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A potentially useful book – Lies, Damn lies & Science

Filed under: — rasmus @ 29 March 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and ScienceAccording to a recent article in Eos (Doran and Zimmermann, ‘Examining the Scientific consensus on Climate Change‘, Volume 90, Number 3, 2009; p. 22-23 – only available for AGU members – update: a public link to the article is here), about 58% of the general public in the US thinks that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing the mean global temperature, as opposed to 97% of specialists surveyed. The disproportion between these numbers is a concern, and one possible explanation may be that the science literacy among the general public is low. Perhaps Sherry Seethaler’s new book ‘Lies, Damn Lies, and Science’ can be a useful contribution in raising the science literacy?

The book is about science in general and about how science often is miscommunicated in the media. It addresses a range of issues, such as how statistics often is misused, how scientific progress is made in general, that the ‘scientific method’ is not always as straightforward as one might like to think, the influence of stake-holders, the importance of knowing the context of the research, relationships between science and policy, and ploys designed to bypass logic. Many of the points made in the book are probably well known for the RC readership – albeit used in different situations to the case studies discussed in the book. There is also some discussion about AGW, amongst other subjects.

One little paradox is that the book claims (p. xx) that it will empower people of all ages and educational backgrounds to think critically about science-related issues and make well-balanced decisions about them. To me, that sounds like a big promise, and after having read the book, I started to wonder whether that statement is just the sort of claims it tries to make people become more skeptical about? Or maybe Seethaler really did succeed after all – because I saw how the arguments in her book could be applied to this promise?

The book touches on AGW, and does in general do a good job in my opinion. However, I cannot avoid bringing up some small details to pick at: The description of the greenhouse effect is not quite correct, as the reader gets the impression that it involves reflecting infrared radiation back to space (p. 84). That is not the case, as the energy from the sun lies mainly in the visible spectrum, and the infra red light from the Earth is a product from the absorption of the sunlight and a re-emittance due to Planck’s law.

Another point that I think is that the book discusses the controversy around AGW, but this can be a bit misleading. If you look in the climatological field, you may not see much controversy, but if you search the web, you may see something that looks like one. But I think that this controversy to a large extent is constructed out of thin air, an impression I feel is supported by Doran and Zimmermann’s, Eos article.

I get the impression that ‘Lies, Damn Lies, and Science’ has much in common with the older book ‘Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics’, and that they try to convey similar take-home messages.

‘Lies, Damn Lies, and Science‘ gives a nice collection of anecdotes and general tips. The book has a nice index and overview, so it’s easy to find your way through the book. I think the book is very useful for a lot of people – especially students, scientists, journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and the voters.

335 Responses to “A potentially useful book – Lies, Damn lies & Science”

  1. 51
    James says:

    Just to add to Gavin’s points on #32: “We see a failed politician making films…”

    Humm… Getting elected to the US Senate & Vice Presidency equates to failure? Wonder what that makes my (long-ago) loss for the state legislature?

    And please do let us know when YOU make a film, write a book, or get a Nobel Prize :-)

  2. 52
  3. 53
    MarkB says:

    “The disproportion between these numbers is a concern, and one possible explanation may be that the science literacy among the general public is low. ”

    That’s one explanation, but I’m not sure if it’s the best one. No doubt if everyone had a strong background in hard sciences and studied climate science in detail, the percentage among the general public would increase. D & Z make this point. There wouldn’t be arguments like “global warming is bunk because it’s cold this week”, for instance.

    But I think most of the skeptism and so-called “controversy” is political and based on ideology. If global warming didn’t have policy implications that leads those of certain political persuasions to fear government action and claim the sky will fall on the economy, there wouldn’t be so much vehement denial of the science. There is probably even greater denial of evolution than global warming, and that’s certainly based on ideology. Some are too hard-headed to read anything about the subject.

    My optimistic side says that scientific literacy is the silver bullet, but realistically there’s always going to be a certain part of society that disagrees with any scientific topic with policy implications.

  4. 54
    Lawrence Brown says:

    While browsing for the subject book at a local bookstore,I didn’t find this particular book but I come across a book titled “Climate Change-Picturing the Science” edited by somebody by the name of Gavin Schmidt and a co author Joshua Wolfe(Pub. W.W. Norton & Co.) . It contains a collection of interesting essays, several written or co-authored by Gavin. Each chapter is headed by an appropriate quote from a famous author.
    In the same spirit:
    “The play seems out for an almost infinite run.
    Don’t mind a little thing like the actors fighting.
    The only thing I worry about is the Sun.
    We’ll be alright if nothing goes wrong with the lighting.” Robert Frost.

    BTW in response to my query in comment #14, Planck’s law as given by E(sub lambda)=C1/Lambda^5(e^C2/LambdaT)-1).
    Where: EsubL = emissive power of a black body(W/m^2-
    T=absolute temp. of the body(K)
    Lambda =wavelength(mu.m)
    C1=3.74×10^8 W-mu.m^4/m^2
    C2=1.44×10^4 mu.m-K
    A radiation equation easier to manipulate is given by the Stefan Boltzmann law of radiation,which gives the total radiant energy emitted by a blackbody with surface area A and absolute temperature T. :
    E=sigma x A x T^4
    E is the total blackbody emission rate(W)
    sigma= the Stefan Boltzmann constant
    T= absolute Temp (K)
    A= Suface area(m^2)
    Source: “Introduction to Environmental Engineering and Science” Second Edition – Gilbert M. Masters

    [Response: I can’t help but admire your taste in authors…. ;) (for anyone else who’s interested, there is a book description and links on the Books page). – gavin]

  5. 55
    MarkB says:

    Re: #32

    Adam Gallon writes:

    “Andrew Watts and Steve McIntytre – both admirable men who make sound rational appeals to our intellect.”

    My impression of their sites is quite the opposite. Watts (Anthony), who has little scientific expertise, makes arguments that have a certain populist or political appeal but little scientific basis, and uncritically and unobjectively pushes any odd material he thinks might challenge global warming. Since I strongly believe that assertions should be supported (take note, contrarians), I’ll give you some examples. In this post, he tries to discredit NASA data by comparing temperature anomaly data side by side, without adjusting for the different baselines. He confuses many of his misinformed readers. Instead of admitting a ridiculous error, he criticizes NASA for having a different baseline.

    Another tactic of his is to confuse short-term local weather with global climate, citing examples of snowfall or cold weather. This has a strong emotional appeal. Examples (of many):

    As a side-note, I’m not sure how anyone can claim a summer is record-setting when it’s only a month old. Anchorage actually had a normal August, but it’s doubtful Watts issued a correction.

    Here Watts implies CO2 concentrations are levelling off:

    The data reveals how silly this claim was:

    Almost all of his posts have a political slant to them, some more obvious than others. In this post, he claimed that the APS reversed their position on global warming.

    This myth, perpetuated in part by Watts, got enough traction in the blogosphere for APS to re-affirm their position. After being repeatedly informed that it was only the work of one member and editor of one of dozens of un-peer-reviewed newsletters who decided to post a Monckton argument, Watts finally modified the header to say “APS Editor” with no apologies, while complaining of the “elites” at the APS (goes well with the conspiracy theory).

    I’ve focused on Watts’ site, but McIntyre’s site isn’t much better. We get the same conspiracy theories, slander, emotional appeal, and same weird obsession with Al Gore and James Hansen. Objective science-minded folks aren’t served well on these sites.

  6. 56

    Bocco, there was a time, in my lifetime, when research papers were freely available to all as long as you could get to a university library. Many journals are now available ONLY electronically and ONLY with a subscription, with individual articles behind a paywall. That is a reduction in the amount of available information any way you look at it. Are costs so much greater for an electronic journal than one requiring paper, cloth, and trucking? I find that hard to believe.

    Scott — I’m in Pittsburgh! I’d love to sit in on your class some time, assuming our schedules meet and the cost isn’t too great.

  7. 57

    OT, but I want to announce here that I’ve finally written an RCM that follows all the physics and gives reasonable answers. It’s got 20 layers plus ground, a 10-gas model atmosphere, 54 bands for four greenhouse gases and two types of cloud, 3 levels of clouds, and a cool console interface where you see the values change as the simulated days tick off. I get 293 K for the surface temperature — compare the canonical 287 or 288 K. The stratosphere is colder than I would like, with a minimum T of 199 K. Absorbed flux is 238 watts per square meter (albedo is 0.302), and emitted flux is 220 — not exactly conserving energy, but close, and the discrepancy is probably somewhere in the way I treat reflection.

    I used Salford Fortran-95. The “Personal Edition” of F95 is free to download, for anyone who’s interested.

    If I can refine this little bugger a little better, next I’m going to try Mars and Venus.

  8. 58
    walter crain says:

    markb and other scientists,
    do you think watts and mcintyre (and p.michaels and brian valentine and/or others) are honestly mistaken? or deliberately misleading (i.e. lying)?

  9. 59
    Lawrence Brown says:

    [Response: I can’t help but admire your taste in authors…. (for anyone else who’s interested, there is a book description and links on the Books page). – gavin]
    Yes,well,my taste in authors is exceeded only by the quality of the content of this publication. :).

    Seriously, it’s attractively packaged,and includes some familiar favorite names(Oreskes,Kolbert) and a quote from my favorite modern day philosopher-one Lawrence Peter Berra(aka Yogi). Not least, the photography enables a friendly introduction to reading some of the text to young children or grand-children,while pointing out the meaning of the related photos.

    What a refreshing change of pace after plowing through some of the hogwash in the profile in this Sunday’s magazine section of the NY Times on Freeman Dyson. Another brilliant mind goes off the deep end.

    “Water,water everywhere
    And all the boards did shrink,
    Water,water everywhere
    Nor any drop to drink.” Coleridge

  10. 60
    Hank Roberts says:

    > honestly mistaken? or deliberately misleading….?

    It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether their work is reliable for others who want to build on it; perhaps whether it’s publishable.

    You have to take that kind of black-and-white question and give it a context: According to whose ethical rules?

    How do you judge that? You need a context that depends on many things including what you know about the audience.

    Consider just one variety of mistaken-or-misleading:

    omitting information necessary to fully understand a statement.

    What do you call that? In some ethical systems that’s a “sin of omission” and in others it’s market savvy (“caveat emptor”) and in yet others it’s a securities law violation.

  11. 61
    J. Bob says:

    # 48
    You forgot CA, MS, etc. They were average- NOAA Dec. 08-Feb.09 State Wide Ranking.

    You comments about flow transition brought back old memories to Cloudcroft NM, above the White Sands Missile Range. Over a few beers, a colleague and I were going over equations implementation in the range computers. This was for real-time trajectory and impact points, of missiles incoming to the range at re-entry rates. These were also used to direct the electro-optical instrumentation. In passing, my colleague mentioned that he received an award for developing a ultra low noise propeller for under sea vessels. The rest of the evening was spent discussing flow separation and pressure gradients at the surface of the propeller, and effects on turbulence and noise.

    So in designing systems that work in fluidic enviornments, several methods of analysis are used. In order to reduce uncertainty, hydrological models, wind tunnels, ship tanks, etc., are used along with Weber, Mach and Grashoff numbers to get a higher level of confidence, and understanding of the process. Computer models are nice, but unless they reflect reality, they are not only worthless to the project, but dangerous to economic and human life. Fluid flow is extremely complex, and is driven home if you ever watch shock waves go across a wing surface at 35K, in a random or chaotic “dance“.

    As for looking at historical records, how else do you reconcile models to reality, if you are talking long term (>30 years)? Granted that place in England is only one point, but do you have anything more accurate and long term? Besides if this is “global warming”, shouldn’t that be reflected in good old England?

    Oh there is another classic book “How to Lie with Statistics”

  12. 62
    CM says:

    Knut (#46), if you’re feeling skeptical about the poll in the Eos
    article after reading a one-line summary of it on a blog, your first
    move should be to go read the actual article. (There’s a link in the
    first reply above.) There’s little point in asking those questions
    without knowing if the authors have answered them. Most but not all are briefly covered in the article: Sampling, survey administration and response rate, as well as data on the participants’ (self-reported) education, area of expertise, and publishing activity. You will also see how they define specia-lists (“those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change”). Participants’ names are withheld but whether the survey guaranteed full anonymity is not clear; for such details I guess you’ll have to pay to download the full study. But on the face of it this survey tries to give a serious answer to the consensus question, unlike some petitions one could mention that sometimes masquerade as opinion surveys.

  13. 63
    Dan says:

    62. No, MS was above normal. See
    Pages 13-14. Clearly from page 13, every state south of 40 N in the east and midwest was above normal. Three MS stations listed on page 14 were 1, 1, and 3 above. Not sure how CA comes into play here since we are talking about the east and midwest.

  14. 64
    Mark says:

    “Computer models are nice, but unless they reflect reality, they are not only worthless to the project”

    And what leads you to think that GCM’s do not reflect reality???

    “Besides if this is “global warming”, shouldn’t that be reflected in good old England?”

    Why? After Queen Victoria’s reign, the world was not England. How do you know it isn’t reflected in the UK? There were chicks clamouring for food early February here, the snow in the south in the last 30 years is now nearly a memory (hence the panic about the itty bitty bit of snow in the SE: it hadn’t happened for so long, they’d gotten rid of all the kit to deal with it).

    But where do you get it isn’t reflected in blighty?

    PS JBob, what the heck is a fluidic environment? Is not “fluid environment” neu speek enough for you?

  15. 65
    walter crain says:

    i guess in your example of “ommission” the line i am asking about is is it intentional? i would differentiate btwn a wrong statement and a lie.

  16. 66
    MarkB says:

    Re: #58, #65

    Walter Crain,

    I think Hank’s point is that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the sources have a poor track record and are highly unreliable.

    Determining intent can be difficult and I don’t think it’s always one or the other, nor is it always all that productive. I think many have a strong desire to believe that human-induced greenhouse gases don’t have a significant impact on global warming. This probably explains a good deal of why facts are manipulated or selectively presented or omitted, analysis is careless, and dubious claims are constantly perpetuated. Whether the resulting mistakes and poor analysis is done in good faith or not is open to interpretation. In my view, the observed reliability (or lack thereof) is more important. A bad source is a bad source, regardless of intent.

    I suppose intent could matter with regards to whether or not someone can change their mind. Someone acting in good faith and making honest mistakes is more likely to admit errors and be open-minded to the large body of evidence on a topic. How many contrarians do that in practice? Someone dishonest might be more likely to stubbornly continue to cling to the same debunked ideas and repeat the same myths after being constantly corrected. Then again, I don’t think most creationists are deceptively dishonest people just because evolution goes against strict religious interpretations. Are global warming contrarians dishonest or blinded by ideology?

  17. 67
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re: Comment #50 ccpo says:
    “You don’t seem to understand what a tipping point is. Another word for it is a bifurcation. It’s a point where turbulence enters a previously (to a layman) non-chaotic process. A good example comes from “Chaos: The Making of a New Science.””

    That may well be, though my understanding of a tipping point is some component of a system that goes from a linear to a non linear change. Perhaps an ice floe is melting at some constant annual rate and suddenly begins to melt at an exponential rate,or sea level rise changes from a linear rise to rise at an accelerating pace.

    “Nineteen of the warmest years on record have occurred within the last 25 years.The warmest years globally have been 1998 and 2005, with 2002,2007,and 2003 close behind.The warmest decade has been the last 10 years.The warming is substantially more widespread than in any previous decade(such as the 1930’s) and the rise seems to be exceptional on even longer timescales. The odds of this sort of clustering,if it occurred only by chance, would be less than one in a billion……….”
    Peter deMenocal,Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.Winner of the Lenfest Columbia Distinguished Faculty Award in 2008.Editor in Chief of the scientific journal of “Earth and Planetary Science Letters”

    “On top of Old Smokey, all covered with dirt,
    We lost our snow cover, for not being alert.”
    Larry Brown, BS in Civil Engineering- UCONN – (Go Huskies!)

  18. 68
    Eli Rabett says:

    J. Bob forgets that just about all the subsonic wind tunnels are closing. It’s a lot cheaper to buy some of that fluidic software and let it run. While turbulence is not a solved problem, it is a lot better understood.

  19. 69
    walter crain says:

    lawrence brown,
    so you’re saying there’s still a chance (less than 1/1,000,000,000) this warming is just coincidence. and i thought the science was largely settled…

    markb and hank,
    thanks for the replies.

    i understand that in terms of substance the scientists’ intentions don’t matter. the things i find out here about them (the denialists) are just so horrible-sounding. i’m trying to leave open just the slightest possibility that they’re not all completely evil. to markb’s point in his third paragraph: have you ever, say in the last 5-10 years (since the science has really, really come into focus), heard of a “skeptic” say something like, “gee, you know, i have become convinced by the evidence that global warming is a real, man-made problem”?

  20. 70
    Hank Roberts says:

    Walter, I recommend sticking with reading and discussing the science, particularly here.

    It’s really pointless to try to argue over how much of a probability “largely settled” means.

    Those words are undefined, just argumentative.

    Stick with the IPCC’s definitions and cite them. It’s the best we’ve got right now.

    There are plenty of sites where people can spent a lot of time arguing over who’s evil or who can change.

    Focus on the research, cite sources, be convincing in the ability to read and quote — that’s credibility.

  21. 71
    TimJ says:

    I have read this blog but have only commented once.
    If I could add that I have seen the meaning of ‘science’ change over the years. My science master (1950’s 60’s) said it was all to do with theories and they were only a framework of what we know at any one time. He denounced any belief and taught us always to have an open mind. And he always emphasized the ‘always’. He said that this was how great discoveries and step changes in understanding worked.
    I’m seeing a lot of belief here and not a lot of questioning. My two cents worth and if you feel like replying please be gentle as I have had to pluck up courage to write this.

    [Response: There should always be a caveat with that: “Be sure to always have an open mind, but not so open that your brain drops out”. – gavin]

  22. 72
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Re:69 walter crain says:
    “lawrence brown,
    so you’re saying there’s still a chance (less than 1/1,000,000,000) this warming is just coincidence. and i thought the science was largely settled…”

    Good one Walter.
    Apparently not – since there exists infinitesimably small odds of recent events happening by chance, the diehards will cling to their beliefs. Science by definition is never settled,e.g. Newton’s gravitational laws were “settled” until Einstein came along.But when the probabilities are overwhelming,it’s time to pay attention and this case start acting.
    I know you’re saying this tongue in cheek.Yet there are those out there who won’t or can’t admit to a trend when it’s staring them squarely in the face, even a supposed genius like Freeman Dyson.Though there are some, who, because they’re authorities in some given field, may come to believe over time that they are authorities in whatever they happen to come upon.

    “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue……” VP Richard Cheney

    Contrast this to what Aldo Leopold says in “A Sand County Almanac” “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”

    Is there any doubt about which one is talking damn lies and which is talking good sense,if not exactly science?

  23. 73
    MarkB says:

    Re: #69

    Walter Crain,

    Despite the evidence growing considerably stronger over the past couple of decades, very few of the hard-headed contrarians we see in the blogosphere have budged. When one hypothesis is refuted, some either cling to it or come up with something else to explain all climate change. As long as it doesn’t involve any significant influence from human activities, it’s fair game. Ironically, this is the same crowd that uses such terms as “global warming religion” to compensate the for strong consensus that happens to exist within the scientific community. In contast, among normal skeptics (most scientists), we’ve seen confidence levels grow (for instance, the IPCC 2,3,4 progression from “more likely than not”, to “likely” to “very likely” to describe the strong human impact on climate) not due to “faith” but due to a growing body of strong evidence.

    You write:

    “so you’re saying there’s still a chance (less than 1/1,000,000,000) this warming is just coincidence. and i thought the science was largely settled…”

    Reminds me of this study:

    It also reminds me of this:

  24. 74
    John Norris says:

    re one of gavin’s responses to #32

    [Response: Physical understanding is not based on time-series correlations of noisy data.]

    Wow! How many climate change papers did you just throw under the bus?

    [Response: None. Explain to me how correlating two time series provides physical understanding. Perhaps you are under the incorrect impression that concern about global warming is because of people go around correlating CO2 levels to things? It is not. – gavin]

  25. 75
    walter crain says:

    thanks again guys for indulging me. great replies and excellent links (educational and funny – what could be better that that combo?) in that “dumb and dumber” thing i knew he would end up saying something like, “so i still have a chance!”, but i still laughed when he did…. and hank, i didn’t mean to get all imprecise by saying “largely settled” – i guess i meant “very likely”.

  26. 76

    Gavin, you’re on top form (#32, #71). Keep it entertaining as well as informative.

    Walter Crain (#58, #65): there’s a thing called confirmation bias, where people tend to filter facts according to preconception. I doubt most of the people misinforming the public are deliberately lying though there is strong evidence that the “climate change is a hoax” story was seeded by the tobacco industry as part of their general attempt at discrediting science.

    More here and here

  27. 77
    Dave says:

    Frequent lurker to the blog here; just thought I’d post a comment tonight. First off, I wanted to tell the contributors here that I appreciate reading their posts.

    As to the issue at hand, I think it’s indicative of a more society-wide aversion towards science. Some people can’t accept that objective truths can exist even regarding statements of facts. And this is why the pseudo-skeptics have been able to amass a rather large following. I call them pseudo-skeptics because they operate under the guise of scientific skepticism, but in reality they only hold side of the argument (namely the one that disagrees with their worldview) to any scrutiny. For instance, Dennis Avery published an article that claimed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was declining. I didn’t see any pseudo-skeptic outrage (feigned or otherwise) about this obviously counterfactual statement.

  28. 78
    Bill DeMott says:

    Economics of academic publishing. There are two main kinds of journal publications: those published by academic societies and those published by for-profit publishers. Often the society publications are the most prestigious for many fields. The academic societies support their publications by charging members something like $200/yr membership which might be reduced if one does not subscribe to the joural(s) or takes an on-line version. These costs are potentially tax deductable, but on only as expenses above the 2% cutoff. This is a $500/yr unreimbursed cost for me. Authors who have grants are expected to pay “page changes” on the order of $100/page. The largest number of scientific journals are commercial ventures that charge libraries on the order of 1,000-$5,000 per year for subscriptions. They don’t charge authors. I don’t see any way of making current issues available to the public without cost. makes available PDFs of many of the most important journals, starting with issues a few years old. Most colleges and univesities in the US have access and it’s geat for students as well as professionals. Perhaps could be partially funded by public libraries and another public source.

    Reading on WUWT, one often comes accross statements such as “why doesn’t someone estimate CO2 uptake by plants” or why isn’t water vapor included.” These people and the general public often assume that an obvious factor as not been considered by scientists, when the factor has already been the subject of hundreds of publications. At least, we now have Google Scholar to look at titles and abstracts, rather than less accessible computer searches and data bases by subscription. If we could teach young students in high schools and colleges to check with Google Scholar, this would be a big step.

  29. 79
    Alan of Oz says:

    I propose that henceforth comment #32 be preserved in each story for broadcasting real world examples of RC’s moderation policy. :)

  30. 80
    Mark says:

    “Are global warming contrarians dishonest or blinded by ideology?”

    There’s more than one person so there’s more than one answer.

    Some are blinded by ideology. Some by greed (this would put it in the dishonest category) and some want fame at any price.

    There’s a LOT of money in the contrarian speech circuit, telling all the movers and shakers that they are safe. They WANT to hear that and will pay to listen to someone tell them that nothing needs to change and their fortunes are safe.

    These are blinded by a mix of ideology and greed/dishonesty.

    To an extent, you could say they are ALL dishonest, in as much as they are not honest with themselves and checking to see if they *could* be wrong. Though that’s a different level of meaning than generally used, which is more actively dishonest (in that they would be trying to lie to someone to change their view).

    Then again, you see this false dichotomy a lot when someone doesn’t really have an argument. See slashdot with it’s “Huh, the slashdot crowd are hypocrites: you all want to steal music but want GPL enforced!”.

  31. 81
    John Mason says:

    I think this topic is of the highest importance. It seems to me that a major issue in the obvious void that exists between mainstream science and the general public is simply that non-scientists do not tend to understand how the scientific process works.

    From junior school onwards, pupils learn the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and that’s no bad thing of course; however, what should be introduced at an appropriate point in the curriculum is HOW such laws gain the support required to make them generally accepted (as opposed to proven, of course!). OK, students learn how to experiment, observe and deduce, but the rest of the process – such as peer-review – gets little if any airing.

    In the specific case of AGW theory, this leads to incorrect comments like “It’s only a theory and not proven” – a non-scientist readily finds analogy with a Court of Law and that’s the end of the story, nothing to worry about then, whereas on the other hand a scientist would correctly say, “yes, it’s a theory that has overwhelming and increasing support in its favour”, in the way that Plate Tectonics has, for example.

    Proper schooling in the scientific process alongside physics, chemistry and biology might go a long way to remove this misunderstanding.

    cheers – John

  32. 82
    Stuart says:

    The question arises whether this is something in the American character, or is it just due to scientific illiteracy?

    I wonder if it relates to how the most common way the general populace encounter a scientific/expert opinion is as part of an advertisement trying to sell them something?

    [Response: This has nothing to do with national character. Countries do differ on what they fall for in terms of bad science, but pretty much any society can be pushed in that direction if it suits some people’s agendas to push it and if it resonates with something more fundamental than scientific methodology. (MMR in the UK, GMO in France, etc.). – gavin]

  33. 83
    Curious says:

    Off topic:
    If possible, I would be very interested in reading some comment on this stuff by Lindzen (I don’t know any other forum where ask for it, sorry for the off topic):

    A simple comment giving some context would be very welcomed.

    Thanks again.

    [Response: A good sign of someone who is acting as an advocate is that they instantly take any unexplained anomaly and declare that it fits their prefered theory without doing any actual analysis or without any consideration of the alternatives. First off, the graph he shows was substantially corrected by the authors to remove some spurious aliasing in response to a comment. Secondly, there may still be issues with the data (since there is a clear jump in 1993) – something in any other circumstance, WUWT would have been all over. Third, the models may well be wrong (though it’s unclear these were the experiments to compare with since they didn’t have any forcings), but there is no analysis to indicate that fixing whatever the issue is would give a lower sensitivity – note that the NET fluxes are still all around zero, so the positive feedback in SW is matching the supposed negative feedback in LW. My take on it is very much a wait and see – wait to see if the CERES data seems to support those earlier results, wait to see whether more appropriate model-data comparisons change the picture etc. It may be surprising to some, but ambiguities abound in science and jumping to conclusions is very rarely sensible. – gavin]

  34. 84
    Scott Robertson says:


    The class was a one-shot deal at Penn State Allegheny Campus. If I teach it again I’ll let you know.

  35. 85
    walter crain says:

    thanks for the links – and cool website. i’ll have to poke around there a bit. i understand the psychology of confirmation bias and can clearly see it in action in AGW (and evolution) denialists. also, i try not to be guilty of it myself, but i guess the nature of it makes that difficult. anyway, i think being aware of the phenomenon makes one slightly less susceptible to it…

    of course we can’t paint them all with one broad stroke. i only asked because i thought you guys could name a few denialists that you thought were dishonest and a few that were just truly deluded. i guess it’s awfully hard to discern motives…

  36. 86
    viriato says:

    Well , the problem about the Sun connection is this: as far as I can see, and I’ii say I understand enough statistical analysis to make my mind on this case, from 1985-86 onwards there is a negative correlation between the sun activity and combined earth sea temperature.
    Nevertheless , studies come back from time to time, trying to prove something quite difficult and for me note comprehensible: that this negative correlation is somehow positive!!!or that there is a under layer pattern in long term solar trend that is driving the climate.
    Are all these papers biased, trying to make a smoke screen , are these papers honest tries to prove a different point o view ? is the sun completely out of the causes of global warming ?
    Sorry to ask as I’ve read some articles in RealClimate about the sun, but I could never get the feeling that this is complete K.O. for the “sun connection” 

    Thnks for you time, sorry for my English

  37. 87
    Mark says:

    “what should be introduced at an appropriate point in the curriculum is HOW such laws gain the support required to make them generally accepted”

    Which isn’t until you become an undergraduate.

    But science is hard, pay very poor and places limited, so most don’t go.

  38. 88
    Mark says:

    “i only asked because i thought you guys could name a few denialists that you thought were dishonest and a few that were just truly deluded. i guess it’s awfully hard to discern motives…”

    Yup, the only ones I know that I know well enough to say what the motives are are my sister and my dad. Though my dad is at least considering that he’s just not wanting to believe it and recognises that he doesn’t WANT to know. My sister is very devout christian and God Would Not Let That Happen. By arguing about it being real, I’m attacking her religion. She Will Not Listen.

    As far as I know, neither are the dark side of dishonest: they aren’t proselytizing but they ARE deluded in that they won’t change and dishonest in themselves (though as I said, Dad is somewhat honest about his denial and he’s not really said much about it since I got that honesty from him).

    The rest?

    One or two I can make a guess: one is a meteorologst and loves weather. And Computers Get It Wrong. He jumps STRAIGHT from that point to the conclusion AGW is not a problem. How he knows it’s wrong to the side of “no worries” and not “ohshitohshit we’regonnadie” is where he’s being either dishonest or deluded. But I don’t know him well enough to work out WHY (or even which).

    Our Resident Body Thetan could be batshit insane, rabid zealot, or paid shill, but how on earth are we supposed to be able to tell? Only his family can. And, if paid, his boss.

  39. 89
    Sy says:

    Good post and discussion on a hugely important issue.

    I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason people in the West are critical of science is that the alleged rationality and objectivity of science seems unemotional, cold, and in many cases downright untrue.

    People look around and see ‘objective’ science and technology at work in Gaza, Iraq, Chenobyl, Hiroshima et al and come away feeling understandably sceptical as to whether science is indeed objective and neutral, or at least partially a pawn which is selectively channeled by powerful and wealthy groups within society.

    When they then hear that global warming is just another lie designed to rob them via green taxes they jump at the opportunity to avoid taking action that would mean cutting back on consumption.

    Unfortunately while science is subjective, partial and hugely influenced by the organisations who pay for research, this does not mean that ACC is all a hoax. However for the public to really engage with the issue an admission by scientists that ‘science’ in general is not objective and has been utilised by certain factors to enable many of the worst humanitarian and environmental disasters of the 20th century might be a good place to start. Only once this has been agreed can we start thinking about the positive ways in which we seek to use science today to combat problems such as ACC.

  40. 90
    Hank Roberts says:

    In the comment by Trenberth (pointer to the Science link in Gavin’s inline reply a few responses back), Trenberth ends with:

    “The results presented by Wielicki et al. and Chen et al. reveal the shortcomings in the current climate observing system and the need for a new approach to making stable homogeneous climate observations.”

    I’d welcome more discussion of the need for that new approach, or pointers to wherever it’s happening if it’s public.

  41. 91
    Chris Colose says:

    Curious (#83), gavin,

    I’ve just gone through some e-mail correspondence with Bruce Wielicki, who apparently also feels the 2002 Science paper has been misinterpreted. There is another paper and updated ERBS data that Lindzen is ignoring, see

    Wong et al (2006): Reexamination of the Observed Decadal Variability of the Earth Radiation Budget Using Altitude-Corrected ERBE/ERBS Nonscanner WFOV Data, Journal of Climate, 19, 4028-4040

    I’ll try to do a post on this soon on my blog. Just want to gather some material…

  42. 92
    TimJ says:

    Gavin #71: Not sure if this is the way to respond here. You added a response to my comment (thanks for attention):
    “[Response: There should always be a caveat with that: “Be sure to always have an open mind, but not so open that your brain drops out”. – gavin]”
    I actual disagree with you although I understand your sentiment. The best way I can think anew is to empty my brain before I start. I believe that this is a common view by some expounders of thought processes.
    Thanks again for taking notice.

  43. 93
    D iversity says:

    33. pete best

    Thanks for the lead to Tim Palmer’s invariant set stuff. I am not qualified to judge whether it is right; but it certainly gives me that “Why the hell haven’t we looked at the question from that perspective?” feeling.

    I am a great admirer of Freeman Dyson, and it looks like I am going to become a great admirer of Tim Palmer. However, it really does not matter what general stance either of them takes on climate change. What matters is the mass of the evidence. Betting agaist that evidence is like reading an official notice that a stream is going to be diverted next summer and then reserving a place for fishing in that stream the following spring. You just may be right; nothing is absolutely certain about the future. But quite few people will, and should, ask if you are in your right mind.

  44. 94
    Jim Bob says:

    I am one of the 42% of Americans who does not believe that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing the mean global temperature. I have a degree in physical science and I have worked in the computer field for 30 years, so I have a reasonable understanding of both earth science and computer modeling. I do not work for the government or academia, nor do I work in a fossil fuel related industry. I have looked at the evidence on both sides of the “debate” and I find the “skeptics” arguments more convincing than the “experts” who tout AGW and insist that the science is settled. It appears to me that CO2 impact on climate is real, but marginal, and much more important drivers are the sun, multi-decadal ocean current cycles, and volcanism. The first two factors, the quiet sun and the cool phase of the PDO, are strong proven signals for a cooler climate for the next 30 years. CO2, on the other hand, appears to be a very minor player. Those who are demonizing this trace gas are going to look very foolish in 15 or 20 years, in my opinion.

  45. 95
    Curious says:

    Gavin (#83) and Chris Colose (#90),

    thank you for your comments!

    *A link to the paper you mentioned, Chris:
    There are some differences indeed, I’ll stay tuned to your blog ;-)

  46. 96
    Ray Ladbury says:

    So, Jim Bob, with your degree in “physical science” and computer-programming skills, perhaps you could enlighten us on exactly what evidence the “skeptical” side has presented. ‘Cause try as I might, I can’t find jack in the published literature that is at all convincing. Maybe you could start with a model of Earth’s climate that has a CO2 sensitivity less than 2 degrees per doubling? No? How about an explanation of how “solar effects” explain the past 30 years of warming when solar luminosity has been pretty much constant over that period? No? How about a learned treatise on how either a solar or PDO mechanism can warm the troposphere while cooling the stratosphere? Nope? Or how about how a local “oscillation” gives rise to a sustained warming lasting decades? No, huh?

    It would seem the “explanations” you are proposing don’t have much explanatory power, do they?

    But wait. How could someone with a “degree in physical science” and experience in the “computing field” be wrong? Ever occur to you that you might be suffering from delusions of adequacy?

  47. 97
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Sy says, “People look around and see ‘objective’ science and technology at work in Gaza, Iraq, Chenobyl, Hiroshima et al…”

    OK, maybe you can enlighten me here, but what does science have to do with any of these disasters? I just see humans doing what they do best: using available tools to kill each other. The Hutus in Rwanda did a rather remarkable job of that with some pretty low-tech tools. And Chernobyl? The moral there is not to let morons drive the reactor. I’m afraid I don’t have much sympathy for this sort of “science has known sin” crap.

    And your other characterizations of science… well, let’s just say that I’ve been doing physics for more than 20 years and I don’t recognize your description. Individual scientists debate passionately. They have agendas, grudges and in some cases pretty severe personality disorders. The product, though, comes as close to objective truth as humans are capable. Science succeeds not because it demands superhuman objectivity of scientists, but rather because its subject matter is a persistently objective reality that doesn’t succumb to spin. Reality is that which doesn’t go away when you ignore it. Let’s start with that, and maybe we as humans can become a little wiser in how we use the power science gives us.

  48. 98
    shredder says:

    I am at my wit’s end and need help. A close relative sent me a copy of William Happer’s recent testimony before Boxer’s committee (Feb 25, 2009). Without going into all the details I’d like to focus on this statement he made: “The IPCC has made no serious attempt to model the natural variations of the earth’s temperature in the past.”

    Is this true? If not, can someone point me to where the IPCC actually did this? Thanks in advance ….

    [Response: Try Chapter 6. – gavin]

  49. 99
    JPetersen says:

    I’m surprised at the high level of consensus among specia1ists. Given the current level of understanding of important factors (e.g., cloud feedbacks), is that high level of consensus justified?

    [Response: On what? CO2 is a greenhouse gas, it has increased significantly from pre-industrial levels, climate sensitivity is not low enough to make this irrelevant (details here). Did you have something else in mind? – gavin]

  50. 100
    J. Bob says:

    # 64, #68
    Like the word “fluidic”, so did the patent office. As far as fewer wind tunnels, I would like to think computer models have improved. Also there are fewer aircraft companies. Would also hate to back to “naper’s bones” (slide rules), always had to worry about that decimal point.

    So getting back to that pesky 300+ year record from England. Seems to me it is the longest and most accurate temperature record available, so why not use it. That should give reasonable results, an maybe some insight on long term weather (i.e. climate). Yes, it is only one point. But if there is this alarming global warming, would it not show up? Besides England was about the first country to experience the “industrial revolution”. With all that Welsh coal, smoke and soot, central England would be a good place for CO2 effects to show up. In my formative years I lived 500 yards away coal fired electric plant, and the good mothers of the apartment building cursed the soot in their clean wash. But they liked the electric power.

    A simple check is to simply download the data from, or climate4you,com, and put it in a spread sheet. The data includes monthly and averaged yearly data. I used the yearly average. Add another column for estimated based on a linear. T_est = b + m(year – 1659), starting with an initial values 9 deg. and slope of zero. Generating an error column, and plotting the error, allows a person to adjust b & m. Summing up the error also helps convergence of b & m. I came up with b=8.85 and a slope of 0.002 ( 0.2 deg./century).

    From my point of view, the data stays pretty close to the trend line. The plot from the 1980’s to now does not look much different from the other bumps along the way. What was interesting is that the temperature in central England seemed to go down for a while after 1850. I would have expected it to go up with all the BTU’s spewed out. So if there is “global warming” due to CO2, I would think we would have seen it along the way, especially starting by mid 1800’s. Certainly England should reflect some warming, if present. So one could conclude on this data, we are just going through a natural earth cycle, whose cause has yet to be defined.

    [Response: Marvellous. A complete attribution without any reference to any actual physics, time-series of potential forcing agents or assessment of signal-to-noise ratio. If only all science was this easy! – gavin]