Monday, December 21, 2009

Signal from Noise, Part 5

Subtitle: On Falsifying Everything I know; or, Am I Getting only Liberal Science?
This is the fifth in my series explaining how I, an ordinary, moderately technical and scientific person had a climate change epiphany with ramifications for education, politics, personal relationships and dread for the future.
Warning: This post exposes the private correspondence between me and a climate scientist.

In the fall of 2004, while I worked on rewriting my un-publishable essay (see part 4) I noticed a lot of amateur commentary on climate science. This uptick was probably no coincidence in that this was the time leading up to the Buenos Aires climate talks.

At my workplace I was known as the guy with some hot buttons. So coworkers would share with me various news stories on climate, such as these quotes from glaciologist Lonnie Thompson. The first was from Steven Milloy’s Junk Science Judo on Fox news:
“Any prudent person would agree that we don’t yet understand the complexities with the climate system,” said Thompson. It’s too bad he didn’t deliver that message in Buenos Aires.
And then another version came my way from Space and Earth Science News:
“Any prudent person would agree that we don’t yet understand the complexities with the climate system and, since we don’t, we should be extremely cautious in how much we ‘tweak’ the system,” Thompson said. “The evidence is clear that a major climate change is underway.”
It was clear that quality of reporting is at issue; both could be wrong, but not both right.

I’ve also understated the competence of my local newspaper. It did run a variety of climate science reports, and it did have one exemplary reporter (Bradley Fikes). In December 2004, shortly after the release of Crichton’s Climate of Fear, Fikes wrote:
[Fikes:] At least Crichton's motivation for faking science is obvious: He is out to sell books and make money. Others who spread fear, uncertainty and doubt over the evidence of climate change are far more insidious and despicable.
It wasn’t long before an engineer from my community rebutted in the community forum (the same format I couldn’t get published in). His essay, “Global warming science far from settled” followed the formula that 1) warming might not be happening, 2) but if it is, it’s natural; 3) if it’s bad, corrective measures would be worse economically; and last, the hype appears politically motivated, for example:
Like so many in the media, Mr. Fikes has apparently accepted without much independent thought the prevailing view of global warming and its causes in human activity…

But is the Earth's atmosphere actually warming, and if it is, what is the real cause?

Recently released reports … suggest an alternative explanation: fluctuations in solar radiation. The Ohio State study, authored by professor Lonnie G. Thompson, whose area of expertise is earth system science, paleoclimatology, glaciology, and polar geology, showed that there was a sudden climate change approximately 5,200 years ago….
He went on to say Thompson’s work supports the solar link and recited the talking points about the Little Ice Age and Maunder minimum (real events, but since I’ve been cautious around people who seem to know only of these).
He ended with this gem:
The worst part of the current debate is the fact that it is no longer a scientific debate but a political one. A scientist working in most universities today who argues against the politically correct point of view will see his grant money dry up, as well as his future if untenured. I find it also very curious that those opposed to globalization and the free market capitalism have such a convenient argument against modern industry and business.
I decided to contact Professor Thompson and ask his opinion. My letter to Professor Thompson was the climax in my climate science discovery, not only for his answer and that he took the time to reply, but I set up my question so that he could easily falsify what I thought I knew.

First, I did my due diligence, background research on Thompson, and found this quote from his website (a superset of the quote on Fox News):

"The climate system is remarkably sensitive to natural variability," [Thompson] said. "It's likely that it is equally sensitive to effects brought on by human activity, changes like increased greenhouse gases, altered land-use policies and fossil-fuel dependence. Any prudent person would agree that we don't yet understand the complexities with the climate system and, since we don't, we should be extremely cautious in how much we 'tweak' the system."
I crafted my email. I explained that I intended to use his reply to rebut an article in the newspaper. Since I asked to use his answer, it is only for this reason that I feel at liberty to share the response I received. I’m also motivated by a desire to share with others how a brief response from a scientist can be so influential to me and so appreciated.

I asked the following:
Does this paragraph [cited above] support your current views?
Second I asked about the political angle:
“A scientist working in most universities today who argues against the politically correct point of view will see his grant money dry up, as well as his future if untenured". Do you have any observation that this is true or false?
And last, (here’s my most scientific moment) I was willing to accept the possibility that my take on climate science is slanted by the one journal I read (Nature), so I asked:

My understanding of climate science comes from the journal Nature, in which I study every climate-related article, often by drawing diagrams. Assuming I understand what I read correctly, I could be biased by having Nature as my primary source. Is there another journal you would recommend to give me a more balanced view of climate science?
Let’s appreciate what I was asking. Professor Thompson was cited by a writer whom I disagreed with--let’s call him Ronald, because that’s his name. For all I knew, I was contacting Ronald’s expert, and laying out everything his expert needed to shake my house of cards.

Within an hour of sending my email, I got this reply:
Dear John: Thanks for interest in our research and question[ing] press releases is always a wise thing to do.
Question 1. The real point here is that the climate system is really sensitive and the abrupt event 5200 years ago confirms that as well as do other high resolution ice core records from many parts of the world. The real take home message is that if the system is sensitive to natural forcings of the past then it is just as likely to [be] sensitive to human driven forcings like greenhouse gases and thus we should be very, very careful how much we perturb the system as the response might be much greater than what model predictions suggest.

Question 2. I have never seen at the University nor from funding agents a prejudice in funding only research that suggests the climate is warming. In fact, if anything is true it would be tendency for agencies not to fund such research due to political pressures from Washington DC. [my note: recall Bush II was president] Fact is, to justify drilling ice cores for example in the tropics one only need to document that fact that this very important archive of past variations in El Nino or monsoons is disappearing from the surface of the earth due to warming temperatures. They are melting and it really does not matter whether the driver is humans or nature.

Question 3. Nature is a good journal. It has a good peer review section, so does Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Geophysical Research. Fellow scientist love to point out the weaknesses in fellow scientist’s research so it is an effective process. It is the balance of evidence that makes the global warming story so compelling from temperature records, to melting glaciers, to increasing ground temperatures to reduced sea ice, they all point in the same direction and is simply the earth is getting warmer. There was a very good article in September 2004 National Geographic entitled "Global Warning: Bulletins from a Warmer Earth, it gives a 72 page summary.

Hope this helps!
In my letter to the paper, I used answer 1 to show that there are liabilities in “independent thought”, especially when speaking outside one’s field. Answer 2, rhetorically, amounted to using my expert to rebut Ronald’s expert, an argumentative tactic that doesn’t prove anything, but in this case, my expert was his expert.

My letter was published with only my link to cut out. Within a week someone rebutted me, saying, for a second opinion readers should see the website of the Cato Institute, and provided a link (what!) to a press release. So I followed the link. Not only did I find Patrick Michaels and other notables of the anti-global warming campaign, but I found Steven Milloy. I had missed this connection earlier. So here is the complete epiphany, the air from which beliefs are created:

An activist spins research. Pundants and locals parrot the talking points in letters and community forums. I contact the original researcher (a basic research skill) and show the information trail has been corrupted. And then local believers complete the circle saying one should ignore me and instead refer to the original propagandists. And I’ve seen this pattern repeated many times: e.g., CO2 lags warming; variations in sunspots and cosmic rays; climatologists flip-flopped from global cooling; water vapor overwhelms CO2; we’re bouncing back from the little ice age.

All of these balloons are subjects that people have used to argue with me in person, through correspondence, or in published letters. People just cant resist grabbing these balloons as they drift past.
We often look for support, or more fairly, we remember a news story or rumor that's compatible with our beliefs, but how well do we set up tests that would challenge the basis of our knowledge, that would falsify what we know? This is what science practices; this is a technique I adopted from reading peer-reviewed scientific literature.

I have to add that parts 1-5 of my essay includes everything I had planned to say on Oct. 29, 2009, when I posted the first part and listed these follow-up topics:

• Saving the planet one buoy at a time (part 2)
• JG calls his ultraconservative representative to support greenhouse gas legislation and gets called something in return (part 3).
• Five scientific terms you're not allowed to say in local news media (part 4)
• On falsifying everything I know; or, am I getting only liberal science? (part 5)
• So what do I really think will happen? Or get your buns over here and bring the cat! (not written)

While I was writing these, another rather large balloon flew over: Climategate--hacked emails expose fraud, conspiracy, and scientists subverting peer review and intimidating opposition.

Let’s consider one of these emails, in which someone was “tempted to beat the crap out of [Patrick Michaels]”. (Patrick Michaels, a climatologist with the Cato Institute, is the same person I become suspicious of in 2001, which I described in (see part 4).

Anyone following the link to the Cato Institute cited in rebuttal to my letter in 2004, would have found this statement from Michaels, Singer, and Douglass:
After four years of one of the most rigorous peer reviews ever, Canadian Ross McKitrick and another of us (Mr. Michaels) published a paper searching for "economic" signals in the temperature record. …. The research showed that somewhere about half of the warming in the U.N. surface record was explained by economic factors, which can be changes in land use, quality of instrumentation, or upkeep of records. ….

…. The science is settled. The "skeptics," the strange name applied to those whose work shows the planet isn't coming to an end, have won.
What happened to the most rigorously peer reviewed paper ever? Tim Lambert, writer of the blog Deltoid, revealed a unit-conversion error, that when corrected, kills their hypothesis. (See, which I recommend not only for it’s “peer-rebuke”—my wife’s phrase, not mine; but also for some insight into the other claim that scientists subverted the peer-review process.)

Note that I didn’t judge the authors by their hypothesis, nor by the error in their paper. Rather, I judged them by their premature press release.

Over the past 10 years, while I, an amateur, essentially, a nobody in the science world, was becoming aware of the disinformation tactics being used to confuse the public and discredit climate science, a real scientist, someone who could immediately recognize what the propagandists were doing , said privately that he was tempted to beat the crap out of one. Oh the collusion! Oh the conspiracy!

Happy ballooning,