Friday, February 09, 2007

Sceptical of the sceptics

Here’s the pre-edited version of my March Lab Report column for Prospect. In the course of writing it, I found it necessary to look at some of what has been written and said by the well-known climate-change sceptics, such as those named in the article. This has been interesting. No, let me rephrase that. By a monumental effort of will, I have suppressed the fury, frustration, stupefaction and despair that their comments are apt to induce, and found a precarious way to treat them as ‘interesting’. What I mean by that is that these remarks, coming from people who are undoubtedly smart, are so ill-informed, illogical, prejudiced and emotional that it makes little sense to approach them without trying to get some perspective on what the real issues are. The comments here by Melanie Phillips are a case in point – they are so dripping with furious contempt and scorn that there can be little doubt this touches on something rather personal to her. I suspect that in many of these cases, the issue is that warnings of climate change threaten to compromise a libertarian approach to life, because they imply that there are some freedoms we enjoy now that might have to be curtailed in the future. But I’m guessing, and frankly I don’t find it a very appealing prospect to try to analyse these people.

It would be a quixotic task to try to point out all the errors in the climate-sceptic rants – that would take too long, it would achieve little, and it would be rather boring. What is most striking, however, is that very often these errors are so elementary that they show that these people actually have no interest in trying to understand climate science, or science in general, but just want to find flaws and parade them. That is why the climate-sceptic position is rather repetitive, even obsessive: you just know that they are going to reel out the ‘hockey stick’ argument, even though, first, the criticism of Michael Mann’s work is still very contentious, and second, and most significantly, it is a laughable nonsense to imply that the whole notion of global warming rests on Mann’s ‘hockey stick’. Indeed, the sceptics’ arguments always depend on the notion that we assess global warming, and the anthropogenic contribution to it, by looking at global mean surface temperatures. It must be well over ten years ago now that scientists were explaining that the tell-tale sign of human influence is to be found in the fingerprint of regional differences in the warming trend (and the fingerprint is indeed there).

All the same, I cannot resist pointing out just a few of the idiocies in some of the sceptics’ arguments. This from Phillips has nothing to do with climate change, but tells us at once that this is not someone with more than a cartoon knowledge of the history of science. In lambasting scientists who have found higher than expected methane emissions from plants, she says:
“No doubt Galileo had the same problem when all medieval parchments agreed that the sun went round the earth; or Christopher Columbus, when all navigational maps agreed that the earth was flat.”
Yes, and newspapers print this stuff.
“People say ‘the ice caps are melting’. Well, some are; but others are growing.”
Hmm… aside from the north and south polar ice caps, where are these ‘others’?
“People say ‘the seas are rising’. Well, some are, but others are falling; and where they are rising, the cause often lies in the movement of land rather than any effects of climate change.”
Plain wrong, as simple as that.
“The earth’s climate is influenced by a vastly complex series of factors which interact with each other in literally millions of ways. Computer models, which have created global warming theory, simply cannot deal with all these factors. If over-simplified material is fed into the computers, over-simplified conclusions come out at the other end.”
Melanie Phillips has decided that computer models do not do a good job of modeling the climate system? She is an expert on this? She discounts the endless model verification checks that climate modelers run? On what grounds? Will the Daily Mail let her print any statement she likes (apparently it had no qualms in permitting her to say that most of the Earth’s atmosphere is water vapour).

Nigel Lawson is an interesting case, not least because he used to control the UK’s purse strings, and so you’d like to hope this is a man with a clear head for facts. But if his reasoning on the economy was like his reasoning on climate change, that’s a truly scary thought. Here we have a marshalling of the ‘facts’ that is so selective and so distorted that you wonder just what passes for normal debate in Westminster. Oh, and the occasional lie, such as that the Royal Society tried “to prevent the funding of climate scientists who do not share its alarmist view”. (They did nothing of the sort; Bob Ward of the RS asked ExxonMobil when it intended to honour its promise to stop funding lobby groups who promote disinformation about climate change. There was no suggestion of stopping any funds to scientists.) Lawson’s comment that “the new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants for their pains) rather than clerics of the established religions” is about as close as I’ve seen a sceptic come to aping the stock phrases of cranks everywhere, but is also revealing in its implication that Lawson seems to find the idea of experts who know more than him offensive – a common affliction of the privileged and well educated non-scientist.

Alright, enough. I’ll start despairing again if I’m not careful. Here’s the column.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has come as near to blaming global warming on human activities as any scientists are likely to, while adding that its extent and consequences may be worse than we thought. The IPCC has previously been so (properly) tentative that even climate-change sceptics will have a hard time casting them as scaremongerers. So where does this leave the sceptics now?

Many politicians and scientists are hoping they will now shut up. But that’s to make the mistake of thinking this is an argument over scientific evidence.

Consider this, for instance: “As most of you have heard many times, the consensus of climate scientists believe sin global warming. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had. Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. In science, consensus is irrelevant.”

This is from Michael Crichton – for the author of Jurassic Park has been giving high-level speeches about the ‘myth’ of climate change, and has even been summoned as an ‘expert witness’ on the matter by the US Senate. We need only concede that the Earth orbits the Sun and that humans are a product of Darwinian evolution to see that Crichton is not so much indulging in sophistry as merely saying something stupid. But because he is a smart fellow, stupidity can't account for it.

That's really the issue in tackling climate-change sceptics. There is no mystery about the way that some critics of the IPCC’s conclusions are simply protecting vested interests – ExxonMobil’s funding of groups that peddle climate-change disinformation, or the US government's extensive interference in federally funded climate science needs no more complex explanation than that. But this isn't true 'scepticism' – it is merely denial motivated by self-interest.

The real sceptics – strange bedfellows such as David Bellamy, Nigel Lawson, Melanie Phillips, a handful of real scientists, and Crichton – are a different phenomenon. For them there is a personal agenda involved. It’s less obvious what that might be than in, say, the comparable case of the ‘sceptics’ who denied the link between HIV and AIDS in the early 1990s. But what is immediately evident to the trained ear is that the sceptics’ denials carry the classic hallmarks of the crank – a belief that one's own reasoning betters that of professionals (even though the errors are usually elementary), a victim mentality, an instant change of tack when convincingly refuted, and (always a giveaway) a historically naive invocation of Galileo’s persecution. Of course, some of them simply tell outright lies too.

Bjorn Lomborg is a slightly different matter, since his objections focus less on denying climate change and more on denying the need to do anything about it. Nonetheless, although the economic arguments are complex, Lomborg's rhetoric – for example, suggesting that because climate change is less pressing than, say, AIDS, we should ignore it – is simplistic to a degree that again does not equate with his evident intelligence.

Economics is indeed going to be the future battleground. Yes, the argument goes, so climate change is happening, but that doesn’t mean we have to do anything to prevent it. Far better to adapt to it. This line has been pushed by heavier hitters than Lomborg, such as the eminent economists William Nordhaus at Yale and Partha Dasgupta at Cambridge, who reject the economic analysis of Nicholas Stern. The argument has some force in purely economic terms – which is perhaps not the foremost consideration if you live in coastal Bangladesh or on the Marshall islands – but it will take a lot of either faith or foolishness to let economics alone guide us into uncharted waters where we cannot rule out mass famine, decimation of biodiversity and unforeseen positive feedbacks that accelerate the warming. That’s not what economics is for.

Yet economists are right to say that we need informed rather than knee-jerk responses, and that these will surely involve compromises rather than dreaming of arresting the current trends. But by turning now to economics, however, the celebrity sceptics will only betray their agenda. It’s time to seek more reasoned voices of caution.


How long before we witness the rise of the bird flu sceptic? (Matthew Parris has already staked his claim.) They could be right in one sense – according to Albert Osterhaus, chairman of the European Scientific Working group on Influenza (ESWI), “Isolated outbreaks of avian influenza in Europe are a problem in terms of economy, animal welfare and biodiversity, but the threat to public health will probably be manageable.” But they’ll almost certainly be wrong in another. The H5N1 virus is all too often portrayed as a bolt from the blue, like a bit of really rotten luck. In truth it’s illustrative of a fact of life in the viral world, where, to put it bluntly, shit happens. Last November, leading US virologists Robert Webster and Elena Govorkova stated baldly that “there is no question that there will be another influenza pandemic some day.” The ESWI agrees, and warns that Europe is ill prepared for it. Even if H5N1 doesn’t get us (by mutating into a form readily transmitted between humans), another virus will. Flu viruses are legion, and unavoidable. Here, at least, is one threat for which mitigation, not prevention, is the only option. H5N1 seems less transmissible in warmer weather, but one hopes even climate sceptics won’t see that as a point in their favour.


John O'Leary said...

I enjoyed your column, Philip! I've posted a blog on global warming at (an international business website) and would love to hear your response to skeptical scientists who have weighed in passionately on the subject! It's the 4th posting on the front page, entitled: "Is it Just Hot Air?" Your input would be a contribution to the discussion.

Jordan said...

Philip -- I'm enjoying your blog greatly and am glad I found it.

There was a one-hour special on Canadian television this past November that dealt with the people behind climate-change skepticism in the "scientific" world. The reporters' main conclusion was that a large number of the people involved not only have very weak credentials (many have not published anything -- climate-oriented or not -- in the peer-reviewed literature in many years) -- but that, surprisingly, many of today's scientific climate-change skeptics were also among those who denied the links between smoking and lung cancer in the 1980's and 1990's. Could it be that we're seeing the rise of a generation of "professional skeptics"?

Philip Ball said...

Thanks jordan. That link is apparently one that George Monbiot explores in depth in his book "Heat". It sounds like distrubing stuff.

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