Remember how yesterday I said that sometimes writing this blog depresses me? At the time, I made that observation because there are times when the unending constant onslaught of pseudoscience, anti-science, and woo leads me to despair that the human race will ever overcome its cognitive defects. However, there are other times when blogging depresses me. It’s for an entirely different reason, though. There are times when people I admire, people who should know better, fall and fall hard. No, I don’t mean Tiger Woods getting it on with a bunch of blondes. The level of horniness and lack of control all too common among powerful and well-accomplished men have long since lost their power to shock me. Rather, I’m talking about when skeptics whom I admire show a most unskeptical side. I’m talking about when a skeptic who really, really should know better makes an enormous mistake, a mistake that puts him firmly in the camp of denialists, although hopefully he doesn’t realize it. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often that such a prominent skeptic makes such an error, but it’s very disconcerting when it does.
The first time it happened for me was around five years ago, when I first found out that Penn Jillette frequently allows his Libertarian political views to interfere with his skepticism and appreciation of science. The examples are multiple, including a Bullshit! episode in which the deleterious health effects of secondhand smoke were denied (which ultimately Penn had to admit to have been in error). Penn has also frequently parroted anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialist tropes as well. I will admit that at TAM7, I saw Penn come as close as I’ve ever seen him to admitting that he was wrong about AGW, but he stopped just short, by retreating to the lame excuse of “I JUST DON’T KNOW!”
Unfortunately, the latest time this happened was yesterday. The prominent skeptic was James Randi. The disappointment came in the form of an article Randi posted to the JREF Swift Blog Monday night entitled AGW, Revisited. It greatly saddens me to say it, but in this single post, Randi unfortunately dropped a huge turd on the blogosphere. I take no pleasure at all in saying this because I’ve admired Randi for a long time. I even met him for the first time last summer at TAM7, and he was every bit as delightful as expected. Even weakened by surgery and chemotherapy, the mischievous twinkle in his eye was intact, and he seemed just as sharp as ever. Whether he was cruising around in his wheelchair or on his feet, Randi was still clearly the heart and soul of the skeptical organization that bears his name. That’s why his post on global warming is such a disappointment to me.
First off, let me just say that “doubting” the science behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW) does not per se make one a denialist. Nor does bucking the scientific consensus. Denialism does not involve questioning science so much as a fallacious manner of thinking that denies science and evidence. Evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists), for example, are not anti-science because they “question” evolution. Rather it is how they question evolution, using straw men, misrepresentations of the science, cherry picking, and whatever it takes basically to try to torture the evidence into the appearance of backing up what they already believe and want to keep believing. The same is true of “alternative medicine” mavens, 9/11 Truthers, and any manner of conspiracy theorists.
Also, let me point out that I am not accusing Randi of denialism. What almost certainly happened is that Randi unwisely jumped into an area about which he did not know enough to distinguish valid scientific arguments from denialist pseudoscience. Indeed, he practically admits as much, calling his writing “in my amateur opinion.” Unfortunately, his amateur opinion failed on many levels. For the average person, such a failure might not be that big a deal, but Randi is not a “normal” person. He’s a major figure in the skeptical movement. In any case, even if the global warming “skeptics” are completely correct in their criticisms of AGW, the arguments Randi uses against the current AGW scientific consensus would still be bad arguments, because they’re chock full of logical fallacies and misunderstanding of the science. Let’s start at the beginning, where Randi opens with an observation that’s trivial but ends up coloring the entire post that follows:
An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us, in that they are strongly influenced by the need to be accepted, to kowtow to peer opinion, and to “belong” in the scientific community. Why do I find this “unfortunate”? Because the media and the hoi polloi increasingly depend upon and accept ideas or principles that are proclaimed loudly enough by academics who are often more driven by “politically correct” survival principles than by those given them by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. (Granted, it’s reassuring that they’re listening to academics at all — but how to tell the competent from the incompetent?) Religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.
All of which is more or less true, but, as I said, rather trivial. It’s not individual scientists we are talking about when we speak of a scientific consensus, each of whom is (hopefully) human and thus prone to the same sorts of emotions and motivations as any other human. It’s also more than a bit odd that Randi would mention Newton, who was in fact also an alchemist and prone to all sorts of paranormal and strange religious beliefs when he wasn’t busy formulating his laws of motion; some of his studies were into the occult. That Newton was prone to believing in woo doesn’t render his laws of motion invalid any more than the observation that some climate scientists are not the nicest people in the world and have become a bit defensive invalidates AGW science. The science is the science. It stands or falls based on the evidence and how well observations and experiment describe reality.
Whether Randi realizes it or not, his framing his argument by beginning with an argument that scientists are prone to peer pressure and to kowtowing to “political correctness” is a pre-emptive ad hominem attack, most likely based on the recent “climategate” affair. He comes across as attacking scientists as close-minded and hopelessly in the thrall of peer pressure as a prelude to making some spectacularly bad arguments about AGW, chock full of logical fallacies. For example, there is the appeal to authority. First, he says this about The Petition Project:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a group of thousands of scientists in 194 countries around the world, and recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — has issued several comprehensive reports in which they indicate that they have become convinced that “global warming” is and will be seriously destructive to life as we know it, and that Man is the chief cause of it. They say that there is a consensus of scientists who believe we are headed for disaster if we do not stop burning fossil fuels, but a growing number of prominent scientists disagree. Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous.
I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.
I fear Randi’s skeptical antennae are growing less sensitive. Regardless of what one thinks of the science behind AGW, accepting or rejecting it, surely the clever wizened old fraud spotter should have been able to see a striking similarity between The Petition Project, in which AGW denialists have tried to slap a patina of scientific respectability on their arguments by making it look as though many many scientists support them, and similar projects done in the name of creationism, for example, the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwin” list, the vast majority of signatories of which have no special expertise in evolution. So ridiculous is this “Darwin dissent” list that there is even a parody of the effort called Project Steve whose mascot is a panda puppet called Professor Steve Steve. I’ve been embarrassed by a similar effort to find physicians and surgeons who “dissent from Darwin.” The bottom line is that lists of this sort are very often the product of cranks trying to give an air of scientific legitimacy to their views. One should always–I repeat, always–be very skeptical of such lists. They are almost always more the tool of propaganda and very often are dominated by the names of people who have no special expertise in the subject being argued but do have letters and titles after their names.
Randi also repeats an argument that never fails to raise my hackles when I see it:
Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.
History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.
Nooooo! Not you too, Randi! The appeal to “science has been wrong before”is almost always an intellectually lazy shortcut, because what matters is not so much that science has been wrong before but how it’s been wrong. There are many ways of being wrong and probabilities of being wrong. It’s not enough to point out that science has been wrong in the past. Of course it has! That’s rather the point, isn’t it? Science is a self-correcting enterprise. Being wrong about things and finding answers that describe and predict nature more accurately is how science advances. In fact, we can say that virtually all of our current science is incorrect in some way or another to some degree or other and subject to correction and refinement as new observations are made and new experiments done. The question is how close science comes to describing nature. In many cases, it’s very close indeed, which is one reason why it is completely insufficient to invoke the “science was wrong before” gambit as though in and of itself that is sufficient to cast doubt on well-accepted science. If you’re going to argue convincingly that current science is wrong on a topic, you have to be able to show flaws in the science sufficient to cast serious doubt on the current scientific consensus, and you can’t do that if you don’t understand the science. Denialists often “find” new “flaws” that they think no one else has noticed before, when in fact scientists have nearly always already considered virtually every such objection and concluded that they aren’t supported by the evidence. Such objections often spring from ignorance of the background of an issue.
Which brings me to the bugaboo of “consensus science.” Actually, as much as it pains me to say this too, Randi is dead wrong here. Consensus is very important to many areas of science. Think about it. When you come right down to it , what is a scientific theory but a scientific consensus agreeing that a proposed set of principles describing a phenomenon is the best current explanation of that phenomenon that science has to offer? Moreover, when it comes to applying science to real world practical problems, consensus is incredibly important. In medicine, what are clinical guidelines but a statement of expert consensus of how medical science should be applied to specific diseases or clinical problems? Indeed, the NIH periodically publishes consensus statements about various conditions, with recommendations about how they should be treated. In treating breast cancer patients, I frequently refer to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines. In any case, if you want to challenge a scientific consensus, you have to have the goods. You have to be able to produce sufficient evidence against the current consensus to throw it into doubt. It’s even better if you can produce positive evidence for an alternate consensus. Cranks are almost always unable to do either on a rigorous basis, although to the ignorant their “doubts” often look convincing on the surface. It’s disappointing that Randi accepted such superficial objections without actually, oh, asking someone about it other than perhaps Penn Jillette. Phil Plait, for instance. Or one of the many climate science bloggers out there.
Even more distressingly, Randi in essence invokes a classic argumentum ad ignorantiam or perhaps an argument from personal incredulity:
I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts about planet Earth. This ball of hot rock and salt water spins on its axis and rotates about the Sun with the expected regularity, though we’re aware that lunar tides, solar wind, galactic space dust and geomagnetic storms have cooled the planet by about one centigrade degree in the past 150 years. The myriad of influences that act upon Earth are so many and so variable — though not capricious — that I believe we simply cannot formulate an equation into which we enter variables and come up with an answer. A living planet will continually belch, vibrate, fracture, and crumble a bit, and thus defeat an accurate equation.
I’m not even going to go into the errors in basic understanding of climate science in the discussion above. James Hrynyshyn, Greg Laden, and P. Z. Myers have already taken some of this on. Sadly, many are the errors, and Randi isn’t even consistent. Instead, I’m going to comment on the form of his argument. This may be harsh, but consider it tough love. I’m going to recast Randi’s argument into a bit more familiar of a form:
The myriad of influences that act upon living organisms are so many and sovariable–although not capricious–that I believe we simply cannot formulate a theory that explains how life evolved. A living ecosystem will continually change, fracture, and thus defeat an accurate theory.
Where have we heard arguments of this type before?
Randi should know this, but just because he personally can’t conceive of how science could possibly produce models to describe the earth’s climate and to make predictions based on those observations does not mean that it can’t be done by scientists who understand the issues involved any more than the fact that “intelligent design” creationists can’t conceive of how evolution could have produced the diversity of life says anything about evolutionary biology. If you know your understanding is rudimentary, then perhaps you should either not pontificate about an issue in such a way or make your knowledge less rudimentary before doing so.
Lest anyone think that I’m just lazily “defending the scientific consensus,” let me refer readers to this post I did a couple of years ago in a post I’m particularly proud of even all this time later (which is why you should read the whole thing). The post discussed skepticism and the scientific consensus, in which I expressed discomfort with the statement that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Basically, I agreed that the scientific consensus is the best place to start for a skeptic who is evaluating individual issues with which he is not familiar. I also pointed out there, as I did then, that what distinguishes denialism from skepticism is not bucking the scientific consensus. Bucking the scientific consensus is a good thing if you do it right; i.e., with data, a deep understanding of the flaws in the current scientific consensus, and a good modification of current science that might account for new observations and decrease or eliminate the those flaws. That’s one way that science advances. Old paradigms are overturned to be replaced iwith paradigms that describe nature more accurately. Rather, I agreed with Mark Hoofnagle denialism it is more about tactics and how evidence is used to support an argument than it is about the position taken. This is what I wrote back then. I repeat it now because, quite frankly, I can’t think of a better way to say it (either that, or I’m too lazy to think up a better way to say it right now):
Scientific skepticism looks at the totality of evidence and evaluates each piece of it for its quality. Cranks are very selective about the data they choose to present, often vastly overselling its quality and vastly exaggerating flaws in current theory, in turn vastly overestimating their own knowledge of a subject and underestimating that of experts. This is perhaps the key characteristic of cranks and the biggest difference between a crank and a true skeptic. In addition, because the mainstream rejects them, there is often a strong sense of being underappreciated, leading them to view their failure to persuade the mainstream of the correctness of their views as being due to conspiracies or money. Antivaccinationists, for example, view the rejection of their belief that mercury in vaccines or even vaccines themselves cause autism by mainstream medicine as evidence that we’re all in the pocket of big pharma. Global warming denialists see the consensus as being politically motivated by the desire of “liberals” to tell them how to live. Evolution deniers view evolution as the result of atheistic scientists wanting to deny God. People like Sandy Szwarc view the consensus that obesity leads to health problems as being due more to moralizing and bigotry against the obese, which, whether it is true or not, is an easy claim to make because there has been and is a lot of bigotry against the obese.
Yes, scientific consensuses can sometimes be wrong. It’s even possible, albeit unlikely, that the scientific consensus regarding AGW is in significant error and either no warming is occurring or the warming that is occurring is not caused by human activity. However, if you’re going to show a scientific consensus to be wrong, using logical fallacies and a rudimentary understanding of the science to argue against the scientific consensus is not going to convince anyone who knows a lot about the topic, although it might convince the ignorant. There are real controversies in climate science regarding the mechanisms of climate change being argued among scientists, who are not as monolithic as they are all too often represented. To engage in these arguments, though, one has to understand at least the rudiments of the issues involved, which is why I refer Randi to How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, an resource I’ve used myself in rather heated e-mail exchanges with a friend of mine who is, as much as it pains me to accept, an AGW denialist. Another good resource is The New Scientist’s demolition of AGW denialist canards, one of which, I’d point out, is an argument very much like Randi’s doubt that we could ever construct an equation to account for the complexity of climate. Yet another good resource is John Rennie’s recent Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense.
I assure you, my readers, and Randi (should he read this) that it gave me no pleasure to write this post; indeed, as I said in the beginning, it depressed the hell out of me. However, as is the case for so many things I write about, it was something I felt that I just had to comment on after someone e-mailed me a link to Randi’s post yesterday morning.
Finally, Randi’s post should serve as a warning to skeptics. One lesson to be learned is that a skeptic should not make sweeping pronouncements about a topic he clearly does not know enough about to be able to discuss knowledgeably. Clearly Randi failed in this. I can sort of see why it may have happened. Randi pointed out at the beginning of his post that many of his readers and admirers have asked him about AGW and whether he would “turn his skeptical eye to it.” Randi may have felt obligated to try to satisfy the requests of his fans. His failure clearly came as a result of his not sufficiently educating himself about the issues involved before commenting. At the risk of the hubris of comparing myself to Randi, I’ll point out that I not infrequently get requests to write about various topics. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a very, very bad idea for me to grant these requests if they are about topics with which I’m not familiar unless I’m willing to take the time necessary to learn about the issues involved–and even then I don’t have a lot of confidence. So if you ever wonder why I don’t respond to a request that involves a topic that’s not regularly featured on this blog, nine times out of ten it’s because I don’t know enough about it to comment intelligently (or even not-so-intelligently) and it would take me too much time and effort to come up to speed on the issues involved. You may wonder why a surgeon can write so confidently about, for instance, vaccines. Wonder no more. I took the time to learn the science, background, and nuances necessary, and I’ve been at this for over five years. In the process I made some mistakes and, early on, anti-vaccine loons occasionally took advantage of those mistakes to embarrass me. Another lesson to be learned is that skepticism does not necesarily mean rejecting a contention. Indeed, although it doesn’t necessarily mean a reflex acceptance of the scientific consensus, skepticism usually does mean accepting the consensus in the absence of compelling evidence against it, at the very least as the starting point for learning about the science involved.
Obviously, I’m disappointed in Randi for publishing a post that gives aid and comfort to a most distinctly unskeptical movement, namely the AGW denialist movement. I really wish he hadn’t done that. Because of his fame and decades-long work combatting pseudoscience and woo, he is revered among most skeptics, and justly so. However, being a skeptic does not mean always being right–far from it. What will determine Randi’s mettle is how he reacts to the much-deserved criticism of his mistake that has erupted in the day and a half since he posted his piece, and, indeed, Phil Plait has said that Randi is working on a followup to his post. Will Randi educate himself and admit his errors, or will he dig himself in deeper? Randi has a very deep well of good will that is justly deserved for all his past contributions in demolishing faith healers, smacking down Uri Geller (one of my personal favorites), and showing the utter bogosity of facilitated communication, among other achievements. I, for one, am willing to give him all the time he needs to bring himself up to speed on the issues involved. If, after having done so, he still has a problem with AGW and bases his doubts on arguments that address the science, that’s OK with me, although I’ll still think he’s wrong. At least he’ll then be able to argue his case without resorting to logical fallacies. In the end, skepticism, like science, is a method designed to protect us humans from our cognitive shortcomings as we try to divine how the universe works, and no one, not even Randi, is flawless at exercising it.
122 replies on “James Randi, anthropogenic global warming, and skepticism”
I can imagine that, as a scientist, you could get bummed out by all of the quackery out there. I’m glad I recently found your blog, and have been enjoying reading through the archives. Thank you.
Personally, I get sad when I overhear a parent complain that evolution is taught in school and that they will have to teach creationism at home. Yes, I have actually overheard such sentiments.
When I was able to get my kids the H1N1 vax, it felt like a small victory. I had to go through hoops to get it. A real pain. But, when I mentioned this accomplishment to another mom, I was greeted with a funny look and a hem and haw. As if I’m the wacky one?
The only way to combat faulty reasoning, in my opinion, has to be in early education. The U.S. has to make, logic and critical thinking, as much as a priority in the curriculum as math and spelling.
I’m also rather disappointed with Randi’s post, but what I predict (and hope) the difference between him and the denialists will be is that he will change his mind when presented with the proper evidence.
His “crime” at the moment is a crime of ignorance. To paraphrase someone more adept with writing than I am, ignorance is not a crime and it’s curable.
Randi, like so many people out there, seems to be forming his opinions without actually having read the key information; you can counter many of his misconceptions armed with nothing more than than IPCC AR4 executive summary. Climate science runs a hell of a lot deeper than the 5-minute summary generally presented to laypeople, but he has apparently made the unfortunate mistake of assuming that that version is all there is to it. I really hope his closing remark was more a reflection of his own ignorance rather than the state of the science in general.
The “myriad of influences” passage is terrible. It is basically science denial: if reality is complex, we can’t hope to begin to understand to forces acting on it.
You hear that about politics, economy or society, too. Usually it ends with: “… let alone try to improve or change anything”.
The next logical step is to claim that things will remain a mystery, and that we’ll better turn to faith.
Please, Mr Randi, tell us you were joking!
Hey, if you ScienceBloggers divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” (as you seem to do), you find that this binary division is far too simplistic.
“Good” guys can say bad things, and “bad” guys can say good things. People are complex and colorful, not simple and monochromatic. So it’s not necessary (for example) to abhor everything the Pope or any other religious leader says (irrespective) of content, simply because they talks a load of crap about a lot of things.
If science teaches you anything, it should be that an argument should be based on facts and reason, not on who’s making it.
So Randi writes something wrong, well, so what? He’s still a guy who’s done many good things, and his “show me” challenge to wooers has been a wonderful stunt.
I don’t recognize these ‘scientists’ that Randi and the media portray, all chummy and pushed by peer pressure to agree. When it comes to pushing their own idea’s scientists are a cantankerous, conniving, back-stabbing bunch of [insert derogatory expletive of your choice here]. Sure one or two may collaborate, but on the whole consensus is reached via an intellectually bloody battle fought with evidence and logic.
So disappointing to see Randi jumping on the climate change sceptic’s bandwagon. Like there was no evidence…
My favourite page collecting arguments and refutes concerning Global Warming is
The frequency of fallacies that Randi made were astounding and, as you allude to, on on par with reading a creationist’s ‘skepticism’ of evolution. Most obvious was the appeal to personal incredulity. That’s the main reason I give to people for why they should for believe in AGW these days, because the contrarians argue like creationists… 😉
I wonder if this is some sort of joke by Randi.
Some of the things he says in that post are so out of touch with reality you have to wonder whether he is playing some sort of game with us.
For example “as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat”
I suppose if you take the example of a country with a temperate climate in modern times this might be true but looking at the big picture (as one must be expected to do when talking about ‘global’ warming) far more people die from the effects of heat (which causes drought, famine, diseases, storms etc.
As far as I can see the science supporting anthropogenic global warming is overwhelmingly convincing. What is not convincing is the likely outcome. When you have fellow sciencebloggers making statements like “if there is enough warming and the warming is fast enough, the cyanobacteria in the ocean could face a major die-off, which in turn would cause oxygen-breathing organisms to die off” the alternative of a four degree centigrade rise in temp doesn’t sound such a big deal. To those of us trained in biology we realize that it is a big deal since the world economy is based on an environment of the current temperature rather than the increased one.
Randi makes lousy arguments, but it seems to me that he’s not so much denying the warming as he is questioning our assumptions about it and arguing that such changes have been part of the natural cycle of things, and life adapts. I think he’s full of crap, but that’s not the same as saying that he’s a denialist.
In this case, it’s not a matter of dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.” It’s expressing disappointment that someone who really should know better repeated some astoundingly bad arguments. This is not the first time Randi disappointed me. As you say, no one’s perfect and even skeptics have blind spots. This is just the most spectacular time. It also doesn’t change or diminish what he’s done over the last few decades.
James Randi’s biggest contribution to scientific skepticism was to show how easy it is to be lead astray in by things you were unfamiliar with. Some scientists came to believe in ESP because they couldn’t figure out how they were being fooled, and defaulted to belief. James Randi seems to be simply ignorant (or so I hope) and has shown repeatedly in the past why speaking from ignorance, even known ignorance is at best an invitation for ones foot to lodge firmly between the teeth. James Randi being wrong doesn’t bother me nearly as much as his apparent dismissal of the lessons that he tried so hard to teach the rest of us.
I personally disagree; Penn Jillette’s default position should be ‘I don’t know’. It sounds like he’s been hounded into taking the default position while he actually makes an effort to review the evidence rather than relying on the more simple thought process involving rights and AGW’s implications regarding curbing them.
Regarding Randi: I’ve recently become one of the scientists contributing to the IPCC’s AR5 report in a supporting role. The little that I’ve learned killed any doubt in my mind. Simply the graphs regarding temperature change vs. altitude for various forcings is impossible to ignore.
I think it would be worth Mr. Randi’s time to actually read the science behind climate modeling. Part of the package is ‘hindcasting’, or forecasting starting from a pre-industrial scenario. From there it’s very easy to establish a given model’s reliability and accuracy. Just compare it to observed historical data.
As an aside from the previous comment I should perhaps point out an example of a disastrous political responses to anthropogenic global warming by the Irish government, which basically plays into the hands of the deniers. The Irish, in general, go along with the AGW hypothesis and the government pretty much goes along with the opinion of the Irish public on this matter. Unfortunately their idea of political action on the matter leaves a lot to be desired.
In the recent budget they decided to impose a ‘carbon tax’ on consumers, basically a levy on the use of fossil fuels. The amount levied, $22 per tonne of carbon, is not enough to make people give up driving and anyway the lack of an adequate public transport system in Ireland means this is not an alternative. The real kicker is what the Irish government plans to do with the money from this tax. They actually announced that they plan to use the money to subsidize the purchase of heating fuel for families of low income. This is something that is currently done from the existing tax system so the claims that AGW will simply be an excuse to raise more taxes rather than as a practical response to AGW seem to unfortunately ring true in this case.
I have yet to hear a concerted plan proposed to deal with AGW that seems politically viable, given the short term nature of electoral politics. For instance one recent argument is that we should put huge resources into the question of family planning and population growth control since this is the best way to cut down the need for future fossil fuel use. This seems to make perfect sense to me yet it has only ever been managed in one developing country, China, and that took the imposition of totalitarian measures to make it happen. For the rest of the developing world it looks a political impossibility.
Orac, I know this post was hard to write, but I’m glad you did. As important as it is to counter the obvious enemies of science (Jenny McCarthy, Chopra, Demski, et al) it’s even more important that we criticize our friends when they stray into pseudoscience. Good on you, Orac.
Have a look at the breakdown of the “scientists” at the Petition Project: http://www.petitionproject.org/qualifications_of_signers.php.
More than a third are engineers — because a degree in engineering makes one an expert on climate? A BS is enough to qualify one as a scientist? (See http://www.oism.org/pproject/GWPetition.pdf for their standards on who qualifies as a scientist.)
By the standards of that site, my MS in “library science” makes me an expert on climate. Once my wife finishes her (non-climate-related) BS degree, perhaps we’ll use our vast knowledge of climate to save the world!
Just as pathetic as Inhofe’s list of dissenting scientists.
My favourite page collecting arguments and refutes concerning Global Warming is
Because it’s funny? It’s not that funny.
I mean, it’s depressing. (Sorry for the ambiguity.)
Where did I say Randi was a denialist? Nowhere. In fact, here’s a quote from above:
How many more times do I have to say this? Is my statement above insufficiently clear to you?
Randi made the mistake of writing about something he clearly didn’t know much about and as a result fell for denialist arguments. He also used a whole lot of logical fallacies.
I know that they are not (only) scientists, but the organization AVAAZ claims that over 13 million people have signed an on-line petition asking the world’s leaders to save Copenhagen and make a read deal.
Those people are convinced that AGW needs action, even if Randi isn’t.
“More than a third are engineers — because a degree in engineering makes one an expert on climate?!
Everyone knows that engineers are experts on one particular subject – the problems with the theory of evolution!
He seems to have hit every logical fallacy there is and as Sigmund has pointed out that 10 times more people die from cold line is very strange coming from the skeptic of skeptics.
Somethingâs afoot, I’ll bet my granny on it.
Randi might understand this better if you recast it into something about mind reading or dowsing:
Something like that. Something pig ignorant that a dowser would tell Randi after failing the Million Dollar Challenge. (That is why PZ was so right in his analogy of the body being more complex than climate this particular case where Randi, who has long debunked faulty reasoning about the body and blind intuitive thinking, is the one making the ignorant statements.) Randi can do better if he can just see how much he has fallen for the illusionist’s trick.
I completely agree. In my view, a skeptic should take the scientific consensus (where there is one–not all issues have a consensus) as the default position. This means that those arguing against the consensus carry the burden of proof, and those who are uninformed should defer to the consensus in the meantime.
@Jimbo Jones (#14)
As I explained above, on issues where there is a scientific consensus, an honest skeptic who “doesn’t know” defers to that scientific consensus. For the skeptic, the default position of “I don’t know” implicitly acknowledges the scientific consensus. To use “I don’t know” to cast doubt on the consensus is not skepticism; it is the rejection of a lot of hard work by many scientists, and the rejection of a long, laborious process deeply rooted in skepticism–all out of nothing more than ignorance. That kind of usage of “I don’t know” is not only not skeptical, it is a denial of skepticism itself.
I’m afraid that that illegitimate use of “I don’t know” is exactly what Penn Jilette did and why Orac was absolutely correct in calling it lame. Penn’s use of “I don’t know” was clearly (IMHO) a way to dodge the fact that he can’t defend his highly unskeptical position.
I think I’m missing a word in my comment: “than climate for this particular case where Randi”.
Orac, you called Randi a denialist here:
I can’t see how he’s in the “camp of denialists.” He’s simply asking us to question something that he feels, rightly or wrongly, not enough people are questioning.
I’m a biologist a major research university. I can talk evolution all day long as well a lot of medicine and be quite rational. AGW is not something I deal with at all in my work and I’m fully ill-equipped to discuss the topic with anyone. But as a scientist, or as a lay skeptic, can anyone really believe oddly precise numbers? We have 4 years to enact legislation. We have 10 years to sequester X amount of carbon. These are paraphrases of headlines leading up to Copenhagen and they seem way too precise to be taken seriously. I’m not saying we should go with the scientific consensus on this issue since I’m not educated enough to have much more of an opinion. But don’t we as scientists and skeptics have an obligation to communicate things more effectively so that we don’t create more skeptics out of the ranks of scientists and other people who get uneasy at glib pronouncements?
Done. Randi’s not to be trusted or honored anymore…I hope TAM will dump him or I won’t go again.
Very sad to see the heart of the skeptical movement go over to the dark side.
AGW is real and amy questioning of any part of it cannot be treated as anything but delusion or evil. I choose to believe that Randi is now senile or otherwise delusional.
[quote]Done. Randi’s not to be trusted or honored anymore…I hope TAM will dump him or I won’t go again.
Very sad to see the heart of the skeptical movement go over to the dark side.
AGW is real and amy questioning of any part of it cannot be treated as anything but delusion or evil. I choose to believe that Randi is now senile or otherwise delusional.[quote]
I was glad to see Orac’s thoughtful post, combating all the really nasty stuff that was going around yesterday after Randi’s post appeared. Until I saw this.
Dump him? Not to be trusted? You won’t go to TAM again because of one article? Are you 100% correct in everything you do or say, have you never be4en wrong?
Or are you just a dick, Dan?
“asking us to question something” … “not enough people are questioning.”
That’s an interesting contortion. A LOT of people question climate change science. In fact, in a way that’s the problem – people without the background or capability to understand the science are being fed misinformation (or simply misinforming themselves).
I take it you mean, not enough climate scientists are questioning AGW? But then, that’s their job & specialty. And they’re in about 97% agreement with each other. The disagreement is within laypeople, who don’t understand the science or are lied to by people with political/financial motivations.
I’ll turn your assertion on its head. I agree with you. Not enough people are questioning climate change, insofar as what the real implications are of how our lives need to change. People are satisfied to assuage their green guilt with buying greenwashed products, but not to make substantial changes. A realist would argue that government needs to tweak the appropriate carrots and sticks to coerce the appropriate social behavior rather than using guilt and shame to motivate people. Unfortunately, companies that enable the carbon status quo are happy to greenwash and assuage that guilt, all whilst working against the structural change we need.
I have some thoughts on why AGW denialism may be more likely to trap skeptics… Mostly, it’s just a frikkin’ hard topic. Even as a lay person, I can very handily tell you what is wrong Creationism, psychics, etc. But I can’t tell you why AGW is real. I just don’t know.
If you don’t accept falsifiability, you’re doing science rong.
Actually, one of Randi’s persistent themes is that “anyone can be fooled”. Doesn’t mean he’s broken, just human.
nicely done :p
I’ve written a blog post on “Who are the climate skeptics?” that looks at some of the major organizations and individuals opposing AGW, and comparing their credentials to IPCC WG1 scientists. It’s linked from my name on this comment.
I would agree. The problem isn’t just confined to climate change articles though – it’s science articles in general.
Alright, I note that you focus on what I said early on and completely ignored how later I said that I’m not calling a denialist and pointed out how Randi got into that camp apparently through ignorance of the science of AGW. In context, I meant that Randi probably wasn’t aware that he had done aligned himself with AGW denialists. So, to make you happy, I added a few words to that sentence to make it so crystal clear that even you can’t get all pedantic on me.
I remain hopeful that this is an ill-conceived lesson or example, devised by Randi to stir things up so that he can point out the same problems Orac has. Even if that should be the case or he revises his opinion, the deniers will tout the original post’s contents far and wide.
Sure, but that just comes to show he’s not familiar with the science or the data, and is speaking entirely from ignorance.
I think that Penn’s “I don’t know” is justified. Here’s why-climate scientists have done a horrible job of explaining in layman’s terms why AGW is correct and the denialists are wrong. They’ve basically been saying “trust us”. But when the denialists include popular writers like Michael Crichton who SEEM to understand the science, and allegations of misconduct among scientists studying global warming emerge, “trust us” isn’t good enough.
The feasibility of mitigation proposals and the science of anthropogenic climate change are two different things entirely.
I believe it is a fallacy that only people who studied in university about a particular subject are qualified to speak on that subject. A person can educate themselves if they so desire.
Granted that takes an ability to discern the science from the woo, and discernment seems to be something a person has or doesn’t have. But please don’t underestimate what one can learn with a little patience, a dictionary and a library.
Before I get flamed, please understand I am not saying this qualifies a person to teach the subject, rather to understand the subject. And when one understands the subject, they can be a meaningful part of the debate. Let the science speak for itself, but don’t doubt the ability of the reader to understand what the science says.
Maybe, maybe not. The “hockey stick” is an example of something that was done in part to communicate the reality of AGW to the skeptical public. What happened subsequently is that denialists tried to discredit the hockey stick by all means possible, claiming that the Mann et al. hockey stick was statistically broken, etc. People buy that sort of propaganda, even though it’s possible to come up with a hockey stick with countless historical temperature reconstructions that use different proxy methods.
Then there’s the 400,000-year ice-core record of CO2 and temperature, which does show an association. Depth/age measurements are not precise in this case, though, so denialists like to claim CO2 lags temperature (which to some extent it probably does too.)
It’s possible to pretty conclusively demonstrate an association using higher-quality recent (150 year) data, which shows temperature fluctuations lagging CO2 fluctuations by 10 years. This analysis is not well known, though.
I agree that “The feasibility of mitigation proposals and the science of anthropogenic climate change are two different things entirely.” I guess I implicitly assumed that if we are trying to fix things by reversing what we’ve been doing, that mitigation proposals are tied to AGW in a rather imtimate way. That being clearly written out I will readily concede that this assumption isn’t necessary since we could still think about such proposals without the “A” in AGW. Moving past this valid point you raise, it still seems odd to have such precise numbers for a proposal unless we really understood things extremely well – more than most reasonable science progresses, in biology anyways.
If he were in a genuine position of ignorance, and not in the position of someone who has recorded a television episode on the subject parroting denier claims, it might be justified. As it stands, he’s had the opportunity and impetus to do the research, and instead he repeated the “in the ’70s they predicted an ice age!” canard, citing Time Magazine as if it were a scientific journal.
No, I think his “I don’t know” is much like the antivaxxers’ “we need to do more research” or the conspiracy theorist’s “I’m just asking questions.” It’s a way of casting doubt upon the existing evidence without actually endorsing a side, and portraying a false equivalency between the two positions.
“More than a third are engineers — because a degree in engineering makes one an expert on climate?!”
Does that mean that a surgeon is not considered a climate expert either?
“I think it would be worth Mr. Randi’s time to actually read the science behind climate modeling. Part of the package is ‘hindcasting’, or forecasting starting from a pre-industrial scenario. From there it’s very easy to establish a given model’s reliability and accuracy. Just compare it to observed historical data.”
Do you have a link to a handy review article on results of hindcasting with currently favored GCMs?
As an engineer, I think part of the problem is that in my field, our means of investigation are “science-y” in that we perform experiments and our decisions must ultimately be based in physical reality rather than opinion, or even on human preferences. But it’s distinctly different from science in that: standards of proof are far lower, because we typically don’t have to deal with complications like placebos and regression to the mean and the need to rely on historical data rather than data we collect; counter-intuitive results are rarer, because the systems we work with actually are designed by an intelligent designer (or at least you hope the guy working on it before you was intelligent…); and in engineering, if you come up with some crazy new idea for how to make something work, you can actually build it that way if you want to — in contrast to science, where if you come up with some crazy idea of how the world might have worked, it doesn’t matter if reality tells you otherwise.
I have a story I like to tell about how I wasted a couple of hours of debugging because of a fallacious application of probability. I was trying to track down a particular failure, and I noticed that both of the times I had reproduced it, it failed on the first piece of a chunk of data. The odds of this happening once were 1 in 26, so I figured the odds of it happening twice and being pure coincidence were pretty slim. I spent the next couple of hours working on the premise that the failure occurred only on the first piece of each chunk of data. Turns out it WAS just coincidence.
But unlike science, the system is all right there laid out in front of me and I am in full control of it. It rapidly became clear that my hypothesis was wrong, because when I tried to modify the system based on that hypothesis, it didn’t do what I wanted. So while I had applied fallacious reasoning, the cost was pretty small. And in fact, there have probably been more times where I intuitively applied fallacious reasoning to an engineering problem and turned out to be right than times when I turned out to be wrong. Intuition works pretty well, and in engineering, if your intuition is wrong you can usually rapidly determine that.
But let’s say I use fallacious reasoning to come to an erroneous conclusion on climate change. I do so because I am an engineer, and used to applying my intuitive interpretation to the evidence and not worrying too much if there are some minor fallacies in my logic. But unlike my engineering work, I can’t just say, “I bet the CO2 doesn’t even matter,” pump the world full of CO2 in an afternoon, watch the temperature go up, and say, “Oops, that didn’t work. Good thing it was just a prototype….”
I don’t know what the solution to this is. More science education for engineers would probably be a waste of time for most, because we already get a fair amount of it in school. Some people are just going to get the difference, and others aren’t going to unless they actually do real scientific work for a while.
What can be done? The only answer is, I guess, don’t trust an engineer on science topics. But then that means nobody can trust me! Grumble grumble…
ORLY??? So the IPCC report just says “trust us”? How about the website RealClimate or Al Gore’s movie: do they not explain the science in layman’s terms?
And while we’re at it, do biologists also just say “trust us”? A quick search reveals that anywhere from 59% – 88% of Americans believe that AGW is real (depending on which poll you go by). NEWS FLASH: that’s more than believe in the theory of evolution! I guess biologists are just doing a lousy job of explaining the science in layman’s terms.
I stand by my original point. For an honest skeptic, “not knowing” should be synonymous with deferal to the scientific consensus.
Those can be though of as policy recommendations, and the people writing the report need to produce some number, even though we can’t know a precise number. (This is probably the case with any policy recommendation for the future.) If you look at IPCC AR4 they do expound on the rationale a bit. For example, I recall a figure where they show different levels of CO2 and the likely equilibrium temperature, with a confidence range. They color-code the graph showing what would be bad, really bad, etc.
I’ve just put up a further comment on SWIFT – a follow-up that I hope receives as much attention as my previous item. I thank all those who commented, one way or the other. However, I wish that more attention had been given to the statement I made about how this was not a subject in which I was involved, and I’ll adopt the response of my friend Penn Jillette: “I just don’t know.” Surely that’s a proper answer?
Again, thank you all…!
I think that is the very problem. When someone says they have psychic powers, you don’t just scoff and say “I just don’t know”. No, you do the research. You perform the tests, both mental and physical. You have never proven that any of your challengers absolutely do not have magical powers, but you have made that possibility extremely unlikely. So when scientists apply the same (and actually more rigorous) methods to climate change, why do you throw out the old “I just don’t know” canard? Just asking…
Big ‘never mind’. He’s published a retraction, sort of. At least he’s admitted to getting most of it wrong. http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/806-i-am-not-qdenyingq-anything.html
I agree. In fact, this is kind of my position on it. “I don’t know enough about it, but I do know who do, and their position is clear. Given my lack of knowledge, I will go with what they say. I don’t know enough to contradict them.”
Then again, I have friends and know people who work in the field, so I am not relying on “unnamed authority.”
Most importantly, some petition of “9000 scientists” who I can reliably say don’t know as much as I do (if nothing else, I would be one of their crowning jewels if I were to sign the thing) doesn’t mean much.
I will admit, in the state of ignorance, it is a question of who are reliable experts, and who are not. Look at Jim Lippard’s write-up and ask the question, if folks on the IPCC, for example, are not experts, then who is?
I should clarify – being on the IPCC does not make them experts. Being experts is why they are on the IPCC.
Reminds me so much of religion instead of science. James Randi expressed doubt and was cast as a heretic so fast he put up another post to keep from being excommunicated. Sad.
I use another data set to base my reaction to AGW on. The newspaper on my doorstep. It tells me almost daily how serious the problem is yet it’s very existence tells me things can’t be that bad. It is produced by cutting down CO2 absorbing trees using lots of hydrocarbons to become paper. They don’t even use hybrid cars or bicycles to deliver it, opting instead for rotting clunkers. Then after all that CO2 production the damn thing is only good for one read and the whole processes repeats, 7 days a week! The spent papers even get hauled off by a CO2 belching recycling truck. The morning I go to fetch my paper and all I find is a note telling me that the health of the planet caused them to shutter the doors and lay everybody off will be the day I’m spurred to action. So far it hasn’t happened and my paper was there this morning.
I think that all that Randi was guilty of yesterday was in publishing a non-proofread piece, and taking too much stock in the Petition Project. He clarified things nicely in today’s post.
James Sweet, I think you are being unfair to your own profession. Scientists can be guilty of the same errors in thinking. In fact, I think looking at these lists of evolution deniers or AGW deniers with lots of engineers on them and extrapolating something about how engineers think versus how scientists think is an example of such an error of thinking. The engineers on that list are not a representative sample. There are just a lot more engineers than scientists, so it’s easier to find some that don’t accept the evidence.
Time to drop your subscription to the physical paper; your apparent need for it continues to have the trees killed, printed on, and delivered to your door in a 1980s vintage station wagon.
Oh, I’m convinced CO2 is not a greenhouse gas now.
“Reminds me so much of religion instead of science. James Randi expressed doubt and was cast as a heretic so fast he put up another post to keep from being excommunicated. Sad.”
Nonsense. Randi is well aware of the need for evidence to back up a claim. He was called on yesterdays assertation and found he couldn’t support it (both the idea that the earth has cooled by 1 degree in the past century and a half due to lunar tides, solar wind, galactic space dust and geomagnetic storms, and the reliability of the dissenters from AGW list). I think he’s still wrong in his idea of warming – his current post seems to suggest he thinks the warming is due to heat released by human activities rather than due to gases released (mainly CO2 and methane) that allow the solar energy to be retained longer.
Uhoh, Randi’s new post is up, and it contains this:
Yes, I’m aware of the massive release of energy — mostly heat — that we’ve produced by exhuming and burning oil, natural gas, and coal. We’ve also attacked forests and turned them into fuel by converting them into paper at further energy expense, paper that is also burned, in turn. My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not.
Can he really be that profoundly ignorant of the science behind AGW, that he thinks it’s about waste heat? This is very, very embarrasing.
“Time to drop your subscription to the physical paper”
I have to get the physical paper so that I get the advertisements for all the green products I need to buy so the economy will grow and produce the taxes needed to fund the 100 billion the developing nations need to save the planet. Get with the program.
“Reminds me so much of religion instead of science. James Randi expressed doubt and was cast as a heretic so fast he put up another post to keep from being excommunicated.”
I’ll let Randi’s own interpretation of this whole thing speak for itself:
“I’ve shown that I can make observations on subjects barely within my understanding, while admitting my shortcomings, and provoke reactions that are interesting, constructive, and sometimes furious. That’s okay. Language is a means of expressing one’s thoughts and opinions without resorting to fisticuffs or worse. This encounter was bloodless, gentlemanly, and civilized.”
Hardly seems like any kind of ideological battle that would result in some kind of “excommunication” from the “religion” of science. Merely disagreement and discussion among skeptics about what science says on the topic.
“I have to get the physical paper so that I get the advertisements for all the green products I need to buy”
So you need the ads to tell you what to buy? LOL
I think that’s the same issue that I have with the modern green movement — that the kinds of changes they’re trying to push are often insignificant, that corporations are pandering to them, and they’re maybe too alarmist.
I realize that the alarmist response may be appropriate, but I’m so used to it being wrong that here it’s like the boy who cried wolf. I get alienated from the movement due to it.
I agree that global warming is an important issue, but I’m not sure that it’s the largest one facing the environment (and us humans from an ecological standpoint) from what else I’ve heard. The problem is I think that things like An Inconvenient Truth oversold the climate change issue, and it’s hard to get people excited over a change on 1 degree in temperature worldwide.
Randi’s response is up.
In a word, it’s also disappointing, though he does admit he was wrong about the Petition and about using unsourced claims (for instance, “solar wind”).
The most puzzling bit to me is this segment:
Am I alone in reading this as suggesting Randi thinks AGW means “we’re emitting so much heat that it’s warming up the planet”?
As a long-time fan of Randi’s I have to say I was taken slightly aback at his earlier piece, and I appreciate the clarification.
“Hardly seems like any kind of ideological battle that would result in some kind of “excommunication” from the “religion” of science”
I would like to believe that but the very existence of the term denier shows that this AGW thing is a different kind of beast than other forms of science. I’m a student of evolution and paleontology so I don’t claim to be a climate expert but it seems the same openness to new ideas or challenges to existing theories should be welcomed. I can’t imagine being called a land bridge denier because I supported the Atlantic crossing theory.
“Am I alone in reading this as suggesting Randi thinks AGW means “we’re emitting so much heat that it’s warming up the planet”
Maybe he means we are all full of hot air and all this bickering over AGW is releasing it into the atmosphere.
“Yes, I’m aware of the massive release of energy — mostly heat — that we’ve produced by exhuming and burning oil, natural gas, and coal. We’ve also attacked forests and turned them into fuel by converting them into paper at further energy expense, paper that is also burned, in turn. My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. ”
Ok going to set aside the whole global warming is caused by us actually physically heating the planet thing as opposed to greenhouse gasses (sigh)…
Working from the point of view he appears to be espousing, given that he identifies in the first two sentences several things “we’ve” done to heat the planet how does the last sentence make any sense?
Does he not know that the A in AGW means anthropogenic or does he not know that anthropogenic means “caused by us”? Or is this like some mega-poe?
Given that the term comes over from evolution denialism, and is a much more general concept, this argument completely fails.
You should also re-read Orac’s post; questioning consensus theories and denialism are quite distinct. The former is based on data and a solid understanding of the science involved, while the latter is based on ignoring the science.
Call me lazy, but I didn’t finish writing your post. I got halfway. And I didn’t read the comments… Lately, I’ve been getting sucked into some pointless discussions through them. But I will write this, for what it’s worth: Thank you.
“Given that the term comes over from evolution denialism, and is a much more general concept, this argument completely fails”
It was a statement, not an argument. If anything should get borrowed from evolution it should be that climate change has played a significant role in human development and we seem to be pretty adaptable as a species. Call me an optimist but I think the wines from Alaska will pair very nicely with the cheese from Antarctica. 🙂
I’m not sure there’s enough data to say we’re pretty adaptable as a species. We’ve been around for a couple million years at most. There are other species that have been around a lot longer. Certainly, if we damage our ecosystem, that makes us the opposite of adaptive.
@ James Sweet:
I’m about four months away from a BASc in computer engineering. I know my school is but one of many, and curricula vary between schools, but I have not received any instruction in scientific thinking or methodology as part of my core course load. The only time I’ve been taught scientific philosophy in an academic setting was in the Psychology 101 course I took as an elective. My only exposure to critical thinking, other than what I read on my own, was one unit on rhetoric in Grade 11 English class. Sure, high school science classes paid lip service to “hypothesis->experiment->conclusion”, but only in a “these are the headings you should have in your report” kind of way (keep in mind this is the Ontario public school system, but I imagine things are similar throughout North America).
I know without a shred of doubt that my experience is not atypical. Many people, even well-educated ones, go through life without a clue about how and why scientists do what they do. Hell, I would’ve made it all the way through an engineering degree without encountering it, if not for my own personal interest. We need to start teaching critical thinking and science at the grade school-level.
Climate “Science” sounds like an oxymoron to me since I have yet to see a convincing model for the “climate”. Differential equations just don’t do it. No good models means no good predictions. However pollution is OBVIOUS. Do people really like to breath contaminated air and drink water unfit for human consumption? Get rid of the pollution and maybe we as a human civilization will finally learn how to use our brains to make evolution worth the time it took to get us here!
I wish that more attention had been given to the statement I made about how this was not a subject in which I was involved, and I’ll adopt the response of my friend Penn Jillette: “I just don’t know.” Surely that’s a proper answer?
When you say “I just don’t know” about a theory formulated in a field in which you have no expertise, and act as though this lacuna constitutes a problem for experts rather than for you personally, it tends to imply that your ignorance carries as much epistemic weight as their knowledge.
So no, it’s not a proper answer at all. It’s actually colossally arrogant and wrongheaded.
Concluding that AGW is “a different kind of beast” based on the use of the term “denialist” most certainly is an argument.
But I do take note of the fact that you made no attempt to address the substance of the comments, instead pursuing meaningless semantic nitpicking.
Another post that discusses problems with Randi http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/2009/08/skepticism-is-not-excuse-for-sloppiness.html
William Nelson @77:
A model can be judged in part by its predictions. You said “differential equations just don’t cut it,” but the existing models are usefully predictive. That doesn’t mean differential equations are a complete description of the climate: it means they are good enough to use until something better comes along. (The analogy of Newtonian physics comes to mind here.) Yes, we’d like to understand why our models work, but whether they do is at least as important, especially on a subject where the models and their predictions are relevant to decisions people are making.
[Looking at this, I realize it’s possible I’m addressing a strawman and that the good models aren’t relying on differential equations; I’m no expert on climate modeling. If so, “differential equations just don’t cut it” would clearly not be a useful argument against current models.]
“But I do take note of the fact that you made no attempt to address the substance of the comments, instead pursuing meaningless semantic nitpicking.”
Are you the same Scott I used to beat up and take his lunch money? If so I suppose I deserved that.
I’m confused about this comment. Aren’t models based on actual physics? If so, it’s pretty obvious why they work. Because the climate is subject to things like fluid physics.
A fair point. When I said that engineering degrees already had a lot of science, I wasn’t referring as much to methodology or scientific thinking — that I agree is lacking.
I did a combined BS/MS in CE, and I remember taking a semester of chemistry, and like three or four semesters of physics. There was probably some other I don’t remember. Not that this is a vast amount of science education, but considering that the course load is already packed pretty tightly for that major, and that a lot of the physics I learned doesn’t have any applicability to my career (do computer engineers need to know special relativity to do their jobs? One might argue that everyone should know about special relativity, but then why don’t English Lit majors have to take four semesters of physics?)
Don’t get me wrong, if I had the time and money I’d still be taking physics courses today, along with literature and writing courses, and advanced math… all awesome stuff that unfortunately has almost nothing to do with my career. But it would be difficult to justify more of that in the curriculum.
OTOH, a critical thinking/scientific methodology course required for all majors… that would be pretty awesome.
#69, the difference is that experts in the relevant fields do not consider the alternatives to AGW to be a reasonable theory. Suppose that you supported the idea that humans evolved in the Americas and spread to the rest of the world. What would your colleagues think of you?
@ James Sweet:
I see what you’re saying. Indeed, if engineering is the practice of applying science, you could argue most every engineering course is a science course in one way or another. Object-oriented programming and semiconductor physics (and everything in between) are only separated by layers of abstraction.
Because of this, though, I suspect engineering programs are some of the worst offenders when it comes to the misrepresentation of science as a bunch of facts rather than a method. I believe this may be part of the reason that there is an apparent overrepresentation of engineers among creationists and AGW denialists.
I hope Orac looks at the source of his inputs in surgery more closely than he does the inputs in climatology.
I was amused, in Schneider’s ‘Science as a Contact Sport’ by his reason for not yielding his code. It’s idiosyncratic, nobody else could understand it. My No. 1 rule in science: When a researcher says his results cannot be replicated, believe him!
#85, I see your point but if I can just get enough grant money together to travel the US for the next 30 years or so to try to prove it I think I’ll be set. I bet I could get the Mormons to fund it.
Sock Puppet of the Great Satan:
I’m pretty sure there is such a paper. I can’t find it right now, but next time I’m at my desk I’ll be sure to look it up.
Unfortunately, it might be behind a paywall at this point.
“Time to drop your subscription to the physical paper”
You don’t need to be too scared of using paper or burning wood. Paper comes from trees which are a renewable resource, as long as they are allowed to grow again (It is a different matter when we cut them down and cover their space with concrete).
As long as we just use the carbon in the current cycle of which trees are part it is no big deal. It is the mining and using of the sequestered carbon that is a problem.
Orac, I appreciate the thought and care you put into writing this post. Randi is not infallible, and his bullshit detector seems to have failed him on this point. He’s not alone, as his statements are common. However, if the experts all argue one thing, to argue something else is unconvincing unless you demonstrate equivalent expertise, and can explain their findings better than them. But words and science are better tools than fists and dogma, as he noted.
Penn Jillette, in particular, is a market fundamentalist. He believes in any number of gods, and in magic, misuses statistics, misunderstands high-school science, and so on. But because he happens to live in a market fundamentalist theocracy, his derision of environmentalists, doctors, etc. etc. on behalf of his faith are described as skepticism.
Shermer is not as denialist, but very much a theocratic skeptic, and I think there’s at last a healthy push-back on his Monsanto lies:
The fact that you have a copy of of Atlas Shrugged under your arm as you evangelize, as Penn Jillette does, and not a Koran or a Bible, is not as important as whether you believe, on faith, that everything works out for the best due to the magic and wisdom of invisible entities like “the Market” who guide us with invisible hands, and ascribe personhood (and worship) to inanimate, noncorporeal persons, who are immortal, unaccountable, and suprahumanly powerful.
Oh. and before he was “pressured” into leaving the stance he “should” have of “I don’t know?”
Poor, poor, helpless put upon Penn Jillette was doing a TV show where he described how much respect he has for the consensus of medicine, and for the opinions of environmental science, and climate science.
It was called something nice, I’m sure.
And I think it’s a much more self-referential name than that Cato shill ever imagined it was.
I admit, not to being an AGW denialist, but to not necessarily thinking that the danger is as imminent and disastrous as it is often portrayed. I believe that we’re definitely affecting the climate, I just don’t necessarily buy the “ice caps melting and New York under water” scenarios seen in sci fi flicks and the like. I do what I reasonably can to minimize my carbon footprint (another term I’ve come to loathe), but let’s face it, I’m probably not making THAT big a difference by running to the gym instead of driving and recycling. I still run the heat in my house when it’s cold. I still use electricity although I try not to waste it. I still drive a car that consumes petrol. So I can’t imagine my measly efforts will have much of an effect. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing what I can, but…
I guess my point is that I can kind of see where Randi was coming from? And I’m also uneducated in climatology or how disastrous an increase in a few degrees globally would be. Maybe I should educate myself more, but sometimes it almost seems like it’s hard to find ANY unbiased information out there. I remember a few years ago when a friend got all worked up and started making plans because PEAK OIL HAD BEEN REACHED!!! I read up on that and I still have no real opinion, except that I’m not panicking about it.
I dunno, I still love Randi, and even though we try to be critical thinkers, we can all be taken in by our own skeptical thinking even.
And while I’m delurking, love your blog, Orac. I hit your blog before I hit P.Z.’s every day. 😉
What do you think of Wally Broecker’s take:
“The Earth’s climate system is a capricious beast, and we’re poking it with sharp sticks.”
“We need to start teaching critical thinking and science at the grade school-level.”
I could not agree more with this, and I’ve said it myself many times in many different venues. This shouldn’t be consigned to the status of a piece of extracurricular exotica, or taught only as an adjunct to things like philosophy or computer science (if it’s even taught as an adjunct to them at all).
I wonder, how much interest would there be amongst educators and skeptics/freethinkers to start a foundation of some kind to pressure for critical thinking and logic as standards alongside arithmetic and spelling?
I forgot to say, this is a great post, Orac. It’s good enough that if I have to write about something – something more about Freeman Dyson, for instance, or what have you – I’ll use your respectful, thorough, yet not over-wordy post as a model.
All of the problems here can be condensed to the lack of clarity of the scientific community to communicate the facts and their importance to the general public. I avoid reading anything about global warming because I simply cannot understand what anyone on either side is talking about because there are no solid facts clearly explicated by either proponent.
By the way, here’s the debunking of the Exxon-Mobil-funded “Climategate” slime job, where illegally-swiped e-mails were carefully edited and stripped of context to create a fake “scandal”:
I loved this quip by Chavez, who’s attending the Copenhagen conference: “If climate were a bank, the U.S. would save it.”
I’ve been surprised by Randi’s statements as much as anyone, but I suppose I am less concerned. Clever people can be wrong, and fall prey to emotional arguments which appeal to human biases. (I love vanity sizing, even though I know it’s a patent lie.)
This doesn’t invalidate his other works, merely puts him in the spotlight and reminds us, again, not to trust authority but to look at the data. James Watson comes to mind- he was part of one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century; yet he is (in my opinion) a complete ass most of the time these days.
@bigjohn #98- Nope, that’s the lazy way out. The general public has a responsibility here, too, if they want to live in a democracy with modern healthcare and sanitation etc. The general public needs to keep itself something like informed. It needs to use a critical eye. It needs to learn to pick out the real information from the noise- as Randi has demonstrated, this can be more difficult than it appears.
If you want it spoon-fed to you, you’re better off in Cuba where someone else (who has more information) makes your decisions.
@Kristen #42: This above may seem to agree with your point, but it doesn’t really either. There are exceptions, but by and large, the information which is accessible to someone without a very specific background is not the complete story. This is not on purpose, but as one gets deeper into a subject, things become more obscure and specialised.
In order to make a contribution which is more than merely noise, one almost invariably needs to have some considerable depth to their understanding, which often means postgraduate level work in the topic.
My contribution, as a GP, to the climate change discussion: pretty much surface noise. I have a rudimentary grasp, but I learned something over at pharyngula today (big tree ring = cooler, wetter time… I thought it was the opposite). I can understand that the new data regarding methane from thawing tundra is very bad news. However, I have a great respect for how much of this is simply beyond my understanding.
So, whereas I don’t advocate taking authority at face value, I recognise that a scientific consensus really means a best understanding based on available data. The layperson really does not have a great deal to add to such evidence.
“If, after having done so, he still has a problem with AGW and bases his doubts on arguments that address the science, that’s OK with me, although I’ll still think he’s wrong.”
So, if (in principle) Randi presents a body of solid science and convincing evidence that “addresses the science”, you will still think he’s wrong, period?
That doesn’t sound like good science or skepticism to me.
“It greatly saddens me to say it, but in this single post, Randi unfortunately dropped a huge turd on the blogosphere.”
Talk about calling a spade a spade. On the other hand, don’t forget Galileo’s Fallacy: “Galileo was against the establishment and he was eventually proved right, I’m against the establishment therefore I’m right”.
In regards to the training of engineers, it really depends on where you went to school. In comparing notes with other engineers at work, I’ve found that quite a few of them received what amounts to vocational training with little if any scientific or other background material included.
Others schools are different. Using my own school (Harvey Mudd College) as an example, I had multiple required courses in chemistry and physics. No biology, but that’s probably changed now that Mudd has a biology department and major. And these weren’t some “watered down for engineers” course variants, but rather the same courses the chemistry and physics majors took.
As I recall, there was also a required freshman course that covered the scientific method and the philosophy of science. That course was where I was first introduced to Kuhn.
(Mudd also requires all students to meet distribution requirements in the humanities and social sciences, but I don’t see how that’s relevant.)
Mind you, I remain to be convinced that the training of engineers – even when it is largely vocaional – explains the presence of large numbers of engineers on this particular list. As someone else pointed out, it could simply be a matter of a larger available population. Or some other factor.
I do think that having a broader basis for understanding the world makes me a better engineer, but my career has hardly been typical (I’ve done a fair amount of research and published papers in peer-reviewed journals) so I’m careful not generalize what worked for me to engineering in general.
Sock Puppet of the Great Satan:
I’ve found a handful of studies, from a fairly quick search. More should be available fairly easily, although few studies actually directly mention hindcasting. As well, I don’t think you’d find a study that bothered comparing the entire global climate of models. There’s just far too much information, and not enough useful data to be found in such a mountain.
That said, the studies I’ve found:
To argue that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is “correct” because a “consensus” of scientists are supporters is to employ the fallacy of argument from authority.
In science, the essential characteristic of a theory is not consensus but rather statistical validation. In order for a theory to be validated, it must be falsifiable. In this respect, the climate models of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fail. According to the climatologist Kevin Trenberth ( http://blogs.nature.com/climatefeedback/recent_contributors/kevin_trenberth/ ), the IPCC models do not make predictions. It follows that: a) the IPCC models are not falsifiable and b) the IPCC models are not scientific models.
Rather than make predictions, the IPCC models make what the IPCC calls “projections.” A projection is a mathematical function that maps the time to the computed global average temperature. A “prediction” is a logical proposition which states the outcome of a statistical event. A “prediction” is a different kind of entity from a “projection.” Only the former kind of entity supports falsification.
By the way, under the philosophy of science, theories cannot be proved correct. They can only be proved incorrect.
The IPCC model is falsifiable, Mr. Oldberg. All one has to do is show that the data trends can be plausibly explained without human greenhouse gas contribution as a major driving factor.
We’re still waiting.
Oh, and btw:
And further btw..
Orac, I’ve read a few of your posts on this issue – and I must say that I’m quite surprised to see that you so readily engage in the delegitimization of those who have the temerity to question the so-called “settled science”.
I’m certainly a newcomer to the “climate wars”, but my baseline was “how on earth did C02 – which is beneficial to the planet, not to mention its inhabitants – get fingered as the “primary cause” of climate change (formerly known as global warming)? In all the reading I’ve done since in search of an answer to this question, I’ve seen a lot of “fog”, “mush”, handwaving and even uncertainty. But no sign of any evidence whatsoever to substantiate this rather important claim.
As a few others have noted, the Climategate emails (which contrary to the declarations of some have not been proven to have been “hacked” or “stolen”) merely confirm what many have known for quite some time. These emails also provide considerable insight into the derivation of this so-called “consensus”. And no, they are not taken out of context … in fact, time after time, the “context” makes the behaviours of these “climate scientists” even more reprehensible.
Not sure how many links are allowed here before a response gets trapped in a spam filter, so I’ll just use one:
Feel free to follow the links from there … or not!
You obviously haven’t looked very hard, then.
I must say that I’m quite surprised to see that, as a newcomer, you so readily engage in fallacies that have long been dealt with and debunked. Well, no I’m not.
You seem to be suggesting that I should take the word of Colby Beck, a “software developer, specializing in Artificial Intelligence” who’s been “blogging about climate change” for 4 years over that of (amongst many others)
Dr. Richard Lindzen, an MIT meteorologist. That will give you a good idea of his background, and here’s what he has to say about the role of C02.
You can take Beck, if you like. But I’m sticking with Lindzen.
Silly boy. That was just one example among many, and Lindzen isn’t exactly reliable, as many of my fellow SB’ers have pointed out:
He also seems to be pretty close to a lone voice among climate researchers, too. Why do you choose him versus hundreds, if not thousands, of others? Oh, that’s right. It’s because he confirms what you want to believe.
LOL Listen, kiddo! Your “one example of many” makes us even!
Besides, Lindzen is far from being a “lone voice” – notwithstanding the fact that he was described as such in the article (if you actually deigned to read it).
Have you actually ever actually read Lindzen or Lomborg, McIntyre, McKitrick, Michaels, Singer, Douglass, Spencer, Baliunas, Hayward (to name but a few)? Why do you choose not to? Oh, that’s right. No need to waste your precious time because … well, because your “fellow SB’ers” have deemed them to be “unreliable”.
Furthermore, your repetition of the “hundreds, if not thousands” mantra tells me that while I may be a relative newcomer to the “climate wars”, I have probably done far more examination of sources than you have.
But if you want to continue to believe that the scientific evidence for anthropogenic C02 as the “primary cause” of climate change aka global warming, is solid enough to warrant the advocated actions, be my guest. I, for one, am not prepared to make that leap of faith – certainly not on the strength of your dismissive and disrespectful responses.
I am yet to see a debate on man-made global warming where the defender of “consensus” actually wins.
This should not be a fact of merely passing interest to skeptics. It should send up alarm bells for all to see. But sadly, skeptics aren’t all that “skeptical” when it comes to falling for pseudoscience. More sadly, Orac does not escape the clutches of unreasoning political fashion.
Were the situation otherwise, Orac could simply point Randi to the debate and its key points of science and conclude “case closed.” He could see, we could see, ALL could see and move on.
The truth is that paleoclimate data does not support the notion that CO2 levels drives climate change. Rather, CO2 follows changes in temperature.
IPCC bodyguards like Thomas Crowley and co-chair Pachuari state that the case for AGW rests on “the weight of the evidence.” Nevermind the several falsifications of AGW theory like the foregoing.
However, when funding consists of pleasing bureaucrats and the central gate-keepers constitute a corrupt clique, the empirical “weight” is determined by anomalous fingers on the scales, as “climategate” proves, this “scientific” method will yield politicized “results” – not sound empirical ones we rightly call science.
And this the situation we now find ourselves in.
Sadly, skeptics are in no place to untangle the tangled wed that has been so nefariously weaved.
A sounder approach is the one employed by epidemiology. A good example is cancer and tobacco.
Cancer was poorly understood in the first half of the 20th century, and statistics on even causes of death for humans were unreliable. It literally took decades to eventually isolate various confounding variables (eg, coal burning pollution), and show the unique impact of tobacco smoke on lung cancer.
This mid 20th century situation is similar to climate science today.
Just google the IPCCs own “LOSU” chart – “Level Of Scientific Understanding” – to see their summary of the many climate change variables. There are many relevant variables, and CO2 is virtually only one meriting “High Level” of scientific understanding. Thus, too many variables too poorly understood simply contradicts the executive Summary For Policy Makers “90%” level of anthropogenic certainty.
Colorado State University’s William R. Cotton’s (et al) textbook now in its second edition (2007) summarizes the data in “Human Impacts on Weather and Climate.” Natural variability within the climate system simply overwhelms the empirical extraction of human-caused variables.
Sans politics (yes, Virginia, the United Nations is a political organization, even when dealing with science) and special pleading, this is the state of climate science. One would hope that good skeptics would be honest enough to recognize this.
Apparently, Orac isn’t good enough to be so honest. Which makes him a poor example for skeptics who would otherwise learn from science and the scientific method.
I saw the term ‘hindcasting’ used as if there are actual models today that post-dict the current climate. This inquiring mind wants to know which model[s] this is. I read on the topic every day and don’t know of such a model, and in fact have never heard tell of one, but it was spoken of as if it exists, or is it, that is should exist. So, “I don’t know,” but if it exists, I’ll move gladly from the denier camp. The name-calling in these posts with their prejudicial labeling is at best sophmoric, and at worst demeaning. Thank you, Bill Capron
This post by Tamino should answer your question.
I outgrew Randi’s brand of knee-jerk debunkery a long time ago, but I still very much prefer him to the current crop of evangelizing skeptics (Harris, Dawkins, & Co.). Randi is a great writer and a genuinely funny guy — AND he really can pull a rabbit out of his hat!
It really is sad to see The Amazing Randi in the company of Glenn Beck!! I wonder how he likes his new friends?
per the hindcasting, this is of course dependent on my believing the sources for the temperatures, and I’ve got to say the jury is out on that and the impact of heat islands … we’ll revisit this in 6 months and see what the result is
I can’t say I’m surprised by the slimy framing and underhanded arguments in this blog. I’ve seen them anywhere that the oil industry finds it’s interests being attacked.
My issue with James Randi is that many of his statements fail to pass the most basic application of informal logic. When a person makes a persuasive argument, there is always a motivation to subvert. It’s easy to gain popularity as a skeptic with feel good rhetoric and demonstrations attacking the lowest hanging fruit (psychics and faith cons). When this is used to spread FUD about science it should be an indication of motivation to the people witnessing it. Pleading ignorance or confusion is only a tactic.
I believe this is the first time I’ve seen him veer in to the realm of outright frauds like penn juliet though…
To take one part of your post; you claim that ‘CO2 levels follow warming in deglaciations, therefore CO2 cannot drive warming’.
This statement is akin to saying that because I once moved my car by pushing it, it can never move for any reason other than my pushing it. It is a fairly basic logical fallacy – the best evidence we have regarding deglaciations suggests that they are mostly driven by orbital changes causing greater summer insolation in the Northern Hemisphere, with CO2 increasing as this process raises ocean temperatures and helping to ‘fix’ the temperatures.
In the current situation, orbital changes should be gradually moving us towards colder conditions, with changes in the solar flux and frequency of volcanic eruptions giving us some minor blips on top of that. Were this all that was happening, temperatures should have been declining since around 1950. Instead they have been rising strongly, and there is no known natural explanation for that. If global warming ‘skeptics’ were working on one, as opposed to grubbing through other people’s inboxes, they would deserve to be taken more seriously.
Orac, I’m glad you managed to be respectful in your criticism and not call skeptics of glboal warming deniers. I do not think it is that Penn Jillette denies the effects of 2nd hand smoke (which I think also have reasonable skepticism), but that as libertarians, we value other people’s choices, and think that society has agreed that they prefer the freedom to smoke over the effects of 2nd hand smoke. This is a fundamental distinction between libertarians and liberals that people cannot understand. Liberals look at statistics and decide where to go from there (although sometimes they look at the wrong statistics, or don’t consider all factors involved, but I digress). Libertarians on the other hand, base their values on 1st principles and ethics and morality (specifically, the non-aggression principle which most libertarians adhere to whether they’re on the scale of libertarianism [i.e. state’s rights fiscal conservatism socially liberal] or anarcho-capitalism [no state at all]). This is something liberals can’t understand. In order for liberals to fit their world view, they MUST have all statistics either fit the way the see it (meaning the fetus can’t be a life, guns can’t lead to less crime, violent video games must lead to more violence, 2nd hand smoke must cause damage, global warming must exist and must be man-made). I sometimes wonder if we’d even be debating these issues if government wasn’t in charge of these statistics whether they’d ever favor the government.
But considering the government is in charge of statistics, it is no wonder that they always come out with statistics that favor bigger government.
As there was much religious dogma surrounding much of science in the past, I believe there is a lot of political dogma surrounding science with regards to global warming. That is why I believe it is perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of global warming.
But libertarians on the other hand, are willing to risk a little bit of security if it means a little bit more freedom. I think James Randi is a libertarian. And I think it is perfectly logically consistent to at least be skeptical of global warming.
I appreciate you making this article and opening up the conversation.
I think the US will fall a bit on the list because we’re set to experience droughts in some of our most agriculturally productive areas (most notably California). This will reduce our GDP, and food and water shortages could potentially impact our life expectancy as well.. . I think one of the countries which will be hit the hardest is Australia, as they’re already experiencing a decades-long drought which is decimating their agriculture, and things will only get worse there. Plus they currently rely on coal for 80% of their energy, which can’t last in the face of carbon regulations. It will be difficult for them to remake their whole energy infrastructure. And on top of that, the continuing drought will make conditions ripe for huge wildfires, which will result in a number of deaths and decrease life expectancy.