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The Empty Shibboleth

For some time now I have shuddered every time a politician or activist says that "climate change is real" or its variant "climate change is manmade".

The utterance of either of version is of no relevance to the global warming debate. The climate changes; that is undisputed. Mankind has affected the climate since he started clearing the forests with stone axes. As always the question is how much the climate might change, if at all.

I think we need a shorthand to express the fact that such a statement is a shibboleth of the green tribe rather than a meaningful contribution to a public conversation.

Would "The Empty Shibboleth" work?

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References (2)

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    Response: RLniApdg
    - Bishop Hill blog - The Empty Shibboleth
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    Response: sxgAhaFd
    - Bishop Hill blog - The Empty Shibboleth

Reader Comments (59)

I don't think many people know what a Shibboleth is, your Grace. So it wouldn't get much traction.

On the plus side, it could work as a name for a Black Sabbath tribute band.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterGixxerboy

Years ago I said that the Galileo correction had a massive intellectual effect on the placement of man in the cosmos, but the correction from the delusion of CAGW will have more impressive effects financially, socially, and politically than did the phenomena around Galileo.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:10 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

The Green Straw Man.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Would "The Empty Shibboleth" work? No.
"climate change is real" is an empty drivel
"climate change is manmade" is an full lie.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterJean Demesure

They don't say it by accident or in ignorance of its vacuity. They say it as a tactic against sceptics. So much of what passes for argument nowadays is pre-emptively mis-stating the arguments of your opposition.

It is not a shibboleth because it is not alone. It goes with the 97%, the peer-review, the qualification to speak on climate science and the well-funded denial machine.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

Climate change is real? Vanishing icecaps and sea levels flooding Manhattan not so much.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:30 AM | Unregistered Commenterpouncer

Climate change IS real. The world's deserts have shrunk / greener by 11% due to rising CO2. Thank you ; Business As Usual.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:36 AM | Unregistered Commenterpouncer

It just shows how far behind some people are that they still hold on to this ancient idea that climate is static.

I read Davey's comments saying that we are "blinkered, dogmatic, etc." the real truth is that most sceptics are far more willing to consider new ideas and that is why we have known for quite some time that the climate changes (something that it appears even now is a surprise to people like Davey).

It is only the luddites like Davey who are still being dictated to by the backward looking science of past gone ages before people realised that the climate changes quite naturally and quite often.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:38 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

Climate change is real. If current trends continue kids in Florida won't know what a hurricane is anymore.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:42 AM | Unregistered Commenterpouncer

I think The Empty Shibboleth is a great phrase and here's why. As any fule kno, the original story had to do with a phoneme one side could pronounce and the other couldn't. And the whole point of "climate change is real" is the way you say it. Unlike the real shibboleth - 'the part of a plant containing grains' in ancient Hebrew - it signifies nothing. It's only the way you say it that counts. Thus the empty shibboleth. I support the motion.

Jun 3, 2013 at 11:48 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

I had no idea what it meant...

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

Wot's a shibboleth?

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

I call it a 'consensus without an object' -- you can defer to the consensus without knowing what it actually consists of, and indeed make any statement you like on the basis that the consensus exists. This allows anyone who knows nothing to trump any better informed argument simply by invoking the magical '97%' statement.

Empty Shibboleth is more catchy.

In reality, deference to the object-less consensus is a refusal to take responsibility for one's own argument.

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

"The climate changes; that is undisputed. ...... As always the question is how much the climate might change, if at all."

Aren't those two statements contradictory?

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Yes but if we use without knowing its meaning then it is a shibboleth within a shibboleth.

People do not like to lose face.

I had to look it up. This lab rat ran down the wrong corridor.

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

Ben, completely agree. I was genuinely surprised to hear an intelligent journalist friend come out with the "97% of scientists" line the other day. But she and her better-known, equally green husband did humanities and I think such people cling to this kind of thing because the real science is so darned complicated.

And it is. I was reminded of this quote attributed to Steve McIntyre on my wiki the other day:

Do you personally think that climate change is a big problem for the world?

Steve: I do not know if it is a big problem, a medium-sized problem or no problem. I just do not know.

That's somewhere in the comments for the New Statesman's 50 People Who Matter 2010 : 32. Stephen McIntyre in September 2010. And is for me wisdom.

Jiminy: Empty Shibboleth is also good in my book because it makes people wonder what's underneath - which is exactly what they should have done with "climate change is real" in the first place.

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:31 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Sadly, I agree with Gixxerboy Bish - you're setting the linguistic/intellectual bar a bit high for Joe Public.

Orwell had a talent for the snappy epithet - how about taking a lead from him with #greenspeak ?

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:44 PM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

my Grandad wasn't big on Shibboleths, he used to say 'a fart in a hurricane' , which gets the message across, albeit a bit rude.
I once had a pee in the sea at Conway when I was on holiday, I have no doubt that I raised the sea levels and altered the ph of the oceans.
How to get this into an empty shibboleth type snappy retort ? mmm
how about
'a drop in the ocean'

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterEternalOptimist

@ Foxgoose Jun 3, 2013 at 12:44 PM

Please leave me out of this. I admit I didn't know what it was - initially thought it was one of those Irish cudgels - but they turn out to be Shillelaghs. Near enough I suppose.

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

Lay off the turps pouncer. There's a good bloke.

Jun 3, 2013 at 12:59 PM | Registered CommenterGrantB

Foxgoose: I don't we're going for Joe Public because Joe Public is largely with us already. We're going, as I was suggesting earlier, for those educated in the humanities, because so many more of them are convinced than Joe Public and they have disproportionate influence on policy. The Guardianistas if you like. (Not 97% of them, to be sure, but much closer to 97%.)

And for these folk "The Empty Shibboleth" is dead right. Shibboleth is a well-worn expression for such and this gives it some welcome new bite. It's interesting too how many of the more science-educated groupies of BH aren't so familiar with it. Another reason the Bishop himself is such a valuable cross-dresser in my book. CP Snow's Two Cultures and all that blah blah etc :)

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:07 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

A White Shibboleth minus Blue and Red?

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

Climate change is real slow.

Climate change is real. But they are not.

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:15 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Damien Carrington really doesn't get this citing sources thing.

Lord Lipsey has complained to the Guardian reader's editor about a piece by Carrington on passing the 400 ppm "milestone".

…it may well be that everything in this piece is true. But it is not enough for the reporter to assert that on his own authority without citing sources.

Carrington replies that he doesn't need to cite sources when 97% of papers in peer reviewed journals agree that climate change is caused by human activity. He then cites, not Cook and Nuccitelli, but a Suzanne Goldenberg article on Cook and Nuccitelli.

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:15 PM | Registered CommenterDreadnought

It is war, total and committed.

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Dale Huffman

What is "climate change" and how does one measure it? What units are used? What constitutes "climate" and what are the norms and baselines? Are there any standardized definitions? What is significant? (It seems to me that this topic is very vague and means different things to different people.)

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterDrcrinum

There was some chatter last August about using the term "pro climate", as in "What do we want to be?- pro climate!- when do we want it?- Now!"

I posted this at Dot Earth-
Brilliant. Who could possibly be 'against' climate? It is meaningless, which is why its going to *work*. Go Climate Go!

If you are not 'pro-climate', does that make you pro-choice?

If you are against climate change, shouldn't you be called 'anti-climate' or 'anticlimatic' instead of 'pro-climate'?

If you have a substantial carbon boot-print and are 'pro-climate', does that mean you support a charcoal-induced climate Armageddon?

Is an alligator-shod renewable energy lobbyist or a communications or journalist major pushing for climate regulations a 'pro-climate-pro'?

Obama could run on his first-term achievement of single-handedly driving down US total CO2 energy emissions to levels not seen since the early 1990's, except that someone else did that. Doesn't this make George W. Bush the most successful 'pro-climate' POTUS in history?

Does 'pro-climate-con' mean you support carbon credits and Solyndra-type investments?"

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris y

Drcrinum and Harry DH: With respect, The Empty Shibboleth is far better than either of your responses. It's not total war in the most brutal sense - it's a battle of ideas and within that witty, memorable and apposite phrases count a great deal more than either overt aggression or apparent nit-picking. I'm all for nit-picking within BH itself, because the whole of CAGW, science and policy, needs the most thorough examination. But we have to realise it's a massive turn-off compared to the simple force of "97% of scientists believe that climate change is real". "Ah, the empty shibboleth" is exactly the right level of response for this. I continue to say the Bish has hit the button on the nail here :)

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:27 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

chris y: 'Pro climate' is very good. Who began that? I'm certainly pro-climate. Without it none of us would exist, to co-opt Billy Graham. Who originally claimed this for themselves?

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:31 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard Drake-

I think Dot Earth was the first place I read of it discussed by the Yale Climacon crew, but it may have originated elsewhere, perhaps somewhere within Fenton Communications...

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris y

chris y: Thanks. With hat tipped to Fenton I at once want to co-opt it. Climate sceptics is ridiculous if you think about it. Climate change sceptics can just about make sense if it's interpreted as 'sceptical of what is claimed about the dangers of climate change'. But it's too negative. We are pro-climate. This brings in the whole four billion years, the incredible stability under early faint sun, asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, the lot. With nothing as dull as constant sensitivity but Eschenbach's governor in operation to allow the evolution of sentient life. (The Lord breathing life into man we'll count as optional in this context, though some of us would wish to honour him as the Governor behind the governor.) This totally astounding story makes me pro-climate in the deepest sense. As if puny man could really do lasting damage to such a wonderful, life-giving thing.

Jun 3, 2013 at 1:48 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

"Wot's a shibboleth?"

Isn't it some kind of wooden cudgel made from a stout knotty stick with a large knob at the top. Or is that Ed Davey - I can never remember ...

Jun 3, 2013 at 2:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterFilbert Cobb

The Empty Shibboleth is grand but there are so many of these troublesome tricks deployed by those determined to alarm us about CO2 that I think we need someone of a botanical bent to identify them, sort them into species, and give them Latin names to help with further discussion and analysis. There is likely to be a prominent place for genus Shibboleth and epithet vacua.

Jun 3, 2013 at 2:01 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Given the origin of 'shibboleth', it might be a good idea to dust down and modernise 'corny' as an appropriate response. "That's just green corn" or having "corn ears" (to a person parroting eco banalities) could be two variations.

Jun 3, 2013 at 2:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S


It goes with the 97%, the peer-review, the qualification to speak on climate science and the well-funded denial machine.

I envision a used car lot with four cars in front row, each with one of your list items on a banner in the windshield with the appropriate advocate (used car salesMann) in a wild checked jacket hawking them. Josh?

Jun 3, 2013 at 2:36 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

ecochaff, e.g. Ed Davey emitted a cloud of ecochaff to please the believers.

Jun 3, 2013 at 2:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

How about 'Bridge for sale'?

Jun 3, 2013 at 3:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterLevelGaze

ecochaff is also very good. As others have implied, this isn't one-size-fits-all.

Jun 3, 2013 at 3:08 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Dear Bish, you should probably delete this.
I looked up shibboleth, and then canard, and then cliche. Imo, the true statements are cliches, the untrue ones are lies.
And on the question of war, I'd say it's "war by other means". The whole point of borrow and waste - which seems to be every government's policy - is to create poverty (it's not madness, it's deliberate): to create conditions which foster resentment and intolerance, because those are the necessary conditions for civil unrest, and thence severely authoritarian government (fascism/Marxism).
The whole point of mass immigration is to start a fight. The whole point of turning food into fuel is to create food shortages, and thence a fight. The whole point of energy rationing is to start a fight. And the police will look on - or watch it on tv.

Jun 3, 2013 at 3:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterSleepalot


The whole point of borrow and waste - which seems to be every government's policy - is to create poverty (it's not madness, it's deliberate): to create conditions which foster resentment and intolerance, because those are the necessary conditions for civil unrest, and thence severely authoritarian government (fascism/Marxism).

Thatcher paid back the national debt to a remarkable degree, so that when I did some work with an advanced object database for TSB Hill Samuel treasury research in 1988 I remember one of the other guys on the team saying with wonder "Maggie's done it!" and opining that it was the end of the gilts market as we'd known it for centuries.

For that and other reasons "every government's policy" is to overdraw both the facts and the intentionality. However, I'm not as confident as some that no such misanthropy exists at the level of international institutions and their client bureaucracies. Hence with biofuels:

The whole point of turning food into fuel is to create food shortages, and thence a fight.

I believe that is true, for some levels. Evil is another name for it. Have a look at other parts of the twentieth century if you think human beings incapable of such things.

Jun 3, 2013 at 3:23 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Vacant Shibboleth?

1. having no contents; empty; void: a vacant niche.

2. having no occupant; unoccupied: no vacant seats on this train.

3. not in use: a vacant room.

4. devoid of thought or reflection: a vacant mind.

5. characterized by, showing, or proceeding from lack of thought or intelligence: a vacant answer; a vacant expression on a face.

Jun 3, 2013 at 3:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterdread0

Evil is another name for it. Have a look at other parts of the twentieth century if you think human beings incapable of such things.

look back through all the atrocities of the recorded history of man - in essence we have not changed - we just make do with X Factor these days.

Jun 3, 2013 at 5:12 PM | Unregistered CommenternTropywins

and let us not forget that a BBC twonk can say with a straight face 'the climate changes because of climate change'

Jun 3, 2013 at 5:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterAdhominer

This climate stuff certainly engenders semantic erudition.

First we had: Anthropogenic, then Albedo, then Argumentum Ad Hominem and now Shibboleth. Where will it all end?

(NB Without the first I might still be without a handle!)

Jun 3, 2013 at 5:20 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

The phrase, climate change, is a marketing term given the current context.

Jun 3, 2013 at 5:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterBob

dread0: Vacant Shibboleth is also very good.

Bob: Absolutely!

nTropywins: Not everyone chooses to go along, even when atrocity becomes commonplace. But we're never not in the battle such heroes face, at some level or another. So, realism and hope.

Jun 3, 2013 at 6:08 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Actually, Drcrinum (Jun 3, 2013 at 1:18 PM), that is the very argument that makes the term “Empty Shibboleth” so apt.

“Ecochaff” is another good one that can be added to our lexicon of derision.

Jun 3, 2013 at 6:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterRadical Rodent

I often use "shibboleth" to describe the kowtow appended to an otherwise valid scientific paper, stating that its findings are not inconsistent with global warming, or that funds should be provided to study the effect of global warming on the findings, or vice versa, or suchlike.

There's a more apropos term for such compulsory utterances, but I shall not mention it here in the hallowed hall of the Bishop's manse.

Jun 3, 2013 at 6:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

If the claim that 97% of scientists who have written about climate change think human activity is the main factor then they will do enormous damage to the prestige of scientists if the climate over the next 15 or 20 years shows that they are wrong.

Jun 3, 2013 at 8:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

I want it known that I am 100% eternally "pro climate" -- under no circumstances would I want humans to live with no climate.

Extended space missions would have a rather boring climate. Fortunately, I am so strongly "pro climate" that I plan to live in earth's climate for all of my natural life.

Jun 3, 2013 at 8:42 PM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

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