s occurred to me that the artistic success of his novels tends to rely on whether he successfully contextualises those short stories into a whole. Of his recent works, “On Chesil Beach” is an example of him effectively synthesising the disparate into the cohesive. Perhaps that it was essentially a novella helped in this respect.

    Much as I enjoyed “Solar”, I don’t think he succeeded as well in this as he did in some other novels. Nevertheless, like others I enjoyed the satire a great deal, particularly the jibes at post-modernist academics. Recently, I heard an interview with McEwan in which he mentioned having discovered that it is held, in some quarters, that a gene isn’t really any form of physical entity. It is entirely a subjective construct. His son is a geneticist, so McEwan knows more than a little about the subject (he is, of course, wonderfully well-informed on a range of the sciences), and was rightly gobsmacked. I’m glad he managed to work his outrage so neatly into this work.

  29. 29
    Ray Ladbury says:

    My prediction: Denialists will think it’s real (well, except for the sciencey bits) and Ken the Cooch will subpoena every piece of paper Michael Beard ever touched.

  30. 30

    For #17: Save your angst for another day! Oil or petroleum leaks in the Gulf are nothing new. I was a Hurricane Hunter with the US Navy and there wasn’t a flight I was on from 1968 through 1970 that I didn’t see an “oil slick or sheen” in the Gulf. The major problem ( and IT IS major ) is the impact on the estuaries and coastal shore habitats. To consider this oil spill having ANY effect on “hurricanes”, or for that matter climate change ( in my humble opinion ) is as probable as Mr. McEwan winning a Nobel for his science in “Solar”, no matter how good a read ( and I believe it is! ).

  31. 31
    Pr says:

    I laughed about the commentary on social constructivism. It reminded me of one denier who appealed to Foucault, and then had a serious freakout when I called him an “English lit undergrad.” Good times!

  32. 32
    CM says:

    It was said that humanities students were routinely taught that science was just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology. He had always thought that this must be a slur against his colleagues on the arts side.

    And a slur it is, in my experience as a student/colleague/teacher in the humanities. I realize there are odd fringes of social theory where such things are claimed, but I think the Sokal hoax, and literary caricatures like McEwan’s* have contributed to a stereotype in which few of us would recognize ourselves. Even those of us who do subscribe to social constructivism – but hopefully understand that tool better and wield it more rigorously than McEwan’s character. Sorry, after reading comments on this site for a while, I needed to get that off my chest.

    * SF writer Greg Egan, a favorite of mine, lays it on particularly thick in Teranesia.

  33. 33
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “How could I not be (part of) “we” Gavin?”

    Ever hear od the Royal “we”?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majestic_plural

    Gavin was asking are you for or against?

    You haven’t answered.

  34. 34
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    The review in the NYTimes seems to be a review of a lot of McEwan’s recent fiction. Earnest, well-made, and uninspiring. Like Atonement. I prefer his slightly crazed stuff like The Cement Garden or The Child in Time which, McEwan has said, seem false to him and calculated. Maybe he should have Wilde’s dictum put above his writing desk, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” As readers of fiction we want the good to be punished and the wicked to emerge unscathed.

  35. 35
    Alastair McDonald says:

    Gavin,

    The claim is not “that there was some huge consensus of scientists who believed that [an ice age was imminent in the 1970s]”. The claim is that scientists were warning that an ice age was imminent in the 1970s. It is Peterson et al. who set up the strawman of a consensus, then dismiss it as a myth.

    But the point I am trying to make is that scientists believe that science is not, and in fact is better than, a belief system. This handicaps them in two ways. First they feel superior to ordinary mortals. Second, they think that they can win arguments with logic. Until it is realised that it is a matter of altering the belief systems of the public, rather than just giving them the facts, then there is little hope of getting the public to push the politicians into action.

    But it will take more than a few lines on a blog from me to change your belief that science is not just another belief system.

    Cheers, Alastair.

  36. 36
    William Freimuth says:

    Interesting dialogue here, likely leads me to read, ‘Solar’. Suspect though, my typical dislike of fiction will result in more of the same.

    34’s final comments are especially cynical. Only a psuedo intellectual would want the wicked to be unscathed.

    What is at stake in the Climate Crisis far surpasses literary and especially journalistic abilities. If those were up to half the speed of the Science we’d all be busy doing the right things.
    Sincerely

  37. 37
    Laurie says:

    “Ever hear od the Royal “we”? (sic)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majestic_plural

    Are you implying Gavin is the equivalent of a monarch, bishop, or pope or holding a similar high office as he refers to himself as “we”?

    [Response: Don’t be daft. ‘We’ was the collective audience for Ibrahim’s point. – gavin]

  38. 38
    Bryson Brown says:

    “(J)ust another belief system”– well, not so much. There are lots of different systems of beliefs, but science includes reliable processes for refining and changing beliefs. It also includes standards of effectiveness that require real application via independent observational procedures. Like common sense beliefs about the empirical world, science translates straightforwardly and is intersubjectively testable; unlike common sense beliefs, science has refined its concepts to extend their precision, predictive power and range of applicability. communicating this to the public is a real challenge- especially when wealthy interests and their political supporters are trying to undermine what science has to say. But beginning with a slogan that equates science (and common sense) with religion or vaccination denial as a mere ‘belief system’ no better than any other is just a mistake.

  39. 39
    SecularAnimist says:

    Alastair McDonald wrote: “… scientists believe that science is not, and in fact is better than, a belief system.”

    Science is not a “belief system”. Science is a system for developing the ability to successfully predict the results of observations, typically by using “theories”, which are conceptual, linguistic and/or mathematical “models” of experience. It requires no beliefs.

    Having said that, I have on occasion encountered scientists who mistake their beliefs for science, or who mistakenly believe that science requires certain beliefs.

  40. 40
    cloneof says:

    Now this is all nice and everything, but when will Real Climate tackle Roy Spencer’s latest “The Great Global Warming Blunder”?

    I would love to see a good word or two from the Real Climate about this piece of a “science literature” that is going to propably make into a bestseller by denialists standards.

    [Response: I read the first chapter at Amazon and….. well, it’s not logically very sound. He assumes that the only constraints on climate sensitivity are found from radiation measurements in the modern period (which is not even close to true – see Annan and Hargreaves (2006) for instance). Then asserts (with no evidence) that natural variability is not considered by other scientists (again something that is patently false), and finally declares that his upcoming super-secret paper will unequivocally prove that sensitivity is negligible (all the while ignoring the plentiful evidence from the paleo record – particularly the ice ages – that it can’t be). Bestsellers do not good science make. – gavin]

  41. 41

    Props to “CFU’s mentor” at 14. I had nothing to do with it — honest!

    I almost never read fiction because it’s far more boring than reality. But the bit about “When his business partner is worried that claims of global warming having stopped will ruin their grand solar energy scheme,” is personal — the people who are buying solar because of global warming have all drunk the Kool-Aid. And the people buying solar because of the End Of Civilization As We Know It never bought the “global warming” thing. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out ;)

    Thanks for posting about it!

  42. 42
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “The claim is that scientists were warning that an ice age was imminent in the 1970s. It is Peterson et al. who set up the strawman of a consensus, then dismiss it as a myth.”

    There are scientists who say that Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden with a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus Rex.

    This doesn’t mean that the consensus of Evolution is falsified.

    So, given that, what is the POINT of saying “in the 70’s scientists said there was an imminent Ice Age”? You’re far more correct saying “in the 70’s scientists said there was global warming”.

    And isn’t that half-truth a far more egregious version of the “errors” that AIT is slated for as “absolutely destroying the movie”?

    Yet you seem fine with something much worse.

    After all, all Gore left out was when it was thought a 20m rise would happen. But there’s no need to say when it happens if you want to display what a 20m sea rise looks like.

    So your defense of that should indicate that AIT is absolutely scrumptious.

  43. 43
    Mal Adapted says:

    Alastair:

    But the point I am trying to make is that scientists believe that science is not, and in fact is better than, a belief system. This handicaps them in two ways. First they feel superior to ordinary mortals. Second, they think that they can win arguments with logic. Until it is realised that it is a matter of altering the belief systems of the public, rather than just giving them the facts, then there is little hope of getting the public to push the politicians into action.

    OK, science is a belief system. Is it “just another” belief system? Feynman famously said “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first rule of science is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Do you know of another belief system whose first rule is that you must not fool yourself, Alastair?

    I’m not saying that scientists never fool themselves, just that the honest ones try not to. People who deny science, OTOH, do so because it conflicts with their other beliefs, and resent it strongly when a scientist asks them how they know they’re not fooling themselves. How are scientists to overcome that?

  44. 44
    Gordon Cutler says:

    #35 Alisdair McD–

    Suggest you peruse the Open University listings for courses in Korzybski and General Semantics. Some study in that area might assist you the way it did me. To paraphrase K’s best known dictum, rhetoric is not reality.

    Even though I may believe my assertions are true, that does not mean that they really are. Even if I can persuade others of their truth that does not mean they are more likely to be true. I’ve done both and been very wrong and felt more than a little foolish.

    You are making a philosophical argument leavened with a dash of pop sociology in a climate science blog.

    You are also trapped in a category mistake; in effect, confusing science and scientists with theology and theologians as it were. Although there is sometimes an overlapping of behaviors, the former are anchored in an empirical engagement with the real world and the hard sciences while the latter… Well, what can one say?

    You’d be on more solid ground, and be performing a sorely needed public service in the process, if you took your rhetoric and engaged with the ‘Intelligent’ Design or Young Earth crowds. Or you could take on the proponents of Papal infallibility. That would be a public service indeed, and on a global scale to boot.

    Regards–

  45. 45

    Foobear @ 27:

    Has Solar suddenly become cost effective, then? Has the Sierra Club stopped suing companies trying to build solar plants in the desert?

    Spoilers, please.

    It depends on where you live and what you want to do.

    Very large commercial installations that can get the utilities to Play Nice are cost effective now — economies of scale work very well and systems can be designed to offset on-site power and avoid feed-in tariff issues.

    Residential systems are cost effective based on the rate the utilities pay for feed-in power (that’s the power you put back). Where I live, straight grid-tie, no battery backup, is something between a 7 and 14 year payback on systems that should last 25 years or more. That’s ignoring incentives and tax credits.

    At typical Texas retail rates, not having solar power becomes stupid when solar reaches about $4 per watt installed. With the current price at $6 per watt, and a 30% Federal Tax Credit, it’s almost stupid not to install solar. Not quite completely stupid, but getting there really fast. I wouldn’t build a new home without it. Definitely go the crazy energy conservation route, but also definitely put up a couple of kilowatts of solar.

  46. 46
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Props to “CFU’s mentor” at 14. I had nothing to do with it — honest!”

    Props for what?

    Imitating badly?

  47. 47
    SecularAnimist says:

    Mal Adapted wrote: “Do you know of another belief system whose first rule is that you must not fool yourself …”

    Buddhism — which regards delusion as the root cause of suffering.

    Although I would argue that Buddhism, like science, is not a “belief system”.

  48. 48
    Doug Bostrom says:

    FurryCatHerder says: 5 May 2010 at 11:42 AM

    Awwwark! Never forget DHW (domestic hot water)!

    There’s no sense producing electricity at $6/watt, dumping watthours into heating water when you can obtain the same joules for 1/10th the cost and obtain the same result. Hot water is energy of the lowest order, technologically deadly dull but at the end of the day a joule does not care how it is captured and goes in or out of your wallet regardless.

    Solar DHW is not an energy panacea but DHW is a significant portion of home energy use, second only to refrigeration as a lump consumption component. Just don’t make the mistake of insisting on achieving finish temperatures in w/solar, instead remember that heating water 40 degrees via sunlight and then letting conventional sources do the last 20 degrees is a big win and makes the economics even more attractive. That lower metric of success also allows operation even during some inclement weather making the financial advantages even better.

    Storage is easy, too, no invention required. What’s not to like?

    Awwrk. Sorry, the drum I beat monotonously…

  49. 49
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Adding to my previous, I have to say it’s incredibly irritating seeing PV panels being put on houses here in Seattle w/no solar hot water panels in sight. Completely backwards.

  50. 50
    JM says:

    First they feel superior to ordinary mortals.

    You might want to poll them on that, but I would suspect that climate scientists might feel superior to denialists specifically, if only because ignorance and dishonesty aren’t generally regarded as desirable traits.


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