Category Archives: media failure

Nate Silver falls off

In 2012, Nate Silver faced a conservative and media-led backlash for bringing rigor to election forecasting. His newly launched journalism project is now facing a backlash for failing to live up to its promise.

I am probably the ideal audience for Nate Silver’s new journalism project FiveThirtyEight.com. I am someone who values data in a frequently-substance-free world of reporting. Although I am an unabashed Sam Wang PEC partisan, I certainly appreciated Silver mainstreaming election forecasting based on factors other than wishful thinking and journalism biases towards “the horse race” and “momentum”. When Silver was attacked by know-nothings in the media and the conservative blogosphere, I cheered him on, and savored his election day vindication, anti-climatic as it was.

Rather than topping my “must read” list, however, the new FiveThirtyEight is something I won’t be reading. Here’s why:

I became aware of Silver’s imminent launch by his public Twitter announcement of two hires to cover science for his new venture: Emily Oster, a University of Chicago economist famous for counter-intuitive revelations (sound familiar?); and Roger Pielke Jr.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “ferdicam”, used under Creative Commons.

Now, I am not going to get into Roger’s pathological attacks on climate scientists. I am not going to get into his sweaty delusions of persecution. I am not going to get into Roger’s complete misunderstanding of elementary aspects of climate science. I am going to focus on just two things: what Nate Silver is known for, and what Roger Pielke Jr. is known for.

Nate Silver’s reputation is based on being a stats wiz. This is what his blogging was devoted to, what his best-selling book is about, and the one thing he has that his competition/peers like Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias don’t. And one of Nate Silver’s very first, very public hires (Roger Pielke Jr.) sucks at statistics. Not “published something in need of minor correction once or twice” sucks. “Doesn’t understand how a t-test works” sucks. “Doesn’t understand basic probability” sucks. Sucks out loud. Sucks on ice.

Roger’s very first article for Silver’s new site is, unsurprisingly, about Roger’s hobbyhorse. The claim that disaster losses are not increasing due to climate change.

Let’s be clear about some things. Climate change is real. Humans are not just “contributing” to it, we are responsible for essentially all of it over the past several decades. Our perturbation of the climate through our emissions of greenhouse gases is fundamentally changing the Earth system. The biosphere and human systems are going to have to adapt to a rate of change as of now unseen anywhere else in the paleoclimatic record. In the absence of emissions stabilization, a difficult but decidedly achievable outcome, the threat to the biosphere and society is daunting. The amount of climate change we’ve already experienced, while extremely serious, is tiny compared to the impacts we will see in world of unchecked fossil fuel exploitation. In addition to changes in the average or mean state of the system, we have already begun to see changes in some types of extreme weather events, and changes to the drivers of yet other extreme events.

Ostensibly, Roger Pielke Jr. accepts all of the above. He just doesn’t want you to focus on this big picture. Instead Pielke wants you to believe and to focus on the claim that we’ve seen no increase in “normalized” damages due to climate change. The fundamental conceit of this claim is that even though disaster losses are unquestionably on the rise, once you account for changes in the value of infrastructure being built in areas affected by disaster (due to population growth, inflation, etc.), there is no “statistically significant increase”.

This claim rests on our ability to account for factors which might spuriously inflate the damages caused by disasters, but also our complete failure to account for factors that have allowed us to avoid even greater losses.

The case of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy is illustrative. While Roger spent the first few days of the disaster trying to play down the magnitude of the mounting carnage, Sandy ultimately ranked among the most costly storms on record, even using normalized losses. Preliminary estimates range from $50-65 billion USD.

And yet it could have been so much worse.

Hurricane Sandy uncharacteristically failed to recurve out to sea, and barreled back towards the East Coast of the US. Due to the amazing advances we’ve seen in our ability to model the global weather system, we knew well in advance that this unexpected turn by Sandy was a real possibility.

This possibility was taken into consideration by those trying to game out the impact of Sandy’s landfall. The impact of rising sea levels on the frequency and severity of storm surge flooding was as well. Looking to a future of warming-boosted surges, researchers identified huge vulnerabilities in the New York transportation infrastructure to previously rare events. Such considerations ultimately led the MTA to shutdown the subway system in order to avoid the corrosive impact of salt water if the tunnels were flooded. This decision, informed by modeling and meteorological sophistication unimaginable in the early 1900s, saved the subway system and prevented New York City from being paralyzed for weeks and nearly doubling the economic damages.

Image via Twitter

Roger Pielke Jr.’s “normalized” disaster loss fixation takes none of this into account. Nor does it account for the benefits of building code improvements. Or other disaster prevention measures like dikes.

Paul Krugman is among a growing list of knowledgeable folks who were hopeful about Silver’s new enterprise but are less than impressed. Krugman writes:

… data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

I feel bad about picking on a young staffer [Note: not Pielke Jr.], but I think this piece on corporate cash hoards — which is the site’s inaugural economic analysis — is a good example. The post tells us that the much-cited $2 trillion corporate cash hoard has been revised down by half a trillion dollars…

… what does this downward revision tell us? We’re told that the “whole narrative” is gone; which narrative? Is the notion that profits are high, but investment remains low, no longer borne out by the data? (I’m pretty sure it’s still true.) What is the model that has been refuted?

“Neener neener, people have been citing a number that was wrong” is just not helpful. Tell me something meaningful! Tell me why the data matter!

Though Krugman is referring to a different 538 article, he could easily be making the same criticism of Pielke’s. Why do Pielke’s data matter? Are disaster losses not increasing? They are. Does “normalizing” the loss data tell the whole, unbiased, story? No, it doesn’t. Are extreme events, and drivers of yet more extreme events, changing in response to GHG emissions? They are.

If Nate Silver’s mission is to bring statistical cachet to good journalism, he’s off to a terrible start. One of his first big hires is terrible at statistics. If Silver wants to tell us something meaningful instead of peddling freakonomics-lite contrarianism, he’s similarly off to a poor start. Pielke’s personal hobbyhorse obscures far more than it enlightens. It offers a cocktail party morsel of contra-conventional wisdom instead of intellectual nourishment.

There are probably a lot of people who would like to see Silver fail. I’m not one of them. I just won’t be one of his readers, either, unless he makes some big changes to his current model.

Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

Image courtesy of NASA, used under Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowhere have been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.

References

  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature, 470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York, Natural Hazards, 60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.

Making an honest hack out of Fred Pearce in five easy steps

Image courtesy of Flickr user “bLOGOS/HA HA”, used under Creative Commons

Attempting to convince those in the grip of denialism is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Take the case of the DDT-holocaust lie. No sooner has one false claim been thrown out (e.g. DDT ban in Malaysia in 1999 resulted in an increase in malaria) and shown to be nonsense than a new claim bearing no particular relation to its predecessor is deployed. Rather than chase down every single mutually contradictory claim made by those perpetuating the lie, I invite them to put themselves on record in a manner that makes their claims easily assessable.

In order to claim, as rubbish journalist Fred Pearce has, that anti-science environmentalism is responsible for “blanket opposition” to DDT use in fighting malaria resulting in a “virtual ban” for “more than three decades” and “millions of deaths”, one only has to satisfy a handful of conditions:

  1. Quantify how many, from where, and over what time interval the “millions of deaths” are supposed to have occurred.
  2. Demonstrate that there was a ban (actual or “virtual”), restriction, or other meaningful impediment to using DDT for malaria control (vs. for example agricultural spraying) in place for all deaths claimed in the above.
  3. Demonstrate that had DDT been implemented, all deaths claimed in the above would have been prevented (taking into consideration obvious confounding factors like the increase in resistance to DDT).
  4. Demonstrate that had DDT been implemented, the overall net result including health, economic, and environmental problems would have been positive- in other words, that using DDT would have resulted in more good than harm.
  5. Demonstrate that the cause of DDT not being implemented in all of the above cases was specifically attributable to “blanket” anti-science environmentalist opposition, rather than science-, economics-, efficacy-, and logistics-based reasons from professional science and health organizations like the World Health Organization, or implementation problems that had nothing to do with Silent Spring (such as replastering and bedbug concerns raised in places like South Africa).

Pretty simple. If you can’t satisfy the conditions, you don’t get to toss corpses at the feet of supposed anti-science environmentalist opposition arising from Silent Spring. Just how serious a case do people like Fred Pearce and Roy Spencer really believe they have?

My guess? Most won’t even  get past the first question or two.

Fred Pearce continues to be rubbish

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Editor B”, used under Creative Commons.

Not content with lying about positions scientists don’t actually hold, passing off his opinions as reporting, engaging in the kind of “he said, she said” false equivalency that has been so toxic in media coverage of climate, and just generally getting things wrong, here’s Pearce perpetuating the free market/anti-regulation think tank lie about DDT bans causing millions of deaths:

When Rachel Carson’s sound case against the mass application of DDT as an agricultural pesticide morphed into blanket opposition to much smaller indoor applications to fight malaria, it arguably resulted in millions of deaths as the diseases resurged.

[Although there was a big push to do away with agricultural DDT spraying, its use to fight malaria was not banned. DDT use continued apace in some countries and declined in others for top down reasons rather than environmentalist-driven anti-science hysteria, including resistance in mosquitoes, political instability, preferences for pyrethroids (which also killed cockroaches) or netting (which didn't involve coating one's walls with a sticky unpleasant substance), and genuine-science-based health concerns of governments.]

But hey, it’s totally fine to say something that egregiously, hideously untrue as long as you mumble “arguably” into your sleeve, at least according to Pearce’s cheerleaders.

Pearce’s lie comes in the context of the latest hippie punching fad, which is to equate environmentalist fears about GMOs, nuclear power, and fracking with evolution denial, climate denialism, and other hallmarks of the anti-science right. This is approaching something of a cottage industry among people who seem to be garnering fewer eyeballs on topics like climate change than they once did.

There are three facts of relevance here, in my opinion:

  1. There are unquestionably environmentalists who have and promote fears about certain technologies that are unsupported or in contradiction to the balance of scientific evidence.
  2. This anti-science vein is in no way equivalent to, in terms of political legitimacy at the levers of governmental power, that right wing anti-science beliefs enjoy.
  3. The actual, problematic anti-science beliefs of environmentalists are often conflated with issues that have nothing to do with science in order to make the problem seem larger than it is. This is counterproductive.

I think point number 1 is hugely important. The work of Dan Kahan and others (e.g. Kahan et al., 2011) has shown pretty convincingly that egalitarian-communitarians interpret scientific evidence in a way that conforms to their preexisting worldviews just as hierarchal-individualists do. I would like to see anti-science fears about GMOs and nuclear power either marginalized or preferably reversed by effective messaging and education. I vehemently believe that GMOs and nuclear power are going to be necessary tools in dealing with our energy and agricultural needs in the future, and that climate change probably increases their importance.

Point 2 is something that I trust is not in any way controversial or requires further discussion.

For those of us who believe point 1 is a legitimate problem, point 3 effectively knee caps efforts to ameliorate it. When people conflate issues that enjoy no clear scientific consensus, such as the environmental impacts of fracking, with denial of evolution or the reality of anthropogenic climate change, they are injecting a false equivalency that muddies the waters of discourse and prevents positive movement on the issue. The same goes for conflating dislike of business practices of certain agricultural companies and economic/national security concerns over nuclear power with denial of evolution or climate change.

If Pearce or the others who have taken up this latest meme stuck to what actually was equivalent, their complaints would look a great deal less serious. So they have to over-egg the pudding. This not only gives the appearance of more substance, it also generates more acrimony and page views. Whether the latter is intentional or not, it’s certainly not productive in actually addressing the problem, which requires understanding the actual scope and potential strategies for overcoming what environmental anti-science exists. And make no mistake, there are people doing just that.

But Fred Pearce is not one of them.

UPDATE: Some folks over at Collide-a-scape are trying to pin the decline in DDT use in some countries in the 60s against malaria on a 1971 US domestic ban. Yes, something in the 60s is being attributed to something that happened in the 70s.

Setting aside the timeline idiocy, as I stated previously, actual examination of the causes of malaria resurgence simply does not bear this out. Nor does it support in any way Pearce’s ghoulish lie that environmentalists are somehow to blame for it or millions of deaths. In the course of providing others with some references, I came across some additional reasons for malarial resurgence. It turns out that weakening of programs due to financial shortfalls, premature complacency, and intentional expiration of short term programs- in addition to aforementioned factors like resistance and political instability- are responsible not just for a decline in DDT use, but a decline in malarial-eradication programs generally (Cohen et al., 2011;  Nájera et al., 2011). Both papers should be accessible without a subscription.

References

  • Cohen, J., D. Smith, C. Cotter, A. Ward, G. Yamey, O. Sabot, and B. Moonen (2012), Malaria resurgence: a systematic review and assessment of its causes, Malaria Journal, 11(1), 122, doi:10.1186/1475-2875-11-122.
  • Kahan, D. M., H. Jenkins‐Smith, and D. Braman (2011), Cultural cognition of scientific consensus, Journal of Risk Research, 14(2), 147–174, doi:10.1080/13669877.2010.511246.
  • Nájera, J. A., M. González-Silva, and P. L. Alonso (2011), Some Lessons for the Future from the Global Malaria Eradication Programme (1955–1969), PLoS Med, 8(1), e1000412, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000412.

Fox “News” is Beyond Parody

On the heels of what I was saying about conservative conspiracy mongering about polling data

News Corp/Fox are beyond parody. Their own polls show the same leads they’re conspiracy theorizing about:

Via Talking Points Memo.

Natural Gas Doesn’t Mean the End of Global Warming

Recently, a number of articles have been published gushing about the drop in US carbon emissions due to cheap natural gas. The recent glut of US natural gas has largely come from fracking. You can see an example at The Atlantic here, or in Foreign Policy here.

These articles appeal to people who might vaguely understand there’s something to this whole climate change problem after all, but really don’t care for hippies at Greenpeace and the EPA telling coal companies to reign in their emissions, and can’t be arsed to get out and support market-based solutions to the GHG externality problem like a carbon tax or cap and trade. They’re not anti-science, really. They’re just anti-proactively doing anything meaningful about the problem.

So you can imagine how news that US emissions have declined has been a godsend. Their inner monologue probably goes something like, “Look! No pesky regulations, no inconvenient carbon pricing. The magic of the market at work!” And of course, “Suck it, commies Europe!

Such articles fail to recognize two fundamental problems with the “Fracking Will Save Us All” meme.

1. Burning natural gas domestically doesn’t keep coal in the ground. As US coal consumption decreased, coal exports increased.

It’s great that US emissions dropped. But the atmosphere and ocean don’t care where the coal gets burned.

2. These low natural gas prices are unsustainable. The US Energy Administration forecasts:

Because of the projected increase in natural gas prices relative to coal, EIA expects the recent trend of substituting coal-fired electricity generation with natural gas generation to slow and likely reverse over the next year. From April through August 2012, average monthly natural gas prices to electric generators increased by 34 percent, while coal prices fell slightly. EIA expects that coal-fired electricity generation will increase by 9 percent in 2013, while natural gas generation will fall by about 10 percent.

EIA expects carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, which fell by 2.3 percent in 2011, to further decline by 2.4 percent in 2012. However, projected emissions increase by 2.8 percent in 2013, as coal regains some of its electric-power-generation market share.

If the authors of such nonsense find the EIA analyses too difficult to read, perhaps webcomics might be less intimidating:

Matt Ridley needs to take some advice from Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley is a techno-optimist of the Lomborgian mold, with all of the cherry-picking and source misrepresentation that goes with it apparently. He gave a speech to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh [corrected - see below] that has “skeptics” falling all over themselves in delight.

What groundbreaking evidence does Ridley marshal in defense of his rejection of mainstream science?

I was curious. Ridley ostensibly is a cut above the average denizen of WUWT. He was trained as a zoologist before taking up science writing. He has articles frequently published in the mainstream press, as the delicious-in-hindsight tweet by Andy Revkin reflects. He’s widely acclaimed for popularizing science concepts for mainstream reading audiences. So whatever Ridley had must be good, I thought. His arguments would reflect the best of the “skeptics'” best.

It turned out I was wrong. Or perhaps, I was right, and Ridley was bringing the best of the “skeptics'” best. Either way, it was an enormous disappointment. Ridley’s speech turned out to be a textbook Gish Gallop, full of false claims, logical fallacies, and trivially true but irrelevant “facts”. It was, as I put it at Keith Kloor’s blog, “skeptic” bingo.

  • Sea level rise is small and is decelerating!
  • Methane isn’t increasing!
  • Hockey Stick!
  • Etc.

I don’t think I will do a point by point rebuttal to every claim in Ridely’s speech at this time (maybe later, for sport, time permitting). But suffice it to say that while Ridley is being lauded by the denialosphere now, he’s actually done them a tremendous disservice. With this speech, he’s fully exposing himself as a crank, and has thus reduced the ever-dwindling list of “credible skeptics” one further.

And in case anyone is curious, while the year-to-year variability is significant,  on climate-relevant timescales, sea level rise is indeed accelerating (Church and White 2011; Rahmstorf and Vermeer 2011).

But more to the point, absent emissions stabilization, sea level rise is going to increase, reaching 1m or more by end of century (Vermeer and Rahmstorf 2009).

Failure to stabilize emissions will almost assuredly result in the eventual collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, committing the world to multimeter sea level rise that will be for all practical purposes irreversible. Many of Ridley’s claims similarly depend on falsely equivocating between concern over future climate changes absent emissions stabilization (and their relative irreversibility over human timescales) and what is happening at present. This couldn’t be more misleading.

As you might imagine, given the way this is going, Ridley’s claim that methane isn’t increasing is also false. Methane levels today are much higher than they’ve been over at least the past 800,000 years and continue to increase (Loulergue et al., 2008; NOAA AGGI).

The “hockey stick” nonsense has been done to death. And “skeptics” like Ridley inevitably fail to mention the main points: the “hockey stick” has basically nothing to do with either the attribution of recent warming to humans or the seriousness of future warming; the ostensible statistical problems in the original Mann et al. paper were overstated by its critics, and the actual problems it did have don’t tremendously affect its results (Huybers 2005; Wahl and Amman 2007); moreover, independent Northern Hemisphere reconstructions (including “skeptics'” own) show more or less the same results as Mann et al.’s recent work- the warming during the instrumental record exceeds peak Medieval temperatures (Ljunqvist 2010; Loehle and McCulloch 2008; Mann et al., 2008; Moberg, et al., 2005).

People like Ridley spend an awful lot of time listening to “skeptic” bloggers like Jo Nova and Bishop Hill, but seem to have no grasp of basic Earth systems science. And it shows. There is a total lack of coherence in Ridley’s claims. Ridley wants us to know that the climate changed rapidly in the past- but yet we’re also supposed to believe that climate sensitivity is very small. He also flubs basic concepts- equilibrium sensitivity is not the same thing as transient sensitivity (i.e. how much we will warm in response to a given increase in radiative forcing is larger than how much warming we’ll experience in the near term due to things like the thermal inertia of the ocean).

Perhaps Ridley can follow his own advice and “unlearn” the lies, fallacies, and nonsense he’s being cheered for regurgitating. Though let’s just say I’m a little skeptical of the prospect.

References:

  • Church, J.A., and N.J. White (2011): Sea-Level Rise from the Late 19th to the Early 21st Century. Surveys In Geophysics, 32, 4-5, 585-602, doi:10.1007/s10712-011-9119-1.
  • Huybers, P. (2005): Comment on “Hockey sticks, principal components, and spurious significance” by S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, L20705, doi:10.1029/2005GL023395.Ljungqvist, F.C. (2010): A new reconstruction of temperature variability in the extra-tropical northern hemisphere during the last two millennia. Geografiska Annaler: Series A, 92, 3, 339-351, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0459.2010.00399.x.
  • Loehle, C. and J.H. McCulloch (2008): Correction to: A 2000-Year Global Temperature Reconstruction Based on Non-Tree Ring Proxies. Energy + Environment, 19, 1, 93-100.
  • Loulergue, L., et al. (2008): Orbital and millennial-scale features of atmospheric CH4 over the past 800,000 years. Nature, 453, 383-386, doi:10.1038/nature06950.
  • Mann, M.E., et al. (2008): Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 105, 36, 13252-13257, doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105.
  • Moberg, A., et al. (2005): Highly variable Northern Hemisphere temperatures reconstructed from low- and high-resolution proxy data. Nature, 433, 613-617, doi:10.1038/nature03265.
  • NOAA AGGI: The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index. URL: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/
  • Rahmstorf, S., and M. Vermmer (2011): Discussion of: “Houston, J.R. and Dean, R.G., 2011. Sea-Level Acceleration Based on U.S. Tide Gauges and Extensions of Previous Global-Gauge Analyses”. Journal of Coastal Research, 27, 4, 784–787, doi:10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-11-00082.1.
  • Vermeer, M., and S. Rahmstorf (2009): Global sea level linked to global temperature. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 106, 51, 21527-21532, doi:10.1073/pnas.0907765106.
  • Wahl, E.R., and C.M. Ammann (2007): Robustness of the Mann, Bradley, Hughes reconstruction of surface temperatures: Examination of criticisms based on the nature and processing of proxy climate evidence. Climatic Change, 85, 33-69, doi:10.1007/s10584-006-9105-7.

The conservative face of science and the role of consensus

[I realize that this has already been covered at Climate Progress and elsewhere, I am doing this more or less for archival purposes. -TB]

Image courtesy of Flickr user Scott Ableman, used under Creative Commons

The year 2011 started off with something of a surprise- George Will seemingly supporting science! Yes, this George Will. I wasn’t the only one taken aback.

Will’s journalistic colleague Andy Revkin was likewise surprised by this seeming about face from someone who all too readily attacked science when it conflicted with his conservative ideology, writing:

I think it’d make sense to devote at least as many column inches to this vital issue as you’ve expended trying to undercut decades of scientific study pointing to a growing human influence on the climate system.

This summer, Revkin again called upon Will to show how serious Will actually is about supporting science (and again at the end of August) by penning “a fresh column… building on [Will's] January rebuke of Republican lawmakers seemingly seeking to lead a charge away from federal support for science.” At the time, Revkin pointedly noted that Will was preoccupied with other topics.

Well, it appears Revkin now has Will’s response. GOP Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman recently had the gall to side with the scientific community on the issues of climate change and evolution. Today’s Republican party is infamously unique in its rejection of the scientific reality of man-made global warming. That a top-tier Republican candidate like Jon Huntsman would unabashedly stand with the scientific community was a welcome surprise.

Such apostasy was apparently sufficient to rouse Will’s attention where Revkin’s pleas to stand up for science were not. Will took to the pages of Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post to join his fellow Republicans’ assault on science.

Will sneered:

For Jon Huntsman: You, who preen about having cornered the market on good manners, recently tweeted, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Call you sarcastic. In the 1970s, would you have trusted scientists predicting calamity from global cooling?

Gee, Will sure does love recycling!

Setting aside the fallacy of believing that because science got something wrong in the past it follows that it’s incorrect now, Will is actually engaging in revisionist history.

Despite repeated claims by Will and others to the contrary, there was no consensus predicting cooling in the 70s. Rather predictions of warming “even then dominated scientists’ thinking” (Peterson 2008):

Had Huntsman listened to the balance of the scientific evidence in the 1970s, he would be looking pretty good 30 plus years later. Contrast that with Will, who manages to still get what was said then wrong today, even with the benefit of hindsight!

Will continues:

Are scientists a cohort without a sociology — uniquely homogenous and unanimous

I will freely stipulate that true unanimity is seldom achieved on any subject, no matter how well-established scientifically. That being said, on the question of the reality of man-made warming of the climate, it’s pretty darn close. Surveys of the primary literature show virtually no opposition (Oreskes 2004). Survey data also show that 97-98% of scientists with relevant expertise/who are actively publishing in relevant fields likewise support the consensus (Doran 2009, Anderegg 2010).

without factions or interests

On the contrary, climate science is necessarily an interdisciplinary field. And it’s precisely this patchwork, factious nature of the field that makes the aforementioned consensus all the more striking.

That scientists whose life’s work is focused on solar influence on climate are broadly in agreement with those who focus on the ocean’s role, and with those who study climatic changes in the geologic past due to orbital variation, volcanism, or plate tectonics, etc. that anthropogenic warming is driving the present climatic change is quite amazing, especially if one is as cynically-minded as Will. Self-interest (which we will see Will believes is quite the powerful motivator) is poorly served by the various alternative drivers of warming being exonerated by the scientists that study them.

and impervious to peer pressures or the agendas of funding agencies?

This is a rather pathetic appeal to motive. And it fails for much the same reason that the previous comment does. If one were interested in prolonging and maximizing the amount of funding one could receive for one’s own corner of the scientific community, swiftly and virtually unanimously reaching consensus on something is probably the worst possible way to go about it.

But if Will is genuinely interested in how scientific consensus can be reached and trusted, he could always consult an expert on the subject. Naomi Oreskes literally wrote the book on this topic as it concerns the triumph of plate tectonics (Oreskes 2001). For the truly concerned like Will, she’s also written an accessible primer on the consensus on global warming (Oreskes 2007).

Alas, given Will’s track record (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), the likelihood of him bothering to actually educate himself on the subject appears to be about as slim as Huntsman’s chances for the Republican nomination.

As a parting shot, Will cannot resist twisting the knife in Huntsman over his science-affirming campaign’s poor reception by today’s GOP voters:

Your chief strategist, John Weaver, says the “simple reason” the GOP is “nowhere near being a national governing party” is that “no one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.” … Although you say the country is “crying out” for a “sensible middle ground,” you have campaigned for three months on what you say is that ground and, according to the most recent Gallup poll, your support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is 1 percent.

The folly of codifying anti-science beliefs into a technologically-rooted nation’s political platform would seem self-evident, a “no brainer” as it were. Will and his fellow conservative elites would do well to reconsider their present course,  which is a “no brainer” of an altogether different kind.

Image courtesy of Flickr user saucy_pan, used under Creative Commons

References:

  • Anderegg, W., et al. (2010): Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (USA), 107, 27, 12107-12109, doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107.
  • Doran, P.T., and M.K. Zimmerman (2009): Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(3), 22, doi:10.1029/2009EO030002.
  • Oreskes, N., ed. (2001): Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Boulder: Westview Press, with Homer E. Le Grand.
  • Oreskes, N. (2004): Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 306, 57021686, doi:10.1126/science.1103618.
  • Oreskes, N. (2007): The scientific consensus on climate change: How do we know we’re not wrong? Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, 65-99, DiMento and Doughman eds., MIT Press.
  • Peterson, T.C., et al. (2008): The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 89, 9, 1325-1337, doi:10.1175/2008BAMS2370.

[UPDATE: I see Phil Plait was having similar thoughts today.]

Videobreak: The Colbert Report – “Heatsteria”

Fred Pearce is *still* a rubbish journalist

Image courtesy of Flickr user urbangarden

When last we left Pearce, he was enthusiastically attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the vile, rotting corpse of He said; She said “journalism” that has long wreaked havoc on public understanding of climate.

Checking in, we now find Pearce has sunk to just making statements up and attributing them to people without their knowledge or consent. Specifically NASA GISS researcher (and RealClimate blogger) Gavin Schmidt. As Schmidt has written to New Scientist:

In the piece entitled “Climate sceptics and scientists attempt peace deal” Fred Pearce includes a statement about me that is patently untrue.

“But the leaders of mainstream climate science turned down the gig, including NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, who said the science was settled so there was nothing to discuss.”

This is completely made up. My decision not to accept the invitation to this meeting was based entirely on the organiser’s initial diagnosis of the cause of the ‘conflict’ in the climate change debate. I quote from their introductory letter:

“At this stage we are planning to have a workshop where the main scientific issues can be discussed, so that some clarity on points of agreement and disagreement might be reached. We would try to stay off the policy issues, and will also exclude personal arguments.

The issues we have in mind are Medieval Warm Period, ice, climate sensitivity, and temperature data. We would hope to have smaller groups discussing these in some detail, hopefully with scientists who are very familiar with the technical issues to lead the discussion.”

Since, in my opinion, the causes of conflict in the climate change debate relate almost entirely to politics and not the MWP, climate sensitivity or ‘ice’, dismissing this from any discussion did not seem likely to be to help foster any reconciliation.

At no point did I declare that the ‘science was settled’ and that there was nothing to discuss. Indeed, I am on record as saying the exact opposite: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/12/unsettled-science/

Pearce might well note that even I am included in the “spectrum” that “disagree[s] with Schmidt”!

Fred Pearce did not interview me for this piece. I should like to request that in future, if my views are of interest, that he (or anyone else) should actually ask me directly. I am not hard to contact.

Yours respectfully,

Gavin Schmidt

PS. I am not a ‘leader of mainstream climate science’ either.

I’d ask whether New Scientist wants this kind of indefensible behavior associated with their brand, but clearly they’ve given Pearce free reign to troll for page views however he sees fit.

Pearce should be ashamed of himself.