Tag Archives: Appeal to authority

The doctor’s analogy again: the climate is like a child with a diagnosed cancer

The doctor’s analogy is frequently used in climate change communication. In most cases, it goes like this: “Wouldn’t you go with the advises of your doctor when he tells you …?” or “When you have cancer would you go to a cardiologist?”. Last Sunday I saw that doctor enter the analogy in a different way in the interview of Nic Balthazar in the current events program “De 7de dag” (see previous post) (translated from Dutch):

Screenshot of “de 7de dag” of December 16, 2018. Nic Balthazar: making the doctor’s analogy

You should really have to compare to, an unpleasant comparison, the doctors come and they say, madam and sir, your child has cancer. At the moment, it could still be contained, we can operate, do chemo therapy, everything. It is going to cost, it will be difficult, hard and all, but we can get that child to recover. And when you now talk about our economy, we can really come out of this better. We can, with renewable energy, cleaner air, end up in a much safer life in geopolitics. But it will be difficult. Would that father and mother then say, yes but, pfff, it’s a bit too expensive? No, they will not do that. We [sic] are going to say: whatever it takes. Just look at Music for Life, everything is possible at that moment. And yet we do not do it, and an annoying comparison, one single child that have cancer, but we are talking about all the children of the world.

and also later this emotional appeal (translated from Dutch):

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A falling coffee mug and the latest IPCC report

Some believe that we, due to rising temperatures as a result of our emissions, might be close to a tipping point and will experience irreversible changes for the worse. One of those is Nic Balthazar. He made the claim as a guest in the current affairs show “De 7de dag” (the 7th day) of last Sunday. He was invited there to comment on the COP 24 climate conference in Catowice. Nic Balthazar, a Belgian film director and a TV/radio personality, is also a co-founder of “Klimaatzaak” (an organization that filed legal action to force the federal and regional governments to improve their climate policies). The latter position is why he was invited.

He had mixed feelings about the conference. On the one hand, he was glad that some agreement was made, considering how many countries were present and all had to come to a consensus. On the other hand he was disappointed (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

On the other hand, it is the again incomprehensible that they didn’t want to listen to what all the scientists say today.

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The IPCC, the world’s leading scienti…, err, political body

A new communication handbook for IPCC scientists is published. It is compiled by Climate Outreach and was commissioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I Technical Support Unit. They want this handbook out “ahead of the IPCC’s 1.5 degrees special report later this year”.

Interesting.

The handbook also comes with a video explaining the 6 principles to help IPCC scientists better communicate their work. They already lost me in the second sentence in that video though:

The facts are there, thanks in great part to the IPCC – the world’s leading scientific body on climate change

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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.