Skeptical Inquirer Abandons Reason, Embraces Global Warming
For many years the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP) has published the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine dedicated to rational thought and a scientific view of the world around us. Mostly concerned with debunking pseudoscience and mystical beliefs, its articles mostly concerned UFOs, bigfoot sightings, psychic spoon benders and spirit mediums. Now, unfortunately, it seems they have allied this previously skeptical magazine with one of the biggest scientific scams of our time, anthropogenic global warming.
According to its own mission statement: “The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry promotes science and scientific inquiry, critical thinking, science education, and the use of reason in examining important issues. It encourages the critical investigation of controversial or extraordinary claims from a responsible, scientific point of view and disseminates factual information about the results of such inquiries to the scientific community, the media, and the public.”
I have been an associate member of CSICOP/CSI for many years and have always felt that its activities were important for the well-being of our society. Recently, however, I have noticed a disturbing trend in the contents of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine that has caused me to reevaluate my support for CSI. There seems to be a concerted effort to label people who do not accept the current climate change dogma—put forth by the IPCC and others as “settled science”—as irrational ideologues. Particularly troubling was a fawning report covering the AAAS conference by Kendrick Frazier (photo at left) in the May/June 2009 issue of SI.
Kendrick Frazier is the longtime editor of the Skeptical Inquire and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a former editor of Science News, and has also been an editor at the National Academy of Sciences and Sandia National Laboratories. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a member of its Executive Council, and a recipient of its In Praise of Reason Award. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry.
The report starts out quoting AAAS president James McCarthy (photo at right), who also co-chaired the IPCC Working Group II for the Third IPCC Assessment in 2001. “Now we know it is changing, on a world wide basis,” said McCarthy, “climate is changing literally as we speak.” Since the Earth's climate is always changing that seems like a reasonable statement, but McCarthy was actually referring to global warming. Even so, quoting him could have passed for accurate reporting if the reporter had not later join the argument himself.
While cataloging the litany of climate change alarmist presentations Frazier took a parenthetical pause to insert the following on his own:
“Two data points: Contrary to previous studies, much of Antarctica has warmed in recent decades. Eric Steig of the University of Washington and colleagues reported in the January 22 Nature. And NASA's Goddard Institute has processed the global weather observations for 2008 and found that, despite notable cold blasts in Europe and parts of North America, it was still the ninth warmest on record.”
Steig's team wrote some computer code to stitch together data from infrared satellite measurements and surface temperature readings, resulting in a new model that, to no one's surprise, shows that Antarctica is warming all over. This result is taken as vindication by the global warming crowd, since they had previously been at a loss to explain all the earlier reports of a cooling southernmost continent. So far Steig has flatly refused to provide all of the code needed to fully replicate his work in MatLab and RegEM.
Filling the void created by this violation of acceptable scientific protocol are a number of reconstructions of the model as described in the Steig paper. First among these is an analysis by Dr. Leonard Weinstein, former Senior Research Scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center. For a thorough treatment of the fatally flawed metodology used in the Steig paper reference the article titled Antarctic Coup de Grace on the Air Vent blog (Warning! Before diving into that article, it gets very technical and is hard to follow for the uninitiated). Basically, Weinstein reconstructed the model and, using various time spans and parameter settings set about trying to repeat Steig's work.
Skipping over all of the details, it was found that several of the model parameters were set to inappropriate values. By constructing a set of baseline data with known characteristics and feeding that back into the model set to Steig's values an amazing thing happened. If the model was set correctly it should have returned the known result values. Instead it produced an accelerated warming trend everywhere on the continent. To quote the Air Vent post, “If 'robust' means the same answer pops out of a fancy computer algorithm regardless of what the input data is, then I guess Antarctic warming is, indeed, 'robust'.”
As is usual for such things in science, there is now a continuing back and forth “discussion” regarding who is right and who isn't. More troubling is Steig's refusal to release all the computer code used in performing his analysis (shades of Michael Mann). Such behavior is the antithesis of what is expected of a modern scientist and is more in keeping with the antics of Medieval mystics and alchemists.
The point here is that the veracity of Steig's results have been disputed and quoting them as supporting evidence in the SI article amounts to advocacy in favor of the climate change alarmist crowd, not skeptical inquiry. As for the second claim, that 2008 was the ninth warmest on record, it proves nothing. A hot year or a cold year doesn't constitute a trend and such claims only muddy the waters. Nice try Ken, but I'm not buying it. I know that you are an AAAS fellow and all, but you really need to read up on that scientific method thing.
Also troubling is a short guest spot by Stephen H. Schneider, “Climate Change: Skeptics vs. Deniers,” in the May/June 2009 edition. Professor Schneider proudly portrays his past changes of mind as proof of his skeptical credentials but then wanders into logical weeds by stating that “a skeptic questions everything but accepts what the preponderance of evidence is, and a denier falsely claims that until all aspects are resolved we know nothing.” This assumes that 1) there is a non-contradictory “preponderance” of data regarding climate change and 2) those of us who reject the AGW theory as proposed are demanding an unreasonable level of proof from those supporting that theory. Both of these assertions are patiently false.
In the first case, no one who has studied climate change denies that there was a mild average warming trend over during the last century. From there, however, the “evidence” becomes less and less compelling. Many changes in the natural world are being blamed on global warming and are cited as “proof” that the planet is heating up. Many of these phenomena—such as malarial outbreaks, melting ice sheets and sea ice, the number and intensity of severe weather—have been shown to be fully within normal variation or better explained by other causes. You might wish to consult the writings of Bjørn Lomborg, who wrote a well reasoned article for SI's March/April 2008 edition, regarding the many statistical fallacies that surround the case for global warming. Most of the arguments comprising this preponderance of evidence are simply biased reporting coupled with group think, which exists among scientists at least as strongly as it does among the general public.
Much of the evidence supporting AGW is only loosely tied to climate change and there is a dearth of established causal links to support these claims. Most of this “proof” amounts to anecdotal assertions, the scientific equivalent of hearsay evidence. As such this does not greatly concern me—the media and scientific journals are filled with contradictory reports that reinforce the claim that natural variation can account for much of this “proof.” Such claims quickly devolve into endless chains of example and counter example from both sides of the question. But this isn't where the true source of AGW skepticism lies.
The true source of climate change skepticism is based on how the AGW theory is framed: it relies on the level of atmospheric CO2 as the proximate cause of climate change. This claim is simply unsupportable in terms of established physical science—the amounts of carbon dioxide involved can not be shown to account for the variation in temperature over the past 100+ years for which fairly reliable records are available. Analysis based on the Beer-Lambert law of optical absorbance certainly does not support the claimed rate of change.
Further more, a sizable number of contributing factors (forcings in IPCC climate change speak) are involved that are not well characterized. By the IPCC's own admission, the effects of aerosols and the mechanisms regulating cloud formation are not accounted for in their calculations. Recently there have been reports regarding the effects of particulates in Asia (the brown clouds that threatened the Beijing Olympics) and the impact of dust blowing over the tropical Atlantic from Africa on sea surface temperature. The previously unsuspected high portion of airborne particles that are of biological origin, which have the ability to nucleate water vapor at higher temperatures than mineral dust, changes assumptions about cloud formation. The recently discovered role of thaliaceans as a heretofore unknown oceanic carbon pump, capable of sequestering twice as much carbon as algae, forces the “settled science” of the carbon cycle to be reevaluated. Significant alterations to the thermohaline deep ocean returning current bring into question how accurate our understanding of ocean heat transport really is.
The debate regarding how important changes in solar irradiance are continues to rage with new linkage between the UV and soft X-ray portion of the solar spectrum, which can vary far more than the visible and infrared wavelengths, and changes in stratospheric and tropospheric ozone levels, already known to affect atmospheric temperatures. This list of new, ignored or improperly accounted for climate factors could go on for pages. It is not a preponderance of evidence supporting AGW that needs consideration, it is the rising tide of contradictory and previously unknown evidence that causes me to not accept the theory as settled science (if there truly ever is such a thing, but that is another argument).
As I have said before in The Resilient Earth and on this blog, climate skeptics are sometimes accused of selectively interpreting scientific data in order to bolster their case against AGW. The term used is “cherry picking.” When a theory makes certain predictions it is totally acceptable, even obligatory, to investigate those predictions. When a theory is based on certain fundamental assumptions regarding underlying science it is perfectly logical to question that theory when its underlying assumptions are shown to be in error. This is not cherry picking, it is how science works. It may discomfort those who complacently believe in the “consensus view” of AGW, but that is of no importance to science.
To borrow an example from Dr. Roy Spencer, if 99 papers have been published which claim the climate system is very sensitive, but only 1 paper has been published that says the climate system is not very sensitive, is there then a 99-in-100 (99%) chance that the climate system is very sensitive? No! As has happened repeatedly in all scientific disciplines, it is often a single research paper that ends up overturning what scientists thought they knew and accepted as “settled science.”
Dr. Schneider's statement, “if you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier,” is nothing other than the old, discredited “scientific consensus” argument in a different guise. Most people, including most scientists, have gone along with the prevailing public opinions about AGW, a position which requires the reasoning skills of a bovine—its not called herd instinct for nothing. Many great scientists are considered great precisely because they broke with the consensus, they continued to seek answers, they remained skeptical.
The tenor of the whole SI edition is perhaps best summed up by another quote from the AAAS article: “[Gore] was mind-boggling in his sincerity,” said enraptured CSI Fellow Leon Lederman, “what Gore did for me the other night because he was so passionate...was [make me determined] never to go anywhere anymore without global warming as my chief topic.” What reasoned discourse! And from a CSI Fellow! This isn't rational thought, it is hero worship verging on hysteria.
By including such tripe editor Frazier stands revealed as a global warming true believer, not a skeptical scientific observer who demands solid empirical evidence to support hypotheses. The debate is on-going but Skeptical Inquirer is not reporting on it, it has chosen to side with the global warming alarmists.
It seems that when the publishing organization of SI changed its name from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) to the Committee for Scientific Investigation more was lost than a number of words—it seems a good deal of integrity was sacrificed as well. I do not intend to renew my membership with this organization and I urge others to critically review their affiliation with CSI.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and always, always stay skeptical.
One way to bolster claims of anthropogenic global warming.