A familiar story

Caleb Rossiter

Two posts ago I wrote about statistician Caleb Rossiter who saw his position with the Institute for Policy Studies suspended after he wrote an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal which was rather skeptical about climate change. In the meanwhile he gave an interview in The College Fix about this incident and more background information how it got that far.

Reading it I found it very recognizable and heart warming. He was also a believer a decade ago, until he dived into the matter and found many holes into it… A familiar story for those who looked deeper in the global warming issue.

The interesting thing is that he is a statistician, so he should be able to assess the statistical evidence better than anybody else. What he found didn’t really impress him:

The data that support the headlines are very, very weak, very, very notional, and simply not logical.

The story how he got to be skeptical was interesting: he asked his international statistics students to analyze some topic of international affairs using statistics. One of them turned in a paper on humans’ role in global warming and he gave her an F. She came to him and complained that she really was just repeating exactly what her sources said. He replied that this was impossible because the evidence she cited was just wishful thinking and no real data. But when he looked at the cited classic article he found that they really saw their model data as evidence.

“So I became quite interested in this phenomenon,” he added. “So many of my colleagues and so much of educated America and liberal newspapers and all just believe that mathematicians have set up models that should make us very certain that the recent half-degree uptick from 1980 to 2000 was human caused – when in fact they were just playing with the models. I use models a lot, and these were pretty weak.”

And

“I am simply someone who became convinced that the claims of certainty about the cause of the warming and the effect of the warming were tremendously and irresponsibly overblown,” he said in an exclusive interview Tuesday with The College Fix. “I am not someone who says there wasn’t warming and it doesn’t have an effect, I just cannot figure out why so many people believe that it is a catastrophic threat to our society and to Africa.”

I could relate to that. Been there, done that. When I was a believer, global warming seemed so evident and incredibly logical. Yet when I discovered the many flaws, I was wondering why so many people believe in it being catastrophic. Trust has certainly to do with it, unconditional trust in the scientists in the media. Without realizing that those are not scientific messages, but political messages. We heard these simple and logical sounding messages many, many times, therefor we tend to believe them. Now I am still trying figuring out in this blog what it was that made me tick back then…

More about the inherent uncertainty of complex systems:

“You couldn’t have this many terrible effects from a half a degree rise in global temperature. It’s probable that there are some, but it gets a little boring because it’s always weak data, because that is the nature of a tremendously complex system.”

I have bickered on this in many of my posts. Sure, we emit more CO2 than before. Sure, it is a greenhouse gas. Sure, everything else being equal there will be a warming because of it. The problem is that not everything stays equal. Climate is not a static system as I thought when I was still a believer. What is the effect of CO2 and the warming on all the other variables?

And last but not least, about the (lack of) debate:

“I think they believe … that you give legitimacy to the ‘denialists’ if you debate them,” Rossiter adds. “I think that’s a terrible idea. … At IPS, like many other places, people don’t want to debate it because they have this funny statement that, and Mr. Obama repeats it every time he opens his mouth, ‘the debate is over.’ I have never heard a more remarkable statement in my life about anything.”

About how he sees teaching his students:

“I always really push them to evaluate, dig down and learn the arguments of the other side- that is part of education.”

Couldn’t agree more. That is also the leitmotif of this blog.

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