Thursday, February 23, 2012

When Science and Politics Mix

Politics has to do with appearances without regard for reality. Science has to do with reality without regard for appearances. When science and politics mix the results can be remarkable. Politicians prove to be ignoramuses, scientists prove to be liars. Climate science provides a wonderful example. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore, intent on making science serve political ends, proves himself to be an ass and the Nobel Peace Prize a joke. Dr. Peter Gleick, member of the US National Academy of Sciences, McArthur Foundation Genius Award winner, intent on shaping public opinion proves himself a thief and liar, and those who backed him, gullible dupes.

Those who care about the perversion of science and wish to avoid being themselves duped by scientists behaving as politicians or politicians falsely claiming scientific expertise should apply to every argument about science the following questions.
Does the argument rest upon observational data?

Are the data disputed by those with expertise to make a plausible judgement?

Do those who advance the argument deal honestly with those who question the data or the logic of the analysis?
On that basis, Al Gore's claim that past increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration were associated with increases in global temperature is based on observable facts, and the data are not, as far as I am aware, disputed by qualified experts. However, what the experts do assert is that Gore has the timing wrong, and that the rise in temperature always came before, not after, the rise in carbon dioxide concentration.

Did Al Gore openly acknowledge this criticism and revise his argument accordingly? Apparently not, and it is this failure that confirms that Gore does not seek to reveal the reality of climate change, but to manipulate public perception of climate change for political reasons.

In addition, it is essential to determine whether the data presented in support of an argument are comprehensive or cherry picked.

In his Forbes blog, the above-mentioned Peter Gleick assails those who claim that global temperature is not rising in a piece entitled "Global Warming Has Stopped"? How to Fool People Using "Cherry-Picked" Climate Data.
The current favorite argument of those who argue that climate changes isn’t happening, or a problem, or worth dealing with, is that global warming has stopped. Therefore (they conclude) scientists must be wrong when they say that climate change is caused by humans, worsening, and ultimately a serious environmental problem that must be addressed by policy makers.

The problem with this argument is that it is false: global warming has not stopped and those who repeat this claim over and over are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth.
These liars, ignoramuses and blatant disregarders of the truth Dr. Gleick fails to mention by name, but he aims to refute them with a series of graphs showing in every case, so he claims, a rising trend in global temperature.

In fact, for the past decade, there seems no discernible trend, but Gleick assures the reader that:
The linear trend (the blue line) over the past decade is relatively flat, but in fact it still exhibited a warming trend, despite the temporary cooling forces that are masking the overall warming
which seems something of a contradiction in terms. If the line is flat it is flat. To talk about a warming trend masked by "temporary cooling forces" appears to be sheer sophistry.

And note that the issue of the past decade is central to Gleick's case, for he has set out to refute those who say that despite the current rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, global temperature is not rising.

But if Gleick's argument about the last decade is dodgy, what about the rest of his evidence?

Four other graphs all show a rise in global temperature or global heat over varying time scales going back to 1880.

So do those graphs clinch his argument? Hardly.

As can be seen in the adjacent image, over the last 130 years, global temperature has been quite variable, falling between 1880 and 1910, then rising more or less continuously until 1945, after which it fell slightly before flattening out for 30 years, then rising until around 2000, since when it has been flat.

Does this reflect a close correlation with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration? No.

Does it show, as Gleick asserts, that those who claim global warming has stopped "are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth"? No.

What it does show is that global temperature varies, sometimes rising sometimes falling, and that while the overall trend since 1880 is upward, the trend since 2000, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising quite rapidly,  has been flat.

Does this prove that human activity has no effect on climate? Absolutely not. It merely shows that global temperature fluctuates for reasons we do not fully understand.

But if global temperature has, for now, stopped rising, despite the continued and increasing human-caused rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, does that prove that human activity cannot harm the planet? Far from it.

Neither the climate "warmists" nor the warming "skeptics" know enough about the vagaries of the Earth's climate to make any definite statement. All that one can reasonably say is that changing the chemical composition and spectral properties of the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way, as we have been doing with increasing effect, does not seem like a very good idea, and could eventually have clearly apparent and seriously harmful environmental consequences. On the other hand, we cannot simply shut down the fossil-fueled economy overnight, without wiping out most of humanity.


What then to do? The answer is simple, though not easily accepted. Leave climate science to the scientists, and be very skeptical of everything the politicians, including those in white coats, have to tell you about the environmental, social and economic implications of the science.

But we have to act, many will assert. That is true, but we have to act in a state of uncertainty. There are risks whatever course is taken. We must hope for intelligent political decisions base on first-rate, unbiased science, not panic-driven actions serving ulterior political motives.

For now, neither the physical evidence nor the theoretical considerations suggest imminent danger. Viewed in the long-term, we are currently in a pleasantly warm and perhaps all too brief interglacial and seem in greatest danger not of harmful warming but of catastrophic cooling.

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