Finding unprecedented high resolution values in a low resolution dataset

In previous post, I discussed a graph that suggested that the CO2 and CH4 levels in the atmosphere are unprecedented in the last 800,000 years and proposed that it is misleading to compare high resolution data with low resolution data. After I published that post, I wondered whether I could illustrate this with an example. It should be possible if I had some detailed dataset. Then I could make a detailed graph, see how that looks like, then sample this dataset in the same way as a proxy dataset and again make a graph. Comparing both graphs should make clear what the effect is.

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The good old times when carbon dioxide and methane levels as well as temperatures were low

The previous post was about “the most popular contrarian argument” according to skepticalscience (“climate changes before, so current climate change is natural”) and what they seem to consider a live example of such a claim. I then proposed in that post that it actually was not a good example of what they want to prove.

What I didn’t discussed yet was how skepticalscience “debunked” this most popular contrarian argument. They did this in the “Climate’s changed before” myth page that was apparently based on this example.

They “debunked” this “myth” by stating that the climate is indeed always changing, but the difference is that it is changing much faster now than in the past because of our increasing emissions. This is how it starts:

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The pitfall of Cook’s “simple” six-step critical thinking process

There is this statement in the introduction of the Cook et al 2018 paper that caught my eye:

This paper introduces key critical thinking concepts and outlines a straightforward process for identifying reasoning errors that allows for people who lack expertise in climate science to confidently reject certain denialist arguments.

In a way, I can understand what they are trying to do. Just before I started blogging, now five years ago, I had the idea to look somewhat deeper into logical fallacies. At that time I wasn’t familiar with the global warming debate and it was my hope that I could find a fast and easy way to differentiate between right arguments and wrong arguments, without having to put much effort in studying the topic. However, it didn’t take very long before I realized that for some type of fallacies this would be perfectly possible, but not for most. If I wanted to know right from wrong, that I had to dive in the arguments themselves.

So although I think that their effort is praiseworthy, in practice it is not black & white. My conclusion back then was that when one wants to confidently confirm or reject an argument, then one needs to get messy and go to the source and understand what the argument is all about. I would certainly not put my bet on the knowledge of logical fallacies alone. Without some background, it could lead to possible misinterpretations.

This became rather clear in the page on the SkepticalScience website that was devoted to the Cook et al paper. The post is titled Humans need to become smarter thinkers to beat climate denial and John Cook is a co-author. At the beginning of the post they basically repeat the statement from the paper in a slightly different wording:

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Define “AGW”

Spread over the Cook et al 2018 paper are the terms “anthropogenic climate change” and “anthropogenic global warming”. It is also mentioned a in table S2 of the supplementary material. I assume that “anthropogenic global warming” means that global temperatures are rising and humans have an impact. This seems to be supported by the consensus claim from the paper (my emphasis):

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming (Cook et al 2016), with a number of studies converging on 97% agreement among publishing climate scientists or relevant climate papers (Doran and Zimmerman 2009, Anderegg et al 2010, Cook et al 2013, Carlton et al 2015).

That is a far cry from the previous statement in the Alice in Wonderland paper. In that paper, the claim was made that there is a consensus that global warming “presents a global problem”. A claim that obviously was unsupported by the papers that were referenced.

At least he skipped the “dangerous” part of the claim. It is now in line with what the referenced papers researched. As explained in the link above, the referenced papers investigated the claim that global temperatures are rising and that humans have an influence in this. Not whether it is dangerous. Not whether something should be done about it.

However, I don’t think that the term “AGW” is used in this way in the paper. This sentence in the abstract makes me think that he means something different (my emphasis):

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Decreasing demand for natural gas power thanks to wind and solar?

At the beginning of this month, I found an article in a Flemish newspaper that seemed to be inspired on the gas deficit alarm from the UK National Grid. It was titled “Renewable energy gets us though the winter cold”. This is how the story goes: the very cold February of this year did not result in record natural gas consumption. We used less natural gas in February 2018 than six years ago in February 2012. The demand for natural gas from households and industry stayed more or less the same. The difference was the demand for natural gas for electricity production, which was lower in 2018 than back in 2012.

Conclusion of the article: there was no record natural gas consumption in February because renewable energy grew in the last six years and this increased share lowered the demand for natural gas power. Because of this, we currently don’t need as much natural gas than we would only six years ago and there was no shortage in our country.

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Learning critical thinking by following uncritically

When I read the new Cook et al 2018 paper for the first time, the one thing that stood out was that the example arguments were simplified versions of skeptical arguments, stripped down of any nuance and context, therefor not representative anymore. I already foresaw many posts in my future about these fabrications…

In the meanwhile I found the discussion of Barry Woods on Twitter, tirelessly calling out the many misrepresentations in the paper. The reaction of some of his opponents, that this doesn’t matter because the compiled arguments are fallacious anyway, puzzled me. I couldn’t grasp that they were just okay with:

  • The authors (or Cook and the SkS team) coming up with simplified, unnuanced arguments based on what they think their opponents believe
  • then Cook et al show that these simplified, unnuanced arguments are logically fallacious
  • thus providing proof that their opponents are wrong and therefor should be safely ignored when it comes to those issues.

That is about as close as one can get to a straw man argument. For those who are not familiar with this type of fallacy, according to wikipedia the definition of a straw man argument is (my emphasis):

A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent.

The examples Cook et al used were textbook examples of this type of argument, but the defenders of the paper were undeterred by it or maybe did not understand the concept. It seemed to shed of them like water off a duck’s back. I couldn’t really understand that, given that it is pretty clear for everybody to see.

Until I found following tweet:

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Video abstract of the Cook et al 2018 paper: nice idea, but low on substance

In the beginning of this month, the new paper of Cook et al (John Cook et al 2018 Environ. Res. Lett. 13 024018) was published. I was quite busy around that time, so it was only when I was finalizing my last post that I suddenly realized that I didn’t have a look at it yet. Time to finally read that paper.

The paper is titled “Deconstructing climate misinformation to identify reasoning errors” and there is also a video abstract in which the approach of the paper is explained in very simple terms. Although I am not that keen on watching videos, I gave it a try.

Screenshot of the abstract video Cook et al 2018 paper

Having read the paper in the meanwhile, the video illustrates perfectly the strength and the weakness of the paper.

Let us first look how the story goes.

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