Saturday, December 12, 2009

Letter to a Denier

I moderate a progressive email group, and recently a global warming skeptic joined in. We've had several private email exchanges regarding his posts. This is the most recent message I sent him:

Hi V-,

I'm not going to put your latest post, "Nature will decide Earth's future", on the group. It's not science in any real sense of the word, and posting he said/she said articles from the popular media doesn't advance the debate. It would be better if you were to write a post explaining why we should believe that article, although you'd get shredded by others making the same point that I just made: It's not science.

Last night I was thinking about our email exchange regarding lunar warming, and it occurred to me that you're missing the big point. Debating lunar warming is pointless unless you can tie it to the Earth's climate. The denialist argument that warming on other solar system bodies explains warming on Earth has pretty much fallen by the wayside as the quality of solar monitoring has improved. Given the current state of the science it's not really a viable argument anymore. Pretty much never was, for that matter. There was no real science behind it, just speculation by people disinclined to believe in AGW.

I'm somewhat unusual, V-, in that I straddle the technical and political worlds. I know enough about the politics, the science, and about both politicians and scientists, to understand who the players are and how the game is played. The stakes may be larger this time around, but the pattern is the same every time science collides with politically powerful vested interests. I watched it play out over the smoking-cancer link, CFC's and the ozone layer, and SO2 and acid rain. I see it now in the approval and regulation of medicines, where I just happen to have a bit of an inside seat. If your goal is to maintain the status quo as long as possible, despite the science, the most effective way to do so is to make sure that the debate isn't about the real science. And there's a well developed and profitable industry to do exactly that.

If you don't believe me try doing a little research about the Heartland Institute's role in the smoking debate. Do you really think it's a coincidence that they're also at the center of global warming denailism?

The techniques to to obscure and denigrate science were first developed by the tobacco companies decades ago. They include things like paying scientists to take positions against the scientific mainstream, creating "independent" scientific organizations and think tanks that support the industry's view, cherry-picking the science to create seemingly plausable alternatives, finding flaws in research, no matter how minor, and using them to discredit the entire body of knowledge, planting psuedo-science to blur the real science, particularly in the minds of the public, and attacking individual scientists to turn the debate to their motives and personal fallibilities.

You're being used, V-, by a bunch of very smart people who earn their living by manipulating the public. I know, because I play that game too, although on a much smaller scale. The difference is that I believe right and wrong should be based on the common good, not profit. And I think you feel the same. That's why it bothers me so much to see how you, and so many other good people, have become pawns of powerful forces that don't give a damn about our individual welfare.

Those prospering under the status quo will always seek to preserve it. That's human nature. But in an era of multinational corporations that rival governments in terms of power and influence, the risks of putting profits ahead of science are far greater. In the end, of course, science always wins, as it did in each of the controversies I mentioned earlier. You can only spit in the face of reality for so long. The only question is what price we will pay for ignoring the lessons of the past.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Extraordinary Atmospheric Phenomena

Given the weather tonight this seems appropriate. Here are a couple of beautiful pictures that caught my fancy. The first, by NYT photographer Ragnar Axelsson, shows the northern lights over a house in the tiny Inuit village of Tinnittaqilaq in Greenland. Many more great pictures at the link.

The second shows a phenomena few people have witnessed. Can you guess what it is? I'll give you a hint: If you do see something like this it'll probably be about the last thing you'll ever see. Click on it for a bigger version.

Those beautiful white trails in the sky are eight nuclear warheads falling towards their targets during the test of a Peacekeeper missile. Dummy warheads in this case, but if real each would be twenty times more powerful than the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Monday, December 07, 2009

WMC Opposition to Global Warming Regulations Based on Bogus Model

If you've been following "climategate", you know that one of the denialists' main lines of attack is that the stolen CRU emails "prove" that current mainstream climate science can't be trusted because climate scientists are hiding their models and data.* Given that, you might believe that the folks who oppose global warming regulations, like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, would base their opposition on actual verifiable facts and research.

Not so much. A couple of weeks ago WPRI released "The Economics of Climate Change Proposals in Wisconsin" a study they commissioned from the Beacon Hill Institute, which uses an economic model called STAMP. A proprietary economic model. As in top-secret. Beacon Hill won't release their computer code, the model's coefficients, or their input data, so none of it can be independently verified by real economists. Sounds kind of fishy, doesn't it? Now, why would Beacon Hill be so reticent about sharing the fruits of their research? Perhaps there's a hint in their mission statement, which says, in part, "Grounded in the principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets...".

It's fairly simple to rig a complicated economic model to get answers that support your ideological preconceptions. Just looking at the limited info on STAMP that's publicly available I can see some pretty obvious biases. Without open and independent verification WPRI's study is completely worthless. They might as well have pulled the numbers out of a hat. Beacon Hill lets groups like WPRI and WMC slap a pseudo-academic veneer of respectability on their policy positions, but it's all just smoke and mirrors designed to take advantage of the public's, and the press', gullibility.

Paul Soglin has a nice post on this issue, and he beat me to the punch by a couple of weeks!


*The denialists' claim that climate models and data aren't available is simply a lie. All the significant climate models and almost all of the data (with the exception of data that was purchased from vendors with non-disclosure agreements) is easily available, most of it online.