Fear of Clowns

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- H. L. Mencken
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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

More on (moron?) Sterling Burnett 

Sterling answered an email query I sent last night in response to his FOX appearance, "[I'm unsure] whether you are saying research has not shown the global temperature is rising or if you're saying man-made CO2 emissions have not contributed to it,"

There is almost universal agreement both that we are in a warming trend and that greenhouse gas emissions have risen substantially as a result of a variety of human activities. What is less clear is the extent to which human greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant or even a significant factor in the present warming trend ... As I tried to make clear on Fox, in a closed system, like a true greenhouse, adding CO2 emissions and trapping solar radiation will necessarily cause a temperature increase -- all other things being held constant.

So Burnett's (paid) opinion is that yes, global temperatures are rising; yes, levels of greenhouse gasses are increasing; yes greenhouse gasses increase the warming effect, but we don't know how much of this is created by man.

I'm left even more confused: Regardless of the reasons global temperatures are rising, all who see this ought to be alarmed. So I'm unsure what Burnett's point is - possibly that yes, temperatures are rising but because we can't attribute X amount to human influence and Y amount to natural phenomenon (which Burnett implies but does not defend) we don't need to worry about it.

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Comments:

Thank you for sending the email to Burnett! I'm surprised (and pleased) that he responded. You've done good work here -- I'm pleased to see this original journalism!
Heh, I did do some original reporting! And sent him a follow up question:

the Earth is for the most part a closed system: it can exchange energy (in the form of sunlight) but it doesn't exchange matter. I had assumed you were saying other factors mitigated the accumulation of heat by greenhouse gasses. You do refer to other factors in the interview and this email - I'm wondering what those factors are - I've searched, but just come up with a lot of proposals of things man can do to stem the warming trend.

No response.
I would consider myself an environmentally aware person. However, concern about the earth's temperature seems--to me anyways--overblown in the extreme. The earth's temperature fluctuates. We've only been ablt to measure temperature with any accuracy for a miniscule amount of time with regards to the eons the earth has been around. How we feel that we can say with any certainty (as it appears "An Inconvenient Truth" does) that this current uptick in temperature is anything more than a natural fluctuation of the earth's temperature is beyond me. Could man probably find some ways to cool this current warming trend? Sure. Is it necessary for the survival of the earth? In all likelihood, no.

Additionally, I fail to see what calling Sterling Burnett a "moron" accomplishes.
Kevin - I'm glad to see your post here, and I hope you'll stick around a bit. Not that I'm a welcoming committee, but I like to read this here blog, and I think you have interesting points to make.

I think, however, that you miss the boat on this particular post on several points:

1. I don't think that it's an issue of whether or not we "can find some ways to cool this current warming trend" -- I think that the issue is that we are a principle (or even partial) cause of the current warming trend, and, if so, should/how we stop?

2. "Calling Sterling Burnett a "moron" accomplishe[d]"... a chuckle. At least on my part. It is difficult to win an argument against a joke. It is also embarrassing to defend humor.

3. The "survival of the earth"? What is that supposed to mean? I think that you have confused the length of time that the earth has existed with the length of time that mammals have existed. And I think that we have managed to establish reasonable records for temperatures since mammals have arisen. And if mammals were to die off, well, that's not the end of the earth, is it?... But perhaps I'm wrong. I'm not a scientist. Are you?
err... Freudian slip on my part in the previous post. I meant to say, "...I think that the issue is whether or not we are a principle..." My scientific bias has been outed...

And speaking of Freudian slips, why don't women respond this blog? And do I really want to know the answer to this question?
Payne-

To your issues:

1) You say, "the issue is that we are a principle (or even partial) cause of the current warming trend, and, if so, should/how we stop?"

I contend that due to the short period of time we've actually been able to accurately measure the earth's temperature, what you want to know is actually quite unknowable. Can I just stipulate that beings such as ourselves (who produce CO2 just by existing) are naturally going to raise the earth's temperature by some exponent? I think the real question is whether or not the amount we raise the temperature is worth worrying about. This is where the issue is open for debate, in my opinion.

2) Regarding my issue with calling Burnett a "moron", you write, "It is difficult to win an argument against a joke." I contend that there is a vast difference between humor and name-calling. Humor is usually quite universally funny. Name-calling is funny only to those who dislike the one being called a name. My point was that there's little to be gained in calling Burnett a moron, save some cheap yuks from those who also dislike him.

3) You write, "I think that you have confused the length of time that the earth has existed with the length of time that mammals have existed." It is my perception that what creates all the "buzz" around global warming is whether or not the earth will remain inhabitable if this warming trend continues. If I misspoke before, or if my perception of what the major issue of global warming is, I apologize.

You also write, "I think that we have managed to establish reasonable records for temperatures since mammals have arisen." Again, you assert the unknowable. We have been able to accurately measure the earth's temperature for only a VERY short time. The best we can do for past temps is to estimate. So any assertions that we are having established "reasonable records for temperatures since mammals have arisen" is very difficult to defend.

Lastly, you raise a philosophical question, though I'm not sure you realized it when you posed the question. You write, "And if mammals were to die off, well, that's not the end of the earth, is it?" If no being capable of recording history, contemplating the passing or time, or simply thinking on a higher level exists, does the world itself exist in a way that really matters? This is very much a metaphysical question along the lines of the "tree in the forest" question. It does not take a scientist to answer such a question, but a philosopher. Alas, I am neither.
Kevin -

Think about it: there's hundreds of trillions of oil business yet to be sucked out of the Earth. The people you hear saying global warming isn't a problem are funded by the self-same energy industry.

Don't get me wrong -- these oil companies would love to profit from alternative energy sources. But they'd rather put the "alternative" profits prominently on top of their regular line.

I suppose I just don't understand why you choose to believe the funded nay-sayers over the scientists who have done the research.
Erik-

You didn't respond to any portion of what I actually posted. You simply gave the standard "stump speech" for global warming. I raised two issues, the first regarding how we can even tell whether the current warming trend (which no one denies) is anything more than a natural fluctuation in the earth's temperature. The second was regarding the efficacy of any steps humanity might take to help cool the warming trend. Please address those two issues whenever you get a chance, without resorting to an "appeal to authority" to attempt to shame me into believing what you believe. BTW, check out this column from an organization called "Canada Free Press." I don't know these people, or the guy who wrote it, I just thought it was interesting.

http://www.canadafreepress.com/2006/harris061206.htm
Kevin - "Canada Free Press" is so biased as to border on being slap-stick. Their current Cover Story opens with, "From an air conditioned boardroom somewhere in Communist China, Maurice Strong--the man who would deny air conditioning for you to save the environment--has hatched another anti-American scheme." You should check out the picture that goes with the story -- the caricature is just bizarre.

But to address your points, the human influence to current global warming (as opposed to the current trend being a natural variation) has been well-established by climate modeling (see, for example, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3267775.stm and http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/007.htm).

Your second question is based on a false premise. Since humans are causing the warming trend, it is misleading to ask if humans should try to cool the trend. Instead, we should more honestly ask if humans should stop causing the warming. Once the question is posed more honestly, most people would say that, yes, something should be done.

I found this Wikipedia article to be well-written and, more importantly, well-referenced: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming
I don't think that it's a false premise to ask whether or not any steps humans could take would actually have any appreciable effect on global warming. I just wonder how much effect we could possibly hope to have in cooling this warming trend.

Also, I hardly think that it's been established that this current warming trend is anything more than the natural ups and downs that any climate goes through during the course of time. You don't deny that average temperature is not constant, do you? It constantly moves up and down. In fact, if I remember right, I have heard that back in the 1970s we were afraid of another ice age, because the temperatures were in a downswing. It just appears to me that Gore and those who would have us all panic about global warming might have been singing the exact opposite tune back in the 1970s. Who knows? I just feel that the "problem"--such as it is--is grossly overblown. Could I be wrong about that? Certainly. Am I worried that the world is coming to an end anytime soon because of global warming? No. (By that last, I just mean in terms of human inhabitability.)
Kevin - I never said that it is "a false premise to ask whether or not any steps humans could take would actually have any appreciable effect on global warming." I think that this is a very important question that should be asked.

At any rate, I am glad to hear that you mistrust Gore on the topic. Politicians have political agendas and should not be turned to with scientific queries. The Wikipedia article I mentioned provides numerous links to information from scientists. If you are truly curious, you should check them out.

Here is another good article to look at: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/306/5702/1686

(Science Mag is written by scientists for scientists. It contains articles that argue for scientific restraint in the nanoparticle field, and it contains articles about getting funding for projects and how to negotiate your salary. It’s a bit more “read-able” than many scholarly journals, but it does reference more scholarly journals as appropriate.)

If you will look at the information that is being published by the scientific community, I think that you will see that the prevailing scientific theory is that humans are the major influence on the current warming trend. Are there scientists who disagree? Of course! This is the nature of science and the scientific method where nothing is ever “proved.” That’s why gravity and thermodynamics are still theories! Science is, philosophically, an expression of doubt and skepticism. Competing theories arise and are debated, but eventually, a prevailing consensus emerges and the majority of scientists agree with one theory – as has been done with global warming.

But before you choose to disagree with the prevailing theory, I would urge you to turn away from the opinions of politicians (like Gore) and to look beyond outlets for political opinions (like Cananda Free Press) -- instead, turn to some science resources to learn more about it.

The reason that I'm going on and on about this, is because if we cannot agree on the cause of global warming, we will not be able to agree on what people should (or should not) do about global warming. That's what bugs me about the second question that you poised to Erik (should people do something about global warming?). Until we agree on an answer to your first question (are humans are a major contributor to global warming?), we cannot come to agreement on the second. If humans are causing (or greatly exasperating) global warming, then I would argue that we should stop. If humans are not causing global warming, then I would argue that we probably should not try to introduce new factors that will cause the global climate to cool off. I choose to accept the prevailing scientific theory, and so I think that we should stop causing global warming.
Payne -

There are two or three practicing scientists in the world who question whether Man is contributing to global warming.
Kevin -

You ask, how [can we] even tell whether the current warming trend (which no one denies) is anything more than a natural fluctuation in the earth's temperature.

It depends on what you mean by "natural". Human activities have greatly increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Given these CO2 levels, it's completely natural to experience the associated warming spike.

But if you mean to imply humans perhaps haven't contributed to the current warming spike, it's up to you to provide an explanation alternate to CO2 accumulation. To my knowledge, such a competing explanation does not exist.

You also ask, "The second was regarding the efficacy of any steps humanity might take to help cool the warming trend."

We can

a. Reduce our greenhouse gas emissions
b. Figure out a way to offset the warming effect of increased CO2.

Here is a short essay you may find helpful.
You say:

"It depends on what you mean by "natural". Human activities have greatly increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

You're not claiming that increased amounts of CO2 are the only possible factor in increased temperatures, I hope. All I am saying is that temperatures fluctuate with or without the influence of human behaviors. How do we know beyond doubt that human behaviors are the PRIMARY cause of the fluctuation, and that it's not just a normal fluctuation of global temperature, which will correct itself over time?

"Given these CO2 levels, it's completely natural to experience the associated warming spike.

But if you mean to imply humans perhaps haven't contributed to the current warming spike, it's up to you to provide an explanation alternate to CO2 accumulation. To my knowledge, such a competing explanation does not exist."

This is where we disagree. I think that the person asserting the causality of a thing needs to prove the asserted causality. I don't contend that there must be an alternate explanation, just that human behavior might not be as large of a factor as alarmists like Al Gore assert. It would seem to me that the burden of proof would lie with the person asserting that one thing caused another, not the person questioning the assertion.


You also say,

"We can

a. Reduce our greenhouse gas emissions
b. Figure out a way to offset the warming effect of increased CO2."

I have absolutely no disagreement with either of these. I do not believe, however, that we need to be alarmist in our responses, and that actual causality should be proven before we force wholesale, extremely expensive changes on businesses and the public at large.
Kevin -- You ask, "How do we know beyond doubt that human behaviors are the PRIMARY cause of the fluctuation?"

Scientists have determined this with climate modeling. The prevailing scientific theory is that humans are the major influence on the current warming trend. In other words, the vast majority of people who study this for a living think that it is proven.

I made both these points earlier. Why do you continue to ask questions that have been answered?
Payne-

Would you not agree that "climate modeling" is an inexact science at best, and is often based upon the assumptions one has when constructing the model? For instance, if one goes into the modeling exercise with an assumption of human-caused CO2 increases as the primary cause of the current warming trend, would it not be quite easy to construct a statistical model to support that assumption? Conversely, if one goes into the modeling exercise with the opposite assumption, the opposite conclusion could be reached, using the same climatalogical statistics. What's the old saying about lies and damn lies? Also, I would be very interested in your take on the "Ice Age" scares of the 1970s. How do we reconcile how the same climatalogical statistics were "predicting" a potential ice age back then, but are now showing a global WARMING crisis? It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, and it causes me to react against the alarmists like Gore who want to implement wholesale, extremely expensive changes to combat global warming. Reactionaries bother me, whether they're in Republicans, Democrats, or otherwise, and the whole global warming crisis seems VERY reactionary.
Since I'm not a scientist, I wouldn't attempt to assess the level of accuracy or reliability of modeling. Instead, as a lay person, I look to the results of published and peer-reviewed research, and I look to see what the consensus of actual scientists is. Overwelming, scientists agree that the research shows that humans are the major contributor to global warming. To the best of my knowledge, there have not been any studies published and defended in respectable scientific journals that sucessfully refute this conclusion. "Lies and damn lies" are not going to pass the honest and time-proven process of peer-reviewed scientific research.

I think, Kevin, that you are being distracted by all the nonsense that is coming from politicians. One tactic of those whose disagree with scientific theories is to make a make a bunch of noise about supposed controversies so that non-scientists will become distrustful.

But don't take my word for it, Kevin. Did you look at the links I posted earlier? If you are really looking for answers to your questions, scientific research in scientific journals is the best place to look. This is a case where blogs and newspapers and conversations with non-scientists like me is not going to get you too far in the search for truth. Fortunately, the facts are out there for those who really care to take the time to learn them.
Payne-

I appreciate your civil tone more than you know. So often, in discussions such as these, incivility reigns supreme, and you have avoided that. I did briefly peruse your links, but have not had the time to give all the material the careful, thorough reading it deserves. I will remedy that as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, I read an article in the Times today I thought you might be interested in. It's front page in the Science Times section if you want to take a look. It deals with alternative solutions to the problem of the global warming trend, that have long been ignored by the mainstream of the scientific community, but are now garnering more attention. I don't know how often you pick up the Times, but if you haven't today, you should. It's quite an interesting article.

As a sidenote, no one has yet to address my question with regards to how the "panic of the moment" goes from a potential ice age 3 decades ago to a global warming trend today. This is one main reason why I remain a bit skeptical of all the alarmism with regards to global warming.
Kevin -

Reviewing the thread, you ask,

"Please address those two issues whenever you get a chance, without resorting to an 'appeal to authority' to attempt to shame me into believing what you believe."

"Would you not agree that 'climate modeling' is an inexact science at best."

Sounds to me like you're asking us to support scientific assertions without using science!

You claim, "All I am saying is that temperatures fluctuate with or without the influence of human behaviors." How can you assert this at the same time as contending, "that due to the short period of time we've actually been able to accurately measure the earth's temperature, what you want to know is actually quite unknowable."?

You ask, "How do we know beyond doubt that human behaviors are the PRIMARY cause of the fluctuation, and that it's not just a normal fluctuation of global temperature, which will correct itself over time?" I would answer that the information you seek can be found here, but am thinking you would reject the data. I can't think of a way to answer your question without citing things scientific.

"I do not believe, however, that we need to be alarmist in our responses, and that actual causality should be proven before we force wholesale, extremely expensive changes on businesses and the public at large."

Gee, you sound like I sounded when were were discussing the Iraq invasion on Hannity's boards in early 2003! Dunno, Kevin, we know -

a. Levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane have skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution.
b. Global temperatures have risen about 0.6 degrees F in the last hundred years.
c. In the geologic record and through other methods, we observe correlations between levels of greenhouse gases and atmospheric temperature.
d. We understand the mechanism through witch greenhouse gasses cause atmospheric temperatures to increase.
Kevin - This is starting to look like a tag-team wrestling match!

Regarding "how the 'panic of the moment' goes from a potential ice age 3 decades ago..."

You are correct in identifying this as a theory stemming from alarmists. There was not, in fact, broad-based support for this theory in the scientific community.

Here are two articles that link to numerous scientific publications that substantiate this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_cooling

http://www.wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/

If you can ignore the alarmists and politicians, and focus on what is (and has) been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, you will see that there has not been a shift from a global cooling panic to a global warming panic in the scientific community.

(As a side note, I suspect that in the 1970s, the world lacked sufficient computational equipment to make the kind of predictions that are being made today.)

Regarding that Times article - I'd seem most of those proposals before -- and they scare me. Science is good for predicting outcomes and informing us of how to change these outcomes. The question of what we SHOULD do is, of course, a more political / moral / philosophical question.
From what Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, has to say, it would appear that there's something less than unanimity in how scientists view this issue.

http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110008597
To reiterate a couple points:
1. Of course there isn't unanimity of consensus among scientists. That's not how science works. There is also not uniform agreement with the Theory of Relativity or with the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Nonetheless, these are the prevailing theories.

2. Why on earth would you turn to the opinion pages of the The Wall Street Journal with a scientific question? This article isn't science. I know I sound like a broken record, but you should look to articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals if you are really seeking to learn the science behind this issue.

I've made both these points before -- I'm starting to feel ignored :)

Actually, I am intrigued by the work by Benny Peiser that was referenced in this article. (His conclusion is, presumably, different from the point that I've been arguing here.) If you can find a link to his original work, I'd enjoy reading it.
Payne-

Responding:

(1) The claim in Gore's alarmist movie is that "there is no more debate." This climatologist--from MIT no less--proves that's not true.

(2) Can you name the logical fallacy you just used in your "why would you go to the WSJ editorial page" attack on the claims in the piece I posted, or do I need to?

Facts are facts, Payne. Gore's an alarmist, who has picked global warming as his cause du joir. For some reason, there's a media frenzy about this issue, and no one is covering the other side of the discussion. They simply treat Gore's claims as gospel truth. The fact thay you did not address ANY of the issues raised my the MIT man in his piece is very disappointing. Hopefully you do so in your next comment.
BTW, I'll see what I can find on Pesier.
Payne-

Found this interesting blog in my search for info on Peiser.

http://timlambert.org/2005/05/peiser/

It doesn't seem to be a "Peiser-friendly" blog, so you and Erik should have no problems with it. I'll post more as I come across it, but this seems pretty thorough. Though many attack his method for his "34 abstracts" assertion, even still it appears that there's FAR less "consensus" than Gore and his ilk would have us believe. Again, I think this comes back to the whole "what's the definition of the word is" problem. Is the earth in a warming cycle? Certainly. Is it cause for alarm? Possibly. Is it primarily caused by human activity? All I am saying is, "That's debateable." Where's the problem with that assertion?
This appears to be Dr. Peiser's own site.

http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-6-129-2490.jsp
Kevin, you address Payne,

(1) The claim in Gore's alarmist movie is that "there is no more debate." This climatologist--from MIT no less--proves that's not true.

Please scan this, and ask yourself the questions, "Is there a debate that ... the speed of light is constant; that the Universe is expanding; that Einstein's equations are more accurate than Galileo's ..."?

Following your established test for the questions - there exists an "expert" who questions overwhelming scientific consensus, you would have to say that these things are indeed debatable because I've found a tenured nutcase. What say you?
Erik-

One has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Are you now claiming that there is the same certainty within the scientific community regarding global warming as there is regarding the speed of light? That's ludicrous on the face of it. And I hardly think that an MIT professor's opinion on the matter can be simply dismissed based upon such a red herring.
BTW, do you have any proof that the MIT professor I posted about is a "tenured nutcase" other than the fact that he has a different interpretation of the facts than you do? I know you didn't DIRECTLY call him that, but you cetainly implied it. If you're going to resort to such ad hominem, you should at least support your assertion.
Kevin -

You ask,

BTW, do you have any proof that the MIT professor I posted about is a "tenured nutcase" other than the fact that he has a different interpretation of the facts than you do?

I answer "Yes":

For the most part the industry has relied on a small band of skeptics - Dr. Richard S. Lindzen, Dr. Pat Michaels, Dr. Robert Balling, Dr. Sherwood Idso, and Dr. S. Fred Singer, among others - who have proven extraordinarily adept at draining the issue of all sense of crisis. Through their frequent pronouncements in the press and on radio and television, they have helped to create the illusion that the question is hopelessly mired in unknowns. Most damaging has been their influence on decision makers; their contrarian views have allowed conservative Republicans such as Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) to dismiss legitimate research concerns as "liberal claptrap" and have provided the basis for the recent round of budget cuts to those government science programs designed to monitor the health of the planet.

Last May, Minnesota held hearings in St. Paul to determine the environmental cost of coal burning by state power plants. Three of the skeptics - Lindzen, Michaels, and Balling - were hired as expert witnesses to testify on behalf of Western Fuels Association, a $400 million consortium of coal suppliers and coal-fired utilities.

citation
Kevin asks,

Are you now claiming that there is the same certainty within the scientific community regarding global warming as there is regarding the speed of light? That's ludicrous on the face of it.

Sure! Yes, affirmative. Show me how many more climate scientists dispute global warming than dispute the constant speed of light.
Kevin -

I'm in search of your bottom line: could you respond to this post, which I made with you in mind? Thanks.
The link you provided is nothing more than people on the other end of the spectrum trying to use "guilt by association" methods to discredit the man. And even then, they succeed in only bringing up a laundry list of who he's worked for in the past.

Lastly, this is amazing. I honestly never thought I'd see someone compare anthropogenic (sp?) global warming (humans as the primary cause of global warming) to the speed of light. When someone believes so fervently in something, there's no debate to be had. While I hold a position loosely, willing to change as more FACTS (no interpretations) become known, you have entrenched yourself in a foxhole so deep that you could not extricate yourself now if you wanted to do so.

My bottom line: Temperatures show a warming trend globally. Many scientists seem to believe that humans may be the primary cause of this trend. Some do not. Many self-important laymen (read: Gore) have leapt to use this issue as an issue on which to make their name--or at least keep it at the fore. This bothers me. The suggestions you--and others--have made for dealing with the human side of the warming trend are fine suggestions. I have no problem with them.
The link you provided is nothing more than people on the other end of the spectrum trying to use "guilt by association" methods to discredit the man.

And pointing out that he is a paid consultant for polluters does a rather fine job of discrediting the man.

Can you find for me a climate scientist who disputes man-made global warming who is not a polluter paid stooge? Thanks.
A "polluter paid stooge"? Ad hominem much, Erik?
"polluter paid stooge"? Ad hominem much, Erik?

His money depends on him saying global warming is a farce.

What I'm looking for is an "expert" who both disputes human caused global warming and who is not a paid consultant for petrol industries.

Thanks.
Oops, guess what, fellows. It turns out that global warming doesn't even exist: http://www.junkscience.com/news/robinson.htm

The scientists who authored this piece have proved that global warming is neither man-made nor natural because we're actually in the middle of a global cooling trend! Oh, well.
I can't imagine there's ANY pressure in the mainstream scientific community to spout the "company line" regarding anthropogenic global warming ...

In all seriousness, can you guys address the RESEARCH these guys are doing, separate from the people paying their salaries? That's why I liked the site (which was anti-Peiser, BTW) that I posted. Some of them were actually trying to address the points of Peiser's research, instead of just calling him names, and using the whole "guilt by association" fallacy.

 

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