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Climate Change Ducking and Diving: Shadow Boxing with Pielke Sr

September 11, 2010

Right now, I don’t think I’m Dr. Roger Pielke Sr’s favourite journalist. I wrote a short piece for Skeptical Science about ocean heat (Ocean cooling: skeptic arguments drowned by data), and used a claim made by Pielke as the principle example of the sceptical argument I was rebutting. Not long afterwards, a new post appeared on Pielke’s blog; clearly he wasn’t very happy with me, or my piece.

Now I’m not the kind of chap to turn the other cheek, so I wrote a long response deconstructing Pielke’s defence – and lamenting not only that he had declined to discuss my work in the SkepticalScience forum, but had comments turned off on his own site post so I couldn’t respond in situ.

It was a busy day. I had appointments, thing to pick up and things to put down. While I went about my business, I kept getting the feeling I was being followed.

I’m teasing. It’s just that something troubled me about the whole affair, and I couldn’t shake it off. I felt vulnerable. Later I came to realise that my problem was one that many journalists face when they write about science. We don’t do science, we report on what scientists tell us. We are mere messengers most of the time  – we don’t write the message, and depend on the integrity of those that do, hence the vulnerability. And most crucially, we do not mount challenges on the basis of our own research. How then did I come to criticise one of the world’s leading climate researchers? On what basis, with what qualification or authority?

Most science writers are generalists. Most of us want to explore the whole gamut of science out of our fascination with the subject (or a more base desire to earn a crust). In doing so, we are bound to stray out of any comfort zone we acquired as part of our formative education. Time, topicality and deadlines press on us. We cannot afford to get bogged down in detail, yet without it, how can we tell if we’re reporting accurately what the science says, let alone draw conclusions or criticise it?

That’s what was bugging me yesterday. Getting into a scrap with Pielke Sr may seem flattering, but in person – and in detail on the science in which he is expert – Pielke would make mincemeat of me in a second. No contest. When you are a writer, humility and income may be mutually exclusive. But I have an obligation to ensure I’m not just filling bags with hot air and trying to flog them to reputable media outlets for the sake of a fee – or my ego. How can I dispute the findings of an eminent scientist without being one myself? The answer is by employing pattern recognition.

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In his 2005 book The Wisdom Paradox, clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine Elkhonon Goldberg wrote that pattern recognition was an aspect of perception that does not deteriorate as we age, and may in fact improve throughout our lives. What we describe as ‘wisdom’ is often an ability to deduce hidden or opaque information, sometimes with (apparently) very little to go on, because we recognise the patterns.

When Pielke turned up at the SkepticalScience site to defend his position, the patterns emerged thick and fast. My familiarity with his methods owes much to the time I have spent in CiF arguing with AGW sceptics. Not just them, but creationists, 9/11 troofers, Millennium bug deniers, even – to my surprise, since I thought we’d really nailed down the lid of this particular coffin – a few ozone hole sceptics, emerging from their foxholes to discover the war was over, and they lost. Methods employed by these disparate groups are remarkably similar, and consistently inconsistent. In particular, if you have a really good argument, they will relentlessly avoid it.

What was it Pielke was avoiding? I’m not going to rehearse the detail – you can follow the whole debate on the Skeptical Science site if you’re interested, although it does get arcane – made so deliberately, in fact. All the usual rhetorical suspects are employed in Pielke’s arguments – obfuscation, motorised goal-posts, gish gallops, trite personalisation and obscure references, often circular and contradictory. These are the patterns, and they really are so bloody obvious I started to feel a little insulted.

I made some pretty logical observations. Short time-scales for climate metrication are unreliable because of inherent noise; how many times in do we have to explain why 30-year trends are preferable – weather versus climate and all that? You’d think Pielke would know this, surely? Of course he does – the real question is why he’s ignoring it when he makes strident claims about global warming based on 5 years of data, from 2005 to 2009.

His assertions about this short period are even more shaky when you consider that other researchers of comparable skill (e.g. Trenberth and von Schuckmann) strongly disagree with Pielke. But the smoking gun of Pielke’s culpability is the statement he plonked on top of this house of cards: “Global warming, as diagnosed by upper ocean heat content has not been occurring since 2004”.

I don’t care how qualified a scientist may be, how many paper’s he published, how many citations his work received. This statement is rubbish. The ice was still melting – and the negative mass balance was accelerating in the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. Atmospheric temperatures still went up. Sea levels still increased. What kind of scientist ignores the majority of the evidence? (Answer – one with an axe to grind).

No self-respecting scientist should make such broad, unqualified assumptions based on such flimsy, selective and highly equivocal evidence. Why would Pielke make such a claim? The answer lies in his ‘other’ reputation. There is good reason why his name is so strongly associated with climate change scepticism. It is because he keeps saying things like this. Would you be surprised to hear that he also disputes the ice melting and the sea level rises? Well, he does, and it’s all part of the same pattern.

His attempts to defend himself revealed more patterns. He kept trying to change the subject, discussing various methods of assessing ocean heat. This had nothing whatever to do with my criticisms. I pointed this out several times, rephrasing my objections. In the end, he just ignored me and discussed with others the use of joules as a better metric for climate change. Along the way he made a few assertions that astonished other posters – some pretty well qualified scientists themselves. We were buried under reams of over-elaborated references, many of them to his own work.

It was, in the end, a useful exercise. Several contributors noted that Pielke was ducking and diving, and said so. Others attempted to defend him, making disparaging remarks about me or colluding to change the subject. The whole thing was rather dispiriting really; the lack of intellectual honesty was sad and rather shameful, because – as I pointed out – when he makes these kind of foolish assertions, the denial industry grabs hold of them with glee. They are rather short of reputable figures, so ambiguous or misleading statements from the likes of Pielke, Spencer, Lindzen, Christy et. al. spread through cyberspace with terrifying speed, doing untold damage.

Since Pielke knows this perfectly well, I am obliged to conclude that this isn’t a case of scientific dispute. It is science tainted by ideology or contrarianism. It is confirmation bias. It is wilful, knowing misrepresentation of science. Pielke and others supply live ammunition to the enemies of science, those who advocate its criminalisation, the flogging of climate change advocates, the burning of books. Dr. Pielke Sr may not be the enemy, but he looks a lot like a collaborator to me.

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