Perry actually says something correct, but deeply misleading

Posted August 20th, 2011 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin

PinocchioRick Perry has been getting dinged for making the allegation that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Finding him to be willfully ignoring if not ignorant of the facts, and to be making false accusations based on little evidence, even the Washington Post Fact Checker gives him the maximum rating of four Pinocchios – and provides the facts so I don’t have to. Never mind that Perry himself has accepted $11 million from oil and gas companies – who also happen to be his top contributors. Not at all surprising. But I would be pleasantly surprised if clearing any of that up actually makes any difference in the beliefs of the Republican base, who only seem to hear what they want to hear.

What actually caught my attention was Perry’s less commented on reference to “man-made global warming” as a “scientific theory that has not been proven” – which is actually correct, because science doesn’t actually prove anything to be true. It can only falsify or disconfirm a hypothesis, and provide “levels of confidence” in its findings. The statement could just be careless and sloppy, or could be a very convenient way to call for postponing action on climate change indefinitely no matter what the science says, without appearing to oppose science or action.

Either way, I’m giving it a fifth Pinocchio because it is either based on, or takes advantage of a general misconception of what science can deliver, not to mention deep anxieties about the future in what have become post-normal times. Therefore it is more deeply misleading than a mere misrepresentation of facts. If there were a more general understanding that uncertainty is part of life, and that science is not a crystal ball, I suspect fewer people would be taken in by the arguments of the “skeptics”, whose arguments tend to hype uncertainties to make the case against taking action in response to human-induced climate change. As well as downplay, ignore or misrepresent multiple lines of evidence that all point in the same direction. The focus of public discourse could then actually be on whether and how to address human-induced climate change rather than whether it is happening.

Acceptance of uncertainty of course leads to many more questions as to: the implications of various kinds of uncertainty for decision-making, stakeholder participation in science-based decisions, and evaluating the quality of scientific information when there are cranks at the table, who are more interested in disrupting the process than in reaching a decision that is in the public interest. And why the double standard for acting with uncertain information when it comes to climate and other environmental sciences? Uncertainty does not seem to stop most people from following medical advice or investing in the stock market. I will come back to all of this in my promised and long-overdue forthcoming post, in which I revisit the basics of post-normal science as context for commenting on the recent conference of the Heartland Institute, and on the puzzling turn taken by Jerry Ravetz. To those who asked me to comment on these – my apologies for the delay – it is a topic that really merits a full article that I have not had the time to write, but I have not dropped it.

The missing punch line

Posted January 19th, 2010 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin

Although the fallacies in SuperFreakonomics began to seem like ancient history when the story about the hacked CRU emails broke out, as the Copenhagen conference was starting, it remains on the bestseller list… This blog has been on a hiatus for the past year or so because of other obligations but I have been following this one and decided its time to finish that and a few other partially written posts from 2009 that remain timely. (If you haven’t followed this one, I suggest you start with this brief synopsis by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, and then come back)

When, at the end of October, Jon Stewart asked one of the authors, Steven Levitt if, in taking on global warming, he might have just stepped on a secular religion, I had expected some sort of a punchline to follow, that might begin to peal back the multiple layers of irony in this. That is in part because it has always seemed to me that economists, or at least the ones who, like Levitt, are “cold blooded enough to sit around and calmly discuss the trade-offs involved in a global catastrophe”, have been the ones preaching a secular religion, one commonly known as “Market Fundamentalism”. Which is what you get when you leave aside all the angst and moralism, and all those pesky social relationships in which the economy is embedded and just let “the market” make decisions about fundamental policy issues – as if it were merely a choice between one or the other.

So if anything it was the response to Superfreakonomics that stepped on a secular religion. The notion of global warming as a religion is essentially the narrative of the chapter in the book on this subject. Freudian projection perhaps? Instead, Stewart wondered why people are so angry and dogmatic, and apologized that the authors of Superfreakonomics had taken so much s…[beep]. At the end he admitted that he did not know what he was talking about and said he was just playing around. After all, it is a comedy show. But comedy or not, the reason the Daily Show has stood head and shoulders above other comedy shows is precisely because it typically exposes the failure of mainstream media to do their job, as well as their hypocrisy, for example, in this priceless parody of Glenn Beck. So it is all the more misleading when he doesn’t maintain the standard to which he holds the real media.

Jon atoned somewhat for that softball interview a week later when he interviewed Al Gore and acknowledged that the science in Superfreakonomics was not good. He seemed genuinely perplexed – as are most Americans, not about whether or not global warming is happening, but about whether we actually have the capacity to do anything about it. Unless of course we can find some sort of technical fix, like, say, mimicking a volcano by running a garden hose up to the stratosphere to release sulfur dioxide – an idea suggested in the book as an alternative to reducing emissions. A delayed punchline came from Stephen Colbert the following week, when he asked Jon why his guest interview was like a faulty computer program and why he had not asked the tough questions – except that it was in reference to Stewart’s interview with Al Gore rather than Levitt. Not linked to nearly as much in the blogosphere was a subsequent clip in which Stephen did ask tough questions about climate change, as he teemed up with Al in an episode of Formidable Opponent.

As for Jon, he should have asked Levitt the questions he asked of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last May. Although he says he believes the science of climate change, he asked her whether, in trying to regulate CO2, and by tinkering around with the elements, “aren’t we trying to engineer something we can’t control?” Which is precisely what is being advocated by Levitt and Dubner with their “garden hose to the sky” – an idea proposed by Nathan Myhrvold from Intellectual Ventures. In another interview on the Diane Rehm show, asked about acidification of the oceans which would continue unabated if CO2 emissions are not reduced, Levitt actually suggested that this problem could be solved by adding base to the ocean (ht CPR Blog). Perhaps he did not consider how much base would be required – according to a Royal Society report on ocean acidification associated with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide:

To counteract the changes in acidity caused by today’s ocean uptake of roughly 2 Gt C per year (IPCC 2001) would require roughly 20 Gt CaCO3 per year (Caldeira & Rau 2000), which, for a limestone layer 100 m thick, would require the removal of roughly 60 km2 each year. This limestone would need to be coastally located, or transportation costs would likely be prohibitive (Rau & Caldeira 1999). Thus, features such as the white cliffs of Dover could be rapidly consumed. Therefore the introduction of limestone to offset ocean acidification would raise a host of additional environmental problems. Furthermore, limestone does not dissolve in surface waters, so additional processing, and energy, would be needed (Kheshgi 1995; Rau & Caldeira 1999).

Levitt concluded by turning on the charm: “The idea that we don’t have to pay the price for polluting is a very hard idea for people to take,” which doesn’t sound like anything I would ever have expected to hear from an economist. This narrative continued when Nathan Myhrvold was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on CNN a few Sundays ago. Zakaria asked if the reason for opposition to geoengineering – that might enable us to avoid making painful adjustments, might be rooted in a Calvinist feeling that we need to suffer. Like Jon Stewart, he is doubtful that emissions can actually be reduced.

Missing in all of these interviews was anyone on the other side, who actually argues against research into geo-engineering, at the very least for use as a last resort, e.g., to prevent loss of the ice sheets. I have not seen that argument made at all – and by the way, we are already in the midst of a great big geo-engineering experiment so we don’t have much choice in the matter. What I have seen are objections to the notion of using geo-engineering as an alternative to reducing emissions. Also missing in the interviews was any mention of the numerous actual criticisms that have been directed at the book, for example, about what could go wrong with a garden hose to the sky, and the fallacy in Myhrvold’s assertion that solar panels absorb and emit more heat than is converted to electricity because they are black, and therefore increase rather than reduce global warming.

Superfreakonomics also misrepresents the views of both Ken Caldeira and Al Gore. Gore is predictably reduced to a caricature who is counting only on people being “willing to put aside their self-interest and do the right thing” however much it costs. While Gore does tend to emphasize that climate change is a moral issue, he has also long advocated the use of market instruments as a way to actually achieve emissions reductions. On the Freakonomics blog, Levitt’s co-author, Stephen Dubner did concede to the misrepresentation of the views of Ken Caldeira and agreed to correct the next edition. But it hasn’t stopped the National Post and Mark Morano from continuing to hype the original claim, misattributed to Caldeira, that “carbon dioxide is not the right villain.”

In other words, Levitt and Myhrvold are conveniently defending themselves against a formidable strawman – a delusion which is reinforced by Dubner’s claim that their critics have issued a Fatwa. But whether on the Daily Show or on CNN or elsewhere, this is not being presented as comedy.

I have more thoughts on why this narrative works and why science is vulnerable to this kind of attack, which will have to wait for another post. I also empathize with Jon’s frustration with the elusiveness of real solutions and the longing for a simple one that doesn’t just lead to more unintended consequences. For too long, the public discourse on solutions to climate change has focused on those squirly lightbulbs while knowing full well that the problem is much bigger and the solution more complex. Although there are no quick fixes, I could not get out of bed in the morning if I did not believe that emissions can actually be reduced with the right economic incentives – but they won’t just happen without making some tough policy decisions. And conservation in land use practices, along with the use of biochar, could actually take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil where it can increase productivity and begin to restore degraded lands, which will be critical when there are 9 million mouths to feed. But it won’t be nearly enough to slow down climate change unless it goes hand in hand with the reduction of emissions.

Update: Left as an Exercise provides an exhaustive list of links to other critiques of the book.

Asking the right questions

Posted May 12th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin


So, are cyclones that strike densely populated coastal areas that are losing their wetlands sent by God as punishment for sin? Or are they the consequences of human induced global warming? And did Al Gore really say that? (no) Can the media, get anyone to pay attention to them, or to anything important, without a smoking gun? and will they always find one even if it has to be fabricated? Which, of course, provides a smoking gun for the blogs, this one included.

Or perhaps this all just nonsense, intentionally generated to distract the public from the incapacity and even in some cases unwillingness of some governments to respond to extreme events? Which is the very definition of a disaster and, supposedly, the reason we form governments. And I’m not just talking about Nargis. (For more on Nargis see this NYT article– thankfully, aid does slowly seem to be trickling in, and there are organizations that have somehow managed to have a presence. And this one by Andrew Revkin about the dangers of living in a Delta and why people do it anyway, and lack of preparation.)

The real stories about the so called “climate skeptics, or Katrina or Nargis, are much more complex than a “who dunnit” tale, with many shades, not necessarily all grey. Ben Wisner has written some reflections on attention to disasters, in context of the response to Nargis and other kinds of calamities that are all around us, in which he makes a case for the need to better understand such nuances, if we are to respond more effectively. We can talk about restoring mangroves later.

irrational discourse

Posted December 27th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin

No need to waste time going over all of the “Over 400 prominent scientists” that the U.S. Senate U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Ranking Minority Member Senator Inhofe Report Inhofe Report claims “Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007.” You don’t have to poke far beneath the headline to find quite a few of these who did not actually dispute the science of global warming, which should cast doubt on the credibility of the entire report. I just looked at one, which does no such thing:

Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and Steve Rayner of Oxford authored a report prominently featured in the UK journal Nature in October 2007 calling on the UN to “radically rethink climate policy,” and they cautioned against a “bigger” version of Kyoto with even more draconian provisions. Prins and Rayner’s report in the influential journal bluntly declared “… as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions [Kyoto] has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reduction in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth.” Their report was titled “Time to Ditch Kyoto” and was highlighted in an October 24, 2007 National Post article. “But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reduction in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change.” The report also noted, “Kyoto’s supporters often blame non-signatory governments, especially the United States and Australia, for its woes.” The report continued, “But the Kyoto Protocol was always the wrong tool for the nature of the job.” Prins and Rayner instead urged investment in new technologies and adaptation as the most promising method to deal with climate change. (LINK)

Deliberate confusion of scientific disagreement with disagreement over whether Kyoto is the right approach or not is no surprise coming from Inhofe and has even become predictable. Unfortunately, and much more insidious – it is also becoming predictable that this would be reported as a legitimate scientific disagreement by Andrew Revkin, at the New York Times – who usually does credible reporting and does not himself question whether or not the fundamentals of global warming are scientifically established. From his Dot Earth blog:

But when you sift through the studies, what emerges (to me at any rate) is not so much the shattering of a consensus as a portrait of one corner of the absolutely normal, and combative, arena in which scientific ideas emerge and either thrive or fade.

Revkin is confusing the normal combative scientific arena with the science for policy arena in which anything goes, and where journalists are supposedly paid to detect precisely this kind of BS or, at the very least check the facts and know the difference between spin and legitimate scientific processes of review. When they don’t, BS becomes a normal part of our post-normal public discourse, which has become tedious and distracting, but still indicative of a need for greater public appreciation of the process of science – as well as for scientists to appreciate the nature of the political process…. Since rebutting denialists is what seems to draw traffic, I’ll use it a a hook to talk about what is normal – a question often asked, given the name of this blog.

My working definition of normal is a situation we accept as impossible to change – once upon a time that included slavery. In a previous more thoughtful post, Revkin discusses this point himself, citing the sociologist Robert Brulle:

Basically, I read it that we become used to the environment we live in. Since most of the population has very limited or no access to a relatively unpolluted environment, they take it as normal that you can’t eat the fish in the river, that the air is always dirty, etc.

The same applies to public discourse. With limited or no access to an unpolluted public sphere in which claims can be validated, there is little hope for protecting the rest of it. Since Revkin is seeking suggestions, and, (as does PNT) aims to promote information exchange and learning, one suggestion I have is that he read some of the papers posted to Brulle’s site, such as this one (pdf), which reviews the basics of Habermas Theory of Communicative Action and its implications for environmental policy. Here Brulle points out that, “the claims of the speaker must be validated for discourse to be rational” – open and rational discourse being the basis for the formation of legitimate laws in post-metaphysical conditions, i.e., a pluralist modern society in which laws can no longer be legitimated with metaphysical arguments. This principle is what provides the basis for the ideal of a constitutional democracy with separation of powers, which relies on the existence of a strong public sphere for deliberation that can hold its own against money and administrative power. Presumably, that is (or was) the reason journalists enjoy certain privileges. But see also this one (pdf) in which he discusses the role the media plays as gatekeepers of what gets into the public discourse. It is not the first time the media has served to impede progress.

Again, welcome to Post-Normal Times – and I’m not just referring to this blog. My brief working definition of Post-Normal Times being times of rapid change, as we enter into uncharted territory, when not just the presence of glaciers, but even basic social norms can no longer be taken for granted, and what remains of the public sphere seems to be held together by the blogosphere. More detailed analysis of the rest of the 400 from Romm, Desmog, Maribo, and the Rabett, – who found that one of the 400 or so is a gardener


A second suggestion for Revkin is that he provide a review of the book by Eric Lambin, The Middle Path: Avoiding Environmental Catastrophe, that he only mentioned in a post in which he discussed a review he did do of books by The Lomborg, Newt Gingrich, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger, which was similarly misleading in that it continued to promote the mythical middle. I have only read the introduction which is freely available online, but if Lambin’s book lives up to what it promises, it identifies and reviews areas of legitimate disagreement in climate related science that do merit impartial coverage that clarifies the value judgments involved. While I’m on book recommendations, I’ll also throw in the four volume set by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone on Human Choice and Climate Change, even though published in ’98, still a good reference and probably still the most exhaustive compilation of material on the climate science and policy interface.

And now for my year-end pitch. Unlike Revkin, this blogger doesn’t get paid, and doesn’t post often enough to ask for donations, but if more readers used the book links, and the Amazon search box in the side-bar for whatever else, we might even be able to recover site hosting fees. Thank you and happy new year to the modest but regular readership of the Post-Normal Times and those of you who have linked to the site.