Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Sokal'd "climate skeptics" show their true colors.

For a while I've maintained that:

  • Most climate skeptics are convinced that Man's activities are causing global waming.
  • "Skeptic" is not a mere synonym for "doubter"; most of those who fancy themselves to be "climate skeptics" are not approaching the topic in a skeptical fashion.
  • Of that number, many are merely parroting each other, without critically evaluating the arguments.

Like Schumpeter's enemies of capitalism, the "climate skeptics", or denialists, already know the verdict against the theory of anthropogenic global warming: what changes is the indictment. First the earth is not, in fact, warming, then the warming is a Milkanovitch cycle, or of solar origin, or a rebound from the (nonexistent) worldwide Little Ice Age. Climate models are not to be trusted, because they don't fit the data with an R^2 value of zero, because they don't predict next week's weather, because they're missing this feedback or that. Uncertainty means that a 5% chance becomes categorical doubt. We've all seen the game played before: it's foolishness, the scientific illiterates being willingly defrauded by the scientific illiterate, court-room flim-flam thrown up against physics, convincing to people who can't tell the difference.

At much risk to his reputation, Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey admitted that his approach has been less than honest. Bailey "hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it," (emphasis mine), and he let that hope cloud his judgement, to the point where he totally discounted computer simulations (how else can we tell what climatological theories predict?), instead of approaching the scientific question with a frank attitude and an open mind.

The boiler rooms, 'blogs, and talk-radio shows chugged on long after Bailey's admission, but they've been relatively quiet for the past month, having been caught with their pants down. Rush Limbaugh, Neil Craig and hundreds of other 'bloggers, and even Reason Magazine, promoted patent nonsense as a damning argument against the theory of anthropogenic global warming. The journal, "Journal of Geoclimatic Studies", was fake, its home university, Okinawa University, doesn't exist, moreover, there is no Department of Climatology at the University of Arizona. I work in the building that houses the closest thing, the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and I can tell you that there's no Dan Klein, either.

If that wasn't enough to alert the authors to the hoax, the text of the paper itself is a dead giveaway. Like Alan Sokal's foray into "cultural studies", it's nonsense interspersed with passages to flatter the prejudices of the targets. In this case, that means symbols strung together meaninglessly in place of formulas, and technolalia--for example, "concretised diachronic invariance"--that would make a Star Trek writer blush. The graphs are smooth curves where they should be of data points and error bars, and their scales are hilarious; just what does a sine curve mean on a semilog plot? A comparison between benthic bacterial mass and temperature is clearly the same hand-drawn squiggle translated and drawn on a different color on the same plot. Strong correlation, indeed! This was no subtle hoax and the denialists can't say they were tricked; the authors went out of their way to make the paper look bogus!

It was already doubtful that the denialists read scientific papers, and even more so that they read them critically. The discussion section, with its firm rebuttal of AGW, its gratuitous scare quotes around "consensus" and its portrayal of scientists as cowering in fear of funding agencies, was enough. We're left to conclude either that the denialists don't bother to check arguments for scientific merit (plausible, since they repeat debunked claims over and over) or that they can't distinguish between science and nonsense.

Regardless, they're on their heels. Score one for the Good Guys. Can we get to talking about solutions?

No comments: