Dept. of Skepticism

I haven't had anything to say about the stolen climate e-mails from East Anglia University, largely because I know diddly-squat when it comes to climate science. However, Andrew links to an article in Popular Mechanics about the scandal that does as good a job of responding even-handedly as I think is possible right now.

I should disclose at the outset that I am skeptical about anthropogenic climate change. This is due in large part to a steady stream of skepticism directed my way by an incredibly smart person I happen to know, who has done extensive review of a lot of available data and feels pretty strongly that there is insufficient evidence in support of the now-consensus view. (He also may or may not be directly related to me.) Given my respect for his expertise and the time I know he has spent researching the question, I have become agnostic on the issue. If you're interested in what he has to say for himself on energy issues in general, you can go here.

By way of introducing my other reason for concern about our approach to climate change, I would like to quote from that Popular Mechanics article:
When scientists try to predict the future, they are even more hampered by the enormous scales of time, distance and complexity inherent in the global climate system. We Earth scientists have educated ourselves, and the public, about the difference between weather—short term fluctuations due to all kinds of "noisy" inputs, like sun spots—and climate. This difference means that short-term observations are potentially irrelevant, and we might have to wait decades to really test the efficacy of scientific models predicting future climate. But here's the rub: Climate models—which represent the good-faith efforts of a lot of very dedicated people to use a combination of physics and observations of past climate to make the best possible projections—predict some very unfavorable outcomes for humans within the next 50 to 100 years, unless we take substantial action to reduce and mitigate CO2 emissions, starting right now. There is plenty of room for uncertainty, but the time to act is now.
That word act is where the problem lies. Certainly, if one believes the consensus view of climate change, it appears that things are quite urgent. But action in this case involves incredible cost.

In a nutshell (and as far as I understand a field wholly unrelated to my own expertise), we cannot come close to meeting our energy needs with so-called "carbon neutral" means. In small settings, carbon neutrality may be possible. For massive economies like that of the United States, there remain no alternatives to coal-fired power plants, with the possible exception of the environmentally (or, at least, politically) undesirable option of nuclear power. Wind, solar, hydroelectric -- none are capable of delivering nearly enough power to keep America running. In the words of the smart person (who might be related to me), get rid of coal, and people will freeze in the dark.

Now, there remain other issues of concern with regard to carbon dioxide levels. I think the pH of the oceans, in particular, demands our attention. However, given the enormity of the sacrifice that would be entailed if we wish to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, it is imperative that the science behind the recommendations be transparent and honest. The CRU e-mails cause legitimate concern about that transparency and honesty.

This leaves me in the indescribably galling position of agreeing with conservative Republicans on a major issue. Given that I disagree almost viscerally with them about essentially everything else, and that their objections stem in large part from an otherwise-repellant disregard for science, this agreement makes me break out in horrible hives. But even a broken clock is right twice a day, and thus I find myself holding my nose in the company of people I think might be right for all the wrong reasons.


  1. Darn it, I need a blog to respond to your thoughts. I may actually have to get one. Anyway, in a comment form whilst standing on one foot...

    I agree with your smart friend (who may or may not be related to you). I have training and credentials in the physical sciences, and it has been obvious for years that Climate Science as practiced by the Climate-Governmental Complex has all the classic symptoms of voodoo science. The scientific method is not a method for discovering Truth, but for rooting out error. A physical theory is accepted to the extent it accurately predict the behavior of Objective Reality despite all attempts to falsify the theory. AGW hasn't really been subjected to the scientific method, so IMVHO we cannot know if it is an accurate description of Reality.

    I simply wanted to say that as a skeptic -- in the extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof mold -- I too find myself in the company of the people who may be right, but for the wrong reasons. Even clocks running backwards are right a few times a day.

  2. We're going to have to build nuclear power plants, public opinion (which in the case of nuclear power plants is incredibly and naively negative) be damned.

    Nuclear power's waste product is eminently more containable than carbon based fuels' waste products. The safety factor in a modern nuclear reactor is orders of magnitude higher than any other facility, including chemical plants.

    You're a lot safer parked next to San Onofre than you are in most urban zone that have industrial capabilities.

    Just out of curiosity, GD, what precisely makes up the "Climate-Government Complex"?

  3. Ah, the CGC is analogous to the Military-Industrial Complex Pres. Eisenhower warned about. In that speech, he not only warned about the MIC, but also the dangers of technological elites, government policy, and government funding in a positive feedback melange a trois. In short, what we are seeing today in climate research.

    Pres. Eisenhower said

    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever presentand is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.

    True dat.

  4. This reminds me of what William James said about the stuff we claim to know: "Our faith is faith in other people's faith, and in the greatest matters, this is most the case." People who claim to *know* that global warming is caused by humans have not looked at raw data themselves. I scoff at vaccine skeptics, yet, unlike Dan, I have not looked at the data.

    It makes perfect sense that they got some data that seemed "wrong" and started messing with it. There are an enormous amount of background beliefs brought to any scientific endeavor, and usually scientists will light on an explanation that messes with the fewest of their background beliefs as possible. It's *possible* that the pain in my right shoulder is caused by invisible nibbling leprechauns. But guessing it to be a pinched nerve, which is also possible, requires less alteration of my other background beliefs. Whether the Duhem-Quine thesis is actually a philosophy of science, there is something psychologically right about it, which should make all of us (I'm looking at you PZ Myers) a little skeptical of the "Science is Truth! Anyone who thinks otherwise is a Slobbering Idiot!" strain of thought.

    Duhem-Quine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duhem%E2%80%93Quine_thesis

  5. I'm still a little miffed that you refused to try the anti-leprechaun cream I recommended, however.

  6. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa - sometimes I get a little behind in catching up on things.

    I have responded to the Popular Mechanics post.

    Sorry it took a while, I initially thought about posting to Andrew's site but comments on this issue at most places often run into large numbers fairly fast, and thus individual comments disappear.