Friday, December 20, 2019

Why we are Running Toward the Cliff at Full Speed: One of the Reasons is that People Never Change their Mind.

Below, you'll find a report on a televised debate on climate change of a few days ago, in Italy, in which I participated. Probably, you won't be familiar with some of the names and the events mentioned, yet, I thought you might found this story interesting enough to be reported in English. After all, there have to be reasons why the famous letter of the 500 (so-called) scientists who claimed to refute climate science had its origins in Italy. What the reasons for the strength of the anti-science movement in Italy is difficult to say, but it is true that Italians tend to be a little extreme when they debate. The story below is surely a good example of that. But it was interesting and, in a certain sense, even fun. The same kind of fun you have when you watch a horror movie. The difference is that, here, the characters were real people. Here is the story, translated and slightly adapted from my Italian blog. (UB). 

Years ago, one of my acquaintances told me the story of when he had ended up in jail accused of various financial crimes (but it was a political trap - I'm sure). He told me that he had a very interesting experience: among other things, in Sollicciano (the penitentiary of Florence) the inmates make excellent cheese.

Now, I don't know if I'd like to go to jail just for the sake of an experience - or maybe for some cheese. But maybe I had in mind something like that when, a few days ago, I agreed to participate in a televised debate in a TV program called "Byoblu" conducted by Claudio Messora.
You can find the registration here (in Italian). I think it can be seen as an illustration of something that Benito Mussolini said long ago, "Many enemies, much honor" (molti nemici, molto onore). In English, you might say: "it is good to be surrounded, now we can counterattack in all directions!"

In the debate, I certainly was surrounded by many enemies: a nice selection of representatives of the Italian anti-science: Franco Battaglia, Uberto Crescenti, and Enzo Pennetta. And that makes three against one. In addition, the conductor showed an old clip of the Nobel prize Carlo Rubbia where he engages in a rant against climate science (and that makes four against one). The moderator, Messora, was clearly biased, too, often using terms such as "catastrophists" and "alarmists", but his associate who collaborated in the moderation, was anti-science in a truly shameful way. There was also my colleague Marco Rosa-Clot, who is a serious and competent person, but who is not convinced of the human effect on climate. So he was not really an ally. In short, 6 against 1.

How did I get into that? I don't know - maybe I imagined myself being a samurai in a movie who takes out five or six enemies, one after the other, with a series of sword strokes. That turned out to be not so easy for me. Anyway, let me tell you how it went.

So, first of all, it wasn't difficult to manage Crescenti - a geologist with good academic credentials but with zero understanding of climate science. I was sorry to make him look like a grumpy old man who complains about everything, but that is his level.

As for Pennetta, he is someone interested in esotericism, UFOs and stuff like that, occasionally trying to criticize climate science. Let's say that it is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Here, he literally put his head on the block in front of me, making the mistake of attacking me on a field in which he is not familiar, that of the pretended "wrong predictions of the Club of Rome." He ended up mangled by his own crap.

Then, there was the clip of the Nobel prize Rubbia - the famous one of 2014 in which he strings together a series of climate howlers that could make a wild dog run away in disgust. Here, too, it was fairly easy to manage him by pointing out how he himself had said at the end of the clip that CO2 emissions had to be reduced. My colleague Rosa Clot also gave me a hand on this.

As for Messora's minion, he had the courage to ask me if I was part of an esoteric Gnostic sect that hates humankind (it's true! You can find it in the clip). It didn't help him to win the debate.

And we come to Franco Battaglia. Here, things did not go so well for me. Battaglia was very clever: he knew that if he had used some of his typical climate arguments, such as the "tropospheric hot spot" or the "small candle in the room", I would have torn him to pieces. Instead, he used an intelligent technique, attacking from an unexpected direction. He pulled out a statement by a European politician and asked me if I agreed that 300 billion euros were enough to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050. And he asked the question with the request "answer yes or no. "

Now, this kind of tactic ("answer yes or no") is often very effective in debates. The user gets to position himself as a leader in the debate and he puts the opponent in difficulty if he falls into the trap. In this case, if I had answered yes, Battaglia would have replied with his usual rigmarole "now let's do some arithmetic" to show me that I was wrong. If I said no, he would have said, "then you agree with me." and onward with the rigmarole.

When confronted with "answer yes or no," the best thing is to react creatively. I could have answered Battaglia with something like, "I will only answer if you promise to answer yes or no to my question" and then ask him if he is paid by the Heartland Institute (this is a big weakness for him). Instead, I must confess that Battaglia took me by surprise. I reacted by counterattacking, and that allowed him to say, gloating, "Bardi refuses to answer." On this exchange, I have to say that he won. It was Rosa Clot who answered the question: he is a solid specialist in photovoltaic energy expert and he quietly demolished Battaglia's arguments. The rest of the debate was not especially interesting. 

Overall, I think I was quite effective, you can see it from the hundreds of angry comments that arrived: all against me and against climate science. It means that I hit hard enough. And now, let's see if we can learn something from this experience.

1. First, the scientific level of climate science critics is abysmally low. If you like to win easy, I suggest you discuss with people like Crescenti or Pennetta. Besides understanding nothing about climate science, they are also scarce as debaters. Think of something like Conan the Barbarian who faces an overweight accountant from Duluth (MN) in a duel.

2. The above is valid only if you can have room to argue and assert your point of view. If the moderator leaves no space for you, it is a different story. Typically, in a televised debate, the moderator can simply cut you off if you don't say the things you are supposed to say. And then you are silenced: it happened to me at least two times in debates on the Italian state TV. So beware: in these things, there are dirty tricks. Not even Conan can win if you give him a cardboard sword and tie his shoestrings together.

3. As I said in other posts, the scientific climate debate has now disappeared. It has completely morphed into a political debate. This means that it doesn't matter whether you can demolish your opponent with scientific arguments, the public will still split into factions depending on their ideological position. This is normal: when one watches a football game, he cheers for his team, not for the team that plays better. And so, have no illusions that you can convince anyone using scientific arguments. 

4. The political debate follows very different rules from the scientific debate. In politics, blows below the belt, insults, personal attacks, lies, half-truths, and the like are allowed. It is total war: you don't use the rapier but the mace. You have to be very careful and be prepared to answer even nasty questions. It is not obvious that someone who is not a politician or a journalist can stand up to the professionals. One tactic successfully used by the Italian climate scientist Stefano Caserini consists of defining strict rules before the debate. But it doesn't always work.

5. A debate of an hour and a half like the one I told you about sucks so much psychic energy that it leaves you dazzled for a couple of hours and it takes a whole day to recover. And don't read the comments you receive, you risk depression. Let's say it's a bit like going to see a horror movie - you're happy when it ends and you feel relieved because it was just fantasy. Except that the people you meet in these debates are real!

And now some final considerations. Is it worth engaging in such debates? Honestly, I'm not sure of the answer. Wouldn't it be better to simply ignore these people? Perhaps yes, certainly for people like Crescenti the principle of sitting by the river applies. But it is also true that people like Franco Battaglia are proving to be very dangerous. Battaglia knows nothing about climate science, but he understands a great deal about how communication works. He is a very intelligent man who uses all the tactics and tricks of the trade and he is very effective, especially with a less experienced and more easily influenced audience. That's his specific target, on this he learned from a true master: Silvio Berlusconi.

The problem is that Battaglia is gaining visibility in Italy as a regular contributor to Nicola Porro's blog on "Il Giornale," a major Italian right-wing newspaper. And that's no good. I believe we should strive to counteract these people in the media, not just on high-quality scientific sites. The debate is becoming tighter and harder: it is all about our survival. We should try to engage more and more directly the forces of the anti-science. 

As a last note, I wanted to thank Claudio Messora for inviting me to this debate. In a sense, he had set up a trap for me, but it is also true that he was honest by telling me first who the other participants were (apart from the gnostic esoterism guy but that, well, it was OK). Then, he promised me that he would give me space in the debate and he did exactly that. And that was good. We remain in good terms with each other and we are discussing about a new debate, one of these days.  


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)