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Climategate - sceptics of the world unite

On both sides of the argument, is this a case of "I Want To Believe"?
Friday 4 December 2009.

This morning I read an article in the UK’s ’Independent’ newspaper in which the writer stated:

“A study for the journal Science randomly sampled 928 published peer-reviewed scientific papers that used the words "climate change". It found that 100 per cent – every single one – agreed it is being fuelled by human activity. There is no debate among climate scientists.”

So that’s it then: There is no debate among climate scientists.

A few minutes later I read an article in The Wall Street Journal in which the writer says:

“Claims that climate change is accelerating are bizarre. There is general support for the assertion that GATA [globally averaged temperature anomaly] has increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 19th century. The quality of the data is poor, though, and because the changes are small, it is easy to nudge such data a few tenths of a degree in any direction.

... the suggestion that the very existence of warming or of the greenhouse effect is tantamount to catastrophe...is the grossest of ‘bait and switch’ scams.”

To put these views in context, I should perhaps mention that the Independent article was written by a journalist, Johann Hari, who generally writes about politics, while the Wall Street Journal piece was written by Richard S Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

So which do I believe? If I were an expert on climatology, I might be in a position to come to a well-informed opinion on the matter. Since I am not, I think the correct response is scepticism. Which is why I remain sceptical of the arguments presented on both sides of this debate.

Until recently I had assumed that most educated people would regard ‘scepticism’ as a perfectly respectable position to take to any subject open to debate. The exception to this rule seems to be when the word ‘sceptic’ is combined with the word ‘climate’. A large body of people (many of whom are politicians, journalists and members of campaigning groups but rather few of whom appear to be scientists with no dependent interest in the matter) have adopted the global warming ‘religion’ with an evangelical fervour. They would have you believe that there is not the slightest room for doubt that man’s activities are causing an unprecedented surge in CO2 and that this has set in train a catastrophic sequence of events which is the biggest problem facing the world today. They are so passionate in this belief that anyone who dares to ask questions - that is, any ‘sceptic’ - is regarded as something akin to a flat-earther.

David Bellamy, the well-known writer and broadcaster (and a perfectly reputable scientist in his own right) has complained that his sceptical views on global waerming have caused him to be treated ‘like a Holocaust denier’. In his opinion, “there is absolutely no proof that CO2 has anything to do with any impending catastrophe. The science has, quite simply, gone awry. In fact, it’s not even science any more; it’s anti-science.”

Curiously, I note that Johann Hari, the ‘Independent’ journalist, is just as keen to be acknowledged a sceptic as I am. However, he is so convinced that there is an absolute scientific consensus about man-made climate change that he rebrands ‘climate sceptics’ as ‘climate deniers’ which puts me back into the flat earth category while giving Mr Hari the ‘opt out’ of being a sceptic of all things except global warming.

There may be a great many scientists who believe in this so-called ‘consensus’ view. But not all scientists do and, in my view, scepticism remains an entirely reasonable position to take. The problem with the oft-repeated assertion that there is a complete pro-man-made-global-warming ‘consensus’ among scientists is that there quite clearly isn’t. People can make this claim as often as they like but anyone with access to Google can quickly verify that it isn’t true.

Even those scientists who accept the proposition that man-made CO2 increases global warming do not unanimously accept the predictions of a consequent catastrophe. Scientists don’t come much more eminent than Freeman Dyson who has expressed the view that: “Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.”

The recent furore over leaked emails from climate scientists at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit (the so-called ‘climategate’) is one rather colourful episode which illustrates the fact (which should hardly come as a surprise!) that climate scientists are no more detached and unbiased than anyone else. How could they be? For many of them, their careers depend upon the arguments for global warming being correct. If those arguments are not correct, why should anyone continue funding their research?

What is more interesting - and potentially more damaging - than the email leaks are the programming documents - the so-called ‘Harry ReadMe’ - which were leaked at the same time. These give insights into the ambiguity of the climate data and the poor quality of the programs used to manipulate it. I may not be a climatologist but I am a programmer and when I read comments revealing that a programmer working on the climate prediction programs “discovered that a sum-of-squared variable is becoming very, very negative!” I know something is profoundly wrong.

In short, I am not a climate ‘denier’ but I am a sceptic. And proud to be so!

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  • Climategate - sceptics of the world unite
    4 December 2009

    Huw, "Harrys readme" is an odd document, but I am not horrifed by your example: ’I am a programmer and when I read comments revealing that a programmer working on the climate prediction programs “discovered that a sum-of-squared variable is becoming very, very negative!” I know something is profoundly wrong.’

    If you read the context, you see (a) that the guy is in the thick of program development; (b) that the reason for this behaviour was located - "the high value is pushing beyond the single-precision default for Fortran reals". So: error detected; plausible reason found; error corrected. Normal program de-bugging - where’s the problem? Surely you’ve written code that causes those kind of exceptions?

    I am not very impressed by the text-file as a systematic record of program development, but without seeing the context in which it exists, how it is used and the significance of such a document within the whole scheme of project management I find it impossible to make a judgement.

    Cards on table/conflict of interest: I am, on the whole, convinced by the man-made global warming arguments. Since I don’t have the expertise or time to test the science myself I rely on the integrity of others, and in particular - since I am a very experienced scientist - I am prepared to accept the views of all - all - the national academies of science. (See Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scient...). It seems to me that the overwhelming proportion of the opposition comes from parties with a vested interest. Furthermore, the opposition to MMGW relies heavily on the perceived ’average’ view being the mid-range and not the weighted mean. If a million people say "x" and ten people say "y", the average view is not midway between x and y, despite the fact that the media like to pretend it is so that they can have a ’balanced debate’.