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How many degrees have you got?

03 Jul 2019 | Science Notes

No, it’s not one of those sneers directed only at skeptics, while lawyers, restaurant managers and political scientists pontificate about “basic” physics. It’s a talk by Dr. John Christie about a study he and a colleague did a quarter-century ago about how much warming was going on when you took out extraneous events like El Ninos and volcanoes. They said 0.09˚C per decade. Then they went and did it again in 2017 and found the same result. The models all said it would be four times as much. But, he said, “I’ve challenged some of my colleagues… to pull out a paper from 25 years ago and tell me what you predicted for the climate system – were you right? Of course, they’ll be wrong, because they were based on model projections and on screaming about how bad the world was going to be.”

There’s a skeptical phrase attributed to Gertrude Stein: “Interesting if true.” And one hears all sorts of things about climate that would be interesting if true, like that Arctic coastlines are retreating by up to a metre a day due to you-know-what. Now that sort of thing is easy to verify: In three years they should have retreated a kilometre. If they haven’t, your number was bogus and your theory needs work.

As Christie laments, “When I grew up in the world of science, science was understood as a method of finding information. You would make a claim or a hypothesis, and then test that claim against independent data. If it failed, you rejected your claim and you went back and started over again. What I’ve found today is that if someone makes a claim about the climate, and someone like me falsifies that claim, rather than rejecting it, that person tends to just yell louder that their claim is right. They don’t look at what the contrary information might say.”

It seems that modern science is increasingly bureaucratic and self-serving even when the subject is not related to climate; recently a group of researchers were unable to convince Science even to look at a study re-examining an iconic article it had published in 2008 claiming to demonstrate that conservatives are more driven by fear than liberals (which is interesting not least because on climate it’s the liberals running scared). As with the more general “replication crisis” that is spreading outward from various branches of psychology, it turns out that the vaunted “peer review” has too often been cursory, deferential to orthodoxy or even become “pal review” in which friends help each other get published in a smug circle.

The press isn’t helping. In a fusion of journalistic and scientific activism, the Washington Post reports breathlessly on a heroic expedition to the frozen north: “The scientists walk across a frozen Arctic Ocean, dark specks in a sea of white. Pale clouds loom low over the bundled figures. The wind sends ice crystals skidding and swirling around them, erasing their footprints. Behind a large ice ridge, the group shelters from the subzero cold and 25 mph gusts to set up their experiment…. But even their machines seem disoriented by the whiteout conditions: The lasers bounce off whirling snowflakes before striking their targets. It’s yet another problem they must solve before the fall, when these scientists and several hundred others will launch the largest Arctic research expedition in history: a 12-month, $134 million, 17-nation effort to document climate change in the fastest-warming part of the globe.” Not to ask whether it’s happening. The finding is established ahead of time and governments pay researchers to confirm it. And the press reports it as fact.

Thus the Associated Press declared climate change “a health emergency” ahead of the first Democratic primary debate (“in a City Under Siege by Climate Change”, Miami, “where climate change has long been a daily reality” according to the New York Times), after “74 medical and public health groups aligned on Monday to push for a series of consensus commitments to combat climate change, bluntly defined by the organizations as "a health emergency." The new climate change agenda released by the groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association, comes amid early jostling among Democratic candidates over whose environmental platform is more progressive…. "The health, safety and well-being of millions of people in the U.S. have already been harmed by human-caused climate change, and health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fight climate change," the medical and public health groups wrote in their climate agenda, shared with The Associated Press in advance of its release.”

Already harmed? By what? Where? Then there’s that study saying increasing atmospheric CO2 is going to have caused mass hunger by reducing the nutrient content of plants, something greenhouse owners seem not to have noticed. But then doubtful prediction about the future becomes accepted fact about the past, which might help explain why Reuters recently began a story “China’s vice minister for agriculture was elected on Sunday to lead the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the first Chinese national to run the 74-year-old agency at a time when climate change is leaving more people hungry.” Some might think the big story is China throwing its weight around globally. But if it’s that “climate change is leaving more people hungry” why is hunger going down?

One scientist actually accused House Democrats of “fraud” for posting claims of increases in extreme weather cribbed from environmental activists and said their hearing on the subject “spreads lies”.

At the Climate Discussion Nexus we are far more concerned with misplaced sincerity than deliberate fraud, even if we cannot seem to obtain the same courtesy from those who accuse us of being in the pockets of “billionaire donors”. (If you know any, send us their addresses please.) But reporting speculation as fact, or saying stuff that ain’t so including about extreme weather, certainly spreads misinformation. What we’re after is scientific predictions that are then verified by experiments. Is it too much to ask?

2 comments on “How many degrees have you got?”

  1. Sorry to disagree but it's not fraud. It's bald faced lies. The Pols and the Press know exactly what they're doing. Life since the beginning of civilization has been driven by two words: Hyperbolic Demagougery. It is the understanding that humans are ovine in nature. As someone said, 'The average person lives a life of quiet desperation.' Fear then becomes the great motivator. As my father taught me; 'Believe nothing of what you hear and half of what you see.'

  2. The same speculation is applied to President Trump's "likely" future activities and his "likely" secret activities in the past. A new Democrat move to suggest that impeachment may be a possibility is under way as we speak. The ability of politicians to spout lies, and the ability of the public to believe them, baffles me; maybe we are all lemmings.

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