Thursday, 25 July 2013

How not to achieve actual skepticism

There is a frankly rather embarrassing post over at WUWT called My Personal Path To Catastrophic AGW Skepticism by someone called Jonathan Abbott. The other day, he posted a twee comment about correcting his ten year old daughter when she said that the Earth was getting hotter.  The evidence he gave was, amongst others, this graph:


Anyone else see that the general trend is up from left to right?  So do I.  In fact, almost every graph on the page he showed his daughter shows the same trend, lower on the left, higher on the right.  Oh, well.  An ability to read graphs is not essential in a "skeptic" but it is desirable.

Anyway, back to the road to Damascus.  Abbott tells us that he learned that scientists were predicting a new ice age.  As a nerdy teenager at the same time, I must admit that I didn't pick up on that.  I read broadsheet newpapers, New Scientist and Scientific American, talking to biology and geology lecturers, chatting with the chief scientist and much more.  It wasn't a common thing but I suppose during the winter of 1981-2, when record lows were set in the UK, it might have been mentioned.

Some of what Abbott says suggests he didn't get the message:
I grew up into a graduate engineer with an interest in most branches of science but especially physics. I read the usual books by Sagan, Feynman and later Dawkins (whose The Ancestor’s Tale I simply can’t recommend highly enough). I also dipped into philosophy via Bertrand Russell. I like to think this reading helped build upon the basic capabilities for critical thinking my education had provided.
Perhaps he didn't read The Demon Haunted World by Sagan, or Dawkins's Unweaving The Rainbow because if he did, he might not be quite so gullible.  Maybe I'm wrong again, but if Abbott did, he surely didn't understand what Sagan and Dawkins say in those books.  They tell you how to be a real skeptic - questioning, not taking for granted, and chucking out spurious thinking.  In other words, Sagan would be calling out the climate change deniers now, were he still alive, because he would recognise the baloney they use to make their "arguments".  And dipping into philosophy via Bertrand Russell...  Well, it's a start but it hardly goes very far.  No Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Ruse, Dennett, all of whom should be on the reading list of anyone wanting to understand how scientific decisions are made.

It gets worse:
I suppose it was in the early 90s that I first noticed predictions of global warming and the associated dire warnings of calamities to come. Some of these emanated from the Met Office and so I knew should be treated with a pinch of salt but other sources included NASA, which I then personally still very much respected; despite the space shuttle evidently being the wrong concept poorly executed, their basic scientific expertise seemed unquestionable. In general I was looking forward to the warmer climate predicted for the UK, and assumed that the overall effects for the globe wouldn’t necessarily all be bad. 
I was aware of the "dire warnings" in the late 80s.  There were quite common posters and articles in the papers and programmes on the TV.  It was rather difficult for someone of Abbott's likely nature to miss but apparently he did, or he misplaces the date.  Probably the latter.  Abbott compares the modelling of the climate to modelling in economics, then says:
Why the unequivocal certainty now that we would only see warming, and to dangerous levels? It all started to sound implausible. 
Ah, the argument from personal incredulity.  I wonder if he spotted that one in his reading of Dawkins.  Anyway, I was concerned about the certainty until I looked into it and found that the certainty was in the mainstream media, not in the scientific publications.  If I could do that, by going to the library and reading Nature, then so could Abbott, but his reading of the skeptical books didn't lead him down that road.  Instead, it led him to the world of fake skepticism.

And that fake skepticism was compounded by the political aspect of the whole shenanigans.  Now, I don't know what Abbott was doing in the early 80s but I guess he wasn't alert to the political world. I was at that time living in south east London, where there had been race riots, where 13 black people were murdered at a party when someone fire bombed the house where the party was, where there were signs up saying that London was a nuclear free zone...  You couldn't move for politics.  It was a very political time.  And around the US airbase of Molesworth, a women's camp had grown up to protest the nuclear weapons being installed by President Reagan.  I accepted some of the arguments, rejected others.  But I never for once saw CND members downing their badges and placards to take up the environmental cause because it was always part of the whole trend of the times.  Abbott must have been asleep. 
I suddenly realised that after the end of the Cold War, rather than slinking off in embarrassed fashion to do something useful, they had latched onto a new cause. The suggested remedies I heard them espouse were always socialist in approach, requiring the installation of supra-national bodies, always taking a top-down approach and furiously spending other peoples’ money. They were clearly eager participants in an endless bureaucratic jamboree.
 Perhaps Abbott missed a lot of the make it small, make it regional and make it less polluting as a result aruments that various environmental groups were espousing in the 1970s and early 1980s.  It was only when pollution problems began to cross boundaries that international efforts became necessary.  But, of course, this isn't politics really that is causing Abbott so many jitters: it is because the answers are "always socialist in approach".  Nope, not always.  Need to listen harder, Jonathan.

Now Abbott gets ridiculous:
I had always been somewhat sympathetic towards Friends of the Earth but much less so towards Greenpeace, by that time obviously a front for luddite socialism and basically shamanistic in outlook.
Perhaps he should look up shamanism before he bandies the word about. Greenpeace have always been more of a public awareness campaign, which is one of the reasons I have been less keen on them than I might have been, but the point is that without awareness campaigns, people do not become aware.  And there has been much to be aware about - acid rain, CFCs, oil pollution, the dessication of the Aral Sea, the problem of what to do with radioactive waste.  Climate change.

Onwards our story goes:
 So I was quite passionate about the environment, but my focus was on keeping it clean and safe for all life to live in. I wanted people to stop overfishing and manage fish stocks sensibly, I wanted agricultural land to produce the best long-term yields possible, to provide enough food without encroaching on wilderness and wild spaces. I wanted people everywhere to have clean air to breathe and water to drink. I had hoped that the CAGW crusade would somehow also lead to more urgent progress in fighting pollution, and the other environmental issues I cared about. If anything it did the reverse. Why the absolute fixation on reducing CO2 emissions, why was it taken for granted that this was the only way to proceed? Where was the public debate about the balance between prevention and mitigation? The CAGW protagonists always came up with solutions that were anti-industrial, anti-development and always, always required more public money. Where was the encouragement for inventors and entrepreneurs to discover and develop new technologies? And most of all, why oh why not spend some of the huge sums of money thrown at CO2 instead on getting effective pollution controls enacted in developing countries?
Actually, it isn't clear that Abbott was passionate about the environment.  He claims to be concerned about plastic floating in the sea, being sympathetic to Friends Of The Earth and not much else.  Oh, there are the fish stocks and wild spaces mentioned above, but it isn't much.  I pick out a sentence in bold above because it is easily knocked back.  There has been a long term aim of developing a practical electric car. Here is something suggested by environmentalists and worked on by the car manufacturers.  And they have succeeded to the extent that the ever realiable Willard Anthony Watts has one, although he is concerned that it doesn't start so well on those cold Californian winter mornings.  Yes, there are incentives to take up electric and hybrid cars but governments didn't have to introduce them.  And I can't see how electric cars is anti-industrial or anti-development.

Then, Damascus:
Then in 2007 I saw a trailer on television for the forthcoming documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. I watched it excitedly, for here finally were people publicly addressing the science and the data, but drawing alternative conclusions to the mainstream. There was none of the usual hand-waving and appeals to trust the experts, who magically seemed to be the only doubt-free scientists in recorded history. The backlash against the program told its own story too, being mainly outraged appeals to authority and conscience.
 I watched The Great Global Warming Swindle too.  I took away from it an entirely different message.  The swindle was not that the globe was warming.  The swindle was that the evidence could be presented in such a misleading way.  If I could sit there and spot it, then why couldn't Abbott?  I suspect because he had not prepared his mind in the right way.  He wanted to believe the film, I wanted to see if what it was telling me was true.  And I couldn't, because so much of what I already knew did not chime with what the film portrayed. 

Luckily this farrago is coming to an end.  But not without some brown-nosing:
Now at this point, I am sure some (perhaps many?) readers are thinking, ‘Great, an inside view of how someone becomes a believer in a conspiracy theory, perhaps I’ll base a research paper on this idiot’. My response is that like most people I have at times stumbled upon the real conspiracy theory nuts lurking on the internet. But on WUWT and other CAGW-sceptic sites criticism of the position of the website founder isn’t just tolerated but often encouraged. ‘Prove us wrong! Please! It would be fascinating!’ There are many articles and views published on WUWT that I treat with suspicion, or even downright disagree with, but it is all stimulating and usually well argued. Plus, I am an experienced professional engineer and know what real science looks like, and when people are misusing it as a smokescreen. Neil Armstrong was a great man, and most certainly did land on the moon. Right or wrong, WUWT is a site that considers real scientific issues.
I've picked out the bit in bold because it is so untrue that I am unsure whether to laugh or cry.  I think I'll cry.  I've seen what happens when people try to point out errors, correct the science and do all those other bits that real, genuine and proper skeptics do.  I put it in bold because I have concluded that Abbott is hard of thinking.  I've underlined another bit because I don't believe what he says there either - he knows what real science looks like yet praises WUWT as a site that considers real scientific issues.  Can the man not read?

In wade the commenters:
Eric Elsam says:
“The idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
Richard P. Feynman ”
Yes, Eric.  Feynman was a greater scientist than, for example, Dr Roy Spencer, and won a genuine Nobel Prize, not a phoney one claimed by Christopher Monckton.  He also means something important here: don't cherry pick the starting point of your graphs, do look at all the science and see how your ideas tie in with it because if they are claiming something that goes against all the known ideas, you had better have a good defence prepared and shouting that it is a conspiracy isn't one of them.
philjourdan says:
I hope your good news pans out. I am so tired of the argumentum ad auctoritatem. Which is all they have left.
That's argument from authority to most of us.  Sadly for Phil, that's not what the "warmists" have left: there is all the empirical evidence too.
John de Melle says:
I’m another proffessional engineer. Your road of discovery matches mine, exactly.
Thank you for sharing it.
What is it with engineers?  I think it's because the laws of physics they use are all rather simple and the maths behind climate change is all rather messy.  That's because nature is messy and we are dealing with something complicated.  But the basic physics is even simpler than F=ma.
Bloke down the pub says:
My academic standard only reaches Geology A’level. From what I had learnt though, I was pretty sure that the global temperature had previously been much higher than present. That seemed to torpedo the warmist’s claim that feedbacks were catastrophically positive. My first contact with sceptics came from Chris Bookers column in the Sunday Telegraph who guided me to WUWT and the rest as they say is history.
Great, A level geology and he's an expert.  I did a geology subsid at university, under DEG Briggs, don't you know (google him), and one thing I learned was the nothing is that simple in Earth history and that extinctions happen pretty much all the time.  But sometimes there are mass extinctions.  Anyway, I hate this canard because it misses an important point.  Amongst all those fossils, not once has anyone found a triceratops beach house that was inundated by sea level rise in the Cretaceous, or even an Australopithecus second home by the sea found buried by the new marine sediments caused when the ice caps melted.  But there are inundated settlements from more recent times, and humans just love to build on the coast.  Sea level rise is a concern precisely because we live on mainly low lying ground, much of it not more than a few metres about sea level.  Many major and populous cities are ports and most of those are on a sea coast, New York, London, Sydney, Naples.  Have I made my point?  I'll ram it home - in the past dinosaurs didn't care about the level of the sea.  Today humans do, especially those that live close to the sea, because their house might be one of those washed away when the sea level does rise.
Having endured the endless terror of the Cold War (ended), of various Malthusian predictions of the end of oil (not ended), the end of food (not ended), and the end of warmth (not ended), other endless terrors of pig flu (came to naught), bird flu (came to naught), ebola (came to naught), terrorism (basically a crime in search of a war) – well, by the time the global warming scam came along I couldn’t easily be convinced that the end of the world was that simple.
 Malthusian predictions of the end of oil?  Malthus is always associated with population, never with oil.  Terrors of pig flu?  I'm sure Scuzza can ask the 10,000 Americans who died of swine flu in 2009.  Oh, sorry, no he can't.  As for bird flu - it would appear that the Spanish flu of 1918 was actually a form of bird flu and that strain was rather dangerous, even for Scuzzas.  Enough of this rubbish.

Jonathan Abbott is entitled to be skeptical about anything he wants.  But that does not make him right, or a hero or an expert on the philosophy of science. Nor am I.  I don't claim to be.  Luckily I have hauled myself up onto the shoulders of giants and let them point out what it is right to be looking for and what it is a waste of time to be looking at.  I will keep referring back to Carl Sagan's baloney detection kit.  It is essential reading for anyone who claims to be a skeptic, be they me or Abbott or Watts or anyone else who wishes to put on that uniform.
So I add a video for those that clearly can't read too well.  Perhaps Michael Shermer will make the difference.  He's someone who has travelled a different direction to Abbott and someone I place more trust in than, say, Monckton or Watts or Spencer, because of his honesty, at least as I see it.  But I have doubts about what Abbott says because it just seems disconnected, lacking confidence, trying too hard to establish credentials while giving the denialist cliches.  I have no doubt that he is sincere.  Just that his sincerity lacks sincerity.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps Shermer is belatedly honest, and that makes him useful for this argument. But seriously, have you ever wondered how someone this gullible could become such a high-profile 'skeptic'? To me this shows that the movement Shermer is an exponent of is just as rotten as contemporary climate 'skepticism'.