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The legend of the Titanic

Filed under: — rasmus @ 3 May 2012

It’s 100 years since the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, and it’s still remembered today. It was one of those landmark events that make a deep impression on people. It also fits a pattern of how we respond to different conditions, according to a recent book about the impact of environmental science on the society (Gudmund Hernes Hot Topic – Cold Comfort): major events are the stimulus and the change of mind is the response.

Hernes suggests that one of those turning moments that made us realize our true position in the universe was when we for the first time saw our own planet from space.

NASA Earth rise

He observes that

[t]he change in mindset has not so much been the result of meticulous information dissemination, scientific discourse and everyday reasoning as driven by occurrences that in a striking way has disclosed what was not previously realized or only obscurely seen.

Does he make a valid point? If the scientific information looks anything like the situation in a funny animation made by Alister Doyle (Dummiez: climate change and electric cars), then it is understandable.

Moreover, he is not the only person arguing that our minds are steered by big events – the importance of big events was even acknowledged in the fiction ‘State of Fear‘.

A recent paper by Brulle et al (2012) also suggests that the provision of information has less impact than what opinion leaders (top politicians) say.

However, if the notion that information makes little impact is correct, one may wonder what the point would be in having a debate about climate change, and why certain organisations would put so much efforts into denial, as described in books such as Heat is on, Climate Cover-up, Republican war on science, Merchants of doubt, and The Hockeystick and Climate Wars. Why then, would there be such things as ‘the Heartland Institute’, ‘NIPCC’, climateaudit, WUWT, climatedepot, and FoS, if they had no effect? And indeed, the IPCC reports and the reports from the National Academy of Sciences? One could even ask whether the effort that we have put into RealClimate has been in vain.

Then again, could the analysis presented in Brulle et al. be misguided because the covariates used in their study did not provide a sufficiently good representation of important factors? Or could the results be contaminated by disinformation campaigns?

Their results and Hernes assertion may furthermore suggest that there are different rules for different groups of people: What works for scientists doesn’t work for lay people. It is clear from the IPCC and international scientific academies that climate scientists in general are impressed by the increasing information (Oreskes, 2004).

Hernes does, however, acknowledge that a background knowledge is present and may play a role in interpreting events, which means that most of us no longer blame the gods for calamities (in the time before the enlightenment, there were witch hunts and sacrifices to the gods). The presence of the knowledge now provides a rational background, which sometimes seems to be taken for granted.

Maybe it should be no surprise that the situation is as described by Hernes and Brulle et al., because historically science communication hasn’t really been appreciated by the science community (according to ‘Don’t be such a scientist‘) and has not been enthusiastically embraced by the media. There is a barrier to information flow, and Somerville and Hassol (2011) observe that a rational voice of scientists is sorely needed.

The rationale of Hernes’ argument, however, is that swaying people does not only concern rational and intellectual ideas, but also an emotional dimension. The mindset influences a person’s identity and character, and is bundeled together with their social network. Hence, people who change their views on the world, may also distance themselves from some friends and connect with new people. A new standpoint will involve a change in their social connections in addition to a change in rational views. Events, such as the Titanic, Earth rise, 911, and Hurricane Katrina influence many people both through rational thought and emotions, where people’s frame of mind shifts together with their friends’.

What do I think? Public opinion is changed not by big events as such, but by the public interpretation of those events. Whether a major event like hurricane Katrina or the Moscow heat wave changes attitudes towards climate change is determined by people’s interpretation of this event, and whether they draw a connection to climate change – though not necessarily directly. I see this as a major reason why organisations such as the Heartland are fighting their PR battle by claiming that such events are all natural and have nothing to do with emissions.

The similarity between these organisations and the Titanic legend is that there was a widespread misconception that it could not sink (and hence its fame) and now organisations like the Heartland make dismissive claims about any connection between big events and climate change. However, new and emerging science is suggesting that there may indeed be some connections between global warming and heat waves and between trends in mean precipitation and more extreme rainfall.


  1. R.J. Brulle, J. Carmichael, and J.C. Jenkins, "Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010", Climatic Change, vol. 114, pp. 169-188, 2012.
  2. N. Oreskes, "BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change", Science, vol. 306, pp. 1686-1686, 2004.
  3. R.C.J. Somerville, and S.J. Hassol, "Communicating the science of climate change", Physics Today, vol. 64, pp. 48-53, 2011.

169 Responses to “The legend of the Titanic”

  1. 151
  2. 152
    Dan H. says:

    Jim Eager,
    I was referring to the variations have occurred over the past 130+ years. Not just the past few decades. The steady rise is still there among the noisy variations.

  3. 153
    SecularAnimist says:

    gavin wrote to Dan H: “You have no idea.”

    I have “no idea” why Dan H’s blatantly, indeed mockingly, dishonest garbage continues to be posted here. It’s getting to the point where his repetitive falsehoods and distortions and irrelevancies and sneering little flame-bait insults, and the equally repetitive responses to him, are starting to dominate every thread on this site.


  4. 154

    #147–Uh, no, Dan. The 17 year number, as Gavin’s reply says, didn’t just apply to one particular span; it arose from consideration of *every possible such span.*

    And I don’t believe that your allegation that the intervals are ‘becoming longer’ is supported by any real analysis. Certainly a couple of (asserted) instances don’t make your case. What would it have been, calculated from 2005 or 2009? Care to show some work?

  5. 155
    Steve Metzler says:

    @Dan H. (#151):

    Your earlier determination of only a +.035C/decade surface temp anomaly for the last 17 years was based on the RSS dataset. But now even that analysis has been called into question:

    Now, before you even try to claim that the article above refers to the UAH dataset rather than RSS, please bear in mind that Roy says there is no material difference between the two:

    You say that the comparison between HADCRUT3 and HADCRUT4 is ‘subtle’. But you can’t have it both ways. If you instead use the HADCRUT4 dataset to assess the last 17 years:

    suddenly the anomaly becomes +.12C/decade. And that’s over a cherry-picked period that includes the huge 1998 El Niño outlier nearly at the starting point.

    Gee, who are we to believe? ‘Dan H. the dissembler’, or reality?

  6. 156
    t marvell says:

    All this stuff about ups and down in temperature has little importance because of statistical cointegration between temperature and CO2. Cointegration is one of the most important topics in time series analyis (its originators won the Nobel prise for it). Cointegrated variables move around but in the long run cannot move too far appart. They are like two dogs tied together by an 20′ elastic cord. They can run around the field separately, in any direction, but if the distance between them becomes too large, the cord pulls them back towards each other. Temperature and CO2 have that property. No matter what the odd movements are in temperature and CO2 over a few years, they will eventually snap back and move in the same direction. So the odd movements don’t matter.
    I think that the best answer to someone who questions AGW because temperature growth has flattened out is to say “Temperatures increased greatly in the 80’s and 90’s, more than was forecasted. One would expect that eventually there would be a correction, and that growth would level off for a while.” Pretty much anybody can understand that, and it is backed up by statistical theory.
    Also, with any luck, ordinary citizens might understand cointegration itself – e.g., the two-dog analogy – even though the statistical theory behind it is complex.

  7. 157
    Susan Anderson says:

    The most irritating thing is the increasing condescending authoritative tone which appears to be a learning curve on how to sound like a scientist. It doesn’t however, work here since real scientists are, in general, rather patient and quite kind though impatient with nonsense. However, I don’t think RC should be helping in this educational process.

  8. 158
    Marcus says:

    #156 t marvell

    We very humbly thank You for the patient teachings how to explain global warming to others.
    Your sensible and competent treating of the subject, foremost your mind boggling proof for CO2 outgassing oceans really entitles You to do so


  9. 159

    We are indeed privileged to witness the abandonment of science, reason and logic for mathturbation and climastrology.

    Beyond that, words fail.

    Apropos Captcha: commenH upon

  10. 160
    Dan H. says:

    While your belief in Roy Spencer’s statement that there is no material difference between the two datasets, your citation and the actual data shows otherwise. In your citation, Spencer is quoted as saying, “in the last 10 years or so the RSS temperatures have been cooling relative to the UAH temperatures,” this can be seen here:

    Incidentally, here is Spencer’s response to the paper:

    I am not having it both ways with CRU. HADCRUT4 is simply not updated through 2012. As I showed previously, there is only a subtle difference between the two ending in 2010 (which is much less than the difference between UAH and RSS). The trend for HADCRUT3 data from 1995-2010 also has a slope of 0.12C/decade, fractionally lower if you extend out to three decimal places. Including data through 2012, the 17-year slope for CRU3 falls to 0.06C/decade. If you wish to exclude the 1998 El Nino, the 12-year trend is -0.07C/decade, which goes back to Christian’s original premise. That is reality.

  11. 161
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dan H., please
    Revise your program
    _look_ at what you’re typing

    Here, breaking it out into four separate lines, is what you typed:


    What’s wrong with the picture you’re showing people?

    Look at the chart you show from the input you you created:

    Compare — the fourth line versus the other three. See the difference?


    You pretend to cite sources.
    You’re doing it wrong.

  12. 162
    Dan H. says:

    Thanks for the correction – too many object from which to choose. You will notice that it did not change much in the graphs. The statements and citations are still valid.

  13. 163
    Steve Metzler says:

    @Dan H. (#160):

    You blew by 2 very important points in the article by Spencer that I linked to in #155 (and to be fair, I blew by the second one):

    1. Under the graph that compares the RSS and UAH anomolies is the following important note by Roy:

    (In the above plot I have re-computed the RSS anomalies so they are relative to the 1981-2010 average annual cycle we use; this does not affect the trends… just makes it more of an apples-to-apples comparison)

    If you read the Wood for Trees notes carefully, you will discover that the RSS uses a 20-year baseline period (Jan 1979 – Dec 1998), wheras UAH uses a 30 year baseline, with a different starting point (Jan 1981 – Dec 2010). So you need to take this into account like Spencer did when comparing anomalies. Your plot from Wood for Trees doesn’t do that (notwithstanding your swapping in the tropical RSS dataset for the global one for the RSS linear regression plot, as Hank pointed out)!

    2. So over the 30-year period that Spencer shows, the 2 datasets (with RSS adjusted!) are in very good agreement. But it is true that RSS shows marked cooling over the last 10 years relative to UAH, and that fact is certainly going to skew an analysis of just the most recent 17 years (this is the one I blew by). And the reason for it, according to Spencer’s colleague Christy, is apparently:

    Anyway, my UAH cohort and boss John Christy, who does the detailed matching between satellites, is pretty convinced that the RSS data is undergoing spurious cooling because RSS is still using the old NOAA-15 satellite which has a decaying orbit, to which they are then applying a diurnal cycle drift correction based upon a climate model, which does not quite match reality. We have not used NOAA-15 for trend information in years…we use the NASA Aqua AMSU, since that satellite carries extra fuel to maintain a precise orbit.

    Of course, this explanation is just our speculation at this point, and more work would need to be done to determine whether this is the case. The RSS folks are our friends, and we both are interested in building the best possible datasets.

    But, until the discrepancy is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, those of you who REALLY REALLY need the global temperature record to show as little warming as possible might want to consider jumping ship, and switch from the UAH to RSS dataset.

    Which explains everything you need to know about the way Dan H. operates.

  14. 164
    Hank Roberts says:

    >> the 12 year trend
    > still valid

    Please revise the program.
    It’s not convincing.

  15. 165
    Dan H. says:

    That would explain the descrepency between UAH and RSS during the most recent years. I therefore concede that the 12-year RSS trend may not be valid (pending satellite validation), instead deferring to the UAH trend of 0.08C/decade during that time, which matches the GISS trend for the same timeframe.

  16. 166
    Steve Metzler says:

    @Dan H. (#165):

    If 10 of the last 17 years of data from RSS are suspect, that kinda puts the kaibosh on the 17-year RSS trend too, doesn’t it?

  17. 167
    Dan H. says:

    If the last 10 years are suspect, then any analysis extending past the millenium is suspect. Nice catch on the RSS data. I wonder why this information has not been more widely disseminated.

  18. 168

    #166–Although again, the Santer et al. study looked at all TLT satellite measurements, and calculated all possible spans over the satellite record, so their conclusion seem unlikely to be sensitive to the RSS or UAH correction–whichever ends up being warranted…

  19. 169
    Brian Dodge says:

    “If the last 10 years are suspect, then any analysis extending past the millenium is suspect.”
    Do you “suspect” the differences between trends because of adequate mathematical analysis, or just because it fits your narrative? The nice thing about OLS trends is that when one uses all the data, if some of it is noisy or biased, especially near the ends which is most likely to fool the eye, the math isn’t fooled.

    The difference between “spurious cooling…. which does not quite match reality” and “suspect” is roughly the same as that between “inaccurate” and “wrong”, or the difference between “reporting” and “spin”.