More On “Singular Proof”

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Amazingly, it’s now been 3 years since my post titled Singular Proof, for which I’d intended to write a followup almost since the beginning. The reason for that plan is that some readers seem to have misunderstood its intents — though frankly it appears that they were trying very hard to misunderstand. In any case, the sequel kept getting pushed to the back burner, because it seems I always had meatier matters to cover. But now, here at last is round two.

First, let me make it clear (in case I didn’t the first time) what the central thesis was: a single event — any single event — always proves at least one thing: namely, that such an occurrence is possible. One would think that such a truth would be self-evident. But apparently it isn’t. Because when I offered the illustration of Roger Bannister running the 4-minute mile for the first time, someone commented that his feat didn’t really prove anything, because it could have been just luck.

Well, sure. It could have been just luck. Or it could have been drugs. Or it could have been that he was mesmerized. Or it could have been divine intervention. Or he could have been guided by a cosmic beam projected from the mother ship hovering overhead. Or maybe some combination of the above. But guess what? Doesn’t matter one bit. Because Bannister’s run still proves that, one way or another, such a thing can be done.

It’s related to something called the law of the excluded middle. Which means basically that some propositions are either true or they are not — there is no middle ground. (This obviously does not include value judgments like “St. Louis is a big city”.  St. Louis certainly would appear enormous to someone coming there from a town of 2000, but to a visitor from Istanbul, it would appear to be just a quaint little village.) Propositions of possibility, however, do fall under that heading; either a thing is possible, or it is not.  If it is impossible, then by definition, it cannot happen. So if it does happen, that disproves its impossibility and, concurrently, proves its possibility. Every event is both a negation of an impossibility and an affirmation of possibility.

And it takes only a single instance to refute not only a presumption of impossibility, but any absolutism. Philosophers have famously noted, for instance, that the proposition “All swans are white” can be refuted by the observance of a single black swan. But such a single occurrence, though it clearly establishes possibility, says nothing about probability. It proves that some swans are black, but it gives no indication of how many.

Suppose your mother tells you that if you walk on the railroad tracks, you will get killed. But you decide, just once, to ignore her warning and walk down a railroad track for a hundred yards. And lo and behold, you live to tell about it. This single act of yours has discredited her belief that walking on railroad tracks inevitably leads to demise. But it does not establish that this is a safe practice.  It does not mean that in general, people should walk on railroad tracks.  It does not even guarantee that you will survive your second defiance of her admonition.

A single instance, then, is enough to disprove an absolute (walking on the tracks will get you killed); it’s enough to discredit an impossibility (you cannot walk on the tracks without getting killed); and it’s enough to establish a possibility (you can walk on the tracks and survive). But it does not establish a certainty (if you walk on the tracks, you’ll survive) nor even a probability (if you walk on the tracks, you’ll probably be safe). The latter proposition is where methodical investigation (science) comes in. In order to know whether it’s likely that you can walk on railroad tracks safely — and just how safe it would or wouldn’t be — we would need to compile some accurate statistics on the matter.

And of course the fact that you survive a single act of defying your mum does not mean that you made it through the day because you walked on the railroad tracks. In addition to falsely extrapolating a general conclusion from isolated incidents, one of the biggest mistakes people make is confusing correlation with causation: the telephone rings when you get into the bathtub, so it must be the act of getting into the bathtub that causes the telephone to ring; the leaves rustle when the wind blows, so it must be the movement of the leaves that stirs up wind; Roger Bannister ran the 4-minute mile wearing white socks, so the socks must have been the source of his superior speed.

Even rational interpreters of scientific data are not totally immune to this error. Years ago, research indicated that married people tend to be happier than unmarried people. And for a time, the conclusion many people drew from this was that there was something about marriage itself that made people happier; that a single person could become happier just by getting married. But finally, someone realized that this was putting the cart before the horse. It wasn’t that marriage made people happier; it was just that happier people were more likely to get married in the first place. (For, as someone astutely asked, “Who would want to marry a grouch?”)

I suppose to be generous I could assume that my critic wrongly concluded that I was conflating anecdotal evidence and anecdotal proof myself; but that would be extending a great deal of grace, since I made it clear that I was not doing any such thing. And anyone who’s read this blog very much at all knows that I’ve repeatedly not done it; I’ve stressed several times, to name just one example, that even though there are isolated incidents of an “armed good guy” stopping an “armed bad guy” that does not mean that in general guns make us safer — indeed, the evidence strongly indicates just the opposite.

If there was one passage in my post that might possibly, even by a huge stretch, have given someone the wrong impression, perhaps it was this:

Scientists, however, are sometimes scornful of anecdotal evidence, declaring it to be totally worthless. Which is ironic, given how dependent they are on it. A scientific experiment is preceded by a hypothesis. And where does the hypothesis come from? Anecdotal evidence, quite often. Like the rest of us, scientists exercise inductive reasoning: they notice specific events and extrapolate from them that there might be a general pattern. Unlike the rest of us, they undertake methodical tests in an effort to prove this hypothesis — or hopefully, an effort to disprove it, since that’s really the only way to accomplish either proof or disproof. And how do they do this? By collecting more anecdotes, either in a laboratory or in the wild. But this isn’t considered anecdotal evidence, since the events are collected systematically rather than haphazardly.

A reader purporting to be a scientist himself declared that I was quite mistaken about where a hypothesis comes from. It derives, said he, from a case study, and not merely from an isolated incident. Well, this is often true (especially in the social sciences), but so what? Don’t look now, but a case study is a collection of separate incidents. And some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history (microwaves, x-rays, and penicillin, to name just a few) sprang from observation of phenomena that were not only singular but accidental. Furthermore, even the most coldly calculated of laboratory experiments consists of a series of individual trials — each of which, as I meant to suggest, can be thought of as a narrative in its own right.

And just where do you suppose the concept for a case study comes from, anyway? Could it be from… an anecdote? Or two or three? Unless of course, it comes from a dream or a divine message delivered via burning bush. But wait, those are anecdotes too, aren’t they? When you get right down to it, all the wisdom the human race has accumulated in any field of endeavor — whether scientific, artistic, philosophical, athletic, or whatever — has depended upon the observance of single incidents. Such wisdom is expressed in generalities (It’s better to give than to receive; two times two is four; the days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter; etc.) but such generalities are constructed of a series of singular instances.

This (supposed) scientist, by the way, also seized upon my mention that being a healthy vegetarian for several decades discredits the absolutism that eating meat is required to live a long and healthy life. This, he proclaimed, constituted a “claim” about the benefits of vegetarianism, which he in turn suggested was akin to claims about faith healing and communicating with the dead. If this really was a scientist speaking, it makes one really shudder to think what kind of illogic and irrationality must prevail among the lay masses.

One comment was to the effect that anecdotal evidence carries no weight even if it occurs a million times over. It’s hard to imagine anything more absurd. Suppose you have a city of a million residents, and the entire million die on the same day. Then you learn that the entire million ate shellfish from local waters on the day before their deaths. Wouldn’t you be just slightly inclined to be more wary of local shellfish than you would have been had there been only one such death? Of course, a million-fold unanimity is still not proof that the shellfish actually caused the deaths; it is, however — in the absence of comprehensive testing — a damn good indication that you would be prudent to avoid eating the stuff until you find out for certain.

A would-be assassin characterized my observations as “pseudoscientific nonsense” —  which in terms of substance is no more noteworthy than any of the other attacks leveled against me.  What is worth remarking about, however, is the commentator’s choice of vocabulary. He seems to be quite confused about the distinctions between unscientific, nonscientific and pseudoscientific (which is quite ironic given that the major linchpin of his attack was my unorthodox use of labels). So even though it’s a bit of a diversion, let’s take a moment to clarify these distinctions.

Unscientific means that something directly contradicts scientific fact — e.g., saying that the earth is flat or that men have fewer ribs than women, or that the earth is not getting warmer. Pseudoscientific is something that is not only unsupported by science, but is masquerading as science (we often call it quackery) — e.g., phrenology, snake oil remedies, and the anti-vax movement.

But there is another class of propositions that are unsupported by science, yet neither contradict nor pose as science; they are propositions that belong in another cognitive sphere altogether. For example: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This statement does not contradict science — it is, in fact, essentially meaningless. And it’s also, in itself, quite harmless; the problem arises when people try to substitute it for scientific fact. Even then, it is not pseudoscientific, because it is not posing as science; it is posing as something superior to science.

Like the author of Genesis, or the individual who coined the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs”, I was being nonscientific — but not unscientific or pseudoscientific, and most certainly not antiscientific.  In asserting that scientific research is indebted to anecdotes, I was using a broad definition of anecdote, and perhaps indulging in a wee bit of poetic license. But not very much.

 

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Creationism, Design and the Watchmaker Fallacy

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In 1802, British theologian William Paley imagined himself finding a watch on the ground while he was out for a stroll. That imaginary timepiece, though there was nothing intrinsically valuable or distinctive about it, ended up being probably the most celebrated and notorious ticker in the history of theology and philosophy. Because Paley conjured it up to make a point about what he perceived as the inescapable origin of the universe:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

It’s hard to believe that an educated and intelligent individual like Paley would ever even fall for, much less contrive, such a silly and self-refuting argument. But it has shown the kind of staying power that all bad ideas have. Even today, it’s often summoned out of its crypt to defend creationism — which its promoters now believe they can sneak under the radar disguised as “intelligent design”.

The “argument from design” has been making the rounds for centuries. (Robert Frost put a sinister and ironic twist on it in his sonnet titled “Design”.) Basically, the argument from design is the belief that the universe is so complex and intricate that it could not have developed without being guided by a supreme power. This seems derived from the premise that a supreme being would be able to design a universe more complex and intricate than any universe that could develop by “chance” (if you want to think of it in those terms).

The latter is in a sense a reasonable conclusion; assuming that there really is a supreme being, then by definition it would be able to perform feats that nothing else can — including “chance”. But even if we grant this to be true, it does not follow that the particular universe we live in would require a designer. We simply have no way of confirming that assumption.

A related argument practiced by creationists is first causeThe reasoning is that since everything in the universe has a cause, then we can trace all the causes back to a First Cause, i.e., God. But the very notion is a self-contradiction: on the one hand, everything has a cause, and yet on the other hand, there is something that presumably doesn’t. The concept of a first cause also posits a naively and drastically oversimplified model of how the universe functions — a linear construct in which A causes B and B causes C and so on. But the real universe does not operate in a straight line; it operates in an unfathomably complex web of mutual influence. To single out a “first cause” is not only impossible but pointless.

The problem with the claim that “God created the universe” isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s downright meaningless. As we mentioned before, “God” is term subject to a broad range of definition. And how exactly would the universe be “created”, anyway? Many people insist that the universe could not have just developed out of nothing, so it must have been created, somehow, out of… well, nothing. By a Creator who came from… well, nothing.

The creationist/ design/ first cause argument falls prey to a fallacy known as infinite regress; which is to say that if the existence of the universe proves the existence of a creator, then the existence of a creator must prove the existence of a creator of the creator, and so on and on and on. The decision to cut off the chain after the second link, as creationists do, is purely arbitrary.

As for Paley’s notorious watch metaphor, it’s a classic false equivalence. He is juxtaposing a thing that we know to be created with a thing that we don’t know to be created and concluding that because it’s possible to find characteristics they have in common, then both must be created. What he’s overlooking is that their differences are much more significant than their similarities — a problem he even stumped his own toe on by comparing the watch to a rock.

The essential property that is intended to make the analogy work is the property of irreducibility. Remove one of the tiny gears (each of which was specially crafted for a specific, identifiable purpose) from a watch and you significantly impair or terminate its functioning. That certainly is a strong indication that the watch was designed and manufactured rather than “just happened”.

The universe, however, is quite another matter. On every level from the most microcosmic to the most macrocosmic, the universe is in an unending state of flux, with elements constantly growing old, dying out, being replaced, or just being lost altogether. People lose teeth, hair and organs and life goes on. Indeed, not only do we have wisdom teeth, tonsils and appendices removed, but these organs appear to be useless at best. Countless entire species have become extinct. Stars go nova, obliterating everything in the neighborhood.

While each of these events might make a difference at some level, the universe takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Can the same be said for Paley’s watch?

Ultimately, if you choose to believe in creationism, you must do so on the basis of faith alone. There is no line of reasoning that will make it more logical than any alternative(s). This need not be a problem as long as you keep religion in its proper sphere of cognition. It is when we try to substitute dogma for science that we run into problems of cosmic proportions.

It may be okay to say that “God created the universe”, particularly since nobody will even know what that means. But that does not mean it’s okay to teach kids that the earth is 6000 years old. It isn’t, and it isn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science Deniers, Flat Earthers and the Modern Galileo

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“Ted Cruz DESTROYS Sierra Club President Over Global Warming”. So said the headline of one of the Internet spinfests making the rounds recently. Another said “Ted Cruz 1, Sierra Club 0”.  Or in the words of a blog writer for Michelle Malkin, whose problems with the real world we’ve discussed before, “Global Warming Causes Sierra Club President to Melt During Ted Cruz Questions About ‘Cooking’ Planet”.

Cruz’s own website even crows about his supposed triumph by posting links to gushing reports about the incident from the mainstream media and from right-wing propaganda outlets. (But I repeat myself.) All of which just goes to show that you can spin just about anything to your advantage if you have your skull inserted into your rectum far enough.

This take on events achieved search engine saturation — it was almost impossible to find an accurate account of the incident referred to, because the spinmeisters had piled up such a deep heap of rubbish to dig through. Unfortunately for them, they committed — as they often do — the fatal error of providing a link to a video that is supposed to buttress their cause, but in fact totally explodes it. (Compare, for example, the birthers who provided a link to a video which they claimed depicted an attorney for President Obama admitting that his birth certificate is forged.)

Suppose the spin were true. What if Cruz really had handed Sierra Club president Aaron Mair his testicles on a salver? What exactly would have been the significance? Damn little. Mair’s background is in sociology, history and political science, and he is by profession an epidemiological-spatial analyst, which is basically someone who studies the geographical distribution of disease. He does not claim to be an authority on climate science, which just might be why he accepts the research of those who are experts.

Cruz, however, is another matter. With a background in public policy, law and politics, he believes he does know more about climate science than those who study it for a living. He’s even dubbed climate science a “religion.” He knows that global warming is a hoax because it still snows in New Hampshire. No, really. In fact, he places himself in some rather elite company as a maverick scientific thinker:

Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

Aside from the fact that he is turning reality on its ear, fancying himself a modern Galileo and casting the scientific community in the role of a backward religious establishment, there is something staggeringly stupid about that utterance, even by Cruz’s usual standards. But we’ll return to that later. First let’s look at what actually happened at that hearing.

It helps to understand how hearings work in a GOP-controlled Congress. When Planned Parenthood was the target of a smear campaign by a group circulating deceptively edited videos, Congress went after (not the perpetrators of the fraud, but) Planned Parenthood’s CEO, Cecile Richards, whom they subjected to a very nasty, one-sided, accusatory inquisition.

When terrorists attacked an American consulate in Benghazi, Republicans went after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who coincidentally was the favored contender for the Democratic nomination for president — even though there’s really nothing to investigate, they’ve reportedly now investigated Benghazi more than they investigated 9-11, which occurred on American soil, had a much heavier toll, and actually involved an administration’s gross negligence. And many of us still remember the congressional shark orgy around Clinton’s husband over his sex life, a witch hunt mounted under the comically transparent pretext that it was somehow in the national interest.

So it shouldn’t come as a great shock that given the platform, someone like Ted Cruz would seize the opportunity to grill a Sierra Club representative in an attempt to vindicate his own ineptitude. And while Aaron Mair was not as well prepared for the vicious onslaught as were Richards or Clinton or Clinton (this one was, after all, unscheduled), he was equally firm and patient — I’m not sure that he rolled his eyes even once.

The “platform” was a hearing on government regulation. But at one point Mair observed:

That people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution, and climate disruption should not be up for debate any more so than the science behind climate change itself.

Well sir, Cruz saw his opportunity, so he pounced.

I’m curious: Is the Sierra Club, is this a frequent practice to declare areas of science not up for debate, not up for consideration of what the evidence and data show?

Among other things, this is a false attribution. It isn’t the Sierra Club that declares “areas of science not up for debate”. It’s scientists themselves. As Mair repeats far too many times (but what else can you say to such Cruzian nonsense on the spot — he had a better response later), the organization stands behind the consensus of 97 percent of scientists. At one point, however, he did refer to the “preponderance of evidence”, which gave Cruz another golden opportunity, noting that as a lawyer he learned that it only took a certainty of 51 percent to establish a preponderance.

I don’t know what kind of lawyer Cruz was, but surely he is not so inept a mathematician as to confuse 51 with 97. If only one scientist says something, or only one percent of scientists say something, by all means you can take it with a grain of salt. If 51 percent of scientists say something, you can consider it a matter of legitimate debate. If 97 percent say something, you’d do well to start paying attention.

Actually, Mair was wrong. He was citing a commonly quoted figure when he said that 97 percent of scientists concur with the global warming scenario, but this figure is off. The actual percentage is more than 99.99 percent. Yet Cruz still knows better.  And he has a simple explanation for why virtually all the scientists are wrong: those scientists only say what they do because they receive “massive grants”.  The “grant” card is a standard component of the anti-sciencer’s toolkit; if all else fails, just suggest that giving scientists money hopelessly corrupts them — unless of course that money comes from a petroleum company, and then the research is above question.

The implication is that nearly all scientists, even the best and brightest, can be bought. If that were true, it’s hard to imagine that science would have made anywhere near the progress it has — we might well be still in the bone knives and bearskins stage.

I’m curious, Senator Cruz: would you prefer that scientific research be carried out by shoe salesmen in their basements on weekends — or by individuals wealthy enough to fund their own research? Just how big does a grant need to be to qualify as “massive”? Should it be in the neighborhood of, say, the 15 million you received from major polluters this year?

Cruz asks whether it’s true that there has been no warming trend for the past 18 years. Mair responds, simply but accurately, that no, it isn’t true. Cruz presses on, laying a trap by asking whether Mair knows what “the pause” refers to. Mair fails the test. So what? “The pause” is a statistical burp that absolutely does NOT show a cessation of global warming. Cruz believes it does. So which of them is more ignorant?

In short, it’s true that Aaron Mair wasn’t stellar in defending himself at his de facto trial; but however bad he may have looked, Ted Cruz definitely looked much worse. And it was entirely his own doing. That tends to happen whenever a pompous individual poses as more knowledgeable about a field than the collective experts in that field — unless of course the individual in question really is a Galileo.

Which brings us back to that little statement Cruz made above. Let’s look at it again. Sorry, but it’s just too good to use only once.

Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

As you probably realize, the clash between Galileo and the church had nothing to do with the shape of the earth. It occurred because Galileo had stated the earth revolved around the sun, while church officials insisted that the earth (and they themselves) were at the center of the universe. They were dead wrong about that, but they at least knew the earth was round — as virtually everyone else did.

Today, the term flat earther is applied figuratively to a person who clings obstinately to a narrow-minded belief that is contradicted by the evidence — like, oh, certain senators from Texas. But once upon a time, many people literally believed that before modern times, people literally believed the earth was flat. Not only is Cruz buying into this myth, he is quite ignorant about a key event in the history of science and the iconic conflict involving the scientific genius whose shoes he presumes to fill.

Did we mention that this character is chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness? Did we mention that he wants to be president of the United States?

 

The Red Herring of “Settled Science”

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It has become very popular among climate science deniers to say that “the science is unsettled”, as if such a statement settles anything. It doesn’t. Of course the science is unsettled. Science is almost always unsettled. That’s why they call it science instead of religion. But just because scientists don’t know everything doesn’t mean they don’t know anything. There’s still much they don’t know about global warming, just as there’s much they don’t know about cancer and Pluto. That does not mean they’re uncertain that any of them exists.

“Settled science” is a straw man suggesting that scientists claim to have all the answers. How could they when they usually don’t have their own radio talk shows? And I’ve never heard a one of them claim to know everything. What you might hear them claim, however, is that they know more about the field they work in every day than does someone who’s never worked in it at all. Fancy that.

Charles Krauthammer (pictured) recently paid tribute to the “settled science” decoy with an article in the Washington Post titled The Myth Of Settled Science. He prefaces his remarks with the insistence that “I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier.” But he certainly uses the tactics of a denier, including cherry picking, misinformation and distortion. And he follows the Golden Rule of today’s rabid ideologues: When All Else Fails, Attack President Obama.

He quotes a statement by the president that “the debate is settled … climate change is a fact” , for which he believes the president deserves the appellation of “propagandist in chief” — an irony too thick to cut with a chainsaw– and pontificates that

“There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.”

Scientists, of course, subscribe to no such credo, nor does Obama. He didn’t say that the science is settled, but that the debate is settled — i.e., the debate over whether global warming is a fact. And on this point he was all too accurate.  The debate indeed has been long settled among competent and disinterested scientists. Plenty of people still contest that conclusion, of course, just as plenty of people contest that a landing on the moon really occurred. But neither is really a debate in any meaningful sense.

Such individuals often cloak themselves in the mantle of “skepticism”, as if a skeptic would be more likely to doubt scientists than crackpots and ideological fanatics with little or no scientific background. You can also doubt gravity if you like, and test out your conviction with as many leaps from tall buildings as will support your thesis.  In the words of physicist and advocate for scientific literacy Neil deGrasse Tyson, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One might argue that the leapers from buildings hurt nobody except themselves; but sometimes before they leap they get themselves into positions of power and influence. And they have a habit of vilifying and ridiculing people who do support science. (See Gore, Al.)

Are scientists sometimes wrong? You bet. But that doesn’t mean science itself is wrong. And you need a lot more to establish that scientists are wrong than ideological fervor and cherry-picked details.

Krauthammer likens global warming to mammograms, which have been used for many years to prevent breast cancer but which, according to one study, are more or less worthless. It’s a weak analogy because mammography research is experimental and remedial, whereas climate research is purely observational.  A more appropriate analogy would be: “The certainty that global warming exists is like the certainty that breast cancer and x-rays exist.” Or, if Krauthammer’s assessment is correct: “The idea that mammograms prevent breast cancer is akin to the idea that global warming can be dispelled by flapping your bedsheets at the moon.”

Krauthammer can speak with some authority about mammograms, having been trained as a physician. But to the best of my knowledge, he has little to no expertise in climatology. Which doesn’t seem to make any difference to the cult of denial.

It’s interesting to note that Krauthammer is generally considered a “conservative” — which may not be entirely fair, since he holds certain positions (i.e., pro-choice) that are antithetical to contemporary boilerplate “conservatism”. But he is a regular contributor to Fox “News” and The Weekly Standard. And he certainly follows the winger playbook on this one.

“Conservatives” — whether they’re genuine conservatives or modern neocons fraudulently wearing the badge of conservatism — have a long, long history of being on the wrong side of science. You’d think that just once in the long, long history of the human race, they could get it right. But they seem very, very determined not to.

(See previous posts,  Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming and NASA Data, Computer Projections, Opinion Polls and Them Dang Libruls.)

Misquoting Gore. Again. Still.

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As 2013 was coming to a halt, the cult of climate science denial believed they had great reason to gloat. After all, hadn’t their favorite bogeyman, Al Gore, predicted 5 years ago that the Arctic would be free of ice by now? And wasn’t there still plenty of ice left at the North Pole? And heaven knows, as long as there’s at least one icicle left on Santa’s beard, it totally proves that global warming is a hoax. Ditto if we can establish that Al Gore has been wrong even once in his life.

Sorry to pop the bubbles in your champagne, deniers, but you got it wrong on both ends; both Gore and the scientists he was quoting were all too accurate.

Climate science denial is predicated on the belief that climatology is part of an evil commie plot to destroy the American economy by nibbling away at the mountain of profits raked in by corporate polluters. Somebody forgot to pass that memo along to the CEO of ExxonMobil, who has acknowledged not only that global warming is real, but that fossil fuels “may” contribute to it.  But the global warming “skeptics”, as they like to fancy themselves, know better.

If you’re one of these cultists — oops, “skeptics” —  then I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that them thar evil commie scientists were indeed mistaken. The bad news is that their error is minor, and not one that will be very friendly to your dogma. On the contrary, the estimates were too conservative: Arctic ice is disappearing even faster than projected.

The “skeptics” generally try to discredit climate science by stringent cherry picking. Unable to grasp the concept that global warming is an AVERAGE increase in WORLDWIDE temperatures over a LONG period of time, they instead seize upon very short-term variations in temperatures in one location, particularly if they happen to occur during the winter. The folly of this type of cherry-picking “skepticism”, particularly with regard to arctic ice, is readily apparent in the following graph borrowed from Truthout:

Arctic Ice

Yeah, there was a spike in the ice in 2013, just as there had been in certain previous years; but there’s still an unmistakable downward trend. Any gambler who records his wins and losses at the craps table long enough can show you a graph like this one. It doesn’t mean that probability is a hoax or mathematicians are frauds or casinos are generous. But gosh, ain’t it fun to just forget the facts and ridicule Al Gore.

If you try Googling something like “Gore’s 2013 prediction”, you’ll come up with an ocean full of blogs sneeringly touting Gore’s pronouncements that the Arctic would be ice free by 2013. What an idiot!  What a lunatic! What a shill! What a propagandist! What an opportunistic manipulator!

But what you’ll have a much harder time finding is his actual words. So let’s take a look at them. Chances are you saw them here first:

Last September 21 (2007), as the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun, scientists reported with unprecedented distress that the North Polar ice cap is “falling off a cliff.” One study estimated that it could be completely gone during summer in less than 22 years. Another new study, to be presented by U.S. Navy researchers later this week, warns it could happen in as little as 7 years.

In case you’re having struggles with the Mother Tongue, let’s point out that there’s a difference between “could” and “will”; between “one study estimated” and “without a doubt”; and between “in as little as 7 years” and “in at most 6 years”.  In their ever-mounting desperation for a Gore flub, the anti-sciencers also turned to a speech he made in 2009, in which he supposedly said that the arctic ice could be gone in 5 years. Even if that had been what he said, that would mean this year (2014) and as of this writing it’s only January. But what he actually said was this:

Some of the models suggest that there is a 75 percent chance that the entire north polar ice cap during some of the summer months will be completely ice-free within the next five to seven years.

His office later clarified that he meant to say “nearly” instead of “completely” — in which case he was, again, too conservative, as the Arctic is already nearly ice-free during summer — but even as it stands, the statement leaves way too much wiggle room for anyone to declare that it’s wrong. Except, of course, for the Gore-hating science deniers. They’ve even misrepresented the words of the scientific source Gore was citing. But their most extensive smearing and distorting is, as always, reserved for Al himself.

As its own Exhibit A against Mr. Gore, PJ Media, one of those innumerable bastions of disinformation and general wingnuttery out in the blogoshpere, presents a brief, undated, uncontexted, garbled, and possibly edited clip of Mr. Gore appearing to say that arctic ice could be (or might be, or something) gone in 5 years. PJM notes that a presumably more damning clip that it had alluded to previously seems to have vanished down the “memory hole” along with, presumably, its smoking gun evidence that global warming is a hoax and thousands of the world’s top scientists are frauds. Doncha hate it when that happens?

The campaign to discredit Mr. Gore has been long, intensive, nasty, silly and downright bizarre. For sheer silliness, it’s hard to surpass the recent grade school gigglefest at Fox “News” over the fact that Mr. Gore’s book finally has, as any book eventually does (are you ready for this?) gone on sale. (Snicker snicker tee hee) Except maybe for photographing a copy of the book in the snow. But above all, there’s the standard practice of heavily editing his own words, as above.

As discussed previously , the Gore haters were relentless, systematic and unscrupulous in their efforts to assail Gore’s credibility during the 2000 presidential election, twisting his words like pretzels. When he said of a student’s campaign to clean up the toxic spill at Love Canal, “That was the one that started it all”, the librulmedia, taking its cue from GOP propagandists, quoted him as saying “I was the one who started it all.” And even more famously, of course, his observation that “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” will be forever remembered as “I invented the Internet”. They branded him permanently as a pathological liar without producing even one lie he’d told.

Not content merely to distort his words, the Gore haters have distorted his actions as well, pegging him as a blustery con man. What a hypocrite, they say, to warn people about the dangers of pollution when he, like any successful American, lives in a nice house and travels on planes occasionally. Obviously, he’s spent 4 decades warning about climate change just so he can put a feather in his own cap and rake in a few bucks in the process.

What you probably won’t hear these folks talk about is how he used planes after Hurricane Katrina. Remember Katrina? Even if you’re one of those sage souls who pooh-pooh the commie notion that global warming may have contributed to it, and instead chalk it up to gay marriage and abortion, you probably agree that the government’s finger-in-the-ass response to it was less than stellar — under the “leadership” of the guy who, by all evidence, had stolen Gore’s job.  Meanwhile, Gore himself shelled out $100,000 of his own money to secretly charter two planes to fly to New Orleans and evacuate 270 stranded citizens — an effort in which he physically assisted. And he refused to discuss it with the media when they found out about it. A big spender he may be. A self-aggrandizing phony he ain’t.

Somehow, the rightwing anti-science vendetta against Albert Gore, Jr. reminds me of a line from the movie Love Story. Perhaps it’s because the author of the book , Erich Segal, was a friend of Gore’s at Harvard. Perhaps it’s because Gore’s good faith reliance on an inaccurate newspaper article about the book was transformed into another of his baldfaced “lies”.  Perhaps it’s because the line in question was uttered by Gore’s Harvard roommate, future Hollywood superstar Tommy Lee Jones.

In any case Jones’ character, upon hearing the news that the male lead is romantically holed up in his room with his girlfriend, initially responds, “Again?” But then after a moment’s reflection, he amends it to the more appropriate reaction: “Still?”

Likewise, when I hear about the smears and distortions against Al Gore by climate science “skeptics” I seldom think, well there they go again.  Because in all these years they’ve never once put on their clothes and gone home.

NASA Data, Computer Projections, Opinion Polls and Them Dang Libruls

Three interesting news items about global warming in the past week or so. One is that Al Gore dropped the Mr. Nice Guy routine and called out the climate science deniers in a blunt and fiery speech, addressing the dishonest campaign against scientists by its rightful technical terminology: “bullshit”. About time.

Except that, as you might expect, this occasion was then spun into further shoot-the-messenger attacks on him. How dare he warn us about global warming when he travels on airplanes and lives in a big house? Never mind that just about everyone at his level of success travels on a plane and lives in a big house (which in his case doubles as office space). He’s a “liberal” so unless he lives in a cave and recycles toilet paper, he’s a hypocrite.

The second prong of the usual attack against him is that he’s not qualified to speak about science since he’s not a scientist himself. Never mind that he’s been closely following and faithfully relating the work of people who ARE scientists for about four decades. He’s a “liberal”, so we should instead listen to the anti-scientists, even if they have less scientific background than he does.

Polls Apart

Another news story was about a Rasmussen poll in which 69% of respondents believed it was “at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data” on global warming. The right-wing punditocracy had a field day with this, touting it as proof of their long-held assertion that global warming is a “liberal” hoax – as if no one but “liberals” are concerned about, or affected by, the crisis. Rush Limbaugh, keeping with his usual playground antics, declared “we win”.

Most of us realize that opinion polls are not necessarily a gauge of reality. But if roughly 2 out of 3 Americans did prefer tasty new bullshit to science, it really wouldn’t be surprising, given the lengthy and intensive propaganda that Limbaugh and company have waged on the topic. But the poll didn’t conclude that 69% swallow the claim that global warming is a hoax; it concluded that 69% believe that SOME scientists MAY have fudged data. Even if that assumption is perfectly true, it wouldn’t negate the abundance of honest and sound research on the subject.

And notice that troubling little word “some”. Exactly how big a sum is some? If I knew of 2 or 3 scientists who had dishonestly distorted the facts to support the global warming model, I might be inclined to answer that question in the affirmative myself. But I’m not aware of even ONE who’s done so – despite persistent and pervasive media rumors to that effect. And those rumors have a lot of people fooled. So for once I guess Rush is actually right – “we” (the merchants of misinformation) have won, or at least are winning, the PR battle.

NASA vs. NASA

A case in point is our third news story, which went viral on the Internet: data collected by NASA over the past decade allegedly suggest that much more heat is escaping the atmosphere than global warming “alarmists” have predicted through computer models. Do a Google search for “NASA data computer simulations” and you’ll get an endless parade of links proclaiming that this new report “debunks” or “blows a hole in”  the “alarmist” global warming “theories”. Pages and pages of them. You have to dig through a Mount Everest of bullshit to unearth the facts.

Where to begin?

First, this revolutionary paper is itself based on a computer model, but one concocted by only two people – primarily Dr. Roy Spencer- and using a far more limited range of data (10 years, a mere blip when it comes to climate science) than the “alarmist” model that diagnoses global warming.

Second, Spencer himself has tweaked this data mercilessly.

Third, his paper doesn’t even deliver on the claim promised by its title.

Fourth, although data gathered by NASA were indeed used, it would be dishonest to suggest that NASA itself concurs with Spencer’s findings. The vast majority of climate scientists not only refute his conclusions (which hinge on the thesis that warmer temperatures are caused by…CLOUDS!) but are disgusted that his paper was ever published at all.

It might be construed as shooting the messenger if we merely reported that Dr. Spencer is affiliated with a creationist (“intelligent design”) organization that believes climate change is all part of a divinely ordered process and we shouldn’t worry about it. But let’s add his own words about his objectives: to “save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism” and “protecting the interests of the taxpayer.” Do you suppose that has any bearing on how he reports the information he’s amassed and mutilated?

The misinformation machine continues to churn furiously, but global warming remains a very real problem. And we’ll have to find some other grounds for demonizing libruls.

Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming

Global warming has been the subject of an absolutely phenomenal amount of propaganda, distortion, misinformation, disinformation, balderdash, poppycock, baloney, drivel and other crap. In fact, with the exception of health care, there’s probably no subject that has inspired more lunacy in the past… well, two years or so. Here are the more common inane and insane utterances that you probably have heard, are hearing, and will continue to hear:

1. “Global warming is a politically motivated liberal hoax.

Actually, the cult of denial about global warming is a politically motivated hoax. Scientists simply studied and reported the facts; but they stepped on some toes in the process. Because the conclusion that carbon emissions contribute heavily to the problem carries with it the recommendation that polluters need to clean up their act. And those polluters have some very powerful allies in Washington and in the media. Thus the intense and well-financed campaign to shoot the messengers and create the impression that there is still a debate going on about the reality of global warming. Sorry to break the news, but the debate ended long ago.

2. “But the evidence is inconclusive.”

Read my lips. If you inherit a million dollars, that means you’re richer. If you gain ten pounds, that means you’re heavier. If the Giants score more runs than the Rangers, the Giants win. If temperatures rise, that means it’s getting warmer. What’s the least bit ambiguous about any of that?

And there is no doubt that temperatures are rising, and have been for some time. Since at least 1880, when reliable measurements began to be taken, temperatures have risen in every decade except 1930-39 and 1970-79. During those two decades, they remained essentially level. But the rest of the time, they climbed steadily.  And the first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the warmest decade on record. Furthermore, this is the first time in the past 650,000 years that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its current level. And high CO2 levels are always followed by warmer temperatures.

3. “But scientists disagree over the evidence.”

It’s practically impossible anymore to find a competent scientist who disputes the evidence and who is not on the payroll of oil companies or affiliated with a right-wing think tank.

4. “But scientists can’t be trusted.

So from whom would you like to obtain your information about science? Politicians? Pundits? Televangelists? If you’re going to reject the work of scientists, then stop driving your car, taking medication, eating food you don’t grow and develop yourself, watching television, and wearing clothes. And while you’re at it, turn off the damn Internet!

Scientists in fact are extremely efficient at policing themselves, with a system of checks and balances that would be the envy of many governments. Yes, there are occasional instances of scientific fraud. And it’s almost always scientists who detect them. On the other hand, Fox “News” has no accountability whatsoever; they know they can say absolutely anything and some people will believe it.

5. “But those leaked emails prove that scientists fudged data.”

Those leaked emails prove that leaked emails need context; and that whenever they can’t find a scandal, the media will invent one. There was absolutely nothing in those emails that negate any of the research on global warming, much less indicate deliberate manipulation of data. (See Fact Check’s analysis.) But if you’re going to talk about leaked memos, maybe you should look at this one in which Fox instructs its talking heads to deliberately cover up the evidence. Or this report, which shows that the Bush administration did likewise.

6. “But it wasn’t long ago that most scientists believed in global cooling.”

Nope. Sorry. This is another myth tirelessly circulated by the media and other right-wing establishments.  Despite the fact that climate science was still in its infancy and despite the fact that there had indeed been a temporary cooling trend, most scientists of the 1970s still believed the earth was getting warmer. The “theory” of global cooling was never embraced by the scientific community.

7. “But scientists often change their minds”

That’s one way of looking at it. Science, unlike anti-science and other forms of dogma, is a living, evolving thing.  Scientists are in the business of uncovering facts; so if they “change their minds”, it’s a sign they’re doing their job.

Again, it’s a question of expertise. Chances are if you were on trial with your life at stake, you’d want to be represented by someone who’d spent years studying and practicing law rather than a hairdresser who’s never changed her mind on legal matters. And if you needed brain surgery, you’d probably want it performed by a medical expert rather than a plumber. So why would you want to rely for answers about science on someone whose sole expertise lies in manipulating public opinion?

8. “But skepticism is healthy.”

It certainly is, and scientists aren’t suggesting otherwise; science is built on skepticism.  But who is more deserving of your own skepticism: thousands of the world’s most brilliant and dedicated researchers including several Nobel laureates – or media hacks with perhaps one basic college science course under their belts and a fiercely ideological agenda to push?

9. “But we still have a lot of snow and cold weather.”

This is perhaps the silliest statement of all, so naturally it gets repeated quite a bit. Every time there  is a snow flurry, you can count on someone saying, “well, so much for global warming”, and you can count on someone like Sean Hannity saying something like, “I wish Al Gore would explain where all this snow is coming from”. In fact, Al Gore has done just that; and as always he was met with hoots of derision from demagogues like Hannity. And as always, since he was simply relaying what scientists say, he was right and they were wrong.

Folks, folks. There is a difference between climate and weather. Weather is what’s falling from the sky right now, or over a period of days, or weeks, or even months. But climate is the normal weather for a given area based on a much longer period of weather cycles. Global warming refers to climate, not weather, and just because climate is warming doesn’t mean that all cold weather will suddenly disappear. In fact (write this down) warmer climate can actually cause cooler weather. Really. Ask a scientist to explain it to you. And maybe to Sean Hannity as well.

10. “But Al Gore rides around in big jets and lives in a big house that uses a lot of energy.”

I take it back. This is surely the silliest of them all. So naturally it gets an incredible amount of mileage. Do a search for “Al Gore” and “energy” or “ecology” or some such and you’re guaranteed to get a gazillion stories about his “hypocrisy” and/or “elitism”. But a fair and honest evaluation of his habits is much, much more difficult to find. So what? Do you really want to sacrifice the future of the entire planet in order to make the point that one person is unqualified for sainthood? If so, then please, please PLEASE take a closer look at Mr. Gore’s  “carbon footprint”.

11. “But human activity can’t possibly have an effect on atmospheric conditions.”

Never been to Los Angeles in the summer, eh?

12. “But God will take care of it.”

As Hercules said to the man whose wagon was stuck in the mud, “the gods help only those who help themselves.”

13, “But there’s nothing we can do about it, anyway.” 14.”But it would be too expensive.”

The “expensive” objection is not even a legitimate argument, since all the money in the world isn’t much good if we don’t survive to use it; and the costs (financial and otherwise) of ignoring the problem will be astronomical. But it’s also wrong.  First of all, practicing sound ecology opens up new sources of revenue, such as alternative sources of energy.  Second of all, there are many simple steps that could be taken to have a dramatic impact.

A few years ago, one study concluded that simple conservation measures could reduce energy consumption by 47% (memo to Glenn Beck: that’s  nearly half) and of course carbon emissions would also be greatly reduced. Shortly thereafter Dick Cheney, who was in charge of the nation’s energy policy (An oil tycoon deciding energy policy??? See anything wrong with this picture?) decreed that conservation would play no role in his administration’s energy policy.   Presidents Ford and Carter, however,  implemented more stringent automobile standards which, if left in place, would not only have greatly reduced pollution, but might have totally eliminated the need for foreign oil. And then along came Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of politicians (if we really must) we can’t help noting that among the current crop of congressional Republicans, 53% of those in the House and a jaw-dropping 74% in the Senate claim to know more about climate science than scientists do. Surely it would make a significant difference, and cost nothing to boot, if the American public simply stopped electing characters like these.

IN SUMMARY: Global warming is real. Climategate isn’t. (We’re not sure about Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.) Al Gore didn’t invent global warming, nor did he claim to. It may not be too late to avert disaster. But we probably won’t anyway. In a war between scientists and loonies, the loonies will probably win. Because they have a powerful propaganda machine that no scientist could ever invent.