Skepsis

This past week was the final week of proper teaching at Cardiff University, so I’ve done my last full lectures, tutorials and exercise classes of the academic year. Yesterday I assessed a bunch of 3rd-year project talks, and soon those students will be handing in their written reports for marking.  Next week will be a revision week, shortly after that the examinations begin. And so the cycle of academic life continues, in a curious parallel to the  football league season – the other routine that provides me with important markers for the passage of the year.

Anyway, this week I gave the last lecture to my first-year class on Astrophysical Concepts. This is a beginning-level course that tries to introduce some of the theory behind astronomy, focussing on the role of gravity. I cover orbits in newtonian gravity, gravity and hydrostatic equilibrium in extended bodies, a bit about stellar structure, gravitational collapse, and so on. In the last part I do a bit of cosmology. I decided to end this time with a lecture about dark energy as, according to the standard model, this accounts for about 75% of the energy budget of the Universe. It’s also something we don’t understand very well at all.

To make a point, I usually show the following picture (credit to the High-z supernova search team).

 What is plotted is the redshift of each supernova (along the x-axis), which relates to the factor by which the universe has expanded since light set out from it. A redshift of 0.5 means the universe was compressed by a factor 1.5 in all dimensions at the time when that particular supernova went bang. The y-axis shows the really hard bit to get right. It’s the estimated distance (in terms of distance modulus) of the supernovae. In effect, this is a measure of how faint the sources are. The theoretical curves show the faintness expected of a standard source observed at a given redshift in various cosmological models. The bottom panel shows these plotted with a reference curve taken out so the trend is easier to see.

The argument from this data is that the high redshift supernovae are fainter than one would expect in models without dark energy (represented by the \Omega_{\Lambda}  in the diagram. If this is true then it means the luminosity distance of these sources is greater than it would be in a decelerating universe. They can be accounted for, however, if the universe’s expansion rate has been accelerating since light set out from the supernovae. In the bog standard cosmological models we all like to work with, acceleration requires that \rho + 3p/c^2 be negative. The “vacuum” equation of state p=-\rho c^2 provides a simple way of achieving this but there are many other forms of energy that could do it also, and we don’t know which one is present or why…

This plot contains the principal evidence that has led to most cosmologists accepting that the Universe is accelerating.  However, when I show it to first-year undergraduates (or even to members of the public at popular talks), they tend to stare in disbelief. The errors are huge, they say, and there are so  few data points. It just doesn’t look all that convincing. Moreover, there are other possible explanations. Maybe supernovae were different beasties back when the universe was young. Maybe something has absorbed their light making them look fainter rather than being further away. Maybe we’ve got the cosmological models wrong.

The reason I show this diagram is precisely because it isn’t superficially convincing. When they see it, students probably form the opinion that all cosmologists are gullible idiots. I’m actually pleased by that.  In fact, it’s the responsibility of scientists to be skeptical about new discoveries. However, it’s not good enough just to say “it’s not convincing so I think it’s rubbish”. What you have to do is test it, combine it with other evidence, seek alternative explanations and test those. In short you subject it to rigorous scrutiny and debate. It’s called the scientific method.

Some of my colleagues express doubts about me talking about dark energy in first-year lectures when the students haven’t learned general relativity. But I stick to my guns. Too many people think science has to be taught as great stacks of received wisdom, of theories that are unquestionably “right”. Frontier sciences such as cosmology give us the chance to demonstrate the process by which we find out about the answers to big questions, not by believing everything we’re told but by questioning it.

My attitude to dark energy is that, given our limited understanding of the constituents of the universe and the laws of matter, it’s the best explanation we have of what’s going on. There is corroborating evidence of missing energy, from the cosmic microwave background and measurements of galaxy clustering, so it does have explanatory power. I’d say it was quite reasonable to believe in dark energy on the basis of what we know (or think we know) about the Universe.  In other words, as a good Bayesian, I’d say it was the most probable explanation. However, just because it’s the best explanation we have now doesn’t mean it’s a fact. It’s a credible hypothesis that deserves further work, but I wouldn’t bet much against it turning out to be wrong when we learn more.

I have to say that too many cosmologists seem to accept the reality of dark energy  with the unquestioning fervour of a religious zealot.  Influential gurus have turned the dark energy business into an industrial-sized bandwagon that sometimes makes it difficult, especially for younger scientists, to develop independent theories. On the other hand, it is clearly a question of fundamental importance to physics, so I’m not arguing that such projects should be axed. I just wish the culture of skepticism ran a little deeper.

Another context in which the word “skeptic” crops up frequently nowadays is  in connection with climate change although it has come to mean “denier” rather than “doubter”. I’m not an expert on climate change, so I’m not going to pretend that I understand all the details. However, there is an interesting point to be made in comparing climate change with cosmology. To make the point, here’s another figure.

There’s obviously a lot of noise and it’s only the relatively few points at the far right that show a clear increase (just as in the first Figure, in fact). However, looking at the graph I’d say that, assuming the historical data points are accurate,  it looks very convincing that the global mean temperature is rising with alarming rapidity. Modelling the Earth’s climate is very difficult and we have to leave it to the experts to assess the effects of human activity on this curve. There is a strong consensus from scientific experts, as monitored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that it is “very likely” that the increasing temperatures are due to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions.

There is, of course, a bandwagon effect going on in the field of climatology, just as there is in cosmology. This tends to stifle debate, make things difficult for dissenting views to be heard and evaluated rationally,  and generally hinders the proper progress of science. It also leads to accusations of – and no doubt temptations leading to – fiddling of the data to fit the prevailing paradigm. In both fields, though, the general consensus has been established by an honest and rational evaluation of data and theory.

I would say that any scientist worthy of the name should be skeptical about the human-based interpretation of these data and that, as in cosmology (or any scientific discipline), alternative theories should be developed and additional measurements made. However, this situation in climatology is very different to cosmology in one important respect. The Universe will still be here in 100 years time. We might not.

The big issue relating to climate change is not just whether we understand what’s going on in the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s the risk to our civilisation of not doing anything about it. This is a great example where the probability of being right isn’t the sole factor in making a decision. Sure, there’s a chance that humans aren’t responsible for global warming. But if we carry on as we are for decades until we prove conclusively that we are, then it will be too late. The penalty for being wrong will be unbearable. On the other hand, if we tackle climate change by adopting greener technologies, burning less fossil fuels, wasting less energy and so on, these changes may cost us a bit of money in the short term but  frankly we’ll be better off anyway whether we did it for the right reasons or not. Of course those whose personal livelihoods depend on the status quo are the ones who challenge the scientific consensus most vociferously. They would, wouldn’t they? Moreover, as Andy Lawrence pointed out on his blog recently, the oil is going to run out soon anyway…

This is a good example of a decision that can be made on the basis of a  judgement of the probability of being right. In that respect , the issue of how likely it is that the scientists are correct on this one is almost irrelevant. Even if you’re a complete disbeliever in science you should know  how to respond to this issue, following the logic of Blaise Pascal. He argued that there’s no rational argument for the existence or non-existence of God but that the consequences of not believing if God does exist (eternal damnation) were much worse than those of behaving as if you believe in God when he doesn’t. For “God” read “climate change” and let Pascal’s wager be your guide….

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64 Responses to “Skepsis”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    As Lev Landau memorably said, “Cosmologists are often in error but seldom in doubt.” Has the data analysis suggesting acceleration been done Bayesian? The off-the-shelf analytical methods invented by frequentists are so off-the-wall that they could give a spurious result here.

    I’m out of date, so what textbooks do you recommend nowadays for such a broad course at this level?

    Pascal actually used his wager as a kind of reductio ad absurdum to show the limits of utilitarian reasoning, so perhaps it is appropriate to apply it to the conjecture of anthropogenic global warming, which I regard as wholly unproven. I am not saying that in a legalistic sense, whereby the probability is around 99% but the remaining 1% allows the term to be used. Among informed scientists there is no consensus on this subject, which is a good flag to non-experts that the hypothesis is unproven. (Richard Lindzen is generally stated to be the world’s leading scientist in this area and he is sceptical.) Also, because money has entered the question, the debate has turned nasty. This is not so much via payment from pollutant companies to corrupt scientists than as copious grants handed out to scientists wishing to mine the effects of projected temperature rise, companies hoping to make a killing from trade in ‘carbon credits,’ and governments looking for an excuse to tax us more highly. Also the media are selective, because scare stories sell in uncertain times.

    Computer models of the world climate system which assert significant anthropogenic global warming have at least as many data-estimable coefficients as models of national economies and the global economy which proved spectacularly useless at predicting the present recession. And if there is cooling going on at present while CO2 levels continue to rise – as we shall know reasonably well from moving-average methods within a decade – then the hypothesis is definitively debunked. Already it doesn’t look good when you realise that it has got this warm this fast in the pre-industrial past. I am also gravely concerned at the data massaging that appears to have gone on.

    Pascal’s wager is inappropriate here because a warmer planet has historically been *good* for the human race. When the weather warmed, the growing season was longer and harvests improved. Fewer trees were chopped down for firewood. The icy wastes of Siberia and Canada could support many millions of people if they warmed up. There are winners and losers in every change and people facing danger who have no resources to plan ahead should be helped, but that is a matter of charity whether or not man is responsible. I do not want my taxes to go to third-world dictators who turned up at Copenhagen demanding a free lunch; whoever believes that their impoverished subjects would see the money?

    I agree that we should reduce our oil dependence, but for a different reason: much of the oil lies beneath people who hate the West. Not wind power, though; it wrecks our loveliest landscapes only to produce much less power than we need. Politicians need to back fusion a lot more than they have done, and wacky inventors need to be encouraged to play more with tidal power schemes – unlike all schemes tied to the weather the energy is there and it is predictable, but a viable long-term scheme for large-scale extraction of it remains to be found.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton

      I’d suspected that my comments on global warming might provoke a UKIP-flavoured rant, but wasn’t prepared for anything quite so extreme. I think there many misrepresentations in what you say. I urge readers to look at the evidence themselves, as Stephen Jones suggests above.

      Of course one can find scientists that disagree, but there is a consensus among the vast majority and that’s good enough for me. Of course the hypothesis is unproven. Can you think of any scientific hypothesis that is 100% proven? My point is precisely that all scientists should be skeptical anyway, but in this case the consequences of doing nothing are potentially catastrophic. I just hope I don’t live long enough to be proved right.

      A warmer planet may have been good for certain people at certain times in the past, but changing climate always causes problems somewhere. And in our pre-industrial past, humanity didn’t have so many billions of mouths to feed. I don’t suppose you’re looking forward to the day when England’s green and pleasant land is parched and barren, either.

      Finally, I think wind power is an excellent thing. I think wind turbines are rather beautiful actually. Come the revolution there’ll be a big one in your garden.

      Peter

  2. Stephen Jones Says:

    Wow!

    I’m sure I won’t be the first to have my eyebrows raised by Anton’s comment above. From experience the thread after such and opening gambit tends to get very heated very quickly.

    I would just point anyone interested to this page which links to almost every scientific body on the planet’s position on climate change – including the national academy of science of virtually every country from Australia to Zimbabwe.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change

    and also that unlike some scientific research the IPCC reports are available on line for free and every effort has been made to make them as accessible as possible and also to be very clear which aspects of the science are uncertain and which are not

    http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-wg1.htm

    especially the appendix that discusses how to represent uncertainty in the report and the FAQs at the beginning.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    “From experience the thread after such an opening gambit tends to get very heated very quickly. ”

    I’m sure Peter will be pleased to have his blog profile raised. It won’t do the same for my blood pressure, though; people only resort to insults when they haven’t got proper arguments.

    Anton

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    I might be factually wrong but I am notmisrepresenting anything. This is one that we’re all in together.

    Please see my comments that I am not using ‘unproven’ as a weasel word. I am as unable to provide a number for these probabilities as a scientist on a jury in a criminal case, but I do mean that there is plenty of room for doubt. Obviously I share your view that readers should look at the evidence for themselves, but (1) most people don’t have the necessary expertise, and (2) I worry about some of the data, which has been claimed to feature reduced representation from colder places, extra heating in some locations which have changed from rural to urban, and even some ‘filling in the blanks’ which is unacceptable scientific practice.

    Lindzen quietly worked his way to the top in this field long before it became a hot potato, and no mud flung at him has stuck. As for there being no consensus among scientists generally, I urge readers to play with Google for themselves.

    Re wind power – ithe sums simply don’t add up. I wouldn’t mind one in my garden, but atop every Munro in Scotland is another matter. (Is this the first inversion of the “not in my backyard” principle?) Maintenance is pretty difficult too, especially offshore.

    Anton

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    “I don’t suppose you’re looking forward to the day when England’s green and pleasant land is parched and barren, either.”

    This presumes that the case is proven, but in response: I wouldn’t have minded it a bit warmer this winter, in common with hundreds of thousands of pensioners now struggling to pay their heating bills, and I recognise I can’t have both warmer winters and summers that are not overly hot. Even if we got as warm as the south of France (which I would regret), would you say that that is currently a “parched and barren” region?

    Anton

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Much of the public debate over global warming seems to be concerned with interpreting observational evidence of changes in temperature and the reliability of numerical modelling of a complex natural system. I am surprised how little public discussion concerns the basic physics: solar radiation falling on the Earth is primarily at optical and near-infrared wavelengths, the radiation subsequently re-emitted by the Earth is at longer wavelengths, water vapour and carbon dioxide (and other gases) absorb these longer wavelengths, and the equilibrium temperature of the Earth is therefore dependent on the concentrations of these gases. Increase the concentration of carbon dioxide by 40% through industrial pollution and the expectation is that the global temperature will increase, unless some other natural process operates so as to prevent it. No natural process is known that would act to prevent increases on this scale entirely. Indeed, a number of feed-back processes are known that may reinforce the temperature increase. The basic physics is certain.

    Predicting absolutely precisely how much temperature will increase in response to increased carbon dioxide concentrations is impossible at present, given the complexities of the many factors that determine the Earth’s climate. But researchers are able to make detailed predictions and are able reasonably to quantify the uncertainties. These predictions show that global temperatures will increase appreciably, regional temperatures will change and rainfall patterns will change.

    Climate change sceptics, or deniers, fix their attention on the uncertainty over how much average temperatures will change in response to the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations, and then extrapolate irresponsibly to state that some uncertainty means the modelling cannot be trusted at all. They never address the basic physics. They never discuss the aspects that are well understood.

    The two greatest threats to people from global warming are the rise in sea level producing more frequent flooding of coastal communities, and the failure of harvests in some tropical and sub-tropical regions leading to famine. There is a real danger that agriculture in areas of Africa and south Asia will fail if rainfall declines appreciably, in line with most models. The food production that today feeds tens of millions of people may not be sustainable in the future.

    Global warming matters: it kills people. Probably.

  7. In practical life we often have to take decisions on the basis of inconclusive evidence. We cannot afford to put off decisions until we are certain, or the tiger has already eaten us.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    andyxl: “In practical life we often have to take decisions on the basis of inconclusive evidence.” Agreed. “We cannot afford to put off decisions until we are certain, or the tiger has already eaten us.” I disagree with your premise of a tiger. Warmth is no bad thing. Canada and Siberia, currently barren, could support many millions of people. Heating bills go down. Fewer poor people die of cold in winter.

    I accept that there are winners and losers in every change, but the present one-sided hysteria does not assist in rational decision making.

    Bryn: Of course we need to put as much physics as we know into the model. (On which subject, let’s not forget that cloud cover cools things down, and that cosmic ray tracks could be a significant cause of cloud genesis.) But if the world climate is no longer warming, yet CO2 is still rising, then that is evidence that we are missing some crucial physics, is it not?

    Anton

  9. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    Bryn is right in saying that people focus too much on global average temperatures. In fact the variance will probably increase together with the mean in a non-linear system, leading to greater instability and variation across the globe.
    Just because the average temperature rises doesn’t mean everyone has a warmer climate. In local terms, many models in fact predict that changes to the Gulf Stream will make Britain substantially colder in winter if global warming continues, the “global” referring to long-term worldwide averages rather than what happens in Shropshire. Draw a latitude line Westwards across the Atlantic and you’ll see what Britain’s climate could be like.

    There’s no “one-side hysteria” here. It’s a rational consensus. Everybody has something they can’t deal with rationally and I think this is (one of) yours. Ignoring the mountain of evidence that doesn’t fit your dogma isn’t the answer. Neither is moving half the planet to Siberia when you turn out to be wrong.

    Skepticism is rational. Denial is not.

    Peter

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    I know that there is more to life than Shropshire. The Copenhagen conference met in exceptional cold, and I recall that the Americans only just got there, because of the biggest freeze on the east coast for decades, if I remember the details correctly. I object to media which trumpet “Global warming” every time we get a hot summer but which say “exception that proves the rule” every time we get a cold winter.

    I don’t see how it furthers the debate to tell me that I’m irrational; please see my comment of 7:44pm. Then go ahead and prove my irrationality. I don’t know if you can do it to my satisfaction (although I have changed my mind in public before) but it would be convincing to readers of this blog.

    Most of science is actually based on arguments from authority, since we can only do a small subset of the experiments needed to back up the amount of knowledge in a degree course in physics. So we accept the word of textbook authors and lecturers. In physics I have no problem with that, but in global warming we might be listening to different people. It always comes as a shock to have your presumptions questioned, and a common first response is denial. But it is worth taking time to examine arguments on both sides – especially in a debate which has become political.

    Although we are in a better position than non-scientists, neither you nor I has the specialist knowledge of Richard Lindzen or his IPCC opponents. I have spent a lot of time trying to convince certain friends that it is significant the scientists-for-9/11-truth campaign (who believe, astonishingly, that the CIA did it), do not comprise structural engineers or demolition experts, so that although their opinions are worth more than those of linguists, they are worth little compared to such genuine experts….

    Anton

  11. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    I also object to people quoting the popular media, either for or against a scientific argument. I think we know that primary sources are the important thing and as a non-expert you have to read it as much as you can rather than edited highlights served up for you by the papers or even party manifestos (of whatever ilk you happen to read).

    I am a huge admirer of Fred Hoyle’s early work, but he went badly off the rails and wrote a great deal of dogmatic rubbish in later life. Why then do you put so much faith in one person versus the entire IPCC? Or do you think there’s a worldwide conspiracy against him? Isn’t Lindzen also on record as denying there’s a link between lung cancer and smoking? Do you also deny that?

    Peter

  12. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Skepsis: http://wp.me/pko9D-1v2 [...]

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    I think that was Singer (another sceptical climatologist), not Lindzen. As I recall, he was denying the link to so-called secondary smoking, and I tend to agree with him. It’s another issue on which there is hysteria, persecution and justified scepticism today. In any case, what counts is that these people are professors of atmospheric sciences, not professors of smoking. (Most people have wacky views on one or two subjects.) Please put up the quote from him verbatim and I’ll comment further.

    I’m not putting faith in Lindzen alone. There are plenty of sceptical scientists out there, as I’ve said. People only think there is a scientific consensus when they read one side of it, which it is easy even for scientists to do by default nowadays. But Lindzen was the top man before all this blew up, and his opinion is worth more than that of cosmologists or probabilists, just as pours is worth more than total non-scientists’. Every movement has an intellectual leader.

    BTW you said I was capable of a “UKIP-flavoured rant”. That is true, but all that UKIP want is accountability whereby the people who make the laws in this country can be changed by the people who vote in the country. That used to be the case, but in the EU mechanism it no longer is. Why are you against parliamentary democracy?

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Most people have wacky views on one or two subjects

      Quite.

      When I said it was a UKIP-flavoured rant it was because your views were remarkably similar to those of UKIP’s science spokesman. Almost word-for-word, in fact.

      I am not “against parliamentary democracy”. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    I hadn’t known that about UKIP’s science spokesman. (Another reason to vote for them…)

    I apologise for asking you a question that presumed you were against parliamentary democracy. UKIP are the only party committed to restoring it and accountabilty and this is their flagship policy, which is why I thought your derogatory reference to them meant you were disparaging it.

    Anton

  15. Bryn Jones Says:

    I think we need to be careful with our language. The term scepticism can mean two different things when discussing human-induced climate change. There can be a cautious, doubtful scepticism based on a full understanding of the scientific detail, where the doubt is based on a proper appreciation of the scientific principles and on a concern over how well various natural processes are understood. Then there is a scepticism based on doubt that science is capable of predicting the natural environment, or because of an assumed belief that scientists are merely technical used-car salesmen distorting truth to get money out of government. One form of scepticism is understandable and has some element of intellectual justification. The other is ill-informed prejudice.

    Then there is climate-change denial, which is based on a wilful denial of truth because of political or economic interests. There is some of that being churned out by some carbon-dioxide polluting industries.

    A problem with the public debate about human-induced climate change is that there are many groups arguing from their own political, philosophical and economic viewpoints, for whom science is merely a tool to use selectively to add weight to their arguments. Some environmental groups overstate the case for the effects of global warming, predicting immediate environmental disaster everywhere. Other groups have financial vested interests in maintaining current carbon dioxide pollution, and some are financed by polluting industries to feed misinformation. We need to pay very little attention to these vested interests on either side. It is academic science that provides an analysis worthy of public attention.

    Academic science predicts with near unanimity that there will be an appreciable increase in global temperature in response to increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, and that local climates will become warmer and drier in some specific locations. It predicts that some regions of the world will experience climate change that will threaten harvests, putting the lives of millions of people at risk. We must take note of these scientific warnings, and democratic policy makers must encourage society to reduce discharges of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: I agree with all you say about the use of language. You can, however, get fairly large changes in the predictions by tweaking the values of the parameters in them. That is why I am unconvinced. And, empirically, it appears to be easier to get predictions of larger temperature increases published, hence the near-unanimity.

    We know all about the radiation response of the carbon dioxide molecule and the water molecule (and methane etc), but extrapolation to the earth’s atmosphere is terribly complicated. If water vapour condenses into cloud that is semi-opaque to certain wavelengths, that complicates matters for a start.

    I do strongly support some of the actions that the AGW zealots want, namely reducing our civilisation’s dependence on oil, although for political reasons regarding where the oil lies. Obviously I am against carbon credit trading, which offers vast scope for corruption. Most of the West got rid of the selling of indulgences in the 16th century.

    Anton

  17. telescoper Says:

    Bryn

    Thanks. The existence of two distinct uses of the word “skepticism” (or “scepticism”) was one of the points I was trying to make in the post. I obviously failed.

    Peter

  18. Note that the big differences between cosmology and climate research are a) our civilisation can be affected by global warming and b) most if not all climate-change doubters have an axe to grind. When the high-profile doubters work for oil companies etc one has to question their motives.

    Having worked in both climate research and cosmology, I can say that the facts that a) global warming exists, b) it is largely man-made and c) it will significantly affect our civilisation if not stopped are quite secure claims. Yes, some scientists doubt them. Yes, Fred Hoyle and Geoff Burbidge doubted the Big Bang. Science isn’t decided by the majority, but when the minority are difficult people with an axe to grind, one should question their motivations.

    Many people say “what’s the problem with a few degrees more? It would be nice if it were warmer”. That’s not the problem. The problem is the rise in sea level, flooding coastal areas (where most people live). There are two effects: One is the melting of ice on land (melting ice in the sea has no direct effect): if a certain thickness of ice in Greenland melts, then it will increase the sea level by that thickness multiplied with the ratio of the area of Greenland to that of the sea. The other is the thermal expansion of water.

    “He argued that there’s no rational argument for the existence or non-existence of God but that the consequences of not believing if God does exist (eternal damnation) were much worse than those of behaving as if you believe in God when he doesn’t.”

    You asked for it, you got it: the quote of the day:

    This is very similar to the suggestion put forward by the Quirmian
    philosopher Ventre, who said, “Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they
    do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it’s all true you’ll go to
    a lovely place when you die, and if it isn’t then you’ve lost nothing, right?”
    When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks
    and one of them said, “We’re going to show you what we think of Mr
    Clever Dick in these parts…”.

    —Terry Pratchett, in HOGFATHER

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: It is fine to question motives, but you have done this for only one side (and not for any named individual). Motives for asserting AGW include the preferential availability of grants for it from governments seeking excuses to raise taxes, and the notorious difficulty even in unpoliticised fileds of getting negative results published.

    A back-of-an envelope calculation suggests to me that meltwater is by far the greater effect than thermal expansion.

    Coastlines change all the time. (Look up Dunwich on Wikipedia.) What is important is not that there shgould be no change – which has never been the case – but that it should not proceed too fast for people to accommodate to it. I am unconvinced that it will.

    Anton

  20. While it is certainly a valid position (though generally not mine) to favour reduced taxes, you make it sound like some governments want to raise taxes solely in order to raise taxes, i.e. an end in itself. I find that hard to believe. Surely if that were the case, a better excuse than global warming could be found.

    Why not say that any government-funded research is questionable, since there is money involved?

    Anyone wanting to extract the maximum in grant money wouldn’t say “we have a definitive result”, because then his research no longer needs funding. Instead, he should say “we need to do more work”, and hence needs to receive more grants.

    Feynman said, when a journalist asked him to explain in a couple of sentences what he won the Nobel Prize for, if he could explain it in a couple of minutes then it wouldn’t be worth a Nobel Prize. Similarly, even blogs dedicated to climate research (such as http://tamino.wordpress.com/ ) can’t detail all the arguments in the blog, so I would expect that to be even less likely here.

  21. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: “you make it sound like some governments want to raise taxes solely in order to raise taxes, i.e. an end in itself. I find that hard to believe.” Here is the explanation: money is power. Politicians crave more power, meaning wider options. Higher taxes mean that they have more – Anton

  22. stringph Says:

    Anton -

    No active scientist ever got rich through climate change research. It is a continuing absurdity, and bordering on libel, to claim that any scientist in the field is distorting his or her research for monetary gain. Research scientists working for the government *never* get rich – and only get famous if people with views very like yours accuse them of fraud, as has recently happened with very unpleasant and largely undeserved consequences for some of the scientists.

    Government employment is the worst of both worlds if one sets out to be a powerful, rich propagandist, since in addition to the mediocre pay one has to conform to a huge array of regulations and guidelines (which don’t apply to any privately funded or amateur ‘skeptics’). If any allegations are made against the government scientist, no matter how ill-founded, they have to be answered and even investigated at whatever cost. Whereas the privately-funded and amateur are practically never held publically accountable.

    Bestselling authors and filmmakers sometimes do get very rich, though… and there are quite a few on both sides, as it were. So do some newspaper proprietors. As Peter says, their views can be ignored with benefit to us all.

    Your arguments about politicians would have led us to believe it was not worth Britain fighting the 2nd World War. Since the powers of Government are enormously increased in wartime, the supposed necessity to go to war could always be explained away as a power-grabbing strategy.

    Besides, some politicians want to shift taxation from (say) income onto pollution and use of natural resources, without increasing the overall long-term burden. Politicians also want to become popular (they can’t get reelected if permanently unpopular…) – and raising some taxes indefinitely without cutting others is not a good strategy for that!

  23. Anton Garrett Says:

    Stringph: Did I ever claim that scientists distort their research to get rich? The prime aim of scientists is to get grants, not to get rich. ‘Climategate’ appears to back up some of what I am saying, although more details are needed.

    I haven’t a clue how you adapt my arguments to suggest I would be against Britain fighting WW2.

    Anton

  24. Dave Carter Says:

    Anton,

    The prime aim of most scientists I know is to publish research papers. Getting grants is a means to this end, not an end in itself. Their other prime aim, maybe above even publishing papers, is to recruit and teach the next generation of students.

    It isn’t good enough to suggest, at you did on May 1st, that users “play with google” for information on this subject. This is an academic and scientific blog, many, maybe even most users will have access to an academic library where they can read the peer-reviewed literature, and look at the methodology of the science, even if they are not specialists themselves. What google gives you is the academic equivalent of the bloke in the pub who thinks he is better at picking the England football team than the professionals who actually do so.

    Peter, I was also an admirer of Fred Hoyles early work. Not only was he part of the team who produced fundamental work on nucleosynthesis, but he wrote “A for Andromeda” at about the same time. Which was one of the main things which persuaded me I wanted to be a scientist. If I had been a bit older at the time I would have been even more persuaded, by the idea that scientists were people who had research assistants who looked like Julie Christie.

    Apologies to people outside the UK, or people under about 55, who won’t have a clue what I am on about.

    • telescoper Says:

      Dave,

      I read everything I could find in the public library by Fred Hoyle, when I was a teenager, and his books certainly played a big role in inspiring me to become an astrophysicist. I have to say however, that when I did get to meet him personally I found him extremely difficult to like. As for the rest of your comment, I’m way too young to have any clue what you are on about.

      Peter

  25. Back in 1993, Alan Sandage, at a Saas-Fee school, recalled working with computers back in the 1940s. He went on to explain that these computers were female, in their early 20s and unmarried.

  26. Yes, Fred Hoyle did some good stuff back in the early days. However, he became increasingly irritable and condescending with age and espoused many crackpot ideas, one of which even has its own Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoyle%27s_fallacy . His idea that Archaeopteryx wasn’t real is legendary as well.

  27. Dave Carter Says:

    Peter,

    Yes, its sad that he became a bitter man in old age. And he is remembered more for his comparative failures such as steady-state cosmology and viruses from space than for his successes. I also met him when he was old, and formed the same impression as you.

    dave

  28. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dave: I agree that the aim of scientists is to publish and teach. When I said that “The prime aim of scientists is to get grants, not to get rich” I was speaking of the financial facets, because somebody had accused me (inaccurately) of saying that AGW sceptics were in it for personal financial enrichment.

    Peter does not run the scientific contriubutions to his blog at academic standard. (It would defeat the point.) I had intended people to Google scientifically informed AGW sceptics as an “exercise for the student” by which they might educate themselves but here is a petition signed by more than 30,000 scientists:

    http://www.petitionproject.org

    Not many of these are climatologists, but to my knowledge none of the scientists with whom I am playing tennis here are, either. This number more than suffices to disprove claims of “scientific consensus”. Freeman Dyson is one, BTW.

    Anton

  29. Other scientists—Bondi, Gold, Philip Morrison—espoused the Steady State model in the early days. No problem with that. It was a good theory (in that it made testable predictions and require few assumptions). However, it was wrong. The other folks moved on while Hoyle stuck to his guns despite the evidence.

  30. “Here is the explanation: money is power. Politicians crave more power, meaning wider options. Higher taxes mean that they have more”. Yes, but only if they keep the money for themselves and don’t spend it on climate research.

  31. Anton Garrett Says:

    While Fred Hoyle’s personality might have made him a difficult dinner guest, it made for an entertaining autobiography (Home is Where the Wind Blows) in which he took aim at some of his scientific and (in particular) administrative opponents.

  32. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: If as a politician *you* can decide how to spend the money then it doesn’t matter whether it is in the national coffer or your own bank account – *you* have the power.
    Anton

  33. Dave Carter Says:

    Sorry Anton, you are doing your credibility no good by bringing up the Oregon petition. There are very few climate scientists on that list. There are actually quite few scientists, even their front page shows that less than a third of the signatories have PhDs. Some signatories do not exist at all.

    The people we need to listen to are not random signatories of petitions, but people with an established record of research in climate science, evidenced by peer-reviewed publications in the climate science literature,
    or by employment in an academic position in a climate science department (in a UK context this would be one which made a submission to UoA 17 of RAE2008, or intends to make such a submission to the 2013 REF). Now I havn’t been through this list myself, but I have seen people with your viewpoint challenged to find such a person on the list of signatories of the Oregon petition, and fail to come up with even one. This may have changed, I don’t know. But there are not a lot.

  34. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dave: Are you a climate scientist?

    Lindzen is.

  35. Dave Carter Says:

    Anton,

    I am not a climate scientist, but I can read what people are doing and understand their methodology. Lindzen appears to have done some good stuff in the past (as with Fred), but he appears to be out of step with the vast majority of at least equally eminent scientists in this field.

    Dave

  36. Anton Garrett Says:

    This is getting like John Cleese’s famous monologue in Liife Of Brian:

    “What scientists don’t regard global warming as proven?”

    “30,000 of them.”

    “Alright, but apart from them, what *climate* scientists regard it as unproven?”

    “Lindzen.”

    “OK, I’ll give you 30,000 who are largely non-specialists, and Richard Lindzen, but apart from them, what *climate* scientists regard it as unproven?”

    “Singer.”

    etc etc…

    More seriously, there is a hierarchy of value of opinions: the opinion of a climatologist is worth more than the opinion of a scientist working in other fields, which is worth more than the opinion of somebody with no scientific knowledge.

    Also, if polls are taken, I’d like to know the proposition that is or is not signed up to. It is not clear to me how many climatologists would, if their names were protected, sign up to the proposition that “the world is continuing to get warmer and it is beyond reasonable doubt that human burning of fossil fuels is responsible.”

    Anton

  37. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_petition

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_B._Robinson

    Robinson is the senior author of the Oregon Petition.

    He also sells the Robinson Curriculum, which is a self-taught home school curriculum for grammar school children through high school.

    “Teach your children…to acquire superior knowledge as did many…in
    the days before socialism in education.”

    Robinson is a signatory to A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, a petition produced by the Discovery Institute that expresses skepticism about the ability of natural selection to account for the complexity of life, and encouraging careful examination of the evidence for “Darwinian theory”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Scientific_Dissent_From_Darwinism

    Draw your own conclusions.

  38. Anton Garrett Says:

    What does it matter who started the petition? What matters is who signs it. I’m sure you will find that it has been signed by people who differ about many subjects.

    Lete’s also look closely at the wording here. While I am committed to the neo-Darwinist synthesis of genetics and natural selection, there remain enormous holes in our knowledge of the account of life on earth for this mechanism to fill in. Compared to that, we physicists have it easy.

    Anton

  39. Adrian Burd Says:

    OK, I was going to refrain from stepping into this fray, but Anton has made some rather ill-informed statements that deserve some response from someone who knows a smidgin about climate science (for background I’m a former cosmologist, now oceanographer working on many topics in marine science, several of which are related to climate change and anthropogenic influences on climate and the environment).

    I’ll forego extensive commenting on the silly petition that Anton refers to – I’m sure I could get 30,000 signatures on a petition saying that Anton is in fact the man in the moon. I’ll also forego extended comments on Anton’s remarks about the so-called Climategate emails – perhaps Anton’s email box is squeaky clean and all his emails are immune to mis-interpretation and quote-mining.

    I will comment on Anton’s reliance on the work of Richard Lindzen, which is rather misplaced (indeed, the similarity of Lindzen to Fred Hoyle is apt). Lindzen has done some great work, and unlike many others, he has taken the established route of publishing his climate papers in reputable journals. For this, he deserves respect, and the ideas he puts forward enter into the stream of science to be judged with the rest. These ideas have been pretty severely dented (if not demolished) in subsequent papers. For example, Lindzen and Choi (Geophysical Research Letters, 2009) argued that climate models are wrong and that the climate as a strong negative feedback resulting from cloud cover. Kevin Trenberth and colleagues have shown quite convincingly that Lindzen and Choi’s ideas and analysis are fundamentally flawed and do not withstand independent testing (Trenberth et al, GRL, 2010). In brief:

    1) Lindzen and Choi’s results are sensitive to how they select periods of warming and periods of cooling – they didn’t provide an objective method for choosing these. By shifting the endpoints of these periods by about a month, you can reduce the Lindzen and Choi relationship to zero.

    2) Lindzen and Choi make some very poor assumptions about the functioning of the tropical atmosphere. They assume it’s a closed and deterministic system with cloud activity driven by sea surface temperature. This is well known not to be the case and such a purely local analysis will not work.

    3) Their comparisons of observations with models use models that have an incomplete set of forcings. The model they compared to was designed this way as it was implemented for a completely different purpose. They should have used a set of model output from a model with a complete set of forcings.

    4) They completely mess up their calculation of climate sensitivity by not accounting for all the sources of radiation.

    Whilst one cannot expect non-specialists to be up to date on climate science, Anton definitely is over-selling and over-hyping Lindzen.

    Sadly, rather than accepting that some of his ideas are incorrect and have been shown to be wrong, Lindzen has taken the route of invoking a mass conspiracy of climate scientists against him. He should have moved on, developed, modified and re-analyzed his ideas. Sadly, he has taken another route, one which has lost him a lot of respect and credibility, even from former colleagues.

    What is unfortunate in this day and age is that the volume of those putting forward ideas that have been shown to be incorrect is drowning out others. As a result, folks such as Anton find the chaff instead of the wheat, and not knowing better, assume the chaff is the wheat. A little more restraint, investigation and learning is called for. There are excellent books on climate science out there, a new one by Ray Pierrehumbert is excellent (if drafts circulated on the web beforehand are anything to go by).

    Adrian

  40. Adrian Burd Says:

    OK, I will comment on the petition that Anton refers to, mainly because of his contentious claim that “This number more than suffices to disprove claims of “scientific consensus”. 30,000 “scientists” eh. Hmmmmmmm….first of all the petition allows those sign who have obtained formal degrees of Bachelor of Science or higher in an “appropriate field”, defined as one of atmospheric, earth and environmental fields, computers, mathematics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, agriculture, medicine, general engineering and general science. Since the 1970-1971 academic year, there have been over 10 million science graduates satisfying the qualifications of the petition in the US alone. 30,000. So the signatories make up 0.3% of the available pool of scientists qualified to sign the petition. I fail to see how this “disproves the scientific consensus”.

    One can do a further analysis (this is where I got the above numbers from)

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/scrutinising-31000-scientists-in-the-OISM-Petition-Project.html

    and no matter how one cuts the numbers, one finds that the numbers who have signed the petition are a miniscule fraction. Again, unless Anton is using the word “consensus” in a way I’m unfamiliar with, I do not see how this petition in any way “disproves the consensus”.

    Adrian

  41. Grandpa Boris Says:

    Pascal’s wager is a particularly poor device to use when dealing with the (non-)existence of a god. It assumes that god is a deterministic mechanical construct that responds to specific stimuli in very specific ways. Dawkins had written a reasonably good analysis of the fatal flaws in Pascal’s wager, for what it’s worth.

    I prefer to look at the Pascal’s wager as applied to the stereotypical childhood fear of Monsters Under the Bed (or In The Closet). Acting in ways that would placate or avoid the monsters may make the child feel safer at night, but when the probability of the monsters’ existence in real life is at dead zero, placating the monsters to avoid being eaten by them is a pointless ritualistic behavior.

  42. Adrian Burd Says:

    Having re-read this thread, I must admit to being surprised, shocked and quite disturbed by Anton’s comments – both on the topic of the actual climate science and in his responses to others.

    His initial post does, as Peter correectly described, misrepresent a great deal (as I have in part demonstrated in previous posts). His style of argument is typical of those firmly on denialist side of things. For example, his arguments are full of innuendo:

    “And if there is cooling going on at present while CO2 levels continue to rise” – there is NO, repeat NO evidence of cooling. To my knowledge, all arguments about recent cooling (even from scientists such as Pielke Sr.) rely on a very careful choice of time period (usually 10 years or less) over which natural variability in the climate system masks the trend. To suggest that there might be cooling is a total red-herring.

    ” worry about some of the data, which has been claimed to feature reduced representation from colder places, extra heating in some locations which have changed from rural to urban, and even some ‘filling in the blanks’ which is unacceptable scientific practice.” These are all claims concerning the rise in temperature – I wonder if Anton is claiming that global temperatures are NOT rising. The above claims have mostly (if not all) appeared in self publications on the web and have not gone through any kind of peer review process. Critics have homed in on various aspects of the temperature record but refused to do the proper analysis to see if their criticisms are valid or not. When the actual analysis has been done, it has shown that there is either no effect, or an effect that would not be desired by the deniers. For example, the kerfuffle over the siting of temperature stations has been seriously debunked (Menne et al., Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres, 2010).

    “I don’t see how it furthers the debate to tell me that I’m irrational;” It doesn’t, but then neither does referring to those working in climate science as “zealots” (for example), and neither does replacing actual debate with innuendo.

    “There are plenty of sceptical scientists out there, as I’ve said. People only think there is a scientific consensus when they read one side of it, which it is easy even for scientists to do by default nowadays. ” Again, unfounded innuendo. Sure, one can think that there is scientific consensus about the Earth being round if you only read one side of the debate! The numbers of informed scientists, in particular those who work in various aspects of climate science, who are sceptical of AGW are very, very, very few and far between. If by plenty one means a fraction of a percent, then ok, but I do not call that plenty.

    “But Lindzen was the top man before all this blew up, and his opinion is worth more than that of cosmologists or probabilists, just as pours is worth more than total non-scientists’. Every movement has an intellectual leader.” Again with the innuendo. Richard Lindzen is not an “intellectual leader” of any movement. He is a scientist who has previously done some excellent work and who now finds himself trying to defend demonstrably flawed ideas by claiming conspiracies against him.

    “We know all about the radiation response of the carbon dioxide molecule and the water molecule (and methane etc), but extrapolation to the earth’s atmosphere is terribly complicated. If water vapour condenses into cloud that is semi-opaque to certain wavelengths, that complicates matters for a start.” Again with the innuendo. Sure, everyone knows that nuclear reactions occur in stars, but stars are very complex (all those magnetic fields and what-not), so if there are nuclear reactions what’s to stop the Sun exploding tomorrow and frying us all to a cinder? Atmospheric scientists surprisingly know quite a lot about water vapour and clouds, cloud formation and the effects of clouds and aerosols on climate. Do they know everything? No. But I suspect you would be pleasantly surprised by how much they do know. Any decent science library will have lots of books on these topics – a good technical overview is given by Seinfeld and Pandis “Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics”, though be warned, it is almost as big as “the phone book”.

    “Motives for asserting AGW include the preferential availability of grants for it from governments seeking excuses to raise taxes, ” Hmmm….I guess I’ll have to take Obama’s taxation policy into account next time I’m on a review panel for NSF grant proposals. Talk about conspiracies!!!

    “and the notorious difficulty even in unpoliticised fileds of getting negative results published.” Someone who could demonstrate convincingly that AGW was false, and was not occurring would, I suspect, get their paper published rapidly and would probably be fast tracked for a Nobel Prize. If Anton is referring to the cry of censorship that many critics of AGW use, then one might wish to think that the reason their papers get rejected is because they are fundamentally flawed and do not withstand the peer review process. Some have been published, and in all cases (to my knowledge) been seriously debunked soon thereafter (for example, the paper by McLean et al (2010) linking global warming to El Nino was seriously flawed, as shown by Grant Foster et al. (2010) – Peter will love this one, McLean et al showed there was no warming trend by…..wait for it…..removing the trend!!!).

    “A back-of-an envelope calculation suggests to me that meltwater is by far the greater effect than thermal expansion.” Great. Show us your working and your calculation. If what you say is true, then you can get that published in a high profile journal because it would be quite an amazing result.

    You see, this is what really gets under my skin. Anton claims to have done a calculation to show something that contradicts what we know from data. Rather than think he might have screwed up somewhere, he drops this little nugget to hint at the fact that maybe those silly little climate scientists don’t know what they are doing, or maybe they’re the evil, global conspiratorial climate scientists who are deceiving everyone else. Could those who study the global water cycle have screwed up? It’s a possibility, but a slim one. My bet is that Anton messed up.

    This style of “debate” is very common amongst the extremes of those who are in denial about AGW. It is to me a great shame to see someone like Anton throwing out the principles of reasoned debate and arguing in this manner.

    Adrian

  43. Anton Garrett Says:

    Adrian: I was talking about the rise in sea level if Antarctica melts. I didn’t say that, but it’s what I meant (and not inconsistent with my words). I am willing to show here that the resulting rise in sea level is an order of magnitude more than any rise due to thermal expansion of seawater, but do you really need me to?

    You’ve gone for point-by-point response, so (supposing it’s OK with Peter) I’ll do the same. First, though, I am not in denial about AGW. I am unconvinced of it but I deny only that it is *proven*. I think it is better not to get into the public labelling of *individuals* with loaded words, although I feel free to talk about attitudes of communities (with the possible exception of litigious chiropractors…). When I do that, however, you accuse me of innuendo. It’s not innuendo if that community does have the attitude of which I am complaining. Also, this is a blog not an academic journal. Innuendo is a word used by those who are certain – but there is no certainty in this debate.

    1.
    AG: And if there is cooling going on at present while CO2 levels continue to rise
    AB: there is NO, repeat NO evidence of cooling

    My point lay elsewhere, and is better made – I agree – as follows: “If warming is *not* going on while CO2 is increasing, then AGW is pretty strongly disproven.” I make no apology for the “if” in this sentence as it’s a bit too early to tell.

    2. I have read from sources I trust of ‘missing’ data being filled in, and of much less data from cold parts of Russia being included recently than hitherto.

    3.
    AG: There are plenty of sceptical scientists out there, as I’ve said. People only think there is a scientific consensus when they read one side of it, which it is easy even for scientists to do by default nowadays.
    AB: Again, unfounded innuendo. Sure, one can think that there is scientific consensus about the Earth being round if you only read one side of the debate!

    False analogy!

    4.
    AG: But Lindzen was the top man before all this blew up, and his opinion is worth more than that of cosmologists or probabilists, just as ours is worth more than total non-scientists’. Every movement has an intellectual leader.”
    AB: Richard Lindzen is not an “intellectual leader” of any movement. He is a scientist who has previously done some excellent work and who now finds himself trying to defend demonstrably flawed ideas by claiming conspiracies against him.

    Lindzen is the best-known and most reputable scientist (and highly reputable) who is sceptical of AGW on scientific grounds. That makes him the de facto intellectual leader of the unconvinced. I meant no more than that by the phrase. As for “demonstrably” flawed ideas – that is assuming what is in dispute.

    5.
    AG: We know all about the radiation response of the carbon dioxide molecule and the water molecule (and methane etc), but extrapolation to the earth’s atmosphere is terribly complicated. If water vapour condenses into cloud that is semi-opaque to certain wavelengths, that complicates matters for a start.
    AB [After another doubtful analogy, with solar physics]: Atmospheric scientists surprisingly know quite a lot about water vapour and clouds, cloud formation and the effects of clouds and aerosols on climate. Do they know everything? No. But I suspect you would be pleasantly surprised by how much they do know

    Modelling a planet in which there were known amounts of CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere would be much easier, based on molecular properties, if the H2O never condensed into cloud, with its different opacity at various wavelelngths. But in the earth’s atmosphere it does form cloud. And prediction of cloud is an obvious weak point in modelling/forecasting, as any farmer could tell you.

    6.
    AG: Motives for asserting AGW include the preferential availability of grants for it from governments seeking excuses to raise taxes
    AB: Hmmm….I guess I’ll have to take Obama’s taxation policy into account next time I’m on a review panel for NSF grant proposals. Talk about conspiracies!!!

    Let’s. A bunch of dictators in hot countries would love to get their hands on guilt money deriving from Western taxpayers, and I doubt that much of it would get beyond their cronies and reach the people in those countries. On the supply side, meanwhile, the UK government has used every shifty trick in the book to raise taxes in the last decade, and I’m sure that a new and powerful excuse is welcomed by it. As for why governments raise taxes a lot more often than they lower them, see another thread on this blog, but the root reason is this: money is power, so that with more money to spend (from tax revenue), politicians have more power; and politicians crave power.

    7.
    AG: and the notorious difficulty even in unpoliticised fields of getting negative results published.”
    AB: Someone who could demonstrate convincingly that AGW was false, and was not occurring would, I suspect, get their paper published rapidly and would probably be fast tracked for a Nobel Prize.

    I doubt that, but I welcome all good science based on good data, whichever way it tips the probabilities.

    Anton

  44. Very roughly, a 1-degree rise in temperature would raise the sea level by about 8 cm. If a kilometer of ice melts and the land mass it was on is 1% the area of the ocean, then that would mean a rise of 10 meters. However, not all the ice will melt, at least not right away. Assume the top 10 meters of ice melts—that would mean a rise of 10 cm (assuming the 1% ratio as above). So, if all the ice melts, that’s a bigger effect, but if the temperature goes up by a few degrees and just some of the ice melts, then, depending on how much ice melts, the two effects can be of the same order of magnitude.

    “I am unconvinced of it but I deny only that it is *proven*.” This is not mathematics; it’s not even (just) physics. One has to define “proven”.

    “On the supply side, meanwhile, the UK government has used every shifty trick in the book to raise taxes in the last decade, and I’m sure that a new and powerful excuse is welcomed by it.” While my position is clear, some of the other points might be open to some sort of debate, but when I hear that the motivation for climate research is to raise taxes, I have to ask if you see any black helicopters when you look out the window.

  45. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: The motivation of politicians is to raise taxes (which enhances their power). Since science is funded by politicians, and since AGW is a good excuse to raise taxes, guess which research projects are going to get preferentially funded. And word of where the grant money is goes rapidly round the scientific community.

    If the physical system under study were such that one could simply do an experiment that answered whether AGW is going on or not, it would not matter whether the money was from politicians with preferences. They would simply welcome or dislike the result. But it is not that simple. There is a difference between hypothesis testing and parameter estimation. You can test the hypothesis that a parameter is zero or not; or you can assume it is nonzero and then estimate its value. All of the AGW calculations that get published seem to be of the latter sort, and when I read how sensitive the result is to small tweaks to a few parameters in the model, I have concerns about the value of that model.

    Anton

  46. “The motivation of politicians is to raise taxes (which enhances their power).”

    Actually, many politicians make a campaign promise to cut taxes and many of those actually do so. Wrongly, in my view, in most cases. In the last national election in Germany, tax reduction was a major issue, and one of the main reasons why the FDP (roughly equivalent to the LibDems) came into power as the junior party in the present coalition. The FDP and the CDU/CSU (rough equivalent of the Conservatives) have been arguing about what taxes to cut, and by how much, and when, but the trend is there. (Interestingly, polls show that the majority of the population is opposed to the tax cuts. Although it was a major issue in the campaign, it probably wasn’t a major reason why people voted as they did.) Taxes in many countries are substantially less than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and of course it was politicians who reduced them. I think your thesis doesn’t jibe with reality.

    “Since science is funded by politicians, and since AGW is a good excuse to raise taxes, guess which research projects are going to get preferentially funded. And word of where the grant money is goes rapidly round the scientific community.”

    By this logic, anything which government funds is suspect.

  47. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: Re your second point, you perhaps unintentionally cut off my subsequent words which explained why your criticism doesn’t hold in this case. But I should add that drug company sponsorship is seen, rightly or wrongy, as rendering pharmaceutical research as iffy.

    Look at tax over the last 100 years, not just over 10. UP!

    Anton

  48. “But I should add that drug company sponsorship is seen, rightly or wrongy, as rendering pharmaceutical research as iffy.”

    Indeed, because there is an obvious axe to grind. Even if politicians wanted to fund research so that they can raise taxes (this seems as bizarre as the chemtrail conspiracy theory, I have to say), it is not clear why they would preferentially fund people who claimed AGW exists rather than others. In fact, by your view, they should preferentially fund people who say “we need more data, we need more calculations, we need more experiments, we need more money” so that they could raise them even more.

    “Look at tax over the last 100 years, not just over 10. UP!” Traditional taxes, perhaps. But what about a serf in the middle ages? How much of his effort went to his lord rather than to himself and his family?

    But even if taxes have gone up, it doesn’t follow that the reason is that politicians raise them because it increases their power. Maybe, on the whole, people vote for parties who favour higher taxes since they recognise that in many cases government funding is better. It might not be your view, of course. If the majority of people wanted drastically lower taxes, I’m sure a) that a party advocating this would run and b) get elected.

  49. Adrian Burd Says:

    Anton,

    “I am not in denial about AGW. I am unconvinced of it but I deny only that it is *proven*.”

    So, if I were to ask you to assign a probability to the proposition that AGW is indeed true, what would that number be? Mine would be greater than 95% and that’s after learning something about the science involved, examining the data, reading the primary literature (both sides) etc.

    “I was talking about the rise in sea level if Antarctica melts.”

    Well, that’s a sizeable if, and would take quite a large amount of warming and is not something that is realistically on the cards. I suspect Phillip was referring to foreseeable rises in sea level.

    ” am willing to show here that the resulting rise in sea level is an order of magnitude more than any rise due to thermal expansion of seawater, but do you really need me to?”

    Not really, it’s a problem I give my undergraduate students to do, though they seem to know the significance of such a calculation and realize that it is not greatly relevant for discussions of current day global warming. That having been said though, if we are missing something crucial in ice-sheet dynamics, then these things could collapse suddenly and faster than we currently think – the collapse of the Larsen B is a good example of such a wake-up call.

    “When I do that, however, you accuse me of innuendo. It’s not innuendo if that community does have the attitude of which I am complaining.”

    And what is it if that community does NOT have that attitude, and that it is you with the attitude?

    “My point lay elsewhere, and is better made – I agree – as follows: “If warming is *not* going on while CO2 is increasing, then AGW is pretty strongly disproven.” I make no apology for the “if” in this sentence as it’s a bit too early to tell.”

    I would potentially agree with the first part of your statement – it is also true that a stronger feedback would cancel the effects of AGW, which does not in itself “disprove” AGW, only that there was something else that was stronger and had the opposite effect. Just to make sure I understand what it is you’re saying, please elaborate on the last 7 words of your statement.

    “I have read from sources I trust of ‘missing’ data being filled in, and of much less data from cold parts of Russia being included recently than hitherto.”

    Would you care to reveal those sources? I know of no such case where missing data was “filled in” – that is, I know of no case of a climate scientist doing this, there are many cases of climate skeptics doings this. As for data inhomogeneity, it is true, but if you do the statistics, it appears to make little difference. Tamino’s website “Open Mind” has a great deal on this, as do others.

    “AG: There are plenty of sceptical scientists out there, as I’ve said. People only think there is a scientific consensus when they read one side of it, which it is easy even for scientists to do by default nowadays.
    AB: Again, unfounded innuendo. Sure, one can think that there is scientific consensus about the Earth being round if you only read one side of the debate!

    False analogy!”

    OK, Let me spell it out for you. There IS a scientific consensus. And this does not just involve people reading the papers that agree with what they think (unless of course you want to accuse climate scientists of doing this en masse). If you do not wish to believe that there is a scientific consensus, that is your problem. The reality is, there IS a scientific consensus on this issue.

    “Lindzen is the best-known and most reputable scientist (and highly reputable) who is sceptical of AGW on scientific grounds. That makes him the de facto intellectual leader of the unconvinced.”

    Actually, Roger Pielke Sr. is also up there in the reputability stakes (and may be more well known, at least in popular circles).

    “As for “demonstrably” flawed ideas – that is assuming what is in dispute.”

    I’m assuming from your statement that you’ve not read the papers referred to. To claim something about climate sensitivity and then proceed to neglect basic factors when calculating it is little short of embarrassing. Then to cherry pick your warming and cooling intervals to give you the result you want …. well, if you wish to believe that that’s good science, that’s up to you.

    “Modelling a planet in which there were known amounts of CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere would be much easier, based on molecular properties, if the H2O never condensed into cloud, with its different opacity at various wavelelngths. But in the earth’s atmosphere it does form cloud. And prediction of cloud is an obvious weak point in modelling/forecasting, as any farmer could tell you. ”

    What is your point? Are you claiming that because one cannot predict that at 12:30 pm on May 21st 2050 there will be a cloud over some small hamlet in England that all climate models are wrong and their results cannot be believed?

    ” doubt that, but I welcome all good science based on good data, whichever way it tips the probabilities.”

    Then I guess you have a lot of reading to do because there has been a great deal of excellent science based on excellent data tipping the probability firmly towards AGW. You can get a good start by getting the Working Group 1 report of the latest IPCC, reading it, and following up on the references there. Also you can pre-order from Amazon the book by Ray Pierrehumbert on climate physics.

    Adrian

  50. “Are you claiming that because one cannot predict that at 12:30 pm on May 21st 2050 there will be a cloud over some small hamlet in England that all climate models are wrong and their results cannot be believed?”

    In general, it is interesting to point out that while predicting the weather (precipitation, temperature, wind) at a given point can’t be done for more than several days or a few weeks in the future, the stuff which is interesting for climate (what is the average precipitation, temperature, wind etc in a given area, averaged over a few hundred years) can be predicted. In other words, the fact that the weather is chaotic doesn’t mean that one cannot predict anything at all; one can predict the stuff which is interesting for climate research (long-term averages).

  51. Anton Garrett Says:

    Adrian: I am as unable to give a number to my probability as I would be to the probability that somebody was guilty given the evidence in a (non-DNA) murder trial. There is a purpose to the imprecision of words (cf numbers), and ha point to phrases like “beyond reasonable doubt”. If you want to get quantitative with your 95% then that is up to you, but I could make the point by asking: Then 96%? Then 97%? If not, why not?

    “Missing data” – it’s somewhere in

    http://www.sepp.org/Archive/weekwas/weekwas.html

    and I’ll hunt it down for you, but I have guests due for a long weekend.

    “OK, Let me spell it out for you. There IS a scientific consensus. And this does not just involve people reading the papers that agree with what they think (unless of course you want to accuse climate scientists of doing this en masse). If you do not wish to believe that there is a scientific consensus, that is your problem. The reality is, there IS a scientific consensus on this issue.”

    Repetition doesn’t make something true. And, happily for me, I don’t *I* don’t think I have a problem…

    “What is your point? Are you claiming that because one cannot predict that at 12:30 pm on May 21st 2050 there will be a cloud over some small hamlet in England that all climate models are wrong and their results cannot be believed?”

    I think you know the answer to the latter question. My point is that predicting the amount and opacity of cloud cover is a weak point in the models by which AGW is asserted.

    Ah, the IPCC, that totally disinterested and apolitical organisation led by a railway engineer who had to retract an incorrect alarmist statement about the melting of Himalayan glaciers…

    Anton

  52. Anton Garrett Says:

    http://jer-skepticscorner.blogspot.com/2010/03/unsettling-settled-science.html

    Here is one assertion of missing data that was simply filled in as data.

  53. Anton Garrett Says:

    In-depth report on dubious data practices in regard to AGW:

    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/images/stories/papers/originals/surface_temp.pdf

    Anton

  54. Adrian Burd Says:

    OK, this is my last post on the matter – I have one heck of a lot of work to do and deadlines to meet.

    When I was working in cosmology, people would from time to time receive self-published tomes by people claiming to disprove Einstein’s theories. Such manuscripts were usually couched in familiar scientific language, but close (or not so close) inspection revealed this to be a patina hiding deep and fundamental misunderstandings of science and the scientific method. These missives were usually accompanied by complaints of censorship and how the scientific establishment was against them. The authors of these tomes were, I suspect, quite bright but rather misdirected individuals who on the whole were quite harmless but are trying to take the role of the outsider who brings down the establishment.

    Biology has it’s fair share of similar folks who display similar characteristics. However, these folks also carry a religious agenda and propagate such ideas as creationism, young earth theories and intelligent design. These ideas have been quite thoroughly refuted by science.

    Climate change has it’s fair share of similar folks who display similar characteristics. In this case, there are often more insidious motives at work. Some skeptics are people who are genuinely trying to understand the science and have no particular axe to grind – though these are very few and mostly their ideas are generally shown to be incorrect.

    A second group are interested and concerned citizens. Some do not have the background to sift the wheat from the chaff (particularly given the low signal to noise ratio of information available on the internet) and some have the background but not the time to learn what is needed.

    Some, the cynics, belong to organizations funded by oil companies and other such interests. They have learned well from the experience of the tobacco wars and are quite talented at distributing disinformation with the sole intent of muddying the waters.

    Others have strong political and/or religious agendas – particularly the right wing christian groups. I live in the deep south of the US and have to deal with these on a regular basis. For them, the government intervention proposed to deal with climate change is anathema, and the fact that humans can have such an impact on the planet appears to cause problems with their religious beliefs. To my mind, these are people who place political/religious ideology above reality and are quite dangerous.

    Anton (at 12:07) provides a link to a site discussing “bad placement” of temperature sensors and which refers to Anthony Watts’ website. The author of this little piece is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is a neo-conservative, pro-business think-tank that was one of the major architects of the foreign policy of the last US administration. This is the organization that was offering $10,000 to scientists and economists to discredit and undermine the IPCC report. This institute also received well over $1 million dollars from ExxonMobil, and the board of AEI has had members who have been top executives of Exxon. To quote Anton, this is obviously a “totally disinterested and apolitical organization”. This information is easy to find, but apparently, Anton would prefer to get his information (remember, he said that these were sources that he trusted) from these sources and apparently swallows it hook, line and sinker.

    I also knew that Anton would link to the D’Aleo and Watts report. I had hoped that he would have found something a little more interesting, but apparently not. The methodologies and analysis in this report are so flawed that even other well known skeptics have distanced themselves from it. About 20 seconds on Google reveals sites (some by climate skeptics) pointing out the many flaws in this report. D’Aleo and Watts make false claims about how data are processed and collected, they make false claims about how decisions have been made by NOAA and NASA etc.

    It would be nice if Anton applied his skepticism and rationality to these as well. If he did so he might wonder “Are all these environmental scientists that stupid that they have missed these things?” The answer, which anyone can find out with a few keystrokes, is “Of course not!”. All of these “problems” are well known and have been addressed. However, Anton’s train of thought follow a pattern that is well known to those working in environmental sciences – leap on the first thing that confirms ones ideological prejudices rather than do the work to try and understand reality.

    It may come as a surprise to some that data collection in the environment is fraught with many difficulties never experienced in the cozy confines of a laboratory. For example, when we deploy sensors in a coastal system it is often the case that boaters and fishermen drag them out of the water (damaging the moorings) and try to figure out what they are. Yes, we label, signpost etc all our mooring in an attempt to stop this happening, but it still occurs. In fact, many of our instruments have inbuilt GPS systems which are used both for determining sample location, but also locating the back garden of the house of the person who dragged it out of the water and took it home with them! We even retrieve some instruments that have been shot at! On top of this, the environment can be an unfriendly place to technology – for example, water, salt and electronics tend not to mix very well.

    Consequently, there are frequently missing data. Do we throw up our hands and discard the whole data set waiting for that time in the indeterminate future when perfect, continuous data can be collected? No. Scientists have developed rigorous statistical techniques for filling in the data. Does this always work? No. Can we assess the uncertainties in doing this? Most of the time, yes. Would we prefer ideal, continuous data? Of course. Are people actively looking for ways of improving techniques? Yes! You can enter any science library and find books on how to fill in missing data and asses the errors incurred by doing this.

    So, to the likes of Anton I would say this:

    Environmental scientists are not stupid – they know what they are doing (as much as any of us do) – so do not treat them as such. If your reaction is “How could they have missed that!?” then the likelihood is that they haven’t and they know how to deal with it. In such cases, dig a little beyond the histrionics of folks like the AEI and Anthony Watts and find out what’s really going on.

    Please apply your skepticism to BOTH sides.

    If you want to be knowledgeable about what’s going on, get some books, learn about the subject, get the data (most of it is freely available), play with it (most of the software used is freely available), and learn something about the subject before you say something really, really silly.

    And, “Don’t buy a Rodin from Snr. Bonetti”.

    Toodle-pip,

    Adrian

    p.s. Seen on a bumper sticker here in Georgia: “Tally Ho Y’all!”

  55. “For example, when we deploy sensors in a coastal system it is often the case that boaters and fishermen drag them out of the water (damaging the moorings) and try to figure out what they are.”

    Reminds me of a story about ornithologists putting rings on migratory birds’ legs and being puzzled that so few of them returned the following year. A while later, a tribal chief was discovered in the jungle wearing an elabourate necklace made of such rings.

  56. Anton Garrett Says:

    Adrian,

    Missing data due to accident is one thing. Missing data systematically from cold places is another, and so is filling in the gaps as if they were data. Data are sacrosanct. Bayesian routines know how to compensate for accidentally missing data..

    You do a good line in innuendo yourself. I am, by the way, a Christian and I have no problem accepting that AGW *might* be the case – I just think it is utterly unproven on scientific grounds, ie experimental/theoretical. The debate has become sharp on both sides because of financial interests – oil companies on the one hand, people vying for green subsidies to be allocated from taxpayers via government on the other.

    What you haven’t done is rolled up your sleeves and found fault with the many specific complaints of data cookery in the report to which I linked at 0924 on May 6th. I accept that you cannot personally inspect apparatus 3000 miles away, but with Google and the blogosphere in existence it would be very foolish of the writers of that report to put out demonstrably false specific facts. I too am happy for Peter’s readers to be aware of this work and then make their own decision.

    Anton

  57. Adrian Burd Says:

    Well, it’s lunch time, so I’ll quickly respond.

    “Missing data systematically from cold places is another, and so is filling in the gaps as if they were data. ”

    (I guess I do have to repeat myself) Please follow the links/suggested reading/websites that I have referred to on more than one occasion to see that this is not a problem for global temperature records.

    “You do a good line in innuendo yourself. I am, by the way, a Christian ”

    I have no way of knowing if your personal religious beliefs affect your thoughts on climate change or not. I was merely pointing out that there is a (very successful) pattern to the tactics of various groups who wish to subvert science, especially here in the US. Those groups primarily recruit from and their propaganda is mainly touted by neo-conservative, pro-big-business, right wing religious groups. Are there equivalent left-wing groups? Of course, but for whatever reason, they are far less successful (at least over here in the US).

    Do I believe you’ve fallen foul of the propaganda these people propagate? From the tone, language and links you’ve given, yes (no innuendo there).

    “What you haven’t done is rolled up your sleeves and found fault with the many specific complaints of data cookery in the report to which I linked at 0924 on May 6th.”

    I have provided links, references to peer-reviewed papers and names of websites that do precisely this (maybe not in my directly previous post, but in the ones preceding it).

    What you have not done is rolled up your sleeves, followed those websites, read a book about the subject, and dug deeper than the first click on a Google search.

    If your first reaction to a website stating “Climate scientists have rigged the whole thing, all the temperature records are biased etc. etc. etc.” is to say “Darn those dastardly evil climate scientists!” or “My, those climate scientists are really dumb, a first year undergraduate knows better than that!” then that’s where we disagree.

    My first reaction is along the lines of “Hmmmm….let’s see, does this make any sense? Does this actually happen? How exactly is that data analysis done? How do climate scientists take this effect or that effect into account? Can they place uncertainties on these techniques? etc….” In other words, I dig a little deeper and try and find out what’s going on.

    Adrian

  58. Anton Garrett Says:

    Adrian,

    I regard this as a purely scientific question upon which my theology has no bearing. I would take fraternal issue with Christians who think otherwise.

    I am not claiming that climate scientists are corrupt, but that vested interests are happy to turn a blind eye to the sceptical side of the argument – qwhich is intellectually dishonest – and that among scientists there is a selection effect going on (although any tainted results can spread via citation).

    There is something odd about pharmaceutical research sponsored by drug companies being regarded as improper, but climate research sponsored by governments as OK.

    Anton

  59. Anton Garrett Says:

    Adrian,

    In perhaps signing off, let me add that I support all intelligent action to reduce the amount of oil burnt by our culture. We will have different reasons (mine is elsewhere above) but we can agree on that.

    Anton

  60. [...] be in recycling mode this week, so I thought I’d carry on with a rehash of an old post about skepticism.  The excuse for this was an item in one of the Guardian science blogs about the distinction [...]

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