A response to Jonathan Baker

Jonathan Baker pens a post just for me! While I will quibble with the details later, at the heart of his post is a very good question:

How is a layman to judge rival claims of supposed experts?

Baker’s post is on climate change caused by human activity, but it could be extended to any number of subjects. Economics springs to mind. The field of medicine as well, and the recent “controversy” over vaccinations in particular.

I think of myself as the archetypal layman. Jack of all trades, master of none, etc. I have no training in the scientific method, but I do have some modest professional training is assessing sources. Here are my personal rules of thumb:

Who actually has the credentials?

I have found time and time again that the credentials of “contrarians” fail to live up to their billing. For example, those lists of climate change skeptics that are bandied about very rarely contain actual practicing climatologists. Instead, they contain experts in other fields or pseudo experts. A physicist may be a very learned person, but I would not seek their medical opinion. 97% of active climatologists accept human activity is altering the climate.

Who is producing original research?

Quite often in these controversies it’s only one “side” that is producing original. peer-reviewed research while the other “side” concentrates on nitpicking said research with the sole aim of sowing doubt. Now there’s nothing wrong with critical examination of research – that’s what peer-review is after all. But if you’re not producing original research of your own, and submitting it to peer-review, then you’re not a real participant in the scientific process.

Who really has the financial stake?

Baker writes there are “billions to be made in the climate change industries.” I would concede this is true. But what is also true is there trillions to be made in maintaining the status quo. Retooling costs money. New technology is risky. There will be winners and losers and today’s entrenched interests want to maintain their market dominance. Time and time again we see the “contrarian” opinion is funded by those entrenched interests.

Now on to some of the particulars.

On Velikovsky, the Club of Rome’s “Climate Cooling”.

Jonathan states these were popular and accepted scientific theories that are now known to be bunk to demonstrate how science can be wrong. But I have not found this to be case. Both of these were very popular theories with laymen but were not accepted and were harshly criticized by the scientific community. In fact “The Velikovsky Affair” is shorthand for hostility by experts in a field to the intrusion by someone outside it (Velikovsky was a psychiatrist by training).

So too the claim of “global cooling” from the 1970s. This was something bandied about in the popular press. But not, under examination, in the scientific literature.

On Richard Lindzen

Unlike many others, Richard Lindzen does have the credentials and has produced original research. Notably Lindzen does accept the climate is changing, and he does accept this is caused by human activity. Where he differs from the consensus is his view that there are natural mechanisms within the system that will counteract this – his “Iris of the Eye” theory that clouds will naturally dissipate to allow more heat to escape. The majority have not found this theory persuasive:

Today, most mainstream researchers consider Dr. Lindzen’s theory discredited. He does not agree, but he has had difficulty establishing his case in the scientific literature. Dr. Lindzen published a paper in 2009 offering more support for his case that the earth’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is low, but once again scientists identified errors, including a failure to account for known inaccuracies in satellite measurements.

Dr. Lindzen acknowledged that the 2009 paper contained “some stupid mistakes” in his handling of the satellite data. “It was just embarrassing,” he said in an interview. “The technical details of satellite measurements are really sort of grotesque.”

Last year, he tried offering more evidence for his case, but after reviewers for a prestigious American journal criticized the paper, Dr. Lindzen published it in a little-known Korean journal.

So in summary, I find it persuasive that human activity is altering the climate and I find the efforts of those to discredit it similar in motivation and methods to the effort to sow doubt on the adverse health effects of cigarette smoking.

If we accept what I take to be the prevailing view of the science, the real issue is simply this: the population on earth is not sustainable.

This is a scary thought and I think it’s one of the primal fears the skeptics are trying to play too. No one wants to think we bequeathing our children a grim future. But those are the stakes. We have a minority on this planet who are living very well and very inefficiently. In the name of global political stability the rest have been promised a better life. Add it all up and it means we have to live more efficiently and with less impact.

Dramatically so.

Mendeleev was a chemist. He may have been mocked by the head of the Russian Science Academy…but his theory won the day.

UPDATE: Via The Sixth Estate, here is average annual mean temperature for Vancouver 1900-2012 based on Environment Canada’s Canadian Climate Survey data:

Vancouver average annual mean temperature, 1900-2012


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