PNS is not an excuse to legitimize crank arguments

Posted February 2nd, 2013 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Interfaces of science and policy

Jerry’s response to my previous post, does not actually respond to the question of whether or not the climate “skeptics” are making good faith arguments – or are simply engaged in an act of deceitful parody, which starts with the act of calling themselves “skeptics.” He may well have a some sort of rationale for sounding like one himself – a different rationality from mine which has little relationship to science, but mostly, he has failed to convince me that his more recent material actually follows from his earlier ideas about Post-Normal Science, which I carefully drew on to make my case. This is an observation also made by Willard in a more active comment thread over in the Rabett hole.

While PNS has raised legitimate issues about the adequacy of scientific institutions and practices in what have become post-normal times, it does not provide an excuse for legitimizing incoherent arguments. The bottom line is that, if PNS is to retain any relevance going forward, it is important to be able to identify cranks and hold them to the same standard as real scientists when evaluating the quality of information. In other words: to be able to distinguish between those with legitimate disagreements and those who don’t accept the consensus either because they don’t understand the science, or for ideological reasons. Boundaries are also important, lest cranks become the evaluators…

Jerry also did not comment on any of the examples I used to illustrate bad faith, which included numerous references, links included. To quote ‘Lucy Skywalker’ (who he cites), apparently “no amount of good references is good enough for someone whose mind is already made up.” I’ll confess that I did not take the time to click through all of Skywalker’s links either, as anyone who evangelizes the plagiarized, misleading and discredited Wegman report to dismiss the hockey stick has simply lost their credibility. She also references Benny Peiser’s “challenge to the legitimacy of [Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming] CAGW’s claim of consensus”, but all three links she provides go to a code “401” non-existent page. Both of these cases were among the detailed examples I elaborated on, and for which some of the key source material can be found only using the Internet Archive “Wayback Machine”, because they are no longer available at their original locations. Could it be that they were taken down out of embarrassment after they were thoroughly debunked?

Instead, Jerry provided more anecdotes and vague assertions, but I will try to briefly respond to his main points, one at a time.

Regarding the “impassioned lecture by John Schellnhuber, detailing his ‘cascade of catastrophes’ as if they were sober predictions based on tested models”:

Without the direct quote from Schellnhuber himself, it is difficult to tell what was actually said and whether or not certainty was implied or overstated. But it is my understanding that, as a general rule, models leave out extreme events because their impacts depend heavily on when and where they happen, and models are simply not good tools for credibly capturing randomly timed and non-linear events. However, I do think it is important that such events be included in scenarios, and that it is important for scientists to make the case that such events are plausible, and are something we should worry about. It is also important to keep in mind that giving a speech is not the same thing as doing science, and that informed opinions of scientists should be welcomed, as long as they are stated as such.

The Meteorological Office statement that snow would become a distant memory is anecdotal, and also irresponsible – if it was actually said. Even with climate change, it still gets cold, and even snows in the winter, perhaps even more so now that there is more moisture in the atmosphere. I did not see a citation for this one. Update: Actually, that is not quite what was said. Steve Bloom provides the background on this in the comments that I am now incorporating into the post:

Regarding the second item (the future of snow in the UK, it was a newspaper quote (in the Independent) of an individual scientist, not by the Met Office as such, and was anticipating conditions in 2020, so regardless it’s a bit early to be criticizing it.

But the 2020 prognosis is almost certainly wrong, although for a very interesting reason. (This is from recent work done by Francis and Vavrus, primarily.)

It is the case that there was a general expectation from the modeling results circa 2000 that climate zones would continue to shift poleward (consequent to expansion of the tropics) and that the already not-too-snowy UK climate would become even less so, especially if we’re talking London and southern England. That was all fair enough given the science of the time, but then polar amplification threw a large and unanticipated monkey wrench into the works in the form of changes in the northern jet stream.

While the climate zones indeed have continued their northward movement, the jet has slowed and increased its amplitude, making it possible for cold weather to set up and persist farther south than would otherwise have been the case. Worse than that for UK winters, a related change is the much-increased tendency for a persistent high to set up around southern Greenland, with a resulting downstream trough tending to channel high-latitude winter weather straight into the UK.

So, while it would appear that those snow-bearing storms won’t largely taper off (i.e. turn to rain) by 2020, none of this reflects poorly on the scientist who made the statement except insofar as he failed to anticipate an unknown unknown that has made things worse.

Lord Robert May could have done better than to simply base his argument on his own position of authority – which may work better in the UK than in the US, but there is deep consensus around Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), if not about the particulars, such as feedbacks and regional impacts. Science can be wrong, but given what is known and accepted by “all but cranks”, it would require extraordinary evidence to overturn that consensus.

Climategate exonerations may not have been universally accepted but I fail to see where they were lacking in candour, as is alleged in the New Scientist. Nor has anyone made a credible case that the scientists involved were not acting in good faith, even if documentation and record keeping practices could be improved in light of unforeseen demands for greater public accountability as climate science moved from the lab to the policy arena.

Sir John Beddington may have made a poor word choice, but we should be grossly intolerant of cranky and deceitful arguments, even if we might have some sympathy for those who make them – it is unsettling to have ones world view challenged. Given that good science tends to do just that, cranky reactions come with the territory. I could even respect the cranks if they made honest arguments and conceded to value differences, in which case I would no longer dismiss them as cranks.

I have looked at the “critical blogs” Jerry suggests, and I am going to admittedly cherry pick, since they also aren’t worth spending much time on. Tallbloke apparently believes a theory has been confirmed that would overturn Einstein’s theory of relativity… (with thanks to MikeH for noting this one in the comments). As I am not a physicist, I am not even going to try to explain arguments about ether.

I should perhaps revisit Judith Curry’s posts on PNS, but I did recently read her paper on Consensus, and it actually pointed me to a few good references. However, while concluding that the “consensus seeking process used by the IPCC has had the unintended consequence of introducing biases into the both the science and related decision-making processes,” nowhere does she provide any examples to make the case that this has actually  happened, or say more specifically why she disagrees with the AGW consensus.

She also writes “consensus among a reference group of experts thus concerned is relevant only if agreement is not sought. If… arrived at by intent, it becomes conspiratorial and irrelevant…”  which is quite a broad statement. As she is quoting someone else (Lehrer), I’m not sure I can call it another one of her unsubstantiated allegations, or whether it implies she really thinks that most climate scientists are part of a global conspiracy.  She concludes from this passage that “with genuinely well-established scientific theories, ‘consensus’ is not discussed and the concept of consensus is arguably irrelevant.”

As I discussed in my paper, consensus is not sufficient because it tends to exclude processes that are not well understood for which there is insufficient information on which to agree, leaving large uncertainties that are not in our favor. However, Curry, like Joe Bast, apparently rejects a consensus approach without saying how policy could otherwise be informed by what science can offer. Should we act on information that does not have broad acceptance by peers? Or just accept Judge Judy’s verdict? Or only act on tacit knowledge that is so broadly accepted that it is not even discussed? That doesn’t seem to be working – as shown by Oreskes (2004) many if not most journal articles on the subject of global climate change accept the AGW consensus implicitly or do not even question it – which suggests that AGW is a genuinely well-established scientific theory that should fall in the category of “accepted by all but cranks.”

Jerry’s statement: “now that we have had some considerable time without continued warming,” is a gross misinterpretation of what the UK Met Office actually said. He may have cherry-picked this statement from the BBC article he linked to: “If the forecast is accurate, the result would be that the global average temperature would have remained relatively static for about two decades.” But the article also contains this quote from a Met Office spokesman: “this definitely doesn’t mean any cooling – there’s still a long-term trend of warming compared to the 50s, 60s or 70s.” Further clarification can be found on the site of the Met Office itself: “Small year to year fluctuations such as those that we are seeing in the shorter term five year predictions are expected due to natural variability in the climate system, and have no sustained impact on the long term warming.” There is further analysis at Skeptical Science, concisely explained also in this video clip:


Jim Hansen, cited on Judith Curry’s blog, elaborates a bit:

The current stand-still of the 5-year running mean global temperature may be largely a consequence of the fact that the first half of the past 10 years had predominantly El Nino conditions, and the second half had predominantly La Nina conditions.

The approximate stand-still of global temperature during 1940-1975 is generally attributed to an approximate balance of aerosol cooling and greenhouse gas warming during a period of rapid growth of fossil fuel use with little control on particulate air pollution, but quantitative interpretation has been impossible because of the absence of adequate aerosol measurements.

Curry simply dismisses this as simplistic, based on “GWPF reports on the latest decadal simulation from the UK Met Office, which basically predicts no warming for the next 5 years.” This is because, she has more confidence in UKMO predictions than in “Hansen’s back of the envelope reasoning” – which leads me to wonder if she actually read the UKMO statements themselves. Perhaps she can explain how they differ from Hansen’s statements? Note also that the GWPF, aka, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, is directed by Dr. Benny Peiser – who cannot tell the difference between uncertainty about whether or not global warming is human induced, from uncertainty about possible impacts, or between studies of the climate itself from studies of climate policies, or between uncertainty and lack of consensus! (for more on Peiser see the paper attached to my last post)

Jerry often quotes Angela Wilkinson on the “evangelical science” of global warming, but without context or citations, it is difficult to know what she meant by that. In his paper, Jerry suggests that the leading practitioners of this science “propounded, as a proven fact, Anthropogenic Carbon-based Global Warming” leaving “little room for uncertainty.” Since science doesn’t provide “proof”, and I haven’t actually heard any climate scientists say that, he is going to have to back that one up. It is, of course, common to find evangelizers on all sides of any issue of broad scope – I am reminded of Lucy Skywalker’s “conversion” by Al Gore, which was apparently followed by some sort of reversion, which is more typical of “true believers” than of scientists.

One cannot blame Al Gore for becoming a polarizing figure as a result of a media campaign that set out to make him one! I still think we all missed an opportunity for leadership by someone who gets the complex and systemic nature of global issues, not only on climate change, which I probably first became aware of as a result of his first congressional hearings on the subject in the late 1970s – when there was still time to take early action. Spurred by the oil embargo as well as Three Mile Island, there was even momentum towards renewables. Unfortunately Ronald Reagan was then elected, the solar panels came off of the White House, and a few people I know had to switch careers.

I fail to see the relevance of Jerry’s statement about the “consensus focused on the evils of fat while ignoring those of sugar” – even if I agree with it, from my own experience with the evils of sugar, which I have found it best to avoid for many years.  Climate change science has at least strived to be an integrated science, in spite of the feudal institutional barriers to cross-disciplinary work. I’ll save that rant for another time, but it has come a long way, even if it still has a long way to go with respect to the social sciences. Again, it is important to distinguish the kind of science that has led to unintended consequences, from the kind of science that investigates those consequences, and tends to lead to a questioning of the legitimacy of existing institutions that got us where we are. But both kinds of science are rooted in the same dysfunctional institutions, because that is all we’ve got. In other words, the practice of science is messy. I agree with Willard, that there is no Normal Science “except perhaps when Kuhn studied it at the dawn of the militaro-industrial complex.” The problem is that it still exists in the public image and expectations of science. And beliefs drive human behavior and decision-making…

And with that, I hope I’m done responding to crank arguments, which are a diversion from the critical challenges presented in Jerry’s earlier work, on how science can support a transition to sustainability – which cannot be achieved without addressing climate and also  equity, and which is where I would prefer to focus this blog. I’m happy to continue the conversation with Jerry if we can stick to that.

[Updated, 2-2-2013, 3:35 pm est to incorporate Steve Bloom’s comment on the Met Office statement, and to correct a few typos. ]