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Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2008

I recently came across an old copy of Arthur Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad”. Originally published in 1971, it’s an exploration of a rather tragic footnote in the history of evolutionary science. Back in the early years of the 20th Century (prior to the understanding of DNA, but after Mendelian genetics had become well known), there was still a remnant of the biological community who preferred the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics over the Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations. One of the vanguard for the Lamarckian idea was Paul Kammerer whose specialty was the breeding of amphibians that apparently few others could match. He claimed that he could get his toads and salamanders to acquire characteristics that were useful in the new environments in which he raised his specimens. This was touted loudly (in the New York Times for instance) as proof of Lamarckian inheritance and Kammerer was hailed as a ‘new Darwin’. It all ended very badly when one toad specimen was found to be faked (by who remains a mystery), and Kammerer killed himself shortly afterwards (though there may have been more involved than scientific disgrace).

The details of the experiments and controversy can be read online (with various slants) here and here, and a more modern non-replication of one of his experiments is described here. However, the reason I bring this up here is much more related to how the scientific community and Koestler dealt with this scientific maverick and the analogies that has for the climate science and its contrarians.

There are (at least) four points where the analogies with climate science are strong: First, there were clear philosophical motives for supporting Lamarckism (as there are for denying human effects on climate change) (see below). These are strongly articulated in Koestler’s book, and it is obvious that the author feels some sympathy with that argument. Second, there is idealization of the romantic notion of the scientist-as-hero, sacrificing their all (literally in Kammerer’s case) for the pursuit of truth in the teeth of establishment opposition (cf Svensmark). Third, there is the outrage at the apparent dirty tricks, rumours and persecution. Finally, there is the longing for a redemption – a time when the paradigm shift will occur and the hero will be proven right.

Enough time has passed and enough additional scientific evidence has been gathered however to show that Kammerer’s ideas are never going to be accepted into the mainstream. Therefore, we can use this episode to highlight how people’s misunderstanding of scientific process can lead them astray.

So let’s start with the non-scientific reasons why Kammerer’s ideas had resonance. Martin Gardner in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952) puts it well (p143):

Just as Lamarckianism combines easily with an idealism in which the entire creation is fulfilling God’s vast plan by constant upward striving, so also does it combine easily with political doctrines that emphasize the building of a better world.

The point is that without Lamarckianism, none of the striving and achievement of a parent impacts their progeny’s genetic material. That was a depressing thought for many people (what is the point of striving at all?), and hence there was a clear non-scientific yearning for Lamarckian inheritance to be correct. I use the past tense in referring to these almost 100 year-old arguments, but Koestler’s book and more recent attempts to rehabilitate these ideas tap into these same (misguided) romantic notions. (Odd aside, one of the most positive treatments of this “neo-Lamarckianism” is by Michael Duffy, a frequent climate contrarian Australian journalist). Note that I am distinguishing the classic ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ from the much more respectable study of epigenetics.

The scientist-as-hero meme is a very popular narrative device and is widespread in most discussions of progress in science. While it’s clearly true that some breakthroughs have happened through the work of a single person (special relativity is the classic case) and someone has to be the first to make a key observation (e.g. Watson and Crick), the vast majority of scientific progress occurs as the accumulation of small pieces of new information and their synthesis into a whole. While a focus on a single person makes for a good story, it is very rarely the whole or even a big part of the real story. Thus while Koestler can’t be uniquely faulted for thinking that Lamarckianism rose and fell with Kammerer, that perspective leads him to imbue certain events with much more significance than is really warranted.

For instance, one of the more subtle misconceptions in the book though is how Koestler thinks that scientific arguments get settled. He places enormous emphasis on a academic tour that Kammerer made to the UK which included a well-documented talk in Cambridge in which the subsequently-notorious specimen was also in attendance. In fact, Koestler devotes a large number of pages to first-hand recollections of the talk. Koestler also criticises heavily the arch-protagonist in this story (a Dr. Bateson) who did not attend Kammerer’s talk, even though he presumably could have, while continuing to criticise his conclusions. The talk is in fact held up to be the one missed opportunity for some academic mano-a-mano that Koestler presumably thinks would have settled things.

Except that this is not how controversial ideas get either accepted or rejected. Sure, publishing papers, giving talks and attending conferences are all useful in bringing ideas to a wider audience, but they are very rarely the occasion of some dramatic denouement and mass conversion of the skeptical. Instead, ideas get accepted because of the increasing weight of evidence that supports them – and that usually comes in dribs and drabs. A replication here, a theoretical insight there, a validated prediction etc. Only in hindsight does there appear to be a clean sequence of breakthroughs that can be seen to have led inexorably to the new conclusions. At the time, the landscape is far more ambiguous. Thus in focusing on one specific talk, and on its reception by one particularly outspoken opponent, Koestler misses the wider issue – which was that Kammerer’s ideas just didn’t have any independent support. The wider community thus saw his work (as far as I can tell) as a curiosity: possibly his findings were correct, but his interpretation was likely not, and maybe his findings weren’t all that reproducible in any case?

This remains the issue, if Lamarckian evolution were possible, it should have been viewable in hundreds of other systems that were much easier to replicate than Kammerer’s toads (nematodes perhaps?). Absent that replication, no amount of exciting talks will have persuaded scientists. In that, scientists are probably a little different from the public, or at least the public who went to Kammerer’s more public lectures where he was very warmly received.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Kammerer’s more vocal opponents would occasionally give vent to their true feelings. Koestler is particular critical of Bateson who, in retrospect, does appear to have gone a little far in his public critiques of Kammerer. However, Koestler perhaps doesn’t realise how common quite scathing criticism is in the halls of academe. This rarely gets written down explicitly, but it is nonetheless there, and forms a big part of how well some people’s ideas are received. If someone is perceived as an exaggerator, or an over-interpreter of their results, even their most careful work will not get a lot of support.

Koestler ends his book with the familiar refrain that since modern science is incomplete, alternative theories must continue to be pursued. He states that since “contemporary genetics has no answers to offer to the problem of the genesis of behaviour”, the replication the key experiments (which he clearly expected to vindicate Kammerer), would very likely make biologists ‘sit up’ and have a long-lasting impact on the field. This notion fails to take into account the vast amount of knowledge that already exists and that makes certain kinds of ‘alternative’ theories very unlikely to be true. The link between this optimistic expectation and discussions of climate change is persuasively demonstrated in this pastiche.

There is one additional characteristic of this story that has some modern resonance, and that’s the idea that once someone starts accepting one class of illogical arguments, that leads them to accept others that aren’t really connected, but share some of the same characteristics. Some people have called this ‘crank magnetism‘. In Kammerer’s case, he was a great believer in the meaningfulness of coincidences and wrote a book trying to elucidate the ‘laws’ that might govern them. Koestler himself became a big proponent of parapsychology. And today there are examples of climate contrarians who are creationists or anti-vaccine campaigners. Though possibly this is just coincidence (or is it….?).

Of course, the true worth of any scientific idea is whether it leads to more successful predictions than other theories. So I’ll finish with a 1923 prediction that Kammerer made while he was on a speaking tour of the US: “Take a very pertinent case. The next generation of Americans will be born without any desire for liquor if the prohibition law is continued and strictly enforced” (NYT, Nov 28).

703 Responses to “Contrarians and consensus: The case of the midwife toad”

  1. 251
    Ben says:

    @SecularAnimist 229: A couple of months ago I saw these commercials claiming that switching to the more efficient bulbs was equivalent to taking millions of cars off the road. I then went to the website they advertised and found some more of their claims about these bulbs, namely the great savings over the lifetime of the bulb. With this information I emailed the site asking, if these bulbs save us so much money, where is the money going that doesn’t increase the demand for energy? Any good we buy with that savings has energy, and most likely not clean energy, as an input. Similarly with most services we buy. Then we consider the velocity of money, the fact that it will be spent again by the people we give it to; how can we know the final effects on energy usage from switching to high efficiency bulbs? It might actually increase the demand for energy by increasing our effective wealth. I never heard back from the website in response to my email. I personally do use high efficiency bulbs, in large part because of the long term savings, but I cringe when I see commercials making completely unjustified statements.

  2. 252
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Re #247 John Lang,
    Playing with numbers.

    I live on the Monaro Tableland in New South Wales Australia.

    Prior to 4 years ago the dam on my property froze over more than 5 times per winter. Three years ago it froze over 3 times, last year twice, this year none.

    Prior to 8 years ago snow falls down to 700 meters were not unusual in this area, last year it fell down to about 900 meters for one day only, this year it was down to 1000 meters for 1/2 a day.

    My observations also seem to correlate in nearby regions, see:

    Local old time residents to this area tell me that a solid week of snow could be expected on the ground where I live and the local mountain would be snow capped for a month. In addition, strong cold fronts could bring snow right up until the end of December. They recall three Christmas day snow falls (over 50 years). There is no way that would happen now.

    It is as though the Southern Ocean has warmed enough to take the bite out of the cold prior to the wind reaching Australia.

    The climate where I live is behaving more like a 5 degrees C warmer increase over the last 30 to 40 years.

  3. 253
    Mark says:

    Ben, 251.

    You can buy organic. It’s more expensive than mass produced and uses less energy still.

    You can save up some money for a buffer and then quit the job you don’t really like for a job you DO like but didn’t pay enough.

    You can buy local which doesn’t use cheap labour but does use more cheap oil.

    Why MUST you spend all your money? if you have money left over then you don’t need your job and the freedom you get from not having to have the job means they can’t bully you.

  4. 254

    e 242–Rod, one piece I found has this to say about the cap-and-trade approach:

    “History has shown that the marketplace does a better job of developing new technologies, and a tax takes money out of the marketplace. The solution is cap-and-trade. A cap-and-trade strategy provides the incentive for all segments of the economy to compete to discover the best ways to cut emissions.

    In a cap-and-trade system, the government plays a small role, and leaves the main decisions to the private sector. The government establishes an overall emissions cap and assigns specific emissions allocations to the different sources of CO2. It does not tell industries and companies what to do or how to meet their allocations. Each company is free to make those choices. It can reduce its own emissions or pay someone else to lower them. Businesses can profit by coming in below their cap and selling their extra carbon credits to others. Even farmers can profit by enhancing carbon storage in soils and trees and selling the extra carbon credits.

    The advantages of cap-and-trade are significant. Unlike a tax, it encourages innovation by creating incentives and rewarding those who lower emissions at the least cost. And most importantly, a cap — unlike a tax — guarantees the necessary cuts to stabilize the climate. All a tax does is discourage emissions; it doesn’t specify an emissions target that must be met.”

    Sounds like it ought to be somewhat up your alley. Could you elaborate on why you disagree? And are there some particular sources I should look at?

    (Captcha: Rhoades $1,844)

  5. 255
    truth says:

    Ray Ladbury:
    I think you would find that many AGW sceptics do many of those things you listed, except hunting—our family certainly does [ but never hunting ].
    And many have given up the second car—-while the opposite is the case with many of the trendier of AGW proponents.
    Re your 223 post—this scientific controversy is different from any that have existed in the past, because those supporting the consensus AGW view are demanding world-changing interventions that may produce any number of unintended consequences for the whole world, and for individual countries—and in the process, may not even achieve the intended effect.
    In this situation, where it has been ordained by the AGW ‘consensus’, and almost all of the world’s media—all of the world’s Left [ to various degree] governments—most EU governments—-that the only morally acceptable stance [ as many of you here have admonished me]is to champion the AGW orthodoxy without reservation [ no questioning allowed], even if you see arguments made by sceptical scientists that make sense, and coincide with real world observations—-in this case, the 95% agreement is meaningless because hubris, fear of job loss or funding loss, fear of professional embarrassment, enjoyment of media attention and adulation, enjoyment of the deference of colleagues etc all come into play.
    It has become too much of a global cause celebre—-too political and trendy, to be compared with past situations.
    Where only one outcome is acceptable, and to espouse another is akin to heresy , and an act of professional or political suicide, of course the side demanding compliance is going to have big numbers.
    Re your 243 post—-it’s very emotive to raise the problems with aluminium production, coal mines, fertilizer etc, but it’s only a small part of the story.
    The renewables have their very large problems with toxicity and the environment too, and use a great deal of energy in their manufacture, installation, transportation, recycling and disposal.
    Eg—the polysilicon used to make photovoltaic cells requires a great deal of energy in its manufacture, and generates toxic liquid waste in the form of silicon tetrachloride—a chemical that, when exposed to humid air, transforms into hydrochloric acid and chlorine gas, which is very toxic to humans and renders soils infertile.
    The waste can be recycled, but requires lots of energy input to do so, so in China it’s being dumped in fields, where it’s destroying crops and poisoning people who have no means of escaping it.
    And many of the metals used in photovoltaics are dwindling in supply, eg indium and gallium.
    Some of the most efficient solar panels use toxic heavy metals[ eg cadmium], in their manufacture, and disposal is therefore expected to be a massive problem—with the UE reluctant to allow their use.
    There are many people who find the proximity of windmills deleterious to their lives and their health.
    So it’s a slippery slope when you start to eliminate energy sources citing their problems—because most have problems.

    [Response: But why do you think that discussions about what the energy mix should be and what the pros and cons of each source are, have anything to do with ‘the AGW consensus’? Since every one has costs and benefits, it is very much a political (not scientific) decision that needs to be made. However science informs those decisions by providing a way to assess consequences (whether through CO2 emissions, sulphate emissions, land use impacts, etc.) of any particular choice. – gavin]

  6. 256
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ben #251: The argument that we should not save energy and money because we might spend it on something that would hurt the environment has to rank among the 10 dumbest things I’ve heard this year–and this is a year that featured a US Presidential election.

    It’s somewhere along the lines of: “Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I stick my finger into the light socket…”

  7. 257
    John Lang says:

    Lawrence McLean, the southern ocean temperatures south of Australia have warmed about 0.4C over the past 40 years.

  8. 258
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Lang,
    I’m not sure 1 month follow a pretty deep La Nina represents sufficient time to overcome the inertia of the system. If we could measure the radiative energy balance of the system, that would be interesting, but we all know why we can’t:

    Oops, ReCAPTCHA hits close to my heart: spend Webb (James Webb Space Telescope?)

  9. 259
    John Lang says:

    Ray Ladbury, the Nino anomalies have been close to zero since about July.

    There seems to be about a 3 month lag with the ENSO in its influence on temperatures (sometimes 2 months, sometimes 4 months, but more commonly around 3 months.)

    While the Nino indices have moved slightly negative since July, the numbers are very small since the Nino anomalies can be as much as +/- 3.0C.

    The most consistent analysis of the trends say you can take the Nina 3.4 anomaly of three months ago * 0.076 and you can get a pretty good estimate of the influence of the ENSO on global temperatures this month – or just +0.01C in November 2008.

  10. 260
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Rod, re #245- What data did you use in your study? How did you analyze it to come to your conclusion?

  11. 261
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Well, “Truth,” I’m all ears. Tell me where there’s a denialist argument that makes sense? Where is there a model anywhere that works with a CO2 sensitivity less than 2 degrees per doubling? All I hear is complete drivel from retired professors of basket weaving and accusations that it’s all a leftie plot.
    Look, the “consensus” is nothing more than the ideas that scientists have found indispensable to understand the climate. Unfortunately, the unavoidable consequence of those ideas is that all the CO2 we’re adding to the atmosphere has to be warming the planet. This does not have anything to do with any political ideology. Is it the fault of the scientists that many nutjobs on the right have rejected good science. I have an answer for them: accept the good science and move on to discussions about how to handle the problem.
    So, I’ll agree that this scientific controversy is different from all others–but that’s because there’s no scientific controversy. Or do you claim that every National Academy of Science and Professional organization of scientists in the world are a bunch of liberal-commie-pinko-fag junkies.

  12. 262
    Richard C says:

    “truth”, I’ve seen that silicon tetrachloride claim before, and even commented on it, i.e.

    I still maintain it is either a fairytale or that the chemical engineers involved haven’t got a bloody clue what they are doing. Silicon tetrachloride is a valuable resource, it is volatile and easily distilled. Heated fairly mildly, 350°C ish, (silicon reduction in blast furnaces via carbothermal processes requires 1700°C), it will dissociate into Si(s) and Cl(g), perfect for the production of pure silicon. Instead mix it with water and you get clean SiO2 (your feedstock material) and HCl, which is employed in extracting silicon from metallurgical grade silicon in the carbothermal process. Why would you throw it away?

  13. 263
    Rod B says:

    Hank, I find your ready acceptance of the scientific rigor (not) behind the mileage improvements of from a delta 2-5 psi a bit humorous (in a friendly way) given your bent otherwise.

  14. 264
    A.C. says:

    From the Washington Post (Friday: here): “The modest result leaves the three-year process far short of the goal of concluding a binding agreement by the end of 2009 to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slow the planet’s warming, which under current conditions scientists predict will reach dangerous and irreversible levels by the end of the century, if not sooner.”

    In the last part, “dangerous” seems obviously true (as here), but “irreversible?” where does that come from? if someone can point me to RC discussion of how/why some climate change may not be undone (through reforestation, carbon sequestration, etc.), i’d appreciate it a lot.

  15. 265
    Rod B says:

    Kevin (254), I’ll offer one example (admittedly oversimplified but maybe instructive). Entity A is producing X tons of CO2 over its allocation. Entity B is producing X tons under its. So Entity A buys credits from Entity B. Result: B’s profit goes up. A’s profit goes down, inhibiting its capability for investing into actually reducing its emissions. Emissions of CO2 has not changed a twit. Except for the possibility of B deciding to invest in additional CO2 emitting projects to use up its credits rather than sell them.

    A little like the European countries aiding their Kyoto targets, not by reducing their emissions, but by buying credits from the tanked (at the time…) Russian economy.

  16. 266
    jcbmack says:

    properly inflated tires does improve gas mileage and reduces emissions by a little bit.

  17. 267
    Rod B says:

    Lawrence (260), I surveyed a bunch of guys down at the local diner, estimated my sample, projected it to the populace deemed to be within 20mi. using very rigorous statistical mathematics to give me a 99% confidence level, and EUREKA!

  18. 268
    jcbmack says:

    Oh, and contrary to what Rush claims, more air in a tire will NOT lead to hydroplaning on puddle covered streets, actually is a basic concept, the more air pressure in the tire, the less the vehicle is likely to hyrdoplane, we know this based upon basic physics and its applications not only in land vehicles, but in plane tires with proper or higher tire pressure; obviously too high and a tire is more likely to pop, but that is not what the experts or the Obama mention of it was referring to. Every tire type has proper air pressure specifications.

  19. 269
    Hank Roberts says:

    I gave you one pointer, Rod, not an endorsement. Want the references behind that? Look for it. You know how.

  20. 270
    Ben says:

    @256 Its not a might. We do spend it. Unless you burn or bury your money its going to be spent. I’m not saying don’t switch to high efficiency bulbs, I’m just saying don’t lie about things that you can’t properly predict, and the full impact of switching to high efficiency bulbs is not something you can properly predict. You say its one of the top 10 dumbest things you’ve heard, but a similar argument was proposed by Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winner in economics.

    @253 You only get that freedom by virtue of spending the money. Having the money doesn’t get you food and shelter on its own. You have to spend the money to get those things. And if you don’t spend all your money in your lifetime, your family or the government usually ensure that it is spent eventually.

  21. 271
    jcbmack says:

    what happened to always posting references? That is ok, you are seeking and learning that is good to see, your learning process is real.

  22. 272
    jcbmack says:

    Being green requires concrete and steel production and the supplying of materials to conduct energy and to supply technological infrastructure which would most definitely raise our carbon footprint at first.

  23. 273
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B., Say it ain’t so. You’ve abandoned the free market. I can apply the same logic. Company A produces better widgets than company B, so company A takes market share away. This diminishes company B’s ability to retool and produce better widgets.


    It scares the bejesus out of company B, so they go get the investment they need to compete with company A. Likewise, they can get capital to clean up their process so they don’t need to buy credits. Sorry, Rod. Markets either work or they don’t. I think they do.

  24. 274
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Rod says:
    “Lawrence (260), I surveyed a bunch of guys down at the local diner, estimated my sample, projected it to the populace deemed to be within 20mi. using very rigorous statistical mathematics to give me a 99% confidence level, and EUREKA!”

    Not bad, Rod. Good for a chuckle.It’s good not to take ourselves too seriously, but we oughtta take global warming seriously. You’re making light of this whole thing,either because you don’t take much stock in the climatic data, or the physics involved in the analyses.

    You’d do better by taking an example from Kepler.He took the observations taken by Tycho Brahe(before the telescope),mathematically plugged it in and concluded that the planets orbits around the Sun were elliptical.
    This is a little more conventional way that science is done.

  25. 275
    Ray Ladbury says:

    A.C. Let me answer your question with another question: Once the carbon is mixed into the atmosphere at altitudes all the way up to the stratosphere, how do you get it out so that you can sequester it? Another question: Once the permafrost and oceans become net sources of CO2 and CH4, how do you reverse that? Of course, in the long run, over geologic timescales, CO2 will weather olivine and other rocks and again become sequester. However, as Keynes said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

  26. 276
    Rod B says:

    jcbmack (266), agreed. I simply refuted the implied hyperbolic marketing fluff that if every driver checked his tire pressure the country’s gasoline consumption would decrease 10%. It pretty much relied on the assumption that the average driver is driving probably about 10psi, at least 5 or more, under recommendations. Seems an obvious stretch. I don’t fault the marketing excesses. But I find it humorous that my learned scientist friends swallowed it right up. No big deal, really ;-)

  27. 277
    jcbmack says:

    We will only have 50 years or so left of Uranium enrichment left for nuclear applications, and I do believe the French are the ones who handle nuclear power well, I think the US is a little lazy to be applying a major % of electrical sources from nuclear. Any thoughts Ray and others?

    What are we going to do, build 100 watt turbines…lol, what do we do what can we engineer, what materials should be used?

  28. 278
    jcbmack says:

    Ray we can use plants, bacteria in sequestering, not so difficult.

  29. 279
    Rod B says:

    Ray, I said nothing related to free (or unfree) markets. For all I know A and B are in totally different enterprise markets. But I’d like your opinion: was my simple example of cap and trade likely, possible, not likely, or impossible?

  30. 280
    Rod B says:

    Lawrence, I was being simple and humorous to make a serious point: the 95% (or Hansen’s 99%) confidence level is a construct of people, not something indelible, unassailable, and absolute delivered by God on tablets of stone.

  31. 281
    jcbmack says:

    Some further suggestions on sequestering as well:

    It is only politics and $ that stops us from lowering emissions faster, but these are real obstacles.

    Early bacteria photsynthetic bacteria and those still around today could be utilized, not just in conjunction with planting trees and other sequestering methods, but in huge tanks where the very simple chemistry plays out to create more 02 and take in more CO2 and break down CH4 and NH4, this is the subject mater of bioengineering… the SO2 stratospheric plan is very wrong, and should not be implemented at all, but if it is, on a short time frame and only just enough to do a mild partial offset of warming, nothing more, that acid rain and potential killing of plant and other wild life is just as serious as CO2 and CH4 in that sense and the cooling reverses quickly in conjunction with variables not worth finding out the hard way.

  32. 282
  33. 283
    Eli Rabett says:

    #218 Rod, natural gas (methane, CH4) is a limited resource, much more limited than coal, otherwise, replacing coal with methane would be a useful strategy to limit greenhouse warming. Comparing the heating value of coal with methane is a bit tricky, as coal is not a homogeneous material. It’s heat of combustion varies between 15 and 30 MJ/kg. Natural gas has a heating value of about 50 MJ/kg. Of course the CO2 emission from methane per MJ are a lot lower than from coal.

  34. 284
    Eli Rabett says:

    In #268 jbmack points out that

    “Oh, and contrary to what Rush claims, more air in a tire will NOT lead to hydroplaning on puddle covered streets”

    Which reinforces the aphorism that for every complicated problem there is a simple by wrong answer. Denialism is the practice of seeking them out.

  35. 285
    truth says:

    I was answering Ray Ladbury’s post that suggested that the AGW consensus is so unassailable, that it justifies an end to aluminium smelting, etc, and coal-fired power electricity generation right now.
    The claimed unassailability of the AGW consensus, results in a fever to throw out everything we now rely on, before replacement energy sources and materials are available.
    I think the almost sanctification of most of the alternative options to fossil fuels, creates a false sense of security—a sense that it doesn’t matter if the uncertainties in the AGW science are glossed over—if scientists who question the consensus on the basis of the gaps in knowledge of vital areas of climate science, are ignored and reviled—-because there are all these ‘ready to go’ clean, sustainable , non-polluting , non-toxic, damage-free alternatives waiting for us to just take on board.
    But that isn’t so, is it? There are many problems with the alternatives.
    The decisions on carbon trading etc are political, and, because most journalists are not interested in really informing themselves on all the details of that , and of problems with the renewables, and because ‘saving the planet’ has become a very sexy and emotive issue—-so journalists defer to the AGW ‘consensus’, and favour and promote the politicians who take it on board without questioning, conferring all the power onto them.
    The more thoughtful, less venal, less self-servingly- political , more questioning politicians—the ones who want only to get it right for the world—- are given short shrift—-even lose office—and are smeared as some sort of throwbacks or fiends akin to holocaust deniers—-because they won’t toe the line .
    Those politicians want to be in power, but not at any cost.
    Scientists have never , I think, had such a responsibility on their shoulders to do the right thing, to be really true to their profession and themselves —to forego the seductive attentions of a fickle media and self-serving politicians, and the fashion for post-normal science —-in favour of getting the science right.
    It’s really ironic that scientists have had to go from being undervalued and under-respected by the community, [ in Australia anyway], due to media ignorance and inattention—to now, I think, becoming victims of media hype.
    Surely, we need to have strong economies that will fund research into the most sustainable options—– and getting it wrong by shutting down coal-fired power stations forthwith, as someone has suggested here, before we know what alternatives really will sustainably provide base load power to keep our economies strong , seems to be a reckless way to go.
    Strong economies, and respect for science , will be a minimum requirement, surely, for governments and others to fund the research that will find the most sustainable renewables, and/or a clean way of burning coal, that most of us want found.

  36. 286
    matt says:

    Hank 250: “Underinflated tires waste gas. How much gas? The Department of Transportation estimates that 5 million gallons of fuel per day are wasted due to low tire pressure. That’s more than 2 billion gallons per year…..”

    Sigh. Another “big number” quote that fails to put it into context. 2B gallons a year savings while we had an annual consumption in 2004 of 140B gallons? So around 1.5%?

    Sanity check: below is another study where they dropped tire pressure IN HALF (from 40 to 20 psi) and found fuel economy dropped 3%. That’s 3% when you were driving on tires that appeared almost flat.

    Question that you need only answer for yourself in the privacy of your home: If George Bush touted tune ups and proper tire pressure as as his top two ways to conserve, would you be singing its praises? Uh huh.

  37. 287
    matt says:

    #229 Secular Animist: Replacing all the inefficient incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs in the United States alone could prevent 158 million tons of CO2 emissions according to one lighting company, the equivalent of taking more than 30 million cars off the road. Sub stituting CFLs under a global scenario that minimizes costs would reduce lighting energy demand by nearly 40 percent and save 900 million tons of CO2 a year by 2030, with a cumu lative savings by then totaling 16.6 billion tons — more than twice the carbon dioxide released in the United States in 2006.

    Another view: If CLF is 15W, and Incandescent in 60, and if you burn 2.25 kwh/day in lights, this is about a 5% savings for the home in terms of energy cost ($5/month savings). This electricity usage translates to about 370 kg/year savings in co2 based on 0.61 kg CO2/kwh (using our current mix of coal, gas, nuke, etc).

    This is a 1.3% reduction to per capita CO2 output in the US.

    Note that the optimists usually assume every kwh devoted to lighting will be converted to cfl. Unfortunately, much of non-residential lighting is already fluorescent, and those that aren’t are not because of a special need (street light, spot light, etc).

    So, putting the squeeze on consumers to go CFL and to properly inflate their tires just doesn’t change the outcome of the game. Yes, every little bit helps, just the same as bailing out NOLA with a coffee cup helps. We need to find big wins to solve this problem.

  38. 288
    jcbmack says:

    Agreed Eli.

  39. 289
    matt says:

    Ray Ladbury: Ah, but you see, we aren’t betting on a single event, but rather a trend. It’s more like your retirement (at least if you are being responsible) than a roll of the dice. You claim that experts overstate their confidence. Care to provide an example of a time where the overwhelming majority of experts (>100) claimied 95% confidence and were wrong in the physical sciences? Actually, most experts I know are very conservative. If you aren’t, you don’t stay an expert very long.

    In the physical sciences? I honestly cannot think of recent major contributions of import that were as controversial (relatively speaking) as this. By “major contributions” I mean major enough such that 200 scientists would actually take sides on an issue. Or even 150. So I think AGW is very unique. But please educate me if this is fairly common. I’ll give you the ozone hole. But even the big companies were pulling for that to be true, because they got to sell all new equipment. Nobody “lost” in that one. But it is odd that for years all we heard about was skin cancer and cataracts, and now the hole is bigger than ever but nobody is worried about skin cancer. Mission accomplished. We’ll know in another few decades if the scientists were right.

    In medicine this happens all the time. I’ve repeatedly brought up H Pylori as an example in which it take a long time for the ship to turn.

    The soft sciences are well aware of how frequently “statistically significant” studies touting 95% certainty are wrong, and in fact they are wrong about 50% of the time. It’s not because anyone is at fault. It’s, again, because people don’t know what they don’t know.

    When Hadley claimed 2XCO2 of about 6’C in the 90’s, it’s because they didn’t understand the impact of aerosols. Now they do. Now their number is lower. Can something else be found that will revise it downward again? Sure, of course.

    [Response: This can’t be correct. The response to 2xCO2 is independent of any aerosol effect, and similarly, I cannot find any reference to the Hadley model having a sensitivity of 6 deg C. Be careful of inventing anecdotes to demonstrate rhetorical points. – gavin]

    You work on satellites, right? I build very high-volume consumer electronics for a living. A $3 battery that can overheat can cost $10’s of millions to replace. The stakes are very high. Same with what you do. So, I respect that your line of work has a great deal of rigor as part of the job description. I’ve looked a GCM. They are a mess. They are truly some of the worst software I’ve ever seen in 25 years of writing software. Do you feel the level of oversight and rigor is where it needs to be in building these models? Remember, the history is what it is. We can measure it. But much of what is being predicted rests on what these models are telling us. Do you think the code quality and rigor and analysis behind these models is commensurate with the expectations we’re placing on the correctness of these models?

    [Response: There are over 20 independent efforts to develop GCMs – they all show the same thing, which is supported by any number of more specialised model and basic theory. More computational science support would of course be welcome. – gavin]

  40. 290
    Robert H says:

    Ray Ladbury 243
    Its worth remembering that there is a direct and proportional relationship between energy consumption and standard of living,
    the ultimate value of a dollar is reflected in the cost of energy, going green sounds good , but the cost will reduce the standard of living for us back to the 1930’s. [edit]

    [Response: Nonsense. This would imply that opening a window in winter would make you richer. Try it and see. – gavin]

  41. 291
    Mark says:

    RodB, 95% means that if you were to use the same level of confidence on a thousand replications, 950+/-30 will show the level assumed.

    Exactly like throwing a dice. One in six of the numbers will be 1, according to binomial counting statistics. And at the X% confidence limit, throwing a thousand such dice in parallel and treating them separately will show the given distribution. Throwing more and more dice in parallel will show a closer and closer match to the statistics.

    And that’s not a human creation divorced from real life.

  42. 292
    Mark says:

    @270. You spend money on things you don’t need. Then you need the job to have the money to spend, so you’re in a poor bargaining position.

    How about leaving a legacy for your children? If they have enough money when you die from your estate to buy their own houses or put their own kids through a better college, then you have saved your money to be spent in future on things that don’t produce CO2.

    You really just don’t want people spending money on CO2.

    You work for an oil company or geological survey company, don’t you?

  43. 293
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod, “Seems an obvious stretch.” Is it? How often do you check your tire pressure? How often does the average hockey mom or dad checks hers? How often do experts in the field check theirs:

    You can look this up, you know?

    The point, Rod, is that there is a whole helluva lot of low hanging fruit that would allow us to decrease consumption AND save money. So why the resistance? Why the rejection for good, simple ideas? The common thread seems to be resistance to change–any change. Yes, big changes will be needed, but if we start to save energy now, we can slow the pace of those changes, maybe preserve some options we wouldn’t have otherwise. How, pray, is that a bad thing?

    As to your example… well, what would you do after having to pay through the nose for a couple of years for CCs? Pack up shop and say woe is me? How about taking out a financing to buy some equipment to clean up your operation with the knowledge that it represents a guaranteed savings? I am a firm believer in markets. I also believe that sometimes markets need help to ensure the price reflects all the costs.

  44. 294
    pete best says:

    could I ask if all of the curremt 20 independent climate models are based around the charney sensitivity and not the recently introduced/discovered earth sensitivity potential of less ice albedo and other additional feednacks acting over multi decades/centuries of time?

  45. 295
    Anne van der Bom says:

    #229 SecularAnimist & #287, matt

    A quick google reveals that around 100 billion kWh is used anually for lighting homes in the US (the 2001 figure was all I could find). That is roughly 60 million tons of CO2.


    End-Use Consumption of Electricity 2001

    If I assume that commercial & industrial lighting is nearly all fluorescent, then the target is clearly residential lighting. If further I assume that 2/3 of the energy is consumed by incandescent lights that can be replaced by CFL’s, then my estimate for the CO2 savings is roughly 30 million tons. A fifth of what ‘one lighting company’ claimed.

  46. 296
    Hank Roberts says:

    Matt, look further in the article you cited, down to the phrase “low profile tire” — their explanation for the small difference they noted: a lap around their track driving an Astra. They note the special circumstances in the same article. One test, one tire type.

    Look that up — those are unusual tires, won’t give average results, don’t last very long, and can’t prove anything about average results.

    “… I am considering buying the new Saturn Astra with a sport’s handling package. … Can someboy advise a good quality low profile tire?”


  47. 297

    RE #220 & “individual efforts (many of which do save money — though will not fix the problem”

    Never said they would, but they are a NECESSARY measure. Efforts need to be made at all levels — individual, family, work, church, school, all levls of government (town/city, county, state, federal, U.N.).

    Industries need to reduce their own GHGs & make products that help us do so, which would include reusable items (& we need to consider the whole life cycle of products, e.g., from ripping up the rainforest floor for bauxite for aluminum, the shipping & extremely high energy processing, to us tossing out the can, which end in a landfill–when recycling could solve all these problems).

    Governments at all levels need to reduce their own GHGs and pass rules, regs, & laws that help others reduce, including tax incentives, etc.

    Just sitting on our duffs waiting for the UN to come up with something is not nearly enough, but it is NECESSARY. Or, maybe its good to sit on our duffs instead of driving around in our SUVs.

    SUFFICIENT is when all systems are reducing, and the whole world can reduce by 80%.

  48. 298
    Anne van der Bom says:

    #287, matt

    Yes, every little bit helps, just the same as bailing out NOLA with a coffee cup helps. We need to find big wins to solve this problem.

    Divide and conquer. You can always divide a big win in smaller ones and then reason them away. There are different (more optimistic) angles to look at it:
    – The big wins are a sum of smaller ones
    – The advantage of the small wins is that there are a lot of them

  49. 299
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, and, Matt, I can’t imagine you know anyone who practices

    > tune ups and proper tire pressure
    > as as his top two ways to conserve

    Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.
    Those are good practices.

    New vehicles include sensors for both engine tuning and tire pressure, because people do maintain both better with feedback — but as Edmunds notes, manufacturers choose the level at which the tire pressure idiot light goes on. Most only light when pressure falls so low there’s immediate risk the tire will disintegrate, Edmunds says — so you still need to check it.

    One more thing to consider if buying a new vehicle– is the tire pressure sensor setting feedback level useful for efficient driving?

    People do better with information, but getting it takes effort: “researchers believe feedback meters could help homeowners …”

  50. 300

    RE #215 & “If we substantially reduce CO2 emissions in the next few decades, either through nuclear or enormous alt energy or both, and if electric cars become the primary means of transportation, then why worry at all where people live?”

    Bec those cars still have to be produced & production (incl mining for metals, shipping them to the U.S., etc) is still CO2 intensive; and road will have to be maintained more with more driving, and etc. So it will still be better to reduce, along with using alt energy.

    RE nuclear – aside from it enormous cost, which if allowed to compete fairly would never have made it to market – has plenty of problems, starting with destruction of land and lives due to uranium mining. If you think coal mining is dirty & dangerous….

    Many of the harmed people are tribals. Nuclear is very bad right from the start.

    I’m not even completely sure, when all GHGs emissions are factored in from mine to nuke waste storage (& all the university/gov work going into studying it and making it efficient and safe, & all the medical issues re health harms, and destruction of subsistence lands) if it really does reduce GHGs much over coal/oil.

    But it might possibly — with these tons of caveats & assuming all the problems can be overcome (incl terrorist use of it) — help reduce harm to planet earth by reducing GHG emisions. Not sure. Amory Lovins thinks energy/resource efficiency/conservation & alt energy will make nuclear a financially unfeasible boondoggle.