RealClimate logo

With all due respect…

Filed under: — group @ 24 March 2009 - (Italian)

There was a great comedy piece a few years back (whose origin escapes us) that gave examples of how the English would use their language when speaking to a non-native speaker to imply the precise opposite of what was actually being understood. This allowed the English to feel superior without actually damaging international relations. One example was the phrase “with all due respect” which is generally understood to imply that the speaker has a great deal of respect for their counterpart, while the speaker is actually implying that they have no respect in the slightest for their interlocutor. The respect due being precisely zero.

This thought occurred to us when a few of us opened our email this week to see a draft ad being sent around by the Cato Institute (i.e. Pat Michaels) looking for signatories prior to being published in “major US newspapers” sometime soon:

There are a number of amusing details here. While we are curious about the credentials of “Dr. N. Here”, we certainly understand why they are looking for a little more variety on the list. More surprising (and somewhat ironically) the mailing list for signature requests includes a number of scientists who don’t agree with these sentiments at all. It’s as if Michaels and Cato actually believe that these various lists of “dissenting” scientists are accurate reflections of support for their agenda. They appear to be have been conned by their own disinformation.

As an exercise for our readers, perhaps people would like to speculate on who is going to end up on the published list? (If indeed it gets published). Ginger Spice would be likely on past form, but they might improve the screening this time around…

But most amusing are the footnotes that they use to bolster their case. There are four: the brand new Swanson and Tsonis (GRL, 2009), Brohan et al (JGR, 2006) (which is there to provide a link to the HadCRU temperature data), Pielke et al (BAMS, 2005), and the oft-derided Douglass et al (IJoC, 2008).

Of these papers, not one has the evidence to support the statements attributed to them in the main text. To wit:

Surface temperature changes over the past century have been episodic and modest and there has been no net global warming for over a decade now.1,2

Well, the first part of the statement is exactly what you expect with a modest long-term trend in the presence of internal variability and is not controversial in the least. The “global warming stopped” meme is particularly lame since it relies on both a feigned ignorance of the statistics of short periods and being careful about which data set you use. It also requires cherry-picking the start year, had the period been “exactly a decade” or 12 years then all the trends are positive.

The use of the recent Swanson and Tsonis paper is simply opportunism. Those authors specifically state that their results are not in any way contradictory with the idea of a long term global warming trend. Instead they are attempting to characterise the internal variability that everyone knows exists.

After controlling for population growth and property values, there has been no increase in damages from severe weather-related events.3

This references a short comment in BAMS that didn’t present any original research. The latest figures show that weather-related damages have increased markedly, though whether there is a climate change component is hard to tease out given the large increases in vulnerable infrastructure and relatively poor data. The actual statement that a clear global warming-related trend in damages hasn’t been clearly demonstrated doesn’t imply that you can state definitively that there is no effect. There might be one (or not), but formal attribution is hard. However, whatever the attribution ends up being, pointing out that there are other problems in the world doesn’t imply that anthropogenic climate change is not worth worrying about. One might as well state that since knee injuries on ski-slopes have increased over time one shouldn’t support flu shots.

The computer models forecasting rapid temperature change abjectly fail to explain recent climate behavior.4

‘Abjectly’? Very strange choice of word…. and an even stranger choice of reference. This is of course the same Douglass et al paper that used completely incoherent statistics and deliberately failed to note the structural uncertainty in the observations. Unsurprisingly, Michaels does not reference the rather comprehensive demolition of the Douglass methodology published by Santer et al (2008) (and on which one of us was a co-author). More fundamentally however, the current temperatures are still within the spread of the models even if you cherry pick your start date. No-one expects the real world (a single realization) to follow the mean forced trend at all times. How is that a failure, abject or otherwise?

More interestingly is what is not cited. President Obama’s statement “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear”, can’t possibly refer to every issue in science or every potential fact. Instead he is likely referring to the basic and pretty much uncontested facts that i) CO2 and other greenhouse gases have increased due to human activity. CO2 emissions in particular continue to increase at a rapid rate; ii) the effect of these gases is to warm the climate and it is very likely that most of the warming over the last 50 years was in fact driven by these increases; and iii) the sensitivity of the climate is very likely large enough that serious consequences can be expected if carbon emissions continue on this path. We would be astonished if Michaels disputed this since he is on record as agreeing that the IPCC climate sensitivity range is likely to be correct and has never questioned the human contribution to CO2 and other GHG increases. He and his colleagues have even done analyses that show that after correcting for ENSO effects, there is no sign of a slowdown in global warming at all.

Instead this is a classic red-herring: Ignore the facts you don’t dispute, pick some others that are ambiguous and imply that, because they are subject to some debate, we therefore know nothing. Michaels (and Cato) presumably thinks this kind of nonsense is politically useful and he may be correct. But should he claim it is scientifically defensible, we would have to answer:

“With all due respect, Dr. Michaels, that is not true.”

303 Responses to “With all due respect…”

  1. 301
    dhogaza says:

    This view compels them to argue against expansions of executive power, illegal wiretapping, torture, xenophobia, police raids, foreign adventurism and war-mongering. I suspect I’m not the only one here who holds that torture is wrong on moral rather than scientific grounds.

    And Stalin loved his daughter. The fact that they oppose torture does not absolve them of lying about science when accepting science might lead to political consequences they’re opposed to.

  2. 302
    Martin Vermeer says:

    About Cato, and other think tank dishonesty: many of the things they make pronouncements on are things that most of us have no intimate knowledge of, and we have no way of seeing that they are making it up as they go. When they happen to say something on a matter we are informed on, it’s like we’re being offered a precious “peephole” into what they really are like.

    I had this experience quite some while ago as a Linux user and aficionado, catching the Heartless Institute lying through their teeth. Their foray into climate mendacity thus didn’t take me by surprise… just another business opportunity.

    Treat the peephole as a learning experience, not as something to try to ignore. It’s a feature, not a bug.

    …and amplifying on Stalin #301, Hizbollah does great social work in Southern Lebanon. The metaphor of a broken clock showing the right time twice a day comes to mind.

  3. 303
    Anne Hartley says:

    I’m a little confused about Patrick Michaels’ background. Can someone help? He claims to be on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Virginia, but he’s not on their web site. He also claims to be a member of the IPCC, but that was news to two members of the IPCC at Stanford. Does anyone know? He wrote a reply to a commentary I wrote in the Naples News on April 12. (see