Is Terra Burning…and how do we know?


I’m feeling like a crank, but somebody’s got to do this dirty job…

I just read Chapter 4 of this book,  Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. The chapter I read is called “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change:  How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” and it’s by Naomi Oreskes.  Professor Oreskes is now well known for an essay she published in Science in which she described the results of a survey of nearly 1000 scientific papers, and concluded that the consensus was clearly on the side of global warming being caused by human industrial activity.  To quote her university profile page:

Her 2004 essay “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” (Science 306: 1686), led to Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times, and has been widely cited in the mass media, including National Public Radio (Fresh Air), The New Yorker, USA Today, Parade, as well as in the Royal Society’s publication, “A guide to facts and fictions about climate change,” and, most recently, in Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The notion of an established consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) especially one established by survey, always struck me as dubious.  I have read only the abstract of her survey paper, but Chapter 4 restates her work and also addresses general questions about the sociology and philosophy of scientific knowledge.  Her reasoning, I believe, is grossly superficial, and obviously influenced by her bias in favor of AGW.  I have to do this, point by point, here we go…italics and emphasis all mine.

Scientists glean their colleagues’ conclusions by reading their results in published scientific literature, listening to presentations at scientific conferences, and discussing data and ideas in the hallways of conference centers, university departments, research institutes, and government agencies. …

Climate science is a little different. Because of the political importance of the topic, scientists have been unusually motivated to explain their research results in accessible ways, and explicit statements of the state of scientific knowledge are easy to find.

“A little different” is a colossal understatement.  The debate has been heavily political because the supporters of AGW advocate far reaching economic changes.  (It happens that I agree with many of their proposals!)  The nature of the debate has been formed also by the circumstance that it isn’t possible to do killer confirmatory experiments to settle the issue and because so much of the base data is disputable in various ways.  Many discussions devolve into debates over statistical methodology.

The IPCC is an unusual scientific organization: it was created not to foster new research but to compile and assess existing knowledge on a politically charged issue. Perhaps its conclusions have been skewed by these political concerns, but the IPCC is by no means alone it its conclusions, and its results have been repeatedly ratified by other scientific organizations.

The question is ratified how, and by whom?  Could not these other organizations have similar biases?  Morever, statements issued by organizations in support of AGW are given much weight in the media, while petitions and letters signed by dissenters are treated as fringe efforts.

These kinds of reports and statements are drafted through a careful process involving many opportunities for comment, criticism, and revision, so it is unlikely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies’ memberships. Nevertheless, it could be the case that they downplay dissenting opinions. [note 2]

This does not fit with my knowledge of how organizations function.  Usually, there is a small group of very active people.  It is quite possible that the editorial arms of such professional groups have been ‘captured’ by AGW advocates.  In fact, in her note, Oreskes admits as much, using the Catholic Church as an example.  The views of the priests and the laity are often contradictory.


Here is the graphed output from Oreskes’ survey.  She is not particularly disturbed by the fact that no papers at all were discovered that denied/refuted the AGW “consensus,” not a one!

Under the category of Impacts she collects papers that discuss the “potential…or actual impacts” of warming.  Of course, if a paper (I have read several such) begins with the phrase, “Many experts predict warming over the next N years of X magnitude…” and then goes on to assess the ramifications of this speculative change, is this an “endorsement” of the AGW hypothesis?  Does the fact that nobody writes papers about the likely effects of no AGW indicate that nobody thinks the theory is bad?  Of course not!  There wouldn’t be anything to write about!  People who think it will happen as predicted are concerned, and write papers about it.  It also is a handy way to churn out papers in the publish-or-perish mill.  You don’t have to prove anything, just suppose…Similarly, papers that deal with the observed effects of climate change don’t necessarily prove anything about why it is changing.  Oreskes takes the opposite view – all these papers endorse the consensus.

[Note:  We know now that the process of peer review was strongly influenced  by politics  – see my posts on the release of emails called ‘Climategate’.  6/4/11]

She also neglects the obvious fact that people who think AGW is a worthless notion will not write papers about this.  What is there to investigate?  People who regard it as plausible but have doubts are in the same position.  Morever, if they are serious scientists, they want to write about their discipline, which may or may not be relevant to the debate, but their priority is to make defensible scientific claims.  Thus, there is quite possibly a vast reservoir of skepticism out there that is missed by her survey.


Second, to say that global warming is real and happening now is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. Much of the continuing debate in the scientific community involves the likely rate of future change.

So, of what does this consensus consist? If we agree that warming is happening now (and not everyone agrees) but we don’t agree on what will happen in the future, how do we have a consensus on the direction of climate change under the influence of human activity?  All scientists agree on the reality of climate change, but that is very different than saying they agree on AGW.

Third, there is the question of what kind of dissent still exists. … The total number of papers published over the last ten years having anything at all to do with climate change is probably over ten thousand, and no  doubt some of the authors of the other over nine thousand papers have expressed skeptical or dissenting views. But the fact that the sample turned up no dissenting papers at all demonstrates that any remaining professional dissent is now exceedingly minor.

This might have something to do with the fact that global circulation models (GCMs) are not falsifiable, not subject to controlled experiments, a point which Oreskes treats later on.  If they were, there would be clear target at which critics could aim.  In cases where critics have attempted to directly contradict specific AGW claims, e.g., the Hockey Stick controversy, their arguments, if accepted, are dismissed as unimportant.  How do you write a dissenting scientific paper about a point of view that you think is simply indefensible?

On the media war…

This suggests something discussed elsewhere in this book—that the mass media have paid a great deal of attention to a handful of dissenters in a manner that is greatly disproportionate with their representation in the scientific ommunity.

…they [contrarians] do no new scientific research. They are not producing new evidence or new  arguments. They are simply attacking the work of others and  mostly doing so in the court of public opinion and in the mass media rather than in the halls of science.  This latter point is crucial and merits underscoring: the vast majority of materials denying the reality of global warming do not pass the most basic test for what it takes to be counted as scientific…

There certainly are rabid and irresponsible kooks in the anti-AGW camp.  Of course, the last sentence quoted above would apply equally well to the pro-AGW materials.  I would say that Al Gore’s statements fit in there well.  This text was written in 2007, so I find Oreskes’ lamenting of the media attitude to be puzzling.  My sense is that the mass-media are firmly in the AGW camp, and are condescending and dismissive of opposing views, except in outlets that target a libertarian or right-wing political demographic.  Finally, it needs to be pointed out that to be a good critic of the basic assumptions and methodologies of the AGW camp, you don’t need to be doing new research:  you need to have a good understanding of modern science.

At this point, Oreskes switches gears and become more philosophical in a section called “How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?”  Always a good question to ask.  She begins by reviewing the nature of science, and inductive and deductive reasoning.  Then this:

How does climate science stand up to the inductive model? Does climate science rest on a strong inductive base? Yes.  Humans have been making temperature records consistently for over 150 years, and nearly all scientists who have looked carefully at these records see an overall increase since the industrial revolution about 0.6 to 0.7 deg C… The empirical signal is clear, even if not all the details are clear.

Either there is a clear signal, or there is not.  What does it mean to say that the signal is clear, but the details aren’t?  Isn’t that where the devil is?

How reliable are the early records?  How do you average the data to be representative of the globe as a whole, even though much of the early data comes from only a few places, mostly in Europe?  Scientists have spent quite a bit of time addressing these questions; most have satisfied themselves that the empirical signal is clear.

Of course, this is the nub of so much of the debate, and she skates over it blithely.  Scientists who support the AGW position have convinced themselves, others have not…She goes on to assert that doubts about the older temperature records are not important because the recent, most significant increases in temperature are correlated with the recent upsurge of CO2.  But…but…if the historical record is not as the AGW people would have it, then the historical relationship of CO2 and temperature is not either, and that calls into doubt the contemporary relationship of the two.  So the recent upsurge of both, if it is real on the temperature side, might be due to other causes.

On deductive reasoning:

How does climate science stand up to this standard? Have climate scientists made predictions that have come true? AbsolutelyThe most obvious is the fact of global warming itself. As already has been noted in previous chapters, scientific concern over the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is based on physics—the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

Wow, this one is a howler!  Nobody denies the warm blanket effect of CO2 – the question is how that functions in the complex climate system of planet Earth.  Her formulation begs the question entirely.  If one assumes that natural variation is the cause of the putative currrent warming, then the fact of warming proves nothing about AGW.  And, of course, Nostradamus predicted things, or so people say, that have come about too.

Professor Oreskes is no slouch – she goes on to squarely face the Popper Question:  How does one falsify the AGW point of view?

How does climate science hold up to this modification?  Can climate models be refuted? Falsification is a bit of a problem for all models—not just climate models—because many models are built to forecast the future and the results will not be known for some time.

…calibration can make models refutation-proof: the model doesn’t get rejected; it gets revised.

A bit of  understatement there, about falsification.  Yes, models don’t get rejected, they get tweaked until they give the proper results.  She says that modelers get around this by running many models, ensembles, and comparing the results.  They all show warming – only the tempo and mode vary.  But what if the basic assumptions of all the models are wrong?

Is it possible that all these model runs are wrong? Yes,because they are variations on a theme. If the basic model conceptualization was wrong in some way, then all the models runs would be wrong. Perhaps there is a negative feedback loop that we have not yet recognized. … This is one reason that continued scientific investigation is warranted. But note that Svante Arrhenius and Guy Callendar predicted global warming before anyone ever built a global circulation model (or even had a digital computer). Climate models give us a tool for exploring scenarios and interactions, but you don’t need a climate  model to know that global warming is a real problem.

Oreskes answers her excellent question here with a monumental non sequitur.  The fact that Arrhenius made his predictions long ago does nothing to validate the content of the models.  His predictions were, I believe, for much more warming than is even claimed today.  Her final statement amounts to using her argument as conclusion to support her argument, and recalls to mind an editorial in the NYTimes from a while back.

Finally, we come to this:

Should we believe that the global increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide has had a negligible effect even though basic physics indicates otherwise?  Should we believe that the correlation between increased CO2 and increased temperature is just a weird coincidence? If there were no theoretical reason to relate them and if Arrhenius, Callendar, Suess, and Revelle had not predicted that all this would all happen, then one might well conclude that rising CO2 and rising temperature were merely coincidental. But we have every reason to believe that there is a causal connection and no good reason to believe that it is a coincidence. Indeed, the only reason we might think otherwise is to avoid committing to action: if this is just a natural cycle in which humans have played no role, then maybe global warming will go away on its own in due course.

And that sums up the problem. To deny that global warming is real is precisely to deny that humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the earth.

In her summing up, Oreskes brings up basic physics again.  Again, not the issue.  The issue is feedbacks in a complex system.  And the nature of the basic facts on the ground.  Weird coincidence?  The only thing that makes it weird is the predisposition to accept AGW.  Of course, she mixes political with scientific argument by assuming that all critics are against doing anything to address human impacts on the environment – I’m not.  To end, many people think that humans have become significant agents for change on the earth – this is not a new idea.  Criticizing AGW doesn’t have much to do with that position.

And by the way, in case any readers are wondering where I stand: the earth is round, and the Holocaust did happen.


2 Responses to Is Terra Burning…and how do we know?

  1. troutsky says:

    What is tricky here is all the bouncing around between anthropogenic change and “global climate change”. Like the first graph. The basic chicken- egg argument is dealt with through consensus, which can have political implications, but they carve both ways. Many studies that deny human impacts are promoted by those with a vested interest in status quo. Can all bias be removed? by the way why aren’t “feedback” a problem for physics?

  2. lichanos says:

    The graph shows Oreskes’ tabulation of how many are with and not with the “consensus” on anthropogenic warming.

    What chicken-egg argument? Political consensus is not a way to settle scientific controversies.

    Political implications of the climate science cut in all sorts of ways. Everyone tends to pay attention only to the directions they like.

    Yes, some studies that deny human impacts are funded by those with an interest in continuing the status quo. I generally steer clear of those. There are plenty of independent critics around. There are some basic issues of fact at play.

    You can correct for a lot of bias. The problem is, you have to want to do it.

    Not sure on what you are asking about feedback. Scientists try to simplify the problems they study so that they can ask one question at a time about one thing. That way, everyone knows what’s going on. Feedback is an issue when you can’t do that, when you have to study a more complicated arrangement of phenomena.

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