Tag Archives: Appeal to authority

Cancer risks versus Climate risks

It was quite hectic in the last month. Now the dust is slowly starting to settle, I will try to pick up blogging again. The subject of previous post was the statement that climate scientists are as certain about climate risks as oncologists on cancer risks that come with smoking. I ended that post being confused whether the authors meant that the evidence of climate risks is as strong as the evidence of the link between smoking and cancer or that there is the same “overwhelming” consensus as the medical scientists have on the link between smoking and cancer.

Scientific American seems to suggest the former, the scientific paper that was linked to in Scientific American the latter. This post will explore the case that they meant that the “evidence of climate risk is as strong as the link between smoking and cancer”, so this post will be about the evidence of the cancer risks linked to smoking and whether the evidence of climate risks is in the same ballpark.

Before I look into this, I can somehow understand the comparison between medical science and the climate science. Both study a very complex system. Medical sciences study the human body and climate scientists study the Earth with its climate system. The complexity of the human body and its interactions means that there is not one conclusive proof, but there are multiple lines of evidence. We hear the same thing about climate science.

So far, so good.

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Four against the rest of the world?

Last Tuesday there was a hearing of US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation titled Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate. At first the title scared me off a bit. Suggesting that the current climate science is based on a dogma is not the best way to get a constructive debate. At first I didn’t have the intention to watch it, but after seeing the names of John Christie and Judith Curry, I changed my mind. In the end it were mostly the contributions of those two that I liked most.

What struck me was that on two occasions a long list was given of organizations that support the consensus and, of course, many times the 97% number was used. The undertone being: how could these four dissidents here, “the last redoubt of denial”, be right and all these organizations and scientists be so wrong? That is a very interesting question, one that in the past kept me busy for quite some time. As with so many other things concerning the global warming issue, the answer to this question is not black/white, but is quite nuanced.

First, these four don’t know it “better” than the rest. None of them claimed that their knowledge of the climate system was greater than those of the consensus scientists. They said that there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about whether the warming has been mainly caused by human or by natural variability, how much the planet will warm in the next 90 years, whether the warming is dangerous or not, whether the (poor and sparse) historical data allow us to build policy decisions on, whether current observations match the theory or not, whether mathematical models succeed or fail to replicate the observations, about problems with the the scientific process in this specific branch,…

They don’t know it “better”, but they have serious questions whether the conclusions really follow the known data. I could relate to that. If we only have a couple decades of reliable data, how would it be possible to exclude natural variations? For example, if there would be a 400-500 year cycle of warm and cold, then our current warming could be (mostly) natural and we wouldn’t even be able to measure that natural variation until now. Or if the mathematical models can’t even predict/project what has already occurred or what is happening now, then why would we expect that the results of these models will be accurate in the far future? How would they then be good enough to make policy decisions on?

Pointing to inconsistencies, misconceptions, a lack of data, non transparent issues, problems in the scientific process,… is also skepticism.

Second, John Kristie, Judith Curry and William Happer are not the only skeptical scientists in the world. When I was a believer it was also my opinion that there were only a handful of skeptical scientists. Looking deeper in the global warming issue, it surprises me that there are many more than I would expected.

True, only few come into the foreground, but that is not hard to understand. As said by those four witnesses, being skeptical to the consensus science is a bad career move, make it difficult if not impossible to get grants or getting published and has a possible negative effect on social life [social pressure].

So, where does that scarceness of skeptical scientists and publications come from? Is it because they are wrong? Of because they have it difficult in a highly polarized, politicized, emotionally driven environment? Those three are not the only ones, but they are certainly not your average lot. Considering the hostile environment they are in, it surprises me that there are so many that at least keeps on trying.

Last, but not least, there is no guarantee that something is true because a majority believe it is. A consensus can have it wrong and that is not that unusual either. It happened several times in the past and undoubtedly will still happen in the future. There isn’t even a need for conspiracy theories to explain that. But that is for a following post.

The “relevant” papers that the consensus is based on

Something in the introduction for the Cook Lecture of next Friday stood out for me. This is how the Consensus Project is presented (my emphasis):

In 2013, John Cook lead the Consensus Project, a crowd-sourced effort to complete the most comprehensive analysis of climate research ever made. They found that among relevant climate papers, 97% endorsed the consensus that humans were causing global warming.

Relevant can of course can mean many things, it all depends on what they want to prove with the survey. According to their paper (my emphasis):

We examined a large sample of the scientific literature on global CC, published over a 21 year period, in order to determine the level of scientific consensus that human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW).

What they actually did was searching for papers in which the terms “global warming” or “global climate change” were mentioned in the title or the text of the abstract. But it is not because the term “global warming” or “global climate change” is in the title/abstract of a paper that it is relevant to the cause of global warming.

It should be no surprise that they got a bunch of papers that don’t deal at all with the physics of global warming or with the causes. Most of the papers are on Impacts and Mitigation. Those papers already assume global warming is real, that is their starting point. Mitigation also assumes the anthropogenic nature. None of the two say anything about whether humans are the cause, let alone how much.

There is even a category with non climate related papers. These papers obviously don’t deal with attribution.

The category Methods has the potential to come the closest to attribution, but as expected aren’t about cause. Of course they assume global warming and assume it is anthropogenic. It is also a bin for everything that can not be put in the other categories and it shows.

But, you could say, it is a starting point for many scientists in their research, doesn’t that indicate that they stand behind it? Well, yes, but it doesn’t say anything WHY they believe it. It could be that they understand the cause (not likely, otherwise they certainly would have published the proof), but could be any other reason. Looking at for example Lennart Bengtsson who had to resign from GWPF Advisory Board because of strong peer pressure. Would it be a surprise that in such a highly polarized debate skeptical scientists write neutral looking titles and abstracts and then be classified on the No position pile?

If we want an answer to the question how much the current global warming in the last, say, 100 years is caused by human activity, is a survey of papers the right instrument to do this? And which papers to select? The question about attribution is a very complex one that keeps scientists busy already some time and their opinions vary a lot. This raises the question: is a proof possible with our current understanding and with the limited data we gathered until now?

Even if we think a survey would be the best idea to clarify the physics of global warming, would the outcome matter? It is not because the majority thinks that something is true, that it therefor is true. And what is a consensus on anthropogenic global warming worth if the papers it was based on weren’t even related to studying attribution?

The consensus as an argument

Next week I will travel to the UK, Bristol to be more precise. I will attend the lecture Dogma vs. consensus: Letting the evidence speak on climate change presented by John Cook. He will discuss his research (the consensus project) and more broader the “scientific consensus”.

The last 11 posts I was lamenting about the pickle Belgium is in next winter, energy wise, now it is time for a change of topic. Next few posts will be about the consensus, exploring various sides of it prior to attending this lecture.

The first question I want to look at: does consensus has a place in science? As far as I know, consensus has nothing to do with the scientific method. Truth isn’t decided by show of hands. If history teaches us anything it is that scientists agree with each other for numerous reasons, not necessarily good ones. Sometimes those who were right were in the minority. Just remember Harlen Bretz, Alfred Wegener, Albert Einstein, Barry Marshall & Robin Warren, to name just a few of the better known ones. There are probably numerous other scientists that were forgotten or those who swallowed their objections.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that the skeptics voices have to be compared with for example an Einstein or that those in the minority are always right. These examples are given just to indicate that a consensus is not a valid scientific argument. One can not determine anything from looking at a theory from a consensus position or from a minority position. Neither of the two tells us something about the strength of the argument(s) used. A widespread acceptance of a theory is not evidence of it being correct.

That was of course not how I thought about it when I was still a believer. At that time I assumed that when scientists agree about something, then it should be important to listen. The experts, who have this as their job, should know a thing or two what they are talking about, you know.

In a way I still believe this, but my expectations became a bit more realistic. I still believe that when scientists agree with each other that it could be important to listen. Could, not should.

Not all sciences are born equal. If those in the majority say gravity exists, I would have no problem agreeing with that consensus. But climate science is a different beast altogether. The material they work with is not so certain, datasets contain scarce data before the 1980s, forcings and feedbacks are numerous, the system they study is very complex, there are many experts that are involved. Plus the science is politicized. In that light it is very suspicious that so many scientists would agree with each other. Yet when we hear scientists in the media, they try to tell us that they are so damn certain about these intrinsically uncertain things and the debate is over. Something is not right here.

If there was high quality data over a century, the system was not so complex, not so dependent on numerous expertises, the science not so politicized, not so polarized, not so impregnated with the compulsion of saving the world and not so dependent on mathematical models, then I would have no problem at all with that consensus.

Seeing what you believe versus believing what you see

Some statements can keep on resonating in your head after you hear them. This happened when I saw a transcript of the opening Remarks by Joseph Bast at the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC9). The theme of the conference was “Don’t just wonder about global warming, understand it!” and this were the words that kept on resonating since I read them:

Alarmists see what they believe, while skeptics believe what they see.

If there is a sentence that would capture my changing process starting around 5 years ago, this would be a good contender.

Seeing what you believe

Life was incredibly simple when I was a believer. There were two pillars on which my belief was shrugged. The first one was the “consensus between scientists” that the science is settled and the debate is over. We were surely the cause of global warming. In a way that was comforting. It has already been evaluated by the “experts” and they said they were sure.

It is based on a really simple story: we produce CO2 as a byproduct of our activities (which is true), this increases the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (which is also true), CO2 as a greenhouse gas (it is) will have an effect on temperatures (not many doubt that). But this was not the complete picture. While all of the statements are basically true, it is only a small part of the big picture, but amplified as if it was the only thing that really matters.

A second pillar was the extreme polarization of the playing field. On the one side there where those who agreed with the consensus (whether scientist, journalist, politician,…) and they were portrayed as the noble white knights who just wanted to “save the earth”. While on the other side there were those who didn’t agree with the consensus who were portrayed as the dark knights, surrendering to the money of Big Oil and sabotaging the white knights in their strive to do the right thing. Heroes versus bad guys. That is the same stuff Hollywood movies are made of.

Being on the white knights’ side is favorable. No wonder why so many people who don’t do fact checks choose that side.

Believing what you see

My first steps towards skeptic attitude were almost incidental and even based on a misinterpretation. Yet it was the start I needed. At first I only took alarmist voices seriously, that was the style of thinking that I was used to, but gradually I took notice of the dissenting voices…and came to the realization that they were the ones that actually looked at the data and try to understand. While the alarmist side were not interested in this kind of stuff, were just playing with emotions and with mathematical models. Throwing out ever scarier doom scenarios in the media. Stifling debate by calling the consensus and ad hominems.

The more I was looking into it, the more inconsistencies I found. Inconsistencies that I couldn’t see before. How would I? I didn’t even did basic fact checks back then. That’s the price of just believing in a situation where communication is not based on reality.

But, you could say, I did change once from one side to the other. Isn’t it possible that I could change back? Well, true, I changed from warmer to skeptic and yes, there is always the possibility that I could switch back. This would be a very interesting situation though. I did the switch when looking at the facts. When I would switch back, that would also be because of the facts and then it would be interesting to see which facts I would have found that support the alarmist side. If the facts change, my position will also change. But at this point there is nothing that points in that direction.

You just got to have faith

knmi' 14 climate scenarios

After reading some newspaper articles I got interested in Climate scenarios ’14 for The Netherlands, the new report of KNMI with four mathematical model scenarios for the future climate in the Netherlands. Subtitle is “Guide for professionals in climate adaptation”.

The optimistic look that I got from the media was making place for a more negative one. It is just an accumulation of all things negative. According to the scenarios hardly anything positive will come out of warming or just with a but as a counterweight.

The pause (KNMI calls it euphemistic the “slowed temperature increase”) was touched only briefly. They state that the failure of the models to predict the current standstill doesn’t mean the models are not fit to calculate the future climate. True, but it doesn’t mean it will fit future climate either. This just means the models, right or wrong, can’t be validated by reality until 30 years from now. So how do we know that this long term direction is correct after all if we can’t even check it? How do we know the assumptions it builds on are correct if the models diverge from reality since 20 years already?

If I read it correctly, the KNMI modelers assume this pause is just natural variation that mask our influence. That could well be, but the fact that there is a pause in surface temperatures while having U N P R E C E D E N T E D (and ever increasing) amounts of carbondioxide in the atmosphere, means that there is something not right with this global warming theory. If anthropogenic carbondioxide really is the main cause of the increase of global average temperature and we have unprecedented amounts of it in the atmosphere, then having a pause of a decade and a half doesn’t make much sense. To me it means that there are one or more elements in the system that have an influence at least as strong as the awesome power of carbondioxide and these elements are not really known, so not accounted for in the climate models.

Yet, we blindly base policies on these models. Models that can’t be validated in the near future. Models of a complex and an intrinsic chaotic system. Models that diverge from reality for already more than 20 years now. What are we thinking?

The consensus explained: “we just stopped arguing”

we stopped arguing

Writing a blog can be satisfying. But the downside is that there is less time to follow other blogs. I spent much less time on them since the creation of this blog. But sometimes I find something that I would never find before. One example is Eight Pseudoscientific Climate Claims Debunked by Real Scientists by Joshua Holland. Never heard of the Bill Moyers site, not likely to go back.

The author uses statements of scientists to give it more power. Those “real” scientists seem to be Kevin Trenberth, Ben Santer, Andrew Dessler, John Abraham and Katharine Hayhoe. Not really the most balanced ones in the debate, to say the least.

The pseudoscientific climate claim that interested me most was the claim “4. Yes, There Is a Scientific Consensus”. That was what I was looking for in the first place.

It starts rather predictable:

The most important thing to understand about the scientific consensus that human activities are causing the earth to warm is that it isn’t a result of peer pressure or someone policing scientists’ opinions. It results from the scientific method.

Having read a big part of the climategate emails and with the latest revelations of Lennart Bengtsson this is something I would take with some grains of salt. I also guess that I have a different definition of what is “the scientific method” than the author…

Then John Abrahams is quoted:

“Scientists are very interested in theories that other factors may be causing climate change,” says John Abraham. “The contrarians put forward ideas and the consensus scientists investigate them honestly and find that they don’t withstand scientific scrutiny. This happens all the time. That’s how science works. In fact, showing that these guys are wrong makes the science better.”

Now I get all soft and fussy. In the world of the unicorns those nice scientists reach out and take the ideas of the contrarians to investigate them in order to find the Truth. I can have it wrong, but in the real world I see a lot of name calling and ridiculing the skeptic arguments. Calling skeptics “deniers” or “contrarians” will probably not help. 😉

A scientific consensus emerges when the weight of evidence for a proposition becomes so great that serious researchers stop arguing about it among themselves. They then move on to study and debate other questions. There’s quite a bit of scientific debate about lots of different aspects of climate change, but the question of whether humans are causing the planet to warm isn’t one of them.

Now I start to recognize the controverse again … the science is clear … the evidence is unequivocal… I would have no real problem with that in an exact science, but in a field with sparse data, large uncertainties, that depend on many disciplines and that is politicized, I would find it rather unbelievable that researchers stop arguing about it. That humans are causing some warming is not really uncontroversial. The big question of course is “how much” and is it significant.

But then the ultimate argument:

There have been three studies, using different methodologies, that have shown that almost all working climate scientists – 97 percent – accept the consensus view.

The link goes, of all sites, to Skeptical Science. Nice of course that the three studies with different methodologies come to the same conclusion, but this doesn’t really prove anything. It is an opinion, a survey, not real evidence in the scientific sense of the word.

In the scientific field of climate studies – which is informed by many different disciplines – the consensus is demonstrated by the number of scientists who have stopped arguing about what is causing climate change – and that’s nearly all of them. A survey of 928 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subject ‘global climate change’ published between 1993 and 2003 shows that not a single paper rejected the consensus position that global warming is man caused (Oreskes 2004).

The statement: “stopped arguing about what is causing climate change” is an interesting one. Really? In the complex and chaotic system that is climate, there are a gazillion possible causes, some maybe not even known, other with no or hardly any data, other put forward as THE main cause (probably for political reason, not scientific ones). But yet, no doubt anymore about the cause of climate change?!?!

The three studies were those from Oreskes (2004), Doran (2009) and Cook (2013). They all agreed that humans had some influence on temperatures. But not much more than that. None of them was really specific in what they were looking for. Such a consensus is rather meaningless. No wonder they found so many to agree. None of the three asked anything about the catastrophic nature or the need to act, as it is often marketed.

Science doesn’t advance via consensus (consensus is not a valid scientific argument). The fact alone that one needs the opinion of scientists, even if it are climate scientists, means that the underlying evidence is not solid. If it were, we would rely on the evidence. A survey of scientists is not proof of anything. Nor pro, nor contra. That is an opinion of scientists. When you think about it, there is a reason why we have to rely on the opinion of scientists and that is science doesn’t provide the hard evidence.

If I have the choice to call something pseudoscientific, I would choose this specific claim. It is a extremely nice example of the headcount fallacy and appeal to authority.

Consensus is about level of agreement, not about the amount of evidence. People agree about many things with each other. Not necessarily for good reasons.