Dec 20, 2009

Global Disaster Is So 1976

The mass media has spent the past several years - and, in particular, the past few weeks - scaring the wits out of little kids around the world. It's been telling them the Earth is in imminent danger of environmental collapse, that they live on a planet in peril, that the Copenhagen UN-sponsored climate summit was our last chance to avert disaster.

But as adults of a certain age know, we've heard this all before. Above is a 1976 paperback (click the image for a larger view) titled RIO: Reshaping the International Order. Thirty-three years ago there was no climate change crisis. Then, the concerns were over-population, Third World poverty, and nuclear weapons. Nevertheless we were told there was an urgent need to win a "global race for survival" and that Westerners would need to "give up" aspects of their affluent lifestyles in order to make this happen.

Below is a closer view of similar cheery titles from the same publisher: (click to enlarge)

That's right, folks. Back in 1976, people were yammering on about the "global disaster facing humanity," about "worldwide catastrophe" in our "near future," about how we'd end up extinct if we didn't stop being so greedy and environmentally irresponsible.

Page 36 of the RIO volume talks about "safeguarding the interests of future generations through the legacy of a habitable planet." Page 84 declares that "Many aspects of Western life have become wasteful and senseless and do not contribute to peoples' real happiness." On page 90, it says rich countries should "place a ceiling on meat consumption," "promote the use of public transit," define an official benchmark and then "declare that all consumption beyond not only waste but a conscious action against the welfare of large numbers of poor and disprivileged, their own children, and the prospects for a peaceful world."

In 1976 it was being implied, as does the writer Thomas Friedman today, that China was superior to us since it had allegedly "shown that development can be built around people and geared to meeting their needs" (page 97). Then, as now, we were assured we had a savior: "the United Nations remains the only real machinery with the potential for constructing a fairer world" (p. 124).

Despite the fact that most people hadn't yet imagined powerful and liberating technologies such as home computers, the Internet, cell phones, and consumer GPS devices, readers in 1976 were warned against indulging in "wild and totally unwarranted technological optimism" (pp. 199, 373). Finally, then, as now, we were advised that: "Radical action is urgently needed" (p. 371) in order to stave off "threats of imminent disaster" (p. 375).

Attention professional doomsayers: just cool it, OK? Stop giving little kids nightmares.


>> We Have Heard This Rhetoric Before

Dec 19, 2009

Science Says: Hop on One Foot

Vanity Fair's coverage of President Obama's visit to the Copenhagen climate conference is chock-a-block with the usual silliness. The summit, we're told, was "widely regarded as humanity’s last good chance to preserve a livable climate."

The term "catastrophic climate change" is used twice, with a reference to "catastrophic impacts" thrown in for good measure. We're warned about "mass extinctions" without anyone pointing out that species extinctions are normal and have occurred frequently on planet Earth. We're told glaciers might melt without anyone acknowledging that glaciers were advancing and receding long before industrial pollution was a twinkle in a capitalist's eye.

There are two quotes from Greenpeace, one from the Center for Biological Diversity, one from a scientist associated with the Stockholm Environment Institute, one from author/activist Bill McKibben (see my recent post on said gentleman), and another from a person who advises the German government on environmental issues.

In other words, we're bashed over the head with the perspective of a tiny sliver of the population - people whose careers depend on the view that human-caused global warming is a crisis.

There isn't a single quote in this article from a skeptical scientist, economist, or policy analyst. Nor is there any hint that some smart people who think global warming is a problem nevertheless consider emissions cuts a wrong-headed approach that's doomed to failure. (For example, see here and here.)

Most disturbing however, is that this 1,200 word article contains four separate slimy attempts to justify certain views as being determined by science and therefore not open to debate. We read that:
  1. certain policies are "what science says is required to avoid catastrophic climate change"
  2. "science says reductions of at least 25 to 40 percent are necessary"
  3. such and such is "consistent with what science demands"
  4. there's a need "to set a science-based national pollution cap" [bold added by me]
Unlike the childhood game, Simon Says, in which a particular course of action is dictated by the person playing the role of Simon, science rarely proscribes any one response.

First of all, science is performed by human beings - who are fallible. All science, therefore, has the potential to be biased and mistaken. When scientists observe, they make choices about what is worth noticing and what is not. When they calculate, they choose to employ one mathematical approach rather than another. When they write reports, they highlight some issues while sidelining others.

All these decisions, choices, assumptions and biases are part of the process that produces what we think of as scientific knowledge. There is no God of Science reaching down from the heavens with THE TRUTH carved into stone tablets.

Second, while scientific investigation can produce certain facts, even when we have full confidence in the accuracy of those facts we must still choose how to respond to them.

Do we put our faith in high-tech to solve our energy problems over the next few decades before matters become acute? Do we reinforce sea walls and levees? Do we make huge efforts to ensure clean and adequate water supplies in the Third World in order to minimize drought-related harm? Or do we continue to put pretty much all our eggs in one basket by pursuing grandiose international Kyoto-style emissions treaties - even when there's little evidence that such treaties accomplish anything?

There are always a variety of responses to any given situation. These responses - whether at the local, national or international levels - should be examined, debated, and negotiated out in the open. We all deserve a voice in these discussions. We should all participate in making these choices.

Science does not tell us what to do. When political activists insist otherwise, they are attempting to preempt important discussions, to silence our voices, to substitute their own views for those of the community.

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Dec 15, 2009

Bill McKibben: Extravagant Emotional Excess

A few weeks ago I read Bill McKibben's 1989 book, The End of Nature. It's considered the first mainstream book on global warming and is, one presumes, part of the reason McKibben is a revered environmental guru.

I discuss that book in this blog post (see the section appearing in navy-colored text, midway through). What surprised me, as a newcomer to McKibben's work, is how utterly emotional his arguments are. Yes, he cites scientists and their research, but the book is first and foremost a philosophical/spiritual/highly emotive treatise. As I observed in my earlier post:
McKibben talks incessantly about his feelings of "sadness." In one paragraph, he uses that word four times (see pages 60, 68, 72, 73, 74, 160, 162). He also tells us about his other emotional responses to environmental questions:
  • grief (p.73)
  • loneliness (76, 144)
  • fretfulness (86)
  • fear, panic and nervousness (89, 175)
  • revulsion (147)
  • depression (182)
(The page numbers refer to the 2006 US paperback edition.)

There's a reason the term "cheap emotionalism" came into being. It's used by people who try to manipulate - rather than rationally persuade. And although it works well on teenaged girls, most grownups are less than impressed by it.

Smart, thoughtful people value dispassionate investigation, careful and systematic analysis, and logical arguments. But McKibben seems to think we should listen to him because he cares. Because he cries.

Yesterday he authored a guest blog while attending the Copenhagen climate conference. It appeared on a website associated with the Center for American Progress. (Actually, it's a reprint from the Mother Jones website, dated the day before - which makes this worse. Not one, but two separate publications judged this missive worthy of their readers' limited attention.)

I don't mean to be unkind, but this post is embarrassing. Second paragraph, first line:
"This afternoon I sobbed for an hour, and I’m still choking a little."
Third paragraph, first line (about a church service he attended):
"But my tears started before anyone said a word."
Fifth paragraph, first line:
"I cried all the harder a few minutes later when the great cathedral bell began slowly tolling..."
Sixth paragraph, first line:
"And these tears were now sweet as well as bitter..."
The eighth (and final) paragraph mentions his tears in its first sentence, too.

Bill, hon, it's time to pull yourself together. Take a vacation - maybe even some medication. And please stop imagining that your tears have the power to change the mind of anyone with a working brain.


Dec 14, 2009

ClimateGate Links

For someone like moi, who's been researching the global warming debate for several months, the past few weeks have been especially fascinating. The ClimateGate files, apparently released into the public domain on November 13, began receiving widespread notice on Nov. 20th.

Since then, it's been a non-stop whirlwind as bloggers have examined these files, the prominent climate scientists in the purloined e-mails have attempted damage control, and political partisans have spun this development to the far reaches of the solar system and back.

The widespread discussion of these matters is a marvelous thing. So is the multiplicity of voices taking part. But it can be tough for someone unconnected to this debate to get a handle on the controversy.

Below is a list of links worth taking a look at. Because ClimateGate's real impact won't be fully understood for some years, anything written within the first few weeks is highly preliminary. Nevertheless, some of the main themes are already evident.

  • the 1,073 e-mails may be read or searched here

  • Global warming with the lid off
    -this Wall Street Journal editorial highlights some of the most serious concerns

  • Tom Fuller's coverage in the San Francisco Examiner is thorough, sober-minded, and even-handed. This article links to all 7 parts of a series he wrote as the ClimateGate story began to unfold. Highly recommended.

  • Special Investigation: Climate change email row deepens as Russians admit they DID come from their Siberian server
    -don't be misled by the headline, this is a solid view of the larger story

  • Climategate peer review: science red in tooth and claw
    -"Claiming lack of peer review was once a reasonable weapon in scientists’ [arsenal]...After climategate, all can see that this line of logic is as effective as a paper sword."

  • Global warming, loyalty oaths, and Climategate's smoking gun
    -"These scientists wrote a report for politicians everywhere. The report was paid for and backed by the United Nations...These scientists, to promote their personal viewpoint, hid evidence that global warming couldn't be judged as accurately as all of their statements indicated."

  • Data horribilia: the HARRY_READ_ME.txt file
    -some of the color commentary here may be over-the-top, but this paints a picture of a junior computer programmer struggling mightily to make sense of poorly-documented data analysis tools. Although he works hard to keep his work logically consistent, he eventually appears to throw up his hands and to make changes he knows are questionable - in order to produce results he knows are expected. If this is how world-class climate data gets produced, we all need to be very worried.

  • Scientists are not software engineers
    -"Arguably, these are the most important computer programs in the world...[and they are] complete and utter train wrecks."

  • More on Climategate
    -"The closed-mindedness of these supposed men of science, their willingness to go to any lengths to defend a preconceived message, is surprising even to me. The stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering. "

  • Why the GlimateGate controversy matters
    -"If the phrase ‘an informed citizenry’ is to be more than a pious and empty sentiment, we need to make rational decisions with all the evidence available. If we are to give our consent to dramatic changes in public policy, we need to know all the weaknesses of a hypothesis."

  • Climate-change - a story too often told the same way
    -This article rambles a little, but contains solid analysis: "So science was not speaking with one voice on the matter. It only seemed to be, because the media, on the whole, was giving no other story. Then this Climate Research Unit thing happened, and it was the end of the monologue."


Dec 13, 2009

Copenhagen Banner: Scrap Capitalism

Above is a screen-grab from the CTV news website (associated with "Canada's largest private broadcaster"). I copied it at 5 pm on December 12th. Half an hour later, this particular photograph - of a banner that reads: Save the planet, scrap capitalism - had been replaced by a less incendiary one.

People traveled to the United Nations-sponsored climate conference in Copenhagen for a variety of reasons. Some of them protested in the streets of the Danish capital, some didn't. Of those who did, most demonstrated peacefully. Others donned masks and hurled bricks through windows. In other words, they're a diverse bunch.

We do, however, need to be honest about one thing. When Conservative, right-leaning folk accuse environmentalists of being "watermelons" - green on the outside and Red on the inside - they aren't pulling this accusation out of thin air.

There is, indeed, a portion of the environmental movement that sees capitalism as the problem. Never mind that capitalism is strongly correlated with prosperity and freedom. Never mind that socialist governments in China and the Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of souls during the 20th century. Never mind that socialist economies are typically basket cases - and that socialist governments have a long history of suppressing the basic freedoms of their citizens. Despite all of this painful experience, some people still think it would be cool to tear down capitalism.

Many of these folk have jumped on the environmental bandwagon because they think it will help them achieve their real goal.

So here's my question for the more sober-minded individuals attending Copenhagen - for those who sincerely believe the situation is dire, that climate catastrophe looms, that this is no ordinary crisis but a defining historical moment:

If this is more than just the latest installment in the on-going battle between left and right, Liberal and Conservative, greens and industry, why do you continue to behave as though it's business as usual?

If it's really, truly important to get as many people on board as quickly as possible why don't you act accordingly? Why are you not loudly distancing yourself from the capitalism-is-the-problem crowd? Why aren't you reassuring us that we needn't fear for our political structures?

Why aren't you telling everyone - on all sides of the climate debate - that the conversation about whether our particular political systems are right or wrong must wait for another day? That we must now focus all of our attention on climate issues.

Those who wish to argue for the destruction of capitalism have a right to free speech and should not be silenced. But environmental leaders - including all the politicians, celebrities and media commentators yakking on incessantly about climate - need to distance themselves from the "scrap capitalism" bunch.

Until that happens, don't expect me to share your sense of urgency. It looks like just another media circus to me. Plenty of drama - but no real substance.


Dec 12, 2009

Al Gore: Not This Thinking Woman's Thinking Man

How about that Al Gore? The "Thinking Man's Thinking Man" and the "Eco-Prophet" (as dubbed by Newsweek last month.) Or Al Gore the Christ (Time magazine's implication in May 2007).

Attention fawning media outlets: your environmental savior with the supposedly high-octane intellect is looking rather shabby. I mean, an intellectual researches things a tad before making public pronouncements, doesn't he?

So what are we to make of the interview Mr. Gore gave to Slate magazine four days ago? He was asked about the 1,073 e-mails that comprise part of the ClimateGate documents leaked/hacked last month. These e-mails reveal prominent climate scientists discussing amongst themselves oh-so-unscientific behavior like evading Freedom of Information requests, deleting select e-mails, and boycotting journals that publish articles they disagree with.

Mr. Gore is asked by Slate how "damaging to [his] argument" he feels the e-mails are. His reply:
To paraphrase Shakespeare, it's sound and fury signifying nothing. I haven't read all the e-mails, but the most recent one is more than 10 years old. [bold added by me]
The journalist says the e-mails suggest "that data was hidden and hoarded" and points out this runs counter to the apparent claim in Mr. Gore's latest book that there's been "an open and fair debate" about climate change. Mr. Gore's reply:
I think it's been taken wildly out of e-mail exchange more than 10 years ago... [my bold]
Two sentences further on, he makes this assertion one more time:
What we're seeing is a set of changes worldwide that just make this discussion over 10-year-old e-mails kind of silly. [my bold]
Well, here's the problem. The "thinking man's thinking man" appears to have left planet Earth during his Slate interview and the journalist, I'm sorry to report, apparently didn't notice. Even a liberal-arts-major like me can do this math. Mr. Gore may be stuck in a 1999 time warp, but
  • 44% of these e-mails are from 2006 or later
  • only 1 in 7 are ten years old or older
The e-mails are listed here, 25 to a page. There's nearly 10 full pages from the last two years alone. The most recent one, rather than being written a decade ago as Mr. Gore claims, was authored less than four weeks before the Slate interview.

These e-mails, penned by some of the scientists who produce the United Nations' climate Bible - the IPCC reports (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) - are not old news. They are not obscured by the sands of time and cannot be dismissed as being, in essence, "silly old things."

But the journalist didn't point that out. Perhaps he chose - more wisely than did Mr. Gore - to not go there since he wasn't entirely sure. Slate later inserted astericks after each of the above quotes which all link to this interesting addendum:
In the interview, Al Gore said that the e-mails printed from researchers at the University of East Anglia were 10 years old. They are more recent than that, including many from 2009. In response, Gore has issued a statement: "The e-mail exchanges that I focused on are approximately 10 years old. Some of the e-mail exchanges cited by others are more recent. None of them change the scientific consensus in any way."
There's a website out there called Honestly, I think its name is unfortunate. I prefer to believe that people make mistakes, that they get carried away in the heat of the moment, that their mouths overtake their brain on occasion. I think it's rude to accuse someone of being a liar.

But if Mr. Gore isn't intellectually impaired and he isn't an outright liar what are we left with?

Option A: He's a salesman. He apparently doesn't care whether his remarks are accurate. He appears not to have read these e-mails and seems unlikely to do so. For him, facts are beside the point.

Mr. Gore may simply be interested in selling stuff: his books, his film, his speeches ($175,000 per) and his photo standing beside you (for the equivalent of $1,200). And let's not even talk about the various green ventures in which he's financially involved.

Option B: He's grown complacent and lazy. Mr. Gore has gotten used to having his ring kissed by the media. (CBS news anchor Katie Couric gushed last month that she was "honored" to be giving Mr. Gore, the "Godfather of Green [and] the King of Conservation," publicity for his new book.)

That's not the kind of milieu that keeps one sharp. Once you've been declared the "thinking man's thinking man" maybe you start to believe that any assertion that comes out of your mouth will be treated like gospel, so why sweat it.

It seems to me the mainstream media now faces a choice. It can start doing its job - which used to be understood as helping ensure the little folk aren't victimized by wealthy, powerful, famous ones pushing schemes designed to enrich themselves. It can start writing stories that represent the checks and balances the press is supposed to supply in a democratic society.

Or it can carry on being the public relations arm of I-can't-be-bothered-to-get-basic-facts-right politicians like Al Gore. In that case, the sooner such "journalists" are relegated to the dustbin of history the better.


Dec 8, 2009

Our Hyperactive Planet

A few pages before the Harvard-educated MD, Michael Crichton, ends his global-warming-doubting novel State of Fear, one of his characters says the following:
...our planet remains amazingly active. We have five hundred volcanoes, and an eruption every two weeks. Earthquakes are continuous: a million and a half a year, a moderate Richter 5 quake every six hours, a big earthquake every ten days. Tsunamis race across the Pacific Ocean every three months.

Our atmosphere is as violent as the land beneath it. At any moment there are one thousand five hundred electrical storms across the planet. Eleven lighting bolts strike the ground each second. A tornado tears across the surface every six hours. And every four days, a giant cyclonic storm, hundreds of miles in diameter, spins over the ocean and wreaks havoc on the land.

The nasty little apes that call themselves human beings can do nothing except run and hide. For these same apes to imagine they can stabilize this atmosphere is arrogant beyond belief.
Earlier, the character has explained that Earth is "five billion years old" and has been "changing constantly all during that time." The current atmosphere, he says, is actually the third distinct one the planet has produced.

Yes, this is a work of fiction. But it also contains a 20-page annotated bibliography, as well as a 5-page "Author's Message" followed by 6-page essay titled "Why Politicized Science Is Dangerous."

This essay reminds us that eugenics (which embraced the idea that "inferior" humans should be sterilized to protect the gene pool) was once supported by the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council.


We HAVE Heard This Rhetoric Before

I’ve just re-read Michael Crichton’s global-warming-doubting novel, State of Fear. Published in 2004, it contains an extensive annotated bibliography “to assist those readers who would like to review my thinking and arrive at their own conclusions.”

Regarding the Lowell Ponte book, The Cooling, Crichton says:

The most highly praised of the books from the 1970s that warned of an impending ice age. (The cover asks: ‘Has the next ice age already begun? Can we survive it?) Contains a chapter on how we might modify the global climate to prevent excessive cooling. A typical quote: ‘We cannot simply afford to gamble against this possibility by ignoring it. We cannot risk inaction. Those scientists who say we are entering a period of climatic instability [i.e., unpredictability] are acting irresponsibly. The indications that our climate can soon change for the worse are too strong to be reasonably ignored’ (p. 237). [bold added by me, above square brackets inserted by Crichton]

The similarity to contemporary global warming rhetoric is striking. Back in the groovy 1970s, we were being told that the evidence for dangerous cooling was so persuasive that we:

  • shouldn't gamble with the future
  • shouldn't ignore the evidence
  • mustn't risk inaction
  • should view scientists with alternative points-of-view as irresponsible
  • should consider the evidence too strong to be ignored
Despite such highly-charged, eerily-familiar rhetoric, rather than descending into an ice age the globe promptly, we're now told, began a 25-year-long warming period.

In other words, rhetoric about future calamity is one thing. Actual historical events are quite another. Whatever the nature of the apparent threat - cooling, warming, the Y2K bug, shark attacks, killer bees - it seems our ways of thinking - and talking - about such threats don't change much.

Overwrought emotionalism tells us nothing. As this fabulous blog post, titled: 'The Copenhagen Diagnosis' Fails Logic 101, points out: "Threats of doom are simply not proof of anything except excitability in the [sic] their authors."

Amen to that.

P.S. Crichton's bibliography (at the top of page 599 of the North American State of Fear hardcover edition), says the Powell book was published by Prentice-Hall in 1972. says it was published in 1976.


>> We're always out-of-touch with the future

>> Global Disaster Is So 1976
>> The big picture: the Y2K lesson

Dec 2, 2009

Why the Munk Debate Proves the Debate Isn't Over

Last night, in front of a live audience of 1,100 in Toronto, four prominent individuals debated the following question:
Be it resolved climate change is mankind's defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response.
The question wasn't do you think climate change is:
  • natural?
  • man-made?
  • a problem?
  • a non-issue?
  • within our power to influence?
  • beyond our ability to control?
Instead, it was carefully focused on whether climate change is the most pressing problem currently facing humanity, as the thousands of souls jetting off to Copenhagen apparently consider it to be.

Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada's Green Party, and George Monbiot, UK newspaper columnist and author, argued the "pro" position.

Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg and former UK
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, argued against.

A video of the entire 2-hour debate can be viewed here. It appears that, at a later date, a transcript will also be available.

What's interesting is that while Al Gore and others insist "the debate is over" few of us have actually witnessed a genuine debate on this topic. Instead, via the mainstream media, we've been force-fed one particular perspective.

So what happens when multiple points of view are granted equal time to make their case? Opinion shifts. But not in the direction environmental activists would wish.

When the 1,100 people entered the auditorium they were asked to vote. 61% considered climate change to be "mankind's defining crisis," while 39% thought otherwise.

At 1 pm today, Munk Debates, the organization that sponsored last night's event, e-mailed the post-debate results to those of us who'd signed up to watch online. [click image for a larger view]
The verdict: support for the motion dropped from 61 to 53%. Opposition increased from 39 to 47%.

In other words, when people are given a chance to hear both sides of the story, public opinion shifts from roughly 2 to 1 in favor of the view that climate change is our top priority to pretty much evenly split.

This means the debate is by no means over. In fact, it's a good indicator that the real debate hasn't yet begun. When nations or organizations make profound, reboot decisions about the future (such as when they amend their constitutions), they typically require a super-majority in the neighborhood of two-thirds to 75%. Last night produced nothing like a super-majority in one direction or the other.


UPDATE: Dec.3 - The error on the Monk Debates website, discussed below, has been corrected. Producer David Taylor apologizes and advises that there were 583 PRO votes post-debate and 517 CON votes. Thus, the above numbers are accurate.

P.S. I've just noticed something rather curious. The post-debate numbers displayed on the Munk Debates website are different from the ones distributed in the e-mail. The website says the results were 56% pro and 44% con - not quite as large a shift. Strange.

But the larger point remains. The position advanced by May and Monbiot lost ground last night after the audience was exposed to an alternative perspective.

Nov 22, 2009

Is Corporate E-mail Private E-Mail?

In my view, it's still too early to say much about the vast amount of information that has become public over the past few days in what is being called ClimateGate or CRUgate. The significance of these documents will, one hopes, become clearer with time. [see & search them here]

But there is one point about which we should not be confused. Contrary to the opening line of this news story, these are NOT private e-mails. E-mail messages sent at the place of one's employment, pertaining to one's on-the-job responsibilities, belong to one's employer.

Dr. Kevin Trenberth tells this reporter, "I personally feel violated."

Tough luck. As an employee of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research - which is funded by public dollars and is, one would expect, subject to Freedom of Information legislation - what Prof. Trenberth does in the course of his employment is NOT his own private business.

Full Disclaimer:
So far, no one - on any side of this issue - has declared any of these documents to be fake. But since forgeries aren't unknown, it's appropriate to tread carefully. Fictional e-mails could be mixed in with real messages.

We should also take note of the significant chronological gaps in these documents. This isn't the entire record of e-mail sent and received by certain people, but a partial one. According to what criteria was this selection made? By whom? What agenda might be motivating this person(s)? If we could access the entire record, would the picture that is currently emerging differ significantly? How?


Nov 17, 2009

Scientific Organizations - Should We Trust Them?

Frequently, when one expresses skepticism regarding global warming theory, knowledgeable folk respond with a version of the following:
Numerous scientific bodies from around the world believe global warming is a real and present danger. Who are you to second-guess such esteemed organizations - to substitute your judgment for theirs?
This question is entirely and absolutely appropriate. When I began researching the global warming debate back in April, I was deeply troubled by the fact that I had no clue how to respond.

My journalistic instincts told me this issue smelled. It reeked of hype and fear-mongering. How could responsible scientific organizations be mixed up in this?

I'm now far closer to formulating a detailed outline of what seems to have happened to the culture of science in recent decades. That explanation will ultimately comprise one or two chapters in the book on which I'm working. For the moment, let me draw attention to two pieces of a larger puzzle.

First, I’ve been reading the 1976 third report to the Club of Rome titled RIO: Reshaping the International Order. This book's overall premise is that humanity must adopt a system of world government in order to solve problems associated with nuclear weapons, Third World poverty, and environmental degradation.

The book's proposed solutions include a laughable number of new international bodies to plan, regulate, and tax just about everything. In other words, bureaucracy and taxes will save us!

In Chapter 7, Section 5 (p. 133 of my Signet paperback edition) one finds the following quote:

“In the past, specialists [this term is used interchangeably with scientists] have often been reluctant to engage in political debate or to share their knowledge and fears with the general public. Given social dilemmas, they have often preferred to adopt neutral rather than value positions, to tacitly advise rather than openly advocate. This generalization no longer holds true. In many branches of science there are radical movements. Increasingly, both in the rich and poor worlds, scientists are involved in active advocacy which they see as an intellectual and ethical duty.” [bold added by me]

In other words, back in 1976 it was being admitted that “many branches of science” had become politicized by radical elements. It was acknowledged openly - by people who approved of this development - that some scientists were abandoning the dispassionate stance we expect of them in favor of overt activism.

The are many reasons to be troubled by this. Roger Pielke Jr's book, The Honest Broker (which I discuss here) examines a number of them.

I also recommend this article, available free online, titled The Double Standard in Environmental Science. Its author, a soil erosion expert, argues that research findings that suggest humanity is making environmental progress get rejected by prestigious science journals, even though they're based on decades of real-world measurements. Yet papers that reach alarming conclusions get published, even when their authors have little expertise and scant data. His experience suggests this bias has been operating since the early 1980s.

My second point comes from a 2008 paper (also free online) authored by Richard S. Lindzen, of MIT, titled Climate Science: Is it Currently Designed to Answer Questions? Anyone who thinks scientists dwell in an ivory tower dreamily insulated from crass political considerations will find it difficult to hold such opinions after reading this text in its entirety.

I'm going to focus on one aspect in particular. At the top of page 5, Lindzen observes that science organizations:

"are hierarchical structures where positions and policies are determined by small executive councils or even single individuals. This greatly facilitates any conscious effort to politicize science via influence in such bodies where a handful of individuals (often not even scientists) speak on behalf of organizations that include thousands of scientists and even enforce specific scientiific positions and agendas."
On page 7, Lindzen discusses the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS):
"The academy is divided into many disciplinary sections whose primary task is the nomination of candidates for membership in the Academy. Typically, support by more than 85% of the membership of any section is needed for nomination. However, once a candidate is elected, the candidate is free to affiliate with any section. The vetting process is generally rigorous, but for over 20 years, there was a Temporary Nominating Group for the Global Environment to provide a back door for the election of candidates who were environmental activists, bypassing the conventional vetting procedure. Members, so elected, proceeded to join existing sections where they hold a veto power over the election of any scientists unsympathetic to their positions. Moreover, they are almost immediately appointed to positions on the executive council, and other influential bodies within the Academy. One of the members elected via the Temporary Nominating Group, Ralph Cicerone, is now president of the Academy. Prior to that, he was on the nominating committee for the presidency...Others elected to the NAS via this route include [well known activists] Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, Steven Schneider, John Holdren..." [bold added by me]
This gives one pause, doesn't it?

I don't mean to suggest that no statements issued by any scientific body can be trusted. That would be foolish. But there are serious and compelling reasons to be cautious of activist-scientists in the environmental/global warming arena.

Life would be far simpler if we didn't have to wonder if what we're hearing is pure, unadulterated scientific evidence - or whether we're being fed someone's political agenda.

This mixing of politics, activism, and science is also evident in the genetically modified food debate. See my blog post Do As I Say, Not As I Do.


Nov 13, 2009

Bullies Need Not Apply

Environmental advocates - who now include media commentators and high-ranking politicians - frequently suffer from an unpleasant malady whenever they get talking about global warming. They're rude. They're intolerant. They're mean-spirited.

In short, they behave like bullies. If you don't already agree with them, you're morally defective and need to get a brain for the good of the planet. A recent speech by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provides an astonishing example of this headspace.

Martin Luther King Jr., we should remember, applied his considerable rhetorical skill to persuading those who saw the world differently to change their minds. He appealed to their better natures, to their moral reasoning. He got respect because he treated others with respect.

Mr. Rudd doesn't view his opponents as equals who have a right to civility. He considers them errant children whom he intends to publicly scold until they start thinking correctly. Australian climate skeptic Joanne Nova's spirited reply to Mr. Rudd is well worth reading.

In a similar vein, the bloggers at address advocates of global warming theory such as UK newspaper columnist George Monbiot. They observe that it's now standard practice for such people to diminish both the moral character and the intelligence of those with whom they disagree.

It seems the world is overrun with true-believers who inevitably (if perhaps unconsciously) adopt the following positions as described by

  • What’s the point of having an argument, when you already know you’re right?
  • What’s the point of debate, if all it is going to mean is that the wrong ideas get an airing?
Environmentalists like to talk about democracy. Yet they clearly consider the masses too gullible to sort wheat from chaff.

They say "the debate is over" when, in fact, few people have witnessed an actual debate between someone who believes in an impending global warming catastrophe and someone who is skeptical.

They discourage people from reading Michael Crichton's global-warming-questioning novel, State of Fear - rather than encouraging them to become acquainted with the broad brushstrokes of the larger discussion.

Rather than demonstrating a quiet confidence in the strength of their own arguments, they want their neighbours and co-workers shielded from competing ideas.

Rather than persuading, they condemn. They name-call. They accuse.

Well I have a message for these folks: If you live in a sandbox where you're bigger, stronger, and nastier than everyone else maybe such behavior will get you somewhere.

But in the grown-up world, if you want people to join your team and share your views, you need to begin by showing them some respect.


>> Our hyperactive planet (regarding Michael Crichton's State of Fear)
>> We have heard this rhetoric before (ditto)

Nov 12, 2009

Climate Confusion

Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians, and Misguided Policies That Hurt the Poor by Roy W. Spencer (2008, Encounter Books)

Spencer is one of those bogeymen you may have heard about: a bona fide climate scientist who is skeptical of global warming theory. This book's dust jacket tells us he holds a PhD in meteorology, has been a Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA, and is co-developer of "the original satellite method for precise monitoring of global temperatures from Earth-orbiting satellites."

Currently a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he also "serves as the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS...flying on NASA's Aqua satellite." In other words, Spencer possesses credentials most of us can only dream about.

This does not make him infallible. But it does mean that, unlike many people who pontificate about global warming (Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sheryl Crow), he has authentic, firsthand knowledge of the scientific issues under discussion.

I saw Spencer deliver a presentation in quiet, scientifically-appropriate tones this past June and have seen clips of interviews with him. "Animated" is not the first descriptor that jumps to mind. Thus, the caustic tongue and wry wit in this volume was a fun surprise. (From page 48: "We'll use the following simplified illustration, which is appropriate for either middle school students or congressional testimony.")

Occasionally his judgments seem harsh and a tad too dismissive of ideas with which he disagrees. Elsewhere, he casts people in an unflattering light but provides the reader with so few details that independent corroboration of nasty allegations is impossible. Unsubstantiated allegations aren't helpful in an arena as emotionally and politically charged as the global warming debate. That Spencer includes not one footnote in the entire volume is a source of immense frustration to folks like me, who are reading his work as part of a larger research endeavor and feel obliged to independently verify everything anyone says.

Then there's the fact that one of the few external sources Spencer does overtly cite (in passing while discussing the scientific significance of the word "tendency") is a book titled Darwinian Fairytales. Introducing the evolution/creationism/intelligent design controversy, however obliquely, into an already politicized discussion seems unnecessarily provocative.

Much later in the book Spencer appears to clarify his position on these matters when he writes: "I have nothing against people's religious beliefs - only their labeling them as 'science.'" Still, in an era in which international environmental groups and public relations firms run entire websites devoted to smearing people - especially scientists - who fail to toe the global warming party line, it seems regrettable that Spencer chose to go there at all.

That being said, it's worth remembering that Al Gore is a practicing Baptist who aggressively talks about the "spiritual" and "moral" implications of his environmental crusade.

We should also take note of Bill McKibben, who wrote what is considered to be the
first mainstream book on global warming back in 1989, titled The End of Nature.

These days McKibben is known as the founder of "an international climate campaign". As the bio on his official website observes, he "is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent."

Indeed. Although he frequently cites scientists and their research in
The End of Nature, an uncharitable reader might characterize this as an attempt to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to what is essentially a philosophical/spiritual/overtly emotional tract.

McKibben talks incessantly about his feelings of "sadness." In one paragraph in particular, he uses the word four times (see pages 60, 68, 72, 73,
74, 160, 162). He also tells us a great deal about his other emotional responses to environmental questions:
  • grief (p.73)
  • loneliness (76, 144)
  • fretfulness (86)
  • fear, panic and nervousness (89, 175)
  • revulsion (147)
  • depression (182)
  • [Page numbers refer to the 2006 US paperback edition]
McKibbin says he locates "God in nature" (61, 68) and quotes a naturalist observing that "We now use the word Nature very much as our fathers used the word God" (61). He describes the Old Testament's Book of Job as "one of the most far-reaching defenses ever written of wilderness, of nature free from the hand of man" (64).

Moreover, throughout
The End of Nature, McKibben's language frequently echoes fire-and-brimstone moralism. He declares that "most of the Western world has gone along its prideful way" (65). He says humanity has the capacity to "destroy all that is good and worthwhile" (72) and speaks of "shame" and "self-loathing" (74).

He decries humanity's "turbocharged and jet-propelled arrogance" (87) and warns that "[s]ooner or later our loans will be called in" (39). He exhorts that we must "
choose to remain God's creatures" (182) and choose "between that old clarity or new darkness" (183). He says God may well be watching "to see if we...bow down and humble ourselves, or if we compound original sin with terminal sin" (184).

McKibben insists that "sacrifices" are "demanded" (12) and that refusing to follow his advice "will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature" (124). Elsewhere, he exhorts, brandishing his finger at us, that "a few more decades of ungoverned fossil-fuel use and we burn up, to put it bluntly" (128).
(Recall, dear reader, that his book appeared in 1989. Two decades have come and gone, but we aren't soot and smoke yet.)

Perhaps most telling of all, McKibben describes pre-revolutionary America as a "paradise" (42), insists that we need to "rise out of the wreckage we have made of the world" (147), and longs openly for a lost Eden - the "sweet and wild garden" that humanity has replaced with "a greenhouse" (78).

But wait, there's more. On the book's very first page, McKibben sympathizes with the creationist point-of-view: "Muddled though they are scientifically," he writes, "the creationists, believing in the sudden appearance of the earth some seven thousand years ago, may intuitively understand more about the progress of time than the rest of us."

Critics of Spencer's global warming skepticism take note: If your reason for dismissing him involves religion or creationism, the influential McKibben (whose
End of Nature "has been printed in more than 20 languages") is arguably far more tainted.

But I digress. To get back to Climate Confusion, this book made me giggle and guffaw. Chapters three and four, titled "How Weather Works" and "How Global Warming (Allegedly) Works" were a bit of a slog for this non-scientist. The rest, however, were entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

When each of us is making up our minds about how much of the global warming hype to take seriously, Spencer's perspective is a helpful one. Here's a taste from the preface:
Not long ago we were told humanity had fifty years to solve the global warming problem. Then, we heard we have only ten years to change our polluting ways. Now, some are claiming we have only five years left. Soon, we'll be talking about sending a Terminator back through time to fix the problem for us. Maybe the Governor of California can help us with that.
Spencer is a member of a vulnerable and demonized community - climate researchers whose opinions diverge from the dire, catastrophic global warming predictions that now emanate from government, pop culture, and mass media. It's imperative that voices such as his get heard.

This blog post was intended to be a list of rough-and-ready quotes, compiled for my own research purposes, from Spencer's book. Instead, my creative genius (in the manner that Elizabeth Gilbert uses this term) put in an appearance and the post metamorphosed into something else. When that list is complete I'll link to it below. Cheers!


Nov 9, 2009

Canada's Tar Sands & Cancer Rates

From this morning's paper: Report casts doubt on MD's claims about Alberta reserve's cancer rates

To some, Dr. John O'Connor is a whistleblower in the finest tradition - calling attention to environmental impacts others would prefer not to think about. To others, he's an activist who has permitted his political zeal to cloud his medical judgment.

It would be interesting to read this report in full. For now, there are two points worth highlighting:

The first, which isn't even hinted at in this news article, is that many of the reservations on which Canada's Native Indian/aboriginal/First Nations (choose your descriptor) folks live are tiny, desolate, and remote. The small size of these communities precludes the development of a vibrant, sustainable economy. This in turn almost always results in high unemployment and is associated with myriad other social ills: high rates of family violence, alcoholism, diabetes, youth suicide and so forth.

The fact that these communities are so remote means that it's virtually impossible to pursue the lifestyle choices associated not only with cancer prevention, but with positive health outcomes overall. Fresh fruit and vegetables are simply not on the menu for large parts of the year. In other words, there are lots of reasons - both nutritional and social - why cancer rates might be higher in these communities.

The second point worth noting is that, when medical officials from two levels of government attempted to verify Dr. O'Connor's allegations of higher-than-expected cancer rates, the doctor declined to cooperate. Reads the news article:
....he “obstructed” efforts by the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada to investigate his claims by defying the law and ignoring repeated requests to turn over his clinical evidence in a “timely manner."
This is not the way someone in possession of iron-clad proof of a serious medical problem would be expected to behave. And then there's this:
According to the report, when Dr. O'Connor finally co-operated with public health officials after stalling for close to two years, many of his numbers didn't match up with what he had been saying publicly...
To anti-tar-sands activists, Dr. O'Connor is the hero of a documentary film, a respected spokesperson in a David-and-Goliath struggle against Big Oil, and the victim of a financially motivated witch hunt.

The authors of this report take a different view. They found many of Dr. O'Connors statements to be "inaccurate" and "untruthful".

If I'm reading the news article correctly, it appears that although everyone else in this matter has given permission for the report to be publicly released and publicly discussed by the body that authored it, Dr. O'Connor has withheld his (necessary) permission.

The report concludes that punishing Dr. O'Connor would not serve the public interest. But it does, in careful, muted language suggest that its authors are not impressed by the way he has conducted himself:
The message that Dr. O'Connor and others may take from this review is the need for advocacy to be fair, truthful, balanced and respectful.

Oct 24, 2009

Political Idealogues Are Bad for the Environment

Today has been designated the International Day of Climate Action. Lots of folks are doing lots of things to express their views on this important topic.

I will spend the day reading a cautionary tale titled Mao's War Against Nature. I'm only on page 43 so far, but the moral of this story is already chillingly clear: when political ideology drives decision-making really bad things happen to both humans and the environment.

We're talking stuff like human-induced famine that causes the deaths of millions of people. When their policies produce unintended consequences, hardcore idealogues can acknowledge their errors and change course. Or they can continue onward.

A quote on page 32, attributed to Mao's personal physician, is revealing: "Mao knew that people were dying by the millions. He did not care."

It's difficult to believe that political leaders can be so callous. But history teaches us that such atrocities have occurred more than once. We all need to take special care to never lend support to situations in which such horrors might be perpetrated.

This means, above all, respecting multiple points of view. It means supporting free and open debate.


Oct 23, 2009

Bias: How the Media Distort the News

Align Center
Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News
by Bernard Goldberg, (2003, Perennial/Harper Collins)

The way environmental issues get presented by the media is a major theme of the book I'm currently writing about global warming. This volume, authored by a gent who worked on CBS television news shows for 28 years, provides food for thought. Below is a quick-and-dirty list of some interesting quotes that appear within. Page numbers refer to the US/Canadian paperback edition (the first 14 pages of which comprise a new introduction).
  • "When it comes to arrogance, power, and lack of accountability, journalists are probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good." - attributed to Steven Brill (the book's opening epigraph)
  • "...the media divide Americans into two groups - moderates and right-wing nuts." p. 1
  • "I kept thinking of how my colleagues treat cigarette...oil, and other company executives in the media glare. The news business deserves the same hard look..." p. 3
  • "I couldn't get on any network TV news program at any time of the day or night to talk about [this book], despite the fact that it had been a number-one bestseller" p. 11
  • "Remember, these are the people who investigate everybody else - but they didn't want me on their networks talking about their shortcomings." p. 12
  • "The president of a major network news division says he doesn't have any interest in a book about a major problem facing his own news business." p 12
  • "There are lots of reasons fewer people are watching network news, and one of them, I'm more convinced than ever, is that our viewers simply don't trust us." p. 19
  • "There is absolutely no way - not one chance in a million - that [CBS] would have aired a flat-tax story with that same contemptuous tone if Teddy Kennedy or Hillary Clinton had come up with the idea." p. 22
  • "Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton's health care plan 'wacky'? p. 23
  • "I understand why Al Gore and other liberals call something they don't like a 'scheme.' Politicians and partisans are allowed to do that. But should supposedly objective people like news reporters...use that kind of loaded language?"p. 25
  • "'s one of those dirty little secrets journalists are never supposed to reveal...a reporter can find an expert to say anything the reporter wants - anything!" p 26
  • "The problem comes in the big social and cultural issues, where we often sound more like flacks for liberal causes than objective journalists." p. 28
  • "[journalism's] elites are hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans. Their friends are liberals, just as they are. They share the same values. Almost all of them think the same way on the big social issues of our time...After a while they start to believe that all civilized people think the same way they and their friends do. That's why they don't simply disagree with conservatives. They see them as morally deficient." p. 30
  • "The sophisticated media elites don't categorize their beliefs as liberal but as simply the correct way to look at things." p. 30
  • "I see myself as an old-fashioned liberal. I'm a liberal the way liberals used to be." p. 57
  • "...the national news media...were not just covering this important trend in American culture. They were taking sides." p. 62
  • "If we do a Hollywood story, it's not unusual to identify certain actors, like Tom Selleck or Bruce Willis, as conservatives. But Barbra Streisand or Rob Reiner, no matter how active they are in liberal Democratic politics, are just Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner." p. 63
  • "Why is it that the word 'left-wing' has virtually vanished from the media's vocabulary?...We have right-wing Republicans and right-wing Christians and right-wing Miami Cubans and right-wing radio talk show hosts. Isn't anybody left-wing anymore?" p. 66
  • "No matter how bad a problem really is, advocates think they need to portray it as worse. This is standard operating procedure with lobbies...We have come to expect this of advocates. They know their cause is worthy, so what harm can a little exaggeration do? But reporters - when they also see the cause as worthy - buy into it. They also become advocates." p. 72
  • "It's as if our coverage...was being directed not by objective journalists but by the advocates for the homeless themselves. We took what they said at face value even though we would never do that with advocates for causes we did not embrace." p. 73
  • "...advocates for the homeless misled us about all sorts of things - the number of the homeless, who they were, why they were homeless - and because we embraced their cause...we pretty much said, 'Hey, no problem,' and passed their misinformation on to the American people." p. 73
  • "For years,the activists played the media as if they were part of the homeless PR machine...A lot of news people, after all, got into journalism in the first place so they could change the world and make it a better place...showing compassion makes us feel good about ourselves..." p. 74
  • "Did anyone, least of all seasoned reporters who pride themselves on their skepticism, really believe that the vast majority of the homeless - the addicted and the mentally ill - would virtually disappear from America's streets if only Ronald Reagan hadn't cut housing programs?" p. 76
  • "Once again, the media were more than willing to set aside their usual skepticism and go right along. While AIDS was devastating minority and gay communities in America, while it was leaving Middle America virtually untouched, the news stories conjured up some other reality." p. 83
  • Oprah Winfrey in 1987: "Research studies now project that one in five - listen to me, hard to believe - one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That's by 1990. One in five. It is no longer just a gay disease. Believe me." p.83
  • " epidemic was racing across America. An epidemic of fear. You couldn't open a newspaper, turn the page of a magazine, or tune in to the nightly news without reading or hearing about the deadly link between AIDS and heterosexuals." p. 84
  • "In 1987 the highly respected surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, said AIDS was 'the biggest threat to health this nation has ever faced.'" p. 84
  • "That anyone is still contracting HIV is a tragedy of huge proportions. That the gay lobby would try to mislead us is understandable. That the media go along is disgraceful." p. 90
  • "When the cover of Life told us in1985 that 'No No One is Safe from AIDS,' it had the story all wrong. So did all the others that warned of the coming heterosexual AIDS epidemic." p. 95
  • "48 Hours point was to scare the hell out of America. Scaring the hell out of people makes for good television even when it makes for shallow journalism." p. 97
  • "The men who started up the networks in the earliest days of television thought news was special. They made their money on Lucy and Ricky and Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny. For years and years, news wasn't a money-maker and wasn't expected to be. Don Hewitt, the creator...of 60 Minutes, loves to tell the story about how, when the show first went on the air, Bill Paley, the founder of CBS, told him, 'Make us proud!' 'Now,' Hewitt says, 'they tell us: Make us money!'" p. 98
  • "So do I believe my good friend Andrew Heyward would put on a scary program whose primary goal was to get high ratings even if it meant telling half-truths about who was getting AIDS in America and how they were getting it? In a word, Yes!" p. 99
  • "...the activists did what they felt they had to do. They got the word out that it would spread to all of us. And the media passed it along to America, at first because they didn't know better, then because they thought heterosexual AIDS was a better story, but eventually because it was another way to show compassion." p. 101
  • "Does anyone think a 'diverse' group of conservative journalists would give us the news straight? I sure as hell don't. They'd be just like the Left...It's the human condition." p. 126
  • "No conspiracies. No deliberate attempts to slant the news. It just happens. Because the way reporters and editors see the world, the way their friends and colleagues see the world, matters." p. 127
  • "...if long ago we came to the conclusion that newsrooms with too many white men were a bad idea because all we got was the white male perspective, then why isn't it just as bad to have so many liberals dominating the culture of the newsroom?" p. 127
  • "This is a big country with a lot of people, and there's room for all sorts of views." p. 128
  • "89 percent of journalists said they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, compared with just 43 percent of the nonjournalist voters." p. 129
  • "There's hardly a candidate in the entire United States of America who carries his or her district with 89 percent of the vote. This is way beyond landslide numbers. The only politicians who get numbers like that are called Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein." p. 129
  • "In the world of media elites, Democrats outnumber Republicans by twelve to one and liberals outnumber conservatives by seven to one." p. 130
  • "'s not just that so many journalists are so different from mainstream America. It's that some are downright hostile to what many Americans hold sacred." p. 133
  • "...some real diversity to the newsroom, not the make-believe kind we have now." p. 136
  • "News executives are always saying we need our staffs to look more like the real America. How about if those reporters and editors and executives also thought just a little more like the real America? And shared just a little more of their values?" p. 136
  • "...national TV reporters, as a group, are lazy. I know this is a generalization, and I know that Mark Twain said generalizations aren't worth a damn, but it's generally true nonetheless. 'There's no culture of ideas around here,' one CBS News executive told me, meaning hardly any of his reporters ever look out at the bigger American culture and wonder why certain things are happening and come up with something resembling an original story. These reporters and producers cover news conferences and plane crashes and hurricanes and easy stuff like that." pp. 173-174
  • "Why is one point of view valid and the other nonexistent on the evening news?" p. 181
  • "Why is it that when liberal media stars say nasty things they're merely sharing their thoughts with us and (even more important) their feelings, but when the same sentiment comes out of a conservative's mouth, it's seen as mean-spirited?" p. 191
  • "The media elites...can hear even the whispers of what they consider hate speech fifty miles away - whether they imagine it's coming from conservative talk show hosts or right-wing religious fundamentalists or just about anyone opposed to affirmative action. But they can't hear it dripping off their own nasty tongues..." p. 192

Oct 13, 2009

On Saying the Debate is Over has posted a second 2-minute video. This one is titled: On Saying The Debate is Over.

The full text of the film is as follows:

Jack and Jane have a decision to make. Jack thinks they need a new roof. He's worried that, if snowfalls are heavy this year, things will start to leak.

Jane is concerned about the front porch. The wood is rotten in places and she's afraid someone could be hurt if the floor gives way. She thinks they should fix the porch now and do the roof later.

Whose opinion should prevail? There's no magic answer. Their decision will depend on how well each of them can argue their point-of-view. It will rest on what they feel would be easier to cope with: a serious leak or an unsafe floor.

But suppose Jack gets up one morning and declares that "the debate is over." He isn't interested in discussing it anymore. He knows that he is right and Jane is wrong. Whether she likes it or not, he's getting the roof re-done.

Most of us know this isn't the way to sustain a relationship. When someone decides that only their opinion counts, they've stopped being a reasonable person and have become a bully and a tyrant.

It is not OK for one party to declare that "the debate is over."

Not when the discussion is about home repairs. And not when it's about climate change.

See video number one, This Is Not Fair Play


Sep 27, 2009

The Honest Broker

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
by Roger Peilke Jr., (2007, Cambridge University Press)

Pielke believes global warming is a problem that requires a response. As readers of his blog know, he's a moderate, pragmatic, sane voice who frequently disses extremism and foolishness on all sides of the global warming debate.

This book was no doubt partly written to serve as a textbook in Prof. Pielke's classes, so it isn't always the most entertaining of reads. But there's lots of thought-provoking stuff here about how scientists, the media, and the public might think about science when partisan politics become a major consideration.

Pielke argues that an "honest broker" scientist is one who presents a variety of options to the public, who expands our range of choices - rather than advocating a single course of action.

Below is a quick-and-dirty list of some thought-provoking lines/quotes. Page numbers refer to the US paperback edition:
  • "we are often very certain and very wrong" p. 23
  • "The scientific enterprise is diverse enough to offer information that can be used to support a diversity of perspectives on just about any subject" p. 89
  • "entrenched interests need not produce 'junk science' when they have a wide selection of credentialed scientists to choose from in support of their positions" p. 62
  • "one might develop numerous equally plausible theories" p. 69
  • "information by itself does not compel a particular decision" p. 54
  • "Battles take place over whether science is sound or junk instead of debating the value or practicality of specific policy alternatives." p. 126
  • "A decision may have unexpected consequences, including the opposite of those desired" p. 65
  • "there is considerable randomness or chance in the world" p. 75
  • "Science in the service of common interests is threatened as scientists and policy-makers have come to see science mainly as a servant of interest group politics." p. 10
  • "For some scientists stealth issue advocacy is politically desirable because it allows for a simultaneous claim of being above the fray, invoking the historical authority of science, while working to restrict the scope of choice." p. 7
  • "If a debate is really about science, then surely it can take place on the pages of seldom-read peer-reviewed journals. But if the debate is about more than science, then it would likely spill over into the media, the internet, and legislative chambers." pp. 88-89
  • "One reason for the high esteem in which science is held is its independence from overt political influence." p. 93
  • "If the public or policy-makers begin to believe that scientific findings are simply an extension of a scientist's political beliefs, then scientific information will play an increasingly diminishing role in policy-making" p. 95
  • "deciding a course of action and then finding information to support it is common across the political spectrum" p. 110
  • "In many instances science has become little more than a mechanism for marketing competing political agendas, and scientists have become leading members of the advertising campaigns." p. 117
  • "That some scientists engage in political activities is neither new nor problematic; they are after all citizens. A problem exists when...scientists implicitly or explicitly equate scientific arguments with political arguments" p. 120
  • "science alone cannot determine who wins and who loses in political battles" p. 121
  • "science cannot tell us what to do. Deciding what to do occurs through a political process of bargaining, negotiation, and compromise." p. 137
  • "Science has exceedingly little capacity to reconcile differences in values." p. 137
  • "For the protection of science..we desperately need organizations and individuals who are willing to expand the range of options available to policy-makers by serving as Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives" p. 141

Sep 26, 2009

An Appeal to Reason

An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming
by Nigel Lawson (2008, Overlook Duckworth publishers)

A concise, 100-page overview of the good reasons to be skeptical of the hype associated with global warming. The world might be a more sensible and informed place if journalists, politicians, and educators spent a few hours with this slim volume.

Adding this work to student reading lists would be a quick, inexpensive (US retail price: $20) way of ensuring that young people hear more than one perspective. (Isn't that what education is supposed to be about - an exploration of a range of ideas, the expansion of young minds beyond the confines of conventional wisdom?)

Below is a quick-and-dirty list of some great lines/quotes. Page numbers refer to the US/Canadian hardcover edition:
  • "the only practical effect of the Kyoto process has been to create what is fast becoming one of the biggest scams on the planet" p. 77
  • "doing nothing is better than doing something stupid" p.95
  • "to describe the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as pollution is as absurd as it would be to describe the clouds as pollution" p. 11
  • "It is time to take a cool look at global warming." p. 1
  • "I am not a scientist. But then neither are the vast majority of those who pronounce on the matter with far greater certainty than I shall do here." p. 1
  • "science is only part of the story. Even if the climate scientists can tell us what is happening and why, they cannot tell us what governments should be doing about it." p. 2
  • "scientific truth is not established by counting heads" p. 5
  • "While peer review may be a useful process, all it means is that the author's peers consider that the paper which advances the hypothesis is worthy of publication in the journal to which it has been submitted." p. 6
  • "It is not immediately apparent what real-world evidence could shake the faith of the true believers and overturn the conventional global warming wisdom" p. 6
  • "in a number of important aspects, the IPCC's processes have become seriously flawed" p. 12
  • "There is something inherently absurd about the conceit that we can have any useful idea of what the world will be like in a hundred years time" p 23
  • "you start with the uncertainties of long-range weather forecasting, add to these the uncertainties of long-range economic forecasting, plus the uncertainties of long-range population forecasting, feed them all into a powerful computer and supposedly arrive at a sound basis for serious...long term policy decisions" p. 24
  • "is it really plausible that there is an ideal average world temperature, which by some happy chance has recently been visited on us, from which small departures in either direction would spell disaster?" p. 27
  • "The IPCC Report claims to take into account both costs and benefits, yet it devotes large amounts of space to the costs and almost none to the benefits. It is difficult not to sense a lack of even-handedness, leading to a bias in the overall assessment."
  • "natural disasters such as hurricanes, monsoons, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even pandemics (the vogue word for what used to be known as plagues), have always occurred, and no doubt always will; to attribute them to global warming is not science but political propaganda." p. 37
  • "I suspect there are few people...who regard the huge improvement in living standards, including a substantial reduction in infant mortality and a substantial rise in life expectancy, that cheap, carbon-based energy has made possible, as an unwelcome turn of events." p. 45
  • "The idea that anything sensible can said about the likely state of the world thousands of years ahead, still less that we can make rational policy decisions on that basis, is mind-boggling." p. 52
  • "stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations is not the same as stabilizing the global temperature" p. 65
  • "Feelgood measures in the western world, from driving a hybrid car to the abolition of plastic bags, to not leaving our television sets on standby, are trivial to the point of irrelevance in this context" pp. 65-66
  • "there still remains the political problem of the widespread public hostility to nuclear power, which is as often as not fomented by those who profess the greatest concern about man-made global warming" p. 70
  • "The African peasant, desperately seeking to replace his renewable [animal] dung with an electricity supply, may not be amused to be told that, is produced by a carbon-fired power station, the electricity generated is dirty...and should be discouraged." p. 71
  • "We care about the welfare of our children and grandchildren, but we do not normally lose sleep over the welfare of our grandchildren's putative grandchildren, nor make financial provision for them." p. 85
  • "Without risk-taking there is no human take policy decisions on the basis...of the worst possible case, is not rational precaution, but irrational alarmism." p. 88
  • "Reliable prediction is impossible." p. 91
  • "the issues surrounding global warming are so often discussed in terms of belief rather than reason" p. 101
  • "Throughout the ages, something deep in man's psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings: 'the end of the world is nigh'. And almost all of us are imbued with a sense of guilt and a sense of sin." p. 102
  • "We appear to have entered a new age of unreason...It is from this, above all, that we really do need to save the planet." p. 106