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Thoughts on Challenging the Climate Orthodoxy

Posted by on | January 16, 2018 | Comments Off

I have over several months been answering questions about my climate positions — I think for a woman’s school project but I honestly can’t remember any more.  Anyway, I answered a question for her today and though I did not spend a ton of time on it, I thought I would share.

She asked:

Why do you find it unproductive to argue for something based on how many experts are agreeing to it? Wouldn’t it be hubris to dismiss the fact that a number of experts are contradicting you on a subject that is pretty complex and is something that isn’t nesessarily understood intuitively?

http://www.climate-skeptic.com/2010/05/my-interview-on-climate-with-esquire-middle-east.html .You state “I find judging science by counting scientists to be unproductive.”.  

Why do you believe it is unproductive to take such a point into serious consideration?

The way I see it. there is this kind of logic:

A math student works on a very complicated math problem from his homework and has all his justifications for his answer. However, it turns out that his math professor has a different answer– which is saying something important. It would be a slippery slope for the student to posit that his answer is right and the professor’s answer is wrong just because the justification he came up with on his own always leads him back to the same answer. (That is, unless he found out an explanation for why his professor got that answer, like say– maybe the professor never worked out the problem by himself and looked at an answer key which was wrong.)

My off the cuff responses to the student:

  • This is not a simple math problem.  It is a super complex multi-variable chaotic system in which we are trying to attribute changes in one output variable (temperature) to a single input variable out of thousands or millions (CO2).  I think the majority of the hubris (given the state of our knowledge) is on the certainty side, not the doubting side.  I would observe, by the way, that many of the exact same people who use this “you must respect the experts” argument against climate skeptics themselves challenge many expert assertions, e.g. that minimum wages reduce employment or that GMO’s are safe, that are supported by at least as many experts in those other fields.  You would be unusual if you personally do not disagree with some proposition that most of the “experts” support.
  • The way folks often describe science when trying to criticize climate skeptics sounds to me a lot more like religion than science.  Saying that there are fundamental assertions that one cannot challenge is a feature of religion, not true science.  Science is about having a theory, making predictions from that theory, and if those predictions consistently turn out to be true, then gaining confidence in the theory.  Many of global warming predictions have been wrong — they have overestimated temperature increases to date, hurricanes and tornadoes are not getting more frequent, droughts are not getting more frequent, etc (do not confuse the frequency of these events in the news with their actual underlying frequency — go live with the data at the NOAA to see that all these severe weather trends are dead flat).  But no one goes back and relooks at the model or theories and those that do point out these shortcomings, eg. skeptics, are threatened with censure.  Does not sound like science to me.
  • I am not without relevant expertise.  Though I don’t have as deep of climate knowledge as some, I know a lot about modeling chaotic multivariable systems (in finance and economics) and know exactly what the shortcomings of models are and can recognize the patterns of many mistakes in climate that I have seen in other fields of modeling.  Further, the key difference skeptics have with alarmists is the expectation of strong positive feedbacks in the climate accelerating temperatures greatly.  My major and research work in college were in dynamic systems and feedbacks.  Climate scientists are positing that there is more positive feedback in the climate system than exists in any other stable natural system we know about.  That is worth some skepticism if one understands feedbacks.
  • The experts in climate would be a lot more credible if they were more transparent and open to discourse.  Instead, they frequently refuse to release their data (even on government-funded projects) for replication and carefully engineer peer review panels so no one who actually disagrees with them are on it.  It has been years since any climate “expert” has agreed to participate in a public debate.
  • The most important answer is that what the “experts” are saying and what the media and the general public are saying the experts are saying is completely different.  There is a bait and switch going on, where the majority (though maybe not the most vocal) of the experts are very careful and conservative (little c) in their claims, but they are portrayed as being all-in en masse on the most outrageous and spectacular of the claims by activists.  I would refer you to this article, but I will reprint below the key part to your question:
So let’s come back to our original question — what is it exactly that skeptics “deny.”  As we have seen, most don’t deny the greenhouse gas theory, or that the Earth has warmed some amount over the last several year.  They don’t even deny that some of that warming has likely been via man-made CO2.  What they deny is the catastrophe — they argue that the theory of strong climate positive feedback is flawed, and is greatly exaggerating the amount of warming we will see from man-made CO2.  And, they are simultaneously denying that most or all of past warming is man-made, and arguing instead that the amount that is natural and cyclic is being under-estimated.
 
So how about the “97% of scientists” who purportedly support global warming?  What proposition do they support?  Let’s forget for a minute a variety of concerns about cherry-picking respondents in studies like this  (I am always reminded by such studies of the quote attributed, perhaps apocryphally,  to Pauline Kael that she couldn’t understand how Nixon had won because no one she knew voted for him).  Let’s look at the actual propositions the 97% agreed to in one such study conducted at the University of Illinois.  Here they are:
 
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
 
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
 
The 97% answered “risen” and “yes” to these two questions.  But depending on how one defines “significant” (is 20% a significant factor?) I could get 97% of a group of science-based skeptics to agree to the same answers.
 
So this is the real problem at the heart of the climate debate — the two sides are debating different propositions!  In our chart, proponents of global warming action are vigorously defending the propositions on the left side [see chart in the original], propositions with which serious skeptics generally already agree.   When skeptics raise issues about climate models, natural sources of warming, and climate feedbacks, advocates of global warming action run back to the left side of the chart and respond that the world is warming and greenhouse gas theory is correct.    At best, this is a function of the laziness and scientific illiteracy of the media that allows folks to talk past one another;  at worst, it is a purposeful bait-and-switch to avoid debate on the tough issues.
I could have also said that there were several times in class when I challenged the teacher on a math problem answer and I was right and they were wrong.  My wife-to-be was actually in one of these classes and can testify to the fact.
By the way, I find the last point I made about bait and switch to be surprisingly similar to problems I have arguing net neutrality.  The problem is that the FCC’s actions under Obama were NOT net neutrality, they were applying early 1900′s telephone regulation which pretty much killed innovation in that industry to the Internet.  Unfortunately, everyone calls those regulations “net neutrality” so if you oppose these dumb counter-productive regulations one is somehow against net neutrality when in fact it is nothing of the sort.
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