Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How Global Warming Deniers Get the Better of American Brains

The graphic shown above depicts one of the classic examples of anti-global warming  twaddle I've encountered over the years.  The most incredible aspect is that it didn't emanate from your ordinary clueless, under-educated dummy, but from a member of Mensa. A guy by the name of Evan J. Wright. He firmly believed  I was "writing nonsense" (in one Mensa Bulletin letter) because I noted the much higher absorption of CO2 in the oceans. According to Wright: "That's preposterous! If the oceans absorbed carbon dioxide they'd all turn into carbonated liquid, or soda pop! Does anyone see that? NOOO!"

One wonders how some folks ever got into Mensa! One further wonders how Wright (and his equally know-nothing offspring, Jon Wright, who rushed to his dad's defense, equally uninformed) manage to account for the documented fact of higher acidity of the oceans, arising directly from....tada.....the absorption of enormous amount of CO2 since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. There is now about 30% higher acidity as a result of the chemical reaction: H2O + CO2 -> H2CO3, in other words, the production of carbonic acid.

But the Wright's follies are small potatoes compared to the ways the anti-global warming establishment has used well-defined tactics to attempt to bamboozle the American people. The sad fact is that they actually seem to be working given how 10-12 percent fewer Americans now accept anthropogenic global warming compared to 10 years ago. It is instructive therefore to examine some of these methods:

1) Distorting and framing Uncertainty:

This is perhaps the biggest tactic in use and has to do with what has been called 'agnotology'.  This term,  derived from the Greek 'agnosis' - the study of culturally constructed ignorance- is achieved primarily by sowing the teeniest nugget of doubt in whatever claim is made (and as we know NO scientific theory is free of uncertainty).  Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor has correctly tied it to the trend of skeptic science sown deliberately and for political or economic ends .

The agnotologist and his ilk succeed once the following trope is emitted and embraced by the power structure:

There is still so much uncertainty, we shouldn’t invest money to solve the climate problem,’

But this is egregious on so many levels that it boggles the rational mind. First, any modern scientific pursuit must include uncertainty. Uncertainty is acknowledged every time I perform a measurement - say of the solar diameter- and express it with plus or minus kilometer values. It signifies that final measurement cannot be presumed free of measuring error which is inherent in all our physics, astronomy etc.

The matter of "too much uncertainty" is also the wrong way to look at the issue for any scientific model or measurement, because they can as easily UNDER-estimate a potential threat or occurrence as over estimate it. Let's take the case of city -busting asteroids which were the topic for discussion today on the CBS Early Show,  with physicist Michio Kaku.  Kaku reported that in fact we have had to readjust our estimates of asteroid impacts based on new observations. Where we once expected a city-buster (say one that could take out a city like New York) every 150 years, we now have to expect it such a killer every 30 years!

In a similar vein, the uncertainty attached to climate models could also be in the direction of under-reporting or under-estimating the full impacts. Thus, the uncertainty could well be such that the runaway greenhouse effect could erupt fifty to one hundred years earlier than previously thought. Or the rising of the sea level owing to melting Arctic (and Greenland) ice sheets could incept a 10m rise as opposed to a 3 m one. This is why uncertainties are expressed as plus and minus values at the end of the measurement.

My point is that the trope expressed above doesn't take into account that the uncertainty implies that the problem is more likely to be worse than expected in the absence of that uncertainty.

It is for this very reason that one would be more justified in applying Dick Cheney's "one percent solution" to the case of both asteroids and global warming. (Cheney's one percent solution was that even if there is a 1 percent chance of a terror attack we must go all out to defend against it).  The reason for adopting the 1 percent solution to climate change and asteroids is because the consequences - should the event occur - would be so horrendous that the costs of repair would vastly exceed the costs of precautionary preparation.

Uncertainty, especially as the asteroid example illustrates, is therefore a reason to do much more to protect against the occurrence as opposed to delay or doing much less.

2) Misrepresenting Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW):

This tactic has worked because too many Americans are not aware of the real consensus among real climate scientists that anthropogenic global warming is a FACT that must be acted upon. Perhaps the first researcher to scientifically and statistically establish this was science historian Naomi Oreskes - who first published an initial survey of global warming literature, entitled  “Beyond The Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

Oreskes analyzed “928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords ‘climate change.’” She found that 75 percent of papers accepted the consensus view “either explicitly or implicitly,” while “25 percent dealt with methods or paleoclimate,” and took no position on AGW.  Remarkably, she found that none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.  

Later studies have found a small sliver of dissenting views, but the more the consensus has been studied, the sturdier it appears, while the dissenting literature is dogged with repeated problems. For example, in Eos Transactions, Vol. 90, No. 3, p. 22 , P. T. Doran and M. Kendall-Zimmerman found that (p. 24)

the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely non-existent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”

In their analytic survey for which 3146 climate and Earth scientists responded, a full 96.2% of specialists concurred temperatures have steadily risen and there is no evidence for cooling. Meanwhile, 97.4% concur there is a definite role of humans in global climate change.

A 2010 paper, Expert credibility in climate change, reconfirmed the 97 percent consensus figure, and found that “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC [or AGW] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.” A 2013 paper, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, examined “11,944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011” and found that “97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position,” while a parallel self-rating survey found that “97.2 percent endorsed the consensus.”

Despite that, another Mensan (what's with these characters?) Marty Nemko, in a prominent Mensa Bulletin piece in 2010, actually posed these questions:

- Why does the media imply that the IPCC report reflects the consensus of thousands of scientists, when – as reported by CNN – there are dissenting scientists, like Richard Lindzen of MIT?

- If there’s consensus, why on Dec. 20, 2007, did the U.S.  Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Policy issue a report that 400 scientists now believe the evidence doesn’t support that “consensus"?

Nemko interprets “consensus” in these questions to mean 100% agreement, but this isn’t the case at all.  A consensus in the accepted English definition means the concurrence of an overwhelming majority. We have always known a certain minority hard core of scientists (the contrarians – who probably want more attention than being lumped in with others) have existed. People like S. Fred Singer of the University of Virginia and Richard Lindzen of MIT.  These outlier oddballs will always exist because it's in their interest to object, since either they are part- funded by the fossil fuel industry (Singer) or they are able to carve out a contrarian niche in a field otherwise dominated by concurrence (Lindzen).

But by confusing the meaning of "consensus" they seek to try to make the public believe the issue isn't settled when it is.  It would be analogous to a fundie claiming there's no consensus that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old because a few oddball naysayers, like Jason Lisle and D. Russell Humphreys, choose to differ. This despite the fact that we can actually use radioactive decay to obtain an excellent estimate that puts the Earth's age at 4 1/2 billion years.

As for Nemko's second question, the answer ought to be obvious: it's because the Senate is largely comprised of people who lack any credentials in climate science – and hence are not informed or educated enough to offer a professional scientific opinion – only a political one. Thus, they would not have been able to recognize that most of the 400 scientists "who don't believe the evidence supports a consensus" were not climate scientists.

3) Conspiracist ideation in science rejection:

To summarize this one: when all else has failed in trying to knock down a scientific consensus, then pull out the conspiracy card.  Indeed, when one looks at the history of science denial, there is plenty of evidence that a firm scientific consensus drives deniers into postulating conspiracy — from the opposition to tobacco and industrial chemicals and contamination (as in the Erin Brockovich case) to climate change.

Thus, for the firm climate change consensus, the rejoinder is : "CONSPIRACY! All the scientists are in it together that's why they agree!"   Of course, these pinheads will then look for any supporting "evidence" to support their whacky claims, and no surprise they found it - or what they wrongly thought qualified - in the leaked emails some years ago at East Anglia, and the Univ. of Pennsylvania, which became known as "climate gate".   (Think of Watergate, as in Watergate conspiracy.)

Fortuitously, a voice of reason soon sounded. It arrived with Myles Allen of Oxford University and delivered in a  public comment (Financial Times, July 29, 2010) that it was clear from the accumulated work of climate scientists that human-engendered greenhouse gases was the problem. and in his words (ibid.):

"Climategate never really brought climate science into question at all."

In other words, a storm in a teacup. No "conspiracy" at all. The product of a paranoid embolism erupting in the brains of the ....paranoid!   The leaked emails themselves were simply attributed to an understandable hyper-reactionist tendency in the scientists - tired of seeing their work maimed and misrepresented by the flat Earthers.

A second reason conspiracist ideation crops up  and is invoked in resisting science is that it has greater explanatory reach than science, because it’s not constrained by “the criteria of consistency and coherence that characterize scientific reasoning.”  The recent news that according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll  51 percent question the Big Bang theory discloses that scientific reasoning is alien to most 'Muricans. Indeed, I doubt that any of those who question the Big Bang theory even took a high school physics course.

Getting down to cases, it's interesting that as one salon.com source put it:

Deniers will claim in the same breath (or within a few minutes) that (a) temperatures cannot be measured reliably, (b) there is definitely no warming, (c) the warming isn’t caused by humans, and (d) we are doing ourselves a favor by warming the planet. The four propositions are incoherent because they cannot all be simultaneously true — and yet deniers will utter all those in close succession all the time.”

Yet, any such string of statements ought to be obviously incoherent to any critical thinker - even one who's never taken a physics course. For example, if (a) is granted as true then how in the hell can (b) be accepted? If you can't measure temperatures reliably how can you assert "there's definitely no warming"?   And if you grant that statement (c) is true - warming exists but not human-caused, how can you also assert (b) is true? It's total poppycock!

Finally, conspiracist ideation is also  immune to falsification, because contradictory evidence (e.g., climate scientists associated with 'climategate' being exonerated of accusations) can be accommodated by broadening the scope of the conspiracy (exonerations are a whitewash), often with considerable creativity.

Until and unless we can effectively parry these tactics it will become increasingly difficult to get the public to support concerted action.

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