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Listen to the Skeptics! Except When They Talk Nonsense

COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick

I got an email the other day from an occasional visitor to the Climate Central website, asking whether we’d be covering a series of recent challenges to conventional climate science. He was being facetious: he knew we probably wouldn’t, and he was right — clear evidence, he proclaimed triumphantly, that our claim of following the science wherever it leads is just a lot of empty talk.

My first reaction was: “how dare you suggest such a thing!” But that’s a throwaway line, not a response, and I thought I should provide a fuller answer. The bottom line is that we ignore people who claim to have found holes in the mainstream ideas of climate change if their claims don’t make lot of sense. Who gets to decide? Well, we do. But it’s not arbitrary: there’s a thought process behind it, and it’s a pretty valid one, though it’s not infallible.

Galileo, Alfred Wegener and Ignaz Semmelweis.

Here’s what I mean by “not infallible.” More than once in the history of science, a new insight by someone outside the intellectual mainstream has been dismissed — often rudely — by the establishment.  Take Galileo, whose insistence that the Earth goes around the Sun got him in terrible trouble with the Catholic Church, whose leaders just knew it didn’t. Or take Alfred Wegener, who claimed in the early 1900’s that continents move about the Earth. Crazy! said professional geologists. But he was right, too. Or how about Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who argued in the mid-1800’s that doctors should wash their hands between seeing patients to prevent the spread of infection. He was vilified for this crazy idea by his fellow physicians — but guess what? You got it.

So when people like Princeton physicist Will Happer lays out his critique of climate science in the Wall Street Journal, or the eminent British scientist James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory, says to MSNBC that he was “alarmist” about climate change, or when a group of NASA astronauts and engineers writes an open letter to NASA accusing it of relying on climate models rather than real evidence in making climate projections, it would be foolish just to assume they’re wrong because a majority of professional climatologists disagrees with them — even though the odds suggest they are.

But sometimes outsiders say things that truly make no sense, that’s another story. Back in the 1950’s, a psychotherapist named Immanuel Velikovsky published his theory that Old Testament stories of the Sun standing still for a day, the Red Sea parting, and the Israelites surviving on manna from heaven, were all true. They were all caused by the planet Venus — in fact, he said, not a planet at all, but a gigantic comet burped out by Jupiter — flying back and forth past the Earth several times. “The less one knows about science,” one critic wrote, “the more plausible Velikovsky's scenario appears...

That turns out to be true about the challenges I was challenged to write about. Take statements by Professors Lovelock and Happer about the fact that warming has been fairly flat for the past decade or so, which it has. This, they both suggest, refutes the claims of mainstream climatologists that the temperature should have continued to rise.

The thing is, nobody made such claims in the first place. Climate scientists have always acknowledged that natural variations would slow the warming during some periods and speed it up in others. Suggesting otherwise is simply incorrect — and people trumpeting the “failure” of a prediction nobody ever made isn’t news in my book.

A climate model. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio/NASA. 

Or take Prof. Happer’s claim that “CO2 is not a pollutant” because plants need it to live. The second part is true enough, but that doesn’t make the whole thing true. Humans need water to live, but you can get sick or even die if you drink too much. Plants grow better with more CO2, on average (poison ivy does especially well), but unless water and other nutrients also increase, the effect runs out of steam after a while.

Then you’ve got the astronauts. Their big beef is that climate scientists rely solely on computer models to project future climate, but that you need real-world observations to keep your models honest; otherwise, they’re just glorified X-box games. It seems like a pretty good point.

But once again, the basic premise is simply false. Climate scientists use all sorts of information in constructing projections for the future. They look deep into the past, for example, to see how the planet’s climate has changed over millions of years, and what forces made that happen. They look at temperature and CO2 records gathered by modern instruments in the past half-century or so. And they test their computer models by setting them in the virtual past and seeing if their “predictions” of 20th-century temperature are anywhere close to what actually ended up happening.

Guess what? They match up pretty well.

And that’s why I most often don’t report on these challenges. When someone publishes a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal that takes on one or more of the central tenets of climate science, that’s a different story, and one worth covering. When someone simply says something that is demonstrably false  — and especially when it’s been said repeatedly and refuted every time — I tend to stay away.

Except for this time, of course.

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Comments

By Paul Budline (Princeton NJ)
on April 30th, 2012

Presuming I am that “occasional visitor” (“only visitor” may be more accurate), I have a recommendation.  Why not change the name of this site to “Climate Change Central,” drop the ridiculous pretense of being nonpartisan, and move forward with your alarmist, doom-is-nigh agenda?  You’re every bit as partisan as Anthony Watts, only with far less of an impact.

One egregious example of your credibility deficit is the agonizingly rationalized decision to ignore former alarmists like Lovelock when they wander off the reservation (apologies to Elizabeth Warren.)  Like Trotsky in the old USSR, Lovelock may have to be airbrushed from your archives.  Yet you seem to maintain a great admiration for a certain former VP whose “documentary” was riddled with monumental errors.

So, what do you think?  “Climate Change Central” has a nice ring to it, and would be far, far more honest.  And by the way, the video called “If I Wanted America to Fail” is up around 2,000,000 views.  One more thing worth ignoring.

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By Robert (Vancouver WA 98607)
on April 30th, 2012

Thank you for such a clear explanation between skeptical scientists driving research (Galileo, Alfred Wegener and Ignaz Semmelweis.) and denial driven rhetoric in the guise of science.

Reply to this comment

By dan in illinois
on April 30th, 2012

“Or take Prof. Happer’s claim that “CO2 is not a pollutant” because plants need it to live. The second part is true enough, but that doesn’t make the whole thing true. Humans need water to live, but you can get sick or even die if you drink too much.”

Okay, true enough.  So, why not classify water as a pollutant?  Isn’t your statement true of just about any substance found on this planet?  Why not just classify everything as a pollutant?

Reply to this comment

By Kevin
on April 30th, 2012

Paul and Dan,

Well, both of you are obvious climate change deniers so please allow me to address this to both of you.  The earth is warming.  It’s either primarily man or it’s primarily nature.  97% of climate scientists agree that it’s the former.  You evidently think it’s the latter.

So present your evidence.  Publish a paper which shows that the warming we’re currently seeing is primarily natural.  Your motivation to do so?  Well, how about a Nobel Prize and the $1 million that goes with it.  That surely awaits the person who can prove the 97% wrong…

Kevin

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By Winston Smith
on April 30th, 2012

Why do people beleive wierd things?( From the book by Michael Shermer) I think the following says it all really

7. Heresy Does Not Equal Correctness
They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they laughed at the Marx brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.

...for every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating a scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose “truths” never pass muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fantastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.

The failure to pass the scientific muster is the biggest problrm.  Most people fail to understand the picyure that the science paints, and are merely acceptiong of what fits their world views and some even revel in the role of “persecuted rebel”  in which they see themselves.

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By Malloy (Sydney)
on May 1st, 2012

The stories of maverick scientists, conquering the impossible mountain of group thinking mediocrity, can be truly inspiring. I would like to see the list of all contrarian climate scientists who have done the proverbial Galileo and literally changed the course of history. Provided they also did the following - 1. Spent years on their postgrad study in a specialist field on the subject. 2. Had all their work supervised and peer reviewed in the appropriate journal. 3. Received research grant money only from an unbiased sources, not been bankrolled by rich industrialists or politically motivated groups. 4. Never been a member of an “Institute”, or “Society”, or “Think Tank”. 5. Participated in discussion on blog sites with the great majority of us, always clear, patient, never dismissive, never taking troll bait, never indulging in ad hominem attacks. Otherwise their views may be just like many others and worth about as much as what you paid for it.

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By dan in illinois
on May 1st, 2012

Kevin,

I don’t understand why you think I have to prove something.  I am merely asking a question that should be easy for AGW advocates to answer: if CO2 is labeled a pollutant because of its ability to harm the environment in large enough quantities then why aren’t water and other substances found on Earth classified as pollutants as well?

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By c woof (usa)
on May 4th, 2012

Not all things like a lot of CO2 in the air. example—The oceans can absorb only so much before their composition changes, to the detriment of some creatures in the food chain.
Do some research on CO2 in the atmosphere and what happens—the greenhouse effect; when CO2 condenses out of the atmosphere, etc. Perhaps those will tell you why water is not the same.

Of course, too much fresh water in the N.Atlantic is thought to be detrimental, so….

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By Roger Albin (Ann Arbor/MI/48103)
on May 4th, 2012

A minor point but still important point.  Galileo and Wegener were not “outsiders” whose ideas were dismissed by the scientific establishment. 

Galileo was a mainstream and by the standards of the time, well supported scientist.  His major problems weren’t with his fellow scientists and his ideas about astronomy and physics were hardly “dismissed” by his colleagues.  His problem was with the Church and was not scientific but theological.  Galileo was prosecuted for doubting biblical inerrancy about astronomy, a position identical to that of St. Augustine.  Heilbron’s recent and very readable biography is a good source on this point.

Wegener was not a geologist but his ideas were taken seriously.  He received significant support from prominent British and South African geologists and his ideas were discussed respectfully in major textbooks.  Oreskes’ excellent book on the development of plate tectonics has very good discussion of these points. 

The importance of scientific “outsiders” is greatly overemphasized in the popular literature.

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