Tag Archives: Changing beliefs

Who am I to say?

When I started this blog back in 2013, I had several questions. The most prominent was how I, as an interested member of the public, could assess who is right and who is wrong. At that time, I also was looking for information on how laymen/interested members of the public could figure this out.

Initially, I played with the idea to tackle this question by using logic. I abandoned the idea rather quickly. Formal fallacies could surely distinguish between who is right or wrong, but these are not exactly the fallacies that one can readily find in the debate.

I also found some information that layman/interested members of the public had other ways of evaluating a subject, but I didn’t find much details back then. So now and then during the last six years of blogging, I contemplated on these two questions, but until recently these stayed unanswered.

Until I got this comment on a post dissecting the claim that there had been a “sudden rapid growth” of the number of registered all-electric cars in Flanders:

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Recovering my senses

In the beginning of October 2008, I was just a simple green person, minding his own business, voting for the Flemish green party since my early twenties, believing that there was an agreement between scientists that global warming is bad, that we are responsible and that we should do something about it. That seemed perfectly logical back then. Although I also had the impression that the scientists were exaggerating their case, I was convinced that they were basically right.

The issue of global warming surely interested me, but other things in life had priority and I never had a closer look at it. I felt strengthened by the fact that the scientists claimed that they had it all figured out. Heck, I was at the “right” side of the debate and that was a very comfortable position to be in. There was nothing left for me to do, just to trust.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2009 and I suddenly found myself deeply in the skeptical camp…

That is at the, gulp, “wrong” side of the debate.

How on Earth did someone like me get over there?

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The lost Paradise

applebite

One of the things that changed when becoming more skeptical about global warming was my attitude towards climate. In my believers years I had a sense of (false) stability. I believed that the climate system was at its pinnacle and that we humans were adapted to it after so many centuries. But then, by emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, we added so much greenhouse gases that we are in the process of changing our climate.

Scientists in the media told us this time and time again. They are still telling it now. So why wouldn’t it be true?

Raised as a catholic this was something that sounded really familiar. We were accustomed to our specific climate and now, bang, by burning fossil fuels we were losing this safe and stable climate and we (or at least our children) will have to endure a changed, hostile climate. It has the Adam and Eve-story painted all over it. We bit the apple of emissions and now we were chased away from harmony of nature. We had it all, yet we blew it and now we have to pay for our sins.

Also from the environmental movements in the 1970s-1980s I got the image of “Mother Earth”. A poor figure collapsing under the unbearable pressure we load onto her. We humans were changing the earth. We were to blame, no doubt about that.

Another thing was my belief that the Nature was something incredibly feeble. Even a small change could knock it out of balance…

This is of course not what reality shows. I was living in an illusion. The climate is not static, it is not at its pinnacle either and it has the ability to balance. It is constantly evolving. We live in a world of extremes. The temperature difference between day and night can be dramatic. As between summer and winter. The same for other variables like precipitation. Even the climate (as an average of weather over decades) keeps on changing. It is more like a cycle than the straight line I envisioned it to be.

That poor Mother Earth image is not according to reality either. Mother Earth is also a raging mom. That feeble Mother Nature is much stronger than we are. Always have been in the past. As far as history learn us, countless (extreme) weather events killed countless humans over time. It didn’t just began to do this after we started burning fossil fuels. History is the witness we seem to neglect.

Nature and life are incredibly resilient. It should be in a ever changing world in which extreme events can and will happen. Humans have an incredible range in which they can live: from the freezing poles to the hot tropics. Gosh, there are animals and plants living there too. When looking closer, more species are living in the tropics than in the mid latitudes. The mid latitudes at its turn have more species than the poles. So I don’t really know were the fear of having less species in a warmer climate comes from. As my interest was always in Nature, I should have known such things. I guess emotions took over and abandoned reason.

In biology and ecology lessons I learned that all species live in their own niche. So even if species get extinct (happened in the past, happens now and surely will happen again in the future), those niches will be filled in by other, better adapted species.

Looking back to my not so distant past, it is no surprise that we think that by turning back the CO2 to pre-1950-levels we get back our paradise. Maybe that’s true, but that might be an illusion as well.

Trust and Certainty are not enough to convince

In the previous post I ended with the statement that it was not very comfortable on the “wrong” side of the debate, but nevertheless that this was the side I wanted to be on. That sounds a bit strange for someone green of heart. I am not masochistic either. How could this be?

In my believers years I perceived climate communication as something that was certain. The scientists seem to have their stuff in order. They had a real simple, easy to understand concept. And they looked sure, very sure. The science was clear. There was a consensus, you know, 97% of the scientists agree. The models agree with each other and allegedly show skill. The deniers just an uninformed, biased lot with an agenda. Connected with Big Oil and with Big Tobacco. I got to hear there are many pieces of evidence: raising sea levels, melting pole caps, increasing temperatures, extreme weather,… To summarize: we are heading to a disaster. There wasn’t much doubt about that.

Who would argue with that?

Although I had the impression that scientists in the media exaggerated matters, I believed the theory was basically true. Why would I doubt? It all looked plausible. Most people around me think the same. The media regurgitate the same things over and over. I am no scientist, so how would I know?

But when looking into the issue, things didn’t add up. I didn’t really understand, until I realized that climate is a complex and chaotic system. In such a system such high confidence levels can never be warranted. Settled science in a complex and chaotic system is suspect. Models of such a system are doomed to fail in such environments.

In a simple logical system this would definitely fly, but climate is not that kind of system. Therefor the many comparisons with straightforward forms of science, with the allusion that climate science is as certain/settled/…

There is only a couple decades of accurate global data. Before that, only sparse data that was never intended to be used that way. How can the science being certain when climate is about the long term data, that is not there yet? How to distinguish between a recovery of a cold period and anthropogenic global warming?

The assumed certainty clearly serves another purpose. My guess: political. It is about credibility. Even although I find myself in a minority view and although there is a strong resentment, even hostility, against this view, I find it increasingly difficult to stand behind this kind of “evidence”, How certain one may bring it.

That was then, this is now

Looking back at the time when I was a believer, the biggest change was the way of thinking. Back in those days my thinking was rigid. Black and white. It certainly had to do with the claimed urgency and the noble cause. This made me rather intolerant towards those who had a different idea. Those were people who “denied” the situation, who were in the grip of Big Oil (or generally Big Industry). This is what I knew from my previous history of environmental concerns and projected this onto the current global warming theory.

My thoughts were that politicians, the Government, had to fix the issue and was prepared on cutting back, was prepared to sacrifice considerably economically and in comfort. That was certainly the result of the “noble cause”-thinking. If the issue is so important and so urgent as propagated, then sacrificing something was not a problem, even a sense of duty, something we have to do.

But it was not really thinking, it was believing. I believed what the scientists in the media were saying. I believed the science was clear and settled. I didn’t look at it, I believed scientists did this for me. There was an alleged consensus and I was perfectly happy with that. More, I thought it was a good base for urgent policies.

It is hard to admit, but at that time I admired Al Gore. Although I was thinking that his film (The Inconvenient Truth) would certainly exaggerating things, I was of the opinion that his efforts on climate were nevertheless highly admirable. I thought the end justified the means. To be honest, he is thinking that also. He believes that it is appropriate to over-represent his case in order to let the people listen to his preconceived solution. And exaggerating he does!

The switch occurred when I realized that the stories I was told didn’t add up. It surprised me how small the base was for those claims. How emotionally based the message was.

Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean something is true. If the argument relies on a consensus it means it was not possible to unequivocally demonstrate the truth. I was surprised to find out that this “consensus” was an opinion, not a scientific fact. That was what I believed: that climate scientists, who examined the issue methodically, found clear-cut evidence that proved the urgency. But that seemed not be the case. The evidence is based on statistics, assumptions, scarce data, but above all on the result on climate models. The more I looked at the showed “evidence”, the more I noticed that especially the outcome of the climate models was taken as reality.

It was very strange to realize my thinking made a u-turn and to my big surprise I found myself in the opposite camp. To be honest, it is not a very comfortable position on the other side of the debate, yet it is the side I want to be on.

Things I took for granted: when the blades of a windmill turn, it is saving fossil fuel somewhere else

In a strange way I do like windmills. They look majestic and the slow turning of the blades had something meditative. There also is that part of When the blades are turning, it is producing energy and therefor saving fossil fuels somewhere else. It is a nice thought, but is it also true? I didn’t gave it much thought until I experienced something that made me think.

Just before the Millennium I bought a house and renovated it, As someone green at heart I wanted some green technology in it. I thought a solar panel would be nice. When asking around I heard that solar panels that produce electricity were not efficient yet. I was advised to take a solar panel that heats water in a boiler. The principle was really straight forward. The sun heats the water that goes in that boiler. If I need warm water and the water isn’t warm enough, the central heating system would heat it up in stead. If the water was warm enough I had actually water heated by the sun. Simple as that.

It looked promising. Even when there wasn’t that much of sunlight the indicator light on the sun boiler was lighting up. My water was heated by the sun and it saved the gas that otherwise was needed to heat that same water. Nice, it worked!

But there were some problems too. The central heating system didn’t work that well. It took a looong time before the room was warm. This was a new system, so I feared that the capacity of the central heating system was not well calculated and my system was underpowered. Not really threatening, but quite an inconvenience. Probably my own mistake. What goes around comes around.

Other things made me think also. One summer I powered off my central heating. My assumption was that I only used warm water in summer. That shouldn’t be a problem when sun was shining. So no need for a central heating system for heating water. The sun boiler should be enough. That didn’t go well. Although the indicator light was on most of the time (and water was being heated) the water that came out of the system was only lukewarm.

Forward somewhat later. I heard strange noises in the solar system and I unplugged it. But this had quite some consequences. When I put on the heating, the room heated up in a jiffy … the system was not underpowered after all. It worked just fine. The problem seemed to be the solar installation or the link between the solar installation with the central heating system.

But if the central heating had problems to heat the room, then it was running longer, so needing more gas. Was this really true? To try this out I left the solar system off for a longer period. Then came the winter. The central heating wasn’t struggling, indeed less gas was needed to come to the desired room temperature and the room warmed up much faster than before.

I don’t know why the installation was faulty. Maybe there was a fault in production. Or it wasn’t properly installed. Or it didn’t work well with my central heating system. Or I couldn’t expect more from this early generation solar installation. Or my consumption pattern of warm water wasn’t compatible with the system. Or whatever.

The point I want to make is: when the alternative energy source is only a tiny portion of the total energy produced, it is really difficult to know if you are saving energy or not. I didn’t notice that it took more energy than it produced. My thought was that I was saving gas because the indicator light was on, but that was clearly not the case.

The same when generating electricity with wind/solar. Can we be sure that when the blades of a windmill are turning energy is saved somewhere? Wind energy as well as solar energy are intermittent and used in a system that needs a constant power production. This means the production of electricity will depend on the wind or the sun, not on our consumption. We can not trust wind and/or solar to produce energy when it is needed, so backup power needs to be provided. Which is using (fossil) fuel. But with only a few percent of solar and wind in the energy mix, nobody will ever notice if we are either saving fossil fuels, breaking even or using more of it in the process.

Things I took for granted: tree rings are accurate temperature proxies

treeringthermometer

The biggest hurdle I took in my quest to understand the global warming story was a graph called the Hockey Stick. It represents the temperatures over the last 1,000 years. I believed what I was seeing and saw this as a proof of the current anthropogenic global warming. I found it everywhere and was done by scientists, so naively I thought it had to be correct. If temperatures stayed stable for about 1,000 years and the last hundred years took of like a rocket, how much proof do one need to have, considering that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas and we emit loads of it into the atmosphere.

Tree-rings showed how warm or cold the climate was, I had no real problem with that, I learned that in primary school. The higher the temperature, the wider the tree-ring. The lower the temperature, the smaller the tree-ring. Just count and measure them and you are done. This was confirmed by scientists who declared that Bristlecones pines were good proxies for temperatures of the past because they live long.

There was the word: proxies. Thousand years ago there were no thermometers. The temperatures back then were measured not by instruments that measure temperature, but by something that is influenced by temperatures. That is a proxy. Temperatures have an influence on the width of tree-rings. True, but are they good indicators of past temperatures?

Looking at the background. Trees are complex organisms. They react on temperature, sure, but also on a bunch of other things. Beside temperature they react on:

  • precipitation
  • nutrients
  • disease
  • wind
  • sunlight
  • competition with other trees
  • competition with animals
  • local variations
  • concentration of carbon dioxide in the air
  • events like storms, lighting,…
  • and probably many, many more…

That makes it different from thermometer. Thermometers measure temperature via the expansion/contraction of a substance, which is representative for the current temperature. There is a direct relation between the expansion/contraction and the temperature. Hence the ability to measure temperature.
On the other hand, temperature has an influence on the width of tree rings, but this is not direct. The tree rings translate the temperature signal, but also those other signals. The temperature signal is diluted in the other signals, there will be a lot of noise in the tree rings. Getting rid of the noise and distilling only the temperature signal will not be possible if nothing is known about the other signals.

There are other things: datasets from trees are sparse. There aren’t that many very old trees. How to compare with modern datasets with real thermometers? Temperature readings of thermometers are read every day at least two times, sometimes a reading every hour. Tree rings one a year. Tree-rings depend on the tree and the period it lived.
A lot of fuss about sparse data, where did I hear that before?

Back to my own story: the Hockey Stick was the difficult hurdle to take. It was difficult because I began to realize that the media brought one sided information about the climate, but wasn’t that far to realize that it was necessary to be critical, not just assume that something was true because the majority thinks so.

Why did I took it for granted? It is a combination of several things:

  • I just looked at the graph and what it meant seemed obvious. I even saw it as proof that humans were causing global warming.
  • I trusted science. I had no reason to believe the scientists were biased in any way or that the information that reached me was one-sided.
  • The graph was found everywhere I searched for historical temperature data. I had no reason to think this could be one-sided information, it seemed straight forward.
  • It was presented as something evident: there was no doubt about this. For example scientists state that “tree rings are a good proxy” because they live long. I didn’t realize that he probably meant a proxy in time, not necessarily a reliable proxy for temperature. Big difference.
  • The basis looks simple and straight forward: warmer: bigger rings. colder: smaller rings. It didn’t seem rocket science. What I forgot to take into account was that a tree is a living thing and reacting on the many influences in its environment. It was brought too simple, but a little bit of thinking would have discovered flaws in the reasoning.

When I think back about this period, I ask myself the big question: how could I ever believed tree rings are thermometers in disguise? How could I ever have believed this stuff?