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How to be a real sceptic

Filed under: — gavin @ 19 December 2005

Scepticism is often discussed in connection with climate change, although the concept is often abused. I therefore thought it might be interesting to go back and see what the epitome of 20th Century sceptics, Bertrand Russell, had to say on the subject. This is extracted from the Introduction to his ‘Sceptical Essays’ (1928):

I wish to propose for the reader’s favorable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.

First of all, I wish to guard myself against being thought to take up an extreme position. … [Pyrrho] maintained that we never know enough to be sure that one course of action is wiser than another. In his youth, … he saw his teacher with his head stuck in a ditch, unable to get out. After contemplating him for some time, he walked on, maintaining that there was no sufficient ground for thinking that he would do any good by pulling the old man out. … Now I do not advocate such heroic scepticism as that. I am prepared to admit the ordinary beliefs of common sense, in practice if not in theory. I am prepared to admit any well-established result of science, not as certainly true, but as sufficiently probable to afford a basis for rational action.
There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. …. Nevertheless, the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

So does this provide any clarity? Russell clearly doesn’t support an extreme where everything must be continually doubted and nothing can ever be known. As he later suggests, that kind of position would make it philosophically troubling to ever get out of bed in the morning. This extreme attitude does however rear up in climate discussions where an interesting debate on the impacts of human-related increases of greenhouse gases on, say, the atmospheric circulation, often becomes bogged down in how do we know that GHGs are increasing at all, whether they are affected by human activity, and how it’s all down to the sun anyway. Since all of these things have been discussed ad nauseum here, here and elsewhere, that kind of ‘scepticism’ (more accurately described as contrarianism, or ‘la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you’-ism) serves only to waste time. Since working scientists are all busy people, this is usually why we tend to cease communication with such contrarians very quickly.

If we relax the above-mentioned constraint requiring ‘all experts’ to agree (something never achieved in practice) to ‘the overwhelming majority of experts’, we can substitute in the IPCC for ‘experts’ in the quote. It’s important to note that Russell does not claim that if all experts are agreed, then one must agree with them, but solely that being certain of the opposite opinion in such circumstances is not wise. It is implied by his opening statement then that having ‘all experts’ agree something is reasonable grounds for supposing something to be true. Similarly, if the IPCC concludes that something is highly uncertain (such as the magnitude of changes in aerosol indirect effects), then there are no good grounds for assuming otherwise.

Can someone be productively sceptical? Of course. Firstly, one needs to be aware that scepticism about whether a particular point has been made convincingly is not the same as assuming that the converse must therefore true. Sometimes scientists just don’t use the best arguments they could (particularly if they are a little out of their field of expertise) and these points can, and should, be challenged. One example would be the use of an incorrect ‘correlation implies causation’ argument. For instance, the strong correlation of CO2 and temperature in the Antarctic ice core records does not in and of itself imply that CO2 has a radiative impact on climate. However, additional analyses that look at the factors controlling temperature during the ice ages give strong grounds for believing that CO2 does play an important role. Therefore while the use of the correlation argument alone is wrong, the converse of the conclusion is not necessarily true.

Secondly, it helps to have done the homework. It is highly unlikely (though not impossible) that the sceptical point in question has not already been raised in the literature and at meetings. If a particular point has been argued to death previously and people have moved on (either because it was resolved, moot or simply from boredom), there is little point bringing it up again unless there is something new to talk about. Obviously, a good summary of how the point was dealt with can be educational though. Arguments about whether the current CO2 rise is caused by human activity fall clearly into this category.

Thirdly, scepticism has to be applied uniformly. Absolute credence in one obscure publication while distrusting mountains of ‘mainstream’ papers is a sure sign of cherry picking data to support an agenda, not clear-thinking scepticism. Not all papers get the peer review they deserve (or require) and the literature has many examples of dubious logic and unsupported interpretation. Sometimes this becomes very clear (for instance, the Soon and Baliunas saga at Climate Research), and sometimes it goes uncommented upon. But what about Galileo? Wasn’t he an obscure scientist persecuted by an entrenched mainstream? Yes, but Galileo is celebrated today because he was correct, not because he was persecuted. If an idea is right, it will be supported by additional evidence and will lead to successful predictions – at which point it will likely be accepted. The ‘Galileo’ defence (and its corollary the ‘establishment conspiracy’) are usually a sign that the additional evidence and the successful predictions are lacking.

Finally, it should be understood that constructive scepticism is a mainstay of the scientific method. The goal of science is to come closer to a comprehensive picture of how the real world works, with scepticism essential to toughening up scientific ideas, though alone, it is insufficient to move understanding forward. It isn’t essential that every true sceptic have an alternative theory ready to go, but they should bear in mind that our picture of how the world works, though incomplete, rests on many different foundations. If it sometimes seems that the scientific consensus is resistant to new ideas, it is because that consensus has already been tested in many ways and yet still stands.

Much of what passes for ‘debate’ on climate change in the popular media, is often framed as the ‘scientific consensus’ vs. the ‘sceptics’. A close examination of these arguments (for instance, as outlined in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial) doesn’t reveal much that could be described as true scepticism since they often use the fallacious reasoning that we discuss above. However, since scepticism has a (justifiably) long and noble tradition in science, the framing device is quite powerful (despite the lack of connection with any actual scepticism). As with the intelligent design controversy, agenda-driven opposition has often managed to cloak its contrarianism with the mantle of scepticism. So, while many contrarians pay lip service to the legacy of Russell (or even Pyrrho), forgive me if I remain a little sceptical…

210 Responses to “How to be a real sceptic”

  1. 51
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 40. My wish is for writers here to be specific, not imply things or make insinuations which may cause others to make false assumptions about what they meant in their writings.

  2. 52

    Re #11, #16 and “alarmism” in general:

    Please read these 3 comments:
    1. Richard Lindzen:
    2. Hans von Storch and Nico Stehr:
    3. Margaret Wente:

  3. 53

    Re #48:
    As an European, I am happy to be on the low end of the energy consumption scale. Lifestyle apart, you cannot move through the wide open US spaces with the same amount of energy that brings you from Amsterdam to Barcelona.
    It is quite easier to gobble less energy if distances and environment allow this. I fully agree, that the most important global problem is future energy availability, and if solutions to ***abundant and cheap*** non fossil sources will be on their way, the AGW discussion will become quiescent. I do not think that alarmism (and its derived Kioto-style bureaucratic monsters) is a great help in finding these solutions, but that engineering and technology are.

  4. 54

    Re #52:

    The statements attributed to Lindzen postulate a core argument of the denial camp; that consciously or unconsciously funding pressures motivate scientists to overstate risks. This argument is often made but rarely supported. While there is no reason to suspect climate science as a community to be immune from unconscious bias or conscious dishonesty, it is far from clear that this pressure causes the scientific community to overstate risks which the political sector (indeed, which anyone with good intentions) certainly wishes were nonexistent.

    The exactly contrary bias is equally plausible. The funding agencies themselves and the political sector that supports them are consituted by fallible human beings every bit as much as are the scientists they support. In the event that they are investigating a realistic risk, scientists who deliver reassuring news and refrain from raising alarms may be rewarded in preference to others.

    As far as I know, no one has come up with a reasonable way of testing which of these pressures dominate and to what extent they overcome the genuine pursuit of truth that drives people into the sciences in the first place.

    Von Storch’s essay is rather more interesting. I think he is explicit in discussing the European political context. That in the English-speaking countries is dramatically different. Nevertheless, some of the points he makes are very much worth considering.

    One can be alarmed without attributing every unusual wather event to climate change; indeed there’s a certain logical fallacy in doing so in that climate is the statistics of weather events. A change in statistical properties of a set of events does not cause a member event! “Global warming” didn’t cause Katrina even if it turns out that anthropogenic forcing of climate makes severe tropical storms more likely.

    However, I disagree with von Storch about whether it is excessive to focus on the IPCC worst-case emissions scenario. This scenario is the one with the most cost of those usually considered, so avoiding it is quite reasably the focus of conversations between science and policy. Furthermore, as there are other sources of carbon in the geochemical system, and as its perturbed response to the global change contempolated is not well-understood, even more severe carbon scenarios are plausible; these, having even larger cost, should weigh considerably in rational risk/benefit considerations even if they are considered unlikely.

    Also von Storch follows in the common pattern of cutting off consideration of the consequences of anthropogenic climate forcing at the arbitrary year 2100. In most of the usually contemplated scenarions, the perturbation shows no sign of deceleration by that time. I find this to be dodging the question of our obligation to future generations rather than addressing it.

    Von Storch asks Climate change of man-made origin is an important subject. But is it truly the “most important problem on the planet,” as an American senator claims? Are world peace, or the conquest of poverty, not similarly daunting challenges?

    The answer to this is that of course peace and prosperity and freedom are the motivators of any political conversation. Clearly the achievement of these goals is dramatically easier in a stable physical environment than in an unstable one. The contrast of these questions against forced climate change is a false dichotomy. It is because we are concerned about poverty and war that we worry about climate change. If cliamte changes too fast the result will be poverty, exploitation and war.

    The question of anthropogenic climate change challenges many of the assumptions under which we operate. For the first time the world is committing its descendants to a significant deterioration in the stability of its physical environment on a time scale longer than normal political and economic processes can effectively operate, Communication of this fact and its implications to the public and to the policy sector has turned out to be dramatically more difficult than might have been anticipated. This situation is not independent of the geopolitical and global economic situation. We aren’t just talking about buying more umbrellas and fewer snow shovels, or saving a few interesting turtles. We do not exist separate from our environment, and no law of physics or chemistry prevents us from devastating it quote thoroughly as a global consequence of decisions taken locally in rational self-interest.

    Calling anthropogenic global change the most important issue of our time is not obviously in error.

  5. 55
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dimethylsulfoniopropionate ((CH3)2S+CH2CH2COO�

    Anthropogenic effects won’t be understood unless we are different than any other form of life.

    We know what life on Earth does, given access to a previously limited resource.

    Boom and bust.

    What could we possible learn that would make us different?

    Lindtzen’s saying we don’t know cloud physics yet, but that we do know increased CO2 leads to more clouds —

    Lovelock predicted warming –> CO2 –> plankton -> clouds –> cooling — the mechanism was found fairly quickly. Plankton produce cloud nuclei, see Dimethylsulfoniopropionate.

    CO2 released in recent centuries equals or exceeds releases that happened as positive feedbacks after natural warming events.

    Whatever else is happening — human activity isn’t trivial, even though we don’t know for sure what human activity is contributing to the current situation.

    We had an amazingly close call and good luck that chlorine, rather than bromine, was the preferred basis for fluorocarbon chemistry in the research stage. Had a bromoflourocarbon rather than CFC-based industry developed, we’d have lost the ozone layer before the problem was understood and recovery would have taken far longer.

    Being prescient doesn’t mean being right — Lovelock said he didn’t imagine that CFCs could pose any hazard; today he says nuclear power is the only hope — but any scientist outside his or her known specialty is just another hopeful commentator.

    We need the research, if we have time to get it done and understoood before what we’re doing catches up to us in feedbacks.

  6. 56
    Coby says:

    From the link in #52 Lindzen says:
    “Scientists make meaningless or ambiguous statements.
    Advocates and media translate statements into alarmist declarations.
    Politicians respond to alarm by feeding scientists more money.”

    Like Michael Tobis, I hear this very often but see little or no support for it. In fact, I am aware of anecdotal evidence that contradicts this. Think about the EPA and drug testing, do the scientist who find alarming side effects get the funding and accolades? What about the alarming discoveries about lung cancer a tobacco? It sure took a long time for that bit of common sense to penetrate public policy. Back to climate research, didn’t I read recently about cuts to NOAA or NASA for global data collection projects for CO2 emissions? Were the emissions findings not sufficiently dramatic leading the Bush administration to cut the purse strings?

    I followed a link on that page to an interview with Lindzen and he brought up the fallacious argument about the “precautionary principle” dictating that until we are very sure that CO2 effects climate we should not take action to curtail CO2 production. All I can say is this has been a very effective bit of spin and I hear it all the time. But the fact is, the people espousing this position have it 180o backwards! What we are doing right now is action that is altering the atmosphere. The precautionary principle says we should not take this action until we are sure it is safe. The onus is on pollution advocates to demonstrate that there is no danger. This bit of spin has succeded in making “full speed ahead” equivalent to wait and see.

  7. 57
    Coby says:

    Just a further comment on Lindzen and the precautionary principle, which he states in an interview here:
    “The notion that if you’re ignorant of something and somebody comes up with a wrong answer, and you have to accept that because you don’t have another wrong answer to offer is like faith healing, it’s like quackery in medicine – if somebody says you should take jelly beans for cancer and you say that’s stupid, and he says, well can you suggest something else and you say, no, does that mean you have to go with jelly beans? ”

    To readjust his analogy to fit with reality: it is like you are in the habit of eating large quantities of jelly beans since a few years ago and now have cancer that began a few years ago. There is strong evidence that jelly beans cause cancer. It is not like “quackery in medicine” for your doctor to recommend cutting back on the jelly beans, it is common sense precaution. Especially when there are no other good explanations for your illness.

    And I will mention it again, we are running low on jelly bean production versus demand, there is a limited number of jelly beans available on the planet and there are many other good uses besides rotting our teeth. This means that even if it turns out jelly beans don’t cause cancer, our precautionary actions will have led to other benefits.

  8. 58
    Jo Calder says:

    #57: it is common sense precaution. Especially when there are no other good explanations for your illness. Doesn’t this analogy confuse precaution with moderation? Cheers, — Jo

  9. 59
    Chris Vernon says:

    Regarding Naomi Oreskes paper in Science has anyone come across this guy: Dr Benny Peiser, Liverpool John Moores University, UK

    I have been sceptical of anyone claiming a scientific consensus on the back of the Oreskes paper ever since reading the above link. The scientific consensus is often quoted (including by myself in something I wrote in the past) but no I’m no longer so confident.

    What’s the truth behind the Oreskes and Peiser debate?

    [Response: See Tim Lambert’s pieces (here and here) where he examines all of the claims and counterclaims and finds that Peiser’s argument is completely without merit. Note that Oreskes point is not that no skeptical papers were published, but that if there wasn’t a broad consensus, she would have found more of them in her search. – gavin]

  10. 60
    Hank Roberts says:

    I read that series of exchanges, starting with Peiser’s CCNet attempt to slap down the research and Lambert’s and others’ critiques, as it happened and end up agreeing with Lambert — the results of such a search depend on understanding how to craft a Boolean search. That’s doable but not always easy, using Google — Peiser didn’t have that clear to start with, so there was some back and forth to get to where everyone was looking at the same thing.

    As with much else, it because a huge fuss over methodology, effort that could better have been put simply to re-asking the question in a way that all concerned agreed was better crafted to extract information. Like the ‘hockey stick’ thing, it sort of descended into ankle-biting perfectionism. If that’s not a horribly mixed metaphor.

    Peiser’s endlessly entertaining. His CCNet focused for a long while on earth-crossing objects and possible impact evidence going way back in time — looking for evidence on the ground to match stories from history and legend. I’d love to see a serious attempt to match up the ice core dust events with his collection. I do suspect he’s got a good point in that an old comet’s prior orbital tracks may be a braided area of tracks each full of small debris all along its length. Earth running through one of those, even without intercepting any single chunk big enough to make a flash-bang-hole-scar, could still sweep up a huge amount of dust and water and methane and whatever else a comet’s made of. Those could cause climate impacts.

    My hunch as just an interested reader is that he might take the climate scientists more seriously if they’d take his collection of suggestions for possible extraterrestrial-influenced dust events more seriously and look for them in the ice cores. (I presume that the ice core research isn’t throwing anything away and if there’s evidence there for forcings from extraterrestrial impact events im it will turn up eventually, but I don’t know if that’s so, or even what they’d look for.)

  11. 61
    Chris Vernon says:

    Thanks Gavin, that Oreskes/Peiser discussion has gone a long way to restoring my confidence in the idea that the scientific consensus is with anthropogenic climate change. If only a similar consensus could be reached regarding peak oil – I spoke with Sir John Haughton a few months ago about IPCC assumptions regarding peak oil in the models and was disappointed to hear him pretty much dismissing the idea. I didn’t get the impression he really knew anything about peak oil, repeating the common arguments of higher prices making more reserves available and “vast amounts of oil in Canada” etc… I don’t believe an imminent peak in oil extraction is on his radar.

  12. 62
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #60 (HR): I could be wrong, but my suspicion is that a way easier method to look for comet dust would be by direct astronomical methods. I also suspect that astronomers have already looked and found nothing of note. That said, I do know that the ice cores contain obvious signatures from volcano dust, and one would think that any dust anomalies not explained by volcanos or other natural sources (post-glaciation loess, e.g.) would have turned up already. IMHO, Peiser is simply a contrarian who cannot be made happy by anything short of a whoesale overturning of the consensus.

  13. 63
    Steve Latham says:

    Re: Comment #52.
    Others have responded to the first two links; I thought I would mention Margaret Wente of the Globe&Mail (Canada’s primary national paper). She wrote during the bombing of Baghdad in 2003 that contrary to all of the alarmist prognostications, regular Iraqis were not being harmed. I think that says something about her (and her objectivity), but I don’t want this to be just an ad hominem attack — here’s what the link provides:

    “We in newsland regard ourselves as hard-headed, skeptical objective folks. But show us a forlorn polar bear on a melting ice floe, and we check our brains at the door. Our environmental coverage regularly serves up the most hysterical, most credulous and most selective stories in all the news. The truth is, most of what passes as environmental reporting is little more than cheerleading for the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund. It’s about as objective as the news reports you used to read in Pravda quoting party leaders on the glorious 14th party congress.
    The difference is, in Pravda, all the news was always good; on the environmental beat, all the news is always bad.”

    1. The first point to make is that the majority of news, in a losing battle, is likely to be bad. If you want to adhere to (or hold as an ideal) the SCUBA diver’s ethic of “Take only pictures, leave only bubbles,” then your chances of success aren’t great. Environmental reporting isn’t special in this regard — how much of the newspaper is about somebody getting frightened, hurt, or killed somewhere versus the frequency of those things not happening?

    2. An interesting problem is that “nature” can’t be “saved” in-perpetuity. This is asymmetrical with how attributes of nature can be destroyed. So when some ancient forest is about to be clear-cut or when some species is projected to become extinct in the near future, one can imagine the difficulty in finding editors who would think it worth printing a story describing how 5% of the forest will be preserved (with an option to log 10 years from now), or how some species won’t be wiped out by hunting within 10 generations but by land conversion within 15. With climate change the dominant perspective is that the effects are pretty much irreversible, too. I very much doubt that the press wouldn’t cover development of good way to sequester carbon….

    3. What’s the positive side that objective reporting would present when the news item is that polar bears seem to be starving/drowning due to melting sea ice?

    4. How many stories have been written on that woodpecker in Arkansas that didn’t go extinct (yet)? It’s a lie that only bad news is printed.

    I can’t really link this back to How to be a real sceptic. Maybe someone else can.

  14. 64
    Eli Rabett says:

    It is interesting to look at the list of state climatologists in the US I’ll pick out a few who might be known to the readers of this list: Alabama Dr. John Christy, Colorado Dr. Roger A. Pielke, Sr., Virginia, Dr. Patrick J. Michaels

  15. 65
    Jim Glendenning says:

    Lynn in #12 said, “Suppose the mainstream climate scientists are wrong & the contrarians right, and we act as if the scientists are right, then we have nothing to lose & something to gain in terms of reducing other environmental harms (acid rain, local pollution), resource depletion, and increasing national security (re oil wars & protection), and lots of money to save from energy/resource efficiency & conservation, and increasing from alternative energy.”

    I think he makes a good point. Working to reduce fossil fuel use, if done inteligently and without harming the economy could kill several birds with one stone: Make a finite resource last longer, provide better national security, protect the environment, and slow or stop AGW.

    In #48 Tony said, “There seems to be two discussions regards AGW and its related problem, peak oil. The discussion that interests readers and contributors to is among very knowledgeable people with very specialized knowledge. But the far more important discussion takes place in the mass media among all people. While, hopefully, the former frames the latter, it is the latter which determines actual policy.”

    Tony touches on the fact that the debate is about energy supplies and usage as much as it is about the science behind AGW. When environmentalist organizations quote AGW theories and say the world as we know it is coming to an end unless we do what they say, Joe Sixpac is not impressed. However, when the price of gas at the pump reaches $3/gal. it gets Joe’s attention. In fact gasoline prices are already affecting auto buyers choices. The hybrids are flying off the lots.

    When Joe Sixpac is told global temps may increase by 1 degree in the next hundred years, he has no idea why he should be worried. However, when someone convinces him that world oil production will soon reach its peak and begin declining with ever increasing prices for energy, that is something he can understand.

    Large reductions in the use of fossil fuels are only possible through command and control of the government. In a democracy the governed must consent to such changes. So it seems to me that if cuts in fossil fuel burning are going to be achieved, they wiil be achieved because the population is convinced that it will save them money and increase national security, not because it will affect AGW.

    If the world is going to continue to modernize and peak oil is near, then new clean sources of energy must be brought on line. Conservation through more efficient cars, light bulbs, appliances, etc can help. Solar, wind, and biomass can also help. But, until hydrogen or fuel cells are perfected we must turn to nuclear and hydro-electric to bridge the gap.

    As to the AGW skeptics. It seems to me there is a fairly strong case for CO2 and AGW. However, those of us who have looked at paleo-climates and the fact that it has been much warmer and colder here on Earth in the past when there were minimal human effects, makes us think there may be other factors at work. The scientists here at RC occasionally give a nod to other factors, but are absolutely convinced that those other factors are only background noise. That makes skeptics question whether you have open minds.

    Another problem is that the computer models of climate change that have been put forward may be perfect. However, they can’t be verified until fifty years or more have passed. Many people are opposed to taking draconian steps in energy usage without better proof. So they demand more information and continually find fault with the computer models.

    I, for one, think that this debate should be widened to include people from the natural resource industries, energy experts, the auto industry, government, and citizens all joining in because it really is about the future of this country and the world. I applaud you for having this discussion.

  16. 66

    #65 – What debate might that be? There is precious little to debate anymore, except perhaps – “When are you going to change your lifestyle?”

  17. 67
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #64 (ER): While we’re talking state climatologists, three others who are public contrarians (i.e., beyond just being skeptics IMO), are David Legates (Delaware), James O’Brien (Florida) and George Taylor (Oregon). A belated thanks to LA (#25) for pointing out that John Christy is indeed a public skeptic (albeit not a contrarian as such and not very active of late).

    While I’m on the subject, the two folks Eli mentioned are not skeptics as such, although Pat Michaels is very happy to take money from the fossil fuel industry to promote the idea that any warming beyond the minimum IPCC scenario is balderdash. The other, Roger Pielke, Sr., is a little hard to encapsulate, but he does accept the consensus with the caveat that he thinks a larger proportion of the warming is due to anthropogenic changes than do most climate scientists, plus he wants the world to beat a path to his door in terms of how climate change is measured and described.

  18. 68
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 64

    Another fairly well known State Climatologist is George H. Taylor, for Oregon.

    The State Climatologist website for Minnesota is at:

    The “Policy Statement on Climate Variability and Change” by the American Association of State Climatologists AASC) is at:

    The policy statement referenced by the state climatology offices was approved by AASC in Nov 2001.

  19. 69
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 64.

    The public continues to hear that climate change is a “highly complicated and politicized field of study” from AASC government professionals. That must change. What does the public need to hear instead?

    For comparison:

    “Careful measurements have confirmed that CO2 is increasing in the
    atmosphere and that human activities are the primary cause. CO2
    measurements have been taken directly from the atmosphere over the
    past few decades. CO2 trends for earlier times have been derived
    from measurements of CO2 trapped in air bubbles in glacial or polar
    ice. The 36% increase (in 2006) in atmospheric CO2 observed since
    pre-industrial times cannot be explained by natural causes. CO2
    concentrations have varied naturally throughout Earth’s history.
    However, CO2 concentrations are now higher than any seen in at least
    the past 650,000 years”.

    Note: As of October 1, 2005, the Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics
    Laboratory has merged into the Earth System Research Laboratory
    (ESRL) as part of its Global Monitoring Division (GMD). GMD’s mission is to observe and understand, through accurate, long-term records of atmospheric gases, aerosol particles, and solar radiation, the Earth’s atmospheric system controlling climate forcing, ozone depletion and baseline air quality, in order to develop products that will advance global and regional environmental information and services.

  20. 70
    Tony Noerpel says:

    Echoing Chris #61, thanks Gavin et al. for the discussion on Oreskes results. It is interesting to point out that Judge John Jones’ recent ruling in favor of evolution over ID contains this statement. “A final indicator of how ID has failed to demonstrate scientific warrant is the complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory. Expert testimony revealed that the peer review process is exquisitely important in the scientific process…” [as reported in the Washington Post, Sunday, Dec. 25]. I believe that there was a paper by Scott and Cole, 1985 which examined peer reviewed papers on evolution and creationism using similar methodology as Oreskes. Of course if we have to wait 20 more years for this argument to be successful as applied to AGW…

  21. 71
    PHEaston says:

    Re Pat Neuman (69); Here you make the misleading, but unfortunately common mistake of ‘answering the wrong question’. There are very few, if any ‘skeptics’ who question whether humans have caused a significant increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The relevant issue is whether this is causing, or is likely to cause, significant changes to the climate.

  22. 72
    PHEaston says:

    To Chris Vernon (61): I suggest you look a little more closely at the Oreskes/Peiser debate referenced by Gavin. The first reference consists mostly of people “having a good laugh” at Peiser, despite the fact that he published all of the relevant abstracts and makes an amicable defence of his point of view within the online debate. Most of those criticising Peiser seem to – either naively or deliberately – misunderstand his point by getting into semantic arguments about which specific papers are “for” or “against”. It is very quickly clear from browsing the abstracts that, like much of the evidence in this debate, it can be interpreted very differently depending on your own personal bias. The main point that Peiser makes is that Oreskes arguments contained sufficient limitations and a lack of clear methodology, that it does not accurately demonstrate a proof of consensus.

    The second reference focuses on agreeing that Oreske’s work should be as closely scrutinised as Peiser’s. But, unfortunately, the contributors over-readily accept her response to a request for background information on her research, that she is “too busy”. Why be so keen to prove Peiser wrong, but relatively indifferent about proving Oreske right? I cannot help concluding that this may be because she came up with the ‘right answer’.

  23. 73
    Pat Neuman says:

    re PHEaston (72); I wasn’t asked a question that I can see.

    Anyway, so what fraction of the 36% increase in CO2 do you think might be a result of “natural causes”?

  24. 74
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #72, as mentioned, at this beginning stage in our AGW experiment, we do have to rely more on physics and good theories to answer questions. The final results of the experiment (which might turn out to be much warming and 50% or more of life destroyed??) may not be in for hundreds or thousands of years.

    I think it is well accepted that GHGs, such as CO2, have helped to warm the earth — is it 32 degrees C (??) — beyond what it would be without GHGs, allowing life as we know it to exist — the natural greenhouse effect. So, in order to make a counterclaim that A-GHGs do not further warm the earth beyond this natural level, we would have to have some really good theory or knowledge that atmospheric CO2 beyond, say, 400 ppb (or is it ppm) greatly loses its ability to warm the earth — e.g., the effect decreases arithmetically, geometrically, or exponentially, or by some other function.

    Is there any such theory or knowledge that would indicate this?

    Even if there were, we’d still have to consider that some effect (sensitivity) remains, and that the warming might lead to further (natural) releases of CO2 & CH4, as evidence increasingly is showing us.

  25. 75

    Re #28 and “But of course no scientific theory can be proven in the same way that bible doctrine is allegedly proven. To prove a bible argument one refers to the text itself, proving only consistency within it’s own text, totally independent of any real world.” I thought comments on religion were going to be removed, gavin? I mean, that’s what you said about my post #17 above. You are applying the standard consistently, aren’t you?

    [Response: I’m trying to. Please (to all) no more digressions into theology! – gavin]

  26. 76
    Kenneth Blumenfeld says:

    Re: # 49, 64, 67, 68 and other state climatologist-related remarks:

    I just want to clarify a few things, having spent some time at the Minnesota State Climatology Office (SCO).

    First of all, State Climatologists (SCs) are by no means a unified bunch; they have annual meetings, disagreements, polarized views and the like.

    Second, the responsibilities of each SC vary considerably. Some folks hold an office in a related academic department and occasionally field questions from the public; some conduct research; some do quite nearly nothing; for some it is a full-time job, for some it is part of a rotating appointment.

    In Minnesota, our SCO engages almost exclusively in improving and maintaining local climate data networks…something that we applied climatologists greatly appreciate. They do not conduct formal research, they do not publish, and they are thus not (expected to be) up-to-date on climate science literature. I am not sure they are actually qualified to speak on global warming, despite each holding degrees in meteorology.

    I don’t think our State Climatologist would want me characterizing his views, but I’ll say that he walks to work, hikes a lot, wears flannel, hunts mushrooms and does other rather crunchy things. What side of the debate would you put him on now? My point is only that the position of State Climatologist does not imply subscription to a particular set of views within the climate change debate.

    I otherwise think this thread is very useful.

  27. 77

    While I don’t always agree with Lynn V’s points, I’d like to commend posting #74 as capturing the situation both concisely and precisely. While I usually agree with Coby, I think Lynn’s is a much better answer to the jellybean challenge than his #57.

    The skeptics’ label is really going the wrong way. We know that greenhouse gases have a major effect on climate, and we know that humans are causing a major effect on greenhouse gas concentrations. I am skeptical that an argument may be constructed wherein unrestrained emissions of CO2 constitutes a reasonable risk.

    Anthropogenic CO2 is a perturbation to the global environment with known effects on the radiative properties of the atmosphere. Several streams of evidence are roughly agreed on the magnitude of the perturbation. There appears to be a large response with several delays built in, one essentially immediate, another on the order of decades (adjustment of the upper ocean) and others much longer (adjustment of the deep ocean and the ice caps).

    I really doubt that (I am really skeptical that) pushing this system any harder than we absolutely must is a good idea. I don’t want to see shoulder-shrugging, suspicion-mongering, and tiresome sniping at serious investigators; that simply doesn’t matter. I want to see an absolutely bullet-proof theory that explains why the risk is small enough to justify business as usual.

    Such a theory is not being offered, and that ain’t jellybeans, folks.

  28. 78
    Pat Neuman says:

    There is a critical need for the public to be educated about climate change. For professional climatologists to be working exclusively on improving and maintaining local climate data networks, and not helping the public become educated about climate change, is not serving in the best public interest.

    [Response: You should probably be aware that profession of climatology as classically defined is much closer to what the state climatologists are doing than it is to what the RealClimate scientists do. It’s not therefore their fault that the nature of the science (and the work that climate scientists do) has shifted underneath them so to speak. – gavin]

  29. 79

    #77 – But clear solutions to the carbon problem are being offered. The science is very strict. Are you changing your lifestyle? Somehow, I doubt it. Those who are clamoring for change the loudest, are often the last to implement it.

  30. 80
    Pat Neuman says:

    Saying the nature of the science shifted underneath them is not a sufficient excuse for having ignored climate change and global warming. As a hydrologist, it was clear to me nearly six years ago that climate change was already in progress within the Upper Midwest. I did my best to let people know about that, at personal and professional expense. How can anyone not be concerned enough about global warming to do what they can in trying to help?

  31. 81
    Eli Rabett says:

    Let me point out that all I said was: “It is interesting to look at the list of state climatologists in the US. I’ll pick out a few who might be known to the readers of this list:” and I provided the list. Having stirred the pot a bit, I think others have tossed some tasty morsels into it, for which I thank them.

    It is most interesting to contrast the official statement of the State Climatologists with the AGU statement on anthropic climate changes. It is also important to note that State Climatologist is an official position and carries with it the appearance of speaking officially. This has been used by Pat Michaels, for example, as a certification of expertise. It is, in my opinion, wrong to claim that they have no interest in speaking on global climate issues, although particular members may not.

  32. 82

    Re #79; I agree that some solutions are evident or emerging, though not without cost of their own, most notably nuclear power. What concerns me is that they show few signs of being implemented.

    I can’t see any basis or justification for Thomas’ jumping to (in my opinion incorrect) conclusions about my own behavior. It’s irelevant and a red herring.

    (This problem can only be slightly ameliorated, not solved, at the retail level. Most emissions are from industrial sources. I have never so much as touched a piece of coal, so I can’t easily cut back on my share of the demand for the stuff.)

    To reiterate my point and avoid getting derailed, since we have at the very least a plausible argument for a severe risk, the burden of proof falls on the business-as-usual folks to refute it. They don’t have anything resembling a coherent theory.

    Most of the public conversation on this topic is totally upside-down. If I am storing oily rags next to your house, I don’t have the right to demand that you predict with certainty and precision when your house will be immolated before I consider, maybe, reducing the rate at which I add more rags to the pile!


  33. 83

    Hey Michael – you are burning oil *IN* my house, as am I. I have a perfect right to complain about your burning, just as I have a choice to reduce my own burning. I have monocrystalline solar panels. I have solar hot water heaters. I have wind generators. I am collecting and storing insulation, rather than say, burning the raw materials for making insulation. The whole skepticism thing is moot. It’s over. Get used to it. So, tell us, not just Michael, all of you, when are you going to start changing your lifestyles dramtically. What are you going to do about the carbon problem. Remember, I know your carbon footprint. I can even see you clearly from orbit. You have no secrets anymore. I’m watching you.

  34. 84

    #78, Pat, opinions, I hear them all the time, from the pros but not as much as from ordinary folks, they know about GW, they don’t need me to tell them that the climate is changing warmer, they run into trouble in finding some expert willing to explain it though, they come up with their own theories, best way they can, but rarely get educated on the correct science, there seems to be a loose structure, a quality in freedom of education, a media weakness easily exploited though ….. Who do you call about GW? Who do you rely on explaining it correctly? Your fellow Minnessotan State climatologist wont say anything, Lucky if you go to RC website and can understand what we are writing about, but it often never gets to that point because every thing is confused….

    As a lay person, there are huge reasons to be skeptical about what we are hearing, broadcasted daily, we have a bigger problem than a handful of contrarians getting 50% of the medias time, the entire met structiure is unable to present the situation well, even the best presenters go along their merry way leaving out temperature anomalies for someone else to report. It gets worse, especially when they try to explain it: like the latest lame sound bites from TV met specialists, especially for this yet to be very cold winter. Flash back to September: “Cold winter is coming” yes it was….. err not so far, just read about a new excuse: La-Nina, of course it isn’t raging to new SST coldness, but clever , especially totally disconcerting distraction isn’t it? Could it be that we understand seasonal forecasts in simpler terms? Like the theory of persistence ? For example:

    Very hot Global summer + fall = not so cold a coming winter (if there are no extraneous inputs, volcanoes etc…).

    Contrarians have a field day because we fail to redress basic media diatribe:

    one: Some Climate forecasts are very good, they seldom get correct attention from the medias. Well they must reach a bigger audience more often.

    two: Clear distinctions must be made when a seasonal forecast are transmitted, I seldom hear
    the reasoning for them in the first place, it appears from a GCM and no questions are asked. These same seasonal forecasts do have probability of success attached to them, if one reads carefully, and they are simply not repeated, no fault to the forecasting agency, but I doubt the intentions of those who simply fail to state those probabilities, year after year. It serves mostly the purpose of contrarians, how delighted they may be when another seasonal forecast flunks again.

    For this I am skeptical that we can clear the majority of minds, and make way to a better solution, unless a stronger voice/authority can make it through this morass, we have a lot of work ahead, and foremost we must eliminate contrarian fuel for their raging virtual fire.

  35. 85
    PHEaston says:

    Re Pat Neuman (73). Probably almost none of the 36% increase in CO2 is from natural causes. What I meant by “answering the wrong question” was that you appear to present a certainty regarding the cause of CO2 increases as certain evidence for AGW – not in response to a specific question, but as an answer to the general GW debate. Remember that despite the apparently big numbers when you consider CO2 in isolation, Man’s emissions remain < 0.5% of the GW effect. Despite the conviction of many, there is not a consensus that this represents a signficant and terrible threat.

    It is a very big mistake by many contributors to this site to assume that anyone who challenges their view does not care about the environment or humanity. Acting on AGW theory is not without risk. There are financial costs; a potential hindrance to human development that has dramatically improved our quality of life, life-expectancy, etc; and a risk of diverting our attention away from dealing with issues that we know – without debate – are killing millions every year: lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, malaria, Aids, etc. As a hydrogeologist (similar to Pat Neuman’s hydrology), I am very much in favour of protecting our natural environment. The most important thing, as scientists, is that we are able to maintain an honest and sensible debate, without it being clouded by poor science, poor logic and politics.

  36. 86
    Tony Noerpel says:

    Question: I understand that John Christy measured atmospheric temperature using weather balloons. He compared his recent results with historic values. The problem was that historical values were not accurate to the precision required because they were not at the time intended for that purpose. Christy determined how to calibrate the older data. His initial results did not show the atmospheric warming that the AGW model predicts. In 2004, some researchers discovered a mistake in Christy’s calibration. They argued about it for a year and finally determined that Christy was wrong. Is this true and has it been addressed already on realclimate? Thanks.

  37. 87
    Kenneth Blumenfeld says:

    Re: #78 (including Gavin’s response), #80
    “There is a critical need for the public to be educated about climate change.” Agreed, which is why we should urge the real experts (e.g., those on this site) to increase their visibility in the public sphere…so the public can have the information from the source(s), rather tha from lay distillations.

    “For professional climatologists to be working exclusively on improving and maintaining local climate data networks, and not helping the public become educated about climate change, is not serving in the best public interest.” I disagree. Without the data and the networks, many research climatologists or, “climate scientists,” would be out of a job. And keeping these networks going is a full-time job.

    I am all for the creation of state-level appointments that deal more explicitly with the ramifications of climatic change to state resources and commerce. I wish we had someone who did that right now (maybe some states do?). Something like a climate change outreach person within the SCO. The MN State Climatology Office currently does not have that capacity, but maybe once budgets fall on happier times it could be on the table.

    As far as “the nature of the science shifting beneath their feet,” I would just remind you that (at least for the MN State Climatologists) we are talking about the suppliers of the data versus the direct users (i.e., those who do research). In that sense, any shift in research foci would not be relevant to the data suppliers, unless somehow the data had become inadequate or inappropriate for the intended analyses.

    Re: #81:

    I agree with you. PM may wrongly use hit title as a certification of expertise, but that does not mean others should, especially if they have not formed their own opinions. For his part, I will say that Michaels does research on global climate issues (regardless of what we may say about that research), whereas most state climatologists do not.

  38. 88
    Pat Neuman says:

    re: 85 PHEaston wrote: > Probably almost none of the 36% increase in CO2 is from natural causes.

    Some contrarians have claimed that small increases in solar radiation could have enhanced global climate warming by significantly larger amounts than by the amount of solar radiation alone, in claiming that the small increases in climate warming by solar radiation would trigger increases in natural emissions of CO2 from plants (more food from radiation and longer growing seasons). Your answer implies that you disagree with the contrarians on that claim.

  39. 89
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 87.

    Framing of Climate Science (RC article, Nov 17, 2005) includes a discussion of the way in which climate science is “framed” …

    I think the Policy Statement on Climate Variability and Change by the American Association of State Climatologists* “framed” climate science to involve more uncertainty than the research, modeling and climate data studies warranted.

    In placing undue emphasis on uncertainty, AASC downplayed the efforts of hundreds of scientists by reducing or eliminating public expectations that global warming could become catastrophic.

    * The AASC Policy statement shows: …

    2. Climate prediction is complex with many uncertainties – The AASC recognizes climate prediction is an extremely difficult undertaking. For time scales of a decade or more, understanding the empirical accuracy of such predictions – called verification – is simply impossible, since we have to wait a decade or longer to assess the accuracy of the forecasts.

    * The AASC is the professional organization of State Climatologists of the United States. Each State Climatologist is appointed in his/her respective state to provide expertise on issues associated with climate. … (AASC, 2001)

  40. 90
    J. Sperry says:

    Re #86 (John Christy’s measurements): It looks like these posts from Aug 11 and
    Nov 18 discuss the topic.

  41. 91

    The problem with the Sun being the cause is that we pretty much know all the Sun’s cycles on a human time scale. Global warming doesn’t seem to be a cycle, it seems to be a one-period event. If the Sun is really causing a 1 Kelvin increase in our temperature per century, and it’s not cyclical but linear or even exponential, humanity is screwed and we’re all gonna die.

    Just thought I’d mention that.

  42. 92
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #54, and GW “didn’t cause Katrina” because GW is only about overall statistics & not individual events.

    I might be wrong, but I don’t think scientists are ruling out GW’s possible role in enhancing Katrina. While they cannot attribute Katrina to GW (or even to the increased average warming of the ocean from GW), neither can they say GW did not enhance Katrina’s intensity. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Maybe a way to look at it is that there is (1) GW, the statistics scientists gather and analyze, and (2) GW, the reality (of which no one has complete grasp, leaving room for skeptics to doubt that GW is real & contrarians to cause a big fuss over). GW1 tells us that on average the world is warming. GW2 (reality) reveals an uneven pattern of warming — some places are getting cooler, but most places are getting warmer, some a lot warmer. The SST that helped spawn Katrina was 6+ degrees F above normal; it could be a fluke normal random fluctuation (due to a host of natural causes), or…maybe normal fluctuations, plus the shallowness of the Gulf of Mexico coupled with GW, causing some greater SST increase. However, the best we can do is statistics (coupled with theory), so scientists cannot (yet) attribute single events to GW.

    Another way to look at it is, culture is a way of constructing reality. I assure my students that I, for one, believe there is a real reality. Let’s call it R. However, we cannot perceive it directly, but only through our sociocultural constructions of it, r1, r2,….rn. Science is one of those ways of constructing reality; though it is powerful (& “skilled”), it is not the real reality. And it has developed in time hopefully to help us understand and avert the ill effects of AGW (the reality); I hope not simply to in excruciating detail those effects as we continue to render the earth less and less inhabitable for humans & other species. AGW skeptics and denialists have different constructions of AGW (as false, or not so bad), as do environmentalists, who may be skeptical of science, that it is unable to tell us (yet) the more gruesome story that is beginning to unfolding & may soon become irreversible for a long time.

    Personally, I think Katrina may have been enhanced by GW to some extent or the other, and my impression is that idea is no more right or wrong than that of any one else. Scientists just can’t prove it one way or the other.

  43. 93
    PHEaston says:

    Re Pat Neuman (88)
    1. My full response (85) to your earlier comment is not displayed.
    2. What do you mean by ‘contrarians’? It sounds like a good description for those who are contrary to open scientific debate.
    3. I am not familiar with the arguments you refer to. Perhaps I should look into them.
    4. The principal issue is not: what causes CO2 increases; it is: what is the impact of CO2 increases.

    [Response: Re: 1. You used a < symbol which was interpreted as html. Use “& l t ;” instead. Fixed now. – gavin]

  44. 94
    PHEaston says:

    Gavin: Re your response to 93. Not expecting you to print this – but thanks for the corrections and your willingness to allow some differences in viewpoint! If you don’t, then you have no debate. I realise that some text gets corrupted.



  45. 95
    Pat Neuman says:

    By contrarians I meant the people who have views contrary to GHG emissions being the main cause of 20th-21st century global warming.

    From a new book (Thin Ice by Mark Bowden, 2005), it’s clear to me that increasing atmospheric CO2 has been driving global warming.

  46. 96
    Kenneth Blumenfeld says:

    Re: 89:

    I agree. The language of the AASC draft makes the climate change debate seem more up-in-the-air than it really is. I note that it was drafted in 2001 and is overdue for an update.

    I personally wish that the AASC would drop any statement until the body of state climatologists has actually reviewed the relevant literature to reach their consensus. Again, these are for the most part, local climate experts, and maybe nature-of-the-data experts, but not global climate experts…with some exceptions of course.

    I feel the same way about NWS meteorologists working at forecast offices, television meteorologists etc. With some very rare exceptions, these are not people who have expertise about global climate change. The public may assume they are, but that, in my opinion, does not grant them any meaningful authority on the topic (though it is an authority they often exploit, nevertheless). The experts are the contributors to this site (among others), and these are the people who the public needs to be hearing from.

    The vast majority of climatologists and meteorologists do not understand the nuances of the climate change debate…they may only understand the barest elements–the shape of the hockey stick, a crackpot myth about it, but not the substantive details. I would actually venture to guess that many of the regular visitors to this site who are not trained in the atmospheric sciences have more knowledge about the state of climate change science than most operational and research meteorologists and climatologists. Changing that may seem useful, but it would require changing the atmospheric sciences to place global change as the centerpiece of the discipline…which it is not at present.

  47. 97
    Pat Neuman says:

    No single person, agency or group in the U.S. is being held accountable for educating the public on what’s really happening to climate, and what needs to be done about global warming.

  48. 98
    Hank Roberts says:

    “No single person, agency or group in the U.S. is being held accountable for educating the public” period.

  49. 99
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re: 98.

    As a private citizen self-only, I was thinking along these lines for helping to inform the general public about global warming, not necessarily the same agency, but who else?

    The NOAA and NWS outreach program for educators

    … NWS provides awareness and preparedness materials to the education community to help inform the general public how to minimize their risk against severe weather events in their community. NWS material for the education community includes internet web sites, prototype interactive programs, publications and posters. The NWS has an outreach person in each local field office to work with local communities and educators to provide useful products and services. The NWS has recently produced a new web site for high school teachers and students. A middle school project, â??Xtreme Weatherâ?? is ready for testing in middle schools. A newly revised of the popular weather book, â??Owlie Skywarnâ?? has been printed and is suitable for elementary students. Collaborating with organizations such as the American Red Cross, The Weather Channel, the American Meteorological Society, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Homeland Security allows the NWS to broaden its reach into local schools, communities and the general public.

  50. 100

    I am more for immediate explanations, transmitted on a regular basis not as always with the occasional TV special, I believe that a climate segment should tag along with regular weather broadcasts, not in 5 seconds before a commercial break, but as a clear a way as explaining Doppler radar images. I think that most TV met specialists have a lot of talent, they can translate science journals just as much as interpret a weather forecast from GCM maps into simple every day lay words.. There is an insatiable appetite to learn about climate especially when extreme weather is happening, at that moment, the audience is starving for information. The biggest thing to do is to keep the public more informed than with a 3 day forecast, It would be a start fosterng a smaller audience for exaggerating skeptics, shedding the limelight to more complex issues does nothing but challenge the viewers to reason.