Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dr Roy Spencer's intellectual honesty

Dear Reader,

Not even a genuine smile
I have written about Dr Roy Spencer and what he believes before.  Today, tipped off by Collin Maessen at Real Sceptic, I return to the subject because the subject of my ire has given some more information on what he does believe so it is only right that I should reassess what I wrote.

The background is at Real Sceptic so I won't repeat it here, but Spencer wrote a defence of his religious beliefs and how they do or do not affect his science at his own website.  You can read an archived link here.

The piece Spencer wrote is a mess.  He's an intelligent man but this looks as if it was written in a coffee break.  Firstly, he gets agitated that using the Bible to support the consensus view seems fine but to deny it isn't.  I can't comment, other than to say that there are plenty of people, Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True would be one of them, who would say that using the Bible to support scientific ideas one way or another is not acceptable.  Science stands or falls on the evidence.

Spencer goes on:
In the case of global warming skeptics, I suppose the accusation is part of the assumption that bible-believers feel that “God is in control”, and so everything will turn out OK no matter what we do. Go ahead and pump all the CO2 into the atmosphere you want. The Big Guy will take care of it.
Well, yes, because that is more or less what the Cornwall Alliance declaration states.  I won't link to it here since there are links easily found elsewhere.  But apparently Spencer doesn't believe that at all.  So his theology is starting to get rather messy.  God, in whom he claims to believe, doesn't seem to care one jot about humanity even though He sent His Son to save us two millennia ago.  Nuclear weapons are evidence enough, according to Spencer, that we can do ourselves rather large amounts of damage.  Doesn't God care?

In other words, we know that humans are capable of creating a huge amount of misery for ourselves, which we have done repeatedly down through history. Catastrophic global warming could, at least theoretically, be just one more example of this.
Except that I view CO2 as one of those cases where nature, on a whole, benefits from more of our “pollution”. The scientific evidence is increasingly supporting this position.
This is not a big stretch considering that CO2 is necessary for life to exist on Earth, and yet only 4 molecules out of every 10,000 in the atmosphere are CO2. Venus and Mars have atmospheres that are almost 100% CO2; life on Earth, in contrast, has sucked most of it out of the atmosphere. No matter how much we produce, nature automatically takes out 50% and uses it. 
Oh, well, that's all right then.  Nature benefits.  Rather unsure how he arrives at this conclusion since it would appear that nature is more than the plants that do seem to do better as a result of increased carbon dioxide concentrations.  Some plants, including those that are our staple foods, don't benefit as much, if at all.  The scientific evidence supporting Spencer's position isn't as strong to me.  Indeed, nature certainly includes the habitats that will be lost when seas inundate low lying land, making areas that support agriculture unproductive. 

The climate homeopathy argument, there's so little CO2 it can't do what it is claimed to do, is a pretty lame argument, easily dealt with.  And it doesn't matter what CO2 concentrations are on Venus or Mars, were in the near or even distant past - it is the change, the rapid change, in CO2 levels and the fact that modern existence is precariously placed on a tiny fulcrum, balanced at the moment perhaps but liable to swing wildly in an unpleasant direction.  And while nature might take 50% of the CO2 out, it also puts most of it back again.  I am sure Spencer has heard of the carbon cycle.  Perhaps he forgot to mention it.

Back to religious beliefs:
 Epstein [a journalist who mentioned Spencer's beliefs and precipitated his response] incorrectly assumes that I support the wording of all of the positions of the Cornwall Alliance, as stated in their Cornwall Declaration. But the Director of the Cornwall Alliance knows I don’t. We’ve discussed it.
Now I don't know about you but I don't sign things I don't agree with.  Even if I agree with a bit of it, if there is something I don't agree with on a petition, I don't sign the petition.  The reason is simple - by putting my name to it, someone, everyone, can make the justified assumption that I do agree with it.  If my signature is required on a contract, I need to agree to all those clauses.  I can't go to my boss later and say that I don't like this line about having to actually work for the salary.  So, sorry, Roy.  You made your bed when you signed it.  If you don't agree, have your name taken off the list of the advisory board so we can believe that you have a touch more intellectual honesty than perhaps your piece demonstrates.  You are a clever man.  Show it.

Why do I support it? The central reason is I believe that current green energy policies are killing poor people.
Anything that reduces prosperity kills the poor. This is the single biggest reason I speak out on global warming, and why the Cornwall Alliance speaks out against policies which end up hurting the poor much more than they help.
Radical environmentalism is interested in seeing more people dead than alive. I don’t care what their press releases say. I’ve debated enough of these folks to know that their biggest complaint is that there are too many people in the world.
 Oh dear.  So Roy Spencer does not deny climate science because the evidence suggests that there is no such thing as anthropogenic global warming.  Nope, he doesn't like the fact that some environmentalists seem to him to be interested in "seeing more people dead than alive".  What an absolute load of rubbish.  What intellectual paucity leads to that conclusion I know not.  If the argument is about policy, then talk about policy and forget the science.  That, after all, is settled, is it not?

Some have claimed that the Earth would be just lovely without any humans. (Extra points for anyone who can spot the oxymoron there).
 I fail to gain my extra points because I don't see an oxymoron there.

On a more superficial level, the accusation is often that the Bible-believing scientist “rejects settled science”, in my case the naturalistic “explanation” for the origin of life. How can anyone trust a climate scientist who rejects “settled science”?
Except this claim reveals an appalling lack of knowledge on the part of the accuser. In general, nothing in science is ever settled. And in particular, no one knows how life arose from non-living matter. It remains a mystery today.
Belief in the naturalistic origin of life is just as religious as the belief in a creator. Even well-known evolutionists have admitted this.
 Well, I would argue that there are some areas of science that are settled - various laws such as thermodynamics and motion for example - but be that as it may.  Spencer steps aside from science when he denies a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.  I would like to know who these well-known evolutionists are that believe there is an equivalence between the two notions - natural origins or a creator.  Sadly, Spencer keeps his own counsel on that one and I am unsure where I could find out.  It wouldn't be any of the obvious ones, Dawkins, Gould, Coyne, Jones, Myers, and a thousand others.  Wallace could be one Spencer has in mind but Wallace's religious views were decidedly unusual.
I challenge you to deny this, Dr Spencer

The scientific evidence for a “creator” is, in my opinion, stronger than the evidence that everything around us is just one gigantic cosmic accident. I have no trouble stating that — and defending it — based upon science alone. No need to quote the Bible.
 Really?  What is it?  Spencer's apology for intelligent design that he put out all those years ago betrays the fact that he really doesn't understand evolution, couldn't really have studied it in any depth and swallowed the discredited ideas of intelligent design without any particularly critical thinking going on.  Poor on his part.  Really poor.  Is there any scientific evidence for a creator?  Aside from some coincidences in the value of some constants, I don't know of any.  If Spencer does, he is keeping quiet on it and if I were him, I would too because I could look extremely silly.  There are some scientists who know a huge amount more than he does, and I do, about evolution, fundamental physical constants and much besides that would line up to tear his evidence to shreds.  And if you want to know more about the anthropic principle, which I am sure you don't but is probably the best Spencer might come up with, try Stenger.
Try denying this as well, Dr Spencer

But why should any of this matter for real, observable science, like climate change? Belief in macroevolution is a religion, not science. It is an organizing system of thought, a conceptual model of origins, a worldview, which the evolutionist must fit all of his observations into.
 I've dealt with this idea before.  Science is not religion.  Not under any definition of either science or religion that I can find.  After all, religion relies on faith and science on evidence.  Macroevolution, even if evolutionists bother with that term, is not religion and saying it is doesn't make it so.  This is a tired old creationist trick which no one really buys any longer, or at least so I thought.  Alabama must be behind the times.  Macroevolution is not an organising system of thought, a conceptual model of origins or a worldview.  It is an evidence based science.  And the evidence is immense.  I bet Spencer didn't really get very far in his study at all.  Not the two years he said he spent.  He could have spent a weekend reading Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True.  Available from all good bookstores (I'm sure there must be a Barnes & Noble in Huntsville).
There is no evidence that this is how it happened

Evolutionists are free to interpret their observations as they see fit.  That they find they fit within the framework of evolution as a whole is not difficult to understand.  The observations do not contradict evolution.  That we know so much about the workings of the genome, the means of selection and how the whole puzzle connects together is testimony to the excellence of these scientists.  It is demeaning to say that they do it because it is their worldview.  Spencer, who tries valiantly to defend science against a strawman argument earlier in his piece has descended to a scurrilous version of a straw army.  It is beneath him and he should recognise that.

The existence of the universe itself violates either the 1st or 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics. That’s why cosmologists must invent physics no one has ever observed to explain how everything came to be.
Is that “science”? Really?
Epstein doesn’t understand that even atheist scientists are also guided by their religious belief that there is no creator. All scientists interpret data based upon their preconceived notions.
In Earth science, I find most researchers believe nature is fragile. But that is not a scientific position, it is a religious one. No less religious than my view that nature is resilient.
In short, there is no such thing as an unbiased scientist.
There's quite a lot here.  Does the Universe violate the laws of thermodynamics?  The answer appears to be no.  And no. Probably not a surprise but you can't expect Spencer who is not a physicist to understand that one.  Or he could read around the subject like he claims he did when he studied the controversy surrounding the ID/evolution thing.  Ah, I get it now.  He studied the controversy.  Perhaps he should have read the science.  And cosmologists inventing science?  I am certainly not a fan of some of what cosmologists have come up with, but it doesn't matter what I think.  The evidence will be the arbiter, won't it?

Furthermore, life has to do more than just come into being. It has to reproduce. How does that happen by chance? Researchers have computed the probability of it happening to be essentially zero.
I’m afraid my faith isn’t strong enough to believe in such silliness.
And if you are going to comment, “Exactly what research shows all of this, Dr. Spencer?” Well, to paraphrase (and with apologies to) William F. Buckley, Jr., “Do your own damn Google search.”
 Oh dear once again.  Spencer makes all these assertions but provides a link to Buckley while he can't be bothered to find links that support his version of science, or faith or whatever he supposes it to be.  I titled this piece "Dr Spencer's intellectual honesty" for a reason.  It is rather missing here.  It is not for the reader to have to do the research because they might not be finding the same sources as Spencer uses.  If he were to try this as a scientific paper, it would be returned with a big fat note on it saying "Sources?".  It is intellectually dishonest to do this.  Spencer would have us believe that well known evolutionists think the origin of life problem is a religious one yet not bother to name even one.  Probably because there aren't any.  Not real ones.  If he says Stephen Meyer, I'm not sure I could survive the fall off my stool as I burst my sides with laughter.

There remains a question of why we should accept what Spencer says on anything if this is the contempt with which he treats his readers?  He doesn't try very hard to establish the erroneous equivalence between religion and science, perhaps because he knows how wrong it is.  He probably knows that intelligent design has been well and truly squashed and the embarrassment that was the testimony of Michael Behe at the Dover trial.  And he must know that intelligent design proponents all seem to be adherents of that exquisitely white protestant American version of the God of the Christians and not any other version of any other possible creator.  Nope, you don't need to quote the Bible to do this.  You just have to remember how absent of intellectual honesty intelligent design actually is.  Rather like climate science deniers, intelligent design proponents find it hard to get into proper peer reviewed journals.

In a way I now understand Spencer a bit better but I don't accept his argument.  Yes, scientists might have biases. But that does not mean their results and their conclusions are biased while Spencer's acceptance of intelligent design is clearly in denial of the evidence.  And, as Spencer fails to tell you, your biases will get found out.  If your evidence is not strong enough to support your conclusion, eventually your science will come undone.

The argument that scientists are biased, so what, invites deniers in to fill the unspoken gap.  What about the biases of climate scientists?  Aren't they biased?  Perhaps, but their careers are on the downslide when their bias becomes their science.  Isn't that what has happened in some regard with Dr Roy Spencer?

I have made the assumption that Spencer is intelligent and competent.  His blog post might suggest otherwise.  If he wants to convince people that he is right to let his faith dictate his position on some scientific matters then he really does need to do better.  Science just isn't religion.  Let me say it again in case he is reading.  Science just isn't religion. On that Spencer is most definitely wrong.

And if Spencer goes here he might find out how science really works.

A commenter called Sparkicle at says: " I take it that this blogger's belief is that since the scientist in question is on the advisory board of some jumped-up-creationist-bandwagon he must therefore subscribe to all the beliefs held therein."  I didn't make it clear.  My point was that to sign up to all the Cornwall Declaration while only agreeing with part of it is strange.  If your argument is that climate policy is harming the poor, just say so.  Perhaps Spencer has in the past and I have missed it.  However, the Cornwall Declaration is consistent with Spencer's views on intelligent design/creationism and it would not be unreasonable to assume Spencer did agree with the whole Cornwall thing.  I certainly don't agree with everything some organisations do, but then I don't publicly support them and let my name be used on their websites.


  1. The problem in arguing with Creationists is that (a) they believe that God is on their side and (b) no matter how many times you point out the errors in their "arguments", they are never going to change their minds.
    Re Spencer's claim of the existence of the universe violates some of the laws of thermodynamics this is an extension of the Creationists' argument that Evolution violates the 2nd L of T, which is rubbish. Ditto for his universe claim.
    But, if we accept that Roy is onto something and extend his flawed logic, then unfortunately, for Roy Spencer and his God, the 2nd L of T necessarily implies that God has to die. In fact, God may already be dead ... spooky!

  2. Here is more information on Roy's climate science:

    1. Thanks, Barry. I read your posts some time ago and had forgotten them, not because they aren't worth remembering but because I've had a lot on my plate. It is good to go back to them and see that his prickliness over religion is just part of the way he deals with criticism. From what I saw at your site, I might have been too kind here.