Where to Go for Answers

To all of our new readers, thanks to CBC and StumbleUpon, this is for you!

Most of us don’t read scientific journals. We read the newspaper instead. We read our news feeds. We watch CNN.

These sources, as we know, are fairly low on the credibility spectrum. But how are people like you and I supposed to understand the more credible sources? Scientists don’t seem to speak plain English. And you can’t even read most of their studies without a subscription.

Usually this isn’t much of a problem, because the popular press and the scientific journals say basically the same things – that there’s going to be a lunar eclipse on a certain date, that red meat increases your risk of a heart attack, that a new kind of dinosaur was just discovered.

However, when you start reading about climate change, the newspapers start going crazy.

The world is warming. The warming is caused from the world coming out of an ice age. The warming stopped in 1998. Glaciers are melting. The warming is caused by human activity. The warming is caused by sunspots. The warming is inconsequential. The warming is catastrophic and is going to kill us all. New York is going to be underwater. Scientists faked the whole thing.

As someone who keeps up-to-date with the scientific literature – that is, sources from the top few tiers of the credibility spectrum – I can tell you that it is not under the same confusion as the mass media. There are a lot of myths about climate change that go around the newspapers and the Internet, but were never in any sort of legitimate scientific study. I cannot stress this point enough.

For example, have you heard the one about NASA getting the Y2K bug, and later discovering that the warmest year on record wasn’t 1998, but in fact – whoops – 1934? Global warming must be fake!

Actually, that’s not correct at all. NASA discovered that 1934 was the warmest year on record in the United States. And that “United States” part got dropped in translation somewhere in the blogosphere. Contrary to what American media would have you believe, the United States is not the whole world. It makes up less than 2% of the Earth’s surface. And the warmest year on record globally is either 1998 or 2005, depending on how you measure the Arctic temperatures.

There are dozens of stories like that. So many of the explanations you hear for global warming being natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy are based on misconceptions, miscommunications, discredited data, or flat-out lies. They were never in the scientific literature. They are not endorsed by the sources at the top of our credibility spectrum. They are, shall we say, urban myths.

But how are we, humble non-scientists, scanning through the newspaper on the way to work each morning, supposed to know that? We need some kind of a link between the scientists and the public. Some journalist who actually knows what they’re talking about, and cites all of their claims with credible sources. Some sort of encyclopedia that will dispel all the myths about climate change.

Luckily, there are many of these encyclopedias. There are a lot of people out there trying to fulfill this very purpose.

One of my favourites is Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock of the Week video series on YouTube. He debunks common claims like “global warming stopped in 1998”, “global warming is caused by the sun”, and “temperature leads CO2 in the ice cores”. Sinclair is a professional journalist, so all of the videos are well explained, easy to understand, and fun to watch.

Another great source is Coby Beck’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic series. These articles cover just about every objection out there. Equally comprehensive is Skeptical Science. They’ve even compressed their explanations into “sound bites”, so you can answer your uncle’s objections in just a few sentences over Thanksgiving dinner.

Some of the sources from the top of our credibility spectrum have also chimed in. Environment Canada has created a fantastic FAQ document about climate change. It covers everything you need to know to wade through YouTube comments or online debates, along with citations you can actually trust.

Finally, Scott Mandia, a regular reader here at ClimateSight and a meteorology professor in New York, has just posted a copy of his presentation to the public about climate change. What I like about this document is that it’s very up-to-date. All of the graphs are the most recent of their kind. It also provides some philosophical perspectives to really sink your teeth into, like an analogy about medical advice, and some memorable quotes at the end.

We shouldn’t have to double-check everything the newspaper says about climate change. But the objections to anthropogenic global warming have such an awful track record that we really should, at least before we go and spread them around. These sources will cover just about everything you need to know.

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Ignore the Petition Project

Many of you have probably heard of Ron Paul’s recent statement in Congress regarding a petition signed by thousands of scientists claiming that there was no scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, no evidence that burning hydrocarbons was harmful, and, in fact, evidence that burning hydrocarbons would be beneficial for the Earth. The purpose of this statement was to persuade the American people to reject the cap-and-trade bill being negotiated in Congress.

I was skeptical of this petition. I did a little research to find out its legitimacy. Before long I discovered that it was an updated edition of the Oregon Petition, which was created to persaude America to reject Kyoto.

The Oregon Petition has some major problems. Firstly, attached to the petition was an article supporting its claims. The article was designed to look just like an article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a reputable peer-reviewed journal. However, the article was created by three skeptics and was not peer-reviewed at all. The NAS was subject to a lot of inquiries and controversy following the publication of this petition. It eventually had to publish a statement saying that the NAS had nothing to do with the article.

Secondly, the petition could be signed by scientists from any discipline, even if they had no experience studying climatology. As British physics student Michael Ashcroft writes,

“The problem is that, as science is such a vast field, you can spend your entire life studying one branch of science and still know absolutely nothing about another. For example, I am a physics student, and I can honestly say that I know nothing about medicine. I also wouldn’t expect an ecologist to understand the processes behind the formation of stars, for example.This is precisely what the Petition Project does assume, though. If we look at the qualifications of the signers, we see that even medical doctors are eligible to sign. Take a look. Some of the more amusing backgrounds, that supposedly give these people enough special knowledge about global warming to deny its existence, include:

Mathematics – without a special interest in the climate, this is worthless in the field.

Physics – I have almost finished a Bachelor’s degree in Physics and there has been only one, optional course about “Environmental Physics”, so I can argue from experience that a degree in Physics does not necessarily equip someone with the information they may need to decry global warming.

Biology – unless there’s a large degree of specialisation of the effects of climate change on some biological variable (growth, change of ecosystems etc), this has no bearing on the subject.

Medicine – What?!

Aerospace Engineering – I happen to live with an Aeronautical Engineering student, who has had no training in any environmental subjects whatsoever.

Computer Science – see Aerospace Engineering

It is like asking celebrities what they think of the economy of Chad. They may be famous, and therefore carry some weight, but their opinions are nothing more than opinion. Asking “Dr X” what he thinks of the manufacture of steel may be all well and good, except that “Dr X” has a PhD in ancient history. He may be qualified in something, but it is misleading to assume that because he is a doctor of something, he must know everything about everything.”

Thirdly, the scientists who did sign may have been misrepresented. An article in Scientific American conducted a study regarding the participants.

Scientific American took a random sample of 30 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to hold a Ph.D. in a climate-related science. Of the 26 we were able to identify in various databases, 11 said they still agreed with the petition—one was an active climate researcher, two others had relevant expertise, and eight signed based on an informal evaluation. Six said they would not sign the petition today, three did not remember any such petition, one had died, and five did not answer repeated messages. Crudely extrapolating, the petition supporters include a core of about 200 climate researchers; a respectable number, though rather a small fraction of the climatological community.”

The Seattle Times also investigated the Orgeon Petition, and found that some questionable people had signed.

“Several environmental groups questioned dozens of the names: “Perry S. Mason” (the fictitious lawyer?), “Michael J. Fox” (the actor?), “Robert C. Byrd” (the senator?), “John C. Grisham” (the lawyer-author?). And then there’s the Spice Girl, a k a. Geraldine Halliwell: The petition listed “Dr. Geri Halliwell” and “Dr. Halliwell.”

Asked about the pop singer, Robinson said he was duped. The returned petition, one of thousands of mailings he sent out, identified her as having a degree in microbiology and living in Boston. “It’s fake,” he said.

“When we’re getting thousands of signatures there’s no way of filtering out a fake,” Robinson, 56, said in a telephone interview from Oregon.”

 Finally, for a more thorough and visually appealing analysis of the Oregon Petition, including the motives and credibility of its creators, I’d encourage you all to watch this video by Peter Sinclair.

We should all assess the credibility of the Petition Project. Its first revision has some major problems. Should we trust it a second time? Can it compare with the G8 Statement, the Joint Academies’ Statments versions I and II, the survey of individual climatologists by Doran and Zimmerman, and the dozens of other organizations that have made indepent statements?

Which statements truly reflect the opinion of the scientific community?