The ABC of climate change denial

The ABC chairman Maurice Newman’s thoughts on the reporting of climate change are, I think, symptomatic of the damage that denialism has inflicted. He was interviewed on Wednesday, and appears more than a little ignorant of the state our of climate knowledge, and even a little naïve regarding scientific processes.

Newman says:

My view on any of these topics is to keep an open mind and I still have an open mind on climate change, I have an open mind on a whole range of issues because I think that to have a closed mind leaves you in a position where if you take a strong stance you are likely to be wrong-footed.

And I’ve just made the point that I’ve been around long enough to know that consensus and conventional wisdom doesn’t always serve you well and that unless you leave some room for an alternative point of view you are likely to go down a wrong track.

This is all fine and good as far as platitudes go, and presenting alternative points of view is all very democratic. One can never be completely certain about scientific outcomes, after all.

However, there is a line, somewhere, beyond which we must accept that an assertion (e.g. that we are changing the climate) is sufficiently well-supported to be considered true, and that alternative view points (however well meaning) are so implausible as to be wrong. The truth is not absolute, but neither is it a matter of opinion, and providing “balance” in such situations is grossly misleading.

Newman’s mistake, perhaps, is in assuming that a consensus among scientists is just like a consensus among any other demographic. This rather misses the point of science. Scientists have fought long and hard  – certainly, a lot harder than anyone else – to understand the truth. Science does not just systematically invent evidence and stories to support pre-determined conclusions, as so often happens with political interest groups. Science exists so that we can have at least some people who don’t do this, so that the whole world isn’t just a fantasy land where the laws of physics can be amended by popular vote. Observers of politics may have difficulty swallowing the idea that anyone cares about the actual, real truth, because in politics it’s such an alien concept. This is really a terribly cynical and blinkered view point.

I think that there are points of view supporting what you’ve just said, there are other points of view which will discount that and they come from also eminent positions; these are not cranks. Many of the people who have a different point of view on the climate science are respectable and credentialed scientists themselves.

So as I said, I’m not a scientist and I’m like anybody else in the public I have to listen to all points of view and then make judgements when we’re asked to vote on particular policies.

Here Newman betrays something of an unwillingness to properly investigate the issue. Most of the people who have a different point of view on climate science are most certainly not eminent scientists. Most of them are bloggers (like me). And yes, there are cranks – Lord Christopher Monckton being a particularly spectacular example. Some scientists do fall into the dissenters’ camp, but most of them are not involved in climate science.

It’s interesting to note that, while denialist opinion is usually contrasted against the views of the IPCC, the IPCC’s reports themselves are based on the broad spectrum of views permeating the scientific community. If you’re after some sort of balance, you would do well to remember that alternate views have already been factored in by the IPCC. The only real debate is over the magnitude of climate change and its effects. Those who argue that it isn’t happening, or that we aren’t responsible, or that we can’t change anything, tend to be very light on relevant scientific credentials.

I am an agnostic and I have always been an agnostic and I will remain and agnostic until I’ve found compelling evidence on one side or the other that will move me. I think that what seems fairly clear to me is that the climate science is still being developed. There are a lot question marks about some of the fundamental data which has been used to build models that requires caution.

There are not a “lot of question marks” over this data. There’s simply a lot of hot air coming out of those who read and believe the things that Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts write. Newman has apparently bought into this sort of disinformation.

It’s highly unlikely that he would even recognise “compelling evidence” if it were presented to him. And why would he expect to, after all? What would he, as a layperson, accept as “compelling evidence” that anthropogenic climate change is real? Does Newman need to personally assess the evidence for other scientific theories as well? What would he accept as compelling evidence that quantum theory accurately describes the universe? What would convince him that a newly-discovered hundred-thousand-year-old skeleton represents a previously-unknown species of human? There is expertise involved in making such judgments. Laypeople like Newman, or indeed myself, cannot presume to be equals in this respect.

In other words, the reason Newman hasn’t seen any compelling evidence is that, in all probability, he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.

This is the subtle, deranged beauty of climate science denialism. Everyone is an expert! It doesn’t matter whether the denialists themselves win over any actual supporters. What matters is that they bring the credibility of science down to the level of punditry, in the eyes of their audience. The denialists succeed by creating agnostics who feel they are above the fray, who don’t even bother to distinguish between scientists and bloggers. I wouldn’t hold this against most laypeople, but for those who should know better, this is outright intellectual laziness disguised as a form of neutrality. Surely the chairman of the ABC has a duty to be better informed.

Climate reporting – compare and contrast

There’s a subtle difference here that I can’t quite put my finger on.

An article in The Register (by Lewis Page):

Agricultural brainboxes at Stanford University say that global warming isn’t likely to seriously affect poor people in developing nations, who make up so much of the human race. Under some scenarios, poor farmers “could be lifted out of poverty quite considerably,” according to new research.

The Stanford University report on which it was (purportedly) based:

The impact of global warming on food prices and hunger could be large over the next 20 years, according to a new Stanford University study. Researchers say that higher temperatures could significantly reduce yields of wheat, rice and maize – dietary staples for tens of millions of poor people who subsist on less than $1 a day. The resulting crop shortages would likely cause food prices to rise and drive many into poverty.

But even as some people are hurt, others would be helped out of poverty, says Stanford agricultural scientist David Lobell.

(My emphasis.)

The Register’s article is a transparent and spectacular case of selective reading. The Stanford report briefly discusses a complex set of effects, some of which are actually positive. The rose-tinted spectacles at The Register apparently have a problem seeing the opening paragraph, and instead treat the report as though it were some sort of vindication of climate inaction.

Climate researchers really can’t win in the face of such wilful distortion. If their research shows that the effects are all negative, they are portrayed as “alarmists”. If their research shows some mitigating factors, then these will be trumpeted as proof that climate change is a “scare”.

The title and subtitle of The Register’s article hint at the underlying attitude:

Global warming worst case = Only slight misery increase

The peasants aren’t revolting – they’ve never had it so good

The world’s poor have “never had it so good”, eh? I’m glad to see such overflowing concern for the less fortunate.

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.

The Mad Monk’s modelling mockery

Tony Abbott has tried his hand at modelling the economic costs of carbon emissions reduction. The results are a little disturbing. Unless Abbott was being deliberately, deceptively simplistic in order to appeal to the burn-the-elitists demographic of Australian society, he truly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about:

He says given a 5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will cost Australian taxpayers $120 billion, the cost of the emissions trading scheme’s 10-year aim of a 25 per cent reduction will be much greater.

“The Federal Government has never released the modelling,” Mr Abbott said.

“Now if there is modelling that shows the costs of a 15 per cent and a 25 per cent emissions reduction, let’s see the modelling, let’s release the figures.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume in the absence of other plausible evidence that five times that reduction, a 25 per cent reduction in emissions, might cost five times the price – half a trillion dollars, 50 per cent of Australia’s annual GDP.”

I’m no economist, but I suspect the experts might shy away from confidently predicting that 5 times the reduction implies 5 times the cost. We’re talking about billions of dollars flowing through all the intricate structures that make up the economy. There are feedback mechanisms, economies of scale, and the little fact that a “5%” reduction in CO2 is relative to 2000 levels but the projected cost is based on 2020 levels (because that’s when it’s happening). Even a “0%” change from 2000 levels represents a substantial cut in what our 2020 CO2 emissions would have been, but according to Abbott’s model this scenario would cost nothing.

Why even have economists if a constant factor is all it takes to convert a percentage CO2 reduction into a dollar amount? If Tony, our alternative Prime Minister, thinks it’s “reasonable to assume” such things, perhaps we can get him to try out this approach to economic modelling in a controlled environment where he can’t hurt anyone else. Say, in a padded cell with Monopoly money.

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.

Freedom of obfuscation

I have regrettably discovered that my old faithful source of technology news (which I haven’t paid much attention to in recent years) is engaging in one of those enlightening let’s-all-laugh-at-the-scientists climate change denialism campaigns.

This article in The Register caught my attention today, and made me despair a little. Andrew Orlowski reports light-heartedly on a freedom of information (FoI) crusade by Steve McIntyre, who runs the Climate Audit website and who is frequently cited, quite falsely, as having discredited the hockey stick graph (the one showing global temperatures over the last 1000 years with a dramatic spike at the end). McIntyre is actually an academic, which at least sets him aside from the likes of Viscount Monckton and other more political protagonists, but he certainly isn’t a climate scientist.

The issue at stake is the availability of raw temperature data, as opposed to the aggregated, processed datasets put together by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), of which Phil Jones is the director. This Nature blog post sheds more light on the nature of the dispute between McIntyre and Jones; more than you will be exposed to by reading The Register’s article at any rate.

McIntyre, unlike his hangers-on, seems to define his objective very precisely: the free availability of the raw temperature data. To this end, McIntyre appears to have encouraged (or possibly orchestrated) a barrage of FoI requests to Jones, who Orlowski describes as an “activist-scientist” (a term I would consider quite an insult).

Orlowski’s article appears to have been informed by little more than a perusal of McIntyre’s blog. He must have left his journalistic scepticism in his other trousers.

First, Orlowski claims that the CRU has “lost or destroyed all the original data”. This is both factually incorrect and highly misleading, even if you accept McIntyre’s version of events. The CRU says it faced storage constraints in the 1980s, meaning that some of the older original data could not be preserved. This is hardly implausible – scientists still face storage issues today, and will still face them decades from now, McIntyre’s personal incredulity notwithstanding. Furthermore, the CRU doesn’t own the original data, and says that due to agreements with those who do, it cannot release what raw data it does have.

Besides – and this is what I find most astonishing – Orlowski himself notes two things:

  1. McIntyre already has the raw data. This apparently occurred through some sort of FTP security lapse at the CRU, which was then fixed in what McIntyre describes – in excruciating detail, as if the tanks were rolling into Washington DC – as an “unprecedented data purge”.
  2. McIntyre “doesn’t expect any significant surprises after analysing” it.

That would seem to indicate that, through all the bluster, there is actually not even the pretence here that anything is wrong with the IPCC’s climate projections. It’s presented (by both Orlowski and McIntyre) in a fashion that suggests some sort of cover-up or conspiracy, and so that’s what some readers will doubtless believe. In fact, such an allegation has been downplayed by the one person apparently best placed to make it.

The free availability of data is, I believe, a worthy cause – let’s not make light of that. According to the Nature blog post, Jones wants this as well. However, McIntyre’s own blog makes his FoI campaign look more like a vindictive assault than a fight for principles. Orlowski’s article looks more like an Andrew Bolt post than an attempt at journalism.

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.

Reality fails to sway Fielding

From our adorably naïve Family First Senator, via the ABC:

When I put forward the question ‘isn’t it true that carbon emissions have been going up and global temperature hasn’t?’, they wanted to rephrase my question and not answer it.

Of course they did you fool – it’s a loaded question. Technically the answer is “yes”, but that has nothing to do with the validity of climate change. If you’d wanted a straight answer you’d have asked a question related to climate (e.g. regarding the global temperature trend) and not merely weather.

There’s some irony in the ABC’s use of the phrase “fact finding mission” to describe what Fielding was doing in the US. He was at the Heartland Institute’s so-called “International Conference on Climate Change”, which, considering the denialist preconceptions that pervade the website, might not be the first place you would think to look for actual facts. Unless, of course, you’re an elected member of parliament.