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06 August 2008 Blog Home : August 2008 : Permalink

The Overblown Skeptic and the Critic Thereof

City View Magazine, who or whatever that may be, has an article called "The Greatest Hoax ever Perpetuated" which is a fairly good diatribe about global warming. Unfortunately, and no doubt for rhetorical effect, it goes over board on the "NOT HAPPENING" arguments. It starts off with a very silly statement

GOOGLE "RECORD HEAT" and you will get 3,180,000 hits. Google "record cold" and you will get 5,110,000. Yes, that’s right; and it’s just the tip of the proverbial (not melting) iceberg.

I'm sorry this is junk research of the highest order. A few lines later on we have gratuitous personal attacks:

You’re really going to implicitly equate me with a holocaust denier because I don’t believe that your faulty computer models (designed by James Hanson, et al., a liberal NASA scientist with an agenda) prove that the globe is warming, or if it is, that it’s our fault?

which then ruin the valid point he makes in the next sentence:

You swear by the models, why don’t you swear by the corrections that NASA very quietly released last summer that show the warmest year on record was not 1998, but in fact is 1934, and that five of the top 10 hottest years on record were all before World War II?

This is in fact true. Thanks to detective work by Anthony Watts and then Steve McIntyre it is indeed the case that Hanson and NASA did indeed retract their claims about the hottest years in recent US history but deliberately did not make a fuss about it - see this LA Times report. The reason why I point this out is not just because it is a fact and not a rhetorical flourish but because a scientist called Arianne Balsom got very worked up about the article and mentioned in her critique:

The "quiet way" that NASA released corrections about its temperature data that the author mentions, may have been by publication in a leading scientific journal.  This would seem very quiet to the millions of people that would never read those journals (which are prohibitively expensive for an individual, but you can spend a few hours searching in the university library stacks for an issue that may be on the shelf or in some satellite storage facility somewhere), and therefore they would not know about the revised data until somebody reported on it.

This sentence is clearly written on the assumption that NASA found the mistake itself and then quietly fixed things. Firstly a search on Google Scholar fails to show a paper by Hanson, Schmidt etc. on this subject and secondly as noted above Messrs Hanson, Schmidt etc. had to be prodded into making the change because some bloggers noted something odd, reverse engineered a non-published calculation and determined the error. The scientist assumes that other scientists will behave in a clear transparent, dare one say, scientific, manner and unfortunately Hanson & co. seem to fail that assumption.

To go back to the City View article (I'll return to Dr(?) Balsom afterwards) the writer then perpetuates the Pope/Galileo myth:

The Pope once had a problem with a "denier." His name was Galileo, and he thought that the earth was round and that it was not the center of the universe; that it actually revolved around the sun, not the other way around. The Pope did the same thing that Al Gore is doing now. With faulty data and conjecture, the Pope declared that the debate was over and that anybody who disagreed would be burned at the stake.

Actually the pope mostly defended Galileo from his critics. The problem was that Galileo was a cantankerous loudmouth who wouldn't shut up. After he opened his mouth once too often the inquisition basically insisted that he explain why he thought the earth rotated around the sun (we already knew the earth was round thank you very much), unfortunately Galileo couldn't actually explain his theory and just insulted everyone much like a modern environmentalist when asked a mathematical question.

The writer then mixes the personal with overstated facts about the CO2 is not causing global warming argument:

OK, I am a skeptic. When every lunatic liberal leftist on the face of the planet says we need to close down the carbon emissions of industry (carbon caps) and spend trillions of dollars trying to fix something that (1.) we don’t know if we caused it (the factual evidence says we didn’t), and (2.) if we did cause global warming, is it really in our power to fix (reverse) it, red flags go up.

Well I'm a skeptic too and I tend to agree with the characterization (although I think lunatic liberal leftist has at least one redundant word), but that crude insult again means we lose the impact of points (1) and (2). Oh and the factual evidence is "mixed". OK I think it leans towards the idea that GW is not primarily due to man but it isn't proven and won't be until we have a few more decades of solid reliable data.

After that the article settles down for a bit and gets some reasonable digs in about Al "BS1" Gore that I can't disagree with although, while they are entertaining and do illustrate the Inconvenient Hypocrisy, they don't really explain why GW is "the greatest hoax". Then there is some quotes from John Coleman that essentially accuse climatologists of scamming public funds for their research. In my opinion this kind of full on personal attack is counterproductive because it is quite clear that most (and in this case I do more more than half) of them are honest and earnest, if perhaps blinkered, seekers after knowledge.

Then we get back to the science, briefly, and McIntypre etc. are mentioned as further digs are got in against Hanson. Then we return to political arguments with reports of lists of scientists writing letters questioning the consensus. This is fine and dandy except that it kind of contradicts the nice Einstein quote a couple of paragraphs earlier that "the consensus of a 100 scientists is undone by one fact".

Eventually we return to science with discussion of the Solar warming theory (one I'm partial too I have to admit) but the author seems incapable of keeping the personal and the professional separate. Even I, as someone who basically agrees with him, find this offensive. In fact it reminds me of the attacks made by the greenshirts when they want to attack someone who dares criticise their position. He also diverts into the funding issue claiming (with no supporting evidence) that Big Oil spend $20M on climate change while the governmetn etc spent $50B over the same 20 year period. It may well be true but I'd like a "blah blah institute found that..." sort of line here. Still he's dead on about the idiocy of corn based ethanol as a reasonable biofuel although I fear he failed to get the message from KKKarl Rove about how biofuels aren't pushing the price of food up really.

And then we reach the concluding paragraph:

For those of you not willing to swallow the methane-producing manure that is shoveled at you everyday by a liberal and biased media, and would like to educate yourself, there are a seemingly countless number of websites and papers to read on this subject. I recommend starting your education by going to www.climatedebatedaily.com and www.climatepolice.com. Another great resource for "exposing liberal media bias" is www.newsbusters.org. Look at the science, not the dogma. Trust in what they can prove, not what they predict.

Thanks mate. That's really going to win over the uncertain middle. Stop weebling on about liberal media bias. Yes I know it exists and I've criticised it often enough myself but banging on about it like this doesn't help you with the wider public. In fact it makes you look like a wingnut conspiracy theorist, unable to see anything except through the prism of your paranoia. And for an article like this one that is the problem, because climate change need not be a political left-right issue. In fact it shouldn't be and just because on the greenshirt side there are plenty of "watermelons" (green on the outside, communist red in the middle) doesn't mean that only 'conservaties' can be on the opposing side. In fact what we want is for some of our less radical and more reasonable liberal opponents to educate themselves on this issue and "Trust in what they can prove, not what they predict." Unfortunately these folks are not going to be persuaded to do this if they come across a rant like this.

So now we go back to Dr Balsom's critique. I find myself in agreement with chunks of it:

The fact that City View magazine published this article with the teaser "Instead of relying on predictions and faulty models, [the author] supports his argument with exhaustive research" is extraordinarily misleading and it makes me want to go find the editor, give him or her a really hard noogy followed by an atomic wedgie, and last but not least, a purple nurple.  Or rather, I would if I wasn't stuck on an icebreaker 10,000 miles away from him or her. It really disappoints me, particularly since it was published in the "green" edition of the magazine.  This is an opinion piece, not a science news article, and it should not be touted as such.


Keep your eyes and ears open about climate change, about organic baby food, about how best to groom your toy poodle, about the future comeback of spandex - any topic that interests you and you are forming an opinion about. Be a cynic.  Be a skeptic.  Don't believe right off the bat what someone who is trying to sell you something at the grocery check-out or in the airport gift shop is saying in their headlines.  If everything that was published in popular magazines was true, then we would have all lost those twenty pounds in twenty days a long time ago with the watermelon/grass clippings/yogurt sort of diets that they also advertise on the covers.

But then again I have trouble because now she implies that the author's research was limited to the google search in the first lines. I agree the first line was a horrible introduction but the author did rather more than that. If he hadn't he would not have been able to describe the solar warming theory, mention correctly the four main monitors of global temperature (HADCRU, GISS, UAH, RSS) and so on. I agree it is a polemic not a measured article but while I criticised (see above) the polemic bits it did contain enough actual scientific reporting bits that deserve more of a response than a combo of "google" and

There is nothing nerdier than getting a group of us together to watch movies like The Day After Tomorrow and An Inconvenient Truth; you can barely hear the dratted movie over all of the guffaws and errors being pointed out by the audience.

Indeed looked at it one way her response is validation of my "we don't need this attitude" lines up above. Hence, although I pick holes in little bits I find that her attitude is rather better than the "censor it!" greenshirt attitude I've written about in the last few posts. Indeed I agree completely with the science communication problem she then gets on to describing:

This is partly the fault of the science community; an entity that often only communicates amongst its own members until a grant requires some sort of outreach project to show the world what they are finding out.  If we act like the research we are doing is an exclusive club or is classified like Area 51, it's only a matter of time before people start speculating about UFO's because that's much more exciting than thinking about someone in the top secret building correcting databases.  And then someone starts publishing articles about the UFO's and it continues from there.

Scientists tend to cling to their data like Gollum and his Precious until it is published, for fear of someone else taking credit for it or beating them to the publication punch line.

I truly believe that Hanson, Briffa, Mann and co. do themselves and their position enormous damage by not clearly and openly providing their source data and algorithms when they publish things. In the halls of, say, classics or lit crit it probably doesn't matter if the data iis squirreled away and swapped between researchers. In areas such as bacteriology or biochemistry such secretiveness may well be important for blatant commercial patent reasons. In climatology neither excuse counts. It is hard to understand how someone could benefit from the IP rights to a series of tree ring or icecore data but unlike non-scientific fields in climatology the data is time critical. If we really have only 100 months to stop CO2 emissions (as some claim) then it is in fact a crime against humanity to hide the data that may or may not prove such a dire threat. Hanson talks about oil executives being tried for crims against humanity because they aren't interested in reducing CO2. He ignores his own culpability in obscuring how he and his colleagues come to the dire conclusions that they do. What if, for example, the world's political leaders decide that 100 months isn't enough time and so decide to do nothing and then we discover that actually we had 150 months and that would have been long enough if only we'd known now and not 100 months later? Or what happens if we start wrecjing our economies to reduce CO2 and then it turns out it was the sun all along? I could imagine lynch mobs of those who were bankrupted stringing up the climatologists who dogmatically refused to let others recheck their models.