Lives of the Climate Bloggers (3): Robert E. Phelan

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ctpost/obituary.aspx?n=Robert-Phelan&pid=159079832#fb

“Robert E. Phelan, Jr., age 63, of West Haven, CT passed away on August 10, 2012. […] Robert graduated from Notre Dame High school and continued his education at Providence College and Indiana University where he received two masters’ degrees. He taught in Taiwan […] and most recently the University of New Haven. Robert was a researcher and moderator for a global group on climate change called Wattsupwiththat. He will be remembered for his brilliant mind, intelligence but more than anything being a loving husband, father, son, brother and friend to those who knew him.”

There are moving  tributes to him by Anthony Watts and by many commenters at

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/08/10/announcement-robert-phelan-wuwt-moderator-has-died/

He had this to say about himself in a comment on the BishopHill readership survey

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/5/30/who-are-you.html#comments

“.. I’m a sociologist, forgive me. American, mid 60’s, curently teaching sociology at the university level; previously designed, wrote and implemented process manufacturing software; before that lived in the ROC [Republic of China = Taiwan] and did lots of stuff (magazine writing, private investigating, sourcing, teaching). I suspect I’m an odd duck here… I’m a firm believer in “constructed reality” and the notion of “cultural cognition” (i.e. we see things as we are taught to see them) and that science is NOT a reflection of reality, rather it is a Euro-Aryan linguistic conceit. A person’s science is not separate from his view of the nature of the world, man and reality. Empiricism is important, but empirical facts never just speak for themselves, they need to be interpreted thorugh a cultural and ideological lens. The bottom line? The warmists literally do not live in the same world we do, share the same reality. They can look at the same facts as we do and come to entirely different, self-evident conclusions.”

Phelan expanded on his somewhat jaundiced view of human rationality in this comment about Professor Phil Jones’ very partial mea culpa at

 http://www.carlineconomics.com/archives/799

“I’m not entirely sure that more reflection will give Dr. Jones a more objective view of Climate Science…. or any of us, for that matter. The notion that “facts speak for themselves” is an illusion. Facts are always filtered through multiple, polarizing lenses that ultimately seem to give a coherent world view. The exact same facts can be used to support radically different views of reality… and the various approaches to those views can coalesce…. religion, politics, literature, economic advantage…. all can come together to support a particular vision of reality. I suspect that Dr. Jones is conceding what he must and no more. I think very few of us could survive Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Cognitive dissonance is excruciating.”

He was devastatingly critical about “liberals” (which we British should probably translate as “socialists”) for example here at

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/03/23/brains-brains/

Where he quotes commenter Joyce who said: “This puzzles many climate scientists, but not social scientists, whose research suggests that facts may not be as important as one’s beliefs,” and adds:

“As a social scientist I am not surprised at all. Progressive liberals are a demonstration of the correctness of that statement. They perceive man as evil, ignorant, greedy and destructive and, by God, that’s what their research proves…. much as every extreme weather event, hot, cold, wet, dry, flood or drought proves AGW.”

But he could be just as scathing of the right-wing élite, as here at

http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2011/8/13/durkin-blogs.html

“For a long time I’ve been very sure that CAGW was an elitest gambit, but it is only one such. We’ve had an on-going economic crisis, but the economic elite prospers. You sometimes hear about an education crisis (remember, George Bush’s intention was to become the “education president” before 9/11 sidetracked him) – but elite children go to private schools and generally do just fine…. you see, they are being trained in the liberal arts rather than in something “useful”. The “immigration crisis”, the “drug crisis”, the “terrorism crisis”… through it all, the elite which, has ensconced itself in government bureaucracy, academia, the media and the corporate world, has prospered. The answer to every crisis is legislation, rules and restrictions which have always been the pet causes of some special interest group or other and now are, oh so presciently, the solution to our crisis-du-jour. I think it was Saul Alinsky who said ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’….”

He was true to the social scientist’s duty of even-handedness, and insisted on the need to look at the big picture over and above left-right divisions, for example here at

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/03/19/devastating-non-trends-in-us-climate/

“I don’t believe that a liberal-conservative view is appropriate. This AGW scam has progressed through Democratic and Republican administrations and been endorsed by both Big Business and Big Environment. We are witnessing a convergence of the interests of elitists and statists.”

He makes this point about the duty of the social scientist  to apply the same critical standards to all opinions (including their own) explicitly at

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/09/18/now-scientific-consensus-is-about-cultural-views/

“It’s ironic that Professor Kahan and his colleagues are perfectly correct in their estimation of the importance of cultural cognitive systems in determining views on a variety of issues with scientific inputs, but then fail to turn that mirror on themselves. They start from the position that the consensus must be correct, without examing the cultural presuppositions and intellectual history behind that consensus. Please believe me that not all social science is as shoddy as this.”

He makes clear his view that the warmist movement must be seen in the wider historical perspective of social movements of all kinds in  this comment on Jun 25, 2011 at

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/6/25/shucks.html#comment13416106

“It’s been my contention that the issue of CAGW is more of a social movement than anything else. Social movements are intended to reach a goal of some kind (the end of slavery, temperance, triumph of Islam, the classless society, what have you) but they rely heavily on creating a new world view that explains everything and forging alliances with other interest groups (the Temperance Movement in the U.S. achieved it’s goal with the passage if the 18th Amendment in 1919, supported by the Suffragists(who achieved their own victory in 1920 with the passage of the 20th Amendment) religious revivalists and the Ku Klux Klan, amongst others). It isn’t often one gets to read a coherent statement of a climate scientist’s world view, but take a look at Dr. Shuckburgh’s thoughtful essay on “The Survival of the Human Race”, available here:

http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/staff-profiles/webspace/emsh/dcls/9780521710206c01_p1-20.pdf

It may be a thoughtful essay, but I found it chilling. CAGW is but one prong or aspect of a much larger social movement, and this social movement has been building up for a century. It was NEVER about the science.”

[to which Foxgoose replied:

“Yes – it’s odd that “climatologists” are the only scientists you meet with this secret yearning for world domination. I think they all have a secret imaginary life – sitting in in the underground bunker on their private island and stroking their pussy while they plan our doom.”]

and he makes Ben Pile’s point that  the politics precedes the science with a rare passion and eloquence in a comment  at:

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2010/5/18/american-spectator-on-mcintyre.html 

“The notion that science will settle the AGW question is delusional. Look at who has taken up the AGW crusade and look at what they stand to gain from it: Soros, Gore, Strong, Enron, GE, the Milibands, GLOBE International, The Club of Rome… the list is truly endless. You also imply, Simon, that science is somehow a dispassionate, ideology-free search for Truth, that when scientific facts are uncovered, they will speak for themselves. That is simply not true. Facts never speak for themselves: they must be interpreted and explained and those interpretations and explanations almost always occur in the context of a world view – a unified world view that is self-validating… what we see and experience and know is what we expect to see and experience and know. Science is no exception. Science is not Truth. The things people are willing, or should be willing, to die for are not subject to scientific investigation: love, loyalty, friendship, courage, freedom and human dignity. These are what AGW is about and why it is primarily a political fight. People like Mann, Jones, Holdren, Ehrlich…. have chosen to put their science into the service of the forces of darkness.”

He intervened at least twice using massive force on specific subjects – both of them involving conspiracies: – one between climate scientists, and  one between British government ministers and their lackeys. The most recent one was on the scandal of the Wagner resignation, the story of which is recounted by Les Johnson at

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/09/05/journal-deliverance-the-true-story-of-the-climate-hillbillies/

(Not only does Les tell the story with admirable clarity, but he gives full credit  to all the players in it, who include Robert E. Phelan and Maurizio Morabito).

The first scandal was a very British one. It concerns me and Robert Phelan and other bloggers, and also the nature of the blogosphere itself, and I’ll tell it in another post.

Despite his fairness in matters scientific Robert Phelan had a pretty ferocious sense of humour aimed at people he evidently despised, as in this remark:

“As for [..] critics like William Connolly… I’m pretty sure that modern science has not yet found the antidote and I’m looking forward to the day (strictly from a dispassionate, intellectual and scientific perspective, you understand) that he bites his own tongue and we can determine empirically if he is immune to his own venom.”

*       *      *

Following a remark he made about the link between global warming alarmism and the spread of university education I made a number of attempts to contact him on comment threads. This is just one of my attempts I found, in response to his self-description on the BishopHill survey linked above, in May, 2011:

“Robert E. Phelan @ 1:57 AM: Don’t apologise. The sceptics don’t know it, but they desperately need sociologists. Most people here are “hard” scientists – naive souls who believe that if you show people the truth, they’ll change their minds and thank you for it. I once saw a comment of yours at WUWT about warmism being the invention of the first generation to have access to further education in massive numbers. This corresponds interestingly to the theories of the French demographer Emmanuel Todd on the tendency of what in England is called the “chattering classes” to form an autonomous group isolated from the rest of society. This is the kind of analysis we need. Any ideas?”

Robert, like me, tended to intervene at the end of blog threads, which tend to be short , even measured against a man’s attention span, let alone that of his life. We lived in different time zones, and, alas, we hardly interacted.

[To be continued].

This entry was posted in Lives of the Climate Bloggers, Sociology of Climate Change. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Lives of the Climate Bloggers (3): Robert E. Phelan

  1. omnologos says:

    Oh boy…I just came to the same conclusion (science is a form of cultural cognition), and will show it with the help of Brian Cox soon (one of his books’, rather).

  2. Laurie Childs says:

    A few years back (I’m pretty sure it was pre-climategate) I somehow found myself on an obscure little warmist blog alongside REP arguing with the 3 or 4 regulars there about Plimer’s new book. Not on whether the book was right or wrong, I didn’t know, I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read it, but on why they felt they had to be so overly personal and vicious in their analysis of it. For a couple of days it was us against them and we went round and round getting nowhere before it all fizzled out. REP and I subsequently had a very brief exchange of emails. “One of life’s true gentlemen” is a phrase that is sometimes both overused and misused, but in his case, I think it was very apt. He struck me as one of those Americans who could almost be more British than the British, if that makes sense. Very polite, very considerate and, though I never heard him speak, his writings always came across to me as “softly spoken”. When I read about his passing, I really did feel as though I’d lost a friend, which is frankly ridiculous, considering we’d never even met. This internet thingy really can do strange things to us it seems.

    Thanks for this Geoff. He deserves to be remembered. The “conversation” is poorer without him.

  3. Laurie Childs says:

    PS We never got the chance to hear his opinions on the “work” of Lew & Cook et al. Now that would have been interesting.

  4. johnbuk says:

    Geoff, a wonderful article that captures the essence of a wonderful and intelligent man. I have to say that over the years I had seen his name from various contributions to the usual blogs I hadn’t seen them all together in the way you have presented. Some truly thought-provoking and memorable comments. I have taken the liberty of saving this article to my Kindle to read and re-read from time to time.
    Thanks again.
    John Billot

  5. tallbloke says:

    Thanks Geoff.
    REP and I used to converse by email in the background when we were both WUWT moderators. We had some wry smiles together over the antics of Svalgaard and Eschenbach, and his sidekick Joel Shore. It’s a shame to see how successful they were in destroying the quality of debate on Anthony’s website.

  6. @tallbloke, I didn’t know that bit of history.

  7. Interesting stuff. So there is such a thing as a climate-sceprical sociologist. Or at least there was until last year.

    I did not know about his cult cognition remarks. But Maurizio and I made the same comnent to Kahan once on his blog – the irony of studying the effect without apparently considering the possibility that it might apply to them.

  8. tallbloke says:

    @Shub.
    Anthony invited me to become WUWT moderator as soon as I set up my own blog. I moderated every day for a couple of years until things came to a head over WUWT’s treatment of Dr’s Nikolov and Zeller. I alerted Ned Nikolov to an impending scurrilous piece Eschenbach was writing, and Anthony sacked me for “breaking confidence”. My confidence in their judgement had already been broken by Eschenbach’s approach to debate, so it was a mutually convenient time to part the ways.

  9. Here is Phelan’s mini-autobiography from Jeff Id’s Reader Background thread. Excerpts:

    “I somehow obtained a BA and MA in Sociology, left school for a break and found myself teaching in Taiwan. I was supposed to be there for a year or two, but fourteen years later I was dragged back to the US kicking and screaming. During those fourteen years I got out of teaching and did sales, sourcing and consulting, writing for a magazine, business investigations, and computer programming and system design. Back in the States I did programming and system analysis for almost ten years and then did consulting, specializing in MRP/ERP systems. About six years ago I found myself once again teaching at the university level: Intro, Cultural Anthropology, Social Psychology, Deviance, Criminology, Community, Inequality and Religion.”

    “I remember quite clearly the bitterly cold and snowy New England winters of the 60’s and 70’s and the panic about the coming ice age. I also remember how seriously everyone took Paul Ehrlich’s prophecies of population catastrophe and Rachel Carson’s vision of ecological collapse; catastrophes that never materialized. I’ve become quite cynical about doomsday scenarios and claims of vast conspiracies, especially when the solutions involve drastic changes in lifestyle or the curtailment of civil liberties. When I started teaching again I’d caution my students to study both sides of an issue before hopping on a band wagon.”

  10. johanna says:

    What a worthy candidate for your series!

    REP’s moderating skills and wry comments at WUWT added a lot of value to the site, and Anthony Watts was exceptionally lucky to have him. Not only that, he worked very hard – seemed to be on duty most days – for years, and for no payment AFAIK.

    He was certainly smarter than the average bear, being at home with science and technology, while also being widely read across many other fields and highly literate. His students were lucky indeed.

    The outpouring of tributes after his untimely death, mostly from people who had never even spoken with him, and including substantial donations to his family (who were left short of cash due to his unworldly approach to life) was remarkable. This is especially the case as he was not a high profile personality who ran a blog or wrote guest posts, just a dude who gave a lot of his time and skills to people like AW and to all of us who got to read his occasional, but always worthwhile, remarks as a moderator at WUWT and as a commentator generally.

  11. Pingback: Dear Friends | Kate's Insights

  12. NoFixedAddress says:

    Thanks for that Geoff… I didn’t know and am grateful that you have brought him to my attention.

  13. Diane Phelan says:

    Thrilled and proud to have read this, and all the wonderful comments about my father. Thank you for this, Geoff.

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