Stifling Debate With Public Funds?

Thursday, 2010-January-21 at 01:50

Is This Science? Or Religion?

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, has published an article entitled, “A Response to Climate Change Denialism”. The article is pure politics-and-religion style campaign literature. This on a site that is paid for by Californians’ taxes. It is reproduced below in its entirety, both to preserve the evidence, and to facilitate commentary.

A Response to Climate Change Denialism

Richard Somerville, a distinguished professor emeritus and research professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, issued the following statement in response to a recent request to address claims recently made by climate change denialists:

1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm. This is solid settled science. The world is warming. There are many kinds of evidence: air temperatures, ocean temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, and much more. Human activities are the main cause. The warming is not natural. It is not due to the sun, for example. We know this because we can measure the effect of man-made carbon dioxide and it is much stronger than that of the sun, which we also measure.

2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity. The foundations of the science are more than 150 years old. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. We know carbon dioxide is increasing because we measure it. We know the increase is due to human activities like burning fossil fuels because we can analyze the chemical evidence for that.

3. Our climate predictions are coming true. Many observed climate changes, like rising sea level, are occurring at the high end of the predicted changes. Some changes, like melting sea ice, are happening faster than the anticipated worst case. Unless mankind takes strong steps to halt and reverse the rapid global increase of fossil fuel use and the other activities that cause climate change, and does so in a very few years, severe climate change is inevitable. Urgent action is needed if global warming is to be limited to moderate levels.

4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over. The refutations are on many web sites and in many books. For example, natural climate change like ice ages is irrelevant to the current warming. We know why ice ages come and go. That is due to changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, changes that take thousands of years. The warming that is occurring now, over just a few decades, cannot possibly be caused by such slow-acting processes. But it can be caused by man-made changes in the greenhouse effect.

5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals. Other scientists examine the research and repeat it and extend it. Valid results are confirmed, and wrong ones are exposed and abandoned. Science is self-correcting. People who are not experts, who are not trained and experienced in this field, who do not do research and publish it following standard scientific practice, are not doing science. When they claim that they are the real experts, they are just plain wrong.

6. The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results. It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody. The first thing that the world needs to do if it is going to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it.

— Robert Monroe

Jan. 14, 2010

First of all, the above statement constitutes a clear misuse of public funds. The magnitude, direction, and causes of the observed changes in the earth’s climate over the past 160 years or so is the subject of an intense political debate around the world. Is it caused primarily by human activities? Is it well-understood enough for us to draw any conclusions at all? What dangers does this change, if it continues, pose to humans and other life forms on this planet? What responses should we be making to adjust to the changes, to mitigate their effects, or to prevent those changes from occuring? These questions are part of the political debate, and are not supposed to be advocated by public employees on the taxpayers’ dollar.

Professor Somerville, Mr. Monroe, and the Scripps Institution administration, as public employees, are not supposed to be advocating in either direction. This is not to say that they cannot advocate on their own time, as private citizens. Certainly, they can and they should. But the practice of hijacking public resources to promote one’s private political opinions is one of the first things that you are warned about upon entering the public arena.

The statement uses the term “denialist” to refer to those who do not blindly accept the alarmists’ claims about “climate change”. That term is loaded with meaning–political and social–because it is closely associated with those who deny the reality of the holocaust (the World War II slaughter of millions of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and others, by the Nazi regime in Germany). Denialists include groups like the Iranian regime. By painting those who question the imposition of scientific orthodoxy with the same brush as these other groups, this is a blatant attempt to muzzle scientific inquiry.

Let us look at the claims of this statement. First, “the science is settled”. This, in itself, is an anti-scientific statement. Science is a set of methods used to learn more about the universe in which we live. As such, the science in any field is never settled. Any grade school science student knows of several scientific theories which were once widely believed, only to be proven false later on. Scientific “truth” is an ever-shifting thing. What we “know” is “true” this year may be laughed at in ten years.

Professor Somerville claims “we can measure the effect of man-made carbon dioxide and it is much stronger than that of the sun”. This is not known to be true. There is no way to measure the effect of carbon dioxide. Instead, we can measure temperature, measure CO2 levels, and use theoretical models to attempt to connect the two. Models, of course, are mathematical constructs (generally constructed in computer software) that allow one to play out some expected effects of a set of assumptions. In simple English, models have little or no relationship with the real world. They are little more than a more complex version of a spreadsheet user’s “what if” situations. In business, we eventually learn that the spreadsheet’s results are never exactly right–because there are too many factors and weightings that we are missing in our analysis of the situation–something that is even more true when we talk about weather and climate models.

The professor claims that the “greenhouse effect is well understood”. This is only partially true. The greenhouse effect can be measured in controlled conditions–laboratory conditions–not outside of them. The greenhouse effect cannot be measured in the real world, the world where CO2 forms less than 400 parts per million of the atmosphere, and there are substantial questions about how well-mixed it is and what heights it may be found. This is not to say that it does not exist. Without the so-called greenhouse effect, earth might be an ice ball, similar to Mars.

The obsession with carbon dioxide is in itself problematic. Has it been proven, for example, that one of CO2‘s effects is to increase the greenhouse effect of atmospheric dihydrogen monoxide (H2O, popularly known as “water”)? Or is this merely unproven speculation, the fodder of the modeling software that produces the fearsome scenarios that the mainstream media blares at us day after day? In reality, there are a large number of actors at work in the earth’s climate system, some of which are unknown.

Third claim: “Our climate predictions are coming true.” This claim is not true. Sea ice in the Arctic, for example, has been growing over the past few years, not declining. Himalayan glaciers, another favorite prediction, are now known not to be declining as rapidly as previously stated. The West Antarctic Peninsula, a favorite spot, has broken off ice sections, refrozen, and then broken the refrozen ice off again. This has been going on for years. Note that Antarctic sea ice has been growing over the past few decades, even as Arctic sea ice has declined.

Another favorite prediction is that Greenland’s ice sheet will melt, causing a large increase in the sea level. In fact, there are parts of Greenland which are currently frozen, which were rich agricultural villages less than 1,200 years ago. How’s that for unprecedented warming that is definitely human-caused?

Even if the climate predictions were coming true, which is not currently happening, every science student knows that “correlation is not causation”. Correctly predicting some event is not the same as knowing what caused it or being able to predict subsequent events. A professional science researcher should already know this.

Fourth claim: “standard skeptical argmuments have been refuted …. natural climate change … is irrelevant ….” Let’s see, about that: is it not true that the earth’s climate was just as warm, or possibly even warmer, during the medieval warming period (MWP)? The IPCC said so. Didn’t the US Geological Survey say the Arctic sea was too warm for sea ice 3 million years ago? [PDF] Certainly, that wasn’t caused by human intervention, was it?

Yes, some of the ice ages were caused by earth’s orbital changes, but what of mini ice ages like the one we just exited around 1850? Could that be caused by changes in the sun’s output, or changes in earth-received cosmic radiation that could be mediated by the sun’s output? What about changes in global oceanic circulation? What about oceanic upwellings that bring colder undersea water to the surface? What about differing amounts of space dust between earth and the sun? What about the earth’s “wobble” affecting the angle of insolation? What about changes in earth’s magnetic field? What about differing levels of volcanism? There are dozens of potential causes that might be at least as likely as attributing all of the warming since 1850 to human endeavors.

Fifth claim: “Science has its own high standards.” Yes, like those revealed in the CRUtape Letters. A small group of influential researchers colluding to prevent contrary studies from being published, and using computer programs that illogically reduce older temperatures below the raw measurements, while raising newer temperatures above the raw measurements. In accounting, the word for that isn’t “high standards”, but “creative accounting”, which is also known as “fraud”.

“[Science] does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals.” Except that Climategate shows that those journal articles are constrained to show one view and only that view. That is why the CRUtape Letters revealed in Climategate are such a big deal. This isn’t just “well-known scientists behaving badly”. This is well-known scientists who are so convinced of the rightness of their cause [which should in itself be a pause-giving concept] that they see nothing wrong with stifling scientific debate, shading the conclusions of their research to suggest things that are not clearly evident in the data, and actively promoting social and political changes as though that were part of their jobs.

How can others examine, repeat, and extend the research when the raw data and the programs used to interpret it are not available for those who wish to replicate the results? How can scientists pretend that only professional (that is, government-paid) scientists “do science”? Science isn’t about who pays you to research, but about the methodology used in that research. It is only since World War II that government funds became so important in scientific research. Frankly, I believe that government funds are part of the problem–he who provides the press also decides the viewpoint that will be promoted. Once the funding agencies decide that AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is an issue, those whose conclusions might show otherwise are not likely to obtain funding for that research.

Publishing in journals is not the same as “doing science”. It serves only to publicize one’s conclusions among his / her peers, so they can then examine, replicate, and / or refute the conclusions. This purpose is performed better, faster, and for lower cost by Internet-published research than by limited-distribution, subscription-based journals. Among other advantages, unrestricted Internet-based publication enables minority viewpoints to be disseminated, such that the hegemony of “consensus” is broken. In other words, if the good professor has any real refuting evidence for the recent television special or Internet-published skeptical articles, he should be doing “peer review” and showing why he believes the conclusions reached to be false.

Appealing to authority lost its value around the time of the Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation, asserting (among other things) that when the Pope speaks “ex cathedra” (from the chair or throne), his words are infallible. If even the Pope’s words are not infallible, neither are those of any scientist or group thereof.

Sixth claim: “The leading scientific organizations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results.” As a public employee myself, I know how these things happen: a committee is appointed, not because of their expertise, but because they are tongue-in-groove buttlickers for the political appointees they report to. As such, their conclusions are unsurprisingly always exactly what the appointees wanted to hear.

“It is silly to imagine that thousands of climate scientists worldwide are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool everybody.” It doesn’t take a massive conspiracy. The CRUtape Letters reveal a small group of tightly-knit researchers at the center of the whole climate research industry. Those individuals control the basic data that everyone else uses. They needn’t conspire to deceive, merely agree to overstate their case “for the good of the globe”, and everything that is produced by other researchers is automatically skewed in that direction. That those central researchers did indeed overstate their case in order to enhance the advocacy their conclusions were supporting is pretty visible in those e-mails and software programs.

No, there isn’t a conspiracy. There is just an overstated case, something that only a few people knew for certain until November of 2009. Now, if most of those who do such research for a living refuse to reevaluate their conclusions in the light of the lapses revealed by the Climategate scandal, if they continue to rely upon such overstated data without caveats, then one can legitimately call it a conspiracy. Until then, there is not and never has been a conspiracy, thank you very much.

“The first thing that the world needs to do if it is going to confront the challenge of climate change wisely is to learn about what science has discovered and accept it.” This statement is very anti-intellectual and anti-science. It is even more anti-democratic. In a society such as ours, we do not let some self-described expert tell us what is “good for us”, but instead, we discuss and debate it among ourselves and through our representatives in Washington, Ottawa, Sacramento, and other capitals, eventually working out a compromise that is less than what advocates wanted, but more than opponents desired. Science isn’t about some authorities telling us what to think, but about people proposing ideas about some situation, event, process, or occurence and testing those ideas to see whether those ideas might fail to adequately explain observed behavior (and whether it might not explain observed behavior better than then-known competing ideas). We believe in gravity, not because it is certain to exist, but because it is currently the best explanation for the observed behavior of matter and energy in the universe. Accepting what some “expert” tells us is neither wise scientifically nor wise politically.

As an example of just how anti-intellectual this document’s viewpoint is, Professor Somerville’s own site says this: “Governments, corporations, and individuals should listen to and learn from the science, just as intelligent people listen to their physicians when their health is in question.” In other words, do not think for yourself. Let “the experts” do the thinking for you. What happened to examining the evidence, learning some of the explanations that underlie the conclusions that are presented, and weighing them in your own mind to decide for yourself? Under this kind of thinking, Galileo, who proposed that the then-commonly-held earth-centric view of the universe was false, might have been executed by his fellow scientists.

To sum up, this document is unacceptable because it:

  • Implies that questioning the textus receptus is the equivalent of questioning whether the Holocaust occurred.
  • Is published for political purposes, not scientific ones, by public employees, on a site that is paid for by tax money.
  • Makes claims that even non-scientists such as myself can see are not supported by the evidence. Claim 5 is just one example of such a claim.
  • Glosses over the revelations of the Climategate scandal, telling us, in effect to trust our betters and ignore anyone else.
  • Denigrates non-professional scientific research and the non-paid researchers who perform it.
  • Has a very strong anti-democracy, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific bent. It promotes the absolute infallibility of the doctrines scientists release from on high, but seeks to curtail those whose conclusions might not agree with the sacred consensus.

I urge the head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, to have this page amended with an apology to all of those who have made a valiant effort to understand the research, to replicate and / or refute it, or to openly and without panic, discuss its implications for our society.

Disclaimer: This is not a call for any kind of witch hunt against scientists, regardless of their viewpoint. Neither is it meant to have a negative impact upon their freedom of expression. It is personal opinion, written in response to a publication on a government-funded website, which in my sole opinion, opposes the goals of free scientific inquiry, freedom of thought & expression, and of democratic society. You are welcome to disagree and to publish your disagreement on your own blog just as I did.
NOTE: This appears at both WordPress.com and Vox.com.
H/T: Anthony Watts

Entry filed under: Open Government. Tags: .

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