Monday, December 11, 2006

An Undeniable Hypothesis

After completing the post below, I stumbled on an equally daft denialist rant by Professor Mike Jackson, emeritus professor of environmental health at the University of Strathclyde. His arguments are worth looking at in some detail.

The predictions by media commentators are becoming more numerous and more strident as each new piece of evidence appears to support their case.

It's true that journalism is prone to sensationalism. But it's also prone to downplaying serious problems in order to avoid inconveniencing government and business. Both tendencies distort science reporting, and this is exacerbated by the fact that science, as Pierre Bourdieu says, is "subject to structural pressure from the journalistic field."

It's interesting to think about these issues, and to try to figure out the extent to which coverage has been warped by sensationalism versus the ironclad economic logic of denialism. One thing I do know is that in 1991, an NAS panel said:
The panel finds that...greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses....Investment in mitigation measures acts as insurance protection against the great uncertainties and the possibility of dramatic surprises.
LexisNexis shows that newspaper articles referencing this study were anything but alarmist. Instead, they were careful to emphasize the "uncertainty" of climate science. Also, the WaPo and NYT gave denialists and free marketeers space to questions the panel's findings and suggestions. That's a better way to promote complacency than hysteria, it seems to me.
Global warming is a hypothesis, not fact.
A bold statement. But there's some doubt as to whether Jackson himself actually believes it:
That average temperatures have risen over recent decades - globally and here in the UK - is undeniable.
So it's an undeniable hypothesis? Fair enough.
Clues as to what the weather was like at particular times in history are provided by evidence from tree rings, from core samples of ice and from written material, but these must be read with caution.
Yes, and peer reviewed, too. Jackson seems to be implying that this isn’t happening, but evidence of impetuous or headstrong ice-core reading is scanty, as far as I can tell. Given the political implications of climate change, climate research is subject to an incredible amount of scrutiny. If it’s true that there’s an alarmist faction, it’s also true that it’s balanced by ordinary scientific and economic inertia (to say nothing of the immortal army of strawmen mobilized by the Denial Industry).
On the other hand, some politicians, some journalists and some who have a vested interest seem intent on talking up the possible occurrence and the worst consequences of an increase in global temperatures.
Of course, people who shill for Big Oil have vested interests of their own. People on both sides of every argument have vested interests, though you wouldn't always know it from reading the newspaper. Professor Jackson, in writing his op-ed, probably hopes to attain or continue enjoying certain powers and privileges. An elaborate pretense to objectivity is one of the tactics appropriate to this game, not least because it facilitates an emotional conjugation wherein the good people are scientific, and the bad people have vested interests. (Science, as everyone knows, has a vested interest in nothing but Objective Knowledge).
The only thing we seem able to say about the future with any degree of confidence is that it is unpredictable.
The future is unpredictable. However, some predictions about it are more likely to come true than others; this explains things like the insurance industry, and also lends a certain gravitas to vulgar materialism.

From here, Jackson jumps headlong into the association fallacy. The Club of Rome predicted global disaster, but they were wrong! Therefore, it’s quite likely that climatologists’ dire warnings are wrong, too.

See how hard it is to predict the future?

You have to admire a man who piles up a bunch of case histories in order to make an inductive argument against predicting the future, especially when those histories are incommensurable (e.g., the Club of Rome’s evidentiary standards, versus those of the NOAA). Also, many scientific theories have turned out to be correct, but I doubt Jackson would be impressed if I said that the confirmation of some unrelated theory made global warming more likely to be true.

Next up, Jackson offers the evergreen slur that Rachel Carson murdered millions of Africans. Tim Lambert has dealt with that issue thoroughly, thank heavens, so I'll leave it alone. One day, though, I'll get around to detailing the eerie similarities between denialist boilerplate and conspiracy-fringe rhetoric about the New World Order's plan to exterminate the "useless eaters."

Like a lot of denialists, Professor Jackson seems not to understand the difference between climate and weather:
At the moment we can be reasonably sure of the weather forecast up to about 24 hours ahead. After that the predictions become much more imprecise and much less reliable. Yet the whole basis of the global warming debate on the "pro" side is that the weather is destined to change throughout the world.
Let’s look at it this way: Suppose you’re in a casino, playing a slot machine. You can’t predict what you’ll get with each pull of the lever. However, you can expect that whatever the short-term fluctuations may be, the long-term patterns will pretty well match the house odds. Similarly, predicting the weather five days out is a separate problem from predicting climate, which comprises weather averaged over time and space. To put it another way, predicting that the climate will get wetter overall is different from predicting that it will rain at a given place on a certain day. I’m not sure how you get to be a professor of environmental health without knowing this.

Jackson ends by worrying that environmentalists wants us to “turn our backs…on so much of modern technology.” I know not what others may choose, but I’d simply like to improve modern technology. If this means casting out the normative biases currently embodied in system and product design, and creating a world whose values are alien to the people whose harebrained delusions got us into our current state of affairs, so be it.

It used to be called progess.

(Photo by DJDelmonico.)


¡El Gato Negro! said...

Pipples who believe that the evidence for global warming ees as specious as that for say, Phrenology, need a few new bumps on their head.


Nanette said...

Great link to the Tim Lambert site, and the DDT information so well laid out. I get those arguments often, in what discussions I have discussions about the use of DDT, but as I tend to grasp the wholeness of things rather than the details so much (a more generous way of saying I don't actually study this stuff a lot), I am sometimes to adequately state my case. People seem to think the mention of Rachel Carson should just automatically end the debate, for sure.

To put it another way, predicting that the climate will get wetter overall is different from predicting that it will rain at a given place on a certain day. I’m not sure how you get to be a professor of environmental health without knowing this.

It's unfortunate that he doesn't have to believe it. He just has to say it with enough authority that regular people, some of whom should really know better, will nod and say... "Yes, of course. That's just common sense!"

And any number of them do. Nod, I mean. On the left too, in fact - some of those who feel that automatically disbelieving some things that are sort of the "accepted doctrine" of liberals, leftists etc., makes them Independent, or Not Followers of the Crowd and so on. And certainly not just uncritical believers in scientific "theory". Sigh.