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The Missing Link, Creationism and Climate Change

July 16, 2010

(This article was written for Skeptical Science and is cross-posted here)

I’ve always thought it rather specious to demand conclusive causative evidence that anthropogenic CO2 causes climate change. Skeptical Science has frequently demonstrated how good a case science can make for anthropogenic climate change (ACC), including a round-up of multiple lines of empirical evidence (http://www.skepticalscience.com/empirical-evidence-for-global-warming.htm) .

Yet the evidence does not impinge on some arguments. In desperation, I’ve also tried logic – don’t laugh – and it’s hard to know quite how the wheels can come off so fast, except to observe that logic depends on conventions that both sides of a debate must consistently observe. The glorious advantage of the ‘missing link’ argument is, as creationists already know, it presents a perfect, self-reinforcing paradigm of scientific failure, built on the straw foundations of mathematical proofs applied to linear systems; predictable – if not inviolable, processes. The inferential science of observation and rationalisation is demeaned and denied, even though a control Earth to play with is a patently absurd idea. So many arguments depend on the exclusive precepts of classical science; rule and regulation, set in stone (or so they appear to the unwary). Too bad the ecosystem doesn’t work like that.

*  * *

William of Ockham’s razor often gets wielded in a dangerous manner. When you apply it properly, you have a fairly standard reductionist chain of inference that leads to anthropogenic climate change, because no other contender is left standing. This isn’t a popular line of reasoning in the climate debate, however, because it lends itself to easily to rebuttals that focus on what you might call a negative proof e.g. ‘it’s what is left’. In fact, science works through many hypotheses in this way, starting with as many ideas as can be generated, before testing them with the ubiquitous razor – truly the cut and thrust of science: last theory standing.

Personally, I don’t have any problem with this rationalisation, although I have read enough science to know that the evidence is very coherent. I was won over by the sheer weight of it; overpowered, actually. Only the cautionary note of scepticism remained: it was theoretically possible that some exotic, as yet undiscovered, causative mechanism was at work, heating up the planet. Theoretically. The weight I assign to this probability is measured by the time we’ve had to postulate, let alone find, such a mechanism. For all the hot air, the denial industry has failed spectacularly to suggest anything that fits all the criteria.

All the criteria. There it is; the catalyst for this article. I’ve been looking for a better way to explain how climate science adds up, and when I read Naomi Oreskes reference to “multiple, independent lines of evidence converging on a single coherent account” (redefining William Whewell’s theory regarding the “Consilience of evidence” in his 1840 book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences), I found what I was looking for.

Climate science is a Pandora’s box, out of which come primary questions. These questions, which are fundamental, cannot be un-asked; we asked what would happen to the climate if we artificially increased the proportions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the answer is important. Science cannot get bored with the question, turn to something more interesting. Nor can it be halted by threat, by intimidation or censure, by propaganda or popular opinion. We are compelled now, as ever, to answer the primary questions that science is asking. And when we consider the sheer scope of potential and observed climate changes and the multi-disciplinary range of investigation, it becomes evident how powerful a paradigm anthropogenic climate change really is, for it is the ‘single coherent account’ that Oreskes identifies so well.

Anthropogenic climate change is not where science starts, thinking to fit the theory to as many phenomena as it can. ACC is where you end up following any single line of enquiry. Only when you reach this destination do you look around, to discover that everyone else has arrived at the same terminus. This is the consensus of climate change: the end point of all journeys for those studying sea level rises, the Arctic, the Antarctic, the glaciers and the ice caps, the changes in precipitation, seasonal periodicity, changes in ocean pH, weather events, droughts and famines, resource management, agriculture – and every effect being studied is occurring simultaneously. (I cannot stress how important I believe this last point to be: nearly all phenomena associated with climate change have occurred in the past – and this is a common argument of course. What rarely gets asked is this: at what point in the history of the earth did all these things happen at the same time, and at the same speed?)

Every discipline that finds itself affected or threatened by climate change reaches the same broad conclusion, the ‘single coherent account’ that is anthropogenic climate change. It is time we stopped pretending there is likely to be another theory, another causative agent, that could be changing the planet’s ecosystem, and owned up. So far, we look rather more like children crying ‘I didn’t touch it…it fell all on its own’, than adults accepting responsibility for what we do. We have a coherent account; let’s match it with actions that are equally coherent, and let’s do it while we can, because we are surely running out of time.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. Jock Lenehan permalink
    July 17, 2010 7:02 am

    Graham has one glaring error in his proposition. It is that those attempting to support AGW, are in the position of the creationists, and not the Realists, who support science.

    There is not only an absence of any scientific basis for AGW, there are peer reviewed studies by reputable qualified scientists which demonstrate that all global warming is accounted for, from natural sources.

    All the items referred to by the alarmists for their “but look at this” strategy, have all occurred before and are natural phenomena, which will continue to occur.

    The simple fact is that AGW, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars, on thousands of scientists for the specific purpose of finding a scientific basis for it, has no such basis.

    The huge carbon cycle of Nature, upon which all life on Earth depends, continues to function as it always has, and human emissions have no measurable effect on it.

    The laughable part of this, is that the deniers of science, the supporters of the baseless AGW assertions, are calling the Realists “deniers”.

  2. July 17, 2010 11:00 am

    Excellent piece mate!
    Found you on Skeptical Science.
    There’s no shortage of people like Jock unfortunately. John Cook has made the argument clear as have others. I’ve recently compared Nova’s handbook to John’s rebuttal and elaborated. There are multiple lines of evidence of AGW. The bulk of the relevant literature also supports this line. It is the opposite argument that Jock is sprouting that is indeed baseless.
    One is often called a denier for basing their views on a handful of papers (indeed there are a few papers that argue against AGW) over the bulk of literature – that is highly selective thinking and far from scientific. If the alternate scientific papers held any weight, they would have been adopted and our views would’ve been radically different even before Jock heard anything about the subject.
    There is plenty of measurable effects Jock, only a mind that’s closed could have overlooked this.

  3. gpwayne permalink*
    July 17, 2010 12:30 pm

    OK Jock – here’s how it works. I don’t mind you disagreeing at all – debate is healthy, but only if it has some agreed basis (as I mentioned in the article). So for you to claim there is a glaring error in my proposition without providing a rebuttal is simply unacceptible to me. You have not identified the error, merely turned my argument through 180 degrees – and this is the standard projection that the denialists use all the time – attributing their own rhetorical vices to those they oppose.

    There is not only an absence of any scientific basis for AGW, there are peer reviewed studies by reputable qualified scientists which demonstrate that all global warming is accounted for, from natural sources.

    This kind of stuff I won’t put up with. The claim there is no scientific basis is simply stupid, since there’s 200 years worth of science behind the theory, and every scientific institution in the world finds anthropogenic climate change theory to be credible. Why write something so patently false and demagogic? Don’t you care if you appear foolish and lack any credibility?

    And if you are going to make claims about science you better back them up with evidence. Your claim that any peer-reviewed study can account for all warming is fiction. Either you don’t know what you’re talking about, or you made that up (in which case it is a bald lie). When you or any other poster makes a claim like this, you better bring your evidence, or I will regard your post as denialist trolling and erase your ass.

    All the items referred to by the alarmists for their “but look at this” strategy, have all occurred before and are natural phenomena, which will continue to occur.

    Did you even bother to read the article? You just managed to repeat the exact failed logic I refer to in the piece. Sure, all the phenomena have happened before, but never all at the same time, at the same speed.

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    July 17, 2010 12:33 pm

    Hi old bean – I’ve challenged Jock to act like an adult and enter into a discourse instead of stating duff opinions as facts. We’ll see if he manages it.

  5. July 18, 2010 1:00 am

    Just read it; nicely put.
    I got tired of making the same arguments with trollers (I got into 2 arguments that went around in circles for a couple weeks each before I wizened up). Now I just use the Innovation series that I did (chapters 4-8 go into a lot of the bio-physical indicators noted in many peer-reviewed literature) and the Cook vs Nova piece – where I expand on John Cook’s excellent (and concise) Scientific guide to the skeptics handbook – in which I provide some peer-reviewed literature of the observed increases in the greenhouse effect in relation to our emissions… From then on I just provide the links where they’re happy to debate if they’ve go the science to do so.
    I’m really at the point of what to do now to address the changing world of energy supplies. 🙂
    I’ve got your blog on the reader now and look forward to reading a lot more!

  6. The King In Yellow permalink
    July 19, 2010 1:44 pm

    Good article.
    Even the conservative press is starting to spot the lack of substance to the deniers’ arguments:

    http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2010/07/15/bad-science-global-warming-deniers-are-a-liability-to-the-conservative-cause/

    All the best.

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 20, 2010 5:23 am

    Nice to see you here – and I’m just writing up something on the very issue you’ve identified so watch this space…

  8. adelady permalink
    July 20, 2010 10:04 am

    It’s a couple of days later. I rather fancy Jock is using the seagull strategy.

    Fly in. Squawk. Sh!t all over everything. Fly away squawking.

    (This tactic has me absolutely enraged today.
    The articles reporting on Stephen Schneider’s death all seem to have an early, deeply nasty comment from someone like this. Some of them even have the bare-faced gall to slip in a snide little comment offering condolences to his family.)

  9. July 20, 2010 10:40 am

    I’m with you… It’s simply further evidence of just how far many have left the science behind on the subject.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 20, 2010 11:42 am

    I think you’re right. Gives me a problem – I can’t make up my mind if the blog would be better if I just delete stuff like that, but censorship is only a tiny step further on from moderation.

  11. July 20, 2010 12:10 pm

    I tend to have the same problem. I guess if they have nothing to offer and don’t entertain a conversation, they’re just bombing your site at random and don’t deserve it to remain for other readers..
    That said, a number of comments have followed Jock’s so maybe, for the reference of others who might read the comments it might make sense to keep it – also it show’s a good response to such individuals.

  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 20, 2010 3:45 pm

    I’m generous with the rope, you could say… 🙂

  13. The King in Yellow permalink
    July 21, 2010 2:37 pm

    Three unsubstantiated assertions/posts (three strikes) and they’re out (moderated) ?

    (a) gives true skeptics a chance to make substantive contributions;
    (b) gives deniers a chance to … do whatever deniers think they’re doing…;
    (c) keeps the comments on topic.

    Just my 2p.

    All the best.

  14. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 21, 2010 4:52 pm

    Just so you know, the nested comments were getting on my wick, so I disposed of them.

    And to King In Yellow – good value for 2p mate ! I was surprised to see how far the thread strayed on Skeptical Science, but I agree that staying on topic is sensible, and those that want to take it elsewhere usually have an ulterior motive, since denial often seems to be about disrupting discussion. I do want to give ‘extreme sceptics’ a chance too – but not if they are just going to spam us with a load of cut and paste pseudo-science.

  15. G. Thomas Farmer, Ph.D. permalink
    July 30, 2010 10:56 pm

    Jock has been living on another planet! I hope it is not like this one where the evidence of global warming is, like organic evolution, overwhelming. Denial is not helping nor is a non-scientist, e.g., politician like Inhof, helping people of Earth face the facts so tremendously important to mankind’s future.

  16. June 13, 2011 5:00 am

    Dear Graham, can you refer me to the source of Oreskes’ quote you mentioned?

  17. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 13, 2011 6:34 am

    Sure – it’s from a presentation (available in PDF form) she gave called “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?”

    It’s good you asked, because what I’d forgotten was that she in turn was quoting William Whewell’s “Consilience of evidence”. I must change the text to give credit to the originator of this definition. I’ll also inform John Cook, because he uses this quote quite often.

  18. June 13, 2011 7:04 am

    Thanks, I’ve also emailed Naomi about it. I’ll let you know if I receive a response.

  19. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 13, 2011 8:02 am

    Thanks – I’d be interested to hear what she says, because I’m now pretty sure it’s her ‘orginal’ quote, but drawing on Whewell’s definition of consilience from The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Please do let me know if she responds.

  20. June 14, 2011 1:41 am

    Dear Graham,

    Naomi emailed me about the source of this quote. She confirmed that she has not specifically said it in any of her books or other printed publications and that the slides for her 2007 presentation to the American Meteorological Society is the best citation for the quote.

    At slide 83 of 109 of her 2007 presentation she referred to the “Consilience of evidence” and cited William Whewell before saying “Multiple, independent lines of evidence converging on a single coherent account.” It’s not presented as a direct quote from William Whewell but, rather, that he is the source of the idea.

    Naomi confirmed that she was summarising Whewell’s writing and that it wasn’t a direct quote.

    For her 2007 presentation to the American Meteorological Society she provided a 2007 paper she had written entitled, “The scientific consensus on climate change: How do we know we’re not wrong?”, which was published as Chapter 4 in Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, edited by Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, MIT Press, pp. 65-99 (it is available in PDF at http://www.ametsoc.org/atmospolicy/70622ESSS.html).

    The chapter doesn’t contain the quote although it comes close at pages 89-91 discussing the consilience of evidence and referring to Whewell. She noted in that section that “[Scientists] look for independent lines of evidence that hold together” and “… many different lines of evidence point in this direction”.

    Naomi also mentioned that she discussed this issue at great length in her first book, The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science (Oxford University Press, 1999), happily still in print (see http://www.amazon.com/Rejection-Continental-Drift-American-Science/dp/0195117336).

  21. June 14, 2011 1:45 am

    Dear Graham,

    Although it will be obvious to you, for anyone else reading my last comment, I should have noted that Naomi’s 2007 presentation to the American Meteorological Society that I referred to as the source of her quote is the source that you had referred to at the link you provided http://www.ametsoc.org/atmospolicy/Presentations/Oreskes%20Presentation%20for%20Web.pdf. The quote is at slide 83 of 109.

  22. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 14, 2011 6:38 am

    Good stuff Chris – thanks for that. I contacted John (Cook) who said he’d met you recently and sends his regards.

  23. June 14, 2011 6:44 am

    Yes, I’m lucky enough to have John right here in Brisbane where I live. He has a fabulous website.

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