On “constructive debate”

Or: My Response to Pielke’s Response – Hopefully NOT the first in a series

Roger Pielke Sr. has responded to a post where I addressed some misleading claims he had made that have been recently featured by the anti-science front group SPPI, courtesy of Marc “Swiftboat” Morano.

There are really two separate issues to address with regards to Pielke’s response: A) whether or not my points are indeed correct; and B) what constitutes in Pielke’s words “constructive debate” about climate.

Assuming that most would prefer to look at issues relating to data, we’ll start there.

Part I

I took issue with claims by Pielke about the behavior of three (for better or worse) popular climate change “metrics”: sea level rise (SLR), Arctic sea ice extent (from here on just “sea ice” for ease of discussion), and ocean heat content (OHC).

SLR– Pielke concedes that sea levels are in fact rising- he could hardly do otherwise. He fails to acknowledge the ludicrousness of his claim- the reality of “rising sea levels” was in fact “NOT TRUE”- based on a comparison of a handful of years, anchoring on a temporary high point. A standard by which sea levels (or temperature, or any other noisy data set with an unambiguous trend) could be claimed to have “stopped” and “started” so many times as to divorce the words completely from their definitions. This entire premise is, as I noted before, a fairly common denialist gambit, and one that inevitably exposes its proponents as clueless- or worse, cynics of a rather inexcusable sort.

[One brief clarification I’d like to make- Pielke complains:

I never stated that sea levels are expected to fall. His statement “(therefore sea levels will fall incredibly in the future)” is incorrectly (deliberately) associated in his text to my statements on sea level rise.

Preserving the hyperlink to an XKCD comic satirizing poor extrapolation. I thought that the comic along with the phrasing “fall incredibly” was enough to convey an appropriate amount of hyperbole so that it was clear I was not quoting Pielke but rather mocking the implication many in his audience and the wider “skeptic” community take from such nonsensical claims. Indeed, I wrote “Presumably Pielke really isn’t so stupid as to believe that sea levels are in fact falling, and knows that 2006 as an outlier would inevitably be surpassed” Obviously some people including Pielke himself have read that parenthetical as being actually attributed to Pielke, which I did not intend. Not being one to let incorrect or even ambiguous comments exist on my site indefinitely *cough* I will make a note in the original post.]

Sea ice– Pielke acknowledges that sea ice extent is currently “well below average”. He (again) fails to acknowledge his deliberate cherry pick of a ridiculously short period, playing (again) on a temporary outlier. Pielke doubles down on his false claims about sea ice by claiming that there has been no decline since 2008 (“The trend since 2008 has been flat”), when in fact the linear trend is negative (I’ve not bothered to test whether or not it is statistically significant- though by Pielke’s apparent criteria (eyeballing?), this is certainly more than enough to claim that the trend from 2008 is actually one of decrease). This is of course all beside the original point- that the sea ice loss was occurring more rapidly than expectations- as evidenced by comparing the actual numbers to AR4 projections, something that is inarguable even momentarily stipulating the absurd period of “since 2008”. Pielke again illustrates the nonsensical frame he uses (after falsely claiming that there has been no decline since 2008), with the comical Newspeak “a further decline could again re-commence”.

OHC– Bear in mind that Pielke’s original claim concerned [emphasis mine]: “warming of the upper ocean since 2003“. Pielke’s defense here comes in two parts: First he attacks my statement that Argo data are problematic [emphasis mine]:

The Argo data since 2005 is recognized as quite robust by ocean scientists, who unlike the writer of the The Ways Things Break weblog,  are working with this data.

I sincerely hope Pielke didn’t strain anything moving those goal posts forward a full two years from 2003 to 2005. His reason for doing should be transparent for those (certainly not me, of course) passing familiar with Argo’s well-documented data problems. For those who might wonder why the quality of Argo data prior to 2005 is sidestepped by Pielke, even though his original criticism defines the period as “since 2003”: AchutaRao 2007; Willis 2008Leuliette 2009; etc. Or perhaps an email from Willis directly to Pielke himself:

The Agro Science Team continues to improve the accuracy of the float pressure data for the entire historical Argo dataset. As it strives to achieve the array-averaged accuracy of 1-2 db that is necessary for estimates of global sea level and ocean heat content, small but significant revisions in estimates based on Argo should be expected, partiularly in the early years of the array prior to 2005.

When I pointed out that if you expand the analysis of OHC from 0-700m to 0-2000m Pielke’s assertion no longer holds, Pielke responds citing a paper by Leuliette [emphasis mine]:

There clearly was not ocean heating during the time period 2005 to 2008, which is when accurate data is available to diagnose ocean heating.

Using data from 0-900m thus “countering” my claim (that if you consider heat content since 2003 extending to 2000m the “pause” in warming vanishes) by ignoring it completely and once again addressing only the top most ocean from 2005 on. In the interest of moving his goal posts to what he believed was a more defensible position (from 2005), Pielke himself clearly illustrates upper ocean warming since 2003, and in the process cites a paper suggesting previous conclusions based on Argo data during that period may be biased cold. Additionally, Pielke himself acknowledges that the paper I cited is in good agreement with climate model predictions of ocean heat content.

All of which I’ll accept as concession that his claims are unsupportable/self-contradictory.

Rather than gloat that Pielke batted 0/3 on the non-opinion portion of the discussion, I’d like to once again reiterate (from my original post): “The goal here isn’t to say that my short term data are definitive while Pielke, Morano, and SPPI’s are not- but rather to draw attention to the cherry-picked nature of the claims. [After pointing this out, Pielke accuses me of cherry-picking. The irony is undoubtedly lost on him.] If your conclusions are so sensitive to their starting or ending points, or data sets used, etc., then chances are you’re not saying much of import.”

Part II

Which leads us to the second issue: “constructive debate”. Pielke seems to believe that politeness is a substitute for constructiveness. As though, were a person pleasant enough in the phrasing, it would be quite constructive to propose that children should not be vaccinated, because “contaminants” in the vaccines cause autism- as long as all parties are courteous, what possible harm could come of such a debate?

One (certainly not me, of course) could argue that if you make claims to the effect that incredibly short-lived maxima/minima and subsequent regressions to the mean are evidence of decrease/increase/pause/etc. in the behavior of systems with clear long term trends unchanged by prior instances of such wiggles, absent any physical justification, you are not engaged in “constructive debate”, you are misleading your audience. Moreover one (certainly not me, of course) could note that when you have a graduate level and higher background in maths or science, it becomes almost inconceivable that you’re not doing so deliberately. Finally, one (certainly not me, of course) could make the case that if you are doing so knowing that your misleading statements are used as justification to prevent precautionary steps to prevent a public harm (despite ostensible endorsement of such action), it becomes condemnable.

Wrapping up… Pielke repeatedly accuses me of making an ad hominem attack, illustrating an unfortunate, if pervasive, misunderstanding of the nature of the ad hominem fallacy. If I were making an ad hominem attack on Pielke, I would assert that Pielke’s claims were invalid not through a successful demonstration of their shortcomings, but rather by attacking Pielke himself and thus impugn his arguments by proxy. As anyone can see, I addressed Pielke’s claims directly, and any personal criticisms directed his way are in addition/irrelevant to his claims’ lack of merit.

To take a purely hypothetical scenario:

An ad hominem would be (either explicitly or otherwise) something to the effect of “PR’s claims are rubbish because he is a supporter of the laughably antiscience, wretched hive of scum and villainy known as TWUW”.

An ad hominem is not, “PR’s claims are rubbish because they depend on cherry picking meaninglessly small periods (as evidenced by extending them merely a year or two and noting they have opposing results), which is hardly shocking coming from a supporter of the laughably anti-science, wretched hive of scum and villainy known as TWUW”.

In the latter (again, purely hypothetical) example, the argument that PR’s claims are rubbish doesn’t depend on his support of the laughably anti-science, wretched hive of scum and villainy known as TWUW whereas in the former it does.

In closing, I hope that if anything else, this little kerfuffle has demonstrated the flimsiness of claims based on handfuls of noisy data, and I would hope (but don’t really expect) that in the future Pielke will refrain from writing posts that can so easily mislead his readers. As to pleas for “constructive” debate [setting aside that my post obviously engendered just that in the comments section of our blogs my blog], as I’ve suggested to a different Pielke:

After you, Roger.


8 responses to “On “constructive debate”

  1. . . . crickets . . .
    Let’s see, maybe the response is in the comments at RP Sr.’s blog. Oh, I forgot:
    “Comments Off”

  2. Comments are also turned off on Spencer’s blog.

    ThingsBreak, thanks for this comprehensive rebuttal to Pielke’s post.

    Regarding Arctic sea ice, I request that Pielke Snr. describes for us the trend of multi-year ice in the Arctic, and the long term implications of that trend.

    By willfully associating himself with the likes of Morano, Watts and SPPI, and insisting on disseminating misleading information (and cherry picking) in public forums, Pielke Snr. is not operating in good faith and is contributing the affront on science. What is sad, is that as an experienced scientists he does know better. The big question is why he chooses to engage in this irresponsible behaviour? What makes a perfectly good scientists suddenly go rogue?

    As for him accusing others of ad hom attacks, Pielke Snr. needs take a long hard look in the mirror. Why? Consider his public responses to the recent NCDC report on the US SAT record and the Menne et al. paper. He is not being at all constructive in this “debate”, but rather is seemingly determined to undermine his colleagues’ reputations and the reputation of science as a whole.

    His recent behaviour all has me wondering about his book “Mesoscale Meteorological Modelling”. It is an excellent text, and in the past he has undertaken valuable work on land-atmosphere feedbacks and mesoscale modelling. As a colleague, I would strongly recommend that he stick to doing what he does best and stop being obstructionist in the climate debate. There is a much bigger picture playing out here and he sadly seems to be missing that.

    Roger, I am incredibly saddened and disappointed by your actions of late.

  3. Some, not Eli, I hasten to add, have noticed that the Pielke’s feel no compunction about attacking others in very blunt terms, but demand polite treatment for themselves. Those other, not Eli, he again hastens to add, think that this arises because they require acceptance by scientists as platforms for their own agendas.

  4. Very patient effort by you,things,but entirely wasted on Elder Pielke. Showing the respect for propriety of a master communicator, he is promoting the conjecture of the ethically bankrupt Mosher & Fuller at the foot of his post.

  5. Know how to tell an honest broker from jello?

    Try nailing it down.

  6. A bit off-topic but worth reading (and passing along to others: Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial”.

  7. Pingback: Pre-emptively debunking the coming “La Niña equals ‘global cooling’” meme | The Way Things Break

  8. Pingback: Common sense gets Rogered | The Way Things Break

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