Friday, March 5, 2010

Is Climate Change a Scientific Controversy?

Retreat of Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, 1919-2005 (photos from different angles, but most of the foreground of the recent picture was covered by ice in 1919)

In my previous post, I made some comments on a report that I hadn't read on dinosaur extinctions, and had some questions instead about the researchers (41 of them) who had produced the paper for the journal Science. Bryan at In Terra Veritas gently suggested that the sheer number of authors might be a form of appeal to authority, that is, if enough experts/famous people/authorities say it, it must be true. An appeal to authority in philosophical circles is considered a logical fallacy in many circumstances, and in science this can include situations where a scientist makes a fallacious claim because he/she has a financial stake in the outcome (a new medicine works really well, for instance, or cigarettes don't cause cancer). On the other hand, the citing of peer-reviewed research is an appeal to authority that is considered a proper form of evidence in a scientific debate.

These thoughts were tumbling about in my mind that I ran across two interesting lists (via Daily Kos and the Wonk Room at Think Progress) that represent a sort of appeal to authority. It involves global warming and climate change, and the question of the role of humans in the rising temperatures that are beginning to overwhelm ecosystems across many parts of our planet. The news media have been in the practice of presenting the controversy as a scientific one. Is it? Is there no real consensus between scientists? The first of these is a list of organizations, not just individual scientists, who accept the evidence that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon requiring action (bear with me for the length of the list):

U.S. Agency for International Development
United States Department of Agriculture
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
National Institute of Standards and Technology
United States Department of Defense
United States Department of Energy
National Institutes of Health
United States Department of State
United States Department of Transportation
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Aeronautics & Space Administration
National Science Foundation
Smithsonian Institution
International Arctic Science Committee
Arctic Council
African Academy of Sciences
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Academia Brasileira de Ciéncias
Cameroon Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of Canada
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Chinese Academy of Sciences Académie des Sciences, France
Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina of Germany
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Accademia nazionale delle scienze of Italy
Indian National Science Academy
Science Council of Japan
Kenya National Academy of Sciences
Madagascar’s National Academy of Arts, Letters and Sciences
Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Academia Mexicana de Ciencias
Nigerian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of New Zealand
Polish Academy of Sciences
Russian Academy of Sciences
l’Académie des Sciences et Techniques du Sénégal
Academy of Science of South Africa
Sudan Academy of Sciences
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Tanzania Academy of Sciences
Turkish Academy of Sciences
Uganda National Academy of Sciences
The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
National Academy of Sciences, United States
Zambia Academy of Sciences
Zimbabwe Academy of Science
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Physics
American Medical Association
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
American Public Health Association
American Quaternary Association
American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Society of Agronomy
American Society for Microbiology
American Society of Plant Biologists
American Statistical Association
Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
Botanical Society of America
Crop Science Society of America Ecological Society of America
Federation of American Scientists
Geological Society of America
National Association of Geoscience Teachers
Natural Science Collections
Alliance Organization of Biological Field Stations
Society of American Foresters
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
Society of Systematic Biologists
Soil Science Society of America
Australian Coral Reef Society
Australian Medical Association
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Engineers Australia
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
Geological Society of Australia
British Antarctic Survey
Institute of Biology, UK
Royal Meteorological Society, UK
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
European Physical Society
European Science Foundation
International Association for Great Lakes Research
International Union for Quaternary Research
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
World Federation of Public Health
Associations World Health Organization
World Meteorological Organization

The second list is a group of organizations who say, based on their involvement as petitioners versus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that human-induced climate change is a fraud (often with accusations that scientists are just after grant money for research):

American Petroleum Institute
US Chamber of Commerce
National Association of Manufacturers
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Industrial Minerals Association
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Great Northern Project Development
Rosebud Mining
Massey Energy
Alpha Natural Resources
Southeastern Legal Foundation
Georgia Agribusiness Council
Georgia Motor Trucking Association
Corn Refiners Association
National Association of Home Builders
National Oilseed Processors Association
National Petrochemical and Refiners Association
Western States Petroleum Association

One could add to this list, of course, Senator James Inhofe, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and all of the other "climate scientists" in the Senate and in political theatre. The next time climate change is presented as a scientific controversy needing a balanced response by the "other side" of the issue in the mainstream media, consider who has the short-term financial interest in the political outcome. And consider who stands to lose in the long run, as the glaciers continue to melt, sea level continues to rise, droughts continue to devastate vast regions, and agricultural production is disrupted.


Unknown said...

Garry Hayes, please read with an eye to the science and you might not choose to stay blinded by the money that has subverted scientific organizations. Check the International Society of
Physicists, the Royal Society of Physics, and the Royal Society of Chemists (names might not be exact). Check on how much of the IPCC reports depend on peer reviewed literature. Check on the obfuscation of science and the scientific method by CRU, NASA, GISSTEMP, NCDC, etc. and the eay they are cooking the books (adjusting the raw temperature data).
Geologists in particular should be most knowledgeable about the tremendous natural changes our Earth's climate continues to "cycle" through. Check on the physics of CO2 and I think you will notice that the science is not settled. Finally, follow the money -- See Joanne Nova's recent blog.

I write this because I recently found your blog and enjoy it greatly. Please attend more carefully to the science, however.

Garry Hayes said...

Jeanette, thanks for your comment, but you miss the point. I attend very carefully to the science. You have to ask yourself who stands to profit from discrediting the vast majority of climatologists who accept the evidence that global warming is related to human activity. That's what the list I posted above is all about. I know I'm not going to convince anyone to change their beliefs with any evidence I could present, because beliefs are powerful things, and they are not always based on a careful consideration of the facts. Opinion about climate change in our society is being influenced by a calculated and well-funded public relations campaign by the same kinds of consultants who kept doubts about the cigarette-cancer connection and the declining ozone level going for so long.

Bryan said...

Hmmm, that is something worth considering. I never really considered that journal citations could be an argument of authority (even if it is accepted practice).

After reading that, I thought about it for a bit. I think what makes journal citations an acceptable variant of the argument of authority is it points to a more detailed argument than you are capable of making (and usually is only tangential to the objective of the study).

An example from my thesis is me citing Swisher et al., 1993 for some ash dates that were obtained in my study area. I didn't have the funding, or the time, to replicate this data set so I just used their paper. It didn't really matter in the scope of my thesis. The only thing that mattered is that I could correlate the ash beds.

When I presented my thesis at GSA, I got in an argument with a worker who told me that my ash dates were wrong. I pointed out they weren't my ash dates, and if another paper has been published that corrects the dates I'd gladly use the corrected data set. He said there wasn't a more recent paper, he just didn't like the techniques of that paper. I politely told him I used Swisher et al., 1993 because it was the most recent publication. If he were to publish a study correcting the ash dates, I'd cite his paper instead.

The point is I don't think using Swisher's paper is an argument of authority, in this situation. Rather, by citing his paper, I was directing people's arguments to a useful venue.

Anyway, good article (very thought provoking :). Looks like you hooked a denier as well). Sadly, while it seems there is a growing consensus among scientists, climate change has become a political issue. And while (in a perfect world) science should inform policy, I haven't seen that happen too often in recent years. Thanks very much for the link.

Garry Hayes said...

Thanks Bryan. After mentioning your blog in two posts I noticed I misspelled your name. I fixed them.

Anonymous said...

Jeanette, when it comes to obfuscation, Anthony Watts is the example at which the bar is set. A recent post of his:

Is an example of the pathological content that the weatherman posts to his blog. In it, he tries to make the assertion that the two data sets are contradictory, when in fact, they are unrelated.

Obfuscation at its finest!