Thursday, February 18, 2010

Skeptical of Skeptical Inquirer

Having learned nothing from the deluge of negative letters they got three years ago (including one from me that got printed) — which caused Skeptical Inquirer magazine to instantly downsize the second half of their planned two-issue, alarmist global warming coverage — the magazine now (in its March/April 2010 issue) unleashes three very short, very perfunctory, very snotty pieces lamenting pompously that we anti-scientific global warming doubters have not given up our campaign of baseless accusations against the well-established facts of climate science. I hope the magazine will once again discover that its readers do not assume that skeptic = climate alarmist (often quite the contrary).

One piece even goes on about climate skeptics not being real skeptics for about three pages before noting in passing that, oh, by the way, if there were, y’know, improprieties in climate research hinted at by that recent e-mail controversy thing, don’t worry because they will of course be dealt with in the time-honored fashion of good science — but that incident is of course no excuse for those ghouls who hate reason to feel encouraged that their nonsense (about the climate situation not being a crisis) should be taken seriously, etc.

There’s a (dare I say it) faith-in-the-scientists problem with organized skepticism — a tendency to think that because the scientific method in its pure form over time gets the best results (which is true), we can already trust the current scientific establishment to have reached sound final conclusions, even on things that aren’t well studied or quite within the speakers’ ostensible areas of expertise. This problem is not an excuse to valorize non-scientific thought nor to throw out all science (any more than the existence of residual mysteries about the universe is a blank check to believe in ghosts and werewolves), but it’s a real problem — akin to making the logical leap from the long-term efficiency of market processes to saying that we can trust in the wisdom of all currently-existing businesses.

The problem is certainly one relevant to my real job, combating unscientific nonsense that is mostly created by real, credentialed (but nonetheless agenda-driven and context-dropping) scientists. I mentioned the problem to a nice skeptic couple I know, and the scientist wife assured me that if there are errors, science quickly weeds them out. I simply don’t believe that anymore (at least not the quickly part, which is key, and not in highly politicized topic areas) — especially once certain rhetorical forms of context-dropping (such as flatly calling things “carcinogens(!)” that are really only “possible carcinogens to some rodents if administered in astonishingly high doses of no relevance to ordinary human exposures”) become so institutionalized that no one feels guilty about using them anymore, be they scientists or university PR departments seeking attention for the latest (likely irrelevant) research, let alone ratings-seeking reporters, who I’m almost starting to feel sorry for, given how irresponsible some of the scientists are. In science as in business: love the process, hate many of the practitioners is increasingly my attitude.

And I must say, I sure felt like I was at work while recently re-reading that passage in Atlas Shrugged in which Dagny tries to get the head of the government science center to admit to the meaninglessness of the center’s vaguely-worded statement condemning Rearden Metal as maybe-possibly-potentially dangerous in some as yet unknown way (my boss has had similar experiences trying to get National Cancer Institute heads to admit that they know industrial chemicals are not a significant source of cancer). Check out the wording of the FDA’s recent worried-sounding yet non-banning announcement regarding the harmless but paranoia-attracting chemical BPA if you don’t think government-fueled weasel-science is slow-motion-eroding industrial civilization before our eyes in much the same way. I worry.


Dave said...

I think a good Rand analogy for Global Warming is her description of Elsworth Toohey’s column and it’s role in society. She says he distills the essentials of architecture down to twelve (or something) fundamental elements that are easy for the layman to repeat, and at cocktail parties, they repeat lines they’ve read in his columns to seem knowledgeable about the subject.

I’ve never encountered such unscientific people as those who support the AGW thesis. I actually volunteer with land preservation groups, so my “lefty” credentials are pretty strong, but the moment I ask a question (such as, couldn’t volatility in the hockey stick graph be explained by improvements in measurement over the last 50 years), their script dictates that they’re under attack and must defend themselves by acting snarky towards me. The better a job I do poking holes in their knowledge base, the more I’m viewed as a wise ass. (The right does the same thing. Once I had the nerve to suggest that James Inhofe was …wait for it…. a politician and not a scientist, and my throat was similarly jumped down for insubordination)

Unfortunately, the media hasn’t done a very good job in explaining the difference between a policy paper created by a political body, the IPCC, and a scientific study. The Left should recognize that it’s a political paper, not an endpoint of knowledge, and the Right should recognize that flaws in their information-collection method don’t necessarily disprove the thesis, since, yes, it’s political, not scientific in nature.

In other words, there is alot of angry and snarky talking about something that people really don’t understand.

Todd Seavey said...

Well said, and in related news, the story atop Drudge at the moment is the often-embarrassing UN climate chief stepping down. I declare a twenty-year moratorium on that political issue.

Dave said...

Thought you might be interested in this article. It’s interesting if a little meandering, but basically, what I got out of it was that trees grow faster when there is an excess of CO2 – thereby mitigating excess.

But I noticed this paragraph and it reminded me of the statement about Rearden Metal:

“”The danger of that, of course, is that this can’t go on forever,” said Kenneth Feeley, a professor at Florida International University. He meant that, even if there was enough carbon dioxide to support more fast growth, the trees would eventually run out of water or plant food. Their growth would slow down, and they would stop absorbing so much carbon.”

Seems to me like they just included this quote to balance their evidence – that trees (and by extension, the Earth) can adapt – with a speculative statement. Notice how certainly he states what WOULD (not could) eventually happen. It’s as though they couldn’t print the article for its own sake, but needed to include statements that basically imply carbon emissions are bad anyway. (oh yeah, and I love that this environmentalist is named Feel-y. It’s like they’re preparing for a philosophical dialog with his counterpart, Think-y)

In all fairness, I think a good portion of the non-thinking public could read this and think it’s conclusive evidence that excess CO2 can’t possibly be a problem, as opposed to simply another value-free fact in the cannon of ecological knowledge. But the writers/editors are obviously hand-picking the speculations they include – it’s very AGW agenda driven. Personally I’d think the logical appeal would be to plant more trees or protect forests, considering these are literally tree huggers, instead, it was an implication that we need to cut down CO2 emissions to protect the trees. If they get too healthy, they’ll run out of food! That sounds like more of an appeal against healthcare reform, if you’re going to use that logic (if too many people are too healthy and live too long, we may run out of food!).

Honestly, I’m all for protecting forests and planting trees – I just don’t think an appeal to global warming is needed for that. And as I illustrated above, they circumvented the pro-tree appeal in order to make the more political cut-CO2-emissions appeal.

And what’s really perplexing is that there are so many more tangible benefits to protecting forests. Everything from aesthetics, to measurable local environmental change, to the fact that they’re biological laboratories. I’m not arguing that you need to agree with those benefits, I’m just saying they’re tangible, you’re free to agree and disagree on a value level, but factually, they’re sort of objective.

Fascinating that that gets replaced by something very few people understand. My guess is that forests are only appealing to the extent that they don’t stand in the way of roads and shopping malls. But AGW implies that it’s all or nothing.