Monday, December 07, 2009

Climate Change -- Those hacked e-mails

[Note: I initially posted this a few days ago, and then removed it because I thought it would be massively controversial or something. I'm sort of a big puss. Anyway, I've now read a few other people making the same points, so maybe it's not that controversial. Now I'm putting it back. I suppose this makes me a puss and a conformist!]

There’s been quite a buzz lately about a series of emails, stolen from the server of a major climate research center, which are alleged to show conclusively that the theory of man-made global warming is a “lie”. This is said to give credence to people who are “skeptics” about the theory, and as usual the debate is being had in terms of whether or not the warming theory is correct. I think this is a mistake; instead of talking about a debate over a single theory, I think we should speak in terms of two competing theories, and also look at whether or not there is sufficient evidence for the anti-warming theory. The emails do cast some doubt on the first theory; however; they don’t offer any conclusive evidence of the second theory, which I will detail momentarily.

First, however, a caveat: I am not qualified to judge climate science. I have read a few books on the topic, but am not sufficiently well-trained to understand the science of climatology inside and out, and decide which theories are best supported. In my defense, this is pretty high level stuff and I’m willing to bet that the majority of people are not particularly literate in climatology; which means that a lot of the people speaking very authoritatively about global warming on the Internet, for or against, are talking out of their asses. This probably stems from the way that every discussion is framed in the media (for or against, left or right), which seems to structure how people think about these issues. So, for the record, I’m not coming down on the side of the “warming” theory, which I'm not entirely convinced about; I'm just expressing my disbelief in the “anti-warming” conspiracy theory, which I am not at all convinced by.

I am not going to say conclusively which theory is most accurate, however I will say that the warming theorists have offered considerably more evidence to support their theory, although probably not as conclusively as some people believe. That theory, as I understand it is as follows: A. human beings have pumped a massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere over the last two centuries or so (which is undoubtedly true); B. this should cause the overall temperatures of the earth to increase by the greenhouse effect; and C. indeed, global temperatures have risen in recent years; D. therefore A was significant in causing C. This is the “warming” theory to the best of my knowledge.

The alternate theory is often expressed by a grab-bag of criticisms: the earth might not really be warming or not over the entire globe, or it could be due to other causes (particularly solar flares); it might be irreversible, or reversing, or unstoppable, or not happening at all. This is referred to as “skepticism”; but it’s really a number of articulations of a second theory: that a majority of scientists in a particular field have (knowingly or unknowingly) perpetuated a massive and unprecedented worldwide fraud, and have been joined in this fraud (knowingly or unknowingly) by the world’s politicians, due to their own arrogance, lust for power, stupidity, or political leanings. As a commenter on the Economist put it, “The scientists made up this global warming lie to take our cars.”

Because the second thesis is seldom analyzed (only denied outright), the “skeptics” have never had to answer for the fact that they’ve so far been unable to proffer any conclusive evidence for that theory. Where are the climate scientists who have admitted to this massive worldwide conspiracy out of guilt or shame? Why hasn’t anyone accidentally spilled the beans? (More on that in a second) How have so many independent researchers measured changes in the physical environment? Have they been misled and the physical environment is not changing in the way they are measuring? Why did the northern section of this country (Canada) pick now to melt? Melting icecaps, the highest recorded temperatures in history in numerous independent locations, “desertification” in huge swaths of China, not to mention the really weird weather here at least; what’s causing all of this if the climatologists are lying?

The stolen emails have been offered as evidence of the massive worldwide fraud. The media has yet to point out that they do no such thing. Here's a video that explains that a bit more entertainingly than I can:

Now, as for those emails. In the first place, we’re asked to understand that the individuals who stole this organization’s electronic property did so in the disinterested pursuit of truth, and to forgive the fact that stealing people’s mail is usually seen as immoral, dishonest, and borderline psychotic. Fine. Next we’re asked to believe that a group of anonymous citizens who are known only for this massive theft posted these emails to a Russian server without altering them in any way. After all, they’re thieves and criminals; so, of course, they’re not liars.

There are approximately 3,000 emails, which supposedly show these fraudulent scientists speaking off the record. Thus far, no one who has read the emails has claimed that there is a single email in which a scientist explicitly speaks about their massive worldwide fraud. Nothing like, “Hey, I think they’re onto our massive worldwide fraud.” Instead, there are a handful of emails that, if you read between the lines, are supposed to refer in an oblique way to the conspiracy. Let’s just take that on good faith, eh?

Well, now I’ve read these cherry picked emails and the claim is bullshit. What they do seem to show, and I’ll be as specific in my words as possible here, is that some climatologists, feeling that they are under attack (by the people who are attacking them) have sought, in some situations, to make their models seem more conclusive than they really are in order to circle the wagons. Secondly, they seem to have tried to keep the anti-warming theorists out of the discussion because they don’t take them seriously as scientific thinkers. In other words, a consensus mentality seems to have formed, perhaps too early.

But that's pretty inconclusive. Note also that the emails seek to ostracize the anti-warmers because they are not thought to be serious scientists; not because they’re feared to be onto the conspiracy. The climatologists don’t take them seriously; instead, they think the anti-warmers are acting in bad faith in an attempt to destroy their careers and their field of inquiry. Which, of course, they are. And maybe that's a bit elitist of these scientists, but it's a far cry from massive fraud.

Now, this consensus mentality, which I’ve seen in the humanities at times, is not healthy for scientific inquiry. An ideal response to these stolen emails would be to create as much transparency in the climate sciences as possible. And, in fact, some of the emails talk about just this- getting all the available data into the public domain so people can test it out. I’ve not heard that mentioned often. And, also, a heck of a lot of the data is readily available in the public domain, although it seems to generally be beyond the ken of the "skeptics".

Scientific inquiry requires openness and good faith. Intellectual life cannot continue without doubt. Bunker mentalities close people off to data that could strengthen their work. While it’s understandable that scientists would be opposed to the people who argue that they’re frauds, the only right answer is to explain over and over again why those people are full of shit. And I think they are. I've been open minded when it comes to these people. Over the last year, I've read their arguments and the responses of climate scientists and, frankly, the anti-warming argument keeps collapsing into conspiracy theory nonsense. Maybe the global warming theory is not as conclusive as Al Gore would like; but the anti-warming theory is borderline ridiculous.

As for the anti-warming theorists, at some point people need to ask them why they’ve repeatedly over hyped what thin and inconclusive evidence they’ve offered for their theory. If climate scientists are to be doubted about a theory for which they’ve offered overwhelming evidence, why should we be credulous towards a group of people whose ‘evidence’ has so often collapsed when exposed to the light of day? In the last two years, they’ve claimed to have the “smoking gun” for their theory month after month and, when they’re proven wrong, yet again, the anti-warmers have simply moved on to grasping at the next straw in line. This time, a handful of fishy but inconclusive emails is said to disprove an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence; while proving a massive worldwide conspiracy is taking place. I’m skeptical.

As for genuine skepticism about the specifics of global warming, I'm skeptical there too! Scientists are generally skeptical! Scepticism (or skepticism- speculation or doubt) is central to intellectual life. But, with the anti-warming people, the word “skeptic” is misleading because these people are completely sold, hook-line-and-sinker, on a theory with little evidence in support of it. They seem to have even less understanding of the science than I do; and in fact seem to believe that doesn’t matter; after all, they’re just “skeptics”. They seem more like true believers. Let's just say that I’m pretty skeptical about the things they take on faith.


Brian Dunbar said...

The alternate theory is often expressed by a grab-bag of criticisms: the earth might not really be warming or not over the entire globe, or it could be due to other causes (particularly solar flares); it might be irreversible, or reversing, or unstoppable, or not happening at all. This is referred to as “skepticism”;


But note that point C: has come under some doubt. See below.

but it’s really a number of articulations of a second theory: that a majority of scientists in a particular field have (knowingly or unknowingly) perpetuated a massive and unprecedented worldwide fraud, and have been joined in this fraud (knowingly or unknowingly) by the world’s politicians, due to their own arrogance, lust for power, stupidity, or political leanings.

And here you fell off the turnip truck. You are, I think, poking at a strawman.

No reasonable commentator who falls into the 'skeptic' camp claims there is a conspiracy. Everything you outlined is the result of self-interest.

Get enough people pointing in the right direction and self-interest can look like a conspiracy. But it's just people doing what they do. I'm self-interested when I go to work: if I make my employer better in the market, I'll be rewarded with a continued employment and a performance bonus at the end of the year.

It's not the email that galls me about the CRU hack. Email is just noise. What galls me is the code and data manipulation.

Systems are what I do for a living. You can shade the truth when you talk, you can lie in email. When you apply code to data what you get back is the truth.

Unless you manipulate the code to make it otherwise.

I don't know FORTRAN. Guys that do, who have looked at the code, say it manipulates the data to a pre-determined outcome.

Global temperatures are some of what's been manipulated, in that code.

It has been warmer than it is now. Vikings used to dairy farm in Greenland, the English used to grow grapes. It's also been colder: the Hudson River reliably froze in the Colonial era: cannon were sledged from Fort Ticondaroga down that waterway. And then the Continental Army made their escape across the icy Hudson when the British beat them like kettle drums a little later.

Climate change happens, that much is true. But we need to be honest about the data we're using to make policy and cultural changes or we'll make the wrong choices and that will cost us treasure we don't have.

Rufus said...

(1 of 2)
Okay, in the first place, what exactly is this strawman? Because that argument- that global warming is a massive worldwide fraud- is made by the people in that video I embedded. It's made by Rush Limbaugh, who is the most popular Republican in the country, as far as I can tell. It's made on any number of websites, many of which you link to from time to time. It's even made by politicians, all of whom are, of course, Republicans. But, your argument, I think, is that those people aren't serious skeptics. Fine. But, I'm willing to bet that, if you did a poll of 'skeptics', you'd find a good number who believe there is quite literally a conspiracy to sell the public on a theory with little to no proof in its favor. I would agree that that is not a serious or plausible argument.

And, okay, I'm willing to accept that it's... say, unfair to attack that argument when more serious people are more accurately saying that in the rush to political action some people might have (knowingly or unknowingly) tried to make the science look more conclusive than it is. Except, that was the argument I made in this post! That was what I said was a reasonable argument! Maybe I wasn't clear about that. I think that's a reasonable argument.

I would agree that science should be fueled by critical thinking, skepticism, doubt, and all of the other things I advocate here constantly. And I would agree that the politicians who are selling the political program of 'fighting global warming' are opposed to critical thinking, skepticism and doubt, which tend to enervate political movements. And that this has had the effect of politicizing the science. And, hey, I'll even agree with republicans that Al Gore is sort of a douche. (Maybe, then, you could agree that Rush Limbaugh is a douche too?)

Okay, so then you say that people are self-interested, and this can lead them to do what exactly? Find what they want to find? Believe what they want to believe? Is that a fair summary of the argument? It's in their interest to believe in global warming, thus they believe in global warming? (Incidentally, wouldn't that therefore be an unwitting fraud?)

Okay, so if I'm some researcher who goes out every month and measures, say, the temperature of the great lakes, for my research stipend, you're saying it's in my self-interest to find some evidence of global warming? And that can lead me (completely unconsciously) to predetermined conclusions, right? But, wouldn't it be more strongly in my self-interest to write a book about how global warming isn't happening and make a fortune selling it to Republicans? Because it would make a fortune. Surely, some climate scientist at MIT must have figured that out by now.

And isn't it possible that most people are aware of their own biases and can overcome them through conscious effort? Because, if they can't, how would science-as-such be possible? What bothers me about this argument is that it assumes that legitimate science just isn't possible. Because, hey, we're all self-interested. Nothing we can do about that.

Including people who are unwilling to accept the plausibility of a theory that could give credence to those politicians who want to tax them? You see the self-interest there, right?


Rufus said...

(2 of 2)
Is the argument that scientists who find evidence that points to the theory of global warming are doing so out of self-interest, which I suppose negates them, but those whose evidence argues against the theory are honest and disinterested?

Because, whatever the reason is now, Republicans have made it pretty clear that it's in their self-interest to find the global warming theory unpersuasive. When I was a kid, they actually said the "greenhouse effect" is a myth and the atmosphere wouldn't get warmer. Now, some of them say it isn't getting warmer, and some of them say it is, but nobody knows why. Why is the global warming theory so unreasonable?

And do you see where the fact that the earth has natural warming and cooling periods- which nobody has ever denied- doesn't actually disprove at all the idea that humans pumping carbon into the atmosphere has caused a rapid and unnatural warming cycle? Just as the existence of a sun and a moon doesn't disprove the fact that electric bulbs also produce light. Yes, natural causes also produce heat and cooling cycles. Am I therefore really to believe that human activities play no part in atmospheric changes? Or that, if they do, humans cannot consciously reduce or change their impact? Or that the warming theory isn't, you know, sort of plausible?

And that's what I find amazing. Really. I mean, here I am posting that the theory should still be taken as an open question, that it's not as conclusive as many people want to believe, and sure, if there's fraud, people should lose their jobs. All of this seems reasonable to me.

So, where are the republicans who are able to just acknowledge that the global warming theory is actually very plausible and has a hell of a lot of evidence in its favor at this point? I mean, I'll be honest, I don't really think you guys are particularly open-minded about this stuff at all.

Because, you know, I thought the theory was sort of absurd a few years back. But, in response, I listened to what these people had to say. This is why I've been reading climate science blogs for the last few years (including the skeptics!), and ultimately, I find the argument for the theory more persuasive than the arguments (really, more like what if? questions) against it. That doesn't lead me to accepting any particular policy proposals. Certainly not Al Gore's. And actually, I'm skeptical that any political programs have any hope of working. But it does lead to me to understanding why people accept that theory.

As for the code, last week it was the emails, and this week it's the code. Neither of us know that code. You've heard people who supposedly do know the code say it was manipulated to show warming. I've heard people who supposedly know the code say it was not. Ultimately, I'll take your word for it, and maintain a healthy skepticism about those models and Al Gore's use of them.

I am not going to accept that these emails or this code disproves all published evidence for the theory of global warming, which indeed a lot of people have been saying, and was actually the overblown, hyperbolic argument I was arguing against in the post. I'll totally agree with you that there is legitimate skepticism that is not along those hyperbolic lines of utter bullshit. (Although, again, that's what I was saying in the first place. Apparently, badly.)

In return, will you read one of these books (of my choosing!) with an open mind, and not just write off these people as "self interested"? Because even if climate science funding really does make one rich, that doesn't really disprove the fact that scientists might still lean towards a theory because it's both very plausible and supported by their own research. And accepting the plausibility of the theory doesn't force one into accepting any specific political or cultural programs, regardless of what Gore or Limbaugh say about it.

Rufus said...

And there you go.