A scientist/professor’s assertion that politics, rather than science, motivates most skeptics leads to an e-mail exchange … and then to the seemingly inevitable ad hominem criticism.

What appeared to get the goat of the U.K.-based* retired-banker-turned-climate-“skeptic” is the American scientist’s statement that most of those people dismissing climate change do so “for ideological or political reasons, not for scientific reasons.”

The quote, attributed to Colorado State Atmospheric Science Professor Scott Denning and taken from a Yale Forum post April 5, is not in question. Denning stands by it and says that he has had talks “with literally thousands of people who don’t ‘believe’ in climate change …. Nearly all of them have been opposed almost entirely on ideological rather than scientific grounds.”

“This is not hearsay,” Denning wrote in an e-mail to Douglas J. Keenan of London. “It’s simply been my personal experience.”

Denning was responding to an e-mail Keenan had sent to Denning and to the publisher of The Yale Forum. In that e-mail, Keenan pointed to an op-ed piece he had published on April 5, 2011, in The Wall Street Journal. He pointed in particular to the Journal‘s subhead for the “How Scientific is Climate Science?” op-ed piece: “What is arguably the most important reason to doubt global warming can be explained in plain English.”

For his part, Denning was having no part of it. He acknowledged that some who reject the dominant views “have specific scientific objections to scientific results on climate,” but said he finds each individual person’s objections “to be rather idiosyncratic.” Keenan’s own arguments, based on autoregression in timeseries amount not to a “unified ‘contrarian’ critique of mainstream of science,” but rather, like other such contrarian objections, amount to “merely a thousand tiny details without a theme other than anger.”

Denning wrote that Keenan, in his Journal column, had picked “a tiny issue (autoregression in timescales analysis) and analyze[d] it in detail, giving the false impression that this is somehow an important objection to mainstream science.

“The false premise is that concerns about future warming are based on extrapolation of recent trends,” Denning wrote. “This is certainly not the case, as the mainstream science is based on laboratory spectroscopy of CO2 gas that is backed up by 150 years of experimental data!”

Denning’s advice to Keenan? “Spend some time really listening to scientists, as I’ve spent countless hours listening to contrarians. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, and I’m sure you could broaden your horizons as well!”

It was now Keenan’s turn at having no part of it. And he wasn’t. Denning’s reference to a “tiny issue,” Keenan wrote, “is untrue and you know it to be untrue.” He objected also to Denning’s point that “CO2 molecules emit heat,” making warming substantial. “You know all this,” he reprimanded after making several additional points.

Honesty … and Fallibility

And then the zinger, Keenan’s closing line: “I previously wondered if you were dishonest or just confused. I no longer wonder about that: your reply is substantively dishonest.”

So much for civility? Denning on April 9 wrote back: “If you wish to be taken seriously, please keep your correspondence respectful. I don’t claim to be infallible, but I assure you I am not dishonest …. I am more than willing to listen and discuss, but I am not interested in trading insults.”

He wrote that concerns over CO2 emitted from burning of fossil fuels are based “on very simple physics, not on rising temperatures or timeseries analysis.”

“It is perfectly reasonable to ask how sensitive (in degrees Celsius) the Earth’s climate is to changes in heating (in Watts),” Denning wrote. “But it seems disingenuous to assert that heat doesn’t change temperature. Everyday experience with teapots, hands, and feet refute such a claim.”

After further laying-out his science-based convictions, Denning concluded his e-mail by saying:

Personally, I believe in capitalism, freedom, and the power of market incentives to drive innovation. I’d be interested in your thoughts about how these principles might best be used to provide a decent standard of living for billions of people without dramatic changes to the energy balance of the Earth’s surface.

To be continued? Stay tuned. But, if so, hopefully in the tone of civility and mutual respect that can inform, rather than inflame.

* This adjective lightly edited 4/12/2012.

Topics: Policy & Politics