Who are the Skeptics?

Part 3 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal
Adapted from part of an earlier post

As we discussed last time, there is a remarkable level of scientific consensus on the reality and severity of human-caused global warming. However, most members of the public are unaware of this consensus – a topic which we will focus on in the next installment. Anyone with an Internet connection or a newspaper subscription will be able to tell you that many scientists think global warming is natural or nonexistent. As we know, these scientists are in the vast minority, but they have enjoyed widespread media coverage. Let’s look at three of the most prominent skeptics, and examine what they’re saying.

S. Fred Singer is an atmospheric physicist and retired environmental science professor. He has rarely published in scientific journals since the 1960s, but he is very visible in the media. In recent years, he has claimed that the Earth has been cooling since 1998 (in 2006), that the Earth is warming, but it is natural and unstoppable (in 2007), and that the warming is artificial and due to the urban heat island effect (in 2009).

Richard Lindzen, also an atmospheric physicist, is far more active in the scientific community than Singer. However, most of his publications, including the prestigious IPCC report to which he contributed, conclude that climate change is real and caused by humans. He has published two papers stating that climate change is not serious: a 2001 paper hypothesizing that clouds would provide a negative feedback to cancel out global warming, and a 2009 paper claiming that climate sensitivity (the amount of warming caused by a doubling of carbon dioxide) was very low. Both of these ideas were rebutted by the academic community, and Lindzen’s methodology criticized. Lindzen has even publicly retracted his 2001 cloud claim. Therefore, in his academic life, Lindzen appears to be a mainstream climate scientist – contributing to assessment reports, abandoning theories that are disproved, and publishing work that affirms the theory of anthropogenic climate change. However, when Lindzen talks to the media, his statements change. He has implied that the world is not warming by calling attention to the lack of warming in the Antarctic (in 2004) and the thickening of some parts of the Greenland ice sheet (in 2006), without explaining that both of these apparent contradictions are well understood by scientists and in no way disprove warming. He has also claimed that the observed warming is minimal and natural (in 2006).

Finally, Patrick Michaels is an ecological climatologist who occasionally publishes peer-reviewed studies, but none that support his more outlandish claims. In 2009 alone, Michaels said that the observed warming is below what computer models predicted, that natural variations in oceanic cycles such as El Niño explain most of the warming, and that human activity explains most of the warming but it’s nothing to worry about because technology will save us (cached copy, as the original was taken down).

While examining these arguments from skeptical scientists, something quickly becomes apparent: many of the arguments are contradictory. For example, how can the world be cooling if it is also warming naturally? Not only do the skeptics as a group seem unable to agree on a consistent explanation, some of the individuals either change their mind every year or believe two contradictory theories at the same time. Additionally, none of these arguments are supported by the peer-reviewed literature. They are all elementary misconceptions which were proven erroneous long ago. Multiple articles on this site could be devoted to rebutting such claims, but easy-to-read rebuttals for virtually every objection to human-caused climate change are already available on Skeptical Science. Here is a list of rebuttals relevant to the claims of Singer, Lindzen and Michaels:

With a little bit of research, the claims of these skeptics quickly fall apart. It does not seem possible that they are attempting to further our knowledge of science, as their arguments are so weak and inconsistent, and rarely published in scientific venues. However, their pattern of arguments does work as a media strategy, as most people will trust what a scientist says in the newspaper, and not research his reputation or remember his name. Over time, the public will start to remember dozens of so-called problems with the anthropogenic climate change theory.


Merchants of Doubt

I waited a long time to read this book – in retrospect, too long. I have long been a fan of Naomi Oreskes; I believe she is a brilliant and sensible scientist with a compelling way with words. On the other hand, nothing depresses me more quickly than reading about those who deliberately spread confusion on climate change for political reasons. After a particularly battering year for climate science in the public eye, I want to make sure I stay sane.

However, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was oddly comforting. How could it be so, you might ask, given the subject matter?

It’s a good question. The book traces several key players, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow, in their fight against mainstream science. Many of them were physicists in the era of atomic bomb development, and nearly all had been deeply influenced by the Cold War – they were anti-Communist to the point of extremism.

This extremism soon extended into science: any new discovery that seemed to necessitate government action was vehemently attacked by Seitz et al. Whether it was the harmful health effects of smoking, second-hand smoking, or DDT, and the existence of anthropogenic acid rain, ozone depletion, or climate change, the same people used the same strategies to sow doubt in the public mind, delaying the cry for action. The algorithm was relatively simple:

  • construct arguments against the phenomenon, which scientists had already addressed and ruled out
  • widely publish these arguments in the popular press, rather than scientific journals
  • demand that the mainstream media be neutral and provide “equal time” for their side of the so-called controversy
  • attack the professional integrity of the scientists who discovered and studied the phenomenon; label them as frauds and/or Communists
  • claim that action on this issue would be the beginning of the “slippery slope to socialism”

It’s enough to anger anyone who has the least bit of sympathy for science. The authors say it best:

Why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their own colleagues? Why would they spread accusations with no basis? Why would they refuse to correct their arguments once they had been shown to be incorrect? And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?

History repeated itself many times over, within the course of just a few decades. The attack against climate science that we are currently witnessing is just a larger-scale rehash of the pro-industry, anti-Communist fight against epidemiology, environmental chemistry, and so on. Until now, few attempts have been made to connect the dots, but Oreskes and Conway present a watertight and compelling thesis in Merchants of Doubt.

The hopeful part came when I realized this: all of the previous issues that Seitz et al attempted to discredit were eventually addressed, more or less successfully, by the government, even if some of the public is still confused about the science. Restrictions and regulations on smoking, along with education regarding its harms, has made tobacco use a semi-stigmatized practice in my generation, rather than a near-universal activity. The Montreal Protocol was largely a success, and stratospheric ozone is on the rise. The world, at least so far, has managed to avoid nuclear warfare.

Climate change is undoubtedly a more inevitable and wide-ranging problem, as it strikes at the heart of our fossil-fuel based economy, and will probably surpass, both in rate and magnitude, any change our species has seen in the global environment. However, since the attack against climate science has tracked so closely with previous campaigns, I can’t help but hope it will eventually end the same way: with the public and the government realizing the problem and employing effective measures to address it. I know it’s probably not very scientific of me to make this connection, but hope doesn’t have to be rational to be effective.