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Call that science?

05 Jun 2024 | OP ED Watch

A correspondent recently sent us a poster “A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science” that we found very interesting because it wasn’t about climate change. When one is engaged in controversy there is a persistent temptation to “cast a covetous eye on the outcome”, in Kierkegaard’s apt and haunting phrase. It is easy to start choosing data and prejudging lines of argument based on whether they seem likely to take us where we want to go. Or rather where we want to go in the heat of the moment. Surely on calm reflection all of us want to go where the truth lies, even if getting there requires us to admit we had been mistaken in some regard. So this post, from a site called “Compound Interest” in 2014, is useful in helping us all pause and reflect calmly. The 12 items listed by Andy Brunning, who runs the site, are “1. Sensationalized headlines 2. Misinterpreted results 3. Conflicts of interest 4. Correlation and causation 5. Unsupported conclusions 6. Problems with sample size 7. Unrepresentative samples used 8. No control group used 9. No blind testing used 10. Selective reporting of data 11. Unreplicable results 12. Non-peer reviewed material”. And note that we present them even though #12 strikes us as itself bad science, given the extraordinary flood of evidence lately that peer review is deeply, even fatally flawed, and because climate alarmists are or were very fond of insisting that it was a silver bullet. As for the rest, well, they seem to us to be very important errors and very common, including among alarmists.

Easy to call, hard to run, we say echoing Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny “Snake” Stabler. Of course there is no silver bullet in making sense of the world, here or anywhere. And when it comes to items like “Unsupported conclusions” there’s a major risk of an exchange of “I know you are but what am I?” taunts. But we still want to run through the list in order and underline how often they seem to us to crop up on the other side of the climate barricade. And we intend to return to them in future Newsletters to continue the discussion.

Naturally alarmists may say the same of us and we’re happy to debate it. But first let’s think about whether these really are good ground rules. We think they are, other than the last, so let us know if you don’t. And if you do, here’s our summary indictment of the sins against science by those promoting an urgent man-made climate crisis, some of them scientists and others second-hand dealers in scientific ideas.

For starters, how about sensationalized headlines? Oh yeah. They’re a dime a dozen in climate, including such gems as “‘Doomsday glacier,’ which could raise sea level by several feet, is holding on ‘by its fingernails,’ scientists say”. Glaciers got fingernails? Every week brings a crop of them, mostly flawed in ways that fall under subsequent headings here but many also because they predict things that don’t happen.

Misinterpreted results? Look at the stuff on catastrophic sea level rise just for starters. And the way most of these shrieking headlines vastly overstate even what’s in the news story, let alone the study the story is based on.

Conflicts of interest? Alarmists are quick to smear skeptics as in the pay of oil companies. But the real gravy train is tidal waves of government funding for research that confirms the orthodox narrative and almost exclusively that kind. It doesn’t prove they’re wrong, of course, or even that they’re venal. But it is a massive issue and one that they do not disclose or discuss.

Correlation and causation? Absolutely. Alarmists are forever swooping on things that happen to occur at the same time and insist that the one is causing the other when often there is no connection (and over the longer run no correlation) or even, famously with increases in temperature and CO2 in the ice core record of the last million years or so, it is temperature that changes first.

Unsupported conclusions? Well, again, taunts are likely to fly. But a whole lot of the stuff alarmists say, like António Guterres’ “code red for humanity” or humanity having “opened the gates of hell” are not in the underlying documents he ostensibly referenced. Nor did all those shrill claims of an ice-free Arctic by, say, 2014 really rest on solid science.

Problems with sample size? It’s a huge one. Crucial tree-ring temperature reconstructions, for instance, rest on a handful of plants, including much of Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick. Or insisting on examining Arctic ice only since 1979 when longer series are available that spoil the story.

Unrepresentative samples used? Oh yeah. Again including tree-ring proxies, where they deliberately cull the data to remove things that don’t fit the answer they’re looking for.

No control group used? Well, this one’s more complicated and they have an excuse. But all this rhubarb about CO2 burning up the planet does rest on examining only the planet we live on and saying whatever imaginative string of assumptions they make about an incredibly complex climate system must be true. And it may seem that there’s no real way to test an Earth where atmospheric CO2 is rising against one where it’s not. But actually there is. It’s that pesky historical record again, and it shows that for most of the planet’s history, including most of the Holocene interglacial we’re still in, temperature and CO2 move independently, often in opposite directions. So no, we can’t run multiple tests on the period from 1975 to 2010 with differing atmospheric CO2 levels. But they can and should be asked to explain why, if CO2 is the control knob on the global thermostat, it has not worked for most of history and reconstructed-by-proxy prehistory.

No blind testing used? Again here it’s more complicated. How could you possibly examine various hypothetical connections, mostly CO2 and temperature, without knowing what you were examining and what it could mean? But one way would be for one group of researchers to collect data, another to invert some of the series and keep track of which were inverted, and a third group to look for correlations without knowing what the second had done. If they found CO2 driving temperature up in the series with uninverted data, and it driving temperature down in those with inverted data, it would tell you something you do not get when they know in advance what they’re doing.

Selective reporting of data? Yes, also an issue. Including, again, with those multiple known instances of alarmists not just excluding tree-ring series they don’t like from their study, but refusing to release them and even deleting them (not always successfully).

Unreplicable results? This one is a scandal across science, and explains much of our distrust of peer review, since so many were peer-reviewed. But it’s a huge problem in climate science including, for instance, that the model predictions don’t match what actually happens, and again in Michael Mann’s hockey stick, which up until recently no one could replicate exactly in part because he wouldn’t release the specific data.

We addressed non-peer reviewed material above. We don’t think it’s a significant issue, at least not in a good way, with peer review so superficial, unreliable, and so often pal review. We’d prefer to substitute as the 12th red flag “Argument from authority” where people try not to let a point of view or data set into the discussion on the grounds that it didn’t come from their kind of people. But the rest of the list seems to us to be sound, and for the most part an indictment of a great deal of climate science and especially of bellowing about “the science”.

To conclude, what Kierkegaard said in fuller form, writing under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus for reasons probably not germane even if we understood them, “As soon as the will begins to cast a covetous eye on the outcome, the individual begins to become immoral.” And it is not just impractical but immoral to ignore the rules of sound science because you like the conclusion you get by doing so.

5 comments on “Call that science?”

  1. I believe that these climate scares are the worst examples of this problem during the last 100 years, mostly due to the massive financial rewards associated with jumping on the global climate warming change and similar bandwagons! The other major climate scare was the nonsensical ozone hole scare!

  2. Early in my career, when I was a physics grad student, I dreamt up a new way of measuring the things that I was working on at the time. I first measured a known quantity, got exactly the result I expected, then joyfully went on to measure some unknown quantities. After a few weeks I was puzzled; the measurements were all over the place. I decided to go back and re-measured the original known quantity and to my surprise got a completely different result. It turned out that the noise in my system was dominating everything else, so my first apparently accurate result was just a fluke. Since I was on the point of publishing everything I reckon I had narrowly escaped looking like a complete idiot. Had I published I think I could claim to have implemented, at a minimum, items 2, 5, 6 and 11 in the faulty science list.

  3. In Australia we now have no " rain predicted for the weekend" Or "thunder storms and areas of heavy deluge" or even "persistent rain for 3 days"
    No we now have rain "bombs" . We had one predicted to my home city, together with other cities. Our "bomb" exploded with 5mm of nice soaking rain for 4 hrs. I let you work out how heavy that rain was.

  4. So glad I found your site John, the few dollars I contribute each month, is the best money I have ever spent. Hopefully you can show more people what a huge scam the climate hysteria is. Thanks for all you do.

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