Are there only opinions about reality, that we can only trade insults about, or is it possible to refer to independent, or 'objective' correlations for those opinions, which can be what they're based on, and be tested?
The debate on whether modern climate change is caused by human behaviour or due to natural cycles is for some highly emotive, because a great deal of vested interest and money depends on the outcome*.
The sceptics can be divided into two camps: those who base their arguments on a good and transparent understanding of the science and economics; and those who don't, instead attacking the proponents on personal grounds. And they do get extremely vituperative.
I recently collaborated in an elaborate hoax - called "a spoof that puts the fun back into lying about science" by desmogblog - that was intended to smoke out the latter sort. It was so successful it was syndicated across 600 radio stations in the US.
A client wrote a fake paper, purporting to 'prove' that rather than fossil fuel burning it was the previously undetected emissions from undersea bacteria which were responsible for the last 140 years' increase in atmospheric concentrations.
We said it was from a fake 'Journal of Geoclimatic Studies', based at a fake Institute of Geoclimatic Studies at Okinawa University, in Japan. We had a fake Editorial Board, back issues, editorial and other papers.
The 4000 word paper itself, Carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria: the death of manmade global warming theory? contained graphs and numerous references, and was launched on its own website late afternoon on 7 November. (It has since been taken down.)
Within a few hours, the blogosphere was ablaze with the news, and a number of bloggers fell for the scam. However, we had deliberately made it fairly transparent, and easy to see that it was not a genuine paper. After all, a simple 'whois' look-up revealed my name as the domain owner, and Googling the contributors or the institution drew a blank.
I took several calls from Science magazine, Nature, and Reuters news agency. These were genuinely interested in the process and I passed on their contact details to the writer.
Well-known sceptic Benny Peiser posted the paper to his discussion group, but an hour later (to his credit) sent a second message saying that it appears he was duped. Neil Craig at 'A Place to Stand' said "this paper could not be more damaging to manmade global warming theory".
'Reason Magazine' posted the story and then tore it down, as did quite a few others.
More interesting were the personal emails we got, ranging from the congratulatory to the insulting, including this one from journalist and environmental health campaigner Theo Richel: "Usually we skeptics are accused of deliberately causing confusion, now we catch you doing it. Bit like what Michael Crichton predicted in his Climate of Fear, environmentalists would do. Great visionary skeptic that man. So I’ll gladly keep you as an example of the journalists who need fiction to prove their point. And then fail."
I happen to think Theo is a reasonable man. He, like me, believes, that we need sound scientific evidence on which to base policy. He, like me, is sceptical of some of the claims of the environmental movement, who do often exaggerate and scare. I have personal experience of this having been at the heart of the MMR vaccine debate, where I presented the balanced viewpoint on the Department of health's immunisation website as its editor. He, like me, thinks that policy should be made on the basis of proper risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis (return on investment), if we are to deal with real-world economic choices.
We'll have to agree to differ on our attitude to Michael Crichton.
But I'm a satirist, and a fiction writer by trade as well as a journalist. (And, yes, I can tell the difference.) Sometimes fiction and satire can reach places facts alone can't - in the right context. Whether we can be said to have failed depends on what we set out to achieve.
For me, the point is that entrenched opinions lead to trading insults and a lack of self-critical rigour when it comes to examining the facts - the basis of the argument.
What the hoax showed is that there are many people willing to jump on anything that supports their argument, whether it's true or not.
What we wanted to emphasise is that it's necessary to achieve scientific validity using the peer-review model. Proper climate science makes every attempt to do this, and is a constantly evolving and self-refining process, as all science is.
So, when commentator posted on my blog - sarcastically - "....And we do all have to go with the "scientific consensus" don't we?" - I can only say, if we haven't got the scientific consensus then what have we got?
*However I am always surprised why this is the case. Regardless of what is the cause of global warming, most agree that it is occurring. So whether human beings caused it or not, it still needs to be minimised and adapted to.