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Why ALL climate change science must be wrong!

April 3, 2010

It doesn’t matter what science discovers about climate change. Immediately after any announcement, blogs and other commentary outlets are full of dismissal. Nah, say the climate change fundamentalists, they are wrong; they are in the pay of xxx (insert your favourite conspiracy theory here); they are merely seeking next year’s funding, they don’t know what they are doing; they are incompetent, their satellites are faulty, their statistical methods flawed, and so on. It is, of course, a knee-jerk reaction, and lacks credibility for this very reason, but it is also part of a rather curious phenomenon regarding the credibility of sources.

One of the things I find quite difficult to comprehend is how people can rely on sources that display such a patent bias. We all know of a few well-known blogs at the forefront of climate change denialism. I’ve visited them myself from time to time, and the thing that strikes me most is the one-sided presentation of the material. Am I really not stating the bleeding obvious when I say that the only balanced presentation of any subject is that which presents all the material available? Any source that decries every single element of science, every investigation, every method, every result – how can such a source really be credible?

The sin of omission features heavily, too. I have often noted how the extremists focus on the low-hanging fruit of the climate change debate: models and reconstructions. Nobody understands them well except the tiny few who work in this area. Arguments are constructed using a kind of sophistry, where expectations are elevated to unreasonable heights, in order to dismiss the models because they can’t satisfy such unreasonable demands (the straw man method).

Then we have arguments about motive – money usually, with ideology coming a close second – and there are possibly more outrageous and unsubstantiated accusations made about motive than there are arguments based on bad or non-existent science, and that’s saying something. No fanatical argument is complete without the customary dragging out of the hockey stick – something of a ritual for the pious – despite the fact that arguing about that or CRU projections of temperature rise seem a bit moot when the ice is melting, and of course the boogie-men are dragged out of their cells for a quick thrashing – Gore, Mann, Hansen, Schmidt, Monbiot, Patchauri, Jones – along with various right/left political tropes I have written about elsewhere in this blog.

By focussing on the irrelevant, we expose the sin of omission in all its shabby glory. The only time the evidence – physical evidence – is mentioned, like the ice melting, is when the fundamentalists can’t seem to get their heads round the difference between area (extent) and volume (mass). The most frequent claim is that sea ice is increasing, but it’s pretty easy to rebut this in respect of the Arctic since it’s only increasing since 2007 (that year being the record low) and remains a million or more square kilometres short of the previous average. (Source: NSIDC). In the Antarctic, things are rather strange, in that there is more sea ice being formed due, counter-intuitively, to increased latent heat in the Southern Ocean. (Source: SkepticalScience). Sea-ice, of course, is not a problem either way, since it forming or melting does not change sea levels. Just for the record, the issue is the land-based ice melting, because the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice-sheets are both losing mass, melting largely from the edges and below as the water warms up. Recent news that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting (along with the west sheet, which we knew about already) should be cause for considerable alarm, but that never gets a look in when you read the denialist blogs or followers post their angry diatribes in the MSM. (Source: Guardian)

But I digress. To return to my theme, you wouldn’t know any of this from the extremist sites, nor from posts by those who deny climate change is man-made. I am therefore moved to ask: what kind of people rely on sites that don’t give them all the information? And why is it that the sites most favoured by climate change deniers don’t feature balanced content? After all, is it really possible that all the science – every single bit of it – is wrong? All of it? Just how unlikely does this sound?

When considering this point, we must remember something important about science as a whole. All science is based on previous science – hence Newton’s remark about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. From Copernicus and Galileo, through Kepler and Newton, Pasteur, Maxwell, Darwin, Mendeleev, Curie, Faraday, Einstein, Hubble, Dirac…these lists are arbitrary depending on your viewpoint, but many great men and some few women have made astonishing contributions to the body of scientific knowledge, and all current research is predicated on what they established.

To dismiss the science of climate change, one is essentially required to dismiss the entirety of physics, chemistry, maths and all the other scientific disciplines that form the foundation of every practical application of science though technology that we take for granted today. Climate change does not depend on computer models; it depends on 19th century research into the property of gases carried out by Tyndall, the lab experiments that validated the theory of the ‘greenhouse’ effect in our atmosphere conducted by Arrhenius at the at the end of the same century, and fifty years of work from Callander onwards during the 1950s, out of which our current understanding is based. They in turn depended on all the work that preceded them, in effect a magnificent foundation that saved them having to re-invent the wheel every single day. This is the edifice of science, and there is a direct chain of established science between the first and the very latest discovery.

Given the remarkable and substantial chain of sound and incontrovertible science that precedes and supports work on climate change, it is rather odd that, according to those predisposed to dismiss the theory of anthropogenic climate change, the entire chain of probabilities is wrong, every measurement is suspect, every system flawed, every scientist mistaken at best, meretriciously wrong at worst. At a certain point in the consideration of this debate, one starts to feel a certain suspicion about the premises on which such arguments appear to be based, and wonder how it is that allegedly sceptical sites are so very one-sided, that nobody who visits them seems to notice, or treats them with the caution such blatant selectivity should engender.

Climate change deniers have a problem, and it manifests itself in this lack of balance. For them, all the science that supports the theory must be wrong, not just some of it. If they ever admit to even one investigation being accurate, one result pointing in the direction they try so hard to avoid, their entire position is undermined. There is no science in which equivocation plays a part, for science will always seek to eliminate it. Gradually, they close down all escape routes, until what they are left with is the essence of the thing, the theory that nobody can be bothered to challenge any more because the probabilities are so stacked against any further revelation to the contrary. This is the state of climate science to a large extent; very few scientists active in the field are swimming against the tide now. The science may not be entirely settled, but in the weighting of probabilities, another cause for the planet’s changing climate is considered too unlikely. It isn’t as if scientists didn’t start out looking for other mechanisms, but over time they have come to find the most likely cause is also the most probable, because there is nothing else that they, or the fundamentalists, can come up with that fits all the available evidence, and all the science on which their work depends for its foundations.

Yet the denialists keep at it, keep dismissing everything that confirms and consolidates the theory of anthropogenic climate change. For them, all science must be wrong, because to admit that a single study, a single piece of work or conclusion is correct, is to admit the possibility that they might be wrong.

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