I admit, I once spent a couple of weeks of my youth as a salesman for a shoddy product. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that that was what I was doing. There are people who sell products who are doing a service; people who have complex product lines and customers with complex needs. Then there are people who can sell freezers to penguins.
A knack for selling a product to someone who doesn’t really need or want it is a bankable skill. There are tricks of the trade, and being on the whole a hopelessly honest person, I wasn’t around long enough to learn too many of them. One, though, is the technique of establishing rapport by saying a lot of things that are hard to disagree with, all the while smiling and nodding. When you get to deliver your payload, your victim already thinks of you as agreeable and plainspoken.
One recent example was in a pice by David Evans in the Canadian magazine Financial Post,
entitled “Climate Models Go Cold“. After playing the “used to believe” card, Evans states a number of things that are unobjectionable:
Let’s be perfectly clear. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and other things being equal, the more carbon dioxide in the air, the warmer the planet. Every bit of carbon dioxide that we emit warms the planet. But the issue is not whether carbon dioxide warms the planet, but how much.
Most scientists, on both sides, also agree on how much a given increase in the level of carbon dioxide raises the planet’s temperature, if just the extra carbon dioxide is considered. These calculations come from laboratory experiments; the basic physics have been well known for a century.
The disagreement comes about what happens next.
The planet reacts to that extra carbon dioxide, which changes everything. Most critically, the extra warmth causes more water to evaporate from the oceans. But does the water hang around and increase the height of moist air in the atmosphere, or does it simply create more clouds and rain?
Perfectly reasonable so far. Then things start going a bit screwy:
Back in 1980, when the carbon dioxide theory started, no one knew. The alarmists guessed that it would increase the height of moist air around the planet, which would warm the planet even further, because the moist air is also a greenhouse gas.
“The carbon dioxide theory”? “Started in 1980”? “Alarmists”? “Guessed”?
By the time we are done we are reading crap like this:
Even if we stopped emitting all carbon dioxide tomorrow, completely shut up shop and went back to the Stone Age, according to the official government climate models it would be cooler in 2050 by about 0.015 degrees. But their models exaggerate 10-fold -in fact our sacrifices would make the planet in 2050 a mere 0.0015 degrees cooler!
Since the author is Australian, he is inheriting a trick common among Australian denialists of measuring the impact of Australian emissions on global temperatures. Since only one of every 350 people is Australian, and since impacts accumulate over time, 0.015 degree is something substantial. And of course the factor of ten is based on all sorts of discredited nonsense.
Of course, we have come to expect this sort of thing from the Financial Post. But we now have a new, prominent figure on the scene, snake charmer Richard Muller, who is trying to position himself as a sensible centrist. Here we are left scratching our heads, delighted that he set the congressional committee straight (in contrast to the ludicrous testimony of Scott Armstrong) about the temperature record, and yet uncomfortable with his past dalliance with denialist memes. His post-testimony NPR interview shows that he has not changed his spots. It is very much in the good salesman bad product mold.
But the public discussion tends to be not on the key science, but on the spectacular things that the exaggerators tend to say or the deniers deny, things like are the Himalayas going to melt? Or what’s happening with hurricanes? Are they increasing? These things are – the conclusions of the scientists on those things are actually quite mild and quite soft and equivocal.
The issues that there is strong agreement on is that we have seen global warming over the past 100 years. …
Yes, yes. It’s us. People call me a skeptic, because I drew attention to many of the exaggerations that in – is in former Vice President Al Gore’s movie. But I think a scientist has to recognize when there are exaggerations and settle down on what is solidly known. Temperature has been rising over the last 100 years. That’s pretty clear. How much is due to varying solar activity and how much due to humans is a scientific issue that we’re trying to address.
This is a strong start. “Quite mild and soft and equivocal” can be seen as spin, but it is important and valuable to emphasize that the exact impact of climate disruption is not well known. Of course, unless there is more to the BEST effort than has been let on, solar attribution is not remotely part of what they tell us, in their supposedly open way, that they are up to.
There’s also this:
Well, I think what’s happened is that many scientists have gotten so concerned about global warming, correctly concerned I mean they look at it and they draw a conclusion, and then they’re worried that the public has not been concerned, and so they become advocates. And at that point, it’s unfortunate, I feel that they’re not trusting the public. They’re not presenting the science to the public. They’re presenting only that aspect to the science that will convince the public. That’s not the way science works. And because they don’t trust the public, in the end the public doesn’t trust them. And the saddest thing from this, I think, is a loss of credibility of scientists because so many of them have become advocates.
I think there is something at least to think about here. Muller is being the anti-Olson here. Some people say simplify and emotionalize, others say, stick to the science and let others draw conclusions. In the end I am convinced by Eli’s position: scientists cannot and will not form a mass movement by their nature. Different people will approach what amounts to Schneider’s conundrum in different ways. As the divide between what’s reasonable and what is occurring continues to widen, at least in some people’s estimation, some behaviors outside the social boundaries of ordinary scientific practice at some point become defensible. But Muller’s point is one that shouldn’t be glossed over.
But he says other things that most of us would find indefensible. He celebrates Tony Watts:
So for example, if you’re near a building, it may be warmer, but the rise in temperature from year to year does not appear to be any more than it is for sites that are out on the countryside. That’s very important. And it couldn’t have been done if Anthony Watts had not gathered that data. I regard him as a hero in this business.
Er, Watts is a hero for investigating a non-issue and making a cause celebre out of it?
I think that Climategate is a very unfortunate thing that happened, that the scientists who were involved in that, from what I’ve read, didn’t trust the public, didn’t even trust the scientific public. They were not showing the discordant data. That’s something that – as a scientist I was trained you always have to show the negative data, the data that disagrees with you, and then make the case that your case is stronger. And they were hiding the data, and a whole discussion of suppressing publications, I thought, was really unfortunate. It was not at a high point for science
And I really get even more upset when some other people say, oh, science is just a human activity. This is the way it happens. You have to recognize, these are people. No, no, no, no. These are not scientific standards. You don’t hide the data. You don’t play with the peer review system. We don’t do that at Berkeley.
Well of course not. The entire point is that they didn’t. They didn’t hide data. They certainly didn’t pervert the peer review system (beyond its obvious problems); indeed they were keeping dreadfully incompetent work out.
I won’t get into why Muller’s work is really scientifically beside the point. I’ll get back to that later. For now, it’s important to understand that Muller’s point in saying these things is explicitly political, in exactly the way he criticizes others.
Muller is not being interviewed on NPR; he is delivering what is essentially a prepared speech. You can see this in the way he repeats himself at the end of Neil Conan’s second question and the beginning of the third:
there is strong agreement on is that we have seen global warming over the past 100 years. An issue, though, that isn’t really settled yet is how much of that is due to humans? And that’s a subject that really can use more investigation.
Temperature has been rising over the last 100 years. That’s pretty clear. How much is due to varying solar activity and how much due to humans is a scientific issue that we’re trying to address.
We are seeing a carefully prepared, precisely calibrated spin, exactly what we are being criticized for. Muller is saying and doing some useful things and some very dangerous and destructive things precisely because he is calibrating a position in the middle. If anything, he’s following Judith Curry’s path, a bit more carefully and more cleverly, but lacking the credential.
It’s reasonably clear that he knows relatively little about climate science, and that he is making it difficult for himself to draw upon those who know more.
Muller has done some good, and apparently sees it necessary to do some harm to balance it out. That isn’t science either. It’s as political as anything he criticizes.
Beware the fellow with the snake oil. The salesman with a bad product will say wise and congenial things to you before he starts to lie to you.