Climate debate and facts

Reading in the local newspaper last week I was surprised to find the following statement in an opinion piece by Chris Kenny:

People are scorned as “deniers” simply for pointing out the scientifically agreed fact that Earth has not warmed for a decade.

Overall the article, “I’m sick of the scare tactics in climate debate”, is concerned with the rhetoric that currently fills any discussion over climate and so I was curious about the offhand way such a simply wrong fact was thrown in there. In the next paragraph we then had the following:

And that no one has yet proved a link between human activities and/or carbon emissions and climate change.

The second half of this statement could be discussed as the word “prove” can be ambiguous but I was more interested in the first statement, which again is simply wrong.

With this in mind I wrote a letter to the editor and assumed , in this case incorrectly, that it would be simply ignored as that is my first hand experience of any complaints about the standard of journalism in The Advertiser. To my surprise I soon received a phone call from the editor advising me that they would be publishing my letter. Unfortunately The Advertiser does not put it’s letters online, unlike opinion pieces from it’s journalists, so I can’t show you the link to the letter. However I can simply show you what I wrote as I kept a copy. What is below is in two parts, the first part is what was published, the second is what was left out.

“Chris Kenny’s latest opinion piece with a subtitle of “I’m sick of the scare tactics in climate debate”, will I’m sure be leading to pots and kettles eying each other off. Chris makes the claim “People are scorned as “deniers” simply for pointing out the scientifically agreed fact that Earth has not warmed for a decade.” This is simply wrong and not a fact. The scientific consensus is currently well represented by the following statement from the Hadley Climate Center, “A simple mathematical calculation of the temperature change over the latest decade (1998-2007) alone shows a continued warming of 0.1 °C per decade.” Now, people can argue about other issues and what this means, however the fact of observation is not, unless you care to deny reality.Chris further states “And that no one has yet proved a link between human activities and/or carbon emissions and climate change.” Addressing the first part of this claim scientist have clearly demonstrated that the increasing CO2 levels correspond with a decreasing C13/C12 isotope ratio which is due to human burning of fossil fuels and not a natural process.
Simply put Chris, what you said is wrong.
Now, no-one is going to deny there are alarmists in both camps on this topic which really doesn’t help but could we please respect the facts and concentrate the debate on areas of uncertainty?”

The section that was left out of the published letter, for completeness was:

“And as for “Why the scare campaign”? Chris, of all people, being an adviser to a government should know. Because they work, regardless of which side of the fence you live on. The media could perform us all some justice by promoting articles that investigate facts and not just hype the spin, confuse people and promote ignorance. And a few less straw man arguments by journalists claiming to be skeptical wouldn’t go amiss. Skeptics seek the facts to support an argument and promote critical thinking, aspects sadly lacking in this present debate. However for those wanting such a debate, then please come along to the Skeptics National conference in Adelaide in October where this very topic will be debated on the Sunday morning session.”

Now it’s fine to cut the letter and with hindsight what was cut will be going straight back to them because I find out today, 1 week later, it would appear Chris has a bee in his bonnet about this issue. And the straw man arguments return which is really sad because I remember the long past days of decent journalism.

Without further ado here is his rebuke:


Sceptics can’t deny the facts

  • Skeptics SA accused me of getting my climate change facts wrong last week. However, the U.K.’s Hadley Centre shows none of the past 10 years has been as warm as 1998. Sure, the centre claims there is still evidence of a warming trend, albeit reduced from a decade ago. But it confirms that each of the past 10 years has been cooler than 1998.
  • The Skeptics SA letter also referred to scientific consensus. We often hear this term now but science is not about consensus, it is about objective fact.
  • Another reader asks what more Australia could do to reduce carbon emissions. If we were serious, the first thing we would do is lift our ban on uranium exports to India.
  • Just to restate what happened, someone made a claim, it was factually wrong and they were corrected. I would have thought that’s the end of the matter, lesson learnt. As a skeptic I certainly was not denying the facts. And no-one is claiming that 1998 was not a hot year. Is stating that “Sceptics (sic) can’t deny the facts” suggesting that skeptics have denied the facts? Who knows. Perhaps Chris is claiming he is now a skeptic and that even he can’t deny the facts anymore? That would be reassuring however it is again misleading to state something out of context and to ignore the factual reason which is given by the Hadley Centre. To get a view of the temperature over the past few years, here’s the graph showing this.

    The temperature spike at 1998 can clearly be seen. And it’s explanation, which Chris does not even hint at:

    1998 saw an exceptional El Niño event which contributed strongly to that record-breaking year. Research shows that an exceptional El Niño can warm global temperatures by about 0.2 °C in a single year, affecting both the ocean surface and air temperatures over land. Had any recent years experienced such an El Niño, it is very likely that this record would have been broken. 2005 was also an unusually warm year, the second highest in the global record, but was not associated with El Niño conditions that boosted the warmth of 1998.

    A picture says a thousand words and anyone can see that 1998 is an usual year. It is also apparent that what the Hadley Centre claims about increasing temperature is also correct. The fact that 1998 was a record breaking year does not invalidate the statement from the Hadley Centre that the average temperature is increasing. And before people jump in with “but the last 6 years hasn’t warmed” I’d just like to point out we are not denying this. We’d also not support it either because the error bars clearly show the error measurement is much larger that what we are looking for. The correct position is “we don’t really know”. Perhaps some of the readings were wrong, perhaps there were other things happening such as what happened in 1960’s with increased aerosols and particulates, who knows. That’s why we have error bars on good graphs, so we know how good the data is and don’t make incorrect claims.

    This leads into Chris’s second point, that about consensus and his incorrect belief it has no place in science. If the world was perfect, measurements never had errors, all factors and processes were well known, humans were perfect and generally the whole place was painted in black or white then this would be a valid statement. However in the reality based world that science lives in we know this isn’t correct.

    When you make a measurement there is error and variation. Sometimes there are competing explanations for observations. Sometimes the world is complex and it’s not apparent exactly what is influencing what and what the processes are. And sometimes people have differing points of view and different backgrounds that enable them to look at the same data but draw different conclusions. However this does not mean no claims can be made, as many post-modernists are want to do, or that nothing can be said until everyone totally agrees. There is a misconception in the general public, and this applies to nearly all journalists, the vast majority of whom have no background in science, that science gathers pure unambiguous facts and then make a dogmatic decree of the new knowledge gained. This might be great for depicting a scientist for Hollywood but reality is different. Vastly different.

    Actual science involves the rather more nebulous concept of supplying the best explanation for the available evidence. There is no place for dogmatic belief, unlike in religion where maintaining the status quo and existing faith based knowledge is crucially important. The “best explanation” involves many scientists agreeing that a conclusion can be drawn from the available body of evidence and, shock, horror this is usually done in a via consensus. Now some people might suggest the data is not accurate enough, or not enough data has been collected, or that it is not representative or a hundred reasons why they personally cannot accept the proposed conclusion. That’s fine and science allows for dissent, in fact it strives on dissent. However when the vast majority of scientists agree on something then that’s good enough. If someone brings along more,better or different evidence and it’s convincing and of suitable quality then the consensus will change. It would be lovely to live in a world of unambiguous objective fact but unfortunately that world only exists in the minds of those ignorant to the scientific method, those used to living in a world of political decree and religious dogma.

    And for a recent discussion about long term trends, see this article I wrote a while ago.

    Firepower scam

    To many of us, this scam is about as surprising and the sun rising in the east this morning. What is surprising, but probably shouldn’t be, is the number of people who fell for it. Some of these people should have known better based on what the product was claiming, all should have known better using simple common sense.

    When something sounds too good to be true it usually is.

    “He said it’s going to be bigger than Microsoft, and I thought Whoa!” – investor (courtesy of ABC four corners)

    [This scam: Make claim unsupported by any scientific evidence that you can improve fuel efficiency by a lot, at least 10%, using various methods. Set up a company and sell shares, promising that you have or are about to have valuable contracts from various companies that will use this product. Collect money as people buy shares believing the lies you tell. Run away with money.]

    When this happens it is always prudent and wise to spend a bit of time investigating what is actually being claimed. However in this particularly scam it would appear that due diligence was rarely seen. How people can throw around hundreds of thousands of dollars and not have a clue is really beyond me. Perhaps my life experiences are clouded by not having more money than sense. And having more sense is surly no guarantee of gaining more money.

    However in this particular case the incredible lack of anyone able to investigate the claims is truly astounding. It would appear that one person, out of the hundreds, if not thousands involved, questioned this company and raised the issue with ASIC. The rest were just sucked in and lost a packet.

    The whole issue with fuel efficiency and getting more clicks for your buck really took a leap after the oil crisis in 1973. At this time a whole pile of people tried “inventing”, and advertising, and scamming their way to riches by offering amazing claims over fuel consumption. Lets face it, the vast majority of us use petrol and our cars a lot and it’s a major bill each week. How nice it would be to save 10% or more on petrol bills? There is a huge latent market for this sort of scam and generally most people know only how to operate their car and have no need, or desire, to know how it operates. The fuel efficiency of cars varies from 16mpg to over 40 mpg over the common cars currently on the market. With these figures in mind, literally, it’s not hard to imagine your 30mpg car getting 33mpg, or better. Or perhaps going from 20 to 30 mpg? Let’s face it, who really knows why you get 20mpg in the first place? That level of knowledge (hint: it’s covered in mechanical engineering) simply isn’t common knowledge. As such it’s not too much of stretch to imagine it’s possible.

    However, when someone makes a specific claim, ideas move from being unknown or hypothetical into being a testable fact. It’s either true of it’s not. In this situation it is reasonable, in fact compulsory, to expect the person making the claim to be able to justify a claim with proof. And in the case when they want you to hand over cold hard cash, proof that he isn’t simply a lying scam artist. Such a thing has been known to happen.

    However in the real world issues like facts usually get second shift to personal stories, anecdotes and friendships. Humans are a social creature and it’s simply natural to trust what someone in your own ‘tribe’ is telling you. This behavior has been very successful and it’s quite likely humans would not be here to be scammed if social trust had not been so successful in our history. However when humans developed this trait our ‘tribes’ had only a few hundred people and it was easy to check up on what people said and expose any freeloaders and liars. Public humiliation worked and it was difficult to be annonymous.

    However in the 20th and 21st century this has all changed, radically. Our ‘tribe’ has grown through the millions to the billions and the checks and balances in social trust simply do not work anymore. In such an environment freeloaders and scammers can easily have free reign if people do not do more than they usually would, which is to trust people who are friendly. Which is where critical thinking and skepticism come into play. In modern society being skeptical of claims from strangers needs to be a regularly exercised behavior. This avoids the real problem of getting scammed yourself, along with all your friends you told about it.

    Friends don’t let friends get scammed.

    Unfortunately is seems nearly impossible to teach people critical thinking skills once they leave primary school. Having such skills relies on having the ability to question other people ideas, being educated enough to know how to ask useful questions and how to interpret information. However our present schooling systems seems hell bent on generating people who don’t question. And once people leave the education system there is very little chance to pick up these skills. It’s like it’s not cool to learn, or to question things or to educate oneself by reading. Compliance and social norm are the intellectual shackles that condemn someone to a passive life of consumer ignorance.

    It would be interesting to see how many people who were scammed regularly read…anything. Do they understand that knowledge is basically free and you can find things out? If you have a question like, “Does this work?”, that it is actually possible to find an answer? Or perhaps the question was never asked? Most things in the world do “work” and just assuming yes is generally a good approach for most of life, it sure is easier. And if a trusted friend can give you a quick answer then what more is there to know?

    One answer to this question is “The little black book of scams“, put out by the ACCC. It’s free and it’s by the people who pick help pick up the pieces when these scams occur. They are also responsible for trying to minimise these scams but like the Skeptical movement, they too are playing a game of catch up with the woo merchants generally one step ahead.

    With hind site, targeting sporting people was a pretty clever idea. Especially putting some of the funds back into sponsorships. That’s a clever way to gain trust, by supporting something these people are passionate about. Generally these people have careers where critical thinking isn’t required and where word of mouth can be just as important as facts, or in this case more so. I think we’d find a larger than average percentage of alpha males, people with strong egos who are not likely to think that they, or their friends, they could be fooled. They also come from a background where playing games and entertainment can lead to a good life. No need for any bookwork,research or investigation into most things. You and I might have kittens anguishing over the details of a white goods purchase or home loan but if you have this amount of money to throw around then I can well imagine that being highly critical of your day to day spending is not high on your list.

    And the sad fact is, these are exactly the sort of people who should get coaching on looking after money because they are seen, with good reason as this case proves, as a soft touch. It’s self apparent but worth pointing out, none of them showed enough critical thinking skills to prevent to loss of a large amount of money. They could all start by reading the ACCC’s “Little book of scams”. But if that’s too difficult for only 24 weekly payments of $199.95 I’ll teach them critical thinking for one hour a week. And compared to what they can loose, I think that’s a bargain.

    Teachers and student reporting

    After a month traveling in the USA and visiting TAM6 this little black duck has made it back to Adelaide. Stories from the United States of Woo will appear as I regain my grasp on reality, it took a dent over the 3 weeks and 4000 miles of driving on the wrong side of the road.
    Anyway, in todays Advertiser we have a story of teachers yet again complaining about having to grade their students (or are they called “customers” in this postmodern world of woo?) using an A->E system. Evidently such a system may be “damaging to students’ self-esteem”.
    Heaven friggin’ forbid we actually tell students when they are crap or need to pull the finger out. The reason to pull the system? “It’s a “hangover” from a previous government”. So that’s the criteria? Sheesh. Having had 2 children go through the public education system I feel I have ability to comment on the system of public education we have.
    It’s crap.
    Pure and simple crap and most of the issues stem from exactly the same people who lead the teachers. The current state of our science and math education in public primary schools is abysmal, science rooms converted to store rooms, no science teachers and teachers with other backgrounds in the arts shoehorned into teaching maths badly and without any enthusiasm.
    And yet whenever their is an idea that sounds progressive, like grading students objectively or even  grading the quality of teachers and rewarding them for performance it is pooh poohed by the teaching union and the political lackeys with close ties to teaching. And here  we have  these same people wanting to pull an objective  measuring system for one based on words.
    I hate to be the bearer of  bad news but our children will be competing for education and employment and careers in a world where objectivity and reality are the norm. Sticking your head in the sand and not calling a spade a spade when little Johny or Mary is struggling with learning is verging on child abuse. You are lying to children to protect them from reality. In no way does this help a child with their self esteem, good bad or indifferent.
    My wife and I have many friends with teenage children, many are now finishing off high school and there is a disturbing trend. Throughout their (public) school life they got great grades and everything was rosy. However when it came to the independent SACE exams which contribute to a SACE score and is used for higher education entrance they flunk out. Everyone seems surprised until you ask about the grades the public schools were giving. Now, we know these kids and have known many from kindergarten and if a kids not too bright then it’s pretty apparent. And yet the schools were giving great grades. Sure, it made the teachers look OK but the kids are stuffed when their plans fall into a heap and reality strikes. IMHO this is very, very cruel however the system responsible seems to put the welfare of the teachers career above that of their children. And that sucks.
    From first hand experience many teachers need a serious amount of retraining, to put it politely. In a private school they would simply be sacked. And yet at every twist and turn many teachers and their union put their members welfare and careers above that of their students. They will block teacher grading, student grading or any suggested the public education system is broken.

    You may wonder why I’m talking about this, what has it to do with skepticism? Well, we are currently looking at where we can get the best bang for buck in promoting science and critical thinking in general and school age children have the best opportunity for developing these skills. (Adults have missed the boat but thats a separate story.) However to promote critical thinking, math and science in schools we are going to need to work with the system and there’s the rub.
    The sort of people of run the countries education systems do not even recognise that objective measurements and comparisons are useful.
    Although considering how few have any scientific background this should not come as surprise. With such a blatant ignorance of objectivity and disconnect with reality this will not be an easy task. However the world of Woo has similarities with Wack-a-Mole, it doesn’t go away easily and if there is something that is apparent after the last few decades,it  is that fighting woo as it raises it’s head is not a winning long term strategy.
    Now before I get flamed I’m not saying all teachers are crap. Ok, just most of them. And the last thing they want is any system that will allow a measurement of their performance. Either directly or through their students grades. It’s perfectly natural and I understand the psychology behind such things. However in the long run it’s damaging to a lot more that just esteem and the declining ranking of Australian students in various internationally measures is not good. Until the teachers union sorts it’s leadership out with a serious dose of reality I’m afraid it will be same ol’, same ‘ol.

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