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Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 November 2008

Debra Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a history of writing misleading contrarian pieces on climate change. She contacted NASA Public Affairs recently for a comment on the initial glitch on the October GHCN numbers (see this earlier post for discussions of that). They forwarded the query to me and since her questions were straightforward, I answered them as best I could. Indeed in her subsequent column, she quotes me accurately and in context. However, the rest of her column shows none of the same appreciation for basic journalistic standards.

She starts by asking why newspapers are no longer trusted – a good question, and one that may indeed be answerable. However the column quickly goes off the rails. First off, her headline “When the warmest year in history isn’t” doesn’t appear to be related to any actual content. Possibly it refers to the 1934/1998 hoohah from last year (again see posts passim for discussion on its irrelevance to global warming). Journalists don’t generally write their own headlines, but a vague connection to current events is the more usual practice.

Next, she gets the Oreskes’ Science and society paper story completely wrong (it was a sampling of literature and survived numerous challenges to its validity – see here and here). Then she uncritically quotes David Bellamy (a late-developing contrarian who used to present natural history programs on the BBC) who appears to think that an anti-GW article he wrote in 2004 is responsible for him not presenting BBC documentaries since 1994 (an event he had previously blamed on his running against John Major (then UK prime minister) in an election). She then throws in a few completely untrue ‘facts’ (i.e. “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” (not) and “in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased” (no it didn’t) or that there ‘has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ (wrong again: 0.21 +/- 0.13 deg C/dec GISTEMP, OLS, 95% CI)). However, note that she is quoting Bellamy and Lindzen here, so that it can be plausibly claimed that she is just reporting the statements rather than endorsing their nonexistent truth value. Sneaky. She even quotes Marc Morano and the Erika Lovley column in support of a contention that the consensus is collapsing. Oh dear.

In fact, the only bit of original reportage in the piece comes from the email from me; the rest of the article is simply a cut-and-paste of untrue and unverified claims strung together in a facsimile of logical argument. Why is it so hard for newspapers to insist that their columnists at least make an effort to check their facts? If she can email NASA about the GHCN issue, she could have emailed any number of people about the other points she made if she’d wanted to get it right.

The sad thing is that this kind of empty rhetoric is being employed at a time when maximum intellectual effort needs to be put into dealing with the energy and climate situation. As I’ve said elsewhere, the reflexive refusal of some commentators (on the right and, occasionally, the left) to come to terms with the reality of climate change is profoundly disappointing and an abdication of their potentially constructive role in public life.

If Ms. Saunders wants an answer for why “people don’t trust newspapers”, she need only fact-check her own column.

262 Responses to “Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?”

  1. 201

    Gavin – regarding your comment about David Bellamy, you might like to know that he has been a global warming skeptic since at least early 1993 (i.e. before his BBC documentaries stopped).

    I did a survey after the Earth Summit in 1992, which was sponsored by the Conservation Foundation (for which David Bellamy is the president), on what “UK environmental decision-makers” thought about the summit, and what should be done next. Respondents were from NGOs, government and business. The report “The Road from Rio” was published in 1993, and had a foreword by Jonathan Porritt. One of the findings was that environmental decision-makers were particularly concerned about “protecting the atmosphere”. (Which we reminds me, I should make a copy of this available as a downloadabble PDF.) In discussing this once with David Bellamy in early 1993, he told me that, in his view, global warming was not happening and that we were heading for another ice age.

    At that time, I knew very little about global warming and, as he was such an eminent scientist, I took his word for it! Now, I tend to think it is all wrapped up in his dislike of wind farms. According to an email exchange I had with David Shreeve of the Conservation Foundation in 2004, David Bellamy has been against wind farms since around 1990.

    Peter Winters,

  2. 202
    Hank Roberts says:

    > solar panels
    I’d suggest checking solar hot water (preheating the input to regular water heaters). I think the payback is always going to be faster, and for sure the technology’s not changing nearly as fast as solar photovoltaic panels.

    (Besides solar collectors, there are also some interesting air-water heat exchangers coming out, mostly still in Europe, also for boosting water heater input temps.)

  3. 203
    Eli Rabett says:

    T P Hamilton, what you pointed to is the HITRAN data base maintained by Larry Rothman at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. It is available to anyone working in climate related areas by request.

  4. 204
    Mark says:

    RichardC, you forget that the reason why such metals are deadly are because they can be concentrated because they have been collected somewhat. I note you didn’t counter mercury.

    Would that be because it shows that you are wrong is discounting the possibility that the chemicals are being concentrated and this can change benign to malign.

    And no counter for the choking hazzard?

  5. 205
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    Mark writes:

    And in an existence where the end result is pointless, we have two choices:

    a) give up and die
    b) don’t accept that pointlessness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it

    I go for (b). I may not change things. I may not make a difference. But the pointlessness of trying doesn’t mean I will give up.

    Right on! The ship may be going down, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a living hell while it’s still floating. Well-brought-up people have always regarded the Tower and the tumbril as the place for best clothes and best manners. We may be on the sinking Titanic, but let’s keep playing Nearer, My God to Thee until we’re actually in the water.

    Seriously, right on!

  6. 206
    pete best says:

    OFF TOPIC ====================

    2008 is the coldest year since 2000 and the skeptics are gonna swarm over this regardless of the la nina event bringup that lovely cold eater in the pacific ocean to bring some releif to the temperature rises.

    So Global warming is off – lets burn the oil, gas and coal, develop the tar sands, prospect for more fuel of fossil variety and wait for the atmosphere to warm an amount that cannot be argued which requires about 450 ppmv of CO2e. Then we can sit back and watch the ice caps pass away over 100 years off cause and effect.

    I like wasps in winter and flowers in late winter – so beautiful, can’t be anything wrong can there ?

    Happy Christmas to all climate people. Its so cold it might snow ;)

  7. 207
    RichardC says:

    204 Mark, it takes decades for toxic effects to accumulate enough to *maybe* kill a smoker. 40 cigarettes a day must have hundreds of times the toxins of a single butt (to counter the relative size argument), accumulation via ingestion is far less efficient than via smoking, and we accept larger risks to wild animals than people, so I don’t see toxic effects to wildlife being an issue. Digestive tract blockage? Filters are very weak when wet. They’ll shred and pass through.

    Filters pose one significant risk to the environment – discarded cigarette butts can start fires. (This is my last butt post – back on topic for me!)

  8. 208

    OK, the media are atrocious; haven’t heard one word about the UN Climate Conf in Poland. So WE have to do something to spread the news. Here’s something I got from They want us to comment on their YouTube video so it will get enough comments to be promoted by YouTube:

    I need your help with an experiment. Can you take 2 minutes watch an animation and help take over YouTube?
    A little background: starting a week ago, a few members of the international team have converged for the annual UN Climate Conference. It’s a little crazy here–over 9,000 people representing 190 countries have gathered to negotiate our collective future. Things are changing by the hour, and there’s both bad news and good news to report.


  9. 209
    Pat Neuman says:

    A graph of ENSO values going back to 1876 is at the link below.
    Does anyone know of link to the values used in constructing that graph?

  10. 210
    Karen Street says:

    Deborah Howell, Washington Post ombudsman, has a piece on getting the science right, mostly focusing on medical hype:

    Her main points:
    · Look for the evidence.
    · Look for context.
    · Look beyond the lead paragraph and headline.
    · Who sponsored the research and who makes money from its findings?

    “In the end, all that counts is evidence.”

    This doesn’t address op-ed pieces. It does reference a report including luminaries such as Donald Kennedy as project advisors.

  11. 211
    Hank Roberts says:

    Pat, the 1876 chart (and some of the other related links on that NOAA/PMEL page) go to entries on Dr. Kessler’s page, at this source:

    PageUp to the top of that page for his contact information, I think that’s your best bet for answering where the chart data came from.

  12. 212
    jcbmack says:

    General response, oil availability. I suggest you guys pick up or read at the bookstore, the latest newsletter from atomic scientists or read the latest reports coming from the UK from several geologists. The oil availability has gone flat, whether or not you want to agree with the ‘peak theory,’ or whether that has actually occurred as of yet. I do not have the newsletter right on front of me, as I decided to read it at the book store (those flimsy magazines are 12.00 a piece)but it does contain loads of information regarding the shrinking importing of oil due to increased middle eastern domestic usage and reduced yields at key locations. I am considering obtaining a subscription, however, as it has detailed and to the point factual articles.

  13. 213
    truth says:

    Not a boffin(183):
    As Mark(185) said, the bet thing has been done—and the predictions have been made by the AGW side, I believe.
    It’s the AGW side making the predictions, not the sceptics as Mark seems to be saying.
    But have the AGW model predictions proved to be correct?
    There certainly seems to be questioning on whether they have—on heating of the troposphere—-on increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes and cyclone —on predicted soil moisture level changes—on ocean warming—-on increased frequency of El Nino —-on increases in coral bleaching events related to warming—on glacier retreat correlated with AGW [ some of them having retreated when there was no anthropogenic CO2].
    From what I’ve read, the model predictions don’t correlate too well with observations—and with so much at stake, surely it’s natural that people would question the models.
    And the fact that sceptics refused to bet might just mean that they think the issue is too important for betting—maybe they’d rather have alternative views considered and discussed , without the sneers and extreme condescension—and anger.
    I think, from what has happened so far, ‘not a boffin’, your confidence in the outcome might be misplaced.

  14. 214
    Mark says:

    207: a single cancer cell is not considered to be dangerous.

    Fail again.

  15. 215
    RichardC says:

    215 Mark, were you alluding to the fact that most everyone develops a single cancer cell frequently and the immune system usually kills it off? Whatever your point (or joke?) was, it’s clear as mud. Could you explain it, please?

    “He who resorts to anecdotal absolutes has lost the debate.” — but such things sell newspapers. The National Enquirer figured out that hitting core fears and beliefs is more profitable and politically effective than truth, and that cancer has spread unchecked.

  16. 216
    Ray Ladbury says:

    The ironically named “truth” says, “But have the AGW model predictions proved to be correct?”
    He then proceeds to a laundry list of results from individual studies that are still active areas of research–hardly predictions. Maybe, “truth” you could spend just half the amount of time you devote to your favorite denialist propagandists and learn enough about what the science actually says to make your posts germane. Pretty please. Climate becomes evident on timescales of 30 years or longer. We do not yet have sufficient resolution in the models to make confident predictions on ENSO or tropical storm activity. We do know things will get warmer, large, episodic storms will increase, sea levels will rise, etc. This is sufficient to establish climate change as a serious threat.

    ReCAPTCHA alludes to for whom the bell tolls: Meeting Dunne

  17. 217
    Arch Stanton says:

    Mark, enemies do not lurk in -all- the shadows here. You might try forming alliances rather than beating everyone into submission; just a thought.

  18. 218
    Jim says:

    I know I’ve been difficult (and perhaps a bit dense), but if you would indulge me one last time, and then I will go away for a while. Many of you have responded already, and have provided lists of references for me to try to understand. I am, as you are no doubt well aware, a bit out of field. I am cutting and pasting all of your responses to me into a Word file.. (I hope that doesn’t violate any copyright laws of RealClimate, please let me know if I shouldn’t do this.) I move slowly, and it will take me some time to get through all of this – at least months I’m guessing. If I get through it, and still have objections, I hope you won’t mind if I come back briefly.

    Before I sign off, (and I will check your posts before I post this, in case it has been answered), please indulge me one last time, if you will. Ray and Eli, you seem to be experts in the area of radiation, so your comments would be particularly appreciated. Up until about 2 years ago, I had never encountered the term Local
    Thermal Equilibrium (LTE). I would like to provide my understanding here, in my own words, since I don’t have the book at home anyway. This will give you the opportunity, if you choose, to see how I am thinking about it, and where I am wrong (or not).


    1. Radiation emitted from a pinhole in an enclosure takes on the Planck distribution, which means the radiation is a characteristic of temperature only. The size, shape, and composition of the enclosure do not effect this distribution. The presence or absence of materials within the enclosure does not effect this distribution.

    2. It is therefore assumed that all materials within the enclosure, or comprising the enclosure, share common radiative properties when the temperature is uniform throughout – true thermal equilibrium. This was postulated by Kirchoff, and the emission from a pinhole has been measured, and does indeed follow the Planck distribution.

    3. Therefore, removing the enclosure, if the temperature is not altered (since the radiation is only a function of temperature), provides for retention of the Planck distribution. We get a theory of LTE that says when the temperatures are stable, we can use the Planck distribution for the emission, and do not need to worry about the composition.

    4. If I have missed anything, please provide it. My disagreement rests with point 3, so particularly criticize that one if I’ve misrepresented the theory.

    5. The data does show a Planck distribution from an enclosure. I have yet to see any data that shows a Planck distribution from anything else. There are copious data that demonstrate IR as a useful “molecular fingerprint” both in absorption and
    emission. Lampblack is about as close as we get to a true blackbody. There appear to be no blackbodies. It appears that based on measurement, enclosed radiation attains a Planck distribution, but open radiation does not obtain a Planck distribution.

    6. From what I have read, the calculations used to predict the greenhouse effect incorporate the assumption that in LTE things radiate according to the Planck function, and that this is based on an argument similar to what I have presented, in which removal of the enclosure leaves the enclosed substance with a Planck emission

    7. At the moment, I don’t accept this because I don’t believe there is any data to support it. I don’t know of any measurement of emission in an open system that takes on a Planck distribution – certainly not in the range of standard ambient temperatures and pressures, and certainly not from the gas phase.

    8. If I have misrepresented the LTE argument, please correct me.

    9. I have much to read and study – it will take much of my spare time – Thank you.

    10. If you wish, I can be contacted at .

    11. If I get through all of this and change my mind, I will let you know. If you think I’ve been unjust in my arguments, and if I discover I am wrong, I will post an apology.

    I appreciate your time.

  19. 219
    Anne van der Bom says:

    #213, truth

    But have the AGW model predictions proved to be correct? There certainly seems to be questioning on whether they have—on heating of the troposphere—-on increase in frequency and intensity of hurricanes and cyclone —on predicted soil moisture level changes—on ocean warming—-on increased frequency of El Nino —-on increases in coral bleaching events related to warming—on glacier retreat correlated with AGW [ some of them having retreated when there was no anthropogenic CO2]

    From what I’ve read, the model predictions don’t correlate too well with observations

    Being a bit less vague would help you a lot in getting some useful feedback from the more knowledgeable posters. Can you reveal your sources? Produce some numbers?

    My thoughts on your objections:

    Climate models do not predict hurricane intensity explicitly. The resolution of climate models is too low for that. Any predictions regarding hurricane intensity are based on the models’ predictions of ao SST’s.

    RealClimate had an article about El Nino and global warming. Read it and then report if you still think climate models predicted an increase in El Nino frequency. My conclusion from reading the article and linked articles was: part of the models do not simulate El Nino accurately, so can’t be used to do any meaningful predictions. Others do a better job, but are not unanimous in their predictions. So I would like to know where your claim comes from that the climate models predicted an increased frequency of El Nino.

    Coral bleaching events? Never heard of a climate model predicting these.

    I don’t think explaining past glacier retreat falls under the category of ‘predictions’. But anyway, glaciers are very localized artifacts. Climate models are not fine grained enough to be able to predict individual glaciers. If you see any glacier that does not ‘behave as predicted’, it is because climate models do not predict the length of individual glaciers.

    That’s four claims you made about failing climate model predictions that imo were never predicted in the first place. Therefore I ask you kindly again: where are your sources?

  20. 220
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hi Jim, First to clarify–the type of radiation I am expert in is the type that breaks your electronics in space. I’m a physicist who has looked into these issues and refreshed my recollection of what I learned 25 years ago in grad school. On this site, I’m a student just like all the posters.
    I think it is important to understand the processes that give rise to the Planck distribution, which is just the equilibrium distribution of a photon gas at a given temperature. But how do photons come into equilibrium, since they don’t interact with each other? The only way is for them to interact with matter and through processes of absorption, re-radiation, collisional excitation and relaxation, etc. come into equilibrium with both the matter and itself. You may have read that there are no true black bodies, and this is true. Matter can only absorb and emit electromagnetic radiation at energies corresponding to energy transitions within it. So we introduce terms like grey body, where absorption and emission vary over the spectrum. However, where you do have absorption and emission, you do get something that looks blackbody, but with chunks missing in between. It’s important to understand this stuff thoroughly before moving on. If you don’t understand black-body radiation, you wont’ understand planetary atmospheres.
    As to LTE, it is an abstraction at some level. At equilibrium, temperature and pressure are constant. That’s not the case in the atmosphere. So we divide the atmosphere into small volumes where it does apply. Still the volumes and times over which it applies are large and long with respect to the molecular processes. It’s an approximation that allows us to do the math (note that nobody really knows how to handle systems far from equilibrium in general). What is more, it works very well precisely because of the short timescale of molecular interactions. Physics (especially stat mech) is full of approximations that may look suspect to people who aren’t familiar with them. Usually they are implemented to make the calculation easier. Then people develop new ways of doing the calculation without the calculation (e.g. computer models, etc.) and find the approximation yields the right result. We’ve been saved by the law of large numbers more than once.

  21. 221
    jcbmack says:

    Jim, do over complicate matters, but you are on the right track with your reading and questions.

  22. 222
    Mark says:

    Jim 218. Difficult in that it is hard to separate genuine query from denialist rhetoric. Mostly because your queries have not been phrased accurately enough to be able to tell the difference.

    The optimists answer a question that you may have meant based on you being sincere but when they get the question wrong, the answer helps neither.

    And pessimists (like me) take the idea that we might as well consider answering as if it were a denialist asking that question because it saves time.

    I think you need to think carefully.

    Point one: LTE. There’s a reason why it’s called Local Thermal Equilibrium. Often it’s because there is no equilibrium. But it is assumed there is because it makes some difficult terms tractable or disappear.

    Consider whether LTE is the right model for what you’re trying to ask. I suspect it isn’t, but it takes someone with MUCH more quantum radiative transfer knowledge to answer that definitively.

    Point two: the radiative body assumes reflection and ignores absorbtion lines. This is DEFINITELY not the case when you’re talking about a partially opaque atmosphere.

    Consider whether your model for plank radiation is applicable in the earths atomsphere. I think we can all agree it has problems. Big problems.

    Point three: EVERYTHING that is several optical depths thick and has no temperature gradient over that depth is a black body in its personal radiation (differences being mainly in the reflectivity), lamp black and actually *being* black doesn’t change it. But it does help to remove any single spectra incident radiation from skewing your results because that energy gets thermalised quickly and doesn’t get to reflect much. That really is where the earth’s atmosphere has problems (see #2 above). It’s optically thick at much of the IR range but optically thin at visible range.

    Now, as to your queries.

    1: Irrelevant to the discussion. The set up of the enclosure is to exclude external influences outside the remit of the phenomenon being investigated.

    2: This is an assumption that throws away lots of terms we don’t want to consider in generating the equation for a perfect black body. Just like a perfect gas, this breaks down when you look closely (an ideal gas has molecules of no extent, so, for example, triple collisions are impossible, which isn’t true in a real gas).

    3: This is, AFAIK, incorrect. It is *a* conclusion but not the one that is the reason for doing this modeling assumption. Removing the enclosure doesn’t change the radiative properties of the constituents unless new energy is introduced by the removal of the barrier. E.g. 15micron radiation. You may be setting this up to fail.

    4: Yes, see #3 above. LTE can be applied to the quasi-static state of the atmosphere but the assumptions mean that LTE isn’t L enough. I have to say I don’t see why you bring this up, though. Lets see if the remaining points show this up.

    5: Look at the sun. Not with your eye but with a photometer behind a diffraction grating. Draw the intensity at each wavelength. Compare with Planck’s formula. Good (if not complete) match. See “Point three” above.

    This still hasn’t shown anything to discuss though.

    6: This was true for initial computations. However, radiative transfer physics has put most of this on a firm footing that doesn’t require anything near the simplifications needed before. Is the problem that your knowledge is too old?

    7: This really does seem like a non-sequitor to me. Why does the lack of a physical system that demonstrates that prove the model wrong? See also the Sun’s photosphere. Heck the pyrometer for measuring temperatures relies on black body for its measurement. Look it up in a metrology course or google it. Obsoleted mostly by photometers backed with diffraction gratings, but still used in terrestrial measurements that don’t need huge accuracies.

    8: I fail to see where LTE has let you down. Your beef seems to be “Well, it’s all nicely argued, but where is this done in reality?”.

    Well, in the atmosphere on the earth, for example. That’s a little bit bootstrapping but the conclusions for LTE application to the atmosphere agrees with the unmodelled quantum radiative transfer calculations done on the same system.

    So if I can try to explain what I see as a solution is that

    a) LTE is pretty good at overall features.
    b) LTE is terrible at minutae where the assumptions break down
    c) However, that is taken into account and is the entire reason for CO2 being a GHG, though it is outside the LTE model and therefore modifies the output
    d) You CAN mix models, you know. LTE for most of the energy modelling, modification by another model and feedback to account for non-linearities
    e) The lack of what you want to see in expression of the model is a fault of your own desire to read up and TRY to see where a phenomenon elicits the answers you seek
    f) Any failure in LTE is merely because the assumptions break down. Why you think that makes LTE wrong, I can’t see.

  23. 223
    Mark says:

    Arch, 217. Where’s the fun in that?

    If someone throws stuff at you and when you turn to face them they say “Hey, just a bit of a larf”, this doesn’t mean they are telling the truth.

    Likewise, if someone says “Hey, I just want to learn but surely…”, it doesn’t mean they want to learn.

    Now if they ask a question that CAN be answered and couldn’t have been countered by the querist themselves if they’d just thought about it, then I don’t thump them metophorically. If the same person asks a good question then asks a dumb one, they get answered as best I can (if I can) on the first and thumped on the second.

    That’s how you train animals to do things properly. Reward the good behaviour, punish the bad. And do so whether they have been good before or not.

  24. 224
    Mark says:

    Richard 215. Recent medical tests and models have shown that a single cancer cell a much bigger danger than they’d assumed.

    Likewise “well, it has to be concentrated even more” is hand-wavy and a hand-wavy answer of “So? Single cancer cells are deadly” is as good a rebuttal and as well backed up.

    You see, I can’t see why you refuse to think about whether the waste produced by, for example, filter tips could be harmless just by simply saying “they used to be there before, so how bad can they be now”?

    In the same way you can’t see what I was on about.

    So it looks like I nailed about the right level of rigour in my answers as you have.


  25. 225
    Mark says:

    213: “It’s the AGW side making the predictions, not the sceptics as Mark seems to be saying.
    But have the AGW model predictions proved to be correct?”

    How about “The climate is going into it’s cooling cycle”? That’s a skeptic (OK, denialist, but you don’t want to call yourself that, so we’ll use the term you’ll accept) prediction. Worse, they DON’T EVEN HAVE A MODEL!!!!

    Please try again.

  26. 226
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 207, 214

    Life is full of little surprises.

  27. 227
    jcbmack says:

    As always, well said, could not have said that better myself, ray.

  28. 228
    jcbmack says:

    that is actually it… Ray, Eli, Mark, and myself have answered your questions, comments and explained the science, the knowns, unknowns, and uncertainties; the experiments performed, the basics of the math applications and how these laws work out. Each of us from our respective fields and approaches. I entertained your questions, because it is not always good to attack people with questions and contrary views until you see what they are asking (and what they think they are asking) and what they know and do not know, in this regard I was more optimistic because for me it is as fun to go into rigorous details form that perspective as it is for Mark to be pessimistic. I hope these discussion have opened up your eyes. In Pchem there are a lot of things we cannot directly observe, but the approximations fit the results we see. To own a P chemistry book is fine, but to understand it is another matter. There really is no more that can be explained to you without you having taken physical chemistry and understanding stat mechanics and stat thermodynamics. Perhaps you were not genuine as Mark asserts, or assumes, but there really is no further the explanation can go in this regard.

    The atmosphere is not static and altitudes change properties as do optical thickness already pointed out, the earth is an open system, but this does nothing to change the properties of green house gases observed or the attributions made, no not years of discussion, just a few long days. I wish you luck, get to a decent university, I think your inquisitive mind may make you a scientist yet.

  29. 229
    Hank Roberts says:

    > train animals to do things properly. Reward the good behaviour,
    > punish the bad. And do so whether they have been good before or not.

    “… Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to use punishment sparingly is that punishment fails to address the fact that the bad behavior is occurring because it has somehow been reinforced—either intentionally or unintentionally. That is, owners tend to punish bad behaviors some of the time while inadvertently rewarding these same behaviors at other times. In this way, they accidentally set their pets up to receive punishment repeatedly by sometimes unintentionally rewarding the bad behavior, which is how the behavior was learned in the first place. This inconsistency is confusing to the animal and can cause frustration or anxiety. Punishment also fails to tell the animal what it should be performing instead…..”

    Acting punitively may be very reinforcing to the person doing it.
    Be wary of that.

  30. 230
    Hank Roberts says:

    The quote above is a brief excerpt from this page:
    Recommendations and citations are provided there.

  31. 231
    RichardC says:

    226 Hank, of course a single cancer cell represents a danger, just as a loaded gun represents danger. The issue is absolutism VS. probability. Yep, some animals in a population will be exposed to a toxin from litter, some of those will develop a single cancer cell (or some other life-threatening harm) and a subset of those will die. If the probabilities are 0.01%, 1% and 10% for a given non-human species, then the 0.00001% fatality rate is not significant. Nobody has posted any evidence that the actual probabilities are higher. The null hypothesis does not require evidence to hold the field. Your contention, that there is significant harm, requires evidence. Do we disagree on the definitions? I say it would take at least a 0.1% extermination rate even in a low-R species to be considered significant.

    223, Mark, punishment teaches the punished to either avoid punishment or to punish the punisher. By reducing human motivations to amoebaesque levels, you lose sight of real human responses. That’s why building more prisons and dropping more bombs simply doesn’t work. Besides, the example given – of inflicting “punishment” by entering text on a computer (Take THAT!) assumes that the “punished” gives a dang. Punishment usually teaches the punished to hate the punisher. It also teaches bystanders to despise the punisher. Did you read Arch’s 217?

  32. 232
    Eli Rabett says:

    The simplest way of describing LTE is to say that if you can find a single temperature which characterizes the quantum state distributions of energy and the kinetic energy distribution you have LTE. Sometimes you settle for close enough, the balance being that the smaller the volume you are talking about, the larger the fluctuations consistent with LTE.

  33. 233
    Mark says:

    re 231: That’s why there’s reward for good behaviour.

    Odd that you forgot that.

  34. 234
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    RichardC writes:

    That’s why building more prisons and dropping more bombs simply doesn’t work.

    [edit – too OT sorry]

  35. 235

    On the issue of \behaviorist posting\ (#223, et seq.), I would say that the model used is inappropriate. Specifically, in training an animal there is a hierarchical power relationship, more or less accepted by both parties to the training. On a site such as RC, however, this is not the case. Behaviorist punishment/reward strategies implicitly bring such relationships into play, and the usual, predictable result is a power struggle. One player will probably end up going away angry; the other may feel vindicated–reinforced!–but will not have changed anyone’s mind.

  36. 236
    Hank Roberts says:

    RC works using reward (e.g. “Good question!” from Gavin or another contributors) and by timeout. That’s effective, proven quality site.

    Don’t mistake ‘punishment’ for ‘behaviorist’ — not so.
    A real expert explains:
    “Get real

    If in real life you have to wade in with an aversive to stop something from happening … so be it. Animals do reprimand (the official biologist term) their young and each other.

    You’ll have interrupted or stopped a dangerous event. Just don’t kid yourself that you’ve taught or guaranteed any particular change for the future.”

  37. 237
    Rando says:

    A discussion on the influence of the oceans and observed atmospheric warming. Likely not the right place for this, but there were some psuedo related discussions in this thread. Also I’m not familiar with the journal or authors.

    Compo, G.P. and P.D. Sardeshmukh. 2008. Oceanic influences on recent continental warming. Climate Dynamics, DOI 10.1007/s00382-008-0448-9.

  38. 238
    jcbmack says:

    Negative reinforcment works well. You offer soemthing or take something to reduce the occurence of an action. Like when you take tylenol to get rid of a headache. More practically to this discussion, when a student who acts up is given points or tickets to buy something in the classroom store each day he or she does not engage in problematic behavior. Behaviorism does not promote punishment, nor does the current paradigm of cognitive behaviorism. Burrhus Frederick Skinner (more famously referred to as BF Skinner) was on to something in his experiments and resulting from the “Skinner Box,” among other experiments showing the powerful forces of “Operant Conditioning,” or learning conditioning. For the behaviorists pscyhology is the science of behavior, not the mind. Of course the accidental discovery by the physiologist Ivan Pavlov with the canines must also not be forgotten, in which the simple pheneomnea of classical conditioning was discovered (or more aptly, a phenomena that became coined classical conditioning) or the early works of John B. Watson, Edward Thorndike or the modification of such applications in the 1970’s and 1980’s by the cognitivist (constructivist as well) psychologists.

    In addition the countries of the world that have the death penalty in place have some of the highest violent crime and homicide rates in comparison with the countries that do not. Justice is an important concept, however, it must executed with great care, prudence,compassion, and great skill in order to increase the probability of it having the desired affect, though heinous crimes must be dealt with in absolute firmness, many criminals, mentally ill persons and white colar offenders may benefit from psychotherpay, psychotropic medications and group talk therapy in a secure mental hospital seeting. then again, career criminals with no conscience for what they do may have Axis II personality disorders with other co-morbid features on Axis I and perhaps other personality atrributes that make therapy virtually useless. Punishment is a social ideal, not a psychologcial one, but with overcrowding in prisons and towns amd cities fighting the building of new jails, something must be applied beyond the standard punishment which,obviously does not work.

    Regarding animals it is tempting to punish bad behavior, but this is not condcuive to a mid or long term “learning process.” Animals as George Herbert Mead, especially canines and (and later on felines) may recognize facial expressions in humans, (modern evolutionary psychology and biology has revealed that they do better than humans) but they cannot attach the same level of meaning, and a punishment follows a similar path where its affects are short lived and can become counter productive.


    “Behavior therapy (also called behavior modification or behavioral therapy) may be defined as “the application of experimentally derived principles of learning to the treatment of psychological disorders.”[1] In practice, it takes the form of “psychological counseling to change activity that is undesirable or potentially harmful. Treatment most often is directed toward changing harmful habits, such as discontinuing cigarette smoking, dieting to lose weight, controlling alcohol abuse, or managing stress more effectively.”[2]

    While founded in behaviorism, behavior modification has long been used by psychotherapists, parents, and caretakers of those with special needs who don’t necessarily have a behaviorist “philosophy.” It involves some of the most basic methods to alter human behavior, through operant reward and punishment. Classical conditioning, which aims to affect changes in behavior through associations between stimuli and responses, can also be a component of behavior modification, but it is generally less useful in applied settings because it focuses solely on basic involuntary reactions to stimuli and not on conscious learning associated with a behavior’s function or context.” (end quote)

    Diagnostic and Statistics Manual IV- Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR)

    Sarason & Sarason Abnormal Psychology: The Problem of Maladaptive Behavior.

    Neil Carlson Physiology of Behavior

    New Encylopedia: Behaviorism.

    Consider Ethics Bruce N. Waller.

    Encyclopedia of Philosophy (unabridged)

    Theories of Personality Susan Cloninger.

    Further reading related to this discussion but outside its scope:

  39. 239
    Mark says:

    jcb, I don’t kill anyone.

    Not unless the word is mightier than the sword…

  40. 240
    RichardC says:

    236 Hank, you touch on a good point. Love is the critical factor which allows parents and peers to use punishment effectively. Private sites can use techniques, such as the [edit] phrase, as they link into the peer connection. Columnists, on the other hand, often display hate mail in their office as a badge — if nobody “punishes” them, then they didn’t write an effective piece. Controversial columnists aren’t fact-checked because that would be fatal to their business, and besides, “technically correct” is good enough. Like cigarette butts causing a single cancer cell to develop in a tiny percentage of insects allows folks here to maintain that butts are dangerous — passing fact-checking isn’t terribly hard and doesn’t require more than the barest smidgen of a factoid. Reasonable and Rational can’t be enforced, and Unreasonable resonates – either positively or negatively – with plenty of folks who have a dollar waiting to be spent on a newspaper.

  41. 241
  42. 242
    jcbmack says:

    Mark,I enjoy your posts even when we diagree or end up agreeing when we did not want to… I just added my psychology background to the mix, since Hank went somewhat extensive with it. This place keeps me sane.

  43. 243
    jcbmack says:

    The problems I have with the green movement, Hank are just as strong and numerous as I have with denialists, to create a greener earth you need steel, concrete, CH4 and CO2 emissions anyways and we could never do away completely with carbon footprints, we can merely reduce in the next few decades provided that the lagging of CO2 does not slow things down, (which it will aha!) but seriously we cannot just move onto communes and have gardens, that utopian ideal never worked in the sixties and seventies; the heat waves in Ny and the global heat waves in the nineties coincide with the gasoline and population booms of their respective decades, however,and I am not assuming you,Hank believe that many alarmists are actually educated enough to understand what needs to be done and why; the green movement in some ways is more toxic than denialist and certainly more than many skeptics.

    How many people picture huge structures built to help us become more green with 300 pound engineers and 30 year old scientists with no hair and so forth? This is a dirty, expensive, multi factorial job that we have under way. No easy answers. With the improvements made in utilizing DC current, now that AC current is not the only application with those transformers (Nikola Tesla)we could generate more powerful lines and implement some wind power. Might even be able to accomodate lines for pickens. No references, any engineers who read this know what I am driving at.

  44. 244
    jcbmack says:

    Eli, I agree anything more than that we either need to treat it with very nasty phsysics, chemistry, and math or conversely just say which is equally true: no one knows, past Hyrdogen we cannot measure it all, and the atmosphere is a vast open system. Methane is far too large in an open system, as is CO2 and so forth. Approximations and results that agree closely with the laws and current theories. Jim had no idea what he was really asking, but I felt it best to tell him as much as possible, actually Atkins explains it nicely in the language of math.

  45. 245

    As mentioned above THE HINDU is a much better newspaper than the ones we have here in America. Not only are they talking about the UN Climate Conf in Poznan, but about the 24 mill climate refugees of today, and the 200 mill expected by 2050.


    They operate under the assumption that they have to present the news…not overly dwelling on tabloid stories like the OJ trial.

  46. 246

    As mentioned in #58 THE HINDU is a much better newpaper than the ones we have here in American. Not only are they reporting on the UN Climate Conf in Poznan, but also the 24 mill climate refugees at present, expected to climb to 200 mill by 2050.


    They operate under the quaint notion that they should report the news.

  47. 247
    Geoff Wexler says:

    The UK media on climate.

    I think that the BBC web site is considerably better than its other offerings but I don’t have much time to follow it.

    BBC TV and Radio channels are very poor. I would not like to blame their two correspondents Roger Harrabin and Susan Watts. The problem lies higher up in the BBC. They appear to have decided that Science will lower its audience figures. The best that they have offered recently, was a series by a geologist called Ian Stewart called the Climate Wars. That series was a lost opportunity. It appeared to follow the contrarian agenda but without reaching its conclusions. It was good on Keeling and some of the other observations. But it was too timid to spend much time on the science or the history. It started with a warning sent to the US president about an impending ice age which was eventually overthrown by one hot summer which he remembered as a child… and then some more hot years in the 1980’s. The history was truncated just as in the GGWS programme on Channel 4. In the final programme he attended a contrarian conference and gaped at Monckton who was reduced to conspiracy theory. It was a shallow offering like all of the rest.

    Several years ago ,there was the partially controversial and confusing Horizon programme called Global Dimming which was discussed in Realclimate. It is time for an up-date. There have been signs of an improvement in Horizon recently when a high energy physicist was given free reign to present (and write) an entire programme on “Time”. I wonder if one of you experts could be persuaded to approach the BBC with an offering to write one on climate?

    Radio 4’s Moral Maze is a centre for denialism. The self appointed expert Melanie Phillips, is given tacit support by Claire Fox and receives no serious opposition.The climate crisis raises major moral issues which cannot be discussed on that programme.

    The Guardian’s CIF columns tend to have a green leader article followed by a huge number of angry or crazy contrarian comments from all over the world. Once again it would be nice if the Guardian could be persauded to invite a professional with forensic skills like say William Connolly. As for the mob,their comments do need to be answered from time to time.

    I am not sure that the general public appreciates the fine distinctions being made between opinion pieces and reports.
    In any case, The Daily Telegraph does not always separate opinion from reporting (contrary to a remark above). In 2004 it had a report about Solanki headlined “Its the Sun thats to blame”. This was supported by the article but was contradicted by by Solanki’s own papers in 2004. The Telegraph group is intimately tied up with the Monckton/Lawson family as was well illustrated by the huge coverage they gave to one of Monckton’s ‘papers’.

    The Daily Mail is of course home to well know contrarians.

    Channel 4 appears to be run by contrarians. They have never put on a serious programme on the subject.

    This is a serious situation because we have a government which won’t go beyond incremental changes if it means moving ahead of public opinion. It may be worse than that. In the UK agreeing with you is often a way of shutting you up. I have my doubts sometimes that the agreement is more than skin deep.

  48. 248
    Geoff Wexler says:

    RE: LTE.
    I think you get the same problem at the macroscopic level i.e for thermodynamics. The whole subject was originally developed for reversible systems at equilibrium for which it became possible to define first entropy and then temperature. But to restrict it rigorously to equilibrium would have made the subject unuseable. What about heat conduction considered by e.g. Fourier? That is irreversible and entropy is being created. In the modern approach (I believe) you pre-suppose that conditions are close enough to equilibrium to define a local temperature. Then you can develop Onsager’s equations etc. etc. Of course it is possible for these to be violated a long way from equilibrium and the same is probably true for radiative transfer at low enough pressures when there are not enough collisons between the excited CO2 molecules and their neighbours to reach LTE (The last bit came as an answer to one of my questions to RC, way back)

  49. 249
    Nick Gotts says:


    I really can’t make head or tail of that word salad. Can you try and rephrase your point (if any)? What makes you think “the green movement” is demanding that we “just move onto communes and have gardens”? Frankly, I think the problems you have with “the green movement” are in your head, not the real world.

  50. 250
    Mark says:

    Geoff, environmental groups and scientists don’t have the money to spend on advertising.

    There’s 90% of your reason there.