Monday, February 22, 2010

The Global Warming Post

I am sympathetic to the claim that it’s hard to understand the science of global warming. It’s one of those things that sounds like it should be simple (“Earth is warming / people are causing it / we need it to stop warming”) but can easily get bogged down in the details (What’s the mechanism it’s warming by? How are we measuring that? How do we know it’s not one of a million other factors?), and that weakness is easily exploitable. Unfortunately I spent like 12 days straight learning every detail and nuance of the major concepts (while staying as far away from the math as I could) so this is my brain dump.

Just upfront: I don’t think there’s a middle ground here. I have spent a lot of time reading skeptic sites and scientist sites, and I am firmly convinced that the earth is absolutely warming at a rate unseen in the history of the planet, and that the causes of the warming coincide neatly with human activity. I am also convinced this will have dangerous, disastrous results. My great fear is that the people who will go unaffected by global warming (ie rich white people ie me) will live through the consequences, watching too many people die – and we will promptly forget about it, shrug and wash our hands, convinced it was never our fault to begin with.

The global warming “debate” has gone on for so long that a lot of people think “both sides are wrong”, a product of American centrism that leads us to hate Democrats and Republicans nearly equally. And yes, there are some idiots on the internet arguing global warming exists without really understanding or knowing why. But hey, you can find idiots to argue any position. The science, however,  falls squarely on one side.

FIRST: The basics.

Skeptical Science has a list of basic arguments you probably have heard before, ranging from “It’s the sun causing the warming” to “we’re heading into an ice age”. I’d start here to get some of the specific arguments used by skeptics cleared up. just launched and has a nice “climate change dashboard” at the bottom of the page that lets you play around with the numbers and see what’s actually happening.

SECOND: The Case Against Skeptics

Open Mind has much more in-depth debunking of other skeptical arguments. It seems at least one prominent skeptic blog (Watts Up) doesn’t understand graphs, making a chart that correlated years to time in order to prove a point.

A prominent writer who does not accept global warming science was recently accused of misrepresenting existing research in his book. Another was found to be hiding large amounts of money he was taking from various pollutant-producing companies.

Real Climate goes pretty in-depth on a lot of things, from Climategate to “Daily Mail makes up a bunch of shit to claim global warming is over”. They also feature raw data and code to tide over your nerdy proclivities.

So between this and the skeptical science guide to debunking arguments, I have a real problem with how skeptics are presenting their case. I see a strong parallel to the attacks on evolutionary science or vaccines. Mostly claiming scientists are “silencing the truth” while never providing any actual evidence to support your own claim (and refusing to comment when scientists debunk the little claims you make).
Also claiming science is “just another religion” which fucking infuriates me. I don’t see scientists pretending there’s a magic sky faerie controlling the weather, do you?


There’s an intersection here between science and politics… again. Just like there was for evolution (please, please, please don’t get me started. On a pilgrimage to the Jack Daniel’s refinery we drove past a billboard for the Creation Museum, and my friends thought it would be funny to tease me by suggesting we visit. I clutched my collector’s edition JD bottle and informed them in no uncertain terms that I was prepared to construct a molotov cocktail and burn that fucker down).

A lot of the arguments against global warming science also happen to line up nicely with positions in the interests of companies that are producing pollution. I think that’s a much more likely source of the fear, upset and denial in the global warming “debate” than “global cabal of scientists, led by al gore, make up global warming”. Much like the arguments against evolution line up more neatly with “religious leaders struggle to keep control of their flocks” than “global cabal of scientists plant dinosaur fossils to trick us”.

The human brain isn’t always designed to keep us able to track the complexities of rigorous science.  Peruse this list of cognitive biases and see just how fucked up the human mind can be.  But when you start to look at the reasoned, careful arguments made by scientists, heaped up against the sketchy, shotgun criticisms of professional skeptics, you start to see a pattern of skepticism for skepticism’s sake, a defiant “You can’t tell me what to believe!” that overcomes all evidence and trumps any argument.

I believe scientists about evolution. I believe scientists about vaccines and homeopathy. I believe scientists about global warming. In my mind, you can’t pick and choose what products of the scientific method you agree with and what you don’t. They’re a package deal.

As a final note, however: Scientists aren’t perfect. They are, as a rule of thumb, extremely terrible at communication with a public that is largely uneducated about science (Thanks, Texas! Hope you sink into the sea before that next bit of textbook revisions go out!). The Intersection has 2 scientists who are on a mission to improve communications between scientists and the public, along with the extreme difficulties that entails.

Incidental link because I couldn’t fit it in: Never trust an engineer.


PZ Meyers has a great dissection of a paper claiming to take evolutionists down a notch, including a wonderful digression into the golden ratio. This further illustrates how difficult it is for the layman to parse the subtle errors introduced by skeptics.

Another PZ Meyers post establishing the strong bond between evolution and global warming "skepticism" through legislature.
And a brutal, but perhaps useful, attack on the divide between being a skeptic and being a denier.
And a NYT article linking evolution skepticism to climate change skepticism in no uncertain terms. The strategy is to demolish science education and replace it with “scientists says this, JESUS SAYS THIS, who will you believe? Man, or LITERAL INCARNATION OF GOD”.