Sunday, 21 March 2010

Fool me twice

As the cacophony of voices attacking climate science grows, I have to wonder: where are the journalists? Have they forgotten their job description? In any other field, if such an obvious, misinformed lobby arose, would they rate any attention?

Well, maybe.

During organized tobacco’s war on science, many newspapers reported propaganda created by paid tobacco lobbyists as a legitimate alternative to mainstream science. Other industries took up the same strategy: producers of CFCs who paid ozone hole deniers, and asbestos vendors who refused to acknowledge guilt in killing their own workers in the most horrific way in the cause of making a quick buck. In South Africa, according to a Harvard study, over 300,000 people died unnecessarily because the Mbeki government chose to believe pseudo-science when reality did not suit the president’s politics.

Fit to the Pattern

In all these cases, the tactics were remarkably similar. A small group, mostly with no scientific credentials in the area, supported by an even smaller group with some relevant scientific background, claimed that they represented an alternative viewpoint that had to be aired, and increasingly stridently portrayed the mainstream as dishonest, excluding alternative theories and even a religion. In each case, if you scratched below the surface, the strident accusations had no merit.

Is climate science any different? Not in principle, but in degree. The number of actual paid lobbyists is quite small, and the tactics have been narrow (as ably documented by John Mashey): discredit a small number of key scientists, tarring the rest as in on the plot, and cause general doubt among the public who are unaccustomed to evaluating scientific evidence. From there, rely on the gullibility of journalists and a ready constituency of conspiracy theorists and absolutist free marketeers who abhor any form of government intervention, and then rely on the viral properties of the Internet to spread the message far and wide. All this is a clever refinement on previous business-sponsored anti-science campaigns that didn’t have the Internet as a tool to spread disinformation on the cheap (AIDS denial was the first anti-science campaign I know of that did this, and it went pretty far without the benefit of an industrial sponsor). The biggest difference though is that mishandling climate change has the potential to cause disaster on an unprecedented scale. The ozone hole has made it inconvenient to live in countries like Australia, where sun-lovers court cancer if they don’t apply enough sun screen. Asbestos kills in horrible ways, but the number of victims is limited to those who are directly exposed. Tobacco too kills in horrible ways, if in much larger numbers than asbestos. AIDS is a terrible affliction to treat as a political problem that can be wished away. But climate change is a threat that carries risks for the entire biosphere. Not only that, if we wait too long before switching to an alternative energy economy, the economic effects of a sudden worldwide shift to new forms of energy could be devastating.

The Risks

Clearly, the lowest-risk approach to climate change is gradual emissions reduction, and a slow transition to a new energy economy, a process that has enough benefits to be worth exploring long before we were sure of the science. Had we started this in the late 1980s when the evidence started to become clear, we would be well on the way today towards a clean energy economy. So why the massive resistance? As with CFCs, tobacco, asbestos and HIV, there are political and economic constituencies who are threatened by change.

The big risk to humanity is not just from the dangers in failing to slow climate change and to re-gear economies for low emissions. It is also from discrediting science. Science is not a matter of opinion: a theory stands or falls by how well it fits the evidence, including how well its predictions stand up to measurement. By attempting to turn climate science, and indeed any science that offends a particular special interest, into a matter for debate where the evidence counts for less than personal preference, we risk reverting from a society of reason to a society of superstition. So there are big issues at stake, and the fact that so much of the discourse on this subject has swung away from reason to personal attack, and insisting that the facts bend to opinion rather than that the science be evaluated for what it is, is cause for serious concern.

The Real Failure

Why have they been allowed to get away with it? George Monbiot, in his book Heat, exposed the link between the anti-science of tobacco and climate change (more links in my discussion of his book). It does not take brilliant investigative journalism, following on from that, to realise that the attack on climate science is a massive con designed to buy the fossil fuel industry time, at the expense of the rest of humanity, who stand to pay a huge price if action is taken too late.

This is not the first time this tactic has been used, yet the anti-science movement gets away with it again and again. Tobacco. HIV. Asbestos. CFCs. And now climate science. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five times, I’m a journalist.

Call to Action

So what can you do? Join my campaign or any other that you feel comfortable supporting to oppose demonizing science. Write letters to the media, making it clear you do not support turning science into a matter of opinion. Sign my pro-science petition, and consider joining my LinkedIn pro-science group to share ideas.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

More Questions about Climate Science

I talk a lot here about climate science, but I have a growing realisation that the vast majority of those who get exercised about this issue don’t know enough science to read papers in academic journals, and certainly are not excited about the issues that really attract scientific controversy, like string theory (someone has gone so far as to write a book about that with the stinging title, Not Even Wrong).

The real issue is fear that a fundamental change in the energy economy will cause a massive collapse in living standards. This fear is justified, but if mainstream climate science is right, we will need to make that change sooner or later, and the longer we delay, the harder it will be to get this change right without economic chaos. This fear is leading to a campaign that is not attacking the science as much as the scientists, which is why I set up a pro-science petition.

In response to my petition, Tim Curtin sent me a list of questions, which I repeat here with his permission:

You say: (1) "Stealing emails...", You have no evidence any were stolen, either they were up for grabs on ftp, or an insider blew the whistle.

(2) "magnifying the significance of errors" - actually the errors are beyond magnification, eg tippexing Roman glory days and the MWP

(3) "and invoking conspiracy theory" - the emails are very strong evidence of a well-organised conspiracy to pervert the progress of science

(4) " is no substitute for reasoned evidence-based debate" - a non sequitur. Actually Jones and his CRU abetted by Mann & Co took every possible means to suppress evidence-based debate (e.g. by preventing access to the evidence)...

(5) "Yet in the field of climate one has presented a credible alternative theory, the usual approach to overturning a scientific theory". Actually there is overwhelming evidence from multivariate regressions that radiative forcing from increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere has no statistically significant impact on changes in mean max or min temperatures anywhere on earth once changes in surface solar radiation are taken into account. Watch this space, as not a single climate journal (eg Nature, Science, PNAS, JoC etc etc) will ever publish any paper on this, given that all their boards are controlled by friends of Jones et al (eg Schellenhuber, Rahmstorf, Schneider, Schmidt, Hansen, et al ad infinitum).

Let’s take this from the top.

An archive of emails from an institution appears on the Internet in various places. The authors of the emails have not given their permission for their private emails to be published. By any reasonable definition, that’s theft. It doesn’t matter who did it or how, or whether someone left the front door open. The police are investigating. The police generally only investigate crimes.

The “Roman glory days and the MWP”: The most obvious response is that human society is vastly different today, with huge cities and vast impoverished agricultural societies a few metres above sea level. In Roman or Medieval times, if the local climate became unsuited to human society, people could and did migrate. We don’t have that option today.

I’ve studied a number of temperature reconstructions. The further back you go, the bigger the uncertainties. I had a look at the papers flagged as containing the most reliable data on the medieval warm period on a contrarian web site (CO2 science) that collects material on this stuff. The earliest and latest peak were 600 years apart. While it is quite likely that the odd spot around the world was much warmer than it is today at some point in the past, that does not mean the global average was much higher. An increase in the global average is important because it has consequences like sea level rise, and pushing habitats uphill and away from the equator. If it was warmer during the MWP or Roman period than it is now, there would be evidence that sea level was higher at that time (at least very similar) whereas the only evidence I’ve seen (admittedly with very big error bars – but current sea level is outside those error bars) shows current sea level as the highest in 3,000 years.

Next: “emails are very strong evidence of a well-organised conspiracy”. I don’t agree. All we see is comment about how poor some other people’s work is (common backroom banter in science) and some conversations that are open to sinister interpretation but checking in the real world shows such sinister intent didn’t materialise. For example: talk of keeping certain work out of the IPCC did not lead to that work being excluded (it is in fact cited). Similarly for the “hide the decline” comment: it refers to the fact that tree ring reconstructions fail to match temperatures in the later half of the twentieth century, a problem Mike Mann describes in a paper in Nature – hardly concealment. This inconsistency between tree ring records and thermometer readings would be a problem for credibility of tree ring reconstructions if they were not cross-checked against many other measures. I don’t see the big conspiracy. I see scientists not watching every word in emails between colleagues. If that is a sinister conspiracy, you have a vivid imagination.

Then: “Mann & Co took every possible means to suppress evidence-based debate”. I agree they could have made a bigger effort to make everything public (e.g., CRU’s computer code) but this claim is an exaggeration. The data they did not make public is data that is not theirs to make public. The remedy for anyone wanting it is to go to the original source. In science, while maximum openness is useful and I fully support the concept, the best check on integrity of results is if they are independently reproduced from scratch, ideally with independently derived data. NASA provides full data sets and software for download. If I download everything and run the software exactly as NASA did in one of their papers, all I am doing is replicating their exact steps including their errors. Anyone who thinks the CRU temperature reconstruction flawed is welcome to start from scratch from publicly available data sources and show that they get an inconsistent result. This is how science normally proceeds. An astronomer reports a new star. Other astronomers use their own telescope to verify the find. They don’t demand a computer dump of the data generated from the original telescope.

Finally: “overwhelming evidence from multivariate regressions”: let’s see that evidence. You don’t have to publish in Nature to get your work out. There are many journals out there, and there is no evidence that those with a strong anti-AGW agenda cannot publish. Certainly, the likes of Richard Lindzen are able to publish, and what strikes me about the contrarian papers I’ve seen is that they are usually rather easy to debunk (even to the point of attracting a rebuttal in one case from a contrarian site). Are you suggesting there’s a bias where only the rubbish contrarian papers are published, and the good ones are not? That is implausible: it’s easy to publish a good paper (sound methodology, original results, defensible conclusions) as long as you are not fussy about where it’s published (a good journal, not necessarily top tier).

Thanks for sending me the questions. I am happy to have discussion on this site. I do not snip comments, and only delete spam (but to cut spam, response to older articles are screened). I have absolutely no objection to attacking the science with better evidence, better theories, or both. This is how any scientist works. Attacking the scientists, not the science, is not constructive – hence my petition.

It further worries me that a large part of the lobby against climate science is attempting to reduce science to a matter of opinion. It is not. If a theory fits the evidence, it’s good. If it doesn’t, we need a better theory. If a new theory fits the evidence better, it replaces the old one. This methodology may be strange to those schooled in the arts or social sciences, but it’s a damn good one, and has taken us out of superstition to a worldwide technological society. Let’s not throw it away just because we are faced with a really hard problem if we accept the mainstream theory: the biggest change in the energy economy in over 100 years.


To illustrate that the basics are really quite old, it's interesting to read this 1956 paper in American Scienist by Glilbert Plass (reprinted January-February 2010). Much of the detail has since been clarified and some of his errors fortuitously cancelled out so there has been real progress in the science since 1956 – as you would expect.