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Friday, February 19, 2010

OPINION: Don't Call Climate Doubters Deniers

I am friendly with  and love people who doubt the reality of climate change.  The same cannot be said for those who "doubt" the reality of the Final Solution.  Lately it has become commonplace to refer to the former as "deniers," but the implicit connection to the latter offends me.  To understand why, I think it is useful to look at these groups of people.

Who Are Holocaust Deniers?

Hardcore Holocaust deniers are Nazis and antisemites.  All Nazis are antisemites, but not all antisemites are Nazis.  There are antisemites on the left as well as the right and some of them have become proponents of Holocaust denial.  Most Holocaust deniers do not care what the truth is.  Their goal is to spread anti-Jewish polemics under the guise of a a historical dispute.  They also seek to win recruits to their cause by cloaking it in pseudo-academic regalia.  Many deniers probably actually believe that the Final Solution was grossly  exaggerated.  Many of them make the argument that if it did not happen, it should have happened.  These people wish to make hatred of Jews acceptable and mainstream.  Some of them may acknowledge that the Nazis were violent and cruel, but they will often argue that the allies were the moral equivalent. Holocaust deniers do not have a compelling alternative narrative that explains the evidence of the Final Solution.  Rather, they look for individual inconsistencies here and there.  Sometimes they find minor inconsistencies between eye witnesses or between different accounts by different historians.  What they fail to do is undermine the convergence of evidence for the big picture of what happened during the Final Solution.  To paraphrase a truism, Holocaust denial is both true and important, it's just that the true parts are not important, and the important parts are not true.

There are Holocaust deniers who are not primarily motivated by hate.  The emotions surrounding the issue often attract the mentally ill.  The arguments sometimes trap the gullible.  One may feel sorry for such people, but one need not treat their arguments with respect.  The point of documenting the lies and half-truths of Holocaust deniers is not to enter in a debate with them or to try to convince them that they are wrong.  Rather the point is to expose the arguments for the fallacies that they are so that future generations are not fooled by propaganda. Censoring lies is objectionable to me; I also think that it is not very effective.  Making deniers martyrs to free speech just enhances their publicity, and publicity of any kind is what they seek.

There are a handful of Holocaust deniers who have changed their tune.  In my view one should hate the behavior and not the individual. A Holocaust denier who cannot live in cognitive dissonance and changes his or her views should be welcomed, but one also has to understand that these people are the exception, not the rule.  Most deniers will keep doing what they do.  Let them die of old age in obscurity.

Climate Science Doubters

People who doubt the reality of climate science have very different approaches, and I think it helps to think about different reasons that people believe as they do.  Below, I  examine some of the diversity of approaches and discuss some of the issues involved. In doing so, it is explicitly not my intent to refute all the claims that doubters make.  Rather, I am trying to take a step back and understand the human beings who make these claims.  I do not think that they are motivated by hate.

It Snowed Yesterday and Al Gore Said He Invented the Internet

At the bottom of the chain are a group of people whose arguments against climate science amount to personal attacks on Al Gore or to note that the weather on a specific day happened to be cold.  These people may not be the deepest thinkers, but that does not make them bad people.  (Individual weather events do not prove or disprove the existence of long-term anthropogenic changes in climate. A long-term (20-30 years) trend in weather patterns may very well be attributable to global warming, but bad weather is nothing more than bad weather.  Also Al Gore never said that he invented the Internet, not that Al Gore's credibility has anything to do with climate.)

For every person that thinks that last week's snowstorm disproves global warming, there is a person who thinks that Hurricane Katrina can be directly attributed to global warming, and such an argument is no better.  Those who believe in climate change do not necessarily understand why they believe it at a level any deeper than those who do not believe it.  That does not make them bad people either.

Scientific illiteracy is rampant in this country (and other countries).  Most people have not caught up to 1905 in their thinking.  That does not make them bad people.  Not everyone is going to understand the intricacies of Hartree-Fock Theory or the Fifth Generation Mesoscale Model, but that does not mean  that they cannot understand some of the basic principles that govern the world in which we live.  It is incumbent upon scientists to try to teach these ideas.

Scientific illiteracy is a bigger problem than ignorance about global warming.  A scientifically illiterate public will swing with the political winds, whatever the issue happens to be.  That is not to downplay the seriousness of climate change, but I think the problem needs to be addressed at its roots.  Controversy over climate science is a teachable moment.  My primer on infrared spectroscopy and global warming is an attempt to take advantage of that.

"Social Clubs in Drag Disguise" or Go Team

Bob Dylan sings:
While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him
 I think there is something about human nature that causes us to root for the home team.  Our team is right and good, whereas the other team is wrong and evil.  The left-right dialectic in the United States has devolved into a sort of tribal warfare: if team 1 says the sky is blue, team 2 must say the sky is white.  Let's face it, there are people in this country who believe or do not believe in climate change because that is the doctrine of their team.  I do not think that this makes them bad people.  In the case of climate science, the left happens to be more aligned with the evidence, but there are plenty of examples where the right is more in line with scientific evidence.  The fact that a viewpoint lines up with the evidence does not mean that the person is right for the right reasons.  An unquestioning belief in what is true is perhaps no better than an unquestioning belief in what is false, because ultimately both believers can be swayed by bad arguments.

The only way out of this morass is actually to try to understand the content of the evidence.

Climate Change is a Hoax and Tinfoil Hats

There are those who claim something along the lines of global warming being an intentional conspiracy to impose socialism or enforce limitations on population growth.  In fact, a resolution was introduced in the Utah legislature (and opposed by scientists at BYU!), claiming just that.  There are claims from people in developing nations that global warming is a conspiracy to deprive them of the right to industrialize and from people in industrialized nations that it is a plot to share their wealth with poorer nations. 

Climate science is not the first time that people have argued for a secret cabal with a hidden agenda and it will not be the last.  I suspect that most people who doubt climate science do not really believe these types of claims.  They may at times find the language of conspiracy and hoax appealing out of a sense of partisanship, but they do not really believe in an active conspiracy. They may believe in the dangers of confirmation bias, however. Of course, there are some who legitimately believe in conspiracy and they may be unreachable by reason.  Conspiracy arguments whether genuinely held, or argued because of partisanship do not deserve to be taken seriously.  These types of arguments are an attempt to distract the conversation from the scientific evidence.

Those on the left often argue that climate science doubters are pawns of the coal and oil industry.   Although there is evidence of a disinformation campaign currently underway, I do not think that focusing on this fact is helpful.   The evidence for global warming is strong enough to stand on its own.  Inquiry into that evidence should not be shut down because of a real or imagined ulterior motive on the part of those asking questions.

Falsus in Uno Falsus in Omnibus

There has recently been a lot of publicity about errors in the IPCC reports.  I have written an analysis on the so-called Glacier-gate.  It is a fact that the IPCC is not perfect. It is also a fact that there are some who believe in climate science that are willing to greet claims that agree with their point of view less critically than claims that do not.  By publishing incorrect claims the IPCC has undermined public confidence in its credibility.  It must rebuild its credibility.  These facts do not undermine the evidence that the earth is warming and they do not change the fact that the basic science is accessible.  Falsus in uno falsus in omnibus is a logical fallacy.

People who read about these controversies are confused.  Being confused does not make them bad people.  The road to credibility is by helping people to understand the science. 

Scientists Who Doubt the Consensus

There are, in fact, in the scientific literature a few authors who have differed with the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists.  Lindzen and Choi are prime examples. Although their analysis has been criticized it should not be disregarded out of hand.  Rather, one should read and understand the background on these issues.  It is my view that such papers, even if they are wrong, help the scientific process.  I understand that Lindzen and Choi are working to address some of the errors with their paper and it would be wrong to presume to know what conclusions they may reach when that analysis is complete.

One should not blow the impact of a single paper out of proportion, but one should not ignore the issues it raises either (even if they have been addressed by previous papers).
How to Proceed

It is my recommendation that people follow the evidence rather than leading it.  Do not decide what you want to believe and then find evidence to support it.  Rather look at the evidence that has been amassed.  If something does not make sense to you, do not accept it. Neither should you reject it.  Try to understand the argument or ask a scientist.  Feynman said it best, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

However, it is not the responsibility of scientists to address every possible question that an individual may bring up.  Rather, it is incumbent upon the sincere questioner to do some homework. In fact, the exercise of doing that homework can be more enlightening than just getting a pat answer to a question.   Those who claim that global warming is driven by the solar cycle owe it to themselves to learn how scientists account for the solar cycle.  Those who claim that temperature rises can be accounted for by urban heat island effects, owe it to themselves to look at the scientific literature on corrections for these effects.  Just because you do not know the answer to a question, does not mean that scientists have not considered it and addressed it.

Science is about evidence and theories that tie that evidence together.  There is a common misconception that science "proves" facts.  Nothing could be further from the truth. This misconception  can be witnessed in the claim often repeated by Creationists that "Evolution is just a theory."  Rather, it should be stated that Evolution by natural selection is the theory that explains the evidence.  Creationists do not have a theory because they cannot account for all of the evidence.  It is common parlance to hear someone say, "I have a theory that" followed by that person's opinion on some matter.  That person does not have a theory, that person has an opinion or at best a hypothesis.

Given certain axioms, mathematicians can prove a theorem to apodeictic certainty. It does not matter whether the axioms are true or not.  In the hypothetical world in which the axioms are true, the theorem follows with certainty.

The same does not take place in the real world.  In the real world, there is evidence and explanations for that evidence.  Some explanations are better than others.  The universe could have been created yesterday by a purple cow that lives on the moon who implanted memories into my brain.  I cannot disprove that possibility, but it does not seem as likely as my understanding of how my memories came to be.

We cannot have the same amount of certainty in all things.   The Final Solution happened.  I am as certain of that fact as I am of anything that I know about history.  Evolution is valid: I am as certain of that as I am that molecules exist or infrared energy is a type of electromagnetic radiation.

I am not as certain about climate change, but I am persuaded that a preponderance of the evidence makes it more likely than not that the earth (and specifically the troposphere) is warming and will continue as a direct result of anthropogenic emission of carbon dioxide. I am not trying to argue that here, but I want to differentiate between the levels of certainty in the theory.

There is direct evidence carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing and are anthropogenic.

It is an extension of basic physics and chemistry that increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will warm the planet, and that if nothing else changed the earth would get hotter.

The earth is a dynamic system with complex feedback mechanisms.  Currently, the best evidence is that these systems are acting in a way that amplifies the warming that would be expected from carbon dioxide alone in a static system. 

To argue for or against climate change, one should try to understand the evidence that supports it.  It is not an issue of personalities, of political agendas, or other diversions.  It is an issue of evidence and physics. 

If you do not believe in climate change, you are not a bad person, but you should be honest with yourself about whether you understand the evidence, or whether you are searching for evidence to confirm a preconceived agenda.

If you believe in climate change, good for you, but you should not believe it because I believe it.  You should not believe it because you identify yourself with a "social club in drag disguise" that has ordained that climate science is valid.  You should believe it, if the evidence leads you to believe it.

As I progress in writing this blog, I hope to explain some of that evidence.  I hope that I can explain it in a way that is helpful to anyone regardless of what position that person may be inclined to believe.



Corey said...

Thank you for the sentiments. I completely agree with your position (though, I do feel you aren't giving the AGW theory enough credit on certainty, but that's splitting hairs).

I find that a big part of the confusion from people who associate snowstorms or small dips in temperature from year-to-year really comes from a misconception of what the AGW theory claims in the first place. People don't understand that it's not contingent upon there never being another snowy day again, or the yearly trend going up 100% of the time (and not pulling the things we see from, say, '98-'99), or the Earth never being hotter than it is today, because they don't understand that the theory never claims these things in the first place.

A lot of things affect climate, and climate goes through constant changes and even occasional severe shocks due to natural influences, but that doesn't preclude *recent* warming being largely due to human activity, and this is where the disconnect occurs. There are multiple independent lines of evidence underlying the correlation between GHG concentrations and temperatures (from direct measurement to paleoclimate records), and multiple independent lines of evidence linking recent changes in CO2 concentration to human activity (from chemical links to measurement of anomalous increases in the relatively closed carbon cycle).

There also isn't any other theory that matches the evidence, nor any piece of evidence that undermines the fundamental case.

The problem is that these basic facts get lost in cries of conspiracy or "Global Socialist Agendas" or talking points designed to confuse the theory and the evidence.

Rich said...

Thanks for the comment. You make several good points. I think educating people about what the theory says and what it does not is an important goal. We live in a world that does not like nuance; so that makes it challenging.

Anonymous said...

as both a holocaust denier and a climate change skeptic I dare say I am every one of those adjectives which you sprinkle the piece.

Broadly you are right, calling climate change skeptics deniers is a political move to try and associate it with something even more fringe. Just like I suppose the Holocaust denial was attempt to link people who disputed the Holocaust with those scoundrels who denied the Christ. Plus ca change.

However there is true myopticism or naivety in your assumption that if every one knew about dipoles it is case closed for climate change - a naivety typical of someone with a physics background.

People who come from a biological background are far more comfortable with complex systems and recognize that any system which maintains stability for any length of time (and four billion years is a length of time) requires negative feedback mechanisms to survive (and if there had been no negative feedback systems you wouldnt be able to blog happily in the belief they dont exist).

For example, it is common to point out the correlation in ice core data between temperature and CO2 levels, but correlation, as every good scientist knows (and even someone who worked for the government on chemical warfare projects) does not mean causation. And these peaks in temperature and CO2 levels also correlated with Milankovitch cycles. Irregularities in the earths orbit around the sun that every 40 000 years or so brings it in closer proximity to the sun. So unless CO2 levels were causing perturbations in the earth orbit, the logical conclusion is this relationship can easiest be explained by Sun irradition up, leads to temperature up which leads to CO2 levels up.

Now why that relationship might hold is open to question but probably would be the result of increasing ocean temperatures altering CO2 solubility in the oceans (where over 90% of the biosphere's CO2 is stored) causing its release.

But what about the dipoles, you cry? Fair question, one would assume that if there was a straightforward relationship between CO2 levels and temperature, releasing CO2 from the oceans would lead to galloping positive feedback. Yet in the past it didnt - hence your ability to blog. We can surmise that other feedback mechanisms that were more dominant took over, so as to contain the challenge of increase solar irradiation to earth and modified the increase.

As speculation, increased cloud cover might be one of them (although, yes H2O is another of your beloved dipoles).

In the end it doesnt really matter, because we clearly arent controlling are CO2 levels and we are going to keep burning oil until we have used it all up, so we will find out in anycase if human induced climate change is real or not.

The only certain thing is that I am a complete crank for wasting my time typing this out.

Rich said...

A future post will discuss the effect of feedback from water. The best evidence is that water provides a positive feedback.

It is perhaps a comforting notion that the earth could be a self-regulating organism that restores itself to steady-state. Wishing it so, however, does not make it so. We must follow the evidence.

JohnB said...

Firstly, I thank you for the reasoned piece. Because of the connotations I have always found the term "denier" to be personally offensive and have never understood why somebody (anybody) that is supposedly arguing the "science" would go out of their way to be personally insulting. The two concepts just don't gel. Argue the science or be personally insulting, don't do both.

Secondly it is worthwhile remebering that the USA is not the whole planet. It is of continual amusement that I'm called a "Republican" or from the right. I have no idea of the relevence of that claim since I'm not a US citizen (while admittedly I am right leaning in my own nation) and it only makes the accuser look like an uninformed fool.

Thirdly, it is sometimes very hard to understand exactly what I am supposed to be "denying". The climate has always changed and always will, with or without the existence of humans on the planet. So I'm not denying that.

Basic physics says that an increase of CO2 will lead to some increase in temperature, so I'm not denying that.

Speaking only for myself. I'm sceptical of the certainty that is often expressed.

The real question to me is "How big is the A in AGW? And of that A, how much is CO2?"

I think that UHI is severly under rated as to it's effect. The conclusions of Jones 1990 that most others are based on are so counter intuitive (and contradicted by Jones 2009) as to be almost laughable. Counter intuitive doesn't make something wrong, but it should imply that the figures need checking and as Dr. Jones himself said, nobody has ever done that or asked for the data the paper is based on. (Although recent checks can't seem to find it.)

As loathe as I am to agree with anon (a self cproclaimed Holocaust denier) he/she is correct in one point. If all climate feedbacks are indeed positive, then we would not be having this debate. The Earth would have become uninhabitable long ago. Since it did not, then negative feedbacks must exist and must also be extremely powerful. These do not seem to be adequately accounted for.

I want our future actions to be based on correct science, so yes, I will point out every flaw I see. Each flaw corrected makes the science better.

I want the temperature record to be as correct as possible because that is what we calibrate the models against. The more the temp recorrd is wrong, then the worse the calibration will be and the more inaccurate the models will be in the their projections.

I want the Paleoclimate records to be as accurate as possible for they will give us an idea (perhaps) as to what to expect in the future. Viz, if the Roman Warm Period was 1 degree warmer than today for 300 years, then we will not have disaster if the world warms by 1 degree over the next century. The planet doesn't care where the warming comes from and will respond in much the same way each time. No disaster then, then no disaser now. but to know, the Paleo record must be correct, or as correct as we can make it.

As a final note, I do notice that those on the "warmer" side tend to accept what they are told, it is us "sceptics" that more often do the hard yards and find and read the actual papers. And then learn the processes so that we can check things for ourselves.

I recently compared the GISS "Reference Station Method" with actual temps and have found a large discrepancy that I'm still trying to understand and explain.

If nobody objects, I will add our host here to favourites and would very much like to hear objections, improvements or comments.

My apologies that the post came out much longer than I anticipated.

Rich said...

Thanks for the comment. I really will have to do a post on urban heat islands, a post or a few on feedback, and posts on data integrity of all and how scientists deal with known issues in the data sets. I'm adding posts slowly and methodically because I want them to be considered and not knee-jerk.