Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dissing the IPCC and other Scientific Organizations - How Climate Deniers Work


One of the recurring tactics used by climate deniers, especially the amateur ones, is to dismiss with prejudice any scientific organization that reports the state-of-the-science with respect to man-made climate change. The most egregiously - and falsely - attacked organization is the IPCC. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which, thankfully, we all know as the IPCC), is written off as a political organization because, well, because it says "intergovernmental" right there in the title, doesn't it? So obviously it just makes stuff up to push an agenda, right? 

Wrong.

Since there is so much misinformation out there about what exactly the IPCC does it seems appropriate to give a little background. The IPCC was "established [in 1988] by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences." By definition it is both a scientific body and an intergovermental body. As a scientific body it "reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. " It is an intergovernmental body in that it is "open to all member countries of UN and WMO," and representatives from up to around 130 countries participate in the plenary sessions where decisions about adoption of the technical reports are done. Note that the governmental representatives only show up to adopt the technical reports; the technical reports themselves are written by scientists expert in the fields pertinent to the particular part of the report being written.

The IPCC didn't come into existence on a whim or from some political motive. It was established because there was already a vast amount of empirical evidence suggesting that human activity was causing a dramatic warming of the planet. At the time, this information was spread out in thousands of independent papers and reports all over the world, as well as observations such as retreating glaciers, increasing temperature readings, ice cap extent and volume measurements, and new data from satellites. It was becoming obvious that something was happening to our climatic system, but with the information scattered all over the place it was hard to tell what was causing it. In short, the IPCC was formed to bring all the data from all these sources together, and summarize it into something that could be understood by policymakers charged with making decisions.

While climate denialists like to make believe the IPCC is some sort of political behemoth created to push some agenda, this characterization couldn't be further from the truth. The IPCC staff are actually very few in number (about 10 people). The work of summarizing the state-of-the-science is done by thousands of scientists who volunteer their time to compile, review, and assess the tens of thousands of peer reviewed and related publications and studies. These scientists generally are academics at universities or at scientific agencies such as NASA and NOAA in the US, and their counterparts in countries all over the world. It takes several years to summarize the data for each report.

So contrary to the grand conspiracists that dominate climate denialism, the IPCC doesn't conduct any new research itself nor dictate what is to be written, it is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the compiling and evaluating being done by scientists across the globe. These scientists work in diverse teams to synthesize the vast amounts of available information and produce technical reports for each of the three working groups. Only after the technical reports are completed does the IPCC convene representatives from each group and each country to agree on a fourth volume called the Synthesis Report, which as the name implies, summarizes the three technical reports in a way that government officials and the public can understand. 

Since its inception in 1988 the IPCC has published five sets of Assessment documents, in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013/2014. Each succeeding report incorporates all the new research since the last report (plus a reevaluation of the previous studies), and the more we know and understand the more certain we become about the fact that the planet is warming and the likelihood that we are causing it. The most recent, Assessment Report 5 (AR5), concluded that "the warming of the climate system is unequivocal," [p.4] and that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." [p.17] Using the IPCC's terminology, "extremely likely" means between 95% and 100% certainty, and "unequivocal" means clear and unambiguous (i.e., absolutely certain). In other words, climate change is happening and it's because of human activity.

Next up is the process of developing the Synthesis Report, and IPCC rules require 100% consensus among the representatives at the plenary session. This is done long after the three technical reports are completed by the scientists and the synthesis report must obviously conform to the science presented. Since some participating governments rely so heavily on income from the fossil fuels that are the primary contributor to global warming, these members tend to work hard to water down the conclusions in the synthesis report as much possible. Thus, the "100% consensus" process tends to result in estimates that are less dire (NOT more dire) than the science actually supports. So the problem is very likely much worse than the IPCC Synthesis Report suggests. 

As anyone at this point should be able to see, the IPCC itself is merely an administrative vehicle to coordinate the work of thousands of scientist contributors, expert reviewers, and myriad commenters as they pull together all of the scientific studies and synthesize the conclusions derived from those studies. Since these scientists come from a wide range of countries, backgrounds, and views (including contrarian and climate denier views), suggestions that there is a grand conspiracy to further some single agenda is, to put it nicely, bonkers. 

The professional denialist lobby and their spokespeople, of course, know that the science is unequivocal. But they are paid to further the interests of their benefactors and intentionally choose to ignore the science they find inconvenient, and routinely seed the blogosphere with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods so that amateur denialists have fodder to plagiarize. The professional lobby knows that the ideologically motivated amateurs won't really understand what they repeat, nor be particularly skeptical of the sources despite delusionally referring to themselves as skeptics. It's more than a little cynical on their part, for sure, but that's what they are paid to do and they do it well. So they dishonestly demean the IPCC and chuckle at the ideologues who further their goals. 

The amateurs? We'll discuss more about their traits and tactics as we continue the series. One ubiquitous trait of amateur denialists is contradiction (often in the same sentence). More on that soon.

 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to Separate the Science of Climate Change from the Non-Science of Climate Deniers



Whether we think about it or not, we live in a scientific world. But with so much information out there it's sometimes difficult to separate the actual science from the pseudoscience, or worse, the crock. Especially when there are people out there who intentionally mislead the public on such important science issues as man-made climate change. 

The science is clear - human activity is causing our climate system to warm. The support for this is voluminous and unequivocal. But, you say, "I saw on a blog that said it was all a hoax. How do I know who to believe?"

A reasonable question, and one easy to address. Take, for example, the following video by Michael Shermer, an actual skeptic. In something he calls the "Baloney Detection Kit" he lays out ten questions everyone should ask themselves as they evaluate various claims. This interesting and informative video can help us understand the world of climate denialists, so watch it and then check out the text below.


As the video shows, there are 10 questions to ask ourselves when someone offers a new theory or opinion. Let's apply these to man-made climate change, also commonly called global warming.
 
1) How reliable is the source of the data?

The scientific consensus: Sources are tens of thousands of studies published in the peer-reviewed literature and conducted by thousands of researchers over more than three decades of investigation by scientists at every kind of scientific organization (government, independent, skeptic, NGO, University, industry, etc.) all over the world. 

The denialists: Sources are mostly non-science bloggers, Op-Eds in business newspapers, and a handful of skeptic scientists associated with free market and fossil fuel lobbying groups.

2) Does the source make similar claims?

The scientific consensus: Science is always open to new ideas.  That is how science works.  All new ideas undergo the same tests of evidence and scrutiny.

The denialists: The phrase used in the video, "heretic for the sake of heresy," comes to mind. Most denialists will argue for the sake of arguing, even if contradicting themselves.

3) Have the claims been verified?

The scientific consensus: All claims must meet the test of scrutiny - peer review, replication, many other experiments looking at the issue from many different angles. Claims of man-made climate change have been verified through multiple lines of evidence. 

The denialists: Any single "data" point is touted as the truth that upsets the established understanding, even long after the "data" has been shown to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or an outright fabrication.

4) Does this fit with the way the world works?

The scientific consensus: The idea that CO2 could have the effect that was discovered is entirely logical and consistent with how the world works. It has been demonstrated through experiment and empirical evidence.

The denialists: Some of the claims are so bizarre and so divorced from the way the world works that the logic is hard to follow, e.g., the claims that the well known greenhouse effect is somehow false despite nearly 200 years of evidence.

5) Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

The scientific consensus: Scientists constantly are looking at alternative explanations. The author and/or every other scientist in the field will try to test whether other explanations would also explain the phenomena being observed.

The denialists: This is best summed up by a direct quote by one denialist: "I and all of skeptic science has [sic] cherry picked the facts that disproves that man made C02 is the cause of global warming. We don't need any others."

6) Where does the preponderance of the evidence point?

The scientific consensus: Tens of thousands of studies published in the peer-reviewed literature and conducted by thousands of researchers over many decades of investigation by scientists at every kind of scientific organization (government, independent, skeptic, NGO, University, industry, etc.) all over the world have led to the overwhelming conclusion that has become the scientific consensus on climate change.

The denialists: Bloggers and skeptic scientists associated with free market lobbying groups who suggest one study is enough to invalidate the preponderance of the evidence.

7) Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?

The scientific consensus: Science is all about using the scientific method, assessing corraborative evidence, testing, using logic, etc.

The denialists: Tendency to ignore any data that do not support their predefined view, including all the information presented that demonstrates their "data" are false.

8) Is the claimant providing positive evidence?

The scientific consensus: Climate scientists have provided many decades of positive evidence in tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies, corroborated by observations of ice melting, glaciers receding, temperature changes, etc. The most recent IPCC assessment reports summarize this positive evidence in detail.

The denialists: Most of the "evidence" provided is unsupported by the data, usually unverifiable, and contradictory. Often what is presented as evidence is not actually evidence but rather a political or economic viewpoint, e.g., global warming is a hoax because cap-and-trade will cost companies money

9) Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?

The scientific consensus: As noted, climate scientists have compiled many decades of evidence that account for the changes we have been observing.

The denialists: Mostly focus on anomalies and seem to think that these few uncertainties explain everything, when in fact they simply ignore anything that seems not to fit their predetermined ideas.

10) Are personal beliefs driving the claims?

The scientific consensus: As the video notes, scientists are people too. Which is why we have peer-review and the scrutiny of other scientists who may view the issue from a different perspective.  The data tell us which conclusions are supported.

The denialists: Mostly begin with a distaste for one of the policy remedies and then decide to "fight the science" as a lobbying tool to avoid regulation. They then cherry pick to find any information that they think supports their crusade to avoid regulation (by denying the science). This helps explain why the most cited "skeptic" scientists are all associated with free market lobbying groups, and why we routinely hear denialists say things like "climate change is wrong because cap-and-trade is just a tax on business."

Feel free to go back and view Shermer's "Baloney Detection Kit" again. These ten questions should be asked by every citizen evaluating for themselves the claims made by scientists and denialists. In fact, that last line is a good indicator of the veracity of the claims - virtually all climate scientists (along with the realities of physics) concur that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly support the conclusion that human activity is warming the planet. Those who claim man-made climate change is a hoax? Mostly they are non-scientists and free market/fossil fuel-supported spokespeople.

That says a lot.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Climate Denialists Argue Even When It’s Clear They Are Wrong



Duty calls
From xkcd.com
It seems every scientist has been through it a million times. We see some climate science denier saying something that is so incredibly divorced from fact that we can’t believe they would so blatantly show off their ignorance. So we explain, we correct, we demonstrate their lack of understanding, and yet they continue.
Why? Do they not notice their ignorance, their lack of logic, their devolution into pedantic proselytizing? Are they so wrapped up in their belief systems that the very act of admitting actual facts would damage their self-worth? Or are they just trolls, thriving on their self-delusional belief that they are smarter than a fifth grader, not to mention every climate scientist in the world?

The answer, of course, is yes, all of the above, though not necessarily all at the same time in the same person. Since denialist positions are so often based on what they want to be true rather than what the facts demonstrate to be true, they cannot give in. To do so would result in such psychological discordance as to completely destroy their self-value.

However, the psyches of amateur denialists can be left for another essay; this one is about professional denialists. Why do the paid lobbyists and their designees continue to write Op-Eds and other opinion pieces in non-science, non-peer reviewed venues even when they know they will be immediately debunked?

The answer is actually self-evident in the question. Denialists know that they have no valid scientific argument; if they did they would present it in scientific journals, conferences, and debates. Their goal isn’t to demonstrate science, it is to manipulate public opinion. That is what lobbyists do, and they do it well. Their goal is to create the illusion of debate, the fa├žade of uncertainty. By continuing the “discussion,” such as it is, in the media, they win. They know that a majority of the public won't understand the intricacies of the science, either by choice or by its complexity. Denialists know that the public will get an overall sense of whether the science is settled or not, and that it is on this vague feeling the public will make judgments as to whether immediate action is needed. Perception is more important than fact, and illusion of reality is much more powerful than actual reality.

The goal of the game

As Sherlock Holmes might say, “the game is afoot.” To professional climate deniers, the game is keeping the public confused and giving cover to politicians wishing to avoid taking positions (see "I am not a scientist").

A good example of this is the recent back-and-forth over an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal by computational physicist, Steven Koonin. The Op-Ed follows the usual pattern of being written by someone who is not a climate scientist, repeating misperceptions and misinformation already demonstrated to be false, and drawing conclusions not supported by the premises presented, faulty as they usually are. It’s the same spiel offered dozens of times before by Heartland Institute lawyer/lobbyist James Taylor and other designated denialists of the month. In each case the opinion piece presents a straw man to attack while ignoring all of the actual science and previous rebuttals of the same faulty premises repeated ad nauseam. The denial lobby knows their arguments don’t hold water, so why do they keep offering them?

Because they get rebutted. Immediately, repeatedly, and demonstrably. Every single time.

To scientists this might seem crazy. We think that constantly being shown to be wrong would be a persuasive reason not to say the same false thing over and over. We expect people to learn from their mistakes, not simply repeat them as if doing so would somehow make falsehoods true. That’s because scientists are used to arguing the science; professional denialist lobbyists, on the other hand, are arguing the public opinion. What is critical in this game is not what the science tells us, it’s the fact that to the public it appears as if there are two sides arguing with each other. Two sides + arguing = not settled. 

Lobbyists, aka, professional climate deniers, know this. The act of continued “discussion” is conflated with disagreement. It doesn’t matter that one “side” says something that has been repeatedly proven false while the other “side” presents actual facts; all that matters to the public is the appearance of disagreement. Some of the public will interpret this as meaning the science isn’t settled, others will use it as convenient reinforcement for an ideologically motivated position. In both cases, reality isn’t the driver – the manufactured doubt is the driver. 

That is the game being played by the denialist industry, one that they will always win. Scientific-reality-be-damned.

So should scientists take the time to rebut opinion pieces in politically motivated media outlets? Alas, the answer isn't a simple yes or no. We'll explore options in future posts, but scientists should consider whether their reply dowses a few few smoldering embers noticed only by foxholed fanatics, or fuels a wider conflagration that, in the end, further confuses the public. The latter, of course, is exactly what the professional denialists want.


[Graphic from http://xkcd.com/386/]