The Science and Pseudoscience of Global Warming

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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There are lots of pages on global warming by both supporters of the idea and opponents. The purpose of this page is different: to analyze the logical structure of both sides in the light of the structure of pseudoscience, to determine which arguments on either side might be legitimate and which cross the line into pseudoscience. It's possible that someone might write pieces loaded with factual errors and logical fallacies, yet still be on the correct side of the debate. Just very unlikely.

The science, reduced to its simplest terms, is that carbon dioxide is known to be effective at trapping solar heat. So are water vapor (the source of 90% of earth's natural greenhouse effect), methane, and other gases. The natural carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has doubled in the last 200 years, climate is getting warmer, so the logical conclusion is that there is a connection between the two trends. If you feel uncomfortably warm at night and wake up to find someone has put another blanket over you, you don't need to look beyond that to identify the source of the warming.

The case for human-caused global warming is simultaneously a lot clearer than George W. Bush believes, and a whole lot less so than Al Gore does. There are legitimate questions about the data, past climate reconstructions, and the computer modeling still to be answered.

Cause and Effect

We live in a universe of patterns. Once a pattern is established, the burden of proof is on people who claim the pattern does not hold. When some philosopher of science points out that we cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, I say he's absolutely right. There is no way to prove axiomatically that the sun will rise tomorrow, and nobody in science cares in the slightest. When the sun doesn't rise as scheduled, call me. Until then I absolutely refuse to waste time worrying about it. When Immanuel Velikovsky claimed the planets underwent wild disturbances in their orbits, the burden of proof was on him to show that it happened. The burden was not on scientists to show it didn't.

In the case of global climate change, we have an atmospheric gas, carbon dioxide, that is known to be effective at trapping solar heat. You can shine infrared light through carbon dioxide and measure the absorption. You can fill a transparent vessel with carbon dioxide, put it in the sun, and compare its temperature with an equivalent vessel of air. Or you can look at Venus, which has a dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide and is far hotter than it should be at that distance from the sun.

Oh, what about Mars, with an atmosphere almost entirely made of CO2, but very cold? Where's your greenhouse warming now? Well, it's there. Mars is about 4 degrees C warmer than it otherwise would be if it had no greenhouse gases. Mars has a brighter surface than the Earth and therefore reflects more of its energy back to space as visible light. It converts less of its incident sunlight to infrared, meaning less heat is trapped by its atmosphere, and of course its very thin atmosphere doesn't provide much of a blanket.

Also, we have a clear record of carbon dioxide increasing in the last couple of centuries and pretty solid evidence the climate is actually getting warmer. In fact, if you do a search of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature over the last 70 years, the vast majority of references to climate change - long before the controversy erupted - are to warming.

So, we have increases in a gas known to trap solar heat, and indications of climatic warming. Straightforward cause and effect reasoning suggests the one caused the other. If you woke up uncomfortably hot in the middle of the night and found someone had put an extra blanket over you, you'd logically conclude the blanket caused the warming. You wouldn't argue that your getting warm caused the blanket to appear on the bed, or that the two events were unrelated, or that there was no reason to connect the blanket and the warming.

So people who doubt the cause and effect link have work to do:

Notwithstanding all the unsolved problems in climate modeling and establishing past global temperatures, the fact that climate is getting warmer and carbon dioxide is increasing makes for a straightforward case of cause and effect. The burden of proof is on people who doubt the cause and effect relationship to show either that the cause-effect relation does not hold, or that some other process is responsible. Not raise questions or cast doubts - prove.

Reversing the Burden

One of the more scientifically informed global warming skeptics is Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin. Writing in That Was The Week That Was (January 8, 2005) he stated:

It is a fact that the warming of the past century was anthropogenic in origin, i.e. man-made and due to carbon dioxide emission. Wrong. That is a theory for which there is no credible proof. There are a number of causes of climatic change, and until all causes other than carbon dioxide increase are ruled out, we cannot attribute the change to carbon dioxide alone.

With all respect to Bryson, who had a long and productive career, this is flat-out bogus reasoning. First, note the qualifier "alone." Obviously, until we know exactly what accounts for every variation in climate, we can't claim that carbon dioxide "alone" is responsible. But who is claiming that? The question is not whether carbon dioxide "alone" is responsible but whether carbon dioxide is contributing to global warming.

Second, he makes the bizarre assertion that we have to rule out everything else before we conclude that increasing a known greenhouse gas is contributing to warming. If you find a shattered window and a rock on your living room floor, you have to rule out all other causes before you conclude someone threw a rock through your window? That is just not how science works. Things in science are often not what they seem, but you get to explore those options only after you rule out the possibility that things are what they seem.

What Is Cause And Effect?

Robert Bryce, writing in Energy Tribune on August 16, 2007, said:

My skepticism comes via one of the oldest maxims in science: correlation does not prove causation. Yes, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising but that doesn’t necessarily mean that carbon dioxide is solely to blame for global temperature increases.

If correlation doesn't prove causation, what does? Taken to its logical conclusion, you could observe the same result in a hundred experiments and dismiss it as merely a strong correlation. Correlation doesn't prove causation when there is no plausible link between two phenomena, or when there is some more plausible cause. But if there is a plausible link, then correlation is very strong evidence for causation. The correlation-causation caveat is routinely used in the social sciences to deny any causal connection that is inconvenient or embarrassing to the denier's ideology. When you have increases in a gas known to trap heat, and temperature rises, correlation does prove causation.

And there's that word "solely" again. Nobody claims carbon dioxide is solely responsible for global warming. This is like saying that if gangs cause a third of violent crime in a city, we don't have to worry about gangs because they're not "solely" responsible.

Scientific Consensus

Critics of global warming frequently lash out at "scientific consensus," claiming, correctly, that science isn't a matter of voting and that consensus is not proof. Quite true, but consensus does show how most scientists read the evidence. And the consensus of a large number of scientists counts for more than the dissenting opinions of a few. Against the opinion of working climate scientists, the opinions of people with marginal scientific credentials, like Michael Crichton or Nigel Calder, count for nearly zero.

This is all very reminiscent of the creationist tactic of citing "eminent" scientists who "doubt evolution," while downplaying the fact that enormously more scientists support evolution. If we want a "balanced" discussion, balance implies weight. The number and credentials of the people on either side count.

Is The Consensus Weakening?


Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. If one considers "implicit" endorsement (accepting the consensus without explicit statement), the figure rises to 45%. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the hypothesis. This is no "consensus."

Wait a minute. 45% of the papers explicitly or implicitly accept the hypothesis and 6% reject it. Acceptance outnumbers rejection by 7-1/2 to one, and that's not a consensus?

Suppression of the Evidence?

Many critics of global warming charge that evidence is being selectively interpreted, that contrary evidence is being suppressed, and that scientists who doubt global warming are being denied a chance to be heard or ostracized.

In 2006, Nicola Scarfetta of Duke University and Bruce West of the U.S. Army Research Office published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters where they estimated that the sun contributed as much as 45-50% of the global warming observed between 1900 and 2000, and 25-30% of the warming observed between 1980 and 2000.

In the April, 2007 issue of Scientific American, Piers Forster, lead author of the report on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that, compared to its long-term average, the sun contributes 0.12 watt of energy per square meter of the earth's surface, compared to 1.6 watts for human-made sources.

You really have to wonder how any mention of a solar contribution gets into major scientific journals at all if there's so much suppression going on.

Other Causes?

Water vapor is the dominant greenhouse gas on the earth, accounting for 90 per cent of earth's greenhouse effect. Methane, though present in tiny amounts, is about 20 times as effective as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. However, methane rapidly oxidizes to carbon dioxide, so it will contribute in a major way to global warming only if the production rate outstrips oxidation or there is a huge sudden input, say a sudden release from underground.

Ever felt a water vapor greenhouse effect? Visit Houston and Phoenix in the summer. In the afternoon, both cities may be at 100 degrees. By midnight, Houston may still be 90 while Phoenix is 60. Ever thought it's unfair that warm nights are so sticky? They're warm because they're sticky. The nastiest effect of global warming may well be increased humidity as higher temperatures result in increased evaporation.

Okay, so we have a lot of water vapor in the air, more or less constantly. And we add carbon dioxide. How exactly does that not make the earth warmer? Do you add salt to food to make it less salty or sugar to a drink to make it less sweet?

Other researchers have suggested long term changes in the sun as the cause of present global warming and other past climatic swings. A variation of a few per cent in the sun's brightness would not have been visually detectable before the development of accurate instruments, but could have had very significant climatic impacts. This is a serious question that sounds simple but is surprisingly hard to answer. For example, the intensity of sunlight striking the earth's surface has decreased significantly in the last half century because of particulates in the atmosphere from human activity. Naively measuring sunlight at the surface would show a decrease that completely swamps any real variation in solar output. Spacecraft make for a far better approach but we have only had that capability for a few decades. And trying to devise a detector that can simultaneously cope with the intensity of sunlight plus measure variations of a fraction of a per cent plus remain constant in response over a period of years is a hefty technical challenge.

If the sun were getting dimmer, and we were cranking out carbon dioxide, we could probably argue that it was a good thing because it would moderate the cooling of the climate, keep growing seasons longer, and protect temperate ecosystems. But if the sun is getting brighter, that makes outputting carbon dioxide less excusable. Citing solar brightening as a reason to go on emitting a greenhouse gas is like saying that because your roof leaks, you don't need to do anything about an overflowing sink.

Li'l Ole Us

Some global warming skeptics appeal to the notion that it's absurd to think that human activities could affect a system as vast as the atmosphere.

The wide-open hills of the Mediterranean are a man-made landscape. North Africa was forested in Roman times. Scotland was deforested to fuel medieval industry and build the Royal Navy. Parts of Slovenia and Croatia were stripped for the wooden piles that support Venice. Europe is almost entirely a human modified landscape. It's not surprising that species like the Iberian lynx and the Mediterranean monk seal are endangered - the miracle is that any still exist on a continent with a population density rivaling our Boston-Washington corridor. Eastern and central North America have been similarly reworked. Shenandoah and Great Smoky National Parks are abandoned settled land, not pristine wilderness. In fact, there is far more forest in eastern North America than there was 150 years ago (one of the overlooked green success stories of our time). Prairies have shrunk to tiny enclaves.

We not only exterminated marginal species like the dodo (which as humorist Will Cuppy said, was seemingly created for the express purpose of becoming extinct) and Steller's Sea Cow, but seemingly inexhaustible ones like the great auk, passenger pigeon, and bison. The great auk was a sitting duck, er, auk. It was to the North Atlantic what penguins are to the Antarctic; in fact, the name "penguin" was originally applied to the great auk. But the auk was flightless and easy hunting for sailors. We had to work a lot harder to take out the passenger pigeon. They may have been the most numerous vertebrate on the planet, and even massive commercial hunting barely dented its numbers, until railroads made it possible to ship the meat to distant markets. Once the flocks began to diminish, hunters attacked the nesting grounds, aided by the telegraph, which enabled scouts to report the locations of colonies. It was the first high-tech extinction in history. We stopped just short of doing the same thing to the bison, but we managed to reduce it from over 50 million to fewer than 100 before protecting it.

So if we can deforest entire continents and reduce species to extinction that once numbered in the billions, we can change the climate.

A Misnomer?

Some people argue that the term "Greenhouse Effect" is a misnomer because the walls of a greenhouse really prevent mixing with cold outside air. True. Also irrelevant. If the temperature inside the greenhouse were the same as outside, the walls would make no difference. On a nice spring day you can open the windows in a greenhouse and not change the inside temperature at all. The mixing issue is only important if something warms the greenhouse. The greenhouse is warm because visible light is absorbed inside the greenhouse and reradiated as infrared, which is blocked by the glass. The glass also prevents mixing, just like the earth's gravity keeps atmospheric heat trapped against the earth, but neither gravity nor the glass would matter unless there were heat to trap in the first place.

On the other hand, imagine a metal shed on the shady side of a building. It might well be cooler than the surrounding air because visible light doesn't enter but heat can conduct through the metal and radiate away. Saturn's moon Titan has a "negative" or "inverse" greenhouse effect because its high altitude haze blocks visible light (which is why we can't see the surface) but transmits infrared (which is how the Cassini mission has been able to photograph the surface.)

So the naming issue is a red herring, and scientifically illiterate at that. Greenhouses are warm because the glass traps infrared. They stay warm because the glass also prevents mixing with the surrounding air, but the air wouldn't be warm to begin with if it weren't for trapping infrared.

Is Global Warming A Religion?

For some people it is, sort of. But does that make it false? Lots of folks who argue that global warming is bogus "because it's a religion" also believe that evolution has to be false because it contradicts their religion.

The problem with religion and complex real world issues like global warming is not that their claims are untestable. Contrary to widespread misconception, all religious dogmas are testable. We will all test every single concept about life after death some day. The problem is they're not testable in a controllable, convenient way. We can't raise one batch of lab mice in a church and another in a porn studio and observe their little souls going to Heaven or Hell. Even if we could, we'd still have the issue of whether the results are applicable to humans; after all, a lot of medical results don't transfer from mice to humans.

The only way to test various concepts of the afterlife is to die, and the only unambiguous way to test for global warming is to keep on doing what we're doing. In both cases, though, you have the problem that by the time you get the results, you may be in a cul-de-sac. "Oops, I guess there's a Hell after all" and "Wow, we really did cause a global catastrophe" are not acceptable after action reports. So the problem we face in both cases is to come up with ways of being reasonably certain we're on the right path given the ambiguity of  the evidence.

Global Cooling

"In the 1970's, scientists were predicting global cooling."

Oh really? Produce a list. Not articles from popular media, but original articles from the scientific literature.

There are three tiny grains of truth to this claim:

  1. From the 1940's to the 1970's, there was a global cooling trend. It culminated in several really nasty winters in the late 1970's, during which there were times when all 50 states had snow on the ground. That, by the way, is a lot worse than the images we see in The Day After Tomorrow. So there were lots of people noting this trend, but as a short term cyclic variation, not the harbinger of an ice age.
  2. There were some very long term predictions that the next glacial cycle would begin in a few thousand years. These predictions are almost certainly true. But nobody was extrapolating from these predictions to an imminent ice age. Incidentally, whatever we do to the climate, it probably won't affect the rhythm of ice advances very much. We'll stop burning fossil fuels, one way or the other, before the next ice age begins. We'll either change to something else, or run out. Probably both.
  3. A few scientists pointed to manmade haze and particulates as cooling influences. Most vociferous advocate of dire results from this factor was Reid Bryson from the University of Wisconsin. Bryson continues to be a skeptic of global warming.

So I spotted you one. Others?

By the way, Bryson was one of the first people to argue for a link between human activities and climate change. However, Bryson argued that land use changes and human-created dust and smoke were likely to lead to global cooling. So if people want to discuss motivations for taking a position on global warming, Bryson may not be the most neutral of skeptics to cite.

Weather and Climate

Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we're asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future?

"Aliens Cause Global Warming," a lecture by Michael Crichton at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, January 17, 2003.

"If somebody said, 'John, I've got a nice weather forecast for you for next year, this time next year,' you wouldn't [believe them]. How about this time a hundred years from now? I mean, are you going to give that any credence at all? No."

Michael Crichton, 20/20 interview with John Stossel, December 10, 2004

If there's any single fallacy that reveals a person to be completely unqualified to speak on global warming, confusing weather and climate is it. The difference between weather and climate has been summarized as "Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get." Think of a small room with a candle burning in it. If you know the energy output of the candle and the insulating properties of the room, you should be able to predict, with fairly good accuracy, how the candle will raise the temperature of the room. With a bit more detailed analysis you should be able to predict the temperature profile in the room, since warm air rises and cool air sinks.

Now imagine someone opens the door suddenly. With enough observations, you could probably predict when the candle flame will be disturbed and for how long. But the exact eddies and swirls of the candle flame? No way.

How the candle heats the room is analogous to climate. The disturbance of the candle flame is analogous to weather. Climate is about energy balance over the long term. On the broadest scale, we can say that the surface temperature of Neptune's moon Triton should be around -200 C based on the amount of heat it gets from the sun and how much it reflects back to space. Saturn's moon Titan is actually colder that it would be if it had no atmosphere, because its murky atmosphere blocks sunlight but transmits infrared radiation. We can likewise say the earth would be below the freezing point of water if not for its natural greenhouse effect. We can also say it should be colder near the poles (Trivial? It's not true for Uranus with its extreme axis tilt - Uranus' poles get more sunlight than its equator.), that it will be warmer when a hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and cooler when it is tilted away, and that the maximum and minimum temperature - both daily and annual -  will lag maximum and minimum sunlight because it takes time for the earth to warm up and cool down.

Weather Extremes

I’m just happy I don’t live in Oswego County, NY which was covered in 13 feet of snow last week. 13 feet! And of course, the rest of the northern US was steeped in the white stuff, and sadly people died because of this snow fall.

But the irony of the whole occurrence, and I’m quite sure the astute have noted the irony already, and that is, the week before the shrill cries of Global Warming were everywhere, and deafening, and then nature comes along and makes the hysterical village criers look, well, foolish. God does have a sense of humor.

William D. Zeranski, Shoveling Global Warming, and the coming of Lent, Theory = Dogma, Saturday, February 24, 2007.

The reason Oswego County, and Buffalo, and the downwind side of the Great Lakes generally, get lots of snow is that wind blowing across open water picks up moisture and then dumps it as snow on the shores. This is called "lake effect" snow. Ice cover on the Great Lakes, obviously, inhibits lake effect snow. So if global warming occurs, one likely effect would be an increase in lake effect snow, since there would be more open water on the Great Lakes for longer periods, and warmer temperatures would allow more evaporation.

If warming were currently the case, we'd more than likely be seeing an LCO [Little Climatic Optimum] situation unfolding - meliorating weather, fewer storms, and moderating temperatures. But instead we're enduring massive blizzards across the Midwest, single-degree temperatures in Central Park, cold currents embracing Australia (bringing with them a plague of great white sharks), and killer storms across Europe. Not at all what we'd expect from either the medieval or the environmental scenario. Whatever is happening to the climate, it appears that the scientists, mainstream and otherwise, have not yet put their finger on it.

Resisting Global Warming Panic by J.R. Dunn, American Thinker January 31, 2007

This is about the best example imaginable to illustrate why naive intuition is worthless in science. This is the sort of thing people write if their understanding of climate goes no deeper than "warm weather is nice." Weather is ultimately driven by heat, including hurricanes and tornadoes. When do we have the most hurricanes and tornadoes - winter or summer? So whatever heating may bring, the last thing we would expect is more stable weather. Scientists make use of intuition, but it's a trained intuition. That means we find out how the world works and base our intuition on that, not untrained gut feelings.

Weather has its ups and downs. Climatic warming means the peaks get higher and the valleys less deep. Climatic cooling means the peaks get lower and the valleys deeper. But there will still be peaks and valleys. So even if global warming is occurring, there will still be occasional record lows and severe winters, just not as many as before. There will still be blizzards and unseasonably cool summers. And if the climate cools, there will still be record highs and unusually mild winters.

If you want to play the weather extreme game, be consistent. If unusual snowfall counts against global warming, hot spells and unusually mild winters count for it. And there are far more warm indicators than cold ones. So when snow fell in Buenos Aires for the first time in 90 years in 2007, that was clear evidence against global warming, according to skeptics. When 2005 shattered records for hurricanes, that didn't count for global warming. Retreat of mountain glaciers worldwide? Doesn't count. Retreat of Arctic pack ice? Doesn't count. Having most of the hottest years on record in the last couple of decades? Doesn't count. Systematically earlier ice-out on New England lakes? Doesn't count. Migratory species arriving earlier in the spring? Doesn't count.

This same fallacy crops up in popular thinking about oil prices. Oil has its ups and downs as well. Steadily rising prices mean that the peaks are higher and the valleys not as deep as they once were. Every time the price drops, people tend to relax and think things are getting "back to normal." But the valleys are never quite as low as they once were.

The interesting thing about weather extremes is that fifty years ago, many people were blaming "all this crazy weather" on atomic bomb tests. The fact that the amount of energy released by the largest nuclear test was dwarfed by even moderately large thunderstorms didn't dissuade them. During the Cold War, people cited extreme weather events as evidence that nuclear tests were playing havoc with the earth. Now their children and grandchildren are denying that there are any climate changes and point to extreme weather events as proof that everything is "normal."

Get Your Story Straight

Okay, which is it? Do we have warming or not? If there's a natural warming trend in progress, then everyone who denies warming is a crank and needs to be written off. If there's no warming, then the scientists who find warming, whether natural or artificial, are all wrong. But don't point to natural causes one minute and in the next breath deny there's any warming at all.

Irrelevant Comparisons to "Practical" Fields


A much better analogue to climate science is found in the semiconductor industry. Integrated circuits and many other building blocks of modern electronics are manufactured by creating artificial atmospheres or "climates" within which chemical vapor deposition (CVD) forms nanometer-scale thin solid films on silicon wafer surfaces. In CVD, metal vapor precursors entrained in carrier gases are used to deposit metal films on surfaces in a condensation process not unlike formation of dew or frost on a lawn. In such CVD processes, premature formation of metal particles is unwanted and needs to be controlled and prevented; such particle formation is akin to precipitation of rain drops in the atmosphere

The semiconductor process industry uses numerical models to predict the behavior of gases and vapors in order to deposit these substances on substrates, and thereby manufacture integrated circuits. I am not a climatologist or meteorologist but I have studied fluid mechanics and gas dynamics and have a general understanding of computer models used in process engineering. Such models are used to analyze industrial processes with which I am familiar. Indeed the mathematics for such models is generalized. And industry's experience with numerical process models sheds light on their strengths and limitations.

Closed systems are also much easier to model as compared to systems open to the atmosphere (that should tell us something already).

Nonetheless, despite the fact that 1) the chemical reactions are highly studied, 2) there exists extensive experience with similar reactors, much of it recorded in the open literature, 3) the input gases and materials are of high and known purity, and 4) the process is controlled with incredible precision, the predictions of the models are often wrong, requiring that the reactor be adjusted empirically to produce the desired product with quality and reliability.

The fact that these artificial "climates" are closed systems far simpler than the global climate, have the advantage of the experimental method, and are subject to precise controls, and yet are frequently wrong, should lend some humility to those who make grand predictions about the future of the earth's atmosphere.

Jerome J. Schmitt, Numerical Models, Integrated Circuits and Global Warming Theory, American Thinker, February 28, 2007

Just plain unbelievable. The physical relevance of this modeling to climate is exactly zero. The problem in semiconductors is that if droplets form in the coating chamber, instead of films deposited atom by atom, you get globs on the chips, which is obviously not good on a microcircuit. So the modeling he's talking about, in climatic terms, amounts to predicting when humid air will condense into fog droplets. This could be useful in studies of cloud formation but it's a heck of a long way from global climate.

Even more relevant, how would this guy react if you tried to claim that the uncertainties in the condensation models show that droplet condensation doesn't occur and that semiconductor manufacturers can afford simply to ignore the matter? This guy's qualifications to comment on global warming are exactly as sound as a climatologist's qualifications to discuss chip manufacturing. In fact, industrial and applied scientists have a positively abysmal record of endorsing bad science because of a combination of poor theoretical backgrounds and their arrogance in assuming their "practical" knowledge gives them an edge.


On a plane to Europe, I am seated next to a guy who is very unhappy. Turns out he is a doctor who has been engaged in a two-year double blind study of drug efficacy for the FDA, and it may be tossed out the window. Now a double-blind study means there are four separate research teams, each having no contact with any other team—preferably, they're at different universities, in different parts of the country. The first team defines the study and makes up the medications, the real meds and the controls. The second team administers the medications to the patients. The third team comes in at the end and independently assesses the effect of the medications on each patient. The fourth team takes the data and does a statistical analysis. The cost of this kind of study, as you might imagine, is millions of dollars. And the teams must never meet.

My guy is unhappy because months after the study is over, he in the waiting room of Frankfurt airport and he strikes up a conversation with another man in the lounge, and they discover—to their horror—that they are both involved in the study. My guy was on the team that administered the meds. The other guy is on the team doing the statistics. There isn't any reason why one should influence the other at this late date, but nevertheless the protocol requires that team members never meet. So now my guy is waiting to hear if the FDA will throw out the entire study, because of this chance meeting in Frankfurt airport.

Those are the lengths you have to go to if you want to be certain that your information is correct. But when I tell people this story, they just stare at me incomprehendingly. The find it absurd. They don't think it's necessary to do all that. They think it's overkill. They live in the world of MSNBC and the New York Times. And they've forgotten what real, reliable information is, and the lengths you have to go to get it. It's so much harder than just speculating.

("Why Speculate?" A talk by Michael Crichton, International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, CA April 26, 2002)

Gee, instead of illustrating the high standards of the medical profession, doesn't this indicate low standards? After all, I'm not required to wear an ankle bracelet and see a probation officer every week; those requirements are only for people who have shown they can't be trusted.

There are good reasons for that level of mistrust, some of which apply to the global climate debate and some of which don't.. For one thing, the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to bring a drug to trial create a powerful incentive to skew the results and overlook adverse side effects. That much money would keep climate modelers in paradise for decades (so, if climate modelers are in it for the grants, as Crichton suggests in his novel Climate of Fear, wouldn't it be trivially simple to just buy them off?).

Second, responses to drugs are often subjective and influenced by the placebo effect. A drug that produces a ten per cent improvement in ten per cent of the patients tested might be a godsend. Something that subtle is fertile ground for seeing spurious patterns, hence the strict testing protocols and the multiple blind tests.

The tendency to see what you want to see regardless of the science is precisely what happens when the people who know nothing about the science of climate change try to reach conclusions intuitively, or on the basis of their local weather, and personal hunches and memories. It accounts for how a rare snowfall in Buenos Aires is evidence against global warming but worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers isn't evidence for it. So that's why we believe the computer models rather than the anecdotal evidence, and why we believe regional indicators like glacier and sea ice retreat rather than local climate extremes.

Just Plain Lousy Science

Crichton on Magnetism

Speaking about the decline in the earth's magnetic field (about 10% in the last few centuries), Crichton said "Our magnetic field is what keeps the atmosphere in place." ("Why Speculate?" A talk by Michael Crichton, International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, CA April 26, 2002) One might write off Crichton's sentiments on global warming as within the bounds of legitimate debate, but this remark is in the realm of full blown scientific illiteracy. Gravity holds the earth's atmosphere in place. The magnetic field has nothing to do with it, as shown by Venus, which has virtually no magnetic field and a far thicker atmosphere. Crichton clearly has no working knowledge of the physical sciences. Between this comment and his confusing weather and climate, Crichton disqualifies himself from the debate. [I have been told the comment on magnetism has since been changed. It was as stated when this page was created.]

Running the Numbers

J.R. Dunn, Resisting Global Warming Panic, American Thinker, January 31, 2007

One curious element involves certain facts that, on first consideration, would appear to be crucial but never seem to come up in debate. I have spent several years trying to track down the actual values of two numbers - the annual amount of carbon dioxide emitted by all human activities, and the amount of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere. There are as many answers as there are sources, the first ranging from 3 billion to 28 billion tons, the second from 750 billion tons to 2.97 x 1012 tons, a number so large that there's no common English word for it. Variations of this size - up to three orders of magnitude - suggest a serious lack of basic knowledge. The fact that it never comes up suggests that scientists are well aware of this. (It's doubtful we'll see the question addressed in this week's IPCC report either.)

The second question is easiest to deal with because the numbers are close to nice round numbers. The weight of air is about one kilogram per square centimeter or 10 metric tons per square meter, and the surface area of the earth is about 500 million square kilometers. Since there are 1000 meters in a kilometer, the surface area of the earth is 5 x 108 x 1000 x 1000 = 5 x 1014 square meters. So the total mass of the atmosphere is 5 x 1015 tons. A more exact figure from a reference book is 5.1 x 1015 tons. The point of the rough calculation is that you can come very close to the right answer just off the top of your head. I have no idea where this guy is getting his numbers but anyone with even minimal scientific literacy should be able to do the math.

Determining the mass of CO2 is a bit trickier. Atmospheric composition is measured in volume terms and the proportion of each gas by volume is strictly proportional to the number of molecules present. On that basis, if we take the average CO2 content as 380 parts per million (380 x 10-6 or 3.8 x 10-4 ) then the total mass of CO2 in the atmosphere is 5.1 x 1015 tons x 3.8 x 10-4 = 19.4 x 1011 tons = 1.94 x 1012 tons. But the average molecular weight of CO2 (44) is about 50% greater than the average for air (29), which would mean about 44/29 x = 1.94 x 1012 tons = 2.94 x 1012 tons, dead on target for his higher number.

On the other hand, how much carbon is in the atmosphere? Well, carbon has an atomic mass of 12, so 12/44 of the mass of CO2 is carbon. 12/44 x 2.94 x 1012 tons = 8 x 1011 tons = 800 billion tons. His lower figure of 750 billion tons is close enough that it's probably the result of someone working in round numbers, or maybe using an older and lower CO2 estimate. So it's important to ascertain whether the figure you're reading refers to carbon dioxide, or just carbon. Carbon is a simpler basis if you're assessing the effects of burning fuels.

Obviously this guy is failing to distinguish between carbon dioxide and carbon. Making these distinctions is the scientific equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Oh, "three orders of magnitude" is 10 x 10 x 10 =1000 times. The difference between 3 billion and 28 billion tons is a factor of 9.3, just under one order of magnitude. The difference between 750 billion tons and 2.97 x 1012 tons is only a factor of four, or about half an order of magnitude. This inability to define order of magnitude properly "suggests a serious lack of basic knowledge."

A slightly more interesting issue is the range of estimates of human contributions. Taking a really simple-minded approach, the change from 270 to 380 parts per million in 250 years is 0.44 parts per million per year. 0.44 parts per million times 5.1 x 1015 tons times 44/29 = 3.4 billion tons. That's the net addition each year, and is the obvious likely source of his lower limit of 3 billion tons. Data from Oak Ridge National Laboratories gives an estimate of 6.2 billion tons of carbon from burning fossil fuels and cement production. Cement? Yes. You cook limestone to make lime, in the process giving off carbon dioxide from the rock itself. That's in addition to the CO2 contributed by burning fossil fuels to cook the limestone. And we use a lot of cement. Fossil fuel use and cement production are well known. Also add 1.5 billion tons from land clearing, burning vegetation, and the like. That's a much less certain number. That gives us 7.7 billion tons of carbon added to the atmosphere each year. We multiply that by 44/12 to convert to carbon dioxide, and get 28 billion tons of CO2, dead on his upper limit.

How do we account for the difference? Easy. Most (90%) of the added carbon dioxide is taken in by plants, or dissolved in the ocean. Not only does this guy flunk basic science, he fails basic economics as well. He doesn't get the difference between gross and net.

Call this forensic mathematics. Very often it's possible to look at numbers thrown out without explanation and figure out where they came from and how they were derived. Or you can look at two wildly differing numbers and see why they differ.

Weird Statistics

Now imagine that all the variables about global climate are known with less than 100 percent certainty. Let's be wildly and unrealistically optimistic and say that climate scientists know each variable to 99 percent certainty! (No such thing, of course). And let's optimistically suppose there are only one-hundred x's, y's, and z's --- all the variables that can change the climate: like the amount of cloud cover over Antarctica, the changing ocean currents in the South Pacific, Mount Helena venting, sun spots, Chinese factories burning more coal every year, evaporation of ocean water (the biggest "greenhouse" gas), the wobbles of earth orbit around the sun, and yes, the multifarious fartings of billions of living creatures on the face of the earth, minus, of course, all the trillions of plants and algae that gobble up all the CO2, nitrogen-containing molecules, and sulfur-smelling exhalations spewed out by all of us animals. Got that? It all goes into our best math model.

So in the best case, the smartest climatologist in the world will know 100 variables, each one to an accuracy of 99 percent. Want to know what the probability of our spiffiest math model would be, if that perfect world existed? Have you ever multiplied (99/100) by itself 100 times? According to the Google calculator, it equals a little more than 36.6 percent.

James Lewis, Why Global Warming is Probably a Crock, American  Thinker, January 16, 2007. The end note to the article states "James Lewis is the nom de plume of an academic scientist. He blogs at Dangerous Times."

If I put out reasoning like that, I'd write under a pseudonym, too. I'd at least get "Mount St. Helens" right.

The probability argument applies if every step in the calculation is wholly contingent on all the previous steps. It's one reason why we can't predict weather a month in advance. At each step there are errors which influence the next step, and so on. But lots of calculations don't work that way. The second major fallacy in the argument is it assumes that quantities are absolutely correct or absolutely incorrect, and that you have to have 100 perfectly accurate variables to get a valid result. But real quantities are known to varying degrees of precision.

Let's take a simple example with only four, poorly known variables, a possible meteor impact. All we know is we have a speck in the sky, too small to be accurately measured, but it may hit the earth. We don't know the size of the object, its density, its shape, or its speed. If we assume the meteor is 50 meters across, a sphere, density 2000 kg/cubic meter, and moving at 30 km/sec, it's packing a total kinetic energy of 6 x 1016 joules (about 12 megatons). If we assume the meteor is 100 meters across, a cube, density 3000 kg/cubic meter, and moving at 20 km/sec, it's packing a total kinetic energy of 6 x 1017 joules (about 120 megatons or ten times as much energy). Both of those are realistic estimates if you're trying to visualize impact hazards. And both of them indicate that when a modest sized rock hits a planet, you get one heck of a bang. The uncertainties in the assumptions do not affect the final conclusion. An error in one quantity does not invalidate the entire calculation. A ten-fold range of uncertainty is pretty large, but if you have some people saying there's no danger at all and others saying the impact will destroy the world (and I guarantee when we do predict a certain impact, we'll see both brands of extremist) then pinning it down to the 10-100 megaton range is a vast improvement. You need to evacuate for miles around the impact site, not an entire state, country, or continent.

The next fallacy in Lewis' argument is that errors are not always in the same direction. Our estimates of some quantities are too big, others too small, and any real calculation will have a mix of the two errors, partially offsetting each other. So let's apply Lewis' logic (even though it's wrong on at least two counts) to a calculation where some variables are too big and others are too small, and let's be a lot more generous. We'll assume half the variables are only 90% of the correct value and the other half 110%, in other words, a 10% error range. 90% x 110% = 99%, and we have 50 pairs of variables, so we raise 99% to the 50th power and get 60%. If you could pick horses 60% of the time you'd be banned from the track.

Finally, what matters most is the sign of the parameter. If some climate variable produces warming if it has a positive value and cooling if it's negative, then not knowing whether the true value is +10 or +100 will have a very large impact on the final calculation but the result will have the right sign. It's only if you don't know whether the value is -25 or +30 that there's real uncertainty which way things will go.

If climate modeling was really as hit or miss as critics claim, we ought to see as many predictions of cooling as warming. We don't. The physics of carbon dioxide and solar energy sees to that.

At Chez Boortz

For you Francophones, I know "at Chez Boortz" is like "Grand Prix award," "with au jus," and "Sierra Nevada Mountains." It's a duplicative redundancy.

Conservative blogger Neal Boortz is a reliable purveyor of bad science on global warming. His column for December 5, 2007 had a particularly rich crop of links. My comments are indented after each citation.

Now .. for those of you who aren’t so eager to buy into this scam .. here are a few links:

The global warming scam. An article by Derek Kelly, PhD.
If there's any sure sign someone is unsure of his credentials, it's putting "PhD" after his name. Virtually all college faculty are PhD's - no real professor puts PhD after his or her name. The end notes on this piece describe the author as having been "an American university teacher and a computer-software developer." In other words, a lecturer or ad-hoc instructor, not a professor, and with no credentials relevant to the debate.
The Founder of the Weather Channel says that “global warming is the greatest scam in history. But then, what the hell does he know, right?
Actually, what does he know? Do we expect the founder of the History Channel to be a historian? If I launch a ballet channel, does that make me a ballerina?
Another article entiled “The global warming scam” by Nima Sanandaji and Fred Goldberg
Sanandaji is a graduate student in biochemistry; Goldberg is a mechanical engineer. Relevance of their credentials: zero. Actually Goldberg's are relevant - as an illustration of the shameful tendency of engineers and applied scientists to endorse junk science.
Eight Reasons Why Global Warming is a Scam, by Joseph Bast.
Less moonbatty than most skeptical pages, but not by a scientist. And after objecting to the alleged lack of scientific evidence for global warming, counters with considerably less substantiated economic predictions. Who could possibly criticize climate models as being inaccurate and then take economic models seriously?
Global Warming? Mark Jaffe, Denver Post.
A he-said, he-said piece juxtaposing quotes from global warming believers and skeptics. A monument to the criticism that reporting what each side says in a controversy is not the same thing as responsible reporting.
Nine Lies about Global Warming. [pdf]
This one deserves a page unto itself, but most of the "lies" are either things that nobody with serious expertise is saying, or distorted in various ways. Conspicuously missing are any quotes at all from climate researchers making any of the statements "rebutted" by this piece.
Science for Sale: The Global Warming Scam, from Accuracy in Media
By Notra Trulock, who was fired as Department of Energy intelligence director after the Lee espionage case imploded. Either a right-wing crank or a heroic whistle-blower. Take your pick. But notably lacking in anything resembling expertise on climate change.

So there we go. Seven links and not a single one by anyone with relevant expertise. Not a single one in a serious technical publication.

Auto Makers and Big Oil

Extremists on the political left frequently argue that auto makers and and Big Oil are opposed to any attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Does this make any economic sense at all?

If auto makers are so opposed to cutting down emissions and fuel economy, who's developing hybrids? Greenpeace? And regardless of what powers the car, it will still need brakes, a transmission, and seat cushions. And who makes all that stuff?

Then there's Big Oil. Hmmm. Let me see. I have this commodity I'm selling for $50 a barrel because it's mostly burned as fuel, and we can produce it at our present pace for maybe another century. Or, we can develop alternatives. That means I can sell my petroleum for more valuable purposes like making plastics and chemicals at a much higher price. So I sell half as much petroleum at twice the price and break even, plus since I'm only selling half as much, my supply will last twice as long. Somebody help me. This is such a tough choice.

Meanwhile, who's going to manufacture and sell all those alternative fuels? Well, who's got the giant chemistry sets and the experience in running chemical reactions by the millions of gallons? Who's got the pipelines, the tankers, the distribution system?

Corporations may be corrupt and self-serving, but bureaucracies are no less corrupt and self-serving. Also bureaucracies are utterly incompetent when it comes to deciding complex technological issues, especially when the optimum solution is still unknown. The automotive and petroleum industries are opposed to unrealistic mandates, or things that will require huge expenditures with possibly marginal results, or things that will alienate consumers like producing efficient European style cars that are also cramped and butt-ugly, and of course there's always the inertia factor. Worst of all would be mandates that actually interfere with creative solutions to the problem because someone legislated a preconceived vision of how the world works (check out social programs for case studies). For example, some recent research suggests that algae, which are close to the presumed natural precursors of petroleum, may be a better basis for biofuels than land plants. Imagine trying to introduce an algae-based biofuel if we had already legislated that ethanol would be our biofuel of choice. On the other hand, industries can move pretty quickly when they hear regulators breathing at their backs. Far better to blunt the pressures to regulate than try to deal with the regulations after they're passed. But to accuse the automotive industry and petroleum industry of stifling long term efforts to curtail carbon emissions and promote fuel economy simply flies in the face of elementary economics. There are just too many ways to profit in the long run.

The Conspiracy Angle

If there's one nearly infallible sign of the crank, it's a tendency to take a conspiratorial approach to things. There are a host of sound reasons to reject arguments based on conspiracies.

It's not proper to dismiss an idea solely because it postulates a conspiracy. It is proper to insist on debating solely on the merits of the argument. So discuss global warming without using terms like conspiracy, plot, panic, media hype, corporate vested interest, propaganda, lies, deception, fraud, ideological, apologist, religion, censorship, suppression, and so on. Go home, clean up your act, and we'll discuss your ideas on their merits. We'll start with the physics of how more carbon dioxide doesn't trap more heat.

It doesn't matter in the least whether criticism of global warming comes from people with corporate ties. Nor does it matter in the least whether environmentalism is a religion. The only thing of any consequence is whether the ideas are true or false. The motivations of the people advancing the ideas do not count at all - the only thing they count for is to show the logical illiteracy and intellectual dishonesty of the person who drags motivation into the debate. I doubt seriously that a lot of people who label global warming a "religion" would accept the argument that Christianity must be false because it's a religion.

Although we find conspiratorial tones on both sides of the global warming debate (comparing Daily Kos and is about a toss up), the anti-warming side definitely seems to build its arguments around conspiracies more than the pro-warming side. That's certainly a result of the asymmetry of the scientific consensus. There are only two possible reasons most scientists would be against you; either it's a plot, or you're wrong. And that second alternative is no fun.

A Step in the Right Direction

One of the better informed attacks on global warming is Global Warming: The Origin and Nature of the Alleged Scientific Consensus by Richard S. Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in the Cato Institute quarterly Regulation. Roughly the first third of the paper is a good explanation of the greenhouse effect and the state of the data. Lindzen agrees that temperature has increased and that a large number of studies predict that an increase in carbon dioxide would result in warming. Unfortunately, Lindzen dismisses the warming as unlikely to cause problems without offering any evidence, and the remainder of the paper is a discussion of the politics of global warming. Then there's this remarkable claim.

If one considers the tropics, that conclusion is even more disturbing. There is ample evidence that the average equatorial sea surface has remained within plus or minus one degree centigrade of its present temperature for billions of years, yet current models predict average warming of from two to four degrees centigrade even at the equator.

This paragraph is wrong on at least three counts. The claim that average equatorial sea surface temperatures have remained constant is flat out wrong. Not only is determining sea surface paleotemperatures fraught with far more complex problems than determining historical climate changes, but a search of the literature turns up numerous papers describing swings of 5 degrees C and more in tropical sea surface temperatures. Most of the paleotemperature data hinges in some way on organisms, so data for the Precambrian, let alone "billions of years" ago, is scanty. In fact the vast majority of sea paleotemperature research deals with the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Finally, climate models predict changes in air temperature, not the sea surface.

At least Lindzen discusses some of the actual science in the global warming controversy. Still, if this is the best science the skeptics have, it's pretty slender evidence.

What If Global Warming is a Myth?

Think of some time company came over and you had to engage in a lot of (to you) completely unnecessary housecleaning. Or, for those with military experience, preparing for an inspection. Completely meaningless exercises.

On the other hand, the place was a mess, and lots of stuff that you had written off as lost turned up during the cleanup, and things are a whole lot easier to find now. So, even though the precipitating event seemed like a useless exercise, useful results still came out of it.

Petroleum is finite, and therefore we will eventually run out of it. Running out is not the real problem - running short is. Those spikes in price at the pump are signs we can hear the slurping sound at the end of the straw. Sooner or later, we will have to find some other source of energy. The only alternatives on the horizon are sunlight in some form (wind, photoelectric, biomass) or some other form of stored energy (nuclear, geothermal, fusion). Hydrogen can fall in either category - if we develop a good photocatalyst or use solar power for electrolysis, it's basically sunlight. If we use nuclear or geothermal power for the electrolysis then the hydrogen is non-solar stored energy. Fusion, as a cynic pointed out, is the energy source of the future and always will be.

Then there is our economic and military vulnerability to petroleum shortages. Equally important is the power that petroleum gives to lunatic fringe movements to threaten Western civilization. On that grounds alone, developing alternatives to petroleum ought to be a supreme matter of national security.

One future we can most definitely rule out is the ultra-green alternative where we all go back to a minimalist existence (except for an eco-elite who will still get to travel to the rain forests without encountering all that riff-raff). There's an indissoluble link between freedom and personal mobility. More to the point, the growth of personal freedom since the Renaissance has taken place in an expansionist environment where lots of people get bigger slices because the pie gets bigger. At various times the expansion has been intellectual discovery, increases in productivity, or physical expansion. I don't know how long we can go on expanding (nothing can grow forever), or whether transitioning to a steady state but still free society is possible, but in our time, severe energy contraction will have catastrophic effects on personal freedom. So if we want to ensure personal freedom we have to ensure energy freedom. Not just enough energy to sustain ourselves, but to grow if we choose.

The greatest epoch of freedom in human history was directly related to removing constraints: spatial constraints, physical constraints, production constraints, intellectual and behavioral constraints. Right now energy is emerging as the next great constraint. To maintain anything we would recognize as a free society, we need to come up with energy abundant enough and cheap enough not to be an appreciable constraint on what we want to do. And that is not petroleum.

To the extent that global warming induces people to look seriously for alternative energy sources, the concern is altogether healthy. It creates positive incentives to develop alternative energy sources (profits and market share) and negative incentives (the threat of regulation). So the global warming crisis, hysteria, religion, fad or whatever can produce a host of useful results even if global warming turns out to be false.

Except it probably won't.

Conservatism and Global Warming

I consider myself a conservative politically, and to me, "conservatism" implies three important things:

  1. You face reality. You don't evade it by dredging up reasons not to believe evidence or labeling anything you don't want to believe in a "conspiracy."

  2. "Conservatism" and "conserve" come from the same root. You don't unnecessarily squander limited resources you may need later. In fact you don't unnecessarily squander anything - period. You keep your debt limited to the minimum necessary. You pay your bills. If you get an unexpected windfall, you manage it carefully to stretch it out. You treat things in your care like they're your own.
        So completely apart from global warming, fossil fuels are finite and will have a finite lifetime, and we have no practical substitute ready to replace them. Therefore we need to manage them carefully to maximize their lifetime. First we need to extend the lifetime of the resources themselves, and second, we need to buy time to develop alternatives and bring them on line. Doing so will reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a side result.
        It's a painfully amusing irony that most of the people who are lambasting Republicans for abandoning their traditional fiscal restraint, simultaneously pretend that finite resources are not a problem. We would have neither an energy crisis nor a global warming problem if conservatives treated fossil fuels the way they claim money should be treated. (For that matter, we wouldn't be reeling from the collapse of the sub-prime lending market if conservatives had treated money the way they claim money should be treated.)

  3. You plan for the worst case. You don't necessarily assume the worst case, but you have a plan if it happens. So even conservatives who regard the war in Iraq as a fiasco nevertheless tend to advocate gritting our teeth and slugging it out, because the worst case scenarios from losing or retreating are much worse than the present mess.
        But when it comes to climate change, the same people see nothing but rainbows and fuzzy bunny rabbits, or warm beaches and palm trees. Terrorist attacks and global Sharia law? Well, those are likely outcomes of retreating from Iraq. Sea level rise, more droughts and severe weather from global warming? That's just fear-mongering.

A Very Cynical Reason to Endorse Global Warming

Two words: Star Wars. Two more: Soviet Union.

With a few exceptions, mostly Holland and the Scandinavian countries, most of the signatories of the Kyoto Accords are posers. They have no more intention of actually living up to the Kyoto Accords than the U.S. does, but they have one clear advantage over the U.S. They lie. We consider implications and don't sign treaties we can't support or fulfill; other countries merrily sign treaties they have no real intention of living up to.

So we should sign the Kyoto Accords. As an intrinsic part of the plan, we enact measures to help business deal with the costs and protect workers from job loss. We meet the Kyoto standards. Then we hold the EC's feet to the fire, all the way up to the knees. They don't meet the standards, they lose access to U.S. markets. Only one economy in the world is big enough, robust enough and innovative enough to pull this off - us.

Ben Bernanke's Take

From Ben Bernanke's blog, November 15, 2007:

Global warming, like globalization, is good for the economy, and therefore humanity:

Well, there you go. If you can't believe the Chairman of the Fed, who can you believe?

So You Still Don't Believe In Global Warming?

Fine. Here's what you have to do.

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