Tuesday, March 16, 2010

rhetorical heat in global warming

From William Anderson in First Things...

These days, in the matter of climate change, simple epistemology has become a matter of dispute. Competing visions prefer appeals to emotion. After a plausible beginning some three decades ago, testable hypotheses concerning climate have faded into the background—eclipsed by an ever-ramifying and near-impenetrable tangle of acrimonious accusations, ad hominem arguments, well-poisoning, and appeals to authority....

Some of the frequently heard assertions may now be fairly judged as false to a moral certainty:

“The science is in, settled, or enjoys overwhelming consensus.”

“Those who disagree cannot be trusted because they have a vested interest in the outcome.” The statement does not discriminate between believers and skeptics and is an empty assertion.

“Even if the current findings are uncertain, the application of a ‘precautionary principle’ requires that we act to avert catastrophe, just in case.” Again, the assertion is logically untenable, since it assumes what it purports to prove....

These three propositions, still frequently proclaimed, serve only to distract and mislead. Reasonable debate should not involve their use.

As for those controversies that cannot be settled by the use of logic alone, they are of two types: questions of process and of content. The problems with the process of climate science begin with the corruption of the peer-review process....

Worse, these same investigators refused to disclose their original data and their methods of analysis, threatening to destroy data rather than comply with freedom-of-information demands, as required by law. This action constitutes scientific malfeasance of the gravest type. Alone it is sufficient to discredit their entire enterprise.

A second problem with the process is the corruption of the original data....

11 Comments:

At March 16, 2010 at 10:48 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Those who disagree cannot be trusted because they have a vested interest in the outcome.

Somehow, I doubt the order of magnitude of the vested interests really do compare. E.g., I think Charles Koch, co-founder of the Cato Institute and co-owner of the largest privately-held oil company in the country, has a lot more at stake than the scientists who are trying to get another grant to mount expeditions to Greenland to measure carbon dioxide in ancient ice.

 
At March 17, 2010 at 9:11 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

True, but...

To the extent that he's playing defense, that's what you have to do to avoid being (unjustly) kicked in the shorts by the govt.

To the extent that he's playing offense (using govt as a means to his personal ends), he should be critiqued as heavily as those criticized in the article. That said, although his potential gains are larger, they are also more diffuse-- or at the least, require far more effort. If I seek a government grant, it's a much cleaner, quicker path to getting money in my pocket.

 
At March 17, 2010 at 12:40 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Mitigation of global warming requires a drastic reduction of carbon emissions, which requires heavily taxing or otherwise penalizing the oil and coal industries. Mr. Koch and other petroleum and coal interests have a lot to lose—and are very motivated to spend a relatively small amount (tens of millions of dollars) to turn the public debate to their favor, which they've succeeded in doing rather successfully.

 
At March 17, 2010 at 5:02 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Taking your numbers and argument at face value, my point still stands: a scientist can leverage an incrementally small investment in time and energy to leverage a much larger amount of money, prestige, and so on. The calculus is eerily similar, yes?

 
At March 17, 2010 at 9:22 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

No, not at all. People go into science because they are intensely curious or devoted to a subject. I remember hiking behind the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado—a striking building by the architect I. M. Pei, on a hill with a magnificent view of the spectacular Flat Iron Formation—and I saw a fellow having a picnic lunch there. He was evidently one of the scientists there, a meterologist perhaps. But what struck me about this fellow was he was wearing a blue cotton work shirt which had a lot of meterological symbols nicely embroidered on it. I remember this because I was charmed by this evident sign of devotion to his area of research. So I am skeptical of claims that the scientists are in it merely for ego or prestige or especially for money. Now it's possible that global warming is wrong; science is not without error (and scientists sometimes are careless, arrogant or unethical). But if global warming turns out to be wrong, it will be because the scientists involved became the victim of group-think—spending too much time looking for reasons why their theories are true instead of reasons why their theories are false. It won't be because scientists are corrupt or have engaged in some kind of big left-wing conspiracy against industry.

Meanwhile, the petroleum and coal companies, which face heavy taxation specifically intended to eventually destroy their industries, have everything to lose and can be expected to fight as hard as they can for their interests. This means a huge, decades-long PR campaign designed to discredit or bring doubt on the science of global warming. This PR campaign is being run by some of the same PR firms that developed these techniques in the 1960s for use on behalf of the tobacco companies. This campaign is being waged in part through libertarian and conservative political organizations and publications, which have many articles and opinion pieces critical of global warming. These organizations have substantial funding from the petroleum industry (if not directly from the corporations themselves, through foundations linked to the industry).

Remarkably, there are now concerns being raised about mainstream environmentalist organizations, who have discovered that they can raise a lot of money from energy companies, and in return appear to be advocating remedies for global warming that are weak or ineffectual. I was distressed to read that the Sierra Club, which I've belonged to since 1992, is one of the environmentalist organizations that have allegedly done this. (See The Wrong Kind of Green, by Johann Hari, in the 4 March 2010 issue of The Nation.)

So in conclusion, perhaps money does corrupt; perhaps the money involved in climate research has corrupted climate scientists. But you might agree with the proposition that the amount of corruption is proportional to the amount of money involved. And the energy industry has more money than God.

 
At March 17, 2010 at 10:54 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

But money matters, right? If not to the Scientist, then to the scientist.

And why do entrepeneurs go into business?

This also takes back to a broader point-- that science has (sadly and ironically) contributed to the skepticism toward itself and Science by crying wolf (from whatever motives and ignorance might spur such unfortunate outcomes).

 
At March 18, 2010 at 8:29 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

It's not abundantly clear that the scientists have actually cried wolf. I'm familiar with the science, and I think it's still strong.

 
At March 18, 2010 at 8:40 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Not on this issue (although that's at best, modestly tainted, here)....

I was referring to other stuff, including the recent Love Canal post, but also Alar, electrical towers, global cooling, etc. And then there's false apocalyptism of the population control movement. None of that helps...

 
At March 18, 2010 at 8:54 AM , Blogger Janet P said...

Money matters and so does Pride. Scientists are human beings, just like the rest of us, and therefore can be tempted to succumb to these weaknesses as it relates to preserving the concensus opinion validating their life's work. It's basic human nature.

I have not followed this extremely closely, but reality appears to tell me that carbon emissions have been penetrating the atmosphere of this planet for the last hundred years and global warming is not observed. So, the global warming hypothesis has simply not been proven, so far. Science can include common sense, right?

As of right now, there is no science on which to base any policy changes.
Should research continue? Of course.

Oil companies must be held accountable for misbehavior as well.

 
At March 18, 2010 at 1:09 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Janet, there has been global warming, about one degree over the last century.

And in terms of common sense — if you increase the opacity of the atmosphere to infrared radiation (by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), you should warm the Earth by a certain amount. The current warming is roughly the amount expected, and there are no evident other explanations for this increase in temperature (e.g., the Sun's output hasn't changed very much).

 
At March 18, 2010 at 2:20 PM , Blogger Janet P said...

Hello William,

I read global temp had risen 0.7 degrees since 1900. It is "rising", relatively speaking, but haven't global warming/cooling cycles been a naturally observed and unexplained phenomenon since the Creation of the Earth.
The fact is that scientists do not understand climate well enough to clearly identify such a direct cause and effect. There are many factors which play in.
I expel CO2 every time I breathe. Could the "population explosion" be contributing to global warming?

It is much more complex than you are communicating.

When I said "global warming is not observed", I meant the global warming of the fear-mongering "climatologists" whose 20 to 30 year predictions turned out to be a disgrace. Then we find out some of them are liars - inexcusable!

I am open to the consideration that burning of fossil fuels could be partially responsible for the increase in temp over the last hundred years, but honestly,
Who Knows?

 

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