The challenge that can not be won

loaded dice

Christopher Keating, an ex-physics teacher, proposed a challenge to climate change skeptics. He promises to write a check of $30,000 for those who can point to scientific proof that “global man-made climate change” isn’t happening. He is also bragging about no skeptic been able to do that and is sure they can’t. He says that it should be dirt simple. Skeptics make all sort of statements, just let them prove their claims. But not all is what it seems.

Let’s first see how he proposes the challenge:

I have heard global warming skeptics make all sorts of statements about how the science doesn’t support claims of man-made climate change. I have found all of those statements to be empty and without any kind of supporting evidence. I have, in turn, stated that it is not possible for the skeptics to prove their claims. And, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.

I am announcing the start of the $30,000 Global Warming Skeptic Challenge. The rules are easy:

  1. I will award $30,000 of my own money to anyone that can prove, via the scientific method, that man-made global climate change is not occurring;
  2. There is no entry fee;
  3. You must be 18 years old or older to enter;
  4. Entries do not have to be original, they only need to be first;
  5. I am the final judge of all entries but will provide my comments on why any entry fails to prove the point.

That’s it! I know you are not going to get rich with $10,000. But, tell me, wouldn’t you like to have a spare $30,000? After all, the skeptics all claim it is a simple matter, and it doesn’t even have to be original. If it is so easy, just cut and paste the proof from somewhere. Provide the scientific evidence and prove your point and the $30,000 is yours!

This is no joke. If someone can provide a proof that I can’t refute, using scientific evidence, then I will write them a check.

But, I am sure I will never have to because it can’t be proven. The scientific evidence for global warming is overwhelming and no one can prove otherwise.

Any takers?

This is how he sees skeptics: they are deniers who make silly statements, rejecting science and calling anthropogenic climate change a hoax. He apparently likes the word “deniers”, he uses it plentiful. It is no surprise that his vision is a rather black and white. Reality is much more colorful. Climate is a complex matter and details can make quite a difference. He also seems to have some preconceived vision on skeptics and he clashes constantly with them. In reality they are seeing things differently. But that doesn’t prevent him from rubbing it in that they don’t react the same as those skeptics in his mind would do. Those pesky deniers who make all kind of statements without supporting evidence and telling him it is easy to prove.

Now skeptics get the “chance” to prove that “man-made global warming is not occurring”. Keating keeps on insisting that he is doing skeptics a favor and that it is incredibly simple. The longer it takes to take the price home, the stronger the science. Isn’t it? well, not so fast.

I don’t think his characterization of skeptics is honest. I don’t believe there are many skeptics that unconditionally believe man-made global warming is not occurring. There probably are some that think that black and white, but the skeptics that I know of all agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that we increasingly emit it in the atmosphere and that it will have some influence on temperature. They don’t necessarily agree that this would be catastrophic or that it creates the pressing need to act against it. It is more a discussion about levels. How much of the atmospheric CO2 is there because of man-made emissions and what is the effect of that? Beside the “dragon slayers” I don’t know skeptics who don’t believe our emission will at least have some warming effect.

Obviously, the bet is stacked, it is impossible to prove. He is right, his money is safe.

It is a negative and a negative can not be proven. Nobody can ever proof for example there are no black swans. Even if some guy who want to do it has been in every country of the world, there still might be a place where he hasn’t been and were there are black swans. Maybe even plentiful. As an ex-physics teacher he should know that. It is however possible to falsify the statement “All swans are white” by seeing a black swan. A single one is enough.

Keating is not only the judge, but also the jury and the accuser. He does say that the deniers “don’t have to prove him wrong” or “prove anything at all”, which I doubt. In reality they will have to convince him. It is very difficult to convince someone who already has made up his mind, whatever the side they are on.

Even if it was possible to prove a negative, in the case of climate it would be extremely difficult to do so. The climate system is incredibly complex and to us it seems a chaotic system. This means there will be probability involved. This probability might even rely on opinion rather than on fact. That will be very difficult to assess.

The actual challenge is stated really broad and ambiguously. When one need to follow the scientific method, one need a clear question to begin with. “Climate change” doesn’t say much. Climate changes all the time. If one takes change in a chaotic system as a proof, then there is no limit on what one can prove. It should be defined what he means specifically by “climate change” and more specifically by “man-made global climate change”. What does it consist of? How is it measured? Which dataset to use? How much is the natural variation exactly?

Luckily he made “clarifications” and put them in a separate post, which I think is not a good idea. The clarifications should be on the page that contains the challenge or there should be at least a link to the clarification page. I had a hard time finding the page and I think others do too. On the clarifications page there are exactly zero comments although it is there for more than a month. While other pages have hundreds of comments. The challenge pages are also spread out over several pages. I have seen two versions of the challenge plus the clarification. Maybe there are even more? He makes it really difficult for those who want to take the challenge or he is somehow struggling with the concept of a blog.

These are the clarifications:

Option #1:

The basic tenets of AGW are these two IPCC conclusions:

It is extremely likely (95-100%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

Climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C and extremely unlikely (95-100%) less than 1°C.

So if someone was able to scientifically disprove these two extremely likely / unlikely statements, then that should suffice. That said, the climate debate has shifted a bit over the past decades I’ve following it into at least “skeptics” grudgingly accepting (1) that the planet is actually warming and (2) the physics behind sensitivity excluding feedbacks being 1.1°C.

Option #2:

Deniers love claiming that previous cycles in the climate prove that the current warming cycle is nothing more than a naturally occurring warming cycle (of course, you have to concede that it is warming in order to make this claim). The problem is that they never provide any proof, or even evidence, that there is any connection between the current warming cycle and naturally occurring cycles.

Proof that today’s warming cycle is a naturally occurring event would satisfy the challenge.

That is something completely different than the original claim!

I found it quite ironic that he chooses exactly these two statements in the first option. I had to chuckle when I came across them. I recognized both of them from the AR5 Summary for the Policymakers. The 1.5-4.5 °C was in fact backpedaling from the values in AR4 (2-4.5 °C). Not really an argument at such, but knowing that climate sensitivity is a measure of the effects of CO2 on temperatures, it was a big surprise that the IPCC increased their confidence that humans were the dominant cause of the warming, in stead of decreasing it. So basically, if this is really one of the basic tenets of AGW, then the IPCC ignored this basic tenet when they came up with their confidence trick. It showed that other considerations than scientific were in place. Not totally unexpected knowing the IPCC is a political organization.

By the way, the 95-100%-figure is not the result of a calculation, but is the opinion/expert judgment of a group of scientists (who probably were chosen for their adherence to the theory in the first place).

Is it really the task of the skeptics to prove that man-made global climate change doesn’t exists? Shouldn’t skeptics trying to demonstrate that this high confidence was not really justified? To me it seems a very bad choice of clarifying statements. The second statement in option 1 weakens the case of that very high confidence in the first statement. Especially in the view of the (political) process in which they were decided.

On the other hand: couldn’t the challenge be reversed? In his superiority feelings over the skeptics, Keating seems to assume that the consensus science he adheres to, has it all figured out and the evidence is gathered by the use of the scientific method. Is this really true? If I want to use his own tactics I could as well state that the warmers often claim that “the science is clear”, “there is overwhelming evidence”, “there is a scientific consensus”,… yet these statements seem empty and not supported by the observations. So let them prove their case. Via the scientific method! That would be fun. At least for the skeptics, that is.

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