One belief does not a religion make

There’s nothing like a righteous religious leader for a good dose of stagnant inanity. Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen doesn’t let us down (SBS, ABC, News Ltd):

As we can see by the sheer passion and virulence of the atheist – they seem to hate the Christian God – we are not dealing here with cool philosophy up against faith without a brain.

One should immediately be suspicious of the phrase “the atheist”. Those two words alone give Jensen away, if you think about it for a moment. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, it brings to mind whinging complaints about “the Jew”. The reason he does it, I imagine, is that it carries more weight than just “atheists”. He’s not referring to the group overall, but to each and every member of it. They’re all the same, so nuanced reasoning is not required.

The “passion and virulence” of atheists was picked up on earlier by Monash University Professor Gary Bouma, who accuses atheists of stoking sectarian conflict. This is a convenient rhetorical device used to turn “arguing the point” into something negative. I haven’t heard of any atheist mobs hurling bricks through church windows. It’s really just hypocritical invective.

“Atheists hate God” has been a long-running mantra in certain religious circles, voiced frequently by those who apparently see no contradiction in the idea of hating an entity that one does not believe to exist. Christians do not generally “hate” the various supernatural entities of other religions (as far as I’m aware), so why would atheists “hate” the Christian God? I find it incredible that this misconception continues. Jensen clearly suffers from an acute lack of imagination.

Atheism is every bit of a religious commitment as Christianity itself.

This is a manifest falsehood, made all the more dishonest because Jensen uses such emphasis. Christianity posits an entire volume of miracles, historical events, prophecies, commandments, virtues, vices and assorted supernatural beings, not to mention the church’s additional evolving beliefs, rituals and systems of authority over the last two millennia. What dogma does atheism have to compare to all this? Atheism merely states that there is no God, and even that is argued over within the atheist community. (Is it right to say that God doesn’t exist, or merely that we cannot substantiate the concept of God?)

As a general remark, it’s curious that religious leaders choose to describe atheism condescendingly as a religion. They have no problem describing as religions their own institutions, which purport to offer the most important truths that you can possibly know. Surely, if their world view has any merit, calling atheism a religion would be elevating, not denigrating it. This is a hint that our protagonists don’t truly believe what they’re saying. I suspect they know at some level, perhaps subconsciously, that religion cannot compete with science or higher philosophy; that in fact it does not offer the absolute truth of the universe. Instead, they merely resort to suggesting (without a hint of justification) that atheism also suffers from the same fundamental problems.

It represents the latest version of the human assault on God, born out of resentment that we do not in fact rule the world and that God calls on us to submit our lives to him.

It is a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves.

The notion of a “human assault on God” is rather amusing. Is Jensen really saying that rebellious atheists are ganging up on the Supreme Being? The force that supposedly created time itself and brought into existence a trillion galaxies is under “assault” from the electrical impulses of a bunch of organic molecules on one tiny rock? Forgive me if I don’t show overflowing concern for His well-being. Even if I believed in Him, I’d expect the Creator of the Universe to be a little more resilient than that.

As for resentment and idolatry, I suspect this is just part of how Jensen justifies his own faith. The notion that it might be possible to not worship anything at all seems alien to people who make these sorts of arguments. They don’t truly believe that atheism is even possible, so they translate it into something else more amenable to their understanding.

Jensen might reflect on the company in which he finds himself. Among the other religious commentators of late is Catholic Bishop of Parramatta Anthony Fisher:

Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating: Nazism, Stalinism, Pol Pot-ery, mass murder, abortion and broken relationships – all promoted by state-imposed atheism.

This is why I think I’m safe from Godwin’s Law. It’s pure self-parody. I’m happy to see that, in a list containing Nazism and Stalinism, Fisher found room to bemoan the tyranny of broken relationships.

Peer review

I’ve stumbled across yet another “ClimateGate” article (by way of James Delingpole), this one going right for the jugular of science: peer review. The author is journalist Patrick Courrielche, who I hadn’t come across until now.

Courrielche argues that peer review is kaput and is being replaced by what he calls “peer-to-peer review”, an idea that brings to mind community efforts like Wikipedia. This has apparently been catalysed by “ClimateGate”, an event portrayed by the denialist community as something akin to the Coming of the Messiah.

Courrielche asserts that peer review is a old system of control imposed by the “gatekeepers” of the “establishment”, while peer-to-peer review is a new system gifted to us by the “undermedia”. Courrielche has very little time for nuance in the construction of this moralistic dichotomy, and clearly very little idea why peer review exists in the first place.

It should be noted from the start (and many an academic will agree) that peer review is a flawed system. It’s well known that worthwhile papers are rejected from reputable journals from time to time, while the less reputable journals have the opposite problem. Nevertheless, there is a widely-recognised need for at least some form of review system to find any weaknesses in papers before publication. It seems obvious that the people best placed to review any given piece of work are those working in the same field. Peer review acts both as a filter and a means of providing feedback (a sort of last-minute collaborative effort). The reviewers are not some sort of closed secret society bent on stamping their authority on science, as Courrielche seems to imply. Anyone working in the field can be invited by one relevant journal or another to review a paper, and it’s in a journal’s best interests to select the best qualified reviewers.

Courrielche sticks the word “review” on the end of “peer-to-peer” so that it can appear to fulfill this function. The premise seems to be that hordes of laypeople are just as good, if not better, at reviewing a given work than those who work in the relevant field. This is really just thinly-veiled anti-intellectualism. How can a layperson possibly know whether the author of a technical paper has used the appropriate statistical or methodological techniques, or considered previous empirical/theoretical results, or made appropriate conclusions?

That’s why papers are peer-reviewed. Reputable journals get their reputation from the high quality (i.e. usefulness and scientific rigour) of the work presented therein, as determined by experts in the field. Barring the very occasional lapse of judgment, the flat earth society, the intelligent design movement, the climate change denialists, and any number of other weird and wonderful parties are prevented from publishing their dogma in Science, Nature and other leading journals. There’s no rule forbidding such publication; that’s just what happens when you apply consistent standards in the persuit of knowledge. Ideologues are frequently given an easy ride in politics, and it clearly offends them that science is not so forgiving.

However, Courrielche appears to be more interested in describing how the “undermedia” is up against some sort of vast government-sponsored conspiracy to hide the truth. His tone is one of rebellion, of exposing the information to the media, and doing battle with dark forces trying to prevent its disclosure. Even if such a paranoid fantasy were true, it has nothing to do with peer review. Peer review is not a means of quarantining information from the public, but simply a way of deciding the credibility of that information. In reality, the information is already out there, and in fact it’s always been out there (just not necessarily in the mass media). The problem is not the lack of information, but the prevalence of disinformation. We are all free to ignore the information vetted by the peer review system, but we don’t because it’s intrinsically more trustworthy than anything else we have.

Courrielche makes mention of the “connectedness” of the climate scientists, as if mere scientific collaboration is to be regarded with deep suspicion. Would he prefer that scientists work in isolation, without communicating? This is quite blatantly hypocritical, because his peer-to-peer review system is based on connectedness.

Well, sort of. I also suspect that most of the many and varied denialist memes floating around have not resulted from some sort of collective intelligence of the masses, but from a few undeserving individuals exalted as high priests by certain ideologically-driven journalists. There is nothing “peer-to-peer” about that at all.

From my point of view, what Courrielche describes as the “fierce scrutiny of the peer-to-peer network” is more like ignorant nitpicking and groupthink. There are no standards for rigour or even plausibility in the many of the discussions that occur in the comments sections of blog sites. Free speech is often held sacrosanct, but free speech is not science.

The denialists are up against much more than a government conspiracy. They’re up against reality itself.

Admit me to the conspiracy

Deltoid takes a look at a piece of code taken from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) that apparently has the denialists salivating. Buried therein is the following comment: “Apply a VERY ARTIFICAL [sic] correction for decline!!” Are you convinced yet of the global leftist socialist global warming alarmist conspiracy?! I certainly am.

I’d also like to apply for membership. You see, trawling through my own code for handling experimental data (from September 2008), I’ve re-discovered my own comment: “Artificially extends a data set by a given amount”. Indeed, I appear to have written two entire functions to concoct artificial data*, clearly in nefarious support of the communist agenda. I therefore submit myself as a candidate for the conspiracy. The PhD is only a ruse, after all. Being a member of the Conspiracy is the only qualification that really counts in academia.

* I’m not making this up – I really do have such functions. However, lest you become concerned about the quality of my research, this artificial data was merely used to test the behaviour of the rest of my code. It was certainly not used to generate actual results. I can sympathise with the researcher(s) who leave such untidy snippets of  code lying around, and I’m a software engineer who should know better!

Climate: ‘mission accomplished’

I read with ever growing fascination the comments that continue to flood into climate-related blogs. Deltoid has collected a few truly astounding ones. I’ve also discovered the UK’s very own James Delingpole, who’s a riot. As mentioned in my previous post, there seem to be a veritable army of those convinced that the climate sceptics are not merely right (and righteous), but that this time they’ve actually, truly won. This, based on an assortment of stolen email.

In the long run, reading these comments is probably a recipe for the development of psychological issues, but for the moment it’s like a spectator sport. While ignorance regarding the climate change science is merely frustrating, the euphoric surety of ultimate victory that so many commenters share is hilarous. As a general rule, I don’t like laughing at other people, but when so many start running at full pelt toward the cliff edge, convinced that it is they who are to inherit the Earth, I cannot help but anticipate schadenfreude. I can’t do anything about it, after all, so why not laugh?

(Doubtless, to someone not familiar with the issue, I myself might be sounding a little overconfident. To assuage such doubts, you would do well to remember that the reality of climate change is propounded by the world’s scientific community, which is constantly engaged in critical self-examination. By contrast, the opponents of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have very few actual scientific results to draw from in support of their arguments. Having long since been consigned to scientific irrelevance, they resort to reading other people’s email in search of conspiracies.)

But why are so many stampeding over the edge all at once? My theory is that so little motivation or desire exists for critical thought that commenters feed on each other ad infinitum. They come to believe, for instance, that there has indeed been widespread scientific fraud, based on existing angry comments, which themselves were derived from still older comments, etc. Eventually we find ourselves back at the source of the allegations – the use of the phase hide the decline in one of the emails (which in reality has a much more innocent explanation*). The newer commenters aren’t aware that these three little words are the entire basis of the supposed fraud. They think their arguments are much more solidly grounded, simply because everyone is talking about it.

The other piece of the puzzle is the ideology of those who spread the word in the first place. Opposition to action on climate change – as put forth by Andrew Bolt, and of course many others around the world – starts to make some kind of twisted sense if you accept the following fact. There are people out there for whom the greatest and most insideous evil in the world is not war, poverty, disease, starvation or tyranny, but simply the fact that you are required to help fund public services. This is their antichrist – taxation – the worse imaginable horror that the universe could bestow on us. My intuition fails me here, but however untenable the premise, the logic thereafter seems to hold. It is an article of faith that none of the consequences of climate change can outweigh the evil of taxation. Indeed the proposition that we should deal with climate change by introducing emissions trading schemes – seen by some as a form of tax – must place the issue firmly in the socialists-taking-over-the-world basket.

I sense that this deeply-held belief serves to justify intellectual dishonesty in the minds of climate change deniers. This might be analogous to the obligation felt by creationist pundits to argue against evolution, not because they feel the evidence is in their favour (as their followers do), but because they perceive the science to be a moral challenge to their beliefs.

* The “hide the decline” hysteria is one of my favourite pieces, actually. I shall attempt to summarise, based on some very patient explanations by Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA. The “decline” refers to the “divergence problem”, where temperature reconstructions based on tree-ring data show a spurious decline after about 1960. This needs to be “hidden” simply because it’s not real. Several important points to note are:

  1. The comment cannot possibly be connected to the fabled “cooling” of temperatures this decade, since the email was sent in 1999.
  2. The collection of tree-ring data is a relatively peripheral issue to climate change, since other data sources are available (including actual temperature measurements).
  3. We know that the tree-ring data is reasonably accurate before 1960 and inaccurate after 1960, because we can compare it to other sources of data. Actual temperature measurements, for instance, certainly do not show a “decline”. The reasons for the divergence are the subject of debate, but may be a result of climate change itself.

Update (7 December 2009) – A couple more points, for the sake of completeness:

  1. Nothing has actually been “hidden”, in the lay sense, anyway. All the data is out in the open and the problem has been discussed in the peer-reviewed literature over a decade ago.
  2. According to the email (which you can Google for yourself), the only action taken was the addition to the data of real temperature values. The sources of these values are even described in the email.

Climate conspiratology

Climate denialism has taken a turn for the worse. I say this with great trepidation, of course, because it was never an especially pretty sight to begin with.

A substantial number of private emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia have been retrieved and published online without permission*. One hardly needs to read between the lines: the hackers were presumably looking for the “smoking gun” that would prove some kind of conspiracy on the part of climatologists. Real Climate are methodically refuting all the miscellaneous scraps of hysteria that seem to have been whipped up over this.

However, observe some of the comments at the bottom of this blog post and you’ll get a feel for the way this incident is being perceived. Many of the denialist fraternity (and it’s still early days) have apparently decided that this is it; that this is the clincher. They feel confident that it’s all over, that even the dreaded “mainstream media” (MSM) can’t ignore it, and generally that the tide of history has swung in their favour. (This is the result of some interpretation on my part.)

It’s not the hubris that bothers me particularly, but where this is leading the public debate. The IPCC, the world’s other scientific institutions and science in general will all carry on as if nothing had happened, because of course in reality it hasn’t. The notion of a climatologist conspiracy is extraordinarily bizarre and improbable, and as such would require an extraordinary body of evidence to demonstrate its existence. If there was to be a “smoking gun”, it would need to be strong evidence of the systematic fabrication of evidence on a scale that would beggar belief. It would also beggar belief that such a venture could have been kept secret up until now, considering how widespread it would need to be. This is the same problem that most conspiracy theories face. Nothing remotely approaching the requisite level of evidence has been discussed so far, and yet there is a sense in some quarters that the conspiracy has been cracked wide open.

What happens when the denialists realise that nothing is going to change, having already convinced themselves that “The Truth” has been well and truly exposed? Will they then perceive an even greater global conspiracy, with the power to make the world ignore what is sitting in plain sight (as occurs in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four)? How far down the rabbit hole will they go?

More importantly, how will the world’s politicians react, particularly with Copenhagen around the corner? Will they see this stunt for what it is and ignore it, or will they perceive some increased political risk in taking action? Or will more be sucked into believing the conspiracy themselves?

* I haven’t downloaded the emails for myself, because frankly I don’t believe I have either a legal or moral right to do so.

Also note: as you’ll be aware, I’ve not been keeping up with my regular blogging, owing to other commitments. I hope to become more prolific with my postings in the future, but that may be several months away.

Bolt’s climate comedy

Any appearance of Andrew Bolt on the ABC’s Insiders programme is bound to result in at least one deranged pronouncement on the conspiracy that is climate change. (This is something of a shame, because on other issues discussed on Insiders he does often approach sanity.)

In the closing comments, Bolt had this contribution to make:

The latest results just in a couple of days ago: the world has… the planet has warm… cooled for the last 8 years to normal levels; the land surface measurements cooled for the last 8 years; and sea levels – good heavens, Penny Wong was wrong in that too – that too has cooled over 5 years.

To put this into some perspective, NASA offers the following global temperature data:

NASA global temperature graph

“Normal levels” indeed. Bolt gave no indication of where his particular data comes from, and a more comprehensive denial of climate reality (complete with what could be a Freudian slip) would be hard to pack into such a small window of time.

Note – Bolt says that sea “levels” have “cooled”. Either cooling or dropping would be a neat trick, since the data shows quite unambiguously that the sea levels are rising, with about half the rise due to thermal expansion. Bolt himself posted a graph on his blog showing the changes to sea levels just days ago, though with the reality-defying annotation “FLAT” (in comic sans, no less) plastered across the last three years (in much the same way you might expect a bright red sign to be cheerfully labelled “blue”). Bolt himself didn’t add the annotation; that honour goes to former meteorologist Anthony Watts. Now, because one must always strive for betterment, Bolt has apparently decided that “FLAT” = “cooling”, and that 3 years = 5 years. He was reading from notes, so if it was a slip-up it was a very well planned one.

Annotated sea level graph

As you can see, the above graph quite handily refutes its own annotation (which was not on the original, just in case you’re wondering). One despairs at the futility of debating people who not only fail to notice such an astoundingly obvious trend, but manage to perceive precisely the opposite of what is staring them in the face.

I was also struck by the time frames Bolt was using. The normal denialist claim is that there has been no warming since 1998. Though that one is easily refuted (in no small part because 1998 recorded a temperature spike due to El Niño), it’s still a stronger case than for the last 8 years. After all, 2001 looks to have recorded some of the coldest temperatures in the last decade (though it’s still in the top 10 warmest years on record).

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Bolt simply printed off some three-year old (because then 1998 would be 8 years ago) piece of denialist propaganda and regurgitated it on-air as “the latest results”. That’s mere speculation, of course.

Ponderings of sanity

There are many things to be said about debating in online forums. One, that you learn early on, is that it doesn’t take much effort to find the fruitcakes. It really doesn’t. The people who firmly believe that the World Trade Centre was brought down by explosives, as evidenced by the “indisputable fact” that it “fell faster than gravity”, because just look at that YouTube video. The people who believe you’re going to hell not just because you don’t believe in God, but because you haven’t performed the 54-day version of the “Rosary Novena” (a type of prayer) and that TV shows made since the 1960s are so unforgivably immoral that they must be the work of Satan Himself. The people who equate taxation with slavery and socialism with atheism. The people who believe that oil is not derived from ancient organic matter but instead is simply “produced” by the Earth’s core. The people who proudly challenge you to disprove their three-paragraph thesis on why the entirety of science on evolution and cosmology is flat-wrong and the literal Biblical account is the only possible alternative.

One person I encountered had a pet theory on the nature of photons (particles of light): that each in fact comprises an electron and a positron in orbit around each other. Facts, such as the one where photons have no mass, unlike electrons and positrons, do not pose a hindrance to such theories, I’ve discovered. The idea, more generally, that experts in the field have been looking into this sort of thing for quite some time, publishing multitudes of peer-reviewed journal articles along the way, is of little concern.

Not that I’d wish to put you off online debating, but as you’re encountering these varied and interesting specimens, you’re bound to pick up a few insults, depending on what fascinating theory you’re being unreasonably sceptical of. As a change of pace from the usual names I get called – leftist, liberal, socialist, atheist (which at least is true), materialist or totalitarian – I’ve recently been called a “Bushbot”. This is an interesting and somewhat disturbing thought, considering some of the stuff that’s popped up in my George Bush “Out of Office Countdown” off-the-wall calendar.

Not even Bush though can match some of the wisdom of the Internet, which I’ve decided to share with you:

“In addition, the Earth is continually producing oil, because “Peak oil” was a carefully crafted myth. Oil does not come from dead dinosaurs as you skulls full of mush have been brainwashed to believe.”

“Scientists are usually the last to know about anything”

“A price chart is how I make my living….It represents truth.”

“A truth to point, all the Atheists I know have no children and it is always due to thier Atheistic mental state as compared to normal (spiritual) people. I know 7 Atheists; three couples. Sure many Atheists do produce children but certainly a large number possessing the Atheistic mind, refuse and will therefore generally NOT pass on either their genetic or social make up to the younger generations.”

“The constant social and technological progress resulting from the constant advancement of the metaphysical mind set means that we now have societies full of people, some of whom now can survive to adulthood with all alorts of personal shortcomings. This obviously includes Atheists.”

So now you know.