Sunday, November 25, 2007

Skepticism of Global Warming Skepticism

For the most part I believe conspiracy theories are the result of some people's inability to admit they lost whatever game they were playing fair and square. It's the equivalent of claiming you only lost because the referees cheated. That's not to say conspiracies haven't and don't exist. I just think it is the sort of claim that requires hard evidence beyond the fact that the voters, scientific journals, referees, whoever, drew a different conclusion than the complainer did.

Tops on the conspiracy list these days are the global warming deniers, many of whom claim that the scientific community is biased against their views. Yet never have I seen hard evidence of said bias. Enter Richard Black, who did the work for me

"...I invited sceptics to put their cards on the table, and send me documentation or other firm evidence of bias.

For my part, I agreed to look into any concrete claims.

Given the fury evidenced by sceptical commentators, I was expecting a deluge.

I anticipated drowning in a torrent of accusations of research grants turned down, membership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) denied, scientific papers refused by journals, job applications refused, and invitations to speak at conferences drying up.

I anticipated having to spend days, weeks, months even, sifting the wheat from the chaff, going backwards and forwards between journal editors, heads of department, conference organisers, funding bodies and the original plaintiffs.

I envisaged major headaches materialising as I tried to sort out the chains of events, attempting to decipher whether claims had any validity, or were just part of the normal rough and tumble of a scientist's life - especially in the context of scientific publishing, where the top journals only publish about 10% of the papers submitted to them.

The reality was rather different. "

Indeed. Black received a paltry 5 submissions of substance, which either dealt with two very famous cases (the "hockey stick", and the Oreskes article). 95% of what he received...:

"...contained a mixture of positive and negative comments on the worth of this exercise, links to newspaper articles and blog entries that typically contained accusations of bias but no evidence, links to scientific papers which the writers said challenged anthropogenic warming, tirades against the media, and several suggestions that for an authoritative exposition of bias in climate science I should read Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear. "

I find that pretty compelling. But what else would we expect from people who read Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza, who make shit up all the time? The reason is pretty obvious: too many people don't bother to check the facts behind an opinion if they agree with it. Global warming deniers don't want it to be true, it is that simple.

As for the common claim that researchers risk losing their funding if they challenge AGW, Black turned to climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf:

"How likely is it that my funding would suffer if I found a good alternative explanation for the observed global warming, or that I would have trouble publishing it (assuming it would be methodologically sound, of course)?" he asked.

"Quite the contrary, I would see it as a path to certain fame! Scientists always strive to find something radically new and different - just reconfirming what is already quite well-known is boring, and certainly will not get you the Nobel Prize.

"In many countries, including my own, scientific funding is a lot less competitive than in the US - I'm a professor for life, my institute has a solid base funding for doing its research, and basically I can do what I want without risk that this is taken away from me. I don't need to get new grants all the time."

This exact answer comes out of the mouths of a lot of evolutionary biologists as well, when they are accused of supporting modern evolutionary theory because of vested personal interests. Overturning Darwin is a sure way into the record books. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the anti-evolution movement, for it has quite a bit of overlap with AGW deniers.

It is also worth noting that many, if not most, conspiracy theories completely fall apart once one considers the entire world instead of just the United States. Were groups in the US controlling scientific research and suppressing information, it would be revealed by researchers in other nations. The fact that the denialist movements are so concentrated in the southern United States indicates that there is indeed a bias, but it isn't with the scientists.

I can't improve on Black's closing:

"The sum total of evidence obtained through this open invitation, then, is one first-hand claim of bias in scientific journals, not backed up by documentary evidence; and three second-hand claims, two well-known and one that the scientist in question does not consider evidence of anti-sceptic feeling.

No-one said they had been refused a place on the IPCC, the central global body in climate change, or denied a job or turned down for promotion or sacked or refused access to a conference platform, or indeed anything else.

If there is an anti-sceptic bias running through the institutions of science, it is evidently keeping itself well hidden.

Whether this exercise has conclusively disproved a bias is not for me to say - I am sure others will find plenty to say, doubtless in the courteous and gracious language that typifies climate discourse nowadays.

But I will say this; if someone persistently claims to be a great football player, and yet fails to find the net when you put him in front of an open goal, you cannot do other than doubt his claim.

[hat tip denialismblog]

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