Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Hordes of Unreason

¡Hola! Everybody...
I had meant to post after the holidays, but it needed airing out. Sorry for the lackadaisical editing and for making it so long... For those who don’t read me regularly, please be careful and enjoy the holidays.

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-=[ The Age of Unreason ]=-

in Times of Uncertainty

An open mind is a valuable thing, just not so open that your brains fall out.

My friend Will (Astranavigo) likes to point out what he feels is a sad but true reality: our nation (USA) has gone dumb. The nation is full of idiots, he states, and I would be hard-pressed to argue that position. However, I think the issue of ignorance in this country is little more nuanced. It’s not so much that people are dumb, or stupid. Rather it has more to do with a tendency toward unreason. Too many people are attached to what historian Susan Jacoby calls “unreason” and mistaking that dysfunction for skepticism or critical thinking.

In her work, Jacoby surveys the anti-rational landscape from reality TV and “infantainment,” videos for babies, to a pseudo-intellectual universe of “junk thought.” This vast realm of junk thought reaches from semiliterate blogs of all political persuasions to institutions of so-called higher education that offer that do not require students to obtain a thorough grounding in American and world history, science, and literature. Throughout our culture, contempt for logic and evidence is fostered by the infotainment media from television to the Web; aggressive anti-rational religious fundamentalism; poor public education; the intense politicization of intellectuals themselves.

The consequences are numerous and far-reaching. If you’re wondering how junk science such as creationism and the deniers of anthropogenic global warming get traction, look no further than this unreason posing as “skepticism.” I recently posted a blog that mentioned the consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the theory that global warming is caused by human activity. One respondent called it a hoax, others chimed in that the science is “uncertain” and “subjective.”

Let me be clear about this: nothing could be further from the truth. The scientific consensus on AGW is almost as unanimous as the science can get. Certainties are rare in science. Even the appearance of the sun over the horizon tomorrow morning can be reduced to a question of probability. On the question of climate change, scientists say they are more than 90 percent sure that it’s happening and that humans are responsible. If you knew anything about science, or ever worked on a research project, that last statement would awe you.

Sure, you just never know, but scientists embrace that kind of skepticism. It’s through doubting certainties of the world (the flatness of the earth, the utility of bloodletting) that scientists advance human knowledge. But no serious scientist will stand up and denounce a widely accepted scientific theory without making a verifiable argument to the contrary. Yet, that’s what some participants in this forum are doing. They are not scientists; are not experts on climate science, nor have they been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but they will tell you that I am a bully because I shove this scientific consensus in their face.

I just don’t abide quackery, nor those who would promote it. While it may be true (but highly improbable) that someone might come out disproving evolutionary theory or show that the world is flat, I don’t see that happening any time soon and if deferring to scientific knowledge is a form of “hero worship” or “bullying,” then, yup, that’s me!

Scientists -- real scientists -- bind themselves to a strict set of standards, setting out their theories and experiments carefully, subjecting them to review by other credible scholars who are knowledgeable in their field, and publishing their findings in reputable journals such as Science and Nature. The people who approach the science of climate change with that kind of integrity have agreed on its underlying premise for years.

The French physicist Joseph Fourier first postulated the greenhouse effect in 1824. In the 1850s, the Irish physicist John Tyndall figured out a way to test and measure the capacity of various gases to absorb and transmit radiant energy. By 1858, he effectively proved Fourier’s theory. At the end of the century -- the 19th century -- the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius advanced the theory even further. Arrhenius, considered the father of physical chemistry, was the first to predict that humans might actually increase the temperature of the earth by burning fossil fuels and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Over the last two hundred years, humans have been digging fossil fuels and setting fire to them, reintroducing the carbon to oxygen and releasing the resulting carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Arrhenius estimated that a doubling of the atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase Earth’s temperature by 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a remarkable bit of science considering that the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a doubling of carbon dioxide will increase global temperature between 3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit. What is unnerving is that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen since 1850 by more than one third and we’re on track of reaching Arrhenius’s doubling by sometime the middle of this century.

The science progressed on through the 1960s and by the 1970s, scientists were getting nervous, beginning to speak as one voice. In 1979, a National Academy of sciences report said, “A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate change will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use.” It was also becoming clear that even a small increase in climate warming could disrupt a balance that has existed before humans. They began warning of melting ice glaciers and collapsing ice caps, of floods and droughts and rising tides. They began to envision a change in living conditions more dramatic than anything that has happened in hundreds of thousands of years.

I offer all this as a way of contextualizing the subject matter. I am neither a scientist nor a historian, and I have no intention of jumping into the “scientific debate.” Someone on my previous post mentioned that attaining a grasp of this issue is almost possible, but that’s patently untrue. You can go online and read the Assessment Report of the IPCC, a scientific collaboration of unprecedented breadth, depth, and reputation. You can Google Elizabeth Kolbert’s brilliant New Yorker series, The Climate of Man. Alternatively, you can pick up one of the great populist science books on the subject: scientist Andrew Weaver’s (Canada) Keeping Our Cool; Tim Flannery’s (Australia) The Weathermakers; Kolbert’s later book Field Notes from a Catastrophe; and yes, even Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Any one of these will give you solid enough grasp of the science to leave you at least somewhat shaken about the state of our world.

My point, however, is that no one seems to be confused about climate change. As far as the scientific bodies of the world are concerned, as in the theory of gravity, the question of the flatness of the earth, and evolutionary theory, the consensus exists, not because a band of wild-haired pencil-necked academics want to take over the world on some presumed conspiracy, but because the science has answered the question.

With each new experiment, each new report, with each new article published in legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journals, the science community became more certain. Naomi Oreske tested the question of consensus in a paper she published in the journal Science in 2005. Oreskes searched the vast ISI Web of Knowledge for refereed scientific journal articles on global climate change that were published between 1993 and 2003. She analyzed them on the basis of whether they supported, contradicted, or took no position on the consensus that the human release of greenhouse gases was causing climate change -- and not a single study took exception with the consensus position.

Not one.

So, while there are those here who claim otherwise, the fact of the matter contradicts their statements. I don’t know about you, but if I want a medical opinion I don’t go to the shoemaker down the street.

What has happened in the last 20 years is that the mainstream press has presented the issuewith a false sense of “balance.” The brothers Jules and Max Boykoff, published an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Change in 2003 titled “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” they searched the libraries of four “prestige” newspapers in the United States -- The New York times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times -- and analyzed their coverage of climate between 1998 and 2002. They found that while the scientific press was coming down to 928 to zero in accepting climate change, in 53 percent of their stories these four newspapers quoted a scientist on “one side” of the issue and spokesperson on the other.

I say spokesperson rather than scientist for legitimate reasons. First, the deniers were very often not scientists, but rather political ideologues or self-appointed “experts” (not unlike some here) from think tanks. Secondly, even when the experts had scientific credentials, in most of the cases those cred3entials were not relevant to the topic at hand. The experts were geologists or economists commenting outside their field of expertise, not climate scientists reporting on up to date peer-reviewed science.

In matters involving social policy, such as abortion or economic strategies, this isn’t such a bad thing. Science, ion the other hand, is a discipline in which there legitimate experts, people whose knowledge is weighed and measured by their scientific peers. This is the process people use, for example, to decide a surgical procedure or the structural strength of a new alloy. If I were to come to you and suggest that inserting my penis into your rectum is a good surgical procedure for your sore throat, would you accept my theory? If not then why are we accepting the nonsense being thrown around by public relations entities, pundits, and bloggers who know nothing of the subject, let alone the process of the scientific method?

And if I refuse to listen to pointless diatribes about “democracy in science” (science is beholden only to the truth), or to read the contents of websites proclaiming a “climate gate” (conspiracy!) does that make me an “authoritarian,” or a “bully” or closed-minded?

If it does, then I will state here unequivocally that I am proud to wear those labels. Just go argue against creationism, evolution, or AGW somewhere else. As far as I’m concerned (and the science agrees) the relevant discussion is not whether AGW is real, but about finding effective solutions for it. When and if there is an equal, credible body of knowledge that refutes AGW, or that world is round, I will be the first to own up to it. Until then, the shoemaker? He doesn’t get to tell me the earth is flat.




  1. The argument isn't about AGW but about CO2. Satellites that are tracking the Earth's radiation budget are showing higher levels of LWR being emitted into space, than factored into the CO2 driven GCMs. Ocean heat storage is lower than the CO2 driven GCMs have predicted. There are new peer reviewed papers showing that the positive feedback attributed to clouds are in error. If you study optical physics you will find that CO2 is a very poor absorber of LWR and that the theory relies on, still to be proven positive feeback from water vapor,for warming above 1C degree by 2100.  Even the MET office had to address the possibility that the models may have overstated CO2 sensitivity. They published a paper in November 2009 indicating that the CO2 based models will be falsified at the 95% level if the zero warming trend over the last 11 years continues through 2013.

    CO2 according to NASA has no significant role in any ice melt on the planet. Local land use is now more important than CO2 in driving climate change. Also cosmic rays and the ozone hole look to render CO2 even less important in the science of climate change.

    It is the theory that CO2 is the primary driver of global warming that many scientists are finding problematic.

  2. First of all AGW theory isn't ONLY about CO2 levels, ity's about human activity, CO2 levels being PART of that theory. as I mentioned in my peice, you can find dissenting opinions, but my argument is that scientists, now united in agreement, were once the greatest climate change sceptics.

    There is still plenty of scientific debate about just much the world will warm, an issue complicated by the many feedback factors. There's also lots of debate on specific effects, such as how tropical cyclone activity will change.

    One by one, however, all the arguments against the central global warming hypothesis have been shown to be wrong. In fact, the strongest arguments were demolished long before most people alive today were born.

    Yet there are still a handful of scientists, and far more non-scientists, who refuse to accept the idea of global warming. I am continually amazed by the way some individuals treat the idea of global warming with such extreme scepticism, yet uncritically seize upon anything that seems to challenge it, no matter how dubious.

    For example, the remarkable correlation between CO<sub>2</sub> levels and temperature going back 600,000 years is dismissed because of a few mismatches, but the fleeting correlation between cosmic ray intensity and low-altitude cloud cover, which broke down after less than two decades, is hailed as absolute proof that cosmic rays affect the climate.

    You can find dozens of such arguments on the net, all purporting to prove that global warming is not real or will not be a problem. Most are based on misunderstandings or distortions of the science. Some are deliberate attempts to deceive.

    Many of these arguments still find their way into mainstream media. Some are even parroted by politicians such as US Senator James Inhofe.

    To non-scientists, these arguments can sound very persuasive. Why do CO<sub>2</sub> levels only start to rise hundreds of years after the start of interglacial periods, for instance?

    So for those who are perhaps confused by all the conflicting claims and want to find out what's really going on, New Scientist has put together a special on climate myths.


What say you?


[un]Common Sense