Monday, 6 February 2012

An awful lot of hot air. Not much light.

Gas Flaring
Half listening to Start The Week earlier today I heard someone ranting on about how silly people are to 'believe in' Global Warming. I assumed it must be Nigel Lawson but when I checked the website it turned out it was Peter Hitchens. I then went and had a look at what Hitchens has been saying on the blog he writes for the Mail on Sunday and found that - Lord above,  I agree with him. He's raging against the 'cult' of Global Warming and he's irate at being shouted down by 'fanatics' and being called a 'climate change denier' as he should be (irate that is). He lambasts the purveyors of sensationalist stories of polar bears on melting ice flows. He makes a big deal of his 'doubts' about climate change and being a sceptic, faced with so called scientific 'truths'. All of which is fair enough. Fanatical adherence to any belief system, especially if it means shouting down and insulting people who disagree with you is never an acceptable way to conduct a debate. Journalists shouldn't use misleading or distorted material just to sell papers. And he's right - any scientist who claims to have no doubts about 'The Truth', not just on this subject but on any area of research is an idiot. Of course there is doubt. There is always uncertainty. There is always disagreement. There is always more evidence and new ways to analyse it. That's why science, properly carried out, is not a cult, or even I would argue, a belief system.
I expect you can tell where this is going. To me, his disbelief in Global Warming seems to constitute something of a fanaticism in its own right, and if anyone is shouting anyone down here it's Hitchens, albeit in print. It's hard to imagine him treating any kind of uncertainty on anyone else's part as anything other than a contemptible capitulation. And as for complaining that journalists use misleading and overly-emotive pictures and stories to further a cause - he works for The Mail for Christ's sake!
Let's lay my cards on the table - I think he's wrong. There are a few 'facts' he quotes that I think are just plain wrong. For example, if I understand it correctly, the world was not warmer during medieval times than it is now. Europe was warmer, but not the whole world, and it's the global average that matters of course, not the regional variations, which is why our current spell of cold winters don't necessarily mean anything. Still - I claim no particular authority on the subject. I raise this canard simply to get the climate change believers and unbelievers going:
"But what about this study?"
"That study was flawed..."
"But Smith & Jones 1996 said..."
"Their sample size wasn't big enough."
"That was allowed for in a later model"
"which failed to incorporate the Kwrptzki effect"
"the Kwrptzki effect was minimal in the 1990s"
and so on and so forth.
But the fact is - I'm not sure I do understand it correctly. I'm not an expert and I am not in a position to assess the evidence, and without some years of single-minded study I am not ever likely to be. But neither is Hitchens. Neither are most of us. Most of us perhaps have at best a science A level or perhaps a BSc but that doesn't count for much. It's not the sort of thing you can work out from personal experience or 'common sense' or by applying your A level physics . It's a lot more complicated than that. So how are we supposed to form an opinion? Ultimately we have to take someone's word for it - someone who does know what they're talking about, assuming of course that it's possible to identify such people. With that in mind I'd like to take the unlikely step of putting in a word for Climate Scientists.

The thing that probably got me most about Hitchens this morning was his derision of us silly climate change 'believers'. How stupid are we to think that perhaps all these climate scientists might be onto something. Ok, there's not total agreement among them - it's science, as I said above. There's always doubt - as there should be. There are uncertainties, mistakes and even downright lies, but another thing that Hitchens is wrong about is that there is any serious disagreement among the majority of climate scientists about whether the earth will warm as a result of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions (and other pollutants). There are disagreements about all sorts of parts of this idea (not to mention the ramifications) but the basic idea seems pretty much accepted. Truth though is not a matter of democracy. The truth is true even if no one knows it. Its perfectly possible that the majority of scientists is wrong. It is, I suppose, just about conceivable that a few renegade climatologists are being silenced by the scientific establishment. Indeed a conspiracy theorist friend of mine pretty much takes it as read that a scientist being ignored by the majority makes him all the more worth listening to. The idea that he might be being ignored because he's incompetent or nuts is inadmissible (Another unfalsifiable for my list.) The fact is, I hope they are wrong, because the way things are going we're unlikely to get it together to limit carbon emissions in any meaningful way so let's hope they're wrong. But I doubt it.

One thing I can speak about with some authority here is scientists. I may not be a climate scientist but I know scientists. I was one for a bit as a Phd student. I lived in the belly of the beast (and did not fare well) and one thing I do know is that it is not possible for all these hundreds of scientists around the world to be corralled into claiming that something is true when they know it's not. It's even less possible for someone to have fooled them all into believing that something is true when it's not. Science doesn't work that way, or at least, non commercial science doesn't. Labs in private industry are a different matter. Who knows what goes on there? And of course, in order to get funding university labs and other independent research institutions are not immune to corruption, but they all have to publish. That's the important thing here - publication.

This is the thing I think a lot of non-scientists don't get. In most industries, publishing an article in a professional journal is something you do alongside your job, if you have time and have something interesting to say, or want the publicity, or whatever. In science, publishing is your job. Every piece of research you undertake as a scientist is about getting an article published in a learned journal. This is not about getting media attention or raising your profile or getting funding (although it's that too) - it's about getting your work out there into the hands of other scientists. Commercial research (into the latest cancer drug, or motor technology or shampoo) has maybe lead us to imagine that it's all about secrecy - intellectual property rights and commercial espionage, but real science is the opposite. Scientists might not want to publish until they are sure they know what they're talking about but then everything has to be published, or everything relevant. Everything that was done as a part of the study has to be laid out in full. Any other information that the study depends upon has to be cited from other equally learned articles in other journals. Anything that is not fully accounted for is not allowable in a scientific article. In other words, you can't just say what you like, or what you'd like to believe. Every claim you make has to be either demonstrated in your study or you have to be able to say where you got it from.
How is this enforced? Lay-people speak laughingly of 'peer review'. It sounds like the old boy network nodding stuff through on a wink and a brown envelope, but it's not. Peer review in any case is just the preliminary checking - to make sure you haven't said anything you can't back up, or made some other stupid mistake. Then there's proof reading and further checking by the publisher of course. Obviously this is a fallible process but those involved take it extremely seriously because of the next part of the process, where the article goes out and is read by every other scientist in the world who has any interest whatsoever in the subject, and they are not your friends. In fact they're up against you. If they can discredit or call into question anything you've said you can be sure they will, and if it's bad enough your career is more or less crippled, and likewise that of the publishers and peer-reviewers, your supervisors and co-workers, and last but not least, your funding.
I'm not saying it's perfect but as systems go it's about as hard to fiddle as is humanly possible. (You can perhaps see now why I'm so sceptical about commercial research*) The idea that all those hundreds of climate scientists, not mention the thousands of associated mathematicians, statisticians, physicists, computer technicians, oceanographers, ecologists, palaeontologists, and all the rest are somehow either being kept quiet or in the dark is just... I have no words. It would take a conspiracy so vast, so powerful...

All I'm saying then, Peter Hitchens (and Nigel Lawson), in an entirely sceptical, non-fanatical way, is that, yes, you might be right. I sincerely hope you are, for all our sakes. I'm not a climate scientist and they might have got something wrong and everything will turn out ok, but it seems unlikely. In the mean time, just in case, wouldn't it make sense to try and be a bit careful? Modify our behaviour? Rein ourselves in a bit? Oh I see - that's the bit you don't like. You just don't like being told what to do, do you. Well none of us do, but sometimes you just have to stop shouting and put up with it.

*But wait - all these climate scientists are in effect doing commercial research for the vastly powerful multi billion dollar renewable energy corporations aren't they? Not like those poor impoverished researchers into fossil fuels, always struggling for funding, always having to bang on about sustainability and sacrifice, being ignored by the US government...
Oh no, hang on...

11 comments:

paulgrand said...

Cant argue with that! :-)

Steve Law said...

Wouldn't it be weird if Hitchens commented? Have you read his blog? Makes me seem very polite.
I was hoping 'my conspiracy theorist friend' would say something but nothing...

paulgrand said...

Actually, if I lived in the UK right now, I think I would have to vote for the Green Party, it would be a protest vote against the three main party's.
Perhaps the Greens could even prop up the next government?

Bryan M. White said...

Well, I know next to nothing about anything, and even less about global warning, but I can see you've written a compelling and reasonable post here. If you say that a conspiracy is far-fetched given the workings of the scientific community, then I'm inclined to believe you.

I suppose you could say the same about fundamentalists who think evolution is a big "Satanic" conspiracy. I remember when I was a kid, growing up in a religious school, they liked to point to Piltdown Man as proof somehow that the whole thing was hogwash. If anything, Piltdown Man demonstrated the same kinds of checks and balances that you describe here, the idea that the entire scientific community WOULDN'T play along with a hoax just to push an agenda.

Steve Law said...

Hey Bryan - I think exactly the same arguments apply to the evolution debate, except it's arguably less world-in-peril stuff. I was hoping my conspiracy theorist friend would pipe up. He has the same problem with evolution, and he does seem to believe that a vast, powerful conspiracy is plausible. He hasn't really responded except for a brief email so I'm not sure of the details - some sort of CIA mind control or alien tech I suspect (no, seriously) Well it can't be falsified.
And yes - the Piltdown Man example of the checks and balances is probably a good one. I can't remember exactly how the fraud was uncovered...
I think people are rightly suspicious of having to trust 'authority' though. I just don't see any way round it here.

Some sort of Labour/Green coalition you think Paul? I've been voting Green for a while now. I can't see the conservatives getting in again next time (can I? Oh God maybe. I don't know. It's all too possible isn't it.) They couldn't even get a proper majority against Gordon Brown and things haven't improved for them. The lib-dems'll be in the wilderness for a while after this debacle. I used to like them - they were the unofficial opposition in residence. They could say what needed saying (green stuff, redistribution of wealth stuff, electoral reform stuff) because they assumed they'd never be in charge, unlike Labour which for some reason felt it had to struggle with the conservatives over the bland focus-group middle ground to be electable. When all else fails, do the right thing - that's what I say.
Ken Livingston for president!

paulgrand said...

Well, if we're talking London Green issues, Boris is the one that brought in the Barclay bikes! I love them, went around Hyde park and Kensington gardens on one.
I dont think Labour could be voted in now, not with that charisma-free buffoon they have in charge.
There's an article in the Telegraph today that debunks
the turbines as;"least efficient" form of green power"
It's what i've always thought too! *~*

Steve Law said...

Frankly I'm a bit immune to 'charisma'. Style over content and all that.
The wind turbines are manifestations of a technology in it's infancy but instead of improving on them we're going 'oh well, that didn't work. Back to plans A and B (fossil fuels and nuclear)' It's not very intelligent and way too nimby.

paulgrand said...

Lol, Steve, you've just joined the Green finger pointing Fascists and nullified your argument!
Putting your values on others, dismissing any argument by calling people 'nimbies' isnt very intelligent either,
peoples live are genuinely blighted by the noise/vibrations from these monsters.

I've no objection to super turbines far out at sea, where its been shown the moorings actually create mini reefs for fish to gather well away from the factory trawlers.

The scam is that the energy companies don't want deep geothermal boreholes, they just aren't sexy, they cant show how 'green' the are, thats why they love their huge phallic turbines, all paid for by the poor consumer, its a huge shame..

As for your having a blind spot for Charisma, it doesn't make that party any more electable! :-D

Steve Law said...

Not really
A. you've assumed that because I don't completely and utterly agree with you i must be 100% pro the existing wind turbine technology. I'm not. It's not all black and white Paul.
B. I think about 80% of the resistance is from people having their views spoiled.
What I actually said was that there being problems with existing technology is being used as an excuse to shelve further renewables research - which agrees precisely with what you said about bore-holes for example.
But this agrees with my original posting because none of it refers to any actual science. I've seen equally convincing but partisan figures on both sides but it's surprisingly hard to find any proper disinterested data. (The Telegraph and NT are not exactly the first places I'd go to for information.) If I have time I'll try to dig some up but until then all I know for sure is that most of the complaints I hear seem to come from people who care about the scenery but not the environment.

paulgrand said...

Exactly, there is no real hard info out there, what you see is propaganda by vested interests.

Did I say it was all black and white? Didn't I say turbines out to sea actually help fish stocks?

Nothing wrong with protecting views either, being a visual person, and in any case, we already had this discussion when I saw you.

Way back in the early 90's I did a horticulture and conservation course in the docklands in London. I was dismayed to find they had spent quarter of a million pounds on a turbine, it never actually worked, it was a huge folly, it was like working for Teletubbies, even their parks landscape resembled a Teletubbies set! They were happy with it though, as they could worship their phallic symbol of their wind god! I suppose this is how I still feel about the current state of affairs.

Steve Law said...

I think this is the take-home message of this whole posting - about who to believe and proper evidence.
But people's subjective motives are worth knowing too - whether it's the eco-fascists, the politicians and money men or the nimbys. Faced with them you just know that the evidence isn't going to make much impression.
And of course landscape is important. We've been through this.
I just get tired of the to-ing and fro-ing of the semi-informed (me included). I desperately want to have an informed opinion but am just so aware of the fact that I don't really know enough and that it would be a full-time job to really do the research (on this and all the other things).
This posting was actually about that kind of helplessness and actually i have a wider point to make about consumer choice which i will save for a later post.