Soils, CO2, and Global Warming
An amusing demolition of some sensation-mongering Warmist garbage below. The paper concerned is so trashy that it should never have passed peer review but where global warming is concerned we see a lot of uncritical evaluation of dubious claims
On March 24 the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) issued a News Release [here] that proclaimed the soils of the Earth are now giving off more CO2 because the Earth has warmed over the last 20 years.
Even soil feels the heatThe research paper touted in the News Release is: Bond-Lamberty and Thomson, 2010. Temperature-associated increases in the global soil respiration record, Nature March 25, 2009, doi:10.1038/nature08930.
Soils release more carbon dioxide as globe warms
Mary Beckman, PNNL, March 24th, 2010
Twenty years of field studies reveal that as the Earth has gotten warmer, plants and microbes in the soil have given off more carbon dioxide. So-called soil respiration has increased about one-tenth of 1 percent per year since 1989, according to an analysis of past studies in today’s issue of Nature.
The scientists also calculated the total amount of carbon dioxide flowing from soils, which is about 10-15 percent higher than previous measurements. That number — about 98 petagrams of carbon a year (or 98 billion metric tons) — will help scientists build a better overall model of how carbon in its many forms cycles throughout the Earth. Understanding soil respiration is central to understanding how the global carbon cycle affects climate.
“There’s a big pulse of carbon dioxide coming off of the surface of the soil everywhere in the world,” said ecologist Ben Bond-Lamberty of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We weren’t sure if we’d be able to measure it going into this analysis, but we did find a response to temperature.” …
Note: The PNNL is a Richland, WA, Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory “proudly operated by Battelle”. Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle) is “a charitable trust organized as a non-profit corporation under the laws of the State of Ohio. Battelle is exempt from federal taxation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code because it is organized for charitable, scientific, and educational purposes” [here].
In this essay I discuss whether there is any merit to the findings of the research paper.
Meta-Studies and the File Drawer Effect
The PNNL/Battelle/DOE study is a meta-study or meta-analysis. That means that the authors did no soil testing themselves. Instead they examined the studies of others (818 at last count) and “pooled” them.
All meta-analyses have inherent problems including the File Drawer Effect, also known as publication bias. Researcher-authors are more likely to submit for publication positive rather than inconclusive results. Journal editors are more likely to accept articles that report “significant” findings than research which finds no effect. Studies that find no effect are shoved in a file drawer; hence the name.
Publication bias is likely in this area of study especially, given the strong political/funding incentives to find climate change effects.
For example, Martin Grueber, Research Leader, Battelle, wrote last December [here] that:
The greatest impact on our energy infrastructure in the near future will come from research and development focused on global climate change. Numbers bear this out.
For example, one of the surveys used as a basis for this R&D funding forecast shows that 60% of the respondents believe concern over global climate change will have a positive impact on research and development investments in the United States. More than 80% of those same respondents believe there will be a budget increase for R&D from U.S. federal agencies during the next year, and 73% think budget increases will continue for the next five years.
The Science and Public Policy Institute issued a report last July (written by Jo Nova) [here] that found:
The US government has spent over $79 billion since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science and technology research, administration, education campaigns, foreign aid, and tax breaks. …
Carbon trading worldwide reached $126 billion in 2008. Banks are calling for more carbon-trading. And experts are predicting the carbon market will reach $2 - $10 trillion making carbon the largest single commodity traded.
With that kind of money at play, there is tremendous pressure on government scientists to find “effects” that they can attribute to “climate change”. Scientists are only human, after all. When their careers and their laboratories or institutions are dependent on government funding, and the government has a declared bias, it is only natural that “findings” will suit the policies.
Few scientists would be so daring (or foolish) to find no effect, and those that do are soon terminated. Integrity in government science is for sale, or subject to extortion, especially in a hugely politicized science like climatology.
We would all like to think that researchers have integrity, and that they would report whatever they found honestly. Researchers themselves would claim that they do have integrity. But the forces at play are so enormous that bias creeps in, despite good intentions.
The File Drawer Effect is pronounced in climatology. As was revealed in the Climategate scandal, government scientists conspired to subvert journals and ostracize contrarian views. A “consensus” in climatology has been declared, despite the fact that consensus has no place in any science, particularly in the speculative and uncertain prediction of future climate.
The PNNL/Battelle/DOE scientists are under significant pressure to find “effects”. So were the researchers involved in the 818 individual studies that were meta-analyzed. The meta-study itself was announced with great ballyhoo in a media blitz.
It would be the height of naivety to claim no bias exists.
Violating the Scientific Method
The 818 individual studies were limited in scope: location, duration, and methodology. The methodologies including modeling studies as well as some empirical observation studies. That is, not all of the examined studies report actual field work, either. Pooling the findings is equivalent to extending the individual study inferences beyond their respective scopes, a practice that weakens if not violates the scientific method.
Most of the studies were focused on temperate forests, and other vegetation/soil types are thus poorly represented. The authors of the meta-study characterized a percentage of the forests in the individual studies as “unmanipulated ecosystems,” but that is a stretch. No temperate forests are in truth unmanipulated within any historical context. Nor are temperate forests independent of current political trends in forest management.
For that matter, forest fires are also non-independent of current political trends. Forest fires represent the most severe type of soil carbon and soil metabolic change (disturbance).
Given all that, the meta-study purported to find a minute trend in soil respiration that is so small that it is dwarfed by the large uncertainties and biases. Further, no purported trends in gross sequestration of carbon through photosynthesis were considered in this meta-study. A slight increase in photosynthesis would offset soil respiration increases, yielding no net change terrestrial in carbon sequestration.
The upshot is that the “findings” are extremely weak and apparently blown completely out of proportion by the media blitz accompanying the paper — the blitz representing, ironically, a meta-example of publication bias.
The Numbers Reported Don’t Add Up
Alan Siddons offered some commentary on the meta-study at the Climate Realists website [here], to which Ben Bond-Lamberty and Allison Thomson, the authors of the meta-study replied. The exchange is interesting.
Siddons commented that the findings were more evidence that a climbing CO2 rate is the result of warming, not the cause. The authors replied that their study has nothing to do with whether CO2 is a result or cause of warming.
Siddons then pointed out that the News Release states:
“There’s a big pulse of carbon dioxide coming off of the surface of the soil everywhere in the world,” said ecologist Ben Bond-Lamberty of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We weren’t sure if we’d be able to measure it going into this analysis, but we did find a response to temperature.”
So it appears that Siddons is correct and the authors are backtracking.
Siddons also pointed out that, “Results like this mean that the anthropogenic fraction must be readjusted. Is man’s annual contribution 4%? 3%? Less?” The authors replied:
We found that the soil-to-air component of the global carbon cycle is accelerating; this might not, by itself, have any effect on atmospheric CO2 levels. Even if it did, the projected CO2 increase from the soils (0.1 Pg/yr) is around 1% of fossil fuel emissions (8 Pg/yr).
Note: a petagram is 10^15 grams.
However, the News Release stated that:
The scientists also calculated the total amount of carbon dioxide flowing from soils, which is about 10-15 percent higher than previous measurements. That number [is] about 98 petagrams of carbon a year (or 98 billion metric tons).
A 10 to 15 percent increase in CO2 emission from soils is 9.8 to 14.6 petagrams per year. The amount of CO2 released from burning fossil fuels is 5 to 7 petagrams per year (the authors say 8). Roughly 4 petagrams are reabsorbed by the oceans and land. The amount of CO2 remaining in the atmosphere is increasing at a rate of roughly 2 parts per million per year (which gives a picture of how voluminous the Earth’s atmosphere is).
The question is: what is responsible for the increase is atmospheric CO2? Is it burning fossil fuels, or increased soil emissions? The authors say the increased soil emissions are 0.1 petagrams per year, but the News Release implies 9.8 to 14.6 petragrams per year. That is a difference of two orders of magnitude. The numbers are fuzzy at best, and wild estimates at worst.
The last question Siddons raised has to do with whether climate models are accurately modeling any of these CO2 fluxes. The meta-study says no:
Soil respiration, RS, the flux of microbially and plant-respired carbon dioxide (CO2) from the soil surface to the atmosphere, is the second-largest terrestrial carbon flux. However, the dynamics of RS are not well understood and the global flux remains poorly constrained.
although the authors’ in reply to Siddons say, “Our findings don’t show that “source/sink models” are inadequate.” That’s a little bit like shutting the barn door after the horse ran off.
Meta-studies suffer from inherent publication bias, and in this case the biases are huge. They also violate the scientific method. It seems that in this meta-study, the numbers don’t add up. The uncertainties are vastly larger than the tiny “effect” the authors claim to have extracted from research papers by others.
What does it all mean? Mostly nothing. It’s all a bunch of noise, signifying zip, zero, nada.
Why did I write about it? I thought it might be interesting to readers, especially the File Drawer Effect.
We are not a Big Media Machine here. We can’t hold back the tidal waves of BS that emanate from trillion-dollar vested interests responsible for promulgating the climate hoax/swindle. But we can poke them in the eye once in awhile.
The simple reality is none of the solutions proposed by global warmists actually work
With the fourth global Earth Hour put to bed last night, today let’s ask some inconvenient questions of the global warmists. First, does the real-world failure of virtually all of your ideas ever give you a moment’s pause?
From the fiasco in Copenhagen, to the collapse of the UN’s Kyoto accord, with its absurd, unrealistic, centrally-mandated, carbon dioxide-reduction diktats, mindful of the old Soviet Union? Does it never occur to you you’ve barked up the wrong tree rings?
What about the humiliation of Climategate? The circumventing of freedom of information requests at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia? The growing controversy over the inaccuracy of those never-ending apocalyptic predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
Does the fact the earliest corporate boosters of Kyoto and carbon trading were the fraudsters at Enron never cause you to wake up in a cold sweat?
How about the fact your “allies” on cap-and-trade are the giant U.S. money houses that just finished wrecking the global economy, now looking to make another quick killing by brokering trading in highly speculative carbon credits, the European market for which, aside from doing nothing to cool the planet, is awash in multi-billion-dollar frauds?
What about the 2002 report by Statistics Norway that Norway’s 1991 carbon tax has been largely ineffective in reducing emissions?
Or last week’s story in the Times of London that the U.K.’s energy regulator has found many of Britain’s wind farms are a bust when it comes to delivering electricity?
That, in the words of Michael Jefferson, professor of international business and sustainability and a former lead author of the IPCC: “Too many developments are underperforming. It’s because developers grossly exaggerate the potential. The subsidies make it viable for developers to put turbines on sites they would not touch if the money was not available.”
Gee. Hard to see that one coming, eh? Who knew that when governments insanely guarantee to pay grossly inflated prices for “green” electricity for 20-25 years, thus handing developers windfall profits from the hides of electricity consumers, many don’t deliver the goods?
Does none of this ever penetrate your Pandora world or your Na’vi brains, as you self-righteously declare yourselves the only people on Earth who care about your grandchildren? (You do realize Avatar was just a movie, right?)
When challenged, warmists with their apocalyptic rhetoric that even responsible climate scientists shun, insist the answers lie in doing more of what hasn’t worked.
For example, putting Kyoto on steroids. Never mind that doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is a good definition of insanity.
Perhaps this blindness is related to the fact that, particularly in Europe, which has led on climate hysteria, the green agenda was driven in large part by Marxists, who, realizing the jig was up when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, quickly shifted their anti-capitalist, anti-western, anti-growth, anti-American rhetoric to “fighting” climate change. Not for nothing are they called green on the outside, red on the inside.
Doomed from the start
Thus, it’s hardly surprising we ended up with the Soviet-style, centrally-imposed, Kyoto approach to reducing CO 2 emissions.
Kyoto was doomed from the start for the same reason as the Soviet Union — you can’t manage an economy, or the environment, by imposing from on high five-year plans for the production of tin, or 10, 40 or 70-year plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Ironically, the Soviet Union, the “workers’ paradise,” was supposed to deliver to humanity both economic prosperity and environmental nirvana. Instead it produced a devastated economy and environmental nightmares.
So, of course, the crafters of Kyoto retroactively rewarded Russia and the former Soviet satellites by choosing 1990 as the base year for reducing global emissions, just before the Soviet empire collapsed, thus handing Russia billions of dollars in “hot air” credits to sell to unsuspecting suckers like … uh … us. Not because of anything Russia or (East Germany) actually did to improve its environment, but because its economy collapsed.
That’s warmist “logic.” Unsurprisingly, none of it has worked. But that never deters them from carrying on to the next disaster.
With their final cry, they demand: “What would you do, instead?” — ignoring the fact that since they’re the ones demanding a massive change in how mankind secures and uses energy, the onus is on them to come up with something that works. Which, of course, they can’t.
Earth Hour could INCREASE carbon emissions
A climate change campaign to get everyone to switch off their lights will not reduce carbon emissions, according to electricity experts. Earth Hour, organised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), will see millions of people switch off their lights for an hour this weekend.
But the fall in electricity use for such a short period is unlikely to result in less energy being pumped into the grid, and will therefore not reduce emissions. Even if power stations are turned off, the upsurge in turning the lights back on one hour later will require power stations that can fire up quickly like oil and coal. Energy experts said it could therefore result in an increase in carbon emissions "rendering all good intentions useless at a flick of a switch".
But WWF said the campaign was about raising awareness and saving energy in the long term, rather than a short-term fix.
Millions of buildings around the world are expected to go dark at 8.30pm on Saturday including the Sydney Opera House and Big Ben.
WWF Earth Hour is designed to raise awareness of climate change and has been supported by Al Gore and the United Nations.
This year more than 50 million people are expected to take part on every continent in the globe in the biggest Earth Hour since the event began three years ago.
Ross Hayman, of the National Grid, said only a small fall in demand is expected in the UK, meaning the event will not cause less energy to be put into the grid.
However, he warned that even if there is a significant drop and supply is turned off, the reduction in energy will be offset by the surge needed to turn bring energy back onto the grid from firing up coal or gas stations.
"It might not have an effect on overall carbon emissions because we might have to use more carbon intensive power sources to restore supply afterwards," he added.
Mr Hayman said the best thing for climate change would be for people to insulate their homes and get into the habit of turning appliances off at night.
"People ought to focus on general efficiency measures to reduce their energy use overall rather than switch everything off for an hour because that might not have an efficiency effect on the network overall," he said.
James Millar, managing director of the sustainable lighting company Greenled, said when the lights come back on there is "enormous strain thrust upon the national grid".
“Energy companies always retain spare capacity and will continue to produce energy at the same rate throughout the hour-long demonstration which will end up being dumped off the grid with the loss of millions of tonnes of energy due to lack of demand; thereby, rendering all the good intentions of Earth Hour useless – at the flick of a switch,” he added.
But Colin Butfield, Head of Campaigns at WWF, said it was not about saving energy for just an hour but raising awareness.
"Earth Hour is an opportunity for people to show that they care about climate change and want global leaders to take action. Earth Hour is not about saving energy, it’s a positive inspiring event that will show the level of public concern about climate change, and for that reason we will not be measuring energy saved during the hour or reduction in CO2 emissions," he said.
Activists jet 12,000 miles - to climate change meeting
Climate change activists opposed to air travel are travelling to a conference in South America...by plane.
Campaigners from Climate Camp -- who helped blockade Heathrow at the height of the summer holidays in 2007 -- face claims of hypocrisy having decided to send two members to an international meeting in Bolivia to discuss ‘transnational protests’ against climate change.
The 12,000-mile round trip to the Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights conference next month involves changing planes at least twice.
The flights will generate about eight tons of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases.
The money for their tickets -- at least £1,200 for an economy fare -- is being paid for by donations to Climate Camp from people opposed to flying and airport expansion.
One of the campaigners making the trip is Agnes Szafranowska. Ms Szafranowska, a Canadian who now lives in London, organises Climate Camp workshops and was involved in the Great Climate Swoop on Ratcliffe power station in Nottingham last October.
Police arrested ten people before the protest began on suspicion of conspiracy to cause criminal damage.
Some 1,000 people took part, and security fencing around the plant was pulled down. Police made 56 arrests and a number of people were injured, including one policeman who had to be airlifted to hospital.
Ms Szafranowska failed to answer questions sent to her by email, other than to say that Climate Camp were preparing a statement. The group’s Press officer did not return calls.
When to Doubt a Scientific ‘Consensus’
Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non-rational dynamics of the herd.
A December 18 Washington Post poll, released on the final day of the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit, reported “four in ten Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment.” Nor is the poll an outlier. Several recent polls have found “climate change” skepticism rising faster than sea levels on Planet Algore (not to be confused with Planet Earth, where sea levels remain relatively stable).
Many of the doubt-inducing climate scientists and their media acolytes attribute this rising skepticism to the stupidity of Americans, philistines unable to appreciate that there is “a scientific consensus on climate change.” One of the benefits of the recent Climategate scandal, which revealed leading climate scientists manipulating data, methods, and peer review to exaggerate the evidence of significant global warming, may be to permanently deflate the rhetorical value of the phrase “scientific consensus.”
Even without the scandal, the very idea of scientific consensus should give us pause. “Consensus,” according to Merriam-Webster, means both “general agreement” and “group solidarity in sentiment and belief.” That pretty much sums up the dilemma. We want to know whether a scientific consensus is based on solid evidence and sound reasoning, or social pressure and groupthink.
Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non-rational dynamics of the herd. Many false ideas enjoyed consensus opinion at one time. Indeed, the “power of the paradigm” often shapes the thinking of scientists so strongly that they become unable to accurately summarize, let alone evaluate, radical alternatives. Question the paradigm, and some respond with dogmatic fanaticism.
We shouldn’t, of course, forget the other side of the coin. There are always cranks and conspiracy theorists. No matter how well founded a scientific consensus, there’s someone somewhere—easily accessible online—that thinks it’s all hokum. Sometimes these folks turn out to be right. But often, they’re just cranks whose counsel is best disregarded.
So what’s a non-scientist citizen, without the time to study the scientific details, to do? How is the ordinary citizen to distinguish, as Andrew Coyne puts it, “between genuine authority and mere received wisdom? Conversely, how do we tell crankish imperviousness to evidence from legitimate skepticism?” Are we obligated to trust whatever we’re told is based on a scientific consensus unless we can study the science ourselves? When can you doubt a consensus? When should you doubt it?
Your best bet is to look at the process that produced, maintains, and communicates the ostensible consensus. I don’t know of any exhaustive list of signs of suspicion, but, using climate change as a test study, I propose this checklist as a rough-and-ready list of signs for when to consider doubting a scientific “consensus,” whatever the subject. One of these signs may be enough to give pause. If they start to pile up, then it’s wise to be suspicious.
(1) When different claims get bundled together.
Usually, in scientific disputes, there is more than one claim at issue. With global warming, there’s the claim that our planet, on average, is getting warmer. There’s also the claim that human emissions are the main cause of it, that it’s going to be catastrophic, and that we have to transform civilization to deal with it. These are all different assertions with different bases of evidence. Evidence for warming, for instance, isn’t evidence for the cause of that warming. All the polar bears could drown, the glaciers melt, the sea levels rise 20 feet, Newfoundland become a popular place to tan, and that wouldn’t tell us a thing about what caused the warming. This is a matter of logic, not scientific evidence. The effect is not the same as the cause.
There’s a lot more agreement about (1) a modest warming trend since about 1850 than there is about (2) the cause of that trend. There’s even less agreement about (3) the dangers of that trend, or of (4) what to do about it. But these four propositions are frequently bundled together, so that if you doubt one, you’re labeled a climate change “skeptic” or “denier.” That’s just plain intellectually dishonest. When well-established claims are fused with separate, more controversial claims, and the entire conglomeration is covered with the label “consensus,” you have reason for doubt.
(2) When ad hominem attacks against dissenters predominate.
Personal attacks are common in any dispute simply because we’re human. It’s easier to insult than to the follow the thread of an argument. And just because someone makes an ad hominem argument, it doesn’t mean that their conclusion is wrong. But when the personal attacks are the first out of the gate, and when they seem to be growing in intensity and frequency, don your skeptic’s cap and look more closely at the evidence.
When it comes to climate change, ad hominems are all but ubiquitous. They are even smuggled into the way the debate is described. The common label “denier” is one example. Without actually making the argument, this label is supposed to call to mind the assertion of the “great climate scientist” Ellen Goodman: “I would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let’s just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers.”
There’s an old legal proverb: If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have neither, attack the witness. When proponents of a scientific consensus lead with an attack on the witness, rather than on the arguments and evidence, be suspicious.
(3) When scientists are pressured to toe the party line.
The famous Lysenko affair in the former Soviet Union is often cited as an example of politics trumping good science. It’s a good example, but it’s often used to imply that such a thing could only happen in a totalitarian culture, that is, when all-powerful elites can control the flow of information. But this misses the almost equally powerful conspiracy of agreement, in which interlocking assumptions and interests combine to give the appearance of objectivity where none exists. For propaganda purposes, this voluntary conspiracy is even more powerful than a literal conspiracy by a dictatorial power, precisely because it looks like people have come to their position by a fair and independent evaluation of the evidence.
Tenure, job promotions, government grants, media accolades, social respectability, Wikipedia entries, and vanity can do what gulags do, only more subtly. Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the power of the majority in American society to erect “formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.” He could have been writing about climate science.
Climategate, and the dishonorable response to its revelations by some official scientific bodies, show that scientists are under pressure to toe the orthodox party line on climate change, and receive many benefits for doing so. That’s another reason for suspicion.
(4) When publishing and peer review in the discipline is cliquish.
Though it has its limits, the peer-review process is meant to provide checks and balances, to weed out bad and misleading work, and to bring some measure of objectivity to scientific research. At its best, it can do that. But when the same few people review and approve each other’s work, you invariably get conflicts of interest. This weakens the case for the supposed consensus, and becomes, instead, another reason to be suspicious. Nerds who follow the climate debate blogosphere have known for years about the cliquish nature of publishing and peer review in climate science (see here, for example).
(5) When dissenting opinions are excluded from the relevant peer-reviewed literature not because of weak evidence or bad arguments but as part of a strategy to marginalize dissent.
Besides mere cliquishness, the “peer review” process in climate science has, in some cases, been consciously, deliberately subverted to prevent dissenting views from being published. Again, denizens of the climate blogosphere have known about these problems for years, but Climategate revealed some of the gory details for the broader public. And again, this gives the lay public a reason to doubt the consensus.
(6) When the actual peer-reviewed literature is misrepresented.
Because of the rhetorical force of the idea of peer review, there’s the temptation to misrepresent it. We’ve been told for years that the peer-reviewed literature is virtually unanimous in its support for human-induced climate change. In Science, Naomi Oreskes even produced a “study” of the relevant literature supposedly showing “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” In fact, there are plenty of dissenting papers in the literature, and this despite mounting evidence that the peer-review deck was stacked against them. The Climategate scandal also underscored this: The climate scientists at the center of the controversy complained in their emails about dissenting papers that managed to survive the peer-review booby traps they helped maintain, and fantasized about torpedoing a respected climate science journal with the temerity to publish a dissenting article.
(7) When consensus is declared hurriedly or before it even exists.
A well-rooted scientific consensus, like a mature oak, usually needs time to emerge. Scientists around the world have to do research, publish articles, read about other research, repeat experiments (where possible), have open debates, make their data and methods available, evaluate arguments, look at the trends, and so forth, before they eventually come to agreement. When scientists rush to declare a consensus, particularly when they claim a consensus that has yet to form, this should give any reasonable person pause.
In 1992, former Vice President Al Gore reassured his listeners, “Only an insignificant fraction of scientists deny the global warming crisis. The time for debate is over. The science is settled.” In the real 1992, however, Gallup “reported that 53% of scientists actively involved in global climate research did not believe global warming had occurred; 30% weren’t sure; and only 17% believed global warming had begun. Even a Greenpeace poll showed 47% of climatologists didn’t think a runaway greenhouse effect was imminent; only 36% thought it possible and a mere 13% thought it probable.” Seventeen years later, in 2009, Gore apparently determined that he needed to revise his own revisionist history, asserting that the scientific debate over human-induced climate change had raged until as late as 1999, but now there was true consensus. Of course, 2009 is when Climategate broke, reminding us that what had smelled funny before might indeed be a little rotten.
(8) When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus.
It makes sense that chemists over time may come to unanimous conclusions about the results of some chemical reaction, since they can replicate the results over and over in their own labs. They can see the connection between the conditions and its effects. It’s easily testable. But many of the things under consideration in climate science are not like that. The evidence is scattered and hard to keep track of; it’s often indirect, imbedded in history and requiring all sorts of assumptions. You can’t rerun past climate to test it, as you can with chemistry experiments. And the headline-grabbing conclusions of climate scientists are based on complex computer models that climate scientists themselves concede do not accurately model the underlying reality, and receive their input, not from the data, but from the scientists interpreting the data. This isn’t the sort of scientific endeavor on which a wide, well-established consensus is easily rendered. In fact, if there really were a consensus on all the various claims surrounding climate science, that would be really suspicious. A fortiori, the claim of consensus is a bit suspicious as well.
(9) When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution.
In Newsweek’s April 28, 1975, issue, science editor Peter Gwynne claimed that “scientists are almost unanimous” that global cooling was underway. Now we are told, “Scientists say global warming will lead to the extinction of plant and animal species, the flooding of coastal areas from rising seas, more extreme weather, more drought and diseases spreading more widely.” “Scientists say” is hopelessly ambiguous. Your mind should immediately wonder: “Which ones?”
Other times this vague company of scientists becomes “SCIENCE,” as when we’re told “what science says is required to avoid catastrophic climate change.” “Science says” is an inherently weasely claim. “Science,” after all, is an abstract noun. It can’t say anything. Whenever you see that locution used to imply a consensus, it should trigger your baloney detector.
(10) When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies.
Imagine hundreds of world leaders and nongovernmental organizations, science groups, and United Nations functionaries gathered for a meeting heralded as the most important conference since World War II, in which “the future of the world is being decided.” These officials seem to agree that institutions of “global governance” need to be established to reorder the world economy and massively restrict energy resources. Large numbers of them applaud wildly when socialist dictators denounce capitalism. Strange philosophical and metaphysical activism surrounds the gathering. And we are told by our president that all of this is based, not on fiction, but on science—that is, a scientific consensus that human activities, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, are leading to catastrophic climate change.
We don’t have to imagine that scenario, of course. It happened in Copenhagen, in December. Now, none of this disproves the hypothesis of catastrophic, human induced climate change. But it does describe an atmosphere that would be highly conducive to misrepresentation. And at the very least, when policy consequences, which claim to be based on science, are so profound, the evidence ought to be rock solid. “Extraordinary claims,” the late Carl Sagan often said, “require extraordinary evidence.” When the megaphones of consensus insist that there’s no time, that we have to move, MOVE, MOVE!, you have a right to be suspicious.
(11) When the “consensus” is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as objectively as possible.
Do I really need to elaborate on this point?
(12) When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus.
A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion.
To adapt that old legal aphorism, when you’ve got decisive scientific evidence on your side, you argue the evidence. When you’ve got great arguments, you make the arguments. When you don’t have decisive evidence or great arguments, you claim consensus.
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