Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Should I continue to publish John Cook's Skeptical Science pieces?

I have an apology to make - I think.

On Monday, I commented on David Rose's piece in previous day's Mail on Sunday. His series has been tagged "The Great Green Con" and his contrarianism (with which I have no issue in principle, being awkward myself) has been expressed in a provocative style that may help sell newspapers but doesn't do much for the spirit of liberal debate. In fact Rose seems to go so far out of his way to rile that I mistakenly thought he might be Johann Hari, who did at one time use the name "David Rose"; I am sorry for the error, but I have little trust in newpapers any more and believe some of them capable of taking a black sheep back into the fold if it helps boost circulation. My bad, as the Americans say.

Rose's piece seized on the increase in Arctic ice cover as some sort of touchstone proof that the global warmists were wrong. So I cast about for some alternative explanation for this seemingly awkward fact. And came across a piece written by an Australian academic called John Cook, who described a plausible mechanism whereby ice at the other end of the world might be increasing as a result of global warming. He kindly agreed to let me republish here, and to use other material if I wished - and so I planned a series of his debunk-the-debunker pieces to run for a month or so, with the idea that it would stimulate and inform debate.

I didn't realize that I had gone pogo-sticking into a minefield.

Having left college nearly forty years ago, and only as a student, I had forgotten what I'd heard about how sharp academic controversy and rivalry can be. At Oxford, votes in the election of the University's Chancellor can be checked against the name of the voter, and careers have (it seems) come to a screeching, permanent halt just for backing the wrong candidate. I supported a friend in the last vote and found out from Who's Who that another candidate, Lord Blake, was also head of the Electoral Reform Society, which (I think) is in favour of secret ballots; my friend told me that when he was going round radio stations on the stump they treated him as an entertaining joke until he raised this point, and then he could hear the producer screaming "Cut!" into the interviewer's headphones.

Now it seems that climate change is an issue that can scarcely be discussed at all. Adherents on either side overstate their case and denigrate the opposition - deplorably like some of the politicians that infest our Mother of Parliaments. It was Andrew Neather who revealed that Labour was happy to encourage immigration partly because it would "rub the Right's nose in diversity" (though the implication of that metaphor is quite unpleasant, when you come to consider it).

Anyhow, it may well be that careers in science have also been blighted by backing the wrong candidate (would Richard Dawkins be fair to a Christian graduate student under his tutelage, I wonder; perhaps he would). And there's money in grants and lobbying to be had on both sides, too.

So the odium theologicum rages strong in this field. Alerted by very unhappy (private) comments about John Cook, I looked for evidence that he is considered extremist or over-eager in his advocacy. His site (Skeptical Science) is certainly assertive, just as Rose's articles are, and really I've been brought up to think that science is always tentative and provisional. And so like Rose (who I think is not himself a scientist, though he has chosen a scientific subject) he invites debunkers.

Which is what I was hoping for. A backs global warming, B rejects the theory, C (Cook) tries to debunk the contrarian, D (I would hope) picks holes in the debunking.

It seems it's not quite like that. The temperature of the debate is melting everyone's cool. At a milder level, the site WattsUpWithThat features a number of articles about Cook's claims, including a recent dissection of his assertion that the overwelming majority of scientists believe in global warming; on the same issue, two other writers leap to his defence in The Guardian.

But it can get much, much worse than that. Some of the comments on The Guardian's website, reacting to David Rose, are simply psychotic. There's a lot more mental illness around than we realise; people talking with a mask on lose their humanity, it seems.

Well, I had planned a series of Cook's pieces and let people take reasoned and factual pot-shots; but I didn't intend for anyone to be seriously unhappy. I came from a family that was prepared to argue about everything - Mother voted Labour, Father Conservative (why did they both vote, I wondered) - but retained that sense that anyone can be wrong about anything. We kicked the ball around in the air, but never at anyone's head.

As far as climate goes, either it will stay much the same for the rest of human history, or get warmer, or colder (either of which could have serious consequences for us); the truth matters, even though we may not be able to predict it, and if we are helping make the environment more dangerous, then we should do something about it - if we can; but maybe we're not, and we can't, or shouldn't. But surely honest and mutually respectful debate (from all sides) has the best chance of discovering something like the truth, and helping us make decisions that are less wrong.

You'll see from the Energy and Climate page that the sidebar has links to both camps. But should I continue to print Cook's pieces here on this main page, if all it does is increase heat without light? I'm sorry if that's all it's done.

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20 comments:

Sobers said...

Ask yourself a simple question - who has the most to gain and lose from man made global warming theory being proved a bust? Is the rag tag group of sceptics going to suddenly become millionaires overnight, and be invited to take power in government, as a reward for being right? Hardly. How could they - they hold no official titles, represent no-one or nothing, beyond the ideas they promulgate. Most of them would just go back to their day jobs, and obscurity.

On the other hand, what would the pro-camp lose if they are proved wrong? Money (tens of billions of it are spent on 'research' into climate change every year at universities and institutes all around the globe - glittering careers depend on continuing to bring those grants in), power (the proponents of global warming are heavily involved in government nowadays, advising and writing legislation even) and prestige (how else would an ex railway engineer be able to swan around the world, feted by the worlds press, other than as head of the IPCC?).

As ever follow the money. Who gains from AGW, and who loses if its a bust, and that will tell you all you need to know.

Woodsy42 said...

"There's a lot more mental illness around than we realise;"

Well, a combination of bone headed stupidity, arrogance, greed and outright lies/misdirection on the part of the alarmists tends to bring out the worst in us other people who have to pay for it. It's difficult to be polite in such circumstances.

Paddington said...

Sobers - the anti-AGW folks have a great deal to gain, and it's more important than money. It means that their cherished belifs are not contradicted by the evidence. It's much like the Young Earth Creationists.

Sackerson said...

So, should I continue to put up Cook's arguments and let people have a go at them?

Sackerson said...

Sobers - I must have a look at this IPCC.

Woodsy - difficult, but surely not impossible.

Mark In Mayenne said...

You have no need to apologise putting up arguments for our against global warming. If people are unable to engage in reasoned debate, that's not your fault. Personally I like to hear good scientific debate. Not that there's much of it about.

Neal J. King said...

- Either you do or you do not support robust discussion. If you do, you should not back down from posting opinion supported by scientific evidence, simply because some people don't wish to hear it.

- It should be clear that the big winners on the AGW-skeptic side are the corporations with huge investments in fossil fuels, whose deposits of oil, gas and coal would lose value if the world were to turn to reliance on renewable energy resources instead of on carbon-dioxide-producing fossil fuels. This industry is worth $trillions per year, so the corporations involved have no problem leaking several $million each year to support "think tanks" like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute in their AGW-skeptic promotions. This is extensively documented by reference to publicly available documents in, for example, the DeSmogBlog: http://www.desmogblog.com/skeptics-exxon-oil-funds-climate-criticism .

Neal J. King said...

(My above comment was a response to sobers assertion that only the AGW "alarmist" have an incentive to win the argument.)

Sou said...

Should you put up articles from skepticalscience?

I get the feeling from your post that you don't feel in a position to judge the merits of scientific papers. And that you are leaning towards judging science by the volume of dissent from science deniers.

I think that's a shame.

Why not examine the science yourself. Check out the references provided in the many articles on skepticalscience or read the IPCC reports. That way you can decide for yourself whether climate change is something you think is important enough to discuss. Or whether it is a suitable topic for your blog.

Woodsy42 said...

"Woodsy - difficult, but surely not impossible."

Indeed so Sackerson. But some people have very little self control.

If you look at the Cook paper, it's fairly obvious that it presents a 'straw man' argument. It askes how many people agree that CO2 affects climate and that climate is changing (ie almost everyone does).
But then it uses that data to suggest that all those people blame CO2 as the only real influence and believe changes are extreme - which is nonsense.
I think you will find blogs like Watts up with that are not funded by commerce whatsoever and present sensible scientific ideas. Climate skeptics BTW is a deliberately misnamed alarmist propaganda site funded by green industry interests.

Unknown said...

Question, why do you reminisce about your parents voting for politcal parties and are looking for two sides to battle it out over science?

You seem to be after a debate instead of a wish to understand science. Effectively you are inviting conflict instead of trying to resolve the problem in your own mind.

eg. you want someone else to have a battle and then look on. You are interested in the people not the subject.

Neal J. King said...

Woodsy42:

- The Cook paper showed that a survey of 12,000 scientific papers with the phrases "global warming" or "global climate change" in their abstracts indicated that 97% (among the papers that indicated a judgment in the abstract) supported the claim that global warming is ongoing and is mostly due to human activity. The importance of this is that these are not just "people", but scientists who are writing peer-reviewed papers on which they are pinning their professional reputations.

- Now, the fact that 97% of scientists support a conclusion does not PROVE that the result is true. Just as if 97% of medical doctors believed that cigarette smoking can cause lung cancer: It doesn't PROVE that this is true. But it's a real strong hint that it's very likely to be true. Or do you think that the argument, "I'm in the 3% minority, so I'm right!" makes any sense?

- Funding of Watts:
See http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/08/28/requesting-some-assistance/#comment-1403189 :

"Anthony Watts says:
August 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Dr. Mann shows his true self in those tweets. The reason is that I never got $88K from Heartland, that was what was requested, not given. I got half that ($44K) to start the project. Thanks to Gleick’s thieving document interference and the resulting brouhahah, the second half never materialized. And, it came from an independent donor. More on that here: http://wattsupwiththat.com/about-wuwt/faqs/"

So Watts is admitting to receiving $44k from the Heartland Institute (the folks who explicitly compared people concerned about global warming with the Unabomber, on public billboards). HI has a goodly amount of funding directly or one step away from fossil-fuel corporations.

Matter said...

I'm always worried when I see someone decide to censor scientific results because they are unpopular.

Skeptical Science references its posts back to the scientific literature, its authors have published a number of scientific papers and it's been written about positively in Nature and by a number of professors who are active in climate science.

By contrast you'll notice that Wattsupwiththat and David Rose reference much less of the literature. The WUWT 'dissection' of the Cook consensus study for example is mostly based around a belief in being 'manifestly correct', refusing to understand the paper's methodology and ignoring several of its key results such as the author self-ratings.

The Institute of Physics' journal is called a "comic" and the authors are called "paid schoolboy interns in propaganda studies", "the kids", "Queensland kindergarten", "zit-faces", "tiddlers", "small fry", "smelts", "little ones", "goo-goos", "tiny tots", "bimbi", "kiddiwinks", "diddumses", "rugrats", "lambkins", "children", "babes-in-arms", "intellectual minnows", "critters" and "tweety-pies".

By contrast, the last Skeptical Science piece on Arctic sea ice starts by referencing the DMI data brought together at the University of Illinois and summarised in Walsh & Chapman, 2001. Next up is Kinnard et al., 2011 then Polyak et al., 2010.

That's the level of the debate. I find it tragic that people who choose to discuss a scientific issue like global warming can be scared off from doing so just by the heat of the anti-science hate.

Skeptical Science's writing is generally assertive and scientific results are tentative. But you'll notice that the assertiveness depends on the topic: uncertainties are discussed. In the case of some areas of science, the uncertainties are so small that assertive writing is justified. I don't think you should stop yourself from writing about the link between smoking and lung cancer because smokers get angry, or prevent yourself from publishing articles on natural selection because fundamentalists are infuriated, or censor work from pro-science blogs like skepticalscience.com because ideologues rage against it.

Sackerson said...

Thanks to all for taking the trouble to comment. In the light of what you have said, I shall continue to put these pieces forward, though with some prefatory remark that some people feel that Cook may tend to overstate his points - bearing in mind that his site is intended for popular education rather than academic debate.

I was merely taken aback by the heat in the climate debate - didn't quite expect it in modern scientific circles. Perhaps money has turned up the gas under it.

We're in an age when experts and authorities have to work harder to earn our trust, and may not always do so. The issues are too important to be left to experts, since we will all experience consequences.

Sobers said...

"It should be clear that the big winners on the AGW-skeptic side are the corporations with huge investments in fossil fuels, whose deposits of oil, gas and coal would lose value if the world were to turn to reliance on renewable energy resources instead of on carbon-dioxide-producing fossil fuels. This industry is worth $trillions per year, so the corporations involved have no problem leaking several $million each year to support "think tanks" like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute in their AGW-skeptic promotions."

A few million for the sceptics from 'Big Oil'? If there are any such grants it's chicken feed. The budget for climate change research in the US alone is $2.6bn per year. Thats before you add in the the hundreds of millions from charities such as FoE, Greenpeace, George Soros etc. Al Gore turned his $1.7m fortune into a $200m one from 2000 to date, on the back of his 'green' investments. And he wasn't unhappy to sell out to oil money either - Qatar oil money funds Al Jezeera that bought his TV station for $100m earlier this year.

Name me one sceptic who is even a millionaire on the back of their sceptical efforts. You won't find one. Its pretty rich of the AGW crowd to accuse the sceptics of being in it for the money when they are swimming in a pool of taxpayers cash the size of Lake Victoria.

Paddington said...

Sobers - Lord Monckton, for one. I have watched several of his presentations. Every single one contains out-and-out lies, on which he has been corrected, yet uses them again.

Neal J. King said...

Sobers:

There is a big difference between the money spent on climate-science research and that spent on climate-science skepticism:

- Research money does support professors' salaries; but it also supports graduate students, post-docs, lab equipment, satellites, ships sent all over the world to do oceanic measurements, etc. In other words, there is a reason for the money.

- A top scientist working at a place like NASA will have a salary that does not exceed about $145,000/year, because that is how far the pay scale goes for scientists. That's certainly a decent income; but to put it in perspective, a normal first-line software manager in Silicon Valley will easily make that much or more.

- The expenses required for climate-science skepticism: A PC, internet access, and a few library and journal access accounts; maybe some statistical software. That's about it, because they don't do measurements and they don't support graduate students.

Oh, I forgot: a coffee machine. Need a coffee machine.

Neal J. King said...

(cont'd)

So yes, a little bit more money is needed for climate research than for skepticism.

Oh, by the way: Part of that climate-science budget paid for the equipment that provided the capability to track the hurricanes we've had the last few years, and to predict more precisely where they were going to land. I bet that alone saved a few $billions.

Matter said...

Sackerson: I agree, any single scientific paper should be approached with caution, and that goes even more strongly for a blog like skepticalscience. But its pedigree is good and like a good pedigree dog it references its work directly to the scientific literature. Ok, I lost control of my metaphor there, but I hope you got my point!

"I was merely taken aback by the heat in the climate debate - didn't quite expect it in modern scientific circles. Perhaps money has turned up the gas under it."

It depends on how you define 'scientific circles'! The debate you see on the internet is nothing like the debate I've seen at the scientific conferences I've attended or in the journals I read.

Man-made warming is generally accepted since the evidence is overwhelming. The discussion in scientific circles is over details: things like whether under business as usual will we eventually warm 3 C or 9 C. Which is a big range of values leading to big debate and lots of new experiments.

But the public debate is often simpler and in the case of many of the 'skeptic' positions, they are way outside that supported by the science. If you divide people into 'climate skeptics' and 'others', this means that on most of the aspects of public debate, climate scientists almost all fall into 'others', which is why skepticalscience is sometimes so assertive in its statements and it contains the 'myths' section.

I'm glad you'll continue to use skepticalscience, I think it does a great job at bringing new research together and contextualising it in a way that an educated and interested skeptic can dip in and get to grips with where the science is. Some people will hate it, but I'd prefer to let them take issue with the evidence rather than the source.

Matter said...

Sackerson: I agree, any single scientific paper should be approached with caution, and that goes even more strongly for a blog like skepticalscience. But its pedigree is good and like a good pedigree dog it references its work directly to the scientific literature. Ok, I lost control of my metaphor there, but I hope you got my point!

"I was merely taken aback by the heat in the climate debate - didn't quite expect it in modern scientific circles. Perhaps money has turned up the gas under it."

It depends on how you define 'scientific circles'! The debate you see on the internet is nothing like the debate I've seen at the scientific conferences I've attended or in the journals I read.

Man-made warming is generally accepted since the evidence is overwhelming. The discussion in scientific circles is over details: things like whether under business as usual will we eventually warm 3 C or 9 C. Which is a big range of values leading to big debate and lots of new experiments.

But the public debate is often simpler and in the case of many of the 'skeptic' positions, they are way outside that supported by the science. If you divide people into 'climate skeptics' and 'others', this means that on most of the aspects of public debate, climate scientists almost all fall into 'others', which is why skepticalscience is sometimes so assertive in its statements and it contains the 'myths' section.

I'm glad you'll continue to use skepticalscience, I think it does a great job at bringing new research together and contextualising it in a way that an educated and interested skeptic can dip in and get to grips with where the science is. Some people will hate it, but I'd prefer to let them take issue with the evidence rather than the source.