Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 7, 2009
POLITICS: Science And Its Enemies On The Left, Part II(B)
B. Anthropogenic Global Warming
More recently than the stem cell controversy, we have the series of mushrooming controversies - most spectacularly the "Climategate" scandal - over Anthropgenic Global Warming (AGW), i.e., the theory that human industry is responsible, by means of carbon emissions, for an upward trend in global temperatures. AGW is very important to the Obama Administration and its allies in the Democratic Party and on the international Left; recall Barack Obama's grandiloquent pronouncement that people would remember of his clinching of the Democratic nomination in June 2008 that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal". But AGW theory and its adherents are rotten with bad science.
1. The EPA Report
The first sign that the new Administration was willing to push the barriers between science and politics in support of its AGW agenda was this spring's flap over the Obama Administration's suppression of an EPA report that contradicted the agency's decision to classify CO2 (the most natural of gases, being that it is exhaled by human beings) as a "pollutant" - a decision that has been used to justify "cap-and-trade" legislation as well as administrative actions on the issue without the need for legislation (the latter being supported by an agency "finding" released in April by the EPA and finalized in November that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare). This episode was a fairly classic example of how government policymaking in areas of scientific expertise remains more about politics than about science. Read the summary overview of that report here, and Ben Domenech's writeup here. Michelle Malkin sums up the kind of critique presented in the report:
[I]t spotlights EPA's reliance on out-of-date research, uncritical recycling of United Nations data, and omission of new developments, including a continued decline in global temperatures and a new consensus that future hurricane behavior won't be different than in the past.
Chris Mooney, the liberal author of the "Republican War on Science" book, went so far as to argue that because he disagreed with its conclusions, the EPA was right to suppress the report. Of course, this is rather a far cry from the arguments made during the Bush years that about the dangers of suppressing scientific skepticism and dissent; the orthodoxy must be enforced.
Given its policy aims, it is not surprising that the Administration was hesitant to publish a report that contradicted the AGW narrative. In fact, the AGW hypothesis presents the most egregious example in recent years - in terms of its sheer scale - of thoroughly politicized science. The AGW debate merits consideration at some length here because of its centrality to a policy debate affecting a vast proportion of human economic activity and the copious examples it provides of the corruption of politicized science. Put simply, any reasonable person who looks at the evidence must conclude that the proponents of AGW theory are political advocates first and scientists, if at all, a distant second.
Now, it may well be true - it is certainly possible - that the Earth is presently in a warming trend, and that such a trend can be projected into the future, and that human activity is responsible for that trend, and even that changes in future economic structures could alter that trend. All of that may be true, and it may be false; science is supposed to help us find the answers to such questions, and to tell us honestly if the answers cannot in confidence be found. Science is not about identifying what is possible or plausible or arguable and then asserting it as fact; it's about following the evidence wherever it may lead, to determine whether a particular hypothesis is proven, disproven, unproven or inherently unprovable. (Unprovable theories aren't without their uses in science, if they remain the most likely explanation for a set of facts - but such explanatory theories ought not to be asserted as fact, and they make a shaky basis for sweeping and disruptive public policy initiatives.)
If you were to construct a checklist of the warning signs of bad science, the campaign to persuade the public of AGW would tick off basically every box: the refusal to share data, to the point of outright destroying it; the manipulation of the peer-review process to skew results; the constant changing of models and predictions to avoid having them subject to testing against hard evidence; the campaign of alarmism and demonization of skeptics; the rank appeals to authority and consensus in place of reasoned discussion of the evidence. Only the most credulous rubes could believe the proponents of AGW without a raised eyebrow at these tactics.
2. Warming? What Warming?
The reason why AGW has such political salience, of course, is that it is used as justification for vast governmental controls over economic activity - long a project of the Left, but now with the newly-added patina of physical science as support for the same old programs. In order to justify the massive dislocations that would be caused by such controls, it is necessary not only that AGW be unquestioned, but that it be menacing; thus, we get things like a scientific advisor to the British Government claiming that AGW will annihilate 90% of the world's population if the temperature rises four degrees Celsius. And in some cases, the rush to make dire predictions founders on the most banal forms of sloppiness, as when the IPCC predicted the demise of Himalayan glaciers by 2035, when the data said 2350. A digit here, a digit there...
The need to generate predictions of doom is a double-edged sword. One of the problems at the heart of AGW theory, and which has caused no end of difficulty for its proponents, is that it is a predictive model, yet proponents of the theory keep having to change what it predicts to avoid ever allowing the theory to be falsifiable. A theory of global warming, after all, presupposes that the Earth is getting warmer, and indeed the entire basis for convincing anyone that the theory holds water is to point to the correlation between increasing industrial emissions of carbon and recent increases in global temperature. But even before you get to the questions of (1) whether the historical temperature readings are accurately recorded and presented and (2) whether correlation equals causation, you run up against the fact that persistent alarmist predictions that the warming trend would continue have not panned out.
As you may recall, the headline-grabber that made AGW a political issue in the 1990s was the famous "hockey stick" graph produced by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, so-called because it showed a sharp upward spike in global temperatures, shaped like the blade of a hockey stick, near the end of the 20th century. The hockey stick, in turn, was premised in good part upon historical temperature data derived from a database of tree ring measurements maintained by the CRU. Mann's hockey stick was never the sole source of AGW theory, and the CRU was never the sole source of historical data, but the hockey stick graph was central to the project of capturing the public imagination and turning a scientific theory into a political juggernaut. The clear implication to anyone looking at the hockey stick was that at precisely the time of accelerating industrialization, we had entered a period of accelerating increase in global temperatures that would continue unchecked into the future. Correlation being easily confused with causation, much of the public simply accepted that the increase in carbon emissions resulting from increasing industrialization must have been the cause of the temperature spike; the two patterns were too visually striking to be coincidence.
While many scientists were convinced of the logic of computer models of how a "greenhouse effect" would work in transmuting carbon emissions into increased temperatures, scientists could never prove that their models of how carbon emissions affected the Earth's temperature were correct; you can't conduct an experiment on something as large and complex as a planet and its entire surroundings in the solar system, and there was no historical precedent for the Earth's industrialization, only a long history on this and other planets of climates changing without human intervention. But with the hockey stick, nobody needed to question the underlying logic of causation anymore than they do in the case of lung cancer and smoking (i.e., it's still not known how smoking causes lung cancer, but the statistical correlation over innumerable studies covering a very large sample is so strong that nobody today seriously disputes the causal connection despite the absence of a known mechanism - much of epidemiology works that way).
Unfortunately for the proponents of AGW, it turns out in retrospect that the hockey stick was just a figment of small and incomplete samples. You can read fuller explanations here and here, but I will summarize them briefly. Basically, the original "hockey stick" did two things: not only did it show a sharp upward spike in temperatures in the late 20th century, but it also rebutted the contention that this could be a natural phenomenon by showing the lowest temperatures in 1032, in the midst of what had been believed to be the "Medieval Warm Period." That hockey stock was premised on a 1995 paper that "depended on 3 short tree ring cores from the Polar Urals whose dating was very problematic," and when additional data became available in 1999, the updated temperature series was not published, but rather replaced with a new study from Yamal, also in Russia. But to skeptic Steve McIntyre, the Yamal data - collected in two sets - didn't add up, and he embarked on a years-long battle to get all the data to review independently. When he finally did, in September 2009, the resulting sample - using a larger sample size for late 20th century data - changed the shape of the "stick" to eliminate the blade (as well as modifying the medieval results), leaving something much more clearly resembling a random walk of statistical noise. You can see the results in this graph from McIntyre's site: the red line is the Mann/CRU hockey-stick graph, the black line is the data left out of the stick, and the green line is what you get when you combine the two sets:
At least eight papers purporting to reconstruct the historical temperature record times may need to be revisited, with significant implications for contemporary climate studies, the basis of the IPCC's assessments. A number of these involve senior climatologists at the British climate research centre CRU at the University East Anglia. In every case, peer review failed to pick up the errors.
The hockey stick isn't the only such example, as illustrated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data wrongly showing a non-existent and persistent spike in ocean temperatures in 2001.
If you had - as many AGW proponents did, in the 1990s - begun to make short-term predictions about climate trends along the lines of continuation of the Mann/CRU hockey stick trends, you would have been grievously wrong, as in fact all such predictions have proven. Since AGW rose to prominence as a political project, the past decade has shown no growth in global temperatures since the natural El Nino temperature surge of 1998. One study after another has shown that the Earth simply has not gotten warmer in the past 11 years:
[In the fall of 2009], Britain's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research added more fuel to the fire with its latest calculations of global average temperatures. According to the Hadley figures, the world grew warmer by 0.07 degrees Celsius from 1999 to 2008, and not by the 0.2 degrees Celsius assumed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And, say the British experts, when their figure is adjusted for two naturally occurring climate phenomena, El Niño and La Niña, the resulting temperature trend is reduced to 0.0 degrees Celsius -- in other words, a standstill.
[M]ean ice anomaly -- defined as the seasonally-adjusted difference between the current value and the average from 1979-2000, varies much more slowly. That anomaly now stands at just under zero, a value identical to one recorded at the end of 1979, the year satellite record-keeping began.
Earlier this year, predictions were rife that the North Pole could melt entirely in 2008. Instead, the Arctic ice saw a substantial recovery. Bill Chapman, a researcher with the UIUC's Arctic Center, tells DailyTech this was due in part to colder temperatures in the region. Chapman says wind patterns have also been weaker this year. Strong winds can slow ice formation as well as forcing ice into warmer waters where it will melt.
The response of proponents of AGW: change the predictions so they don't risk being disproven by events, as illustrated by this report from September 2009:
Forecasts of climate change are about to go seriously out of kilter. One of the world's top climate modellers said Thursday we could be about to enter one or even two decades during which temperatures cool.
In candid mood, climate scientists avoided blaming nature for their faltering predictions, however. "Model biases are also still a serious problem. We have a long way to go to get them right. They are hurting our forecasts," said Tim Stockdale of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, UK.
Climate change models, no matter how powerful, can never give a precise prediction of how greenhouse gases will warm the Earth, according to a new study.
The analysis focuses on the temperature increase that would occur if levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled from pre-Industrial Revolution levels. The current best guess for this number - which is a useful way to gauge how sensitive the climate is to rising carbon levels - is that it lies between 2.0 C and 4.5 C. And there is a small chance that the temperature rise could be up to 8C or higher.
AGW theory's inability to accurately predict global temperatures has gotten so bad that it has spurred a movement to rebrand "global warming" as "climate change," a moniker so vague that it can never be disproven (climates change; that's what they do, and have for all of Earth's history). The latest fad is "climate collapse," apparently because "change" wasn't scary enough. The ever-shifting definition of what the problem is, what it's called, and how it could be measured is a classic symptom of bad, politicized science. The constant goalpost-moving may be a drearisome feature of politics, but it's not supposed to be how science works.
Rebranding the AGW hypothesis allows things like Al Gore's scare tactics based on supposed trends projected from short-term fluctuations in natural disasters. In the specific example of Gore's misuse of disaster data, the question may be more one of politicians abusing scientific data than the underlying data being politicized, but both are problematic. It's unhelpful to have leading political figures running around telling us that "I hold in my hand a list of dire climate predictions" that nobody can subject to dispassionate review. Fortunately, the resort to dire predictions about natural disasters, like predictions about temperature, are subject to correction by events; we just finished an unusually mild hurricane season for the second time in four years, which is not at all the "climate change" that Gore is threatening (in fact, predictions of 2009 the hurricane season were also inaccurate). But not to worry; the predictions will just continue being kicked out further down the time horizon to ensure that they can't ever be disproven conclusively.
3. Consensus? What Consensus?
Given the mounting failure of efforts to convince the public that bad weather - or unseasonably good weather, either will do - is scientific proof of AGW, the theory's proponents have instead turned to appeals to authority, insisting that there is an ironclad scientific consensus that proves the theory to be true, and demanding that the citizenry trust the consensus because they're scientists.
This ought to set off serious alarm bells. To begin with, anyone remotely familiar with the history of science understands that scientific consensuses are made to be broken; most of the really important new scientific theories and discoveries since Aristotle have come from the overturning of an existing and erroneous consensus. If consensus was the end of science, we would have to consign Einstein, Darwin, and Newton to the ash heap of history.
Students of human nature should be equally alarmed. The proponents of policies supported by the "consensus" have sought to freeze that consensus in amber by embodying it in a series of reports by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international bureaucratic institution honored by another international bureaucratic institution with a Nobel Peace Prize. But the IPCC's reports are worth no more than the sum of their parts, especially given that only a fraction of the vaunted 2,500 scientists signing onto the IPCC reports have personally conducted sufficient research to validate AGW theory from their own personal experience and expertise.
The effort to compile an "official" scientific "consensus" into a single document, approved by governments, has exacerbated the pressures to politicize policy-relevant science. So too has been the tendency to pretend as if resolving the scientific questions will resolve policy disputes.
Government-backed and -enforced scientific consensuses have a dire history, the most notorious example of which was the work of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko:
Lysenko...ruled the life sciences of Soviet Russia from the late 1920s until the early 1960s. He had a theory which fit Marxism perfectly: acquired characteristics can be inherited. This is not true, of course, but Lysenko had the Politburo and Stalin behind him. It was science that fit the political needs of the Bolsheviks, and so it was science backed by the awful power of the party and the state.
As I will discuss below, the "Climategate" emails strike at the heart of the credibility of the IPCC reports. As the Future of Capitalism blog observes of the CRU emails:
On the broader question of climate change science, the group-think suggested by the emails is bad for the scientific process, and as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it's often a precursor to a paradigm shift that, when it comes, is adamantly resisted at first. Just ask Galileo. And for a flavor of the way that the elite reacts to the questioning of the climate change consensus, check out how the once-dignified New Yorker handled Superfreakonomics, and the way that handling was praised by the Nobel laureate New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Self-reinforcing orthodoxies have a way of being punctured in fields other than science, too, whether it is a single party's apparent dominance in Washington or mindless and widespread optimism about rising house prices.
(It should be borne in mind that groupthink and ideological bias are in addition to the far-from-foolproof nature of peer review in the first place; like any human endeavor, peer review can be and sometimes is also undone by ordinary cronyism or simple laziness or haste, as in the recent example of a scientific journal accepting for publication a nonsense article generated by a computer program, a scandal that resulted in the resignation of the journal's editor).
Proponents of the AGW consensus as definitionally unassailable have circled their wagons against the danger of free thinkers by attacking their critics as paid shills of industry. Unsurprisingly, given that carbon-emitting industries have an enormous amount to lose from the policy proposals at issue, the targeted industries have in fact sought to fund anybody who might question the forces arrayed against them. But in science, the proper remedy for self-interested assertion is transparency and replication of methods, not "na, na, na, I'm not listening."
The incessant attacks on the financial motivations of the skeptics - in addition to being antithetical to the whole project of scientific inquiry by means of evaluation of the evidence rather than argument ad hominem - not only ignores the fact that the proponents have great incentives of their own in terms of aggrandizing their political power, it also ignores that there's quite a lot of money in AGW too. As Vladimir at RedState notes:
[Employees and scientists funded by the IPCC] work for the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course they believe in Climate Change; it says "Climate Change" on their paychecks! The global warming opinions of organizations like the American Petroleum Institute have always been treated with skepticism; why should we not consider the source when it comes to the IPCC's studies?
Consider the case of Phil Jones, the director of the CRU and the man at the heart of climategate. According to one of the documents hacked from his center, between 2000 and 2006 Mr. Jones was the recipient (or co-recipient) of some $19 million worth of research grants, a sixfold increase over what he'd been awarded in the 1990s....
And of course, the CRU's funding includes money from the U.S. Department of Energy and the EPA. Another email shows concerns that the Commerce Department would grow "suspicious" of the CRU's activities. And the desire to keep the money flowing clearly affected AGW proponents' view of the legitimacy of criticism, as illustrated by this October 2009 email from the Climategate files:
How should I respond to the below? [an article questioning AGW theory] (I'm in the process of trying to persuade Siemens Corp. (a company with half a million employees in 190 countries!) to donate me a little cash to do some CO2 measurments here in the UK - looking promising, so the last thing I need is news articles calling into question (again) observed temperature increases--
Despite the confident assertion of consensus issued ex cathedra by the IPCC and the heavy costs in acrimony and ad hominem assault to dissenting scientists, the skeptics, organized politically by Oklahoma GOP Senator Jim Inhofe, have found no shortage of scientists willing to question the "consensus" on AGW. Senator Inhofe has released reports in 2007 & 2009 quoting more than 700 dissenting scientists, many of them quite distinguished. (One of the more distinguished skeptics is profiled by the New York Times here). Ditto for the direst predictions of climate-change disaster:
[I]f there is one scientist who knows more about sea levels than anyone else in the world it is the Swedish geologist and physicist Nils-Axel Morner, formerly chairman of the INQUA International Commission on Sea Level Change. And the uncompromising verdict of Dr Mörner, who for 35 years has been using every known scientific method to study sea levels all over the globe, is that all this talk about the sea rising is nothing but a colossal scare story. Despite fluctuations down as well as up, "the sea is not rising," he says. "It hasn't risen in 50 years." If there is any rise this century it will "not be more than 10cm (four inches), with an uncertainty of plus or minus 10cm". And quite apart from examining the hard evidence, he says, the elementary laws of physics (latent heat needed to melt ice) tell us that the apocalypse conjured up by Al Gore and Co could not possibly come about. The reason why Dr Morner, formerly a Stockholm professor, is so certain that these claims about sea level rise are 100 per cent wrong is that they are all based on computer model predictions, whereas his findings are based on "going into the field to observe what is actually happening in the real world".
In fact, one rarely has to look far for legitimate scientific skepticism about AGW climate models, even among those who buy into some aspects of AGW theory. Bjorn Lomborg, a skeptic who believes in AGW but argues that it's been overblown, notes that "there are reputable peer-reviewed studies out there that show that because we have pumped out so much CO2 in the atmosphere, we haven't gone into a new Ice Age.". A July 2009 article in Science argued that cloud behavior is a major player in global warming, and that if so, "almost all climate models have got it wrong." Others note that the historical evidence shows that the models don't account for or understand all the factors at work:
[A] new study published online [in July 2009] in the journal Nature Geoscience ... found that only about half of the warming that occurred during a natural climate change 55 million years ago can be explained by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What caused the remainder of the warming is a mystery.
To anyone who cares about the scientific search for truth, questions of this nature are an invitation to further research. To the political zealots who regard further inquiry as damnable heresy, they are simply quibbles to be brushed aside.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:39 PM | Enemies of Science | Politics 2009 | Science | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)