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I have no idea why I didn't post this link before now. I first learned about the website on August 9th, and I filed the knowledge away just in case it became useful to me someday, but of course it could come in handy for some of my readers as well.

http://www.skepticalscience.com/oneliners.php

This webpage has simple rebuttals to 127 common arguments made by climate skeptics, and each one has a link to a more thorough response (or sometimes more than one, at various levels of detail) that cites relevant scientific results. It's really quite impressive, and might just be enough to snap an intellectually honest skeptic out of his/her perfectly natural denial about this immense and nearly unsolvable global crisis.

Now, I did write in a recent entry about how even climate deniers should be able to support a sustainability agenda for other reasons, but this analysis neglected two key points. For one thing, climate denial is often based partly in a political ideology that militates against any policy plan progressives support, especially when it includes government meddling in the economy. Also, none of the other crises listed in that entry have the psychological impact of global warming in terms of motivating urgent and drastic action (although some of them probably should).
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The Copenhagen climate talks are over, but their outcome remains uncertain. The nonbinding agreement that was accepted by most (but not all) of the nations represented contains a target for limiting warming (two degrees C) but lacks any discussion of greenhouse gas parts-per-million targets, much less emissions rates. Nevertheless, if all goes well and the chorus of voices in favor of strong action continues to swell, this vaguely-worded document could still be the next-to-last step on the road to a global commitment in line with the science. Certainly the poor nations who will immediately benefit from a large new source of clean-tech and adaptation funding will not be complaining much about it, but we might end up complaining that not enough of the money is making it through their governments' greedy or merely incompetent hands and into the projects they truly need. Some people have given up in disgust, claiming that we'll have to find methods of changing the basis of our energy economy other than through international negotiations.

Then there are those who say there's no point in spending any government money to speed this shift, because the massive cost of adapting to climate catastrophe might never have to be spent, even if we do nothing. This comic illustrates one common counterargument: the benefits of the shift could well outweigh the monetary cost, regardless of whether global warming is real. And meanwhile, Media Matters has a compilation of explanations for why, despite Climate-Gate, the existence of man-made global warming is still a near certainty. Its key weakness, though, is that no one other than climate scientists is qualified to confirm or deny that climate data was fudged or climate skeptics' research papers improperly rejected. And once the seeds of mistrust have been planted, those who prefer not to believe in the crisis have a ready answer to any and all such statements: “These scientists have proven they can't be trusted. Why should we believe anything they say?”

Belief systems throughout history have mostly hinged on faith in ideas or supernatural entities rather than trust in individuals. Science has been so successful, at least in part, because it claims none of the above is necessary, because “the surest path to truth is by looking at the natural world itself, which anyone can do.” In principle, anyway; in practice, of course, most scientific facts were determined through experiments that the average Joe lacks the skills and equipment to reproduce. Nevertheless, with the advent of “citizen science,” the ideal of democratizing the pursuit of knowledge seems within reach.

But what if it's all a sham? What if even the most basic bedrock principles of science, that any result should be open to challenge and all explanations for the data deserve a fair hearing, are never really practiced within the scientific “priesthood,” because it's much more politically convenient to hew to the dominant theory? This is what the climate skeptics are really asking, and it would be foolish to ignore them--not just because they might have a point, but also because technological civilization itself rests on scientific foundations. A widespread loss of faith in science could be catastrophic in its own right. Thus it is a matter of the utmost importance to both explain clearly and persuasively why the scientific community deserves our trust, and to keep working to ensure that, despite the occasional failing, it generally lives up to that trust.
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"Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public."
        - Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company internal memo

"Gate? What gate?"
        - The Monster in the Darkness, in the webcomic Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew

There's no use at this point trying to ignore "Climate-Gate" or claim it's somehow meaningless. The timing, so close to the opening of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, is highly suspicious, but if the emails were faked, the University of East Anglia would surely have said so. It seems likely enough that the hacker who "liberated" them waited until a politically propitious moment to release them to the world, but that doesn't change the importance of what they say.

On the other hand, it's foolish to claim, as countless conservatives are now doing, that the emails prove anything in particular about the future of climate change. What they do is increase the uncertainty. Scientists at one of several important climate research centers, frustrated by complex and inconclusive data sets and angry about the continued threats to their efforts to convince themselves their research was of epic global importance, made some very bad decisions that make them look like Michael Crichton villains. This does not prove that all the data on which the IPCC based its most recent statements about the likelihood that humans are warming the Earth is automatically discredited. It certainly doesn't mean we can use the recent tree-ring data, which for whatever reason flatly contradicts measurements from actual thermometers (and glaciers), to argue that the world has actually been cooling during the 20th century.

After all, science itself is not actually in the business of proving anything. A scientific "fact" is only accepted as long as no evidence comes along to falsify it, and no part of the scientific edifice is immune from that possibility. The basic theory of evolution, for example, is considered to be "fact" because we've seen enough evidence, in both the fossil record and short-life-cycle species living today, that supports it. The theory of anthropogenic global warming has been moving in the direction of fact for decades, had nearly reached it with the most recent IPCC report and its 90% certainty level, and has now taken a step in the opposite direction; how large a step is presently hard to say.

But as politically unfortunate as this may seem for progressives, and as much as people with little understanding of the scientific method may try to distort the situation with simplistic sound bites, the trend toward sustainability is far from over. Clean renewable energy, in particular, still looks like a good move to people living in areas prone to asthma from smog or cancer from oil processing chemicals, as well as windy or sunny regions with depressed job markets. For the U.S. government, pollutants other than CO2 ought to provide ample reason to maintain the moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. And as for the international community, it has basically already given itself a one-year deadline extension, so the massive ramp-up in the climate movement's activities during 2009 may yet have time to take greater effect, as well as adjusting its rhetoric to the ever-shifting, always approximate scientific picture of reality.

It's hard to make major policy decisions, or take decisive action of any kind, in an uncertain world. But as long as the Age of Reason lasts, we will have to continually face that challenge and balance the probabilities as best we can.

Certainty

Aug. 9th, 2007 10:24 pm
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When a scientifically-minded person gets too certain about something, especially something that could justly be called an extraordinary claim, s/he should get a little nervous. I'm a little nervous because my beliefs on both climate change and the current state of our democracy have pretty much solidified: in both cases, we're in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Here are the best quotes I have to back me up at present (they are rather lengthy, sorry), along with quotes that offer hope for solutions. Please poke holes in them if you can:

The Climate Crisis )

Sound-bite version: The climate crisis is real. We must start mass-producing solar arrays, wind farms, and biofuels made from algae that also captures smokestack emissions. Let's get moving!


The Democracy Crisis )

Sound-bite version: Lying us into war? Warrentless spying on Americans? Torture? Habeas Corpus eliminated? Let's make sure future presidents don't think they can get away with this. Impeach now!

Also, here's a rather over-the-top comic version. (Well, it's possible that we'll have a king by 2024, but he certainly won't call himself one in public.)
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Link to part 1

Science sees itself as superior to religion precisely because it is so much less certain of itself than religions are. Scientists believe that their model of reality is the best that humanity has ever found, precisely because they have always accepted that it is not synonymous with The Truth and probably never will be; that we can only approach The Truth in successive approximations.

Scientists also accept that almost anything is possible. Science might one day literally find God, sitting out there in an eleven-dimensional quantum workshop building Universes from scratch. That's just one in a nearly unlimited ocean of possibilities. The only hard limits on that ocean are that the scientific model must always be consistent with empirical observations. A softer, but still fairly reasonable limit is that new theories should be consistent with the best-established ones we have now. Currently, I can think of four:
  • Quantum mechanics: All matter and energy are made up of tiny entities that can behave as either particles or waves.


  • Relativity: The speed of light is always the same, no matter how you observe it. If you travel very fast relative to the world around you, then space, time, and gravitational forces will appear to distort so that you still see beams of light traveling at the same speed.


  • The standard model of cosmology: Planets orbit stars, billions of stars make up a galaxy, and there are at least hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe. The Universe began as a tiny speck about thirteen to fourteen billion years ago and has been exploding outward ever since.


  • Natural selection: Through genetic variation and survival of the fittest organisms, all the diversity of life on Earth arose from a few simple primordial species which arose spontaneously about four billion years ago.
Note that all of these theories seem to run counter to everyday experience; they have only become so well-established because scientists learned to make the right kinds of observations. The fact that most people never get to make these kinds of observations firsthand is a major impediment to the popular acceptance of the scientific worldview.

Now, while scientific theories are always subject to change, that doesn't mean that change is easy. If you make a claim like "Everything we know is wrong and the world is just an elaborate simulation," or "The gaps in the story of evolution on Earth should be filled by invoking an intelligent designer," or even "Global temperatures are rising so fast that human influence must be the dominant cause," then you are making an extraordinary claim. Such claims aren't immediately accepted as valid theories; they require extraordinary evidence. In the case of human-caused climate change, this kind of evidence is available, but the theory is still not The Truth. It could be wrong. Most climatologists think it's probably right, but none of them is certain. A true scientist is never absolutely certain about anything.
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I just read a review of some research by retired professor William F. Ruddiman, who found that while the three major variations in Earth's orbit and axis have all been pulling us toward an ice age for a long time now, methane and carbon dioxide concentrations have been rising for the past several thousand years and offsetting that trend. Both were a result of agriculture: methane from rice paddies, CO2 from massive deforestation to clear land for various crops. "Humans stopped a glaciation," Ruddiman declares.

This conclusion is strikingly similar to the theories propounded in the absurdly self-referential "novel" Fallen Angels by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which goes on to conclude that if the Greens and Luddites take over and get us to actually stop emitting CO2, we'll be plunged into an Ice Age within decades.

But this isn't actually the case. Even if we could muster the political will to effectively phase out fossil fuels before century's end, the high carbon dioxide concentrations would persist in the atmosphere for several decades beyond that. More importantly, according to Ruddiman's rather dodgy estimates (extrapolating Britain's deforestation patterns to the rest of the world), the preindustrial change in CO2 concentrations was from an expected drop of 20 parts per million over a period of 8000 years, to an increase of about the same amount. Those numbers are probably off by quite a bit, but consider this: in the past two centuries alone, we've increased the level by an estimated 105 ppm. This is clearly far too fast, and fits with the copious evidence of dangerous warming we've all read about.

Had we understood all this at the dawn of the industrial era, maybe we could have planned to ration our supplies of fossil fuels and emit just the right low levels of greenhouse gases to tide us through the millennia until the axis tilts back the other way. But of course we didn't, so we'd better start saving it up now, before it's too late.
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Here are the first fruits of my literature search on whether anthropogenic warming is occurring.

Pro:
Scripps Researchers Find Clear Evidence of Human-Produced Warming in World's Oceans (press release...note that the article number is 666 :-)
Detection of Anthropogenic Climate Change in the World's Oceans (full article, requires free registration)
I will try to find a rebuttal to this once I've had time to read it; the California voter's pamphlet is taking a lot of my time right now...

Con:
Celestial Climate Driver: A Perspective from Four Billion Years of the Carbon Cycle
Rebuttal: A critique on Veizer’s Celestial Climate Driver. The critique's biggest points are that Veizer uses little statistical analysis and two charts were actually pulled from "a popular climate-sceptics book that has been distributed in Germany by the coal-industry lobby," and that the paper was reviewed by non-climatologists. On a theoretical level, though, the paper does seem pretty well-argued.
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"The battle for control of science went on.  Many administrations and Congresses hadn't wanted technology or the environment assessed at all, as far as Anna could see.  It might get in the way of business.  They didn't want to know.

"For Anna there could be no greater intellectual crime.  It was incomprehensible to her: they didn't want to know.  And yet they did want to call the shots.  To Anna this ways clearly crazy. . . .  On what basis did they build such an incoherent mix of desires, to want to stay ignorant and to be powerful as well?  Were these two parts of the same insanity?"

-Forty Signs of Rain, a novel that might justly be called the thinking person's The Day After Tomorrow
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Why would I, an essentially nonreligious person, try to make up something like the Church of Gaia/Earthseed?  Well, in order to solve environmental problems and ensure that they stay solved over the long term, we need what Harvey Mudd professor Paul Steinberg calls "the thousand-year institution," a collection of rules, roles, and responsibilities that is capable of surviving into the distant future without major changes in its core principles.  And religions are the institutions that have best proven their ability to last thousands of years while maintaining large followings.  There are disadvantages, of course--in particular, religions often lack the resilience needed to adapt the implementation of their principles to changing times--but the advantages are too great to be lightly ignored.

Given this, the project of reconciling science and religion gains added importance.  So consider this: a good scientist does not deny the posibility of supernatural explanations; s/he merely says "I can't study that" and focuses on theories that meet the standards of testability and falsifiablity.  There has always been an "outside" where science cannot yet reach, and there probably always will be.

Of course, the reach of science is constantly expanding; at the moment it extends, with some gaps, to the limits of the observable universe and back in time to a few moments after the Big Bang.  But while religious people may see this expansion as "pushing God into the dark corners," the truth is that God has currently been pushed out to about where S/He logically belongs.  After all, if God created the Universe, S/He has to be capable of acting from outside it.  And given that, there is no reason to deny the possibility that God could sometimes reach in and make the Universe behave in ways inconsistent with its own internal logic, so again, the existence of supernatural phenomena can't be ruled out. In particular, the true nature of human consciousness is not and may never be truly understood.

Nevertheless, science will continue to fight for a more complete understanding--the proponents of "p-brane" theory are already looking for evidence of gravitational forces coming from outside our Universe--and those who value faith will continue to fight back.  So do scientists have any equivalent to faith that they can hold out as an olive branch?  Well, there is the idea of "sense of wonder," the scientist's awe at the grandeur of the Cosmos and the marvellous order that has arisen spontaneously in the form of galaxies, complex molecules, and most especially life.  This provides at least some grounds for the idea that life is precious, an idea that motivates the systems of ethics that lie at the core of most religions.
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Science has given us great leaps in understanding of our Universe. It has done this at the cost, not of "hacking things apart" as is commonly claimed, but of putting things together, eliminating qualitative differences. Consider: science has given us the ideas that
  • Apples and oranges are both fruits.

  • Apples and leaves are both parts of plants.

  • Apples and people are both living things.

  • Apples and rocks are both solid objects.

  • Apples and oceans are both collections of atoms and molecules.

  • Apples and white dwarf stars are both collections of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
More recently, it has also given us the theory that apples, light rays, and everything else in the Universe are nothing more than sets of complex folds in the fabric of spacetime.

This is all kind of depressing, considering that it tends to eliminate qualitative divisions we hold dear, like the human/animal boundary, the body/mind boundary, and the living-thing/inanimate-object boundary. But we can console ourselves that no one is going to start naming things, beings, and people using a system that results in statements like "Howdy, piece-of-folded-spacetime-number-48QJ5R! How's the old piece-of-folded-spacetime-number-56BM1D doing?" And the Universe makes it easier to preserve the illusion of difference by including a number of fairly sharp quantitative boundaries between things we like to think of as different.

Also, I would note that without science, environmental crises would be much harder to understand and resolve, though I grant that it would also be harder to get into them in the first place.

March 2015

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