Climate change, democracy and the science of disbelief

Before anything – a disclaimer. I am skeptical about man-induced climate change – having spent a number of years reading many books and articles on the subject, starting out as entirely agnostic. I believe climate change is happening – perhaps global warming – but I have not been persuaded  either that this is an anomaly or the norm. But I am less concerned about global warming than I am about the lack of tolerant debate about it. It is a matter of democracy more than science. 

So –

There’s an odd paradox in the climate change debate. Some of my friends are ardently concerned about the environment and threats to ‘the planet’ (as am I) and this can involve a cynicism about science and scientists (which I share). Scientists are responsible for many environmental threats – nuclear power, civil construction, gene technology and so on. But when it comes to climate change the supposed scientific consensus is accepted by them without question (not by me). The scientist turns from evil schemer to high priest of survival. We trust them implicitly.

Some transformation.

Knowing science and the nature of scientific evidence from deep inside the culture, I have never been burdened with an easy acceptance of scientific findings. The best of scientists taught me long ago to be healthily and fulsomely sceptical. Indeed, the very integrity of science depends upon scepticism towards findings. Few scientists reject the proposition that what we know is all that we can know under the present circumstances. And that this is a deal less than what there is yet to know. But the scepticism goes deeper than this simple truism. This, (famously) from Niels Bohr, a contemporary of Einstein and one of the founders of quantum physics:

“We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections. “

So – one of the limits on what science can know is the language we use to think about it (i.e. written, spoken and mathematical languages). The best science can do is to persuade people to think in certain ways – and to adapt their thinking.

And now to climate change. The overwhelming problem here is that ‘the present circumstances’ are limiting, confusing, paradoxical and subject to little of the experimental or instrumental control that scientists need to boost their confidence. And yet, a good job has been done to persuade people to think in certain ways, as Niels Bohr suggests. Yes, we know that climate is changing – but that is no more surprising or insightful than observing that the flow of a river is inconsistent. What would be headline news is evidence that over a significant period, climate does not change at all – or that there is a river whose flow is always smooth and unrippled. But what we can know of climate under present circumstances is limited.

Think, for example, of what it means to take a global measure of the temperature of the planet. We cannot stick a thermometer under Earth’s tongue – there is no single and direct point of measurement. So how and where do we derive the measure? We measure the temperature of the atmosphere. Where, and at what height? 10ft, 1,000ft, 10,000ft? Over air, lake, mountain, valley, city, ocean? At night, twilight, morning, midday? Climate changes dramatically every day – between night and day there can be a difference of anything up to 30 degrees and more. A city can be 3, 5, 8 degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. Do we measure ocean temperatures? The problems here are similar – currents, depths, viscosity and so on. But in both cases, we have to have a comparative measure to be able to say we are warming or cooling – compare today’s measures with, say, those of 100 years ago. But today we take the temperature of the ocean with sophisticated digital technology, back then we threw a bucket into the water. Of the 20,000 or so surface temperature measuring sites around the world, the preponderance are at or near sea level, close to urban areas and diverse in their technology and material construction. And what of the ‘normal’ climate anomalies that are commonly known about – the El Niño and La Niña effects, the North Atlantic Oscillation or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation – natural and substantial climate changes that occur as the result of feedback dynamics between land mass and sea.

Of course, we use sophisticated statistics to combine these diverse measurements: atmospheric pressure x surface temperature x ocean temperature x precipitation rates….or whatever. But how do we know when we are measuring ‘the normal’ or a deviant moment – an ‘anomaly’? Is El Niño or La Niña the norm? Is the North Atlantic jet-stream normal when 200 miles south of the UK, or 100 miles north?

More complex than these rather obvious difficulties is the question of feedback and dynamic relationships between climate elements. This is not too technical – don’t worry! Say we have four key aspects of climate that we are measuring (carbon emissions, surface temperature, ocean temperature and precipitation rates):

A1   B1   C1   D1

and two of them – B1 and C1 – change to indicate warming. We now assume:

A1   B2   C1   D2

But why? All climate elements are interconnected and have feedback effects on each other (like the El Niño effect on global weather patterns). So more likely is this:

A2   B2   C2   D2

But, then, the whole configuration has changed and affected other elements which, in turn, feed back on these four – in differential ways. So we might end up with:

B3   A5   C-1  E1   F6  D-12

– which includes both positive and negative feedback (warming and cooling effects)…though, of course, we might have thought differently about this rather complex happening in the first place:

Av1   Bvv1   Cv-1   D1   Xv1   XXv1

…where ‘v’ stands for natural and unpredictable variation and X/XX are as yet unknown variables which intrude. Even so, we can easily see (and this is affirmed by writers on Complexity Theory – see John Gribbin, Deep Simplicity for the most attractive and readable account) that once we are into two or three cycles of feedback the pattern becomes so enormously complicated as to be entirely unpredictable. Indeed, this is why the best technology cannot forecast weather patterns beyond two weeks, at most.

In fact, science uses little direct measurement of the planet’s temperature changes. It is too flaky. Instead, they use what is called ‘proxy data’ – data on the supposed effects of climate. For example, contemporary data might include precipitation rates – where it rains more or less than ‘normal’ (whatever normal is). Changing global temperatures are thought – not by all – to have an effect here. Historically, one of the most popular sources of proxy data has been from measuring tree-rings. A wide space between tree-rings suggests a good year of growth for the tree – a narrow ring, the opposite. We further assume that (a) warmer temperatures are healthy for trees, and (b) that there are correlations between tree-growth and climate, and between tree-growth here and climate there. Now, this has been a highly controversial area of debate. A climate scientist can pick and choose among different trees in different parts of the world (with much focus on North America and the Urals) – with some being accused of ‘cherry-picking’ (see my blog Fake News, Old News and Carrots).

It is easy to read about it – look at Andrew Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion:

for the most authoritative critique of the method – and Michael Mann’s, Dire Predictions as the original defence:

Well, the arguments are broader and longer than this, and they are not easily or usefully resolved by dismissing someone as a ‘denier’ or as a right-wing loony. There are many right-wing loonies in the climate skeptic camp, it is true, and one does have to tread carefully. But the job is to interact with the data, much of which is easily available on Google.

Why don’t we?

We tend to be nervous to express a view of climate science – our role is to accept and repeat what we have heard from ‘the scientist’, isn’t it??

Again, why?

We seem to have little difficulty in expressing views on education which may run counter to what the educational ‘scientists’ say; we may all have views on how to run the economy – in spite of economic ‘science’. Traffic ‘scientists’ tell us that the mathematics of traffic flow is highly complex and sometimes beyond analysis – but this doesn’t give us pause in demanding speed limits here, traffic lights there, a new road. We are, actually, more than comfortable in challenging scientists.

So – there may or may not be a problem with climate change (there are those who argue that up to two degrees warming will be beneficial – the past 100 years has seen a supposed increase of 0.8 degrees). There is even evidence suggesting that in the bigger picture, we are in the Autumn of an interglacial period and about to move into a major ice-age (the last mini-ice-age was in the 16th/17th Centuries – in the Northern Hemisphere). But there most certainly is a problem with the way we relate to science. Behind the headlines, even some climate scientists who support global warming theory are worried about the quality of data and the nature of the evidence. Why do we not share their skepticism?

If you have a difficulty with being skeptical towards academic scientists then read another of Andrew Montford’s books, Hiding the Decline:

…in which he documents the manipulations, dissimulations and corruptions involved in publishing climate data – much focused on my old alma mater, the University of East Anglia and its Climatic Research Unit.

This is a pressing issue for democracy. Much public money is already spent on the advice of scientists and ‘experts’ – we call upon economists, sociologists, educational researchers and, yes, climate scientists. We have to get the science right – as far as possible – but we cannot give over public policy to science. There are times when we accept scientific advice, but override it with a political decision. This is right and proper in a democracy. Politicians have to place priority on the interests and preferences of their citizenries, and if these go in another direction from the science, so be it. Scientists are charged with keeping us and our representatives as well informed as possible – keeping in mind the limitations they work under. Public decisions should be informed by science, but have to remain as independent from it as political decisions in earlier centuries ought to have been more independent of the church.

Too much of the science that reaches us is laundered of its dilemmas and incompleteness; some science is distorted to fit a scientist’s firm beliefs – or even personal interests – look at the statistical science that gave rise to 11+ intelligence tests in England:

– most science is contested with differing schools of thought; some science is rooted in old assumptions and values and simply out of date (as is argued with regard to neo-classical economics, eugenics and the science of racial differences, and the science of early childhood development propounded by Piaget).

We should argue about climate change, and there is much to argue about. Those who resist argument and who insist that facts and theories are indisputable and should be transferred into public policy intact are illiterate in the politics and philosophy of science, and are dangerously tweeking the fragile relationship between expertise and democracy. This goes for ACC advocates and for ACC skeptics alike. In the end, as any scientist with integrity will tell you, science is less about proof and demonstration and more to do with persuasion. Proof and demonstration closes down argument; persuasion invites it.

Look at the writings on each side of the climate change debate – and argue. Here is a good place to start – though it is somewhat technical, and leans against climate skepticism you will make some overall sense of it, and pick up useful leads to follow:

In particular, you should pay attention to the work cited of Michael Mann, leading advocate of climate change ‘forced’ by manmade carbon emissions; and McIntyre and McKitrick, two critical analysts of Michael Mann’s data.

As a final note I should say something about the frequent allegation that climate skeptics are right-wing ideologues and often funded by the fossil-fuel industry. This is true – Tim Ball, Patrick Michaels and Mark Steyn, leading skeptics, are often so accused. These people are alleged to have a partial interest, their own agenda to pursue. I’m sure this is true – but it is no less true than of any scientist I know. The cozy idea that ‘good’ scientists are impartial and that their science is free of values has been debunked too often to make it worth rehearsing again. Most ‘scientists’ are men and women driven by a passion for their subject – but also, inevitably, by the personal gains involved. To be rocketed from doctoral student to internationally-renowned authority, as was Michael Mann, along with all the cash, travel and fame that comes along is very hard to resist. Few are the scientists who abandon their work, beliefs and status because the data says so – we are mortal. No matter. Whoever pays the bills, whatever your politics, you are producing data and feeding into a public debate. Better that you declare your interests, of course. But what the Montford writings show is that climate change skeptics do not have a monopoly on the desire to manipulate data in their favour. All seem to be at it. I have been guilty of the same, and I justify it by assuring myself that I am, at least, doing so more to stimulate debate the to advance my interests. I hope I do. And if I don’t, I hope I am robustly challenged.

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