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28 March 2017 19:36 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Climate change as pseudo-science

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

Strong headline, I know, but what climate scientists and their supporters have to say about would-be critics of a new study about the paleontological temperature record, demonstrates that the scientific method has been abandoned.

Note from the writer: The headline of this column was changed from "Climate change is pseudo-science" to "Climate change as pseudo-science". The headline was intended to refer to a specific case in which the author of a paper pre-emptively labelled would-be critics of the paper, thereby immunising it against criticism or falsification. This is unscientific, and a hallmark of pseudo-science. However, out of context, it looked like the headline referred to all climate science. All my other position statements on climate change would contradict that this is my view.

“Oh dear,” wrote an Internet troll to me. “Yet another study relying entirely on facts and numbers. Time to do some character assassination.”

The cause for this sneering jibe, out of the blue? A new study, by Shaun Marcott and others, which offers a reconstruction of global temperatures as far back as 11,300 years.

“We're Screwed: 11,000 Years’ Worth of Climate Data Prove It,” yells The Atlantic, not wishing to temper its sensationalist hysteria.

In brief, what Marcott’s reconstruction purports to show is not that current temperatures are unprecedented – as some climate scientists claim they are for shorter time-spans – but that they are in the top 25% of the temperature history of the Holocene (that is, the period since the last Ice Age).

It adds, however, that computer model forecasts published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) predict that temperatures will definitely become unprecedented.

The findings appear to support Michael Mann’s infamous “hockey stick” view of climate history. This replaced the more benign-looking temperature record that appeared in the UN IPCC’s first assessment report, and consists of a 1500-year reconstruction cobbled together from multiple “proxy” sources, since direct instrumental measurements are a relatively modern phenomenon, and the satellite data record does not begin until 1979. The hockey stick’s outstanding feature was that it made the widely documented Medieval Warm Period between the 10th and 13th centuries, and the Little Ice Age which lasted from the 16th to 19th centuries, disappear. In their place was a largely flat line, culminating in a sharp rise of unprecedented warming starting in the 20th century.

Mann’s chart was refuted by the Canadian scientific duo of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, who demonstrated several fatal flaws – most notably that Mann had used a transformation on the data that would turn even random noise into a hockey stick. The findings that break the hockey stick have been quietly replicated by other climate scientists.

The new paleo study, by Marcott et al, on the surface appears to support something like Mann’s hockey stick interpretation of recent temperatures. It is available here if you have a paid subscription to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If you don’t, which my Internet troll would consider just a “convenient excuse” on your part, you’ll have to pirate a copy, or wait until “the new hockey stick” – as Andrew Montford, of Bishop’s Hill fame, dubbed it – appears in the upcoming Fifth IPCC Assessment Report, or AR5.

It seems, upon a first reading, that the new reconstruction does not fit well with what we thought we knew about the paleontological temperature record, sketchy as that knowledge is. However, I’ll leave the scientific criticism to those more qualified to do so than I am. No doubt indefatigable chroniclers of climate pseudo-science such as Montford, McIntyre, McKitrick and Anthony Watts, will keep us posted on the scientific debate.

What I found far more interesting than the paper itself, however, was the way in which my troll’s sarcastic taunting found echoes in the brazen way in which Mann and Marcott tried to pre-empt any criticism.

Quoth The Atlantic: “Mann himself, who literally wrote the book on attacks on climate scientists, said in an email... that he was ‘certain that professional climate change deniers will attack the study and the authors, in an effort to discredit this important work,’ especially given the close ties between the two scientists’ research. ‘It will therefore be looked at as a threat to vested interests who continue to deny that human-changed climate change is a reality.’”

So an “attack” on the study is also a personal attack on the authors. Any critic is a “professional”, with “vested interests”, for which read: corrupt and in the pay of Big Oil. Not that such a priori stereotyping is ad hominem, you understand. Climate scientists would never stoop so low.

Also, sceptics couldn’t possibly be motivated by science. They are “deniers”, a term whose most charitable interpretation implies a comparison with people who deny the theory of evolution, deny that smoking causes cancer, or deny that HIV causes Aids. It is not only insulting, but it is a blatant use of the irrelevance fallacy. What one’s views are on any of those questions, or whether others have been wrong about them, are entirely irrelevant to the question of whether sceptics are justified in their criticism of man-made global warming alarmists.

The insult cuts much deeper, however, since it evokes the reprehensibility of Holocaust denial. This isn’t just oversensitivity on the part of sceptics; it has been explicitly stated. Dr Peter Christoff, a climate politics and policy professor at the University of Melbourne, explains: “There are grave risks in drawing analogies with any aspect of the Holocaust. … Even so – and because of its resonance with Holocaust denial – the term ‘denier’ can be used … it illustrates the immorality and potential damage of climate change denial.”

So, there you have it. If you quibble with Marcott’s paper, you’re a Big Oil Nazi who can’t rise above insulting real climate scientists.

Having established the caricature by quoting his eminent patron and protector, The Atlantic goes to the paper’s principal author himself: “Marcott admitted he was apprehensive about charging into the fully-mobilized troll army, but said he was grateful scientists like Mann had ‘gone through hell’ before him to build a support network for harassed climate scientists.”

Aw, poor climate scientists. Being all harassed and stuff! Going through hell! Perhaps they should be more careful with emails that, time and again, give their critics so much ammunition.

It is unclear whether “fully-mobilized troll army” is Marcott’s phrase or that of Tim McDonnell, who penned the piece, but either way, it is disgraceful to pre-emptively denounce anyone who dares to critically examine Marcott’s scientific work.

My own troll said that I, too, would have to ignore the facts and numbers, and resort instead to character assassination. How richly ironic, since this is how those of us who are critical of environmentalists are routinely challenged.

I have been subjected to it myself, on more than one occasion. In a recent notable case, Wendy Dewberry, a green-minded sort who strongly disagrees with my views, attended a fundraiser for the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, which campaigns against shale gas drilling, or “fracking” in the Karoo. Hosted by the Wildflife and Environment Society of South Africa, the evening’s entertainment was to pit a committee member of that group against yours truly, as the author of Extreme Environment, in what was billed as a “debate”.

Afterwards, Dewberry felt moved to pen a letter to the Cape Times. Dismissing my arguments as nothing more than industry propaganda and sneering at my supposed claim to “superior insight”, she reported that she was unconvinced.

“I looked forward,” she wrote, “to hearing a fact-based, positivist response, supporting all that Treasure Karoo Action Group stands for.”

She got her wish: “What an embarrassment. It began with a character assassination of the previous speaker, followed by personal opinion rather than scientific fact or verifiable information, and concluded with nothing. Unfortunately, this time the pro-frackers won the debate by simply following the rules of engagement.”

Clearly, environmentalists know a little about ad hominem attacks. So much so, that they now resort to insults to tarnish their critics even before their work is subjected to scrutiny. The conceit really is quite astonishing.

On the upside, however, it reveals that they are guilty of pseudo-science.

Karl Popper, a famous 20th-century philosopher of science, grappled with the question of how to distinguish, not a correct theory from an incorrect theory, but a scientific theory from a pseudo-scientific theory.

Mere empiricism, the idea that science is based on experimental observation, was not sufficient, he thought, since one could argue that something like astrology is equally founded upon a wealth of empirical observation. A similar objection can be raised against the criterion of exactitude. Explanatory power, too, was not a sufficient criterion for a theory to pass muster as truly scientific, since one could always rely on Marxists or Freudians to go on about how their reading of newspapers, or their interpretation of clinical observations, verified their respective theories. Popper wrote: “ was practically impossible to describe any human behaviour that might not be claimed to be a verification of these theories.”

This contrasted sharply with the observations of starlight bent around the eclipsed sun, which in Popper’s time confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity. In this case, almost every possible observation other than the one Einstein predicted would, simply and effectively, have refuted the theory. At its core, Popper reasoned, “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability [emphasis in original].”

This leads to his view that, “Every ‘good’ scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.”

He wrote: “Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory.”

He sounds a pertinent warning: “Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers – for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status.”

Now, test climate science against these criteria. What conceivable evidence could falsify it, when any imaginable weather event can be, and routinely is, advanced as confirmation of the theory of man-made global warming? Events or data that appear at first glance to contradict the theory, such as the annoying refusal of reality to match the model predictions for the last 15 years, are neatly explained away as mere artefacts of complexity or chaos.

Popper, had he been alive, would surely have added the theory of man-made climate change to Marxist theory of history, astrology and Freudian psycho-analysis as pseudo-scientific theories.

Nothing more clearly demonstrates this than Mann and Marcott’s comments about this paper, which claims to offer evidence in support of the theory. They shrug off the very idea of falsifiability by pre-emptively trying to discredit would-be critics as biased, corrupt and unscientific.

Well, I beg to differ. It is unscientific to deny (at the risk of using such a loaded word) the scientific method. It is unscientific to personally attack, in advance, anyone who dares question or criticise your findings. Scientists like Mann and Marcott who do this don’t deserve to have their work taken seriously as honest science. They don’t deserve the time of day.

At the dawn of the age of reason, Xenophanes wrote: “But as for certain truth, no man has known it, nor will he know it; neither of the gods, nor yet of all the things of which I speak. And even if by chance he were to utter the perfect truth, he would himself not know it: For all is but a woven web of guesses.”

Would that environmentalists – for “scientists” is too grand a word for them – were this humble. Would that they acknowledged that criticism of their work might be a bona fide attempt to correct potential error, and that their critics might be motivated by a deep regard for human prosperity and freedom, in a healthy and productive environment. Would that they had the professional pride not to deny the scientific method with their populist rhetoric, vindictive slander and pseudo-science.

Who are the “deniers” now? DM

PS. As I said, I'd wait for scientists more qualified than I am to try to poke holes in Marcott's paper. As Mann and Marcott predicted, it has begun. Perhaps they were so defensive, in advance, because they expected it to be a doozy. No special qualifications are required to spot the startling difference between the charts Marcott used in his Ph.D. thesis and those he created for his Science paper. Over to Steve McIntyre.

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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