A Litmus Test for the Naysayers

The denial group is behaving in a very revealing way.

The denialists are now trumpeting a very silly argument that El Nino (a quasiperiodic oscillation with energy in the 2-10 year band) is dominating secular trends in global temperature by an argument that I summarized in seven steps recently.

I would like to start the day with a shorter summary:

1) El Nino dominates interannual variability.
2) Frantic armwaving, accompanied by sciencey-looking charts and graphs.
3) Therefore, warming is predominantly due to El Nino.
4) Therefore, very not the IPCC.

Of course conclusion 4 will resonate with the Not the IPCC crowd. It is the conclusion they want, er, I mean, the conclusion that their serious thought has led them to in the past, right?

The trouble is, their argument goes like this

1) The sun is the source of atmospheric energy
2) Frantic armwaving, accompanied by sciencey-looking charts and graphs.
3) Therefore, warming is predominantly due to solar changes.
4) Therefore, very not the IPCC.

Admittedly, there is some similarity in the discourse. But notice, notice carefully, the subtle difference. These are based on altogether different premises and reach (in step 3) contradictory conclusions. They cannot both be true!

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that either or both of these were scientific hypotheses and not political gamesmanship. Then, whoops, while they reach identical political conclusions, they are competing scientific hypotheses. Therefore the scientists, having two competing hypotheses, will immediately set out to find evidence in support of their view and in opposition to the other.

On the other hand, if both groups are simply seeking ways to reach conclusion 4, they will consider themselves compatible and issue mutual congratulations. So have a look at the usual “skeptic” sources and see whether this new information is

A) dismissed as nonsense
B) thoughtfully treated as a significant challenge to their world view
C) celebrated without much regard for intellectual coherence

Only responses A or B are consistent with scientific thought. For instance, as I write I haven’t looked at Watts Up yet, but I am guessing C.

Hmm, my prognostic abilities are validated!

The Not the IPCC crowd is making a mistake by lining up behind this McLean nonsense. In doing so they demonstrate that they have no scientific hypothesis.

People on record with a solar-centric view who immediately celebrate this result demonstrate that whatever thought they have put into this problem has no scientific component. They simply have a political view that the IPCC must be wrong and will promote anything that sheds doubt on the consensus view.
That’s politics, not science. Which is what we’ve been saying about them all along.

The Problem and the Problem with the Problem

The prolific (and arguably indispensable) Joe Romm has a terrifying summary about global warming which appears to me to be pretty much on the mark.

Joe believes that people who understand the situation in this way should stick together. Given the scope of the problem, and the vast difference between the perspectives of those few who understand it and those many who don’t, you’d think we ought to stick together through thick and thin.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point:

Where he goes wrong is that he seems to see this primarily as a political calamity in terms of the administration’s standing both domestically and in the eyes of international participants at the coming Copenhagen conference. That’s all true enough, but I think it’s important for people not to write about this issue without mentioning that failure to start reducing carbon emissions in the very near term is a substantive human and ecological catastrophe. Absent emissions reductions, the globe will continue to warm. That will, year after year, keep altering weather patterns around the world. A world inhabited by six billion people based on patterns of settlement established under existing climactic patterns. Climate change means drought and famine, flood and forest fire, all in new and unprepared places. People will die.

Well, people will die anyway, but let’s not split hairs. This is starting to look like the whole world is a complete idiot and will march over the cliff in some sort of hypnotic trance.

The problem with the problem is that people don’t actually believe it. They think we are, not to put too fine a point on it, making shit up. Why they think that is obvious enough. Some people are trying very hard to confuse matters. And being very effective at it.

The question that immediately follows, the motivating question of “In It” is “so what should we do about it“? And here we have a problem: the confusers have managed to convince the public that people who express deep concern do so for personal gain. In my own case, it has been nothing of the sort, at least insofar as personal gain reduces to wealth.

I very much appreciate and enjoy any encouragement I get form my readers. It has been one of the nicest aspects of the past couple of years. Indeed, I would like to be able to get a tiny amount of personal gain from doing what I do here. While not everybody could do the work I currently do for pay, I’d have to admit I’m replaceable. I could make a much better contribution given the time.

But that leads to an interesting problem of credibility. Lawrence Lessig, at a very impressive talk at SXSW, argued that a big problem with government nowadays is the corrupting power of money which mostly flows through issue advocacy. Once you associate yourself with a position for pay, your opinion, your arguments, even your soundest unassailable proofs, automatically lose value in the discourse.

Unfortunately we have entered a period when the truth itself “has a liberal bias”. Things are really serious.

Does that mean that one has to toe the line for fear of injuring one’s allies? Many people seem to think so.

But I’d like CSS on the table, and nuclear, and also reduced growth and economic decline. All of these options are anathema to the engine of green politics. And as for the cap and trade vs carbon tax thing, I’m just completely dazed and confused. I’d like to take it up as a neutral party.

I am no longer interested in debating the “Ravens” of the world on their terms. They are a problem but I find it odd that people persist in engaging them as if they had any intention of examining their beliefs. But we have to find some way to make it visible to the world that they are not actually the real thing.

To do that we need credibility, and to gain credibility we have to avoid lining up behind ideas that make little sense.

For instance? I’m glad you asked.

I am interested in debating the proposition that “green jobs” will “revive the economy” in the short run. It’s considered heresy to question this in some circles, but there’s a simple argument that in traditional economic terms it just can’t be true, else it would have happened already.

Yes, it will cost. The longer we wait the more it will cost. We have to get started regardless of the cost; there is no limit to the cost of never shifting to sutainability. No limit short of the end of life.

Does it really help matters to pretend that there is some conspiracy behind the use of coal instead of wind and solar? How shall we think about these things if nobody is allowed to say anything other than the most cheerful nonsense on their side?

Well, it’s not disallowed, it just doesn’t have much presence in the “marketplace of ideas”. Scientists are funded to talk to scientists. Anti-scientists are funded to talk to the public. Even the political parties aligned with the science scowl furiously at any effort to publicly think things through.

So how to fund a voice that is perceived as intelligent and independent, that engages with politics while representing science? The traditional structures of science and of politics and of journalism all fail us: not just me, who really would like to do that sort work if it existed somehow, but all of us, who need to think our way out of our quandary collectively.

Like Lyndon Johnson, we should recall the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together.” That doesn’t mean ignoring the seriousness of our predicament, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean marching in lockstep either.

We have to butt heads or we won’t get anywhere. There’s my paraphrase of Isaiah 1:18.

I am going to try to do better with image credits, but I can’t track down the page the excellent drought photo was on. It is from a government site in New South Wales, Oz.
The grackle is available at Stuffed Ark .

We Need a New form of Outreach

American Thinker has a particularly compelling and polished version of the usual vile garbage, put together in what starts to look like a coherent argument. Of course it is built on the usual foundation of overvalued nitpicking:

“We can’t even believe in “official” measurements, as data sets relied upon to track global temperatures have again been shown to be contaminated and otherwise compromised.”


“Remember the sea ice that doomsters warned would soon be gone? It’s now at the very same level it was in 1979.”

and outright lies:

“this IPCC report, much-hyped-and-hallowed by alarmists and media-drones alike, represents the combined work of only 52 carefully cherry-picked UN scientists”

Unfortunately, amidst all this garbage they score a legitimate political point here. The public’s confidence in the scientific consensus as somewhat understated in the IPCC reports is, by various measures getting worse. That part of the article is not lies.
Although Obama is closely enough connected to the scientific community that he understands the tragic dynamic behind this situation, and although he has a lot of power, he is probably not going to make much of a dent in this situation anytime soon. Yes, green jobs will help, and it does help that people see peak oil as real. The alliance between fossil fuel (especially coal) people and an especially malicious and divisive streak among market fundamentalists goes on. They are not going to make our lives any easier, and so the sort of unmitigated nastiness seen in the American Thinker article is not going away or even abating. Worse, as it triumphantly crows, it is succeeding.
We need to reinvent the relationship between science and the public. That is an absolutely crucial step and it needs to happen fast. This is outside the capacity of NSF, which likes to support what it calls outreach but does so in a structurally ineffective way.

New mechanisms for communication between science and the public are desperately needed.
Dr. Chu? Dr. Holdren? Hello?
Update: Churlish of me to complain on a day when Obama takes such strong positive steps. For which I am grateful; I wasn’t aware this was coming.
And what do you expect of a country where people don’t “believe in” evolution anyway? Still I hate to see these polls headed south and I think it’s an important long-term goal to reconnect (or at least connect) science and society.

Update 1/28: Some related points on a comment by Gavin Starks on Tim O’Reilly’s “Radar” site:

We’re all aware of the emotive language used to polarize the climate change debate.

There are, however, deeper patterns which are repeated across science as it interfaces with politics and media. These patterns have always bothered me, but they’ve never been as “important” as now.

We are entering an new era of seismic change in policy, business, society, technology, finance and our environment, on a scale and speed substantially greater than previous revolutions. The sheer complexity of these interweaving systems is staggering.

Much of this change is being driven by “climate science”, and in the communications maelstrom there is a real risk that we further alienate “science” across the board.

We need more scientists with good media training (and presenting capability) to change the way that all sciences are represented and perceived. We need more journalists with deeper science training – and the time and space to actually communicate across all media. We need to present uncertainty clearly, confidently and in a way that doesn’t impede our decision-making.

On the climate issue, there are some impossible levers to contend with;

  1. Introducing any doubt into the climate debate stops any action that might combat our human impact.
  2. Introducing “certainty” undermines our scientific method and its philosophy.

When represented in political, public and media spaces, these two levers undermine every scientific debate and lead to bad decisions.

A tough nut, indeed.