Climate Change and Flat Earthers

“There has been no universal trend in the overall extent of drought across the Unites States since 1900.”

“Trends in severe storms, including the intensity and frequency….are uncertain and being studied intensively.”

Both quotes are from the fine lines in the 829-page quadrennial National Climate Assessment. That’s the report Pres. Obama flogged on national television recently for nearly an hour. The president insisted something had to be done right now.

I have not read the report, of course, why should I ? (See below.)

(The first quote is in the report according to a Wall Street Journal editorial on 5/9/14. The second is in the report according to my frequent reader and commenter McHenry. He is a young man who does, or used to, believe in the threat of man-made climate change. He has good scientific training.)

A few months ago, when the Great Lakes were 90% frozen, that great scientist, Secretary of State Kerry relegated me to the ranks of “Flat Earthers.” He did this because I am very skeptical (and growing) of the climate change thesis. (See definition below.)

Of course, anyone who has been observing him from his political beginnings knows that John Kerry has no scientific competences, no competences about anything at all, except windsurfing and marrying rich widows. (I don’t knock either, no sir!) It’s also possible that he knows some French. That would tend to contribute to his misinformation, I think.

I suspect, in fact, I am almost sure, that Mr Kerry’s self-assurance is based on the belief that 97% of scientists, blah, blah, blah…

The climate change thesis deconstructs as follows:

1 There is a global rise in temperature.

That’s from some undetermined date. Hasn’t been any for the last fifteen years according to federal government’s own reports.

2 It’s caused by human activity.

This includes the burning of fossil fuels, of course but yet, there is no call for an increase in nuclear energy production which is a reliable and lasting way to relieve worldwide reliance on fossil fuels. No reason is ever given for this absence. Sometimes, perfectly serious climate change partisans also include among the causes of man-made global warming belching and flatulence by the large worldwide cattle population. The latter “cause,” of course, calls for a quick conversion to vegetarianism. (That is where secret evangelists show their hand.)

3 The world, or parts of it, or us, or some of us, are in imminent danger of a variety of catastrophes that will be caused by climate change.

Note that the three propositions are logically linked: If there is no global rise in temperature, we don’t care about human activity. If human activity does nothing to the globe ( to what, exactly?) there is no emergency. If there is a global rise in temperature and it’s not man-made, there is not much we can do. If there is global warming and it is the result of human activities and it does no harm, there is nothing we should do. If it does both harm and good (longer growing seasons in the north, access to minerals near the North Pole) then, there is something important to discuss internationally.

As the evidence in support of the thesis becomes more complicated and contradictory, the alarmist cries are becoming shriller. This makes a sort of macabre sense. Simple rationality is getting lost along the way. What we are told about urgent policy requirements does not fit with the evidence that is presented by the same people who demand urgently a new policy of de-industrialization. The climate change book is like a novel whose cover would proclaim “Joe Is the Killer” while the inside pages would sow doubt on the idea that Joe has ever killed, or even harmed anyone, has ever so much as spat on the sidewalk.

Sometimes, downright fraud is also prominently involved. That’s the case for the “97% of scientists” that I think certified incompetents like Sec. Kerry rely on. Personally, I have always known and said that there was nothing to the number. There is no 97% of anything anywhere, except in some banana republics and in North Korea. Now, we have good evidence of fraud on this matter.

In past postings on the climate change or global warming, I have been at great pains to declare, even to prove my ignorance in matters of climate science. I did this because I wanted to step resolutely away from jargon-filled experts’ and pseudo-experts’ discussions that can only befuddle people who have to make a living, rear children, prepare their taxes, pay a mortgage, go to the gym.

In fact, I have fair general scientific training: I easily recognize a good study design. (They don’t grow on trees!) I can spot bad measurements from a mile away, like a jealous wife a single long hair of the wrong color on her husband’s lapel. I also possess a skill that is rare in the general literate population but common among those who have acted as referees for scholarly journals: a keen sense of studies’ formal conclusions that shout when the findings would only merit whispering.

Note that I don’t claim I have ever committed this last little sin myself when I was a scholar. It’s damned tempting though. How can you admit, “Yes, I and two colleagues worked hard on this study for three years and, frankly, what we found does not amount to a hill of beans.”

And then, there is the vertiginous, nightmarish situation where you would have to report, “The consensus is that X causes Y. Our study, carefully conceived in every way – go ahead and check everything – suggests that X does not cause Y.” This is like yelling, “Go ahead, don’t publish my study!” (I actually published two such studies in my time, one at the beginning of my career, one at the end. The last one took twenty years! See on my vita linked to this blog: Delacroix, Jacques. “The export of raw materials and economic growth: a cross-national study.” American Sociological Review. 42:795-808. 1977. Delacroix, Jacques and François Nielsen. “The beloved myth: Protestantism and the rise of industrial capitalism in 19th century Europe.” Social Forces 80-2:509-553. 2001.)

There is also a general, well known anti “negative findings” bias in all scientific disciplines. Few journals have the intestinal fortitude to publish articles that proclaim: “We did not find anything.” I doubt that the climate sciences constitute an exception. Do you?

Here is a fictitious but realistic example of such a conclusion:

“Humans have been pumping ‘greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere with increasing intensity* for one hundred and ten years and yet, there is no rise in the frequency of droughts.”

How does this work for your career, do you think?

Here is an example of bad design, specifically.

Several years ago in one of the respected American scientific magazines there appeared an article authored by three Australian professors with impeccable scientific credentials. (I am very sorry I don’t have the reference. However, my memory forgets but it does not make up stuff.) The article purported to tackle the issue of long term global warming. It was an attempt to recoup after the disaster of the “hockey stick scandal”** which involved downright cheating.

The issue is this: If it was warmer in 1000 that it is today, it’s hard to argue that gases specific to industrial societies are an exclusive or even a primary cause of global warming. (It’s difficult but not impossible; it would involve heavy scientific lifting.)

Anyway, that article relied on one form of measurement of temperature, tree rings, I think, for the longest period, extending from about year 1000, to about year 1800. Then the authors switched to other, probably better, more sensitive measurements, based on other than tree rings, for the period extending from about 1800 to the present.

That’s impossibly bad scientific design, of course. Here are the reasons. If the first measurement somehow underestimates temperature then, it’s necessarily true that temperatures in the other period from 1800, will appear higher. If the second type of measures somehow overstates or simply detects more accurately high temperatures, the years 1800 to present will necessarily seem warmer. Both false effects would tend to be seem true irrespective of the real temperatures in both periods .

It tuns out that 1800 to present is the period of interest. If you are going to prove a sharp rise of temperature coinciding with industrialization, you have to demonstrate a big uptick for that period . The design is thus not neutral with respect to results. It favors some rather than others.

It’s such breathtakingly bad design that I had to read the article twice to believe it. (That’s what caused me to check the authors’ academic credentials. As I said, they were excellent.)

The alert reader will have noticed that the potential bias I describe above can work either way: If the measurements to 1800 overestimate temperatures while the measurements from 1800 to present happen to underestimate temperatures, you may find that you have demonstrated that there is no warming that corresponds to the industrializing period although one exists. You might even show that temperature has declined on the whole although it has actually risen.

Now, suppose that the study of reference showed precisely either no change or change in the “wrong” direction. That would be no change in global temperatures, 1000 to 2000, or a slight decline of temperatures beginning, say, in 1810.

My educated first guess is that, in the intellectual climate of the past fifteen years, the authors would not then have presented their research for publication. My second, also well informed guess, is that if they had presented it, the journal editor would have turned them down. He would have turned them down irrespective of his religion toward climate change. That’s because, journals don’t like negative results of the form: “Nothing happened.” See above.

That’s in addition to the fact that many editors are members of the same intellectual class that has lost its way on climate as it lost its way previously on communism and on Third World revolutions (another story I plan to tell soon on this blog).

In conclusion: Our current system of scholarly publication almost guarantees that there is little chance that scientific findings of high quality that contradict the belief in the thesis described above will see the light of day. It does not take a real conspiracy to arrive at such a situation, just the perpetuation of well-established bad habits.

How about the three credentialed Australian professors who committed the dramatically faulty research design? Are they scum? That’s were religion comes in. It’s helpful in pretending that the bad actions you commit are not really sinful. Did you know that the crusaders who captured Jerusalem in 1099 put all its inhabitants to the sword while shouting “God wants it”?

So, OK, I am a Flat Earther. It’s not so bad, really. One of these days, I will figure out the truth by noticing that no one ever falls off the earth, no matter how far he travels. I might even figure out why some get back home simply by moving in a straight line. Paying attention to negative evidence like this pays off. On the other hand, those who live inside a square box will never learn anything. Their blindness is dangerous for everyone.

* I don’t know the actual numbers but I would be surprised if we did not, collectively, burn one hundred times more than we did in 1800. One thousand times would not surprise me, not even 10,000 times.

**Look it up. Great story!