No need for scientific literacy

It’s interesting how those who claim to represent “science” about climate change often lack basic scientific literacy. Al Gore’s infamous statement that the temperature inside the earth is several million degrees instead of just thousands is a striking example.

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6 ways climate science gets infected with politics

Many seem to think that scientists have no reason to have political motivations, and that anyone who suggests that climate science is politicized is a deranged right-wing conspiracy theorist. That’s why it’s important to understand that there are reasons that are in fact well documented if you care to know about them.

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What is an emission target?

An emission target or emission reduction target is a promise by politicians that they don’t have to keep. Not just any promise, of course; it’s a promise about how much CO2 will be emitted by all activities in their country. In other words, something that’s fairly hard to control.

The main reason they don’t have to keep it, and realistically can’t keep it, is that they probably won’t be in office any more when the date for the target arrives. They know there’s no way to hold them accountable and no point in doing so after they’ve left office. Besides that, people, at least regular voters, understand that it’s a promise that’s hard to keep.

It’s interesting that these targets are held in such high regard. Promises by politicians typically aren’t. But “emission target” somehow has the flavor of something more substantial and solid. One reason may be that emission targets are numbers, and numbers tend to impress. They make it seem like you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. The emissions targets are even based on calculation. The only problem is that the calculations ignore the error bars in the original numbers, giving the impression that the result is precise when it isn’t.

I said promise, but if it’s just a target, it’s even less than a promise, or perhaps it can be considered a promise to try. On the other hand, we get binding emissions targets. Those are actual promises. The Kyoto agreement, for instance, had binding emission reduction targets. But that was in 1990, and many countries, especially affluent ones, failed to achieve those binding targets.

So what happens when a country fails to achieve a binding target? Apparently very little. Some scolding from environmentalists, but even they know it’s too late to anything about it, so they just ask for new promises. Bigger ones, perhaps. More ambitious targets. Worthless, but bigger. Less likely to be implemented, because they’re less likely to truly be taken seriously. Yes, the environmental organizations are part of the charade. They keep rewarding politicians for promises, not results.

Sometimes though, they just promise to promise. Sometimes it even looks like a promise to promise to promise.

I don’t think there’s been a COP as important as Copenhagen since but now all eyes are turned to the COP that will take place in France in 2015. Last year in Doha, it was agreed that in 2015 countries will agree to set targets that will be implemented by 2020.

In short, they agreed to agree to set targets. Not that it’s never useful to agree to come to an agreement later. Sometimes it’s a start and better than nothing. But when even the final result means little, a good start is fairly pointless.

But given the premise—one which in my opinion is getting more dubious all the time—that we need to relase less CO2 into the atmosphere, what would be a better way? Well, you can have targets, but keep them realistic. That would be a better start. Climate pragmatism makes a lot of sense, trying to take the real world into account instead of wishfully thinking that bigger promises will get everyone fired up and taking action.

We are not separate from nature. Really!?

“We are not separate from nature.” That’s what they say, anyway. Who? The followers of “deep ecology“, I guess. 

The central spiritual tenet of deep ecology is that the human species is a part of the Earth, not separate from it, and as such human existence is dependent on the diverse organisms within the natural world each playing a role in the natural economy of the biosphere.

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Debunking Oreskes part 6: Is it all about the money?

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

← Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” 

← Part 4: Disinformation or debate? 

 Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate

Was industry money the driving force behind the events described in Merchants of Doubt? This is another one of those ideas that seem to be implied and widely believed but never explicitly stated in the book itself. Supposedly, (nowadays at least) there is a “Koch-funded denial machine” that makes people deny the evidence for catastrophic human-caused climate change in spite of overwhelming evidence. The idea is that vast resources make up for a lack of scientific substance.

But is that true? As I just said, Oreskes and Conway never make this explicit. The very concept of “merchants of doubt” hints at a profit motive, but could perhaps be dismissed as metaphorical. In the review I quoted earlier, though, it’s clear: “It’s not about evidence, in other words; it’s about satisfying corporate America’s lust for profits.”
There is surprisingly little mention of funding in Merchants of Doubt. The passages I quoted earlier are suggestive, though.

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Debunking Oreskes part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

← Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” 

← Part 4: Disinformation or debate? 

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

The reason Merchants of Doubt has received so much attention is clear: It is seen as evidence that climate skepticism is a disinformation campaign driven by dubious scientists working for dubious interests with dubious motives. Therefore it is seen as highly relevant to current controversy on climate change. If it weren’t, if it were only of historical interest, most of us would probably never even have heard of it even if it were factually accurate and perfect in every other respect.

But is it really relevant? Does it make the connection between the alleged machinations of “the handful of scientists” (the Handful as I call them) and the climate change issue today?

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Debunking Oreskes Part 4: Disinformation or debate?

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

← Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” 

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money?

So far in this series, we’ve seen that the claim that “a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”, both because the scientists identified (the Handful, as I call them) were in fact not involved in all these issues, and because the claim that they “obscured the truth” does not hold water given Oreskes and Conway’s own idea of what that means. Also, there was no “tobacco strategy” connecting the issues. 

Given this, there seems to be no foundation for any claim of disinformation. And yet, they use the term rather emphatically in the book, speaking of “the creation of doubt and the spread of disinformation”.

But let us try to find out what Oreskes and Conway base their claims of disinformation on. Part of it is guilt by association with Big Tobacco as I have mentioned. But there is more.

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Debunking Oreskes part 3: The “tobacco strategy”

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

Part 4: Disinformation or debate? →

Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate →

Part 6: Is it all about the money? 

So far in this series about the book Merchants of Doubt, we’ve seen (in part 1) that it’s surprisingly hard to divine what the authors (Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway) are actually trying to tell us, and that this lack of clarity matches their own definition of “bad science”. In part 2, investigating the claim in their subtitle, that a “handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming”, we found that the link between the scientists identified as “the Handful” and the tobacco issue was practically non-existent. We also saw that the claim of “obscuring the truth” rests on the premise that they were contradicting a scientific consensus, and that they haven’t documented even that. The Handful’s activity in the climate change controversy as chronicled in Merchants of Doubt happened during a period when there was no consensus according to Oreskes and Conway themselves.

In this part, I am going to tackle claims 2 and 3 both. As before, the claims are are not direct quotes, but educated guesses about what they mean, since there are no clear conclusions to quote. But I have tried to extract what seems to be implied or what the readers of the book seem to believe are its main messages.

Claim 2: In each case, the deliberate purpose of the Handful was to defend the “offending substance” (tobacco, CO2, acid rain, etc).

This is about the motivation of the players, and it’s hard to ascertain what people’s motivations are without asking them. And asking them is expressly what Oreskes and Conway have not done. I will hazard a guess that, if asked, they would have said they were mostly trying to defend good science and rational science-based political decision-making.

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The D word (denier, denial, denialism)

The “D word” is a hot potato in the current climate change debate. It comes in three flavors: denial, denier, denialism. A few simple web searches reveal that according to various sources, climate change deniers are criminals, have bizarre beliefs, are like racists or homophobes, have no scientific credibility, don’t deserve to be heard, etc.

Here’s an example from an online discussion.

I’ll also give you this: You and your fellow deniers are wrong, and you will be on the wrong side of history. In 50 years you will be scattered with the witch-burners, the white supremacists, the birthers and the creationists who illustrate the limits of the human mind and the danger that come (sic) with them. You’ll be crammed into historical footnotes that students around the world will chuckle at for those five minutes you are mentioned. I wish you could be around to see it, if for no other reason than to hear you bray frantically that Anthony Watts is still right.

Not surprisingly, those who have the are labeled as climate change deniers tend to disagree, although there are some who embrace the “denier” label.

But the D word is also being used in other contexts, as a general term for people who allegedly deny matters of fact.

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