First published in Liberty Unbound
As the climate change End Time-ism appears to grow inexorably, I keep reading and hearing good debunking attempts. Most don’t do me lasting good, however, because they require me to know, or to gain knowledge of, rudiments of physics, and of other sciences of which I am mostly innocent. It seems to me that it’s not right, that it’s not fair even, that deciphering these technically expressed instances of skepticism must be a distraction for the average citizen, as it is for me.
After all, when I take my car to the repair shop, I don’t really have to know much auto mechanics. Similarly, I don’t study dentistry before I choose a dentist, or entrust myself into his hands. And when I had a pacemaker put in, there was no requirement that I know where the surgeon planned to place it, or why. Nevertheless, everything went fine. Both my heart and my car run well, and my teeth are in reasonably good condition for my age.
Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects.
Incidentally, the American citizenry has maintained for 230 years a fair version of representative government. We achieved this in spite of (or because of) the paucity of individuals with advanced political science degrees in our midst. We relied mostly on our ordinary intellectual and moral faculties. What I personally bring to all these crucial choices of a car mechanic, of a dentist, of a heart surgeon, of a president, is intuition fed by experience, sometimes a capacity for quick reasoning, a willingness to apply elementary logic to new situations, and all-round skepticism. I am pretty fair at assessing others’ credibility, thanks to my possession of a good detector of what they would call in French caca de taureau. I suspect that other ordinary citizens do more or less what I do. Specialized training should not be required to make the most important choices imaginable.
We Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. I think we still don’t want to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects. They have to convince us rationally that their positions are right. Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.
So it seems to me that there exists, upstream from scientific debunking, another potential critique of the general doctrine of apocalyptic climate change, one that relies on the same basic skills we use in everyday life. It seems to me also that skeptics who allow themselves to be drawn into the debate on specialized scientific grounds are falling into a kind of trap. I mean, for example, discussions of sunspots and controversies about the speed with which glaciers melt. By now, the dogma of climate change is so deeply and widely established, so many resources have been expended and continue to be expended to support it, so many careers are at stake in the media, in politics, in science, and in academia, that the only effective strategy of skepticism must start with a loud comment that “the King is naked.” I try to do this below.
Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.
A word of warning: at several points, my own comments may seem overly technical, thus betraying my self-awarded mission. I ask you to believe that they only seem technical. This essay, like most of my writing, is not intended for the technically trained but for the intelligently ignorant.
Although I am trying to reach a more general position, I have learned from several examples of climate change skepticism with a libertarian point of view. I am thinking, for instance, of “Global Village Idiots,” by Steve Murphy, and of Murphy’s vivid discussion of mindless and aberrant climate-change blaming, “Butterfly Police.” Others have commented on the astounding contortions climate change reformers perform to push their policy proposals. The Paris Accord would be an example. It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement it although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway. As Robert H. Miller has said, “But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power.” (All in “Climate Change Wars.”)
The subject of this essay is the current idea of human-caused climate change. By this I mean the narrative that describes the global climate as changing more or less permanently, as a result of human activities, with severe adverse consequences for people and for the world itself, in magnitudes requiring immediate attention.
At the heart of this narrative is the so-called “greenhouse effect,” the release of gases that amplify the warming of the earth by the sun. Singled out among such gases in the versions of the narrative presented in mass media is carbon dioxide (CO2).
It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement the Paris Accord although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway.
Some other gases are also said to be responsible for the greenhouse effect, including methane burped and passed by cattle, but CO2 is usually considered the most worthy of attention. I am not sure if anyone makes the case that this gas is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect, or if it’s singled out because it’s the most convenient to manipulate (to decrease), or if it’s emphasized for some other reason.
I have previously discussed various forms of irrationality surrounding the climate change narrative. (See the list of links that follows this part of the essay.) Now it’s time for me to be more thorough than I have been so far. It’s also time to gather in a single essay the several sources of my skepticism. This isn’t going to be pretty! Here are my nonspecialist qualifications toward this endeavor.
I know as much about the physics of weather as the average observant person who pays attention to the daily weather forecast. I may know slightly more, because I was a sailor for 50 years, which implies an interest in winds and tides. Probably none of this adds up to much.
In addition, as a result of living for a long time, I know a lot about viciousness, ludicrousness, gobbledygook, inconsistencies, bad faith, and plain old deceitfulness. For 30 years I was a teacher, a good observation point. A few years in the graduate program of an expensive university gave me clear ideas about what constitutes good scientific design in general, and also about sampling. Finally, I gained from my past occasional service as a referee for American scholarly journals an exquisite sensitivity to measurement issues. Because of the malevolent inquisitiveness linked to the same past scholarly activity, I am keenly interested in what should logically be there but isn’t — what for all the world ought to be there but can’t be found. You tell me there is an elephant in a dark room; I grope for a trunk. If I don’t find one after reasonable effort, I begin suspecting there is no elephant. Then I ask myself why you told me there was an elephant in the room, when there is not.
I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime.
Excuse me if it sounds like bragging, but I think that’s quite a bit. Reminder: I am still innocent of “climate science,” whatever that is.
Let me add that I am a retired citizen and that I have much more time to remain informed that most other citizens. I do it routinely. I follow the media and I read daily. I travel on the internet, in two languages. I do it for six or seven hours a day. This is not by way of boasting. I am just building up the case that if something important escaped even my attention, other, less well-situated citizens are likely also to remain unaware of it.
The Scope of my Skepticism
My skepticism is only about global warming and more, generally, about the human-caused climate change (HCC) narrative as described above. I am much in favor of clean water and of pure air but for other reasons. Incidentally, I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime. I also think plastic trash in the ocean is a disgrace, but it’s a problem that could be solved at little cost: just make the discarded plastic valuable so that it either will not be thrown away or will be collected if it is. As for energy sources, I am taken by the sheer elegance of power production from sun, wind, tides, and waves. I also like the potential of the first two to separate individuals from the grid more or less at will. And it’s true that my wife and I, both old, don’t often need more than a hundred miles of transport autonomy. So I would sort of wish electric cars well, if only they did not require so much in public subsidies, a kind of admission of failure.
If you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period.
If I were young and starting off in life, I would do my best to give myself an energy-efficient house with some ability to produce power. That’s because I dislike both waste and dependency on public organizations, especially on organizations that are excused from competing in the market place.
So, all in all, I am not one of those who miss the good old days of LA smog, chemical rivers, and filthy beaches. I am acutely aware of the general economic problem of externalities: if you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period. Finally, and before the question arises nastily, I want to affirm here that I am not on any Big Oil payroll, at least, not yet. (I keep hoping though.) But I am casting a wide net in this essay. It’s possible that I am factually wrong on something or other. Please, draw my attention to any error of fact. I will be gracious and even appreciative.
The following is a systematic catalog of the reasons I am skeptical of the HCC narrative and the corresponding political agendas.
Breaches of Decency and Common Sense
The word “denier” was chosen deliberately to stigmatize skeptics like me by evoking “Holocaust deniers.” It refers to those who maintain that the mass assassination of Jews during World War II never took place. Holocaust deniers are underinformed, deliberately so in most cases, semi-literate, intellectually stubborn, and anti-Semitic. I am none of the above. This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.
I have to ask myself what would prompt such viciousness? Have I encountered it before, either personally, or in my broad reading? I have. More on this later.
“But,” other people ask me, “how can you deny the reality of climate change when 98% [or 95%, or 97%, same thing] of “climate scientists” agree that it’s real?” Between the lines: “Who TF do you think you are?”
This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.
Well, there is not a single instance, in the whole history of the world, of a survey returning 98% “Yes.” None; you can check for yourself.
There must be some confusion here with the presidential election results in some central African republic. If indeed, there were a 98% consensus, by anyone about anything, there is no way we would know about it. To be able to state this, you would have to:
- rigorously define the whole relevant population (in this case, I imagine, climate scientists, worldwide);
- actually circumscribe, delineate the population;
- gain access to all of it, or to a random sample of it;
- administer a clear and unbiased questionnaire that produces near zero unusable responses. (Or actively remedy the problems that unusable responses and non-responses pose for correct inference.)
Do the calculations in your head: suppose the survey produces 10% unusable responses, an excellent, low result by any standard. How then do you treat the 2% of disagreeing responses that are one-fifth of that figure?
The reality is worse than this. The published scholarly paper link from which the 98% figure (or 9X% figure) seems to come is referenced below in Note 1. The article admits to a whopping 86% nonresponse rate. Out of 8,457 persons identified as climate scientists whom the authors contacted, only 1,189 provided usable responses. Of those, nearly all said they believed in human-caused climate change. That’s the source of the 9X% figures. The question remaining is: what do the 86% who did notrespond think of HCC? That’s a big 7,268 scholars whom the article’s authors, on their own, using their own freely chosen criteria, had determined to be real climate scientists.
The nonresponders cannot simply be considered irrelevant. Suppose that 20% of them, 1,454, are firm “deniers” who have not responded because they are gun-shy, suspicious of an ideological trap, or simply too busy to respond. Suppose further that the remainder, 80% of nonresponders, actually have no opinion. The percentage of those who have an opinion and believe in climate change is now 1,189/1,189+1,453 = 45%, instead of the astounding 98%, 97%, or more, when nonresponses are ignored.
There is no reason to think the survey sample is representative of the whole population from which it is drawn.
Now, obviously I chose nonresponding deniers to be 20% for my own demonstration purposes. I don’t know what the percentage of deniers among nonresponders is, any more than the authors of the study do. It might be much less than 20%; it might be zero percent. The percentage of deniers among those who are not represented in the article might also be much higher — 97%, or even 99%. I don’t know, and, again, the article’s authors don’t know either. It’s plausible that the percentage would be high, because of a common positive bias among survey responders in general. Those who are on the positive side of the answer to a survey question appear generally more motivated to answer than those who are on the negative side. So the climate change skeptics could easily be underrepresented among those who responded.
There is worse. The original 8,457 climate scientists contacted are, in fact, a sample of an unknown population of real, credentialed climate scientists that may be much larger, possibly several times larger. It’s a sample arrived at in a principled (and even ingenuous) manner well described in the article, but it’s not a random sample. There is no reason to think it’s representative of the whole population from which it is drawn. Thus, one conceptual problem piles up on top of the others.
The authors could have easily avoided this latest, unavoidable criticism. They could have simply asserted that the number 8,457 — all those contacted — constituted the whole relevant population. That would have avoided my second criticism of their sampling method. The fact is that they did not. I am guessing that they did not because they wanted to stake a much broader claim than their data legitimately allowed. What other explanation is there?
Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.
Here is the real finding expressed in traditional, nontriumphalist scientific manner: >97% of a possibly biased (possibly grossly biased) sample of a nonrepresentative sample of a loosely defined population of climate scientists affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.
I don’t fault the authors’ craftsmanship at all. They worked well with what they had. I blame their conceit, (or their unexamined zeal) and even more, the conceit of their nonscientist followers. Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.
The consumers of percentage-based pronouncements should always ask forcefully: “X% of what, exactly?” An earlier article in the respected peer-reviewed Organization Studies claims that fewer than 40% of geoscientists and engineers agree that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Change the population of reference, change the percentage! (“Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change,” Lianne M. Lefstrud and Renate E. Meyer, November 19, 2012.) That study was performed in oil-rich Alberta, which may, of course, have affected it. Other extraneous factors may have affected other surveys, in opposite directions.
One more issue of credibility with statements of the form, “9x% agree . . .”: someone — not necessarily me — has to have access to the list of all actually surveyed, someone relatively neutral, or better, someone a little hostile, to check that the list is clean, that it does not include, for example, 40% high school dropouts, 10% environmental activists with no scientific credentials, or all the mothers of the researchers and their activist friends. Normally, this kind of scrutiny is performed by scientific journals and by the referees or reviewers they appoint. (If you are not familiar with the way in which scholarly and scientific journals work, see my didactic essay on the subject.)
If there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.
I don’t know whether this precise degree of scrutiny has occurred in the survey we are examining, although the article of reference was apparently published in a peer-reviewed journal. My own limited experience says that only somewhat hostile reviewers can be solidly expected to perform thoroughly the kind of verification I describe above. And, no, I am not accusing the authors of cheating. I just think, again from experience, that one tends to be indulgent toward what confirms one’s viewpoint. I know this from having been brutally yanked back to reality by several peer reviews during my own research career.
As it is commonly used in the non-scholarly big media and on social media, the widespread appeal to a 95%, or 97%, 98 % consensus is simply ludicrous.
This is one of the many cases in which the rotten apple in a barrel concept may apply: if there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.
It’s tempting to move on. But by the way: science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin. (See his struggle against the consensus of his day in Adrian Desmonds and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution .)
Lack of Clarity
Next, I will try to do my homework about what should happen, on a proximate basis, practically, to a belief in the HCC narrative. The semi-official spokesorgan for the climate change movement seems to be the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC or IPCC for short). That organization publishes periodic reports — some of them stained by little scandals. (Once, a photographer was found to have inserted his uninformed but firm opinion about the speed of glaciers melting in an allegedly scholarly summary.) I took the trouble on one occasion to read in its entirety the special summary of an IPCC report aimed at government decision makers. It was incomprehensible. I take the position that whatever I don’t understand will not be understood by most (or any) members of my city council. (Why, the former mayor is a former student of mine!) But those are the very people to whom the summary is addressed. I don’t know why the directive summary for decision makers was so poorly written, whether because of incompetence, or for some other reason. (Hold that thought.) At any rate, it was gobbledygook, exactly where clarity should have been expected.
Science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin.
The IPCC document is not an isolated case of opaqueness in HCC communications. In fact, it’s routine. HCC partisans habitually speak with the thick tongue of mornings after. Take the term “renewable energy.” It implies that barring the adoption of some restrictive HCC-driven environmental agenda, humanity will run out of natural gas, of petroleum, of coal, in some foreseeable future. None of this is true, of course. We have seen known reserves of petroleum grow prodigiously in our lifetimes, even as we were burning oil with abandon. And why would the modifier “renewable” be used at all, if not to imply forthcoming shortages?
Inconsistencies and Bad Faith
I believe that if I hate the way something is done, hate it so much that I want everyone to stop doing it whatever the cost, hate it so much that I am willing to use force to stop them from doing it, then I am first morally obligated to try to promote other ways of doing things.
So climate change advocates tell us that the greenhouse effect — fed by human produced CO2 — will raise global temperatures to catastrophic levels. Many add that this will happen very soon, that there is extreme urgency. Well, it turns out, there is a sure way to produce unlimited amounts of energy — including electricity to power electric cars — that results in zero CO2 emissions (none). I refer, of course, to energy produced by nuclear plants. The French have been getting more than 80% of their electricity that way for 50 years. Japan’s share was about 40% until 2010. A detailed record exists for both countries. So, climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants. In every locale, at the state and city level, they should be insisting on a simplification of many of the superfluous regulations that now obstruct such expansion. They should even demand the elimination of some of those regulations that currently make building nuclear plants artificially expensive. They are not doing this, to say the least.
The vague, and in fact seldom well expressed, objection is that nuclear energy is dangerous. That belief used to be plausible; it’s not anymore. The worst has happened, and nothing happened. Three Mile Island did not amount to much, although a good, dramatic movie was shown at about the same time (The China Syndrome). The Fukushima plant was hit in 2011 with one of the worst of unexpected forces: a full blast tsunami. The resulting nuclear accident did not amount to much in terms of fatalities, or in terms of anything. (“The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and World Health Organization reports that there will be no increase in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical and mental disorders in babies born after the accident”: Wikipedia.) Many people confuse the death toll from the nuclear plant with that of the tsunami itself — deaths by drowning, for example. That’s wrong, but I have not noticed any HCC advocates condemn the confusion. Maybe I missed it.
Climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants.
The International Atomic Energy Agency lists 33 serious incidents, total, for the whole world, since the beginning of nuclear energy production. The seriousness of only two merited its highest score of seven. The first was Chernobyl, naturally. The second was Fukushima, where this highest score seems to have been given by the Japanese government, for somewhat bizarre reasons. The plant itself was put out of commission, but the tsunami alone would have probably done that. Evidence of specifically nuclear damage, as opposed to destruction from flooding and the physical force of the tsunami, is hard to find.
Even the Chernobyl accident turns out, even on superficial examination, not to have been what it was cracked to be. Sixty-three people died directly from the accident. Beyond the 63, estimates of additional deaths, of deaths above and above the expected, of deaths above the number from the natural death rate, vary widely enough to cause me to dismiss out of hand the methodologies involved. Thirty-three years after the event, I see no evidence that anyone died of radiation effects. The large area around the entombed Chernobyl plant, prudently evacuated by the Soviets at the time of the accident, remains uninhabited by humans. It’s now the largest de factogame preserve in Europe. Animals of all kinds thrive there. Does this tell us anything about the safety of that area for homo sapiens?
Would you guess that nuclear safety techniques have improved since 1986? Since the demise of the shaky Soviet Union? That’s a good bet. But while you’re computing the few nuclear-related deaths caused by the Three Mile Island accident, the destruction of the Fukushima plant by a tsunami, and the Chernobyl disaster, you may want to consider how many deaths are due to the production of energy by other means, in amounts equal to those produced by the nuclear plants just mentioned. Would these traditional modes of energy production cost fewer or more lives? How many more or fewer? I am thinking coal, petroleum, natural gas. I am also curious — and open-minded — about the comparative lethal dangers of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. In the meantime, even France is making confused energy production choicesunder the influence of the HCC narrative. (“La France fait de mauvais choix technologiques,” by Gérard Kafadaroff and Jean-Pierre Riou.)
Offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy.
Questions regarding the absence of nuclear solutions to alleged climate problems are worth asking, unless you care little or not at all about intellectual and moral consistency. Yet public figures identified with the climate change narrative are nowhere to be found when it comes to opining on the desirability of nuclear power. It makes me think that they are gravely flawed intellectually, or that they wish for something other than a reduction in CO2 emissions, or that the reduction of CO2emission is only a means to some other end. Their absence in this matter is a major reason why I don’t trust HCC experts. At the very least, some of these experts should appear in the same media they inhabit day in and day out and explain, like this: “Some people think that nuclear energy production is a solution to global warming because it emits no greenhouse gases. However . . .” Their failure to appear, the fact that rank-and-file believers do not ask that they appear, makes me see the whole movement as existing in bad faith.
Failures to Intervene on the Side of Virtue and Reason
Bad faith is also demonstrated by omission. When loud voices insist that the world is going to come to an end in about 12 years unless we take radical measures, no audible contradiction comes from the HCC side. (Correct me if I am wrong; I will publish the contradiction right here, in bold letters.) When a newly-minted politician of no particular intellectual distinction affirms that we must eliminate jet-plane travel within 30 years or at least not much later, the silence of responsible HCC advocates is deafening. When multiple declared presidential candidates of the largest political party join her publicly . . .
More prosaically, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t read or hear in the media absurd and unsupported pronouncements attributing this or that untoward event to “global warming” or to “climate change.” Once I even heard a television weather reporter blame climate change for an (imaginary) increase in the frequency of . . . earthquakes. OK, this was on the international francophone television channel TV5 but, so? The HCC narrative seems to me to have further advanced toward uncontested truth in France and in Belgium than in the US. That might explain its mindless audacity. I paid much attention afterwards, and I think no correction was ever made on TV5. So, somewhere in West Africa, there may be some alert school kids who watch TV5 to improve their French and are now affirming that climate change causes earthquakes.
Before such stupidity, I expect climate scientists, the real ones with scholarly credentials, to reach down from their ivory towers to administer contradiction. They must know that unsupported and unsupportable statements like these give their cause a bad name among the thinking and the rational. They may not be able to do it often; transgressions of this kind are daily and probably worldwide. Yet offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy. If they don’t, it suggests to me that they don’t care to persuade the thinking and the rational. It might be that after a certain point, persuasion becomes irrelevant because there are other means, forceful means, to achieve their desired ends. Their inaction makes me suspicious.
Climate change narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar.
I am aware of only one case when contradiction was actually meted out, when a climate scientist with scientific credentials reached down to try and straighten out the record. In 2007, when Al Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize, the media made next to nothing of the fact that it was awarded jointly with the UN International Panel on Climate Change. One little known scientist from IPCC, maybe piqued for being left in a dark corner while Gore was bathing in the limelight, wrote a brief, timid, mildly corrective op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. That’s it! Some readers may have noticed other corrective interventions that escaped my attention. I would like to hear about them, too.
And by the way, HCC narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar. Just my opinion but, ask around.
Omitting the Good
The climate change narrative includes other striking sins of habitual omission. But there is little doubt that if the various scenarios linked to climate change — global warming specifically — are correct, some good things will follow, in addition to the bad ones. This matters, because rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions. Two significant such omissions come to mind.
The first concerns shorter polar routes linking Europe and East Asia to each other and to North America, as ice melts near the North Pole. This means cheaper transportation, cheaper goods and, besides, a decrease in fuel consumption and therefore an abatement in CO2 emissions! I think this has already happened. It seems worth the occasional mention.
Rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions.
The second omission is warmer temperatures, which would undoubtedly ensure that the global area where cereals can mature will push northward. More wheat, for example, will be grown in Canada and in Siberia. This will mean more food and cheaper food. Perhaps it will even delay the moment when we must stop raising cattle because of their gross gas-processing manners. The warming of northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere may also give humanity some agricultural flexibility. Areas where cereals are grown under conditions favoring CO2 emissions might be retired, to the benefit of new areas, less favorable to them. Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification. That they omit to mention the good side of the same coin looks simply like another form of bad faith.
And then there is the simple fact, which the moderate environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg pointed out in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, that many more people die of the cold than from the heat.
It would be fine for HCC publicists to omit the favorable stuff about global warming if we had a real adversarial debate going on. We don’t have one because the climate change proponents overwhelmingly insist that there is no opposite side, that there is only their side, and elsewhere there is simply a mass of uneducated, illiterate imbeciles who are probably also evil (“deniers”). After all, 98%, or 97% of climate scientists, etc. . . .
Deviousness and Nonchalance
And then, there is what looks like cheating and is at least devious. Let me say first that so many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest. So I am less interested in describing the liars and cheats than in gauging the response to dishonesty — or cutting corners, or manipulating data, or concealing data — of what has become, deliberately or not, a social movement.
Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification.
In 2009, hacked (stolen) emails sent by climate researchers at the University of East Anglia seemed to show coordinated attempts to suppress adverse research by deniers, by mere skeptics, and by simple rivals. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University were also implicated. See, for example: “From Phil Jones [University of East Anglia] To: Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University). July 8, 2004: ‘I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!’” [Emphasis mine.]
About more suppression, see: “Climategate 2.0: New E-Mails Rock The Global Warming Debate,” by James Taylor, in Forbes, November 23, 2011. There was also an unexplained mass destruction of data, including publicly accessible data, after questions were raised about findings on which they may have been based; this, although keeping the same data involved little or no cost: “Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based. It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.” A government-supported outfit admitted to having thrown away a large amount of climate data because of a “lack of storage capacity.” This prevents others, of course, from trying to duplicate their findings.
Here is an articulate summary of what an alert and critical layman could have read about what came to be known as “ClimateGate” — I mean a literate interested person with no training in physics or related fields, a citizen, like me: “What’s Up with That”: “Men Behaving Badly — a Short Summary for Laymen.” See also another work by the same author, and yet another by Fred Pearse, in the British center-left Guardian. Note: Pearse was also sometimes a debunker of the climate change debunking.
So many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest.
So, it looked for all the world as if there were an international conspiracy of people with real scientific credentials — not publicists — to censor and to steer research in ways supportive of the HCC narrative. Soon, prestigious associations of scientists, their own universities, and some respected scientific journals responded by reaffirming the reality of climate change without, however, explicitly denying the apparent cheating or condemning the apparent cheaters. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, concluded: ‘based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway . . . it is a growing threat to society.’”
After following this complicated story for 15 years, I am left with the impression that no one with any public intellectual credibility has addressed the following: however correct many of the HCC findings are, no matter how real global warming may be, top climate researchers did repeatedly violate scientific and academic norms, as well as basic individual ethics. This speaks, of course, to future credibility, to the post-scandal credibility of the scientific basis of HCC.
Ten years earlier, another climate scientist and his colleagues had produced a striking graph showing an abrupt and dramatic rise in temperature for the period more or less from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today. Thus, the “hockey stick”: from left to right, flat, flat, flat, and then steeply up (to the right side of the graph, the last hundred years or so). He excluded available data for the period immediately preceding his period of observation. Had those data been included — extending the period to earlier times — the graph would have represented global temperature change over time as a sort of shapeless U instead of the striking “hockey stick.” The resulting graph might still have been interpretable as supporting the HCC narrative, but much less spectacularly than the hockey stick. It would have made more room for honest doubt. The alternative graph, with full data, could have been used in the way graphs are intended: to make information readily available to others — including the untrained — so they may make up their own minds. For a hostile view of the hockey stick, read: “Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” Christopher Booker, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009. “Our hopelessly compromised scientific establishment cannot be allowed to get away with the Climategate whitewash,” says Booker.
The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s.
The scientific transgression involved in the hockey stick graph is a subtle one, but the relevant rule is clear: researchers are supposed to include all the relevant data available, or they must say why they don’t. If they don’t follow this rule, they must at least signal clearly the existence of data they exclude so that others may try alternative formulations. (See note 2 below.) In their rebuttal of the widespread criticism accompanying their initial report, the chief creator of the hockey stick and his colleagues published a response with more complete data — through an interview with Chris Mooney of The Atlantic. The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s. They insist nevertheless that they were right all along.
The graph entitled “Reconstructed Temperature” (which uses several measurements) in the Wikipedia entry, “Hockey Stick Controversy” shows about the same thing.
This, the most relevant Wikipedia entry, gives wide coverage to the associated issues and it is abundantly referenced (to mostly scientific journals). It gives an impression of scholarly thoroughness. It must also leave the noncommitted reader with the view that after much back and forth, the controversy has now disappeared, to the benefit of the hockey stick creators’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, the last, concluding sentence in this long Wiki entry reads as follows: “Marcott et al. 2013 used seafloor and lake bed sediment proxies to reconstruct global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, the last 1,000 years of which confirmed the original MBH99 hockey stick graph.” (Italics mine.) So, the data before 1012 do not support the hockey stick graph? Pretty much the suspicion I started with.
The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data.
None of the above demonstrates to me that there is no HCC. There is however an unfinished controversy, a healthy debate around complicated issues of statistical analysis and of even more difficult issues of measurement. I think it’s far from over. The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data. They thereby drew unwanted attention to themselves and to their alleged conclusive findings. Why they would have adopted such a cavalier attitude toward good practice is anyone’s guess, but the fact makes this citizen consumer of such news suspicious.
Neither instance of academic nonchalance proves anything in itself, but both give us the right to wonder whether they are the tip of a giant iceberg of intellectual dishonesty. Personally, I can’t put these stories to rest because the critical examination by the legitimate upper scientific establishment was too weak, given the implied tremendous policy stakes. I feel as if the relevant credentialed persons had just closed the door instead of cleaning the room.
If the watchdogs are doing their watching indulgently, why should I — who am unable to perform my own watching — believe that what is being watched is legitimate?
Part II will follow.
- “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”: To cite this article: John Cook et al (8) 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 024024 (7pp). I thank my friend and FB friend Vernon Bohr for the link.
- I have performed this kind of longitudinal research myself. My old coauthored sociology articles on the history of the Irish press and of the Argentinean press would have shown different things, and possibly more interesting things if we had had the luxury of deciding which years of observation to include, which to exclude. Instead, we performed statistical operations on all data available, from the very first newspaper to be published in each country. This proper inclusion might have cost me tenure! No regrets here though; both articles were published in one of the best journals available (Jacques Delacroix and Glenn Carroll. “Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland,”Administrative Science Quarterly, 228:274-291(1983); Glenn Carroll and Jacques Delacroix, “Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach,”Administrative Science Quarterly, 27:169-198 (1982).
My postings on climate change: