Sunday, January 13, 2008

Global warming - nice climate scientists and sheep and goats

Bear with me on this post, I have been meaning to write something about my attitude to global warming* and why the skeptic arguments** seems so hard for some to grasp. I have been spurred to action after finding a great blog which I will introduce further in to the post.

I often wonder about the certainty of those who believe that the debate over global warming is settled and that we now have to act. I also get very cross when I hear those people, especially those in who could considered opinion formers, refer to global warming skeptics as "flat earthers" or discounting their research because it was paid for by oil companies. Furthermore, these same people, who tend to be campaigners and politicians with no scientific background, dismiss skeptics because they aren't climate scientists.

Whenever I hear all the great and the good state there is no need for further debate as the arguments are settled, no matter the subject I instantly become a skeptic (it goes back to the vote in '75 on the EU, but that's for another post)and start looking at the research and skeptic arguments. What I have found is that global warming is very difficult subject to get your head round and that there is new research being released almost daily.

Whilst I have a technical and mathematical background I am by no means a scientist and, furthermore, I don't have time to read all the research that pours out of the various institutions looking at global warming. Even when I find time and read the research papers I admit I find it hard to understand all the maths and statistics. It is wroth noting that climate science isn't about weather forecasting but about gathering and analysing statistics and then modelling those statistics to provide very long term forecasts of how those statistics will change. It is which statistics are gathered, how they are gathered how they are analysed and then the efficacy of the models where the most skeptics step in ans some of the arguments over the statistics are very difficult to follow, but other parts aren't.

I therefore rely on a number of blogs to provide a skeptic commentary on the latest research, most notably Climate Skeptic, Tom Nelson and Climate Science, which also lead to other sites and articles and I probably spend about 5 hours a week reading the various material they write or reference. I reckon I get enough pro global warming information through the MSM and in particular the beeb to keep some balance.

So it is with some delight that I came across this blog by Wiliam M Briggs, Statistician. He has knowledge of the subject of global warming although he isn't a climate scientist his real strength is as a disinterested (my favourite word today!) commentator who does have the academic background to understand the research and statistics. He has a good writing style style as well.

Anyway, if you don't have much time you must read this post where he provides a fascinating insight in to the minds of scientists in general and climate scientists in particular and why they always believe their research and this post where he talks about Greenpeace's objection to climate skeptics being funded by oil companies and puts forward the sheep-goat theory. I will try to paraphrase for those short of time but I am afraid I will not do his arguments justice and you should find the time to read them later.

In the first post I refer to the scene is that he plays petanque regularly and there is often a dispute over who is closest to the cochonette:

Now, I have stood over the cochonette literally thousands of times—it helps to understand that I have perfect vision and have never needed glasses—and in a large fraction of those times I would have sworn, on my soul, that my ball was the closer of the two. Sometimes, of course, it is, but if you know me as a player, you know that is a rarity. Usually, my ball is the furthest, but it is often manifest, I pledge on my honor, that mine is best! Not only does my ball appear closer, but it is so obviously closer, that I cannot for the life of me see why there is an argument from my opponent.

But there is invariably a dispute, so out comes the stick, usually a telescoping radio antenna stripped from its base. Somebody bends down and measures the distance between all the balls and the cochonette. Once the objective results are in, there are usually groans from one side and calls of “It was obvious” from the other

I think we have all been in similar situations and know the feelings? Well this is how some of the research by climate scientists can be considered:
It is true that greater than 99% of all climatologists are like our scientist, forthright, incredibly bright, and diligent. Too many “climate skeptics” have accused climate researchers as being driven by politics or by money (in the form of grants), and so seek to disregard results from these scientists on that account...


Climatologists are, I believe, too confident in their results: if there is any political temptation here, it is towards the tendency to make public statements that convey more certainty than research warrants; but there is no attempt to mislead. Without question, “activists” are annoyingly precise in their pronouncements, and since theirs is a political life, there is no temptation to which they will not give in. But many skeptics, too, could use a dose of humility. To say, for example, that “global warming is a hoax” is carrying constructive criticism too far

I can understand this position and believe that it isn't the scientists who are the problem in this debate but the politicians and lobby groups with another agenda who who look for certainties and absolutes in what is a continuum of research. This is, after all, still a very newscientific discipline that doesn't have a great deal of base knowledge to draw on and so those who practise it tend to be young (at least from my experience) and less considered without older, wiser, colleagues to guide them.

Which brings me on nicely to the second post I refer to in which William looks at the mind set of Greenpeace in particular and, I would say, the global warming lobby in general.
There is a belief among certain paranormal researchers—these are the guys who study mind reading, clairvoyance, etc.—that is used to explain why psychic experiments haven’t seen positive results. It is called the sheep-goat theory.

Those gifted with psychic powers, such as the ability to bend kitchen cutlery without using muscles, are sheep. Those who disbelieve in these powers are goats. It seems that, via a mysterious mechanism, the goats are able to emit evil, anti-psychic rays that interfere with the sheep’s positive-psychic vibrations, and so cause negative results, i.e. findings of no effect (more about this here). The goats do this both intentionally and unconsciously. If it weren’t for the goats, the belief goes, psychics would be manifesting multiple miracles and the world would be a better, more enlightened place.

Again, I think we have all heard those believe in the paranormal use similar arguments whenever challenged, even if you haven't heard the sheep-goat theory. William then goes to say that Greenpeace are in a similar mindset when it comes to the funding of climate skeptics by the oil industry and that skeptics are the goats in the global warming debate and that for this reason their research should be discounted. He then goes on later in the post:
Forget that it is often pointed out that it is a logical fallacy that, just because a group funds a study, it follows that the results from that study are false; forget, too, the implication that oil companies are evil because they are oil companies, and instead concentrate on the psychology behind these statements. There is a desire that lies beneath them to believe that the results from non-consensus studies must be false, and so must have been produced by nefarious means. Therefore, these studies can be ignored and dispersions can be heaped upon their authors.

My friends, academic science cannot be conducted toward a pre-defined conclusion. We have already lost many of our humanities departments to this philosophy. Do not let it also happen to the quantitative sciences, and try to keep an open mind.

Yes, I can understand that but it is up to the various self policing universities and academic publications to set the lead here and lobby politicians and the general public, but that's another discussion.

Anyway, the wrap up of the post has really got me thinking about how would I respond:
The best test for an open mind is this question, which I always ask of my acquaintances who follow the paranormal, “What evidence would convince you that what you believe is false?” If you find you have no answer, your mind is closed

I have already said I am a global warming skeptic so what what would convince me that global warming is a real threat and that those who propose Kyoto style solutions are right? Having thought about it for a while I really don't know and I need to think more because I would like to think I have an open mind. In the meantime I promise to to be more open minded to the climate research, but by nature and and experience I will remain skeptical of political pronouncements from organisations like Greenpeace.

I will be adding this blog's feed my most read list of blogs and look forward to more fascinating insights.

*I do know the difference between climate change and anthropogenic global warming. In this post I refer to global warming as a generic reference to AGW because that is what most people think about when climate change is disussed

**For the avoidance of doubt I accept the scientifically proven that CO2 cause global warming, about 1.2deg C for a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial CO2 levels. I don't believe in the theory that extra warming put forward by many that the extra warming will come from positive feedback.

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