Sunday, 26 January 2014

Overstating the irony

Part of what being a true skeptic includes is the moment when you are alone with the mirror.  Can you look at yourself and honestly say you haven't borrowed an argument from the very thing you are arguing against? 

I haven't a clue who Gareth Paltridge is but he will be having sleepless nights if he ever reads this.  That's because he has made a schoolboy howler.  I don't mean that he starts his piece (archived) at WUWT by saying that global temperatures haven't risen for seventeen years when what he actually meant to say is that surface temperatures have risen but since I have chosen to cherry pick the starting point when there was a strong El Nino, it looks to the uneducated and the deliberately obfuscatory that no warming has occurred.  It's a bit like starting an analysis of your savings account on the day that you had a payment from the estate of a maiden aunt which, the very next day, you spent on a second hand Aston Martin.  Every month since, you have paid £50 into that account, sometimes taking some cash out to pay a bill or two.  It looks wobbly but you have managed to keep the account going upwards most of the time.  But to your crooked accountant, you haven't increased your savings one little bit.  No, Mr Paltridge.  You're wrong.

No, Mr Paltridge fails to notice the irony in this passage, thereby ensuring his inclusion in collections of schoolboy howlers for centuries to come (whoops, I've just tipped the irony meter off scale):
It is a particularly nasty trap in the context of science, because it risks destroying, perhaps for centuries to come, the unique and hard-won reputation for honesty which is the basis of society’s respect for scientific endeavour…
What he intends us to think is that because of his mistaken belief in the no warming agenda, climate scientists will have destroyed our trust in science, perhaps for centuries, because he thinks people will not accept the call to arms as warranted. Did he not notice, as he wrote his warning against alarmism that he was being, ahem, alarmist.  That he was, ahem, overstating his case.  Perhaps he thinks the dictionary definition of ironic is encapsulated in an Allannis Morrisette song.

Actually, he is much smarter than that.  Wikipedia reveals that he is a genuine, if now emeritus, atmospheric physicist who has an irony problem.  His whole career was spent taking tax dollars (Australian ones) without, for some unknown reason, feeling that being an advocate for something or other was the only way to ensure career progression and renewed grants that he thinks you have to do to get on. 

It's a strange piece.  The longer version is at Quadrant, a conservative magazine that is reportedly sceptical of left wing ideas.  Be that as it may, climate change is politically neutral.  The remedies have political ramifications and it appears Paltridge is in agreement that global warming is caused by human activities, just that it won't be that bad.  I suspect we've all played a similar game.  Leave the umbrella behind because it won't rain too hard.

I fundamentally disagree with Paltridge, and for one very good reason.  It is not the scientists, in whatever field, that are damaging the reputation of science, but the deniers who feel it is their job (and in some cases it is their paid job) to ruin that reputation.  It hasn't been too many years since the well founded scientific evidence for the dangers of tobacco.  And there are ongoing efforts by people who reckon they are intelligent enough to rubbish the immense contribution to human health and wellbeing that vaccines have given us.  A few minutes reading the comments of antivacciners, or climate science deniers, shows that, rather than seeking the truth, they are more often intent on ruining the truth.  It is hard to see people claim a conspiracy amongst doctors, or pharmaceutical companies or climate scientists and feel that they are really concerned to find the truth. 

Does Paltridge believe there is a conspiracy amongst climate scientists?  Perhaps not but he gets close:
The trap was set in the late 1970s or thereabouts when the environmental movement first realised that doing something about global warming would play to quite a number of its social agendas.
This is close to saying that climate scientists are not working in climate science to find out what is happening but because it is a means towards social activism.  I'm not sure he has any evidence for that, especially as at the time he wants us to believe that a trap was set, the chances of making much traction would have appeared small.  And the smart money would have been in other areas of conservation, like fluffy but endangered animals. 

He continues:
The trap was partially sprung in climate research when a number of the relevant scientists began to enjoy the advocacy business. 
Any evidence at all for that?  I understand that Michael Mann didn't want the role that he seems to have had thrust on him and Jim Hansen only spoke up because no one else seemed to want to.  I am open to correction.  On the other hand, I see a rather larger number of climate deniers being advocates.  Is this just another bit of irony?

Paltridge is, of course, being an advocate himself here, which is just one more irony to add to the pile. 
Scientists—most scientists anyway—may be a bit naive, but they are not generally wicked, idiotic, or easily suborned either by money or by the politically correct. So whatever might be the enjoyment factor associated with supporting officially accepted wisdom, and whatever might be the constraints applied by the scientific powers-that-be, it is still surprising that the latest IPCC report has been tabled with almost no murmur of discontent from the lower levels of the research establishment. What has happened to the scepticism that is supposedly the lifeblood of scientific inquiry? 
He is arguing that there is uncertainty and we should be more aware of that.  Well, I thought it was right there in the IPCC reports but what do I know?  He's the one who is an emeritus professor and has presumably read the things.  Just because the IPCC claims less uncertainty doesn't mean it isn't there, and the junior ranks not making their discontent known is explained simply by the idea that they might not be feeling any discontent or, if they are, their discontent is expressed at earlier stages of the process and can be dismissed or explained.  Simple.

I won't bother going through the tediously predictable series of comments at WUWT.  You just know that the usual comments are going to be there, climategate, various conspiracies, Lysenko.  It just goes to prove that the real damage to the reputation of science comes from articles like Paltridge's which seem oblivious to reality.  It is easy to sit in an armchair, pointing fingers.  Paltridge should know better.

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