September 19, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

The Climate Is Not Clear for Change

Whenever you hear “all scientists agree,” watch out. Groupthink may be at work.

Climate change is off topic for Creation-Evolution Headlines except as it relates to issues in philosophy of science, such as consensus, that weigh heavily on origins science, too. What’s uncanny about the subject is its resemblance to the creation-evolution debate, where you have a large body of stalwart believers in Big Science but an uncooperative and vocal crowd outside the institutions who are certain the evidence is not supportive of the consensus. First, let’s look at the consensus.

The Confident Consensus

Live Science just posted “one simple cartoon” that they say “explains climate change.” That it’s an effective graphic is beyond question. The issue should be, is it accurate? Our Baloney Detector warns about visualization, statistics, and card stacking. As we shall see in the next section, there’s a lot about climate that scientists don’t know. But the consensus crowd is so certain that humans are ruining the planet with fossil fuels and machines, they want to punish anyone who doesn’t go along. Look:

Cox: There is ‘absolute consensus’ on climate change (BBC News): The leftist UK news service is happy that professor Brian Cox “verbally sparred with a newly elected Australian politician who believes climate change is a global conspiracy.”

Angry voters may turn back the clocks (Current Biology). Michael Gross is angry at the stupid conservatives who voted for Brexit. “Science, the environment, and efforts to mitigate climate change are among the likely casualties when the UK goes through with the exit from the European Union,” he says. “…. electoral success for populists in the US and in France could bring a U-turn for Western civilisation and make it renounce our current ideas of progress.” Isn’t it unusual for a biology journal to comment on climate and politics? That’s how Big Science sees Big Journals: they are mouthpieces for the left. He thinks he can speak freely about “our” ideas of progress (that is, those inside the Big Science institutions).

California extends most ambitious climate change law in US (PhysOrg): Leftists and liberal scientists are proud of Governor Jerry Brown for “signing a pair of bills in a Los Angeles park amid opposition from the oil industry, business groups and Republicans.” Note the lack of dialogue. Note the lack of working toward a compromise. To Brown’s supporters, the science is settled, and opponents must kneel.

The challenge of climate-change neoskepticism (Science Magazine): Another “elites vs outsiders” article seeks not to understand or convince, but to beat back the opponents. Four authors think the tactics of climate skeptics have shifted. It’s not a time for dialogue. Communication only goes one-way: from The Knowers to The Stupid. “This shift heightens the need for science to inform decision making under uncertainty and to improve communication and education.

Panel offers advice on how to combat climate-change “neoskepticism” (PhysOrg): Bob Yirka’s article borrows Science Magazine’s term and conveys the same one-way communication, but with more bellicose language. The insider panel seeks to “combat” the neoskeptics. Now that they have a name of derision, it should be easier to rouse the troops.

What exactly is the scientific method and why do so many people get it wrong? (The Conversation): Peter Ellerton ought to know better. He’s a prof of critical thinking at the University of Queensland, but he presents a very uncritical view of scientism in order to stick the label “pseudoscience” on climate skeptics (as he does, similarly, with evolution skeptics). Ellerton also card stacks his presentation so that he can call a particular straw man a “denier.” Maybe he needs to study the list of papers below – after reviewing whether science has any reliable demarcation criteria (see 5/25/10, 9/15/10 and 12/11/05). Some reminders are in order:

“‘Pseudoscience’ is an empty category, a term of abuse, and there is nothing that necessarily links those dubbed pseudoscientists besides their separate alienation from science at the hands of the establishment.” — Michael D. Gordin, Science Oct 10, 2012.

“There is no demarcation line between science and non-science, or between science and pseudoscience, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers. Nor is there one which should win acceptance from philosophers or anyone else.” — Larry Laudan, philosopher of science.

“Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.” — Michael Crichton, novelist, to Caltech scientists (see 12/27/03)

The Error Bars

How dare the “neoskeptics” doubt what the consensus knows to be true! Yet the skeptics are not without comeback arguments. For instance, what about volcanoes? attempts to debunk a common skeptic claim that one volcano puts out 10,000 times more CO2 than all human activity, but the actual natural emission values may not be clear-cut. Live Science published an article in 2013 by Robin Wylie (University College London), a doctoral candidate in volcanology, alleging that CO2 emissions from volcanoes are “staggering” and possibly much higher than thought.

Until the end of the 20th century, the academic consensus was that this volcanic output was tiny — a fiery speck against the colossal anthropogenic footprint. Recently, though, volcanologists have begun to reveal a hidden side to our leaking planet.

Exactly how much CO2 passes through the magmatic vents in our crust might be one of the most important questions that Earth science can answer. Volcanoes may have been overtaken in the carbon stakes, but in order to properly assess the consequences of human pollution, we need the reference point of the natural background. And we’re getting there; the last twenty years have seen huge steps in our understanding of how, and how much CO2 leaves the deep Earth. But at the same time, a disturbing pattern has been emerging.

He shows how estimates went from 100 million tons to 600 million: a “staggering trend” – a six-fold increase in just two decades. Estimates are based on assumptions, he explains, and there’s still a lot we don’t know. Even inactive craters can vent the invisible greenhouse gas. “As scientific progress is widening our perspective, the daunting outline of how little we really know about volcanoes is beginning to loom large.”

It’s important to note that these sources we’re listing still believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The issue is the certainty with which they are able to hold that view, philosophically and evidentially speaking. Their doubts can serve as a “hostile witness” against the consensus.

Plant responses to increasing CO2 reduce estimates of climate impacts on drought severity (PNAS): The earth has feedback mechanisms that can compensate for change. The significance of this paper is clear from the start:

We show that the water savings that plants experience under high CO2 conditions compensate for much of the effect of warmer temperatures, keeping the amount of water on land, on average, higher than we would predict with common drought metrics, and with a different spatial pattern. The implications of plants needing less water under high CO2 reaches beyond drought prediction to the assessment of climate change impacts on agriculture, water resources, wildfire risk, and vegetation dynamics.

Metrics used to assess the impact of rising temperatures have overlooked plant transpiration, they warn. Even if corrections are made, what other factors have been overlooked? That’s the lesson here – not whether the authors believe in AGW. They clearly do. But while inside the consensus, they warn of “significant global-scale biases” in model predictions accepted by the IPCC.

The differing sensitivity of drought metrics to radiative and physiological aspects of increasing CO2 partly explains the divergent estimates of future drought reported in recent studies. Further, use of ESM output in offline models may double-count plant feedbacks on relative humidity and other surface variables, leading to overestimates of future stress. The use of drought metrics that account for the response of plant transpiration to changing CO2, including direct use of P-E and soil moisture from ESMs, is needed to reduce uncertainties in future assessment.

Briefly Noted: More Sources of Doubt

Volcanoes tied to shifts in Earth’s climate over millions of years (PhysOrg): Humans were not even around, according to this article, when “volcanic activity associated with the plate-tectonic movement of continents may be responsible for climatic shifts from hot to cold over tens and hundreds of millions of years throughout much of Earth’s history.

Plants’ ability to adapt could change conventional wisdom on climate change (Science Daily): A study of a forest in Minnesota showed that “the trees acclimated to warmer temperatures and increased their carbon emissions less than expected.”

Cloud-seeding surprise could improve climate predictions (Nature): Trees put out more cloud-seeding material than expected, implying that pre-industrial skies might not have been as sunny as thought. If this could improve climate predictions, what does that imply about the accuracy of previous predictions?

Marine macroalgae removes large amounts of atmospheric carbon (PhysOrg): See seaweed? It’s a major carbon sink that has been overlooked. “Marine macroalgae [e.g., seaweeds] have largely been excluded from discussion of marine carbon sink,” this article says. “Our understanding of the global carbon cycle has been reshaped by KAUST researchers who have helped to reveal a major role for the abundance of seaweed growing around the world’s coasts… Their estimate is a highly significant 173 trillion grams of carbon sequestered in coastal seaweed, globally, per year.

How El Niño impacts global temperatures (Science Daily): Scientists at Australian National University found that “El Niño oscillations in Pacific Ocean may have amplified global climate fluctuations for hundreds of years at a time.” That makes it a little harder to predict what is happening right now or will happen in the next few decades.

Climate science: Unexpected fix for ocean models (Nature): The fact that this was an “unexpected fix” should raise eyebrows. What other unknown unknowns are out there in the climate science models?

A multistage crucible of revision and approval shapes IPCC policymaker summaries (Science Advances): A team explores the human element of IPCC consensus setting. They clearly approve of the consensus, but recognize that reaching consensus requires “a multistage crucible of revision and approval, as individuals together navigate complex science-policy terrain.” They think that failure to reach consensus would be a bad thing, even though they recognize doing so requires “inevitable trade-offs, tensions, and potential conflicts between increasing policy relevance and impact and maintaining scientific credibility in interactions among experts and decision-makers.”

Climate scientists are more credible when they practice what they preach (Science Daily): It goes without saying that hypocrisy is not going to change the minds of climate-change skeptics. Well, duh; “scientists should practice what they preach if they want their advice on reducing energy use to have greater credibility.

These are just a few of the potential error bars from recent articles and scientific papers. They may or may not collectively change the conclusions of the consensus. What they do indicate, though, is the potential for scientific institutions to exaggerate the evidence. There are too many unknowns. Models can be rigged when political or economic pressure is strong. Science cannot eliminate the human element. All humans need to watch out for groupthink.

The contrast is striking: consensus confidence vs evidential error. We see the same thing in the Darwin debates. Both tend to fall along party lines, too: conservatives more skeptical of climate change and Darwin, liberals the opposite. Wesley J. Smith bravely doubts consensus-mongers at Evolution News & Views in his article about “The dire threat of neo-skepticism.”

We hope this brief diversion onto another topic than origins sheds some light on the nature of “political” science, whatever the subject.

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