Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dissecting a False Climate Denialist Claim (aka, Why Credibility Matters, aka How Science Works)

The following quote was from a climate denialist on another site:

Alarmists actually believe if you can dig up dirt on someone--that falsifies all his science. An example would be what they did to S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist with credentials out the wazoo! They associated him with oil and tobacco interests, so now all his science is allegedly out the window!

This quote intentionally lies. Why? Because no one says that if you can dig up dirt on someone it falsifies his science. The poster than goes on to lie more by creating a completely fabricated series of stories to "prove" his false - and irrelevant - point.

Let's dissect the statement into its pieces:

"Alarmists actually believe if you can dig up dirt on someone--that falsifies all his science."

False. The poster steers the reader into ridiculous territory, suggesting as one of a series of similar examples that somehow Einstein's science would be ignored because he cheated on his wife. The fact is that none of the discussions of credibility have anything to do with the personal lives of the people being offered as "experts in climate science" by the denialists. Steering the conversation toward a false straw man is one of the denialists most common ploys. It allows them to pose some ridiculous and untrue premise that they then shoot down. The idea is to distract from the lack of credibility and veracity of their positions.

Needless to say, most people would not even have known if Einstein was cheating on his wife when he proposed the theory of relativity. Certainly no scientist would care at all what Einstein's marital arrangements were. And no one today cares whether S. Fred Singer cheated on his wife. Or even if he has a wife.

The important point is that the significance of Einstein's proposal wasn't established until Einstein had done much more research and that research had been confirmed by others. Which took many many years of research, mathematical proofs, and tweaking to his theory. His credibility wasn't determined because one day he said "eureka." It was determined only after the tests of scrutiny and time were met. That is a critical point that I will come back to shortly.

"An example would be what they did to S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist with credentials out the wazoo!

The part about "what they did to S. Fred Singer" is false. The assertions of S. Fred Singer's credentials are mostly false, though one could stretch the case enough to give him some credit for studies in the field. The claim by another denialist that Singer is "one of the most authored expert climate scientist around!" is patently false. Singer, who will be 86 in September, has a degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in physics. He helped design the first instruments to be used in satellites for measuring ozone and other atmospheric parameters. His focus was more on space and the hardware of satellites and instruments, not on climate science itself, though certainly the instruments were used by others to assess climatological and meteorological parameters (which are not the same thing, nor is building instruments the same as studying climate). So while Singer has credentials, mostly they aren't actually in climate science, though he can assume some credit in those areas, primarily later in life and more as a consultant than as a scientist.

It's also interesting to note that Singer lists himself as Professor Emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia, which may be true (I wasn't able to confirm the Emeritus status, though he certainly was a professor) and if so he has every right to make the claim. But Singer hasn't been an actual professor at the University of Virginia since 1994. Since then (and actually, well before then) he has been a consultant to the tobacco and oil industries and has served as "founder" for several "science sounding" organizations fronting for free market lobbying groups. So why doesn't he introduce himself as President of SEPP or one of the other organizations? Well, because SEPP is well known as being a front group and not a real science organization. Relying on the "Professor Emeritus" label rather than his current affiliations is just one of the common tricks used by denialists to presume greater credibility than they deserve. [One denialist, Dr. David Evans, claims prominently at the top of his resume to be "Rocket Scientist," though he is an electrical engineer that hasn't done any research in rocket science, or for that matter, climate science.]

"They associated him with oil and tobacco interests,..."

False. Singer associated himself with oil and tobacco interests. He wrote opinion pieces on their behalf that claimed smoking didn't cause cancer, all while the tobacco companies own scientists were telling them that smoking did cause cancer. He also worked for the oil industry in a similar controversial capacity, including the infamous API strategy report that documented how they would go about hiding the truth about global warming. Now, I happen to know that many scientists who work for the oil and tobacco industries who are absolutely committed to ensuring the safety of their products (within the inherent risks of the products themselves, obviously smoking causes cancer no matter what you do with it). So why is it important that Singer is associated with these industries? It actually isn't because of the association, but because he has done so in a way that tries to hide and deny the scientific truth instead of inform the science. He has acted as more as their PR (Public Relations) front man on science issues rather than as a scientist. It turns out Singer isn't alone, as all of the most cited climate skeptic scientists are associated with free market lobbying groups whose charters require them to fight anything that might lead to policy options they don't like (and thus require them to deny the science).

..."so now all his science is allegedly out the window!"

False. Singer's "science" must stand on its own merits just like any other scientist. The controversy about his "science" arises because 1) he hasn't actually done much science, 2) what he did do was long ago and in another field, and 3) what he has done related to climate science largely hasn't stood the tests of scrutiny and time. Singer designed instruments for satellites based on his expertise in electrical engineering and physics. His actual research in climate science has been limited, and he hasn't done real research in quite some time. He has, however, become one of the most visible skeptic scientists because he's been around so long. His credibility really is limited to those in the free market groups and to the public who assume that he must be an expert because the free market groups saturate the airwaves with him. In truth, he's often wrong on the science he supports, including thinking that Phobos (a moon of Mars) was artificial (and hollow!)[it isn't], that passive smoke doesn't cause cancer [it does], that CFCs were irrelevant to ozone depletion [again wrong], and that the impacts of the Kuwaiti oil fires would be local and over in 3 days [they weren't]. It seems Singer's "science" is more related to who he is consulting for at the time then the actual science. In short, he is a professional contrarian, i.e., someone who will always be willing to say the opposite of what the science community says.

I should make the distinction between Singer's "science" and Singer's science. Actual science comes about through the peer-review process. "Sciency sounding" opinions are not science, they are opinions. Much of what people call Singer's "science" is actually blog articles, op-eds, speculation, contrarian testimony, etc. However, Singer does have some actual science that has been published in peer-reviewed journals. There actually isn't that much of it, but just like other scientists if it has undergone real peer-review it can be called science (which like all individual papers, must pass the tests of scrutiny and time, of which peer-review is actually only the first step). As such, Singer's actual science is already part of the data on which the consensus is based, or for any newer stuff, will be based on as we move forward. His actual peer-reviewed work will join the thousands of other relevant peer-reviewed papers that are being published by other scientists, including those who are actually working in climate science.

So, to wrap this up, let's come back to credibility. The poster whose comment I've used above is suggesting that scientists are "digging up dirt" on skeptic scientists in an attempt to "demean the science." That is false. No one cares about "dirt" on anyone else (except perhaps the poster). The truth is that credibility matters.

Would you trust your brain surgery to a brain surgeon (i.e., someone who has been trained in brain surgery and has performed several brain surgeries) or to a podiatrist (i.e., someone who might know where the skull is but not the difference between a cerebellum and an antebellum)?

Certainly no one would trust a non-scientific free market lobbying organization over every major scientific organization in the world when it comes to climate science.

That's point one.

Point two is the shear farce of proposing that any one scientist, or any one paper, can invalidate the entire history of climate science. That just isn't how science works.

Science works incrementally. That means that every single peer-reviewed paper represents some scientific experiment or concept that someone has been able to document enough to pass the initial scrutiny of many other scientists expert in that same field. But that paper may only look at one tiny piece of the puzzle. Think of a 1000 piece puzzle. Each paper may look closely at one piece of the puzzle, or perhaps a small section of pieces (say, the tip of the top of the Empire State Building in a puzzle of the New York City skyline). In fact, there may be many papers that look closely at that same piece to get a complete picture of what that piece looks like (e.g., looking at the tip of the Empire State Building from the North, the South, the East, the West, close up, further away, from the base, from a plane flying overhead, etc.). Only when you put all the papers related to that tip of the Building together will scientists fully understand that the one piece of the puzzle is the tip of the Empire State Building.

Now do that same thing for each of the other 999 pieces in the puzzle.

Only after each piece has been thoroughly examined and pieced together can scientists finally feel confident that the puzzle is of the New York City skyline. Only when there is overwhelming evidence that the puzzle is a NYC skyline will the scientists feel confident to say there is a scientific consensus.

Scientific consensus is not like taking a poll. Personal opinions are irrelevant to science. You have to prove each piece along the way, and so does every other scientist. The science must stand the test of scrutiny. And this takes time. Sometimes a long time. Einstein's theory of relativity, for example, took many years and many experiments and mathematical proofs before it became accepted by the scientific community.

So the denialists say, well, my guy is another Einstein and the world just hasn't caught up to his brilliance yet. False. The point is that the skeptics put themselves forth as more of "The Terminator" than as scientists. They exclaim that their paper (or more often than not, their blog article) completely invalidates all the other work. As noted above, the idea that one paper can invalidate all the other work is not scientifically defensible. For two reasons.

First, because no one study or paper is science. Einstein's first paper on relativity was merely a proposal of his theory. He then followed it up with many other papers and many other experiments and mathematical calculations. Other scientists also added their experiments, calculations, and theories. Only after there was sufficient supporting evidence to confirm the original was it considered valid. In fact, the theory was tweaked quite a bit along the way, as newer experiments helped fine tune and correct for inaccuracies. That is how science works. It is incremental, and it is collaborative. And it takes time.

Secondly, the skeptics papers cannot pass even the initial tests of scrutiny. Many cannot even get past the initial peer-review process and are merely posted on blogs, which other skeptics then cut-and-paste and pass along as the "be all and end all." Most are drivel, fraudulent, or merely unsupportable. That is why science has a peer-review process. Anyone can write a paper and claim whatever they want. And unfortunately some do. So the papers are screened to ensure that the methods are documented, the results are fully presented, and the conclusions reflect the reality of the data.

And peer-review is only the first step. Papers that pass peer-review and get published must then continue to withstand the scrutiny of a broader community of scientists. Any questions raised must be answered. Further study must confirm the initial findings.

Only the sum of the relevant and reliable data from peer-reviewed publications can lead to a conclusion of what the data tell us. Only after all the pieces of the puzzle have been examined can one reach a scientific consensus. You most certainly cannot hold up one piece of a puzzle that looks like a brick in the Empire State Building and claim that the Empire State Building has no windows.

That doesn't mean that all the pieces must fit exactly. If you put together a 1000 piece puzzle of the NYC skyline and find that 10 pieces are missing randomly from it, you can still tell that it is a puzzle of the NYC skyline. Even if a few of the pieces seem to be from the wrong puzzle, you can still tell it is a NYC skyline. Scientific consensus does not have be unanimous. Some scientists need more information to feel confident in the conclusion, others may disagree for some reason even when it is obvious to most other scientists. And as we've seen, some scientists are just contrarians (some legitimately, others because free market organizations pay hefty consulting fees).

But the bottom line is that it is the sum total of all of the peer-reviewed papers on a scientific topic that lead to the conclusions.

Unfortunately, the skeptics seem to be following the wishes of the free market lobbying groups, who simply don't like the possible policy options and therefore have retroactively concluded the science must be wrong. They start with a conclusion and then cherry pick the data (or simply lie about it) to support their predetermined conclusions.

Science starts with a question, which leads to other questions, which leads to some answers and lots more questions. Eventually, there are enough answers to lead to a scientific consensus. In the case of climate change, it was tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies by thousands of researchers from every scientific organization imaginable over more then three decades that eventually led to confidence enough in what was going on to reach a scientific consensus.

They certainly didn't copy it off some blog one day.