Posts Tagged ‘skeptics’

Science and the Climate

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I just finished Fred Singer’s book about how warming is not anthropogenic. It’s a little better than The Heat Is On in terms of actually presenting a scientific argument, but not by much.  Certainly not a worthy match for Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren. Of course that doesn’t mean Singer isn’t right, it just means he’s not a good spokesman for the cause (although his is one of the names I see mentioned most frequently as a “prominent scientist” who refutes AGW). I think maybe Lindzen from MIT would be a better mouthpiece, but it seems he hasn’t written any books targeted at a scientifically literate mass audience. Bummer.

Yeh, I’m spending way too much time on this climate investigation. :-) But I find it really interesting, not just because, if right, the implications for my grandchildren could be staggering. But also because it gives a fascinating glimpse into how people believe what they believe, and how people come to think they know something about things they can’t touch or see, either through science, through propaganda, or whatever.  And then how they try to convince others of their belief and defend it against attack.  Here you see  in-group dynamics — an “us-vs them” mentality – come into play in a big way.   The topic also raises many questions about the scientific process itself, how it works generally and whether it can work when issues beyond science impinge.

The confirmation bias, in particular, seems a particularly pernicious enemy of the truth. And you can see it everywhere in talk from AGW proponents and skeptics alike. And if we’re truly honest, I think it’s inevitable that each of us will notice it in ourselves. I know I notice it all the time. So how does one overcome one’s own confirmation bias and truly evaluate the evidence for what it is?
It’s not easy, I think. You have to keep questioning yourself — is this evidence really compelling or do I just find it so because it matches what I already believe? Is this study really junk, or do I just find it so because it opposes what I already believe? You have to think hard about what could possibly be wrong with every piece of evidence, not just the evidence presented by your opponents.   And you need to look closely at *every* piece of evidence. This is the really difficult one. The confirmation bias naturally leads us to filter the very information we receive. It’s simply not as much fun to read something that disagrees with what we believe. I believe the degree to which an individual is able overcome the confirmation bias is a big factor in what separates a great scientist from a mere propagandist. Unfortunately you see far too many propagandists on both sides of any controversial issue like this one.

Climate skeptics and the East Anglia emails

Friday, January 15th, 2010

My reaction to what I have read of the East Anglia emails matches closely with what the editorial in Nature had to say about it:

“In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values.”

A skeptic on a blog challenged me with: “Why is so much rationalization required [to defend these e-mails], if these guys are up to nothing but good? Where are the e-mails where they are sayins ‘ha! this really shows what we have been theorizing.”

Call me crazy, but somehow I don’t think the climate skeptic blogosphere has really been looking very hard for such emails. :-)   So lack of reports about such is hardly proof they don’t exist.  Anyway, science doesn’t usually work the way the above skeptic suggests.  At least not in a field like climate science where they study noisy, complex systems.  There isn’t likely to ever be one piece of evidence that suddenly cinches the deal.  It’s usually a slow buildup of little clues that eventually guide you toward confidence in a particular understanding.

So I did a little digging through the emails.  Makes me feel a little dirty, but you’re just not likely to get a balanced picture by looking only at the links posted on skeptics’ blogs.  I didn’t find any exuberant emails like Mr. Skeptic sought, but below is probably about as exuberant as you’re likely to see a real scientist get (if a scientist tells you he’s just ‘proved global warming’ — or disproved it — with a single study, nod reassuringly and slowly back away):

“Henry Pollack’s Borehole view of things (similar conclusions to the other recent papers) is about to appear in Science. Although each proxy and method does have it’s limitations and biases, the multiproxy view is compelling with regard to the patterns of temp change over the past several centuries.”

For a scientist, that’s probably downright giddy with glee.  This next e-mail I found also offers some balance vs the stuff I usually see pulled from the archive.  Particularly this sentence and what follows:


This looks to me like a good example of how what looks incriminating in one email is often just a case of sloppy use of language.  It’s a lot easier to say “I want to nail the MWP” than it is to say “I want to analyze the data carefully to reveal the true nature of the MWP, which I believe is not what a lot of uninformed people say it is”.   These are guys with a common understanding, slinging private emails back and forth, so they get a little sloppy because they know the other guy won’t crucify them for having a bias.   Somehow I really doubt most skeptics carefully hedge their statements about climate science in private emails to each other, either.

Now you may argue that if they are true scientists they should be above that, and keep a perfectly open mind at all times, and not start with any preference for a particular outcome.  Well, first I would find it extremely surprising if anyone could study climate science for 5-10 years and not end up with some leaning one way or the other.   Unbiased does not mean sans belief.  Second, apparently they do keep an open mind despite the bias.  That’s why this guy goes on to say “OUR JOB IS TO MAKE IT CLEAR WHAT IT [the MWP] WAS WITHIN THE LIMITS OF THE DATA. IF THE DATA ARE NOT CLEAR, THEN WE HAVE TO BE NOT CLEAR.”

So yeh, this guy has a bit of a bias — he believes his hypothesis — but the important thing is he is aware he has a bias and that he needs to be careful that it does not interfere with his analysis of the data.  That’s more than I can say for the majority of skeptic commentary I have read.  I find much more of this admission of and self-awareness about potential bias in the “warmists” writings than in those of skeptics.

(BTW if anyone reading this knows of some good climate skeptic literature that does NOT fall into the trap of chronic uncritical bias I’d love to know about it.  I’m looking for a book that does a really even-handed job of arguing the science without resorting to a lot of cherry picking of facts or politicization of the issue.  I’m reading Singer’s 2007 Unstoppable Global Warming right now, and I don’t find it to score well by those criteria.)