Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/11/25

There is no doubt that human-caused production of carbon dioxide is adding appreciably to the rate at which the Earth is warming. That’s settled science.
At least so it’s said by commentators on MSNBC, on PBS, and in most of the other media.

There is no proof that carbon dioxide is causing global warming.
At least that’s been said by prominent Republican candidates for President of the United States, and by commentators on Fox News and other conservative media.

It is politically incorrect for people on the political left to doubt human-caused global warming. It is politically incorrect for people on the political right to accept human-caused global warming. In other words, beliefs over a matter of supposed scientific fact are determined by political ideology.
This is absurd, yet the absurdity is being largely ignored in public discourse.

This state of affairs comes about in some part because science is thought to be too technical for the general public to understand. So the matter is left to be settled by science itself.
But what is science itself?
The conventional wisdom equates it with the position taken publicly by scientific organizations and their representatives — what’s often called the mainstream consensus.

Could the mainstream consensus —  “science itself” — ever be wrong?

Historians of science would find it hard to take that question seriously. They know that in one sense the mainstream consensus has always been wrong, at least in the long run. To varying degrees, of course; sometimes only a little wrong, but also sometimes entirely wrong. Science has progressed because the mainstream consensus at any given time was never the last word.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, quite a number of mainstream beliefs turned out to have been completely off the mark: unstable atoms, radioactivity, particles as waves and vice versa, energy existing as bundles and not in arbitrary amounts . . . .
Is all that water under the bridge? Is science now on the right path everywhere? Has the mainstream consensus somehow become the last word now?
Believe that at your peril. As the saying goes, those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
But who remembers the history of science? Only a few historians and specialists in science & technology studies (STS), a relatively new field that seeks to integrate history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science and other pertinent disciplines.
Concerning the possibility that a present-day scientific consensus could be wrong, the conventional wisdom, the media, the contemporary scientific authorities all seem to be ignorant of history. So we keep repeating that history of dismissing and deriding minority opinions, some of which later turn out to have been more correct than the mainstream. For one instance, Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered the ulcer-causing bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, in 1982, but they were ignored, dismissed, derided by the mainstream consensus for a decade or two, because everyone knew that ulcers were caused by stomach acid and emotional stress; still, in 2005 Marshall and Warren received a Nobel Prize for their discovery. For another instance, recall that Carleton Gajdusek received a Nobel Prize in 1976 for discovering that kuru-type brain diseases (akin to mad-cow disease) were caused by a “slow virus”; but in 1997 Stanley Prusiner received the Nobel Prize for discovering that those brain diseases were caused by mis-shaped proteins, prions, and not by a virus. For an entrée into the literature about mainstream opposition to novel views, try Ernest Hook (ed.), Prematurity in Scientific Discovery: On Resistance and  Neglect, University of California Press, 2002.

In principle, then, any scientific consensus could be wrong. How are the media, the public, the policy makers to judge, whether or not a given consensus is to be believed? Believed firmly enough to base on it such policies as attempting to curb emission of carbon dioxide, at enormous cost and disruption of industries?
Roger Pielke, in The Honest Broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007), suggests that the proper role for scientists is to lay out all sides of any given question and not to claim 100% certainty for any finding or theory. But that is far from the general practice. With global warming, for example, the policy makers and the media and the general public hear much about the scientific consensus and almost nothing about those who dissent from it — except that those dissenters are maligned as “denialists”, a conscious analogy to those who deny that the Holocaust happened, the Nazis’ deliberate extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, physically handicapped people, and others as well.
In absence of historical understanding, the fact of an existing consensus is said to establish its correctness. In the FRONTLINE documentary, “Climate of Doubt” (PBS TV, Tuesday 23 October 2012), the presenter (John Hockenberry) mentions several times that 97% of scientists accept that carbon dioxide significantly contributes to present warming — says it as though that discredits the skeptics whom he interviewed.
There are two improper things about Hockenberry’s 97%. One is that it merely states that a consensus exists, when there is no guarantee that a consensus is necessarily correct. But it is also improper to assert dogmatically on a matter of science something that cannot possibly be based on known fact: Did Hockenberry ask all scientists before arriving at that “97%”?
As to consensus, be it 97% or anything else, it’s hard to beat Michael Crichton’s take:
“I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had” (“Aliens cause global warming”, Caltech Michelin Lecture, 17 January 2003; Google can find links to transcripts of the whole talk).

How then might a lay person reach a reasonable opinion on a scientific matter like global warming where there is a sharp, politically determined polarization between a mainstream consensus and a dissenting minority?
Only by looking at the evidence, of course.
But could non-specialists make head or tail of the evidence? Isn’t it all too technical for a non-specialist?
Not at all. There are several easily understood points to guide the reaching of a reasonably informed opinion:
1.    Do any competent scientists disagree with the mainstream?
If they do, then this might be one of the cases where the mainstream is wrong. Even 100% agreement doesn’t guarantee that the mainstream view is the last word, so history tells us; still less is 97% when the dissenting view is held by some of the most competent experts. In the case of global warming, there are thousands of dissenters; see for example the Leipzig Declaration and the websites of Fred Singer (www.sepp.org) and Roger Pielke Sr. (pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com). For continuing coverage of news and controversy, try wattsupwiththat.com.
2.     What evidence could support unequivocally the mainstream opinion?
Note first that the crux of the mainstream view is a prediction more than a statement of observations already made. After all, even if there has been warming for some period of time, that does not entail that the warming will continue. Even if warming and carbon-dioxide levels have increased in tandem, that is only a correlation and not any proof of causation: correlations never prove causation.
To assess the possible effect of carbon dioxide on future global warming, one would need to take into account everything that influences the heat balance of the Earth. Even cursory scanning of the literature reveals quickly that there are innumerable relevant factors. The rate at which the sun radiates energy to the Earth, for example. The greenhouse effect — trapping of energy by gases in the atmosphere — is brought about not only by carbon dioxide: water vapor is actually responsible for more of the greenhouse effect than is carbon dioxide, about 3 times as much, in fact; methane is responsible for about as much greenhouse action as is carbon dioxide, at present levels of both. Heat also comes to the Earth’s surface from below, illustrated by the lava or magma flows from volcanoes and deep-sea rifts. An excruciatingly detailed and documented enumeration of factors can be found in Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2009).
3.    The upshot is that the possible effect of carbon dioxide on global warming cannot be calculated directly. Instead, a model is constructed of the Earth’s climate. But the model can be trustworthy only if it incorporates every pertinent factor. With so many factors involved, one can be reasonably sure that no model could be absolutely reliable. Even if all the influences were known, one would also need to understand exactly how they interact with one another. For example, the largest greenhouse effect is owing to water vapor, and the amount of that in the atmosphere varies with temperature (among other things). Cloud formation depends on the amount of water vapor as well as on other things (e.g. radiation and presence of material particles that act as seeds on which water vapor can accumulate); and clouds may add to or subtract from global warming depending on how high they are, as well as on other factors.
4.    Most damaging to any mainstream modeling is the fact that the Earth’s climate has undergone many cycles of temperature, over ranges of temperature far larger than those currently being measured or calculated or speculated about. Over the Earth’s known history, average temperatures have cycled between about 10ºC and about 25ºC.

In the last million years, there have been 7 or 8 peaks and 7 or 8  valleys of temperature that differ by about 5ºC.

(Figures from Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine, where sources are given
Figure 1 has been turned by 90 degrees; click on it for a full-scale look)

The reason for those dramatic cycles is not known, or at least there is no agreement over what brought them about. Therefore no model of climate can be reliable, since it cannot account for these drastic historical variations in temperature.
5.    Finally: The last valley of temperature, the last Ice Age, came to an end only about 15,000 years ago. The historical cycles indicate that the Earth will now warm by about 5ºC over the next hundred thousand years or so owing to the influence of those unknown factors. It is impossible to stop that since we don’t understand why these cycles happen.

These points are surely accessible to anyone, and they demonstrate that one cannot truthfully claim that it is settled science, that human-caused emission of carbon dioxide is appreciably contributing to global warming.
There is no reason why conservatives should find these points more convincing than liberals do. As my title suggests, it is perfectly reasonable to be politically liberal and also skeptical about human-caused global warming. Indeed, I offer myself as an example.

Why have these points failed to penetrate public discourse?
I suggest the chief underlying reason is the failure to understand that mainstream science can be wrong. Such an understanding is an essential component of being literate about science. Scientific literacy ought to be defined — but presently is not — as literacy about the history of science and the nature of scientific activity and scientific institutions, not just literacy about bits of science like molecules or gravity.

Advertisements

25 Responses to “A politically liberal global-warming skeptic?”

  1. Dave Smith said

    Well put Henry, nice to see you branching out into other areas of science. Keep up the good work.

  2. Denialist-in-Chief said

    First to comment on this newblog?
    The type size appears much too small. I can tweak it up with Ctr-+ but better not to have to.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Denialist-in-Chief (etc.):
      I can’t control the font, I’m afraid

      • Denialist-in-Chief said

        Hey, I’m the Denialist here, not you. I’m very skeptical of your denial. If it’s your blog (and it’s on WordPress no less) then you should have formatting options in the blog setup pages. WordPress is notorious for having more flexible presentation options than blogger.

      • That does not mean it is intuitively obvious to the casual observer how to do so. Perhaps Henry should have said “I don’t know how to do this” or even “I don’t know how to do this and do not care to do so”. But of course a quick search turns up a useful (and perhaps even correct) answer: this is something that can only be changed by default within the theme, but it can be changed within a single post by editing the text view and changing the font size. See: http://en.support.wordpress.com/editors/font-size-color. It doesn’t look like Henry is using the Custom Design Upgrade option required to change it globally, so in fact it looks to be a bit more difficult to do than one might otherwise think.

        Congratulations on the new blog Henry. I found your book fascinating reading and have already given e-copies of it to others (no doubt making you rich in the process).

      • Henry Bauer said

        Medically Inadmissible:
        Thank you for the information. So now my comment is that I now know how it can be done, but it’s too laborious for me, I’m not used to writing HTML and I don’t want to purchase an upgrade.
        I really do appreciate your kind remarks about my book, and your efforts to help me recoup the costs of figures, permissions, etc. 🙂

      • Denialist-in-Chief said

        It’s probably in the css style sheet, but surely you can find some friend/enemy who can do it for you or send instructions? If you have good content you don’t want to spoil it with defective presentation; best get right sooner rather than later. Indeed your Dogmatic book was quite good in its presentation (though lulu.com do better binding). I think these fonts need enlarging a step. Do others thing so? People with older monitors (lower resolution) may see it larger and so not object.

      • Frank said

        Henry has legions of friends who could tweak the blog’s CSS style sheet, but one has to pay WordPress in order to get access to such pages and, well, in these troubling economic times, why pay? And don’t assume a given style looks the same on everyone’s device. On my machine, the blog’s default font is not at all bad for my tired old eyes.

        As for the on-again-off-again paragraph spacing, that’s another story… 😉

      • Henry Bauer said

        Frank:
        Thanks much for your continuing support!
        I’ll aim to do better re paragraph spacing.

  3. I must agree with DC that the font needs to be larger. Also, spaces between all paragraphs.

    As far as AGW is concerned, I used to be a skeptic because all the patterns of political fashion and cult following were evident. Hell, even Bjorn Lomborg, who is not a skeptic of AGW, is virtually slandered by smug know-it-alls because he doesn’t subscribe to every detail that the consensus demands. In other words, he’s a heretic. Heck, AFAIK, only a few, small, Christian churches and Jewish sects remain which demand absolute assent from all members on every detail of official teaching.

    But, alas, in my judgement the outstanding objections have been answered, e.g. urban heat bias has been properly accounted for; independent climate models with independently written code, etc. Mind you, I understand far less about climatology than I do about physiology, so I have little certainty that I can understand the technical aspects of climate modelling.

    In my view, understanding AIDS is a piece of cake by comparison.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Karim Ghantous:
      To make the font larger, use CTRL+.
      As far as AGW goes, no model has properly accounted for all the relevant factors, most notably the 5-6 degrees C range of the 7-8 cycles during the last million years, whose cause remains mysterious.

      • Oppressed Gallo defender said

        most notably the 5-6 degrees C range of the 7-8 cycles during the last million years, whose cause remains mysterious.

        It’s God’s breathing in and out you daft bat. (Don’t they learn ANYTHING at school nowadays. for hell’s sake?)

      • Oppressed Gallo defender said

        Actually, speaking more atheistically, the question of the cause of the 7/8 per million years cycle is clearly an important scientific question in its own right which probably suffers from denialism.
        My own first thoughts are:
        1) a cosmic cycle: earth spins 24hrs, earth circles sun 365 days. Sun or galaxy does something every 120,000 years.
        or
        2) an ecological cycle: Over time with a “stable” environment, certain green things tend to increase or decrease a bit, and thereby changing the planet’s albedo, and thereby the temperature. That then feeds back to knock out those green things, tending to cause the temperature to go back the other way.

        My second thoughts are:
        A cosmic cycle would be expected to be very regular rather than the observed.
        An ecological cycle as above would be expected to produce a sawtooth wave but that’s not what’s seen.
        Oh well…..
        (Mind you I’ve only been studying this subject for five minutes!)

      • Henry Bauer said

        Oppressed Gallo defender:
        David Dilley has given a comprehensive survey of climate cycles in Natural Climate Pulse. It can be downloaded free from his website.
        As to regular vs. irregular: The Earth’s and solar system’s and galaxy’s relative motions, and interactions with cosmic radiation, and other things will not deliver perfect regularity for Earth’s temperature.
        One of Fred Singer’s books is titled “Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years” — but the degree and rate of warming are not exactly the same every time.

  4. emiliano1 said

    Nietzsche’s rant on ‘science as anthropomorphism’ made some good points about the psychology of the Western acculturated scientific thinker, that would seem to apply to contention in both AGW and HIV-AIDS.

    He pointed out that our psychological tendency is to infuse a ‘subject’ into an event so that we have something to hold responsible for ‘cause’. We do this for ourselves; i.e. we impute an ‘I’ to explain our own behaviour, even if the relational dynamics we are included in orchestrate and shape what we do. We see lightning; a ‘negative’ event deriving from self-organized criticality, and we stick in a ‘positive’ subject to give this our much-favoured ‘doer-deed’ structure, and say ‘lightning flashes’.

    Not only do we like to impute a subject as the cause of ‘events’, to give the event a doer-deed structure, we are particularly fond of imputing ‘pathogens’ where the event is ‘negative to us’.

    The imputing of a subject that we can hold responsible for an event fits in with the structure of mathematical physics, as Poincaré pointed out; i.e. in mainstream science/physics, we assume that the present depends only on the immediate past, so we look for ‘correlations’ between variations in physical influences and the ‘onset’ of some event, such as warming. If dust from a volcano eruption hangs around for several years depressing temperatures, the subsequent ‘rebound’ in temperature, which is really the cessation of a remote-past temperature depressing event, may send people scanning a multitude of physical influences looking for contemporary ‘doer-deed’ answers. When sailors went on long voyages, the ‘negative event’ of advancing deficiency of body balance created conditions leading to the onset of symptoms for which a positive doer-deed solution was sought. Scientific thinkers first choice was in ‘doer-deed’ (mystery-pathogen-attack) terms and it took centuries for science, in spite of ‘deficiency’ theories of a small minority, to lay that one to rest (natives, unconstrained by a too-narrow scientific inquiry paradigm, had it figured since pre-history). e.g. “As a result of the tremendous influence of these positive agents, the bacteria and their products, it was difficult to think in terms of negative causes of disease” – Carpenter, ‘The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C’.

    in the case of AGW, the psychological odds are stacked in favour of ‘doer-deed’ explanations. celestial conditions that bring ‘deficiency’ is a far harder sell. besides, once ‘warming’ is presented in a negative light, the search for the ‘pathogen’ is on. and since everyone knows that humans are abusing the earth, it is like the ‘science-police’ ‘picking up the usual suspects’.

    as nietzsche says, science is infused with anthropomorphism. meanwhile, a native from brazil, viewing the greenland ice-melt recently, said; ‘that makes sense; nature is greening greenland to compensate for the clear-cutting of brazilian forests’.

    • Henry Bauer said

      emiliano1:
      Not to deny or downplay Nietzsche’s insights, but in my view the problem with AGW and HIV/AIDS is more sociological than psychological, owing to the bureaucracy of scientific and national and international institutions.
      I agree that humans are damaging the environment, aesthetically and materially. The release of heavy metals cannot be reversed, for example. Unfortunately the only real remedy is to reduce the population so that a reasonably high standard of living can be obtained in a reasonably sustainable manner.

      • emiliano1 said

        just to say that nietzsche would say that the institutional architecture/mindset is the epitome of scientific thinking; i.e. newton started with a purely relational or ‘field’ concept of dynamic sourcing for gravitation [as with the order of motion of an apple in fall, so with that of the moon, and so with all (Bohm)], and reduced it to local-subject-jumpstarted drive/direction by way of the ad hoc concept of ‘force’ [this copycats the human egotist notion of local-subject-jumpstarted ‘intention’]. participation in a continuing relational space transformation is abandoned in this ‘fragmented’ view of the sourcing of dynamics, but nevertheless, this local, independent point-sourcing archetype was adopted by western scientific-thinking groups, which implemented intellectual/rational vision, mission, goals and objectives as their ‘locally jumpstarting force/intention’ that synthetically liberates them from the Machean relational spatial-plenum, and has them denying their innate epigenetic-genetic inclusion within it.

      • "Cannot be" cleverer than Bauer said

        “The release of heavy metals cannot be reversed, for example.”

        Actually, in the non-denialist world, the heavy metal mercury has been releasing from volcanos for zillenia. That released mercury then accumulated in fish, and thereby concentrated in sharks and whales, and on the expiration of those whales presumably ended up creating cinnabar deposits. One should always be wary of sentences that contain such words as “never” or “cannot”.

      • Henry Bauer said

        “Cannot be” cleverer than Bauer:
        WOW! Great point. Still, I doubt that biological “sweeping” of the environment can be relied on to mop up all the heavy metal pollution. What’s worse, at least some of that biological cleansing is done by things that become human food….
        I’ve read a number of assertions about toxicity of mercury vapor, for example, but I thought I learned long ago that mercury and other metals are toxic only when they are in some sort of organic form, or at least inorganic absorbable by the body, not just in elemental form?

      • "Cannot Be" Cleverer than Bauer said

        I doubt that biological “sweeping” of the environment can be relied on to mop up all the heavy metal pollution.

        But what is your definition of “mopping up all”. The level of natira;l source mercury vapour in the air has always been a substantial level compared to the industrial pollution level, varying, but order of three times.

        >I thought I learned long ago that mercury and other metals are toxic only when they are in some sort of organic form, or at least inorganic absorbable by the body, not just in elemental form?

        Psssh, if only! The elemental vapor form goes straight in the lungs to the blood then straight into the brain then converts to the other states and gets stuck there. But mercury is the biggest denialism elephant of the illness industry (apart you’d say from hiv/aids).

  5. emiliano1 said

    When it comes to issues of ‘causality’, the problem seems to be primarily ‘psychological’. There is no way to assess the power of a ‘causal agent-in-its-own-right’. in association with vitamin deficiencies and digestive tract flora imbalances, normally innocuous ‘causal agents’ can ‘go ballistic’. is it ‘them’ or is it the fertility of the conditioned environment that is the ‘cause’ of the ‘outcome’? science has no way to solve for the explicit contributions of each. Mach’s principle applies.

    some aquatic worms can quickly develop tolerance to mercury that raises their ‘lethal dose’ threshold by 8 times, and this is passed on through several generations after the high ambient concentrations are removed. we know that nonlinear cocktail effects abound. there are those that feel that senegal’s relatively low incidence of AIDS in Africa is due to selenium in the soil not being depleted there as it is elsewhere in Africa. some researchers point out that ‘the host is more important than the invader’ [the mercury resistant worms seem to echo that].

    the concept of ‘causation’ is drifting in the wind, not just in society at large but also in science. e.g. see SCARP, ‘Society of Confused Attributions, Rewards and Punishments’

  6. rogerknights said

    ” … the presenter (John Hockenberry) mentions several times that 97% of scientists accept that carbon dioxide significantly contributes to present warming — says it as though that discredits the skeptics whom he interviewed.

    “There are two improper things about Hockenberry’s 97%. …”
    ———–

    Make that more: The debate is not about whether “carbon dioxide significantly contributes to present warming.” Most contrarians accept that. It’s about:

    How much that rise will continue under business-as-usual;
    How bad the consequences of a rise would be;
    Whether it would be wise to wait and see if the rise continues before mitigating;
    Whether adaptation would be a wiser policy than mitigation;
    Whether the developing world can or will significantly mitigate;
    Whether mitigation in the developed world alone or as a trail-blazer would make a dime’s worth of difference,
    Whether “renewable” energy is an affordable option;
    Whether the voting public in the developed world will continue to accept paying more, directly or indirectly, for renewable energy once the costs start to really bite.

    • Henry Bauer said

      rogerknights:
      I don’t agree that “Most contrarians accept” that carbon dioxide is significantly contributing to global warming.

  7. DAG said

    “Why have these points failed to penetrate public discourse?”

    Maybe because the public discourse is based on politics and an essentially religious fervor from both sides.

    This post makes me think of the quote: For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. ~H. L. Mencken

    … something I think of every time a non-expert talks down to those who are experts in their field.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s