Snippets from the Pseudo-Debate

In looking through all 203 responses to Tierney’s anti-Holdren screed to date I came up with some interesting nuggets. Alas, the idea that “global warming” is some sort of conspiracy is not going away. Witness, then,  a grab bag of comments from John Tierney’s recent anti-Holdren screed in the NYTimes blogs that I think are sadly representative:

#73, Steven Walser:

none of us KNOWS what the correct response is, should be publicized far more widely.
We must all realize that ALL theories of climate change are just that THEORIES, not FACTS.
The proposed nostrums have very real world consequences. We simply do not have adequate knowledge to be implementing “solutions” that may, in fact, turn out to have unintended consequences far graver than the problems they seek to solve.
The questions of climate science far exceed in complexity the questions in economics which is wholly of human design and creation and yet as we currently see the effects of our common lack of understanding of human nature play out in the economic world many here call for putting more power into the hands of these same, very fallible humans, to craft a future over which they have even less understanding.

You hear this nonsense spun over and over again. It’s so confused it’s hard to refute but somebody ought to give it a try.

Simply because we don’t know exactly what would be best to do is no excuse for doing nothing. We always must act on best available information. Doing nothing (construed as making no changes in extant policies regarding energy) is not even possible in any case, as should be plain to anyone who thinks about it. Something will be done, and the question is what that will be. So this boils down to an argument to discount evidence that the writer finds, well, inconvenient. Yet the writer has no concept that this is the case.

It is interesting that the assertion is made that “The questions of climate science far exceed in complexity the questions in economics”. The comparison between the two fields is, I think, both fruitful and thanks to the political power of economists, inevitable. 

I find the above-quoted writer’s position nonsensical. Economics, being essentially a branch of psychology, is vastly more complex than climatology; the scale separations and level of detail that make climatology complex compared to other domains of essentially classical 19th century physics are very favorable in comparison to behavioral sciences. If a robust theory of applied economics is possible, the available data is so vastly inadequate to test it that it is hard to see how a correct theory might emerge. Meanwhile, the set of observational and theoretical constraints on the physical atmosphere and oceans are precise and well understood. 
It’s really interesting how and why Mr. Walser gets this backwards.

#80 has this old saw:

Can Holdren prove his point? Nope. The only “proof” he has are climate MODELS. That’s not empirical science.

Um, well, what do we mean by MODELS here? This is fodder for a very long discussion; I’ve seen a couple of stabs at it. I don’t actually know how one predicts the future empirically, of course. This also boils down to an argument for celebrating ignorance.

#84 comes right out and gets it very wrong in very few words:

Has Holdren caught on to the fact that CO2 doesn’t cause an increase in temperatures yet?

Heh. What can you say to that? “Does too!” 

It might be wise to avoid that trap and move onto “That’s not what I understand. What makes you say that?”

#101 has this remarkable claim:

I think the AGW people are fearful that the earth is cooling. Which means that they have to enact their economic control laws quickly in order to take credit for the cooling.

I don’t see how that would be possible; there is little likelihood that the CO2 concentration will be stabilizing, never mind declining, any time soon. The author seems to be unaware that the claims being made are quantitative or what their nature might possibly be. Nevertheless he feels confident in refuting the claims, whether he knows what they are or not.

#114, by Donald Kingsbury, is far more reasonable at first blush:

Holdren is acting as a defense attorney for a complicated mathematical model of climate — which is far more complicated than the current mathematical models of our economy, which have just been proven, by circumstance, to be drastically inadequate.

As a mathematician I can assure you that current climate models — either those “proving” that humans are having a lethally bad effect on climate or those “proving” that the changes are within the normal bounds of the last million years — are not adequate. Obama needs another adviser, a prosecutor who can look at what Holdren refuses to look at, ie those aspects that might be wrong with current theory. That is the way SCIENCE is done.

Kingsbury is only correct in principle. He seems unaware that the trial has already been conducted, many times. Here is the root of our problem. We have to get on to the sentencing, but the sort of noise Tierney is propagating here cause the trial to be repeated endlessly. Is it malfeasance on Kingsbury’s part top be wrong about this? Presumably not, he seems a thoughtful enough fellow. Is it malfeasance on Tierney’s. Yes indeed. A journalist has the responsibility not to be egregiously wrong. If he is ill-equipped for the task at hand, he should cede the territory to someone who is able to address it correctly.

Which brings us neatly to the claim of Lysenkoism in #62:

Now, I can be wrong but I do see some uncomfortable parallels between Lysenkoism and climate-change alarmists.
In both cases skepticism is not tolerated ( the science is “settled”) and skeptics run the risk of losing their jobs. On top of that, prominent alarmists like James Hansen en David Suzuki want “climate criminals” on trial.

First of all, if willfully lying about matters of this consequence is not criminal, it seems to be a severe oversight in the law. Proving intent will be nearly impossible, but if anyone intentionally lies in either overstating or understating the case here, it’s not hard to argue that they are liable.

Let’s cpnsider, though, the claim that alternative positions are squelched that is the issue.

People like Joe Romm who go ballistic about articles like this Tierney’s are not without justification (though I suspect the display of the anger may be counterproductive we can argue about it). It’s easy, on the other hand, to misconstrue this sort of anger as an infringement on free speech by political correctness. Whether it is the one or isn’t independent of the substantive evidence, though! The question depends sensitively on how strongly the evidence points in one direction or another. Are reasonable opinions being suppressed? Or are unreasonable opinions being appropriately ignored?

In the present case, the evidence that human impact on the climate system is detectable, growing, and hard to alter on a suitable time scale, is overwhelming. (Whether that time scale is 10 years or 100 is another matter, but the number of arguably informed people who think it’s outside that window is very small.)

Unfortunately, the number of people who can evaluate the evidence directly is relatively small compared to the entire world population, though it is not insignificant; probably numbering on the order of 100,000 people; or one person out of every 50,000 in the general population. The rest of us have to operate on networks of trust, and these networks are sufficiently frayed and tarnished that some people find themselves hooking up with the likes of Tierney or Lomborg, themselves inaccessible to the people who really understand what is going on.

It is the task of the general public to evaluate exactly whom the experts are, to weigh the plausibility of the proposed conspiracy against the plausibility of the problem, and to support appropriate action. Significant sections of the public in some countries are failing at this task. It is the task of journalists to provide the public with a fair representation of the balance of evidence. Part of the failure of the public is attributable to a failure by journalists.

Speech must remain free in a free society, of course, but it does the free society no good to indulge in speech that is irresponsible. As long as Tierney is carrying the imprimatur of the New York Times, people will continue to take this stuff seriously. Journalism should endeavor to close debates as well as open them. It’s a matter of the merits of the debate.

Peer review does help, of course. When an opinion has currency in the press and not in the journals, one thing the press might do is call attention to the two alternative explanations of why that is. Suppression of valid opinion is one possibility, but a lack of coherence with scientific evidence is another. Science is an imperfect enterprise, to be sure, but an opinion on scientific matters that is not represented within science should typically not garner attention from the press.

The thing about science is that eventually things are decided. It seems the journalistic sector has either lost track of this fact or is afraid to convey it to the public.
Update: Here’s a gem from comments to a pretty trivial Newsweek article

When will you and other publications realize that CO2 is a trace gas and has little to do with temperature variations? Temps vary in cycles of approximately 30 years, and have been dropping for about 5 years now, but those like you are hopelessly blind to real science. Global warming has become a tenet of the eco-religious who think a butterfly is more valuable than a baby. Research and report the truth or you will eventually lose what little credibility you have left.

In other words, not only does he know more than you do, but he threatens to ignore you if you don’t come around to my (unsupportable) point of view. Indeed, this is what the press is afraid of, the more so now that their business model is in trouble. 

Update: It looks like the bad guys are trying to give the Bill-Ayres treatment to Holdren and thus anyone associted with him. It’s a very silly effort because, unlike the attack on Ayres, it sorely lacks for ammunition.

The denialists do not want, themselves, to be the topic of conversation and are trying very hard to punish anyone who brings the topic of who they are and  how they got that way to center stage. Holdren has taken them on directly and this is an attempt at revenge.

It’s also another opportunity for the press to take on the real issues. I am not betting they will.

Tierney vs Holdren

NYTimes science reporter John Tierney goes after Obama appointee John Holdren, about whom I have written admiringly of late, with both guns a-blazin’.

Along the way he expresses concern for how Lomborg gets treated in certain circles and has a kind word to throw in for Roger Jr.. It’s sticky stuff, not as easily dismissed as the usual denialist tripe, as I have argued before. This stuff is badly wrong, but it needs to be handled with care.

Update: Three guesses what Joe Romm thinks.