Confusing the public about global warming

by Chris Bertram on September 8, 2003

One can’t be a blogger for long before being reminded of the sad truth that people tend to believe information that is congenial to their interests and disbelieve that which isn’t. The blogosphere, and the internet more generally, provides people with a ready made source of prejudice-confirming information. There’s a ready-made market then for sites like TechCentralStation that have the convenient look of authoritative sources but are actually largely written by bloggers of a libertarian and/or conservative cast of mind to provide easy, prejudice-congenial op-ed-like material.

I spent some time looking at TCS’s global warming pages at the weekend. These are largely devoted to debunking the view held by the majority of expert opinion that CO2 emissions have contributed substantially to global warming. It would, after all, be pretty convenient if conventional opinion turned out to be mistaken: I haven’t done a survey but I’d be willing to wager that an average member of TCS’s core demographic emits rather more carbon than typical human beings do.

Still, asking “cui bono?” falls short of being an argument. And I’m not a scientist anyway, just a concerned member of the public. I try to make up my mind on the issue by reading the papers and magazines, watching the TV, and so on (like pretty much everyone else). Mostly, I think that the conventional view is probably right, but sometimes I can be shaken into thinking that maybe no-one has good reason to think any particular thing on this subject.

When I’ve been thus shaken into a state of epistemic indifference, I also, naturally, become less supportive of pollution-limiting initiatives. Even if the anti-greens haven’t won the argument at that point, they’ve achieved a good part of their purpose as lobbyists.

One TCS column that caught my eye was one Here Comes the Sun by Lorne Gunter a Canadian newspaper columnist. The supporting text to the link to Gunter’s article reads “Global warming is caused by the SUN, not SUVs.” In the body of the piece Gunter refers to research by a Canadian geologist (Jan Veizer) and an Israeli astrophysicist (Nir Shaviv). Now I’m neither an astrophysicist nor a geologist, but that sure sounds impressive. Here’s Gunter’s take on their conclusion:

far from being a manmade disaster, the warming we have experienced to date is entirely natural [emphasis added].

Good blogger that I am, my first move in investigating further was to feed “Shaviv” and “Veizer” into Google. 314 hits, but rather a lot of them (21 in all) were to material by Gunter – often the same syndicated article. A further 8 hits were to Gunter’s TCS colleague Kenneth Silber. Gunter’s pieces, published by organizations like fathersforlife.org are often accompanied by headlines like this:

Cosmic ray flux zaps pro-Kyoto types: New study puts paid to overheated theories on climate change

But one thing Google did enable me to do was to find Nir Shaviv’s own summary of his research. What is Shaviv’s own view?

Some of the global warming is still because of us humans (probably about 1/3 to 1/2 of the warming).

Now a half to a third is quite a lot, especially when we are talking about a phenomenon that may have significant threshold effects. If I’m up to my neck in water and you raise the level by a further foot, it is no good telling me that your so raising it only added 10%! But this finding, by the very global warming iconoclast he’s drawing on, doesn’t get a mention in Gunter’s piece. The closest he gets to acknowledging it is to say “Shaviv worries anthropogenic CO2 may have some fractional effect.” 1/2 is a pretty big fraction. Presumably drawing attention to what the scientist actually says would detract from the purpose of the article: to provide comfort to SUV owners and energy interests.

{ 61 comments }

1

Paul Gibson 09.08.03 at 4:13 pm

It’s a shame that people want to believe whatever makes their lives easier and excuse them from facing up to real problems. I’ve read a lot about global warming, and it’s true that it’s a very complex scientific problem. It’s also true that, with what we know now, the large majority of credible earth scientists believe human CO2 production is causing measurable global warming.

The environmental movement blew much of its political capital complaining about minor things like pesticide use, which is dwarfed in significance by the potential effects of global warming. I suspect a significant portion of the public is experiencing “evironmental fatigue”, the equivalent of compassion fatigue, where they’ve heard so much about environmental problems they just don’t want to listen anymore. Which is a major problem because with global warming we have the potential for true catastrophe and we have a problem requiring many hard choices.

2

David Sucher 09.08.03 at 4:28 pm

If I remember correctly, the “political capital” argument above is flawed by the time frame: concern for pesticides initiated the environmental movement in the mid-60s and global warming came along quite a bit later…in the 80s?

But Bertram’s larger point is all-too correct: conservatives/libertarians try so very desperately to find their way around such environmental problems and rarely come up with anything even remotely like a credible alternative to conventional statist response (and we do need that.)

The image which sums it up for me would be of Justice Scalia standing on the deck of a sinking ship and insisting that a good salt-water bath is just what we need that day.

3

Keith M Ellis 09.08.03 at 4:39 pm

“It’s a shame that people want to believe whatever makes their lives easier and excuse them from facing up to real problems.”

This seems so true as to be banal. But, wait: does it really make their lives “easier”? What does that mean? What’s really going on?

My own experience is that the global warming debunkers are very similar in spirit to creationists. (This sort of thing happens on the left, too. I often think about the exchange described in that “Nation” article about the “science wars” where a researcher begins a talk at a conference when someone interupts: “You believe in ‘genes’??”)

Sometimes it seems as if the entire course of my intellectual life has been a long exercise in exploring and fighting the human tendency toward ideology. People desperately need highly simplified and emotionally satisfying overarching explanatory principles and they will go to great lengths to defend them.

Now approaching middle-age, I confront this tendency with an increasing sense of futility. I expect to see only spotty and incremental gains in the war against this during my life, but it’s still a war worth fighting.

Years ago, in a seminar on Plato’s “Republic”, a young, very earnest (and, interestingly, Chinese) student presented me with a thoughtful defense of the utility of remaining deluded within Plato’s cave. To me, the long-run utility of a cognitive harmony with reality is greater than the short-term utility of delusion. But is that naive? After all, as Keynes said, in the long run, we’re all dead.

4

Ted Barlow 09.08.03 at 4:59 pm

Andrew Northrup wrote a series of Tech Central Station parodies. My favorite is here, but there’s nothing wrong with this one, this one, this post, or this post.

5

Chris Bertram 09.08.03 at 5:16 pm

Those parodies are bang on the money Ted. I’d never read Northrup before, but I shall do so now.

6

matt 09.08.03 at 5:35 pm

I like that. The posts look authoritative but they’re actually written by (gasp!) libertarians!

7

Ophelia Benson 09.08.03 at 6:20 pm

Oh yeah. This whole subject is Butterflies and Wheels territory, in more ways than one. The need for caution about: ideology, axes to grind, exactly what set of lenses a given site is looking through, etc. Since our stated goal is to oppose habits of judging truth claims on the basis of ideological commitments, we have to be doubly or triply careful not to do the same thing ourselves. Which can mean I end up feeling like a dog chasing its tail. ‘This story is interesting but there is a right-wing agenda behind it yes but if the story has the facts right should I let the agenda put me off yes but what if the agenda has caused the writer to omit facts that I have no way of knowing have been omitted yes but surely that’s true of any article whatsoever’ and so on.

And then because B and W is challenging Nonsense on the left, I often find material that’s interesting or useful for us on right-wing sites, and then I sometimes have doubts. Is this article good enough on its own terms that I’m willing to link to a site most of whose ideas I have zero desire to promote? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I avoid TSS, I sometimes read articles on Reason but end up not linking to them, I link to Spectator articles.

There was the whole fuss about Bjørn Lomborg for instance. I did an In Focus section on that:

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/infocusprint.php?num=6&subject=Optimistic Skepticism

As far as I could tell, there was near-unanimity among (what adjective to use? responsible? disinterested? orthodox? agenda-free? detached?) scientists in the relevant fields, that Lomborg simply didn’t know what he was talking about and had been extremely selective with his data. But of course there were sources that were warmly in favour of Lomborg’s book, and there were some scientists on that side. How could I be sure that the scientists on the anti-Lomborg side were responsible or detached or agenda-free? By considering the sources, basically. I don’t take The Scientific American, for instance, to be a left-wing magazine, but all the pro-Lomborg material I saw was in avowedly right-wing magazines or sites. But I remained aware that I wasn’t certain about all this, that I was having to guess and to trust ‘authorities’. As we all do with subjects like global warming, GM crops, etc.

8

Kristjan Wager 09.08.03 at 6:26 pm

What always puzzles me about people who say that they don’t belive in “global warming”, is that they say that it hasn’t been proven.
Now, while that is a legit argument in many other cases, it doesn’t make sense in this case. If we ignore the fact that there seems to be a rather strong indication that “global warming” exist, and that it is (at least to some degree) man-made, there is certainly no proof that it doesn’t exist, or that it exists because of something not man-made.
There might be other factors that influence it, but so far no one can points to any other factor that can explain the rather sudden rise.

While I know that in mostt cases the burden of proof is on the people who says that something exist, in this case, I would suggest erring on the side of caution.

9

taak 09.08.03 at 6:28 pm

But, wait: does it really make their lives “easier”?

No, it makes their thinkking easier.

10

Kristjan Wager 09.08.03 at 6:36 pm

There was the whole fuss about Bjørn Lomborg for instance

Well Ophelia , given the fact that Lomborg’s “science” was debunked by Danish scientists well before the book was translated into English, I never understod why he was taken serious in the first place.

11

JRoth 09.08.03 at 7:12 pm

Forget Global Warming, isn’t anyone else concerned that Chris is, apparently, ten feet tall at the neck!?

12

Walt Pohl 09.08.03 at 7:37 pm

Ted: Andrew’s parodies of NRO’s The Corner are also extremely funny.

13

Ophelia Benson 09.08.03 at 7:57 pm

Kristjan, Yes, I know what you mean, but of course the reason he was taken seriously despite the Danish scientists is obvious enough: because a lot of people had (and have) compelling reasons to want to believe him, that’s why. Owners of SUVs, for example, not to mention makers of them.

14

eric 09.08.03 at 9:00 pm

Heh. It seems people are believeing what they want to believe.

15

clew 09.08.03 at 9:10 pm

jroth: The question is, who is he standing on?

16

Damien Smith 09.08.03 at 9:36 pm

This discussion is less about TCS than about the psychological concept of confirmation bias–how people tend to look for the information that confirms their beliefs and to ignore disregard, or dismiss stuff that does not. The writers at TCS may well be wishful thinkers, and may seek and latch on to contrarian eveidece on global warming, but that does not, of itself, make them wrong. (Are the writers being accused of dishonesty?) This is also not a “rightwing” thing. Perhaps the scientists who oppose Bjorn Lomborg’s results are just as biased the other way. That there is global warming has become “status quo” (yet another bias) and those who question it face considerable resistance.

This comments here are also eveident of another psychological effect–that of False Concensus. There is an implicit assumption of a scientific concensus on global warming, in spite of the fact that this very discussion is indication that there is not.

17

Ophelia Benson 09.08.03 at 9:54 pm

‘Perhaps the scientists who oppose Bjorn Lomborg’s results are just as biased the other way.’

Well obviously that was my whole point. How do I know it’s not just a case of two agendas, one on each side? I don’t, not for certain. That’s exactly what I was saying. But as I said, I don’t take, for example, the Scientific American to be a leftish or politically biased magazine. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my impression. So as far as I could tell, the scientists who found fault with Lomborg’s work were arguing based on the science, not on their prior commitments. But obviously I’m aware of the possibility of confirmation bias, because that was the whole point of my post.

‘There is an implicit assumption of a scientific concensus on global warming, in spite of the fact that this very discussion is indication that there is not.’

No it isn’t. A few comments on a blog indicate nothing about whether there is a scientific consensus or not. And furthermore, I don’t think there is such an implicit assumption – otherwise neither the original post nor the comments would be here. It’s all very explicit, and it’s not an assumption, precisely because we are in the process of questioning it. Surely that’s obvious.

18

Shai 09.08.03 at 10:07 pm

I didn’t actually check the comments to verify what you say about false consensus, but I will point out as an aside that the recognition of a bias, even confirmation bias can itself be a form of confirmation bias, particularly when it’s used as a quick and dirty heuristic rather than a theoretical entity in a study or experiment.

19

zizka 09.08.03 at 11:29 pm

Leibniz is reported to have said “People would argue about the multiplication table if there were enough money in it”.

Lomborg supporters in fact do claim that the Scientific American is a leftist PC publication.

20

Ophelia Benson 09.08.03 at 11:34 pm

Well Lomborg supporters would, wouldn’t they. But does anyone else? Is it a claim with legs? Or is it just nonsense.

21

Burns 09.09.03 at 12:08 am

“people tend to believe information that is congenial to their interests and disbelieve that which isn’t”

Is this why the more socialist a person is the more they tend to believe environmentalists claims, which of course require more governmental action? Oh wait, I forget, only lefties can be “objective”.

There are lots of explanations of the global warming predictions.
– natural climate change unaffected by human action, as 500 years ago the earth was warm enough for their to be permanent settlements on greenland
– inflated temperature readings as cities act as heatsinks adjusting temperature readings when the atmosphere itself is not heating at all
– More Co2 in the atmosphere will do nothing to increase temperature of globe as other effects will balance it out.

22

burns 09.09.03 at 12:13 am

As far as Lomborg goes, did any of you actually read his defense against the Scientific American article?
I have yet to read anything critical of Lomborg that is based on his scientific arguments. I don’t understand why you all are attacking Lomborg as he believes in global warming.

23

Andrew Northrup 09.09.03 at 12:15 am

Good point, burns. You know, it’s kind of a shame that all the climate scientists in the world are dead, and the only way we can resolve complicated scientific issues is by anonymous arguments between anonymous non-specialists on internet message boards, but we must soldier on.

BTW, what do you think the mass of the electron neutrino is? A heard a bunch of lefties say it was 0.012 +/-0.004 eV, but you know how they are.

24

Robert Schwartz 09.09.03 at 2:52 am

Well, let’s see: the scientific consensus that vaccines are a safe, effective and economic way of preventing is an establishment put up but global warming is only doubted by cranky right wingers. Sure. Whatever you say. You da boss, Boss

25

Randolph Fritz 09.09.03 at 3:03 am

“I try to make up my mind on the issue by reading the papers and magazines, watching the TV, and so on (like pretty much everyone else).”

Why? The people who know this best in all the world have written extensively on the matter and you can read them on-line. They have even written a straightforward summary which any reasonably educated person can follow. With that in mind, I draw everyone’s attention to the Summary of the Scientific Basis from the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I will snicker muchly at slams of the Report’s science; over the past decade, everyone knowlegeable in the field who was at all accessible to persuasion has been persuaded–there are no legitimate scientific critics left. The establishment of consensus on this matter is quite remarkable; I do not think there has been anything like it in scientific history.

For anyone who would like a broader overview of the history of climate science and the personalities involved in the debate, I recommend William K. Stevens, The Change in the Weather.

26

not instapundit 09.09.03 at 3:59 am

BTW, what do you think the mass of the electron neutrino is? A heard a bunch of lefties say it was 0.012 +/-0.004 eV, but you know how they are.

IS THE MASS of the electron neutrino half an ounce? Roger Simon is on the case.

UPDATE: Jonah Goldberg asks, who profits when electron mass is misreported? It’s not who you think.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan has a letter from an anonymous physicist about the controversial electron mass issue. Hey, Scientific American, we can fact check your ass!

27

Kristjan Wager 09.09.03 at 6:17 am

I have yet to read anything critical of Lomborg that is based on his scientific arguments. I don’t understand why you all are attacking Lomborg as he believes in global warming.

I hope you are only speaking of what has been posted in the comments here. Otherwise I would suggest that you read some of the many scientific debunkings of his arguments/book. And yes, Lomborg does to some degree belive in global warming, but he has repeatedly tried to prove that it isn’t as serious as others claim, by using doubtful data and methods.
I attack Lomborg because he gives scientists a bad name.
The institute he leads in Denmark is under investigation for sloppy work, as several of the repports (which the Danish goverment bases their decisions on) has been so filled with errors that they are useless.

28

Chris Genovese 09.09.03 at 9:04 am

   Even a vegan Greenpeace member sipping shade-grown coffee from a recycled cup while on break from repopulating the spotted owl should find Scientific American’s treatment of Lomborg shameful. Under the guise of a book review, the magazine arranged a Bjorn-bashing. If you read the articles carefully, you will see little more than an ethical appeal (“trust us we’re experts, he’s not”) and ad hominem attacks. The commentary scores few direct hits, and Lomborg defends himself effectively, though denied a rejoinder as would be standard for a true discussion. That Scientific American is not a “left-wing magazine” is irrelevant. Reviews in Science and Nature were similar in content, though less editorially suspect. It is worth noting that there were well regarded scientists in well-regarded journals who defended Lomborg. The question here is why, if the case is so clear, did Lomborg’s critics need to stoop to such tacky methods.

   Part of the answer is politics. When scientific and statistical issues get politicized, the technical experts are inexorably drawn into the cycle of advocacy for thc cause. I’ve seen this happen when I worked on the Census adjustment problem and with expert witnesses on court cases.

   Another part of the answer is imprecision in what “the science” means. Consider four related claims: 1) Global temperatures have increased unusually in the 20th century relative to the past 1000 years; 2) This global warming is mostly attributable to human emission of greenhouse gases; 3) Over the next Y years, average temperatures will increase T degrees; 4) The consequences of global warming require that we do X. (There are other claims and issues, but these will do for discussion.) Number 1 is a purely scientific question; number 2 is on the boundary between science and statistics; number 3 is mostly statistical; and number 4 is political. Yet I have read scientists pushing all four claims as direct results of “the science”. This suggests that the strong consensus on #1 (and to some degree #2) applies uniformly across all four claims, which does not appear to be true. Not even the White House any longer disputes #1. Lomborg concerned himself primarily with the value of T in #3, and thus does not stand opposed to the principle scientific consensus that has developed around #1 and #2. There is huge variation among climate models on the value of T in #3 as well as some serious scientific disagreement. There is some disagreement about the meaning of “mostly” in #2.

   Which brings us to Shaviv and Vezier. I spent a fair amount of time reading their papers a few weeks ago, and it is indisputable that this is serious and credible work. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it worthy of consideration. The basic argument is that cosmic ray fluxes change significantly as the solar system moves through and between the galaxy’s spiral arms and that these cosmic ray fluxes are strongly associated with periods of glaciation throughout the Phanerozoic Era (Cambrian period on, 540MYA to present). They also suggest that cosmic ray fluxes may explain climate variations on Earth, through for instance ionization effects modulating low-altitude cloud cover, although specific mechanisms for this have not yet been established. Within this basic argument are many detailed assumptions and models, especially concerning the timing of historical glaciations, the inference of cosmic ray fluxes from meteorite samples, and the structure of the Galaxy’s spiral arms. Are they right? More work is needed to evaluate their assumptions and to study the new viewpoint and especially to understand the mechanisms by which cosmic ray fluxes could affect climate. It could go either way. But they have produced a plausible explanation for substantial climate variability that is not included in current climate models. This is not the only such possibility. Well-reputed solar physicists Douglass Gough and Jan Christensen-Daalsgard (full disclosure: I’ve published unrelated papers with both) have described a plausible mechanism for variation in the heliosphere that would affect cosmic-ray fluxes similarly.

   If either of the mechanisms are real, then the 1/2 that Chris gives up could make a critical difference in the value of T in claim #3 above. It would also raise questions about the explanatory power of the climate models currently being used to make these predictions. The models used by Shaviv and Vezier are in many ways simpler to validate than the climate models because the physics is “easier” (meaning less nonlinear). On the other hand, their models and work have received less scrutiny and study than climate models.

   The climate models too are based on many, many assumptions about complex systems. The wide areas of agreement among models might suggest some robustness to these assumptions, but the specific disagreements among models argue that the assumptions are important. There is also the question of overfitting. New models and proposed mechanisms are proliferating faster than new time points are accruing, and the new models are being checked against existing data. The Climate Change 2001 report mentions plenty of technical details on multi-colinear regressions etc. but I didn’t see (might have missed) any discussion of accounting for overfitting in assessing prediction error. Without this, I find it hard to understand the impact of model revisions on the published predictions.

   Predictive inference is a different game than explanatory inference. Poor explanatory models can be good predictors, and explanatory models that get many key features right can still be poor predictors. A fundamental tenet of predictive modeling is “no uniqueness”, meaning that many qualitatively different models can exhibit comparable predictive performance. One way to check this would be to record and test specific and relevant model predictions over a reasonable time scale (ten years??). Even if you believe the worst case model, it’s still worth checking.

   Well enough already. I see I’ve gone on a bit long, for which I apologize. I submit that the foregoing gives very little or no information concerning my opinion about global warming (e.g., claims 1-4 above) and that a proper discussion of a complex and polarizing topic requires a little distance from the political angles. So, if an ideologue at TCS distorts the published record to score debating points, it’s fine to correct him, ignore him, or scold him, but I don’t like the idea of tying any dissent to such motives and methods. Lomborg, whether he’s right or wrong, is a case in point. Much of what is said about him is essentially equivalent to calling him “objectively anti-environment” or “idiotarian”. Does that sound familiar?

29

Chris Bertram 09.09.03 at 9:59 am

Chris G: Thanks for such a remarkably helpful and informative comment. I wouldn’t want to join in the Lomborg-bashing and I agree that some of the treatment he received was shameful. But not all of it was, and this is as good an opportunity as any to point (again) to some comments Brad DeLong made about a NYT article by Lomborg . Brad’s points are mainly about your claims #3 and #4 and, to my mind, they are bang on the money.

30

raj 09.09.03 at 2:11 pm

Burns writes: “As far as Lomborg goes, did any of you actually read his defense against the Scientific American article? I have yet to read anything critical of Lomborg that is based on his scientific arguments.”

I read his defense that was published in Scientific American several months after the original critical article, and I also read the responses to his defense by the authors in the original article. It appears that Lomborg’s expertise is in statistics, not in any of the relevant scientific disciplines, and the criticisms of his conclusions were based on his lack of scientific expertise. In other words, the criticism were very much based based on his scientific arguments.

The issue of global warming is a complex one. To the extent that there is global warming, some portion of it may be due to natural causes (that is, those not related to human activity), and some may be due to human activity. It is probably difficult to isolate out the two components. It is probably even more difficult to determine

(i) for the component due to human activity, what, if anything, should be done to minimize the effect–if it is determined that it is desirable to do so, and

(ii) for the component due to natural causes, what, if anything, humans might do to minimize that effect–again, if it is determined that it is desirable to do so.

31

trish 09.09.03 at 4:36 pm

As an arctic oceanographer (albeit on seasonal rather than decadal scales) I hear a lot about climate change and C02 emissions. I was not impressed with the IPCC report (linked above) because while we talk about predictive uncertainties, the IPCC tended to be more black and white.

However, the general consensus is that anthropogenic C02 has the potential to greatly affect our climate, not just because the amounts of C02 are high, since higher naturally occuring C02 levels have been recorded in the geological past (a fact that the political right seize on) but because the rate of C02 increase (figure 3.2b) in the atmosphere is much higher than has occured naturally. This increased rate of C02 seems to suggest that dramatic climate change is a likely scenario. The consensus from the scientists is that we don’t really know what could happen, our climate models are very non-linear and it’s very hard to predict. But just because you’re not sure your house is going to burn down doesn’t mean you don’t buy fire insurance…

32

Ophelia Benson 09.09.03 at 6:12 pm

Okay, I’m baffled. What is so ‘shameful’ about the Scientific American’s criticism of Lomborg? Why is it called ‘bashing’? That’s just rhetoric for disagreement or criticism.

“If you read the articles carefully, you will see little more than an ethical appeal (“trust us we’re experts, he’s not”) and ad hominem attacks.”

No I won’t, that’s not what I see at all. I see detailed, specific factual and methodological disagreements. Are those disagreements just a pack of lies? They certainly are not mere ethical appeals and ad hominem attacks.

33

Doug 09.09.03 at 6:41 pm

Thanks to Chris G, raj and trish for sheddling lots of light.

Picking up on trish’s metaphor – just because you aren’t sure the house will burn down doesn’t mean you don’t buy fire insurance – where could I start reading for estimates of how much the insurance will cost?

That seems one way of addressing point #4, which I agree is clearly political.

And by the by, what does anybody have thoughts on this new revelation:

From the Washington Post –

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A39721-2003Sep7.html

“Scientists probing the frozen soil beneath Colorado’s Rocky Mountain snowpack have found a world of microbes no one knew existed — a world dominated by microscopic fungi unlike any others previously found on Earth.

“So numerous and diverse are these newly discovered organisms that scientists are having to rewrite the book on the ecological importance of fungi — life forms that are neither animals nor plants but which, as nature’s premier recyclers, do a big share of the work of keeping Earth in biological and chemical balance.”
My first take is that it shows how little we know with any certainty.

34

Keith M Ellis 09.09.03 at 6:50 pm

Robert. your comment about vaccines is a good example of a very objectionable tactic used by political partisans of all stripes. The “you guys do it, too” defense is remarkably weak, because it’s a diversionary defense. When someone says that the “conservative criticism of global warming research is mostly unscientific and political”, they’re *not* making the claim that *only* conservatives are unscientific and political. They’re making a specific claim about how conservatives behave on a particular issue. That liberals behave similarly badly on other issues is completely beside the point. That people like you don’t understand this demonstrates that they see this sort of thing as a sort of a contest, a football match, that’s all about who scores the most points against the opposition.

Some of us, however, are more concerned with silly little things like the truth and actually solving problems.

For the record, even though I’m liberal, I see at least as much bad-science-based arguments from the left as I do from the right. I find it all quite objectionable.

35

Pouncer 09.09.03 at 7:13 pm

I would, too, like to thank Chris Genovese for hisng post. Science and politics are being unfairly linked in the (anthropogenic) global warming debate. But, I would suggest that Lomberg’s point is the same; and encompasses examples beyond (A)GW.

36

Ophelia Benson 09.09.03 at 7:50 pm

“Some of us, however, are more concerned with silly little things like the truth and actually solving problems.

For the record, even though I’m liberal, I see at least as much bad-science-based arguments from the left as I do from the right. I find it all quite objectionable.”

Just so. The point I’ve been trying to make all along. For instance, one can find a lot of sloppy argument (or rhetoric) from the left (or ‘left’) against GM crops; we’ve been looking at some of those at B&W. But as far as I can tell the Lomborg case simply shakes out quite differently: the objections to his work in fact come from scientists, from people whose commitment to good science probably trumps (by a long way) their commitment to any particular political view. That is a possible stance, after all; a fact which is all too easily ignored.

37

Mark Bahner 09.09.03 at 10:32 pm

“But as I said, I don’t take, for example, the Scientific American to be a leftish or politically biased magazine. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my impression.”

You’re wrong. Scientific American’s treatment of Bjorn Lomborg’s book is conclusive proof that Scientific American is “leftish” and “politically biased.”

Mark Bahner (environmental engineer)

P.S. I neither “support” nor “oppose” Bjorn Lomborg. I support him when he is right, and oppose him when he’s wrong. I do the same for everyone else.

38

Mark Bahner 09.09.03 at 10:50 pm

“Okay, I’m baffled. What is so ‘shameful’ about the Scientific American’s criticism of Lomborg?”

That would require a lot of writing to give a complete answer.

But to summarize:

1) Scientific American headlined the responses, “Science Defends Itself Against ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’.” The headline is no more than leftist BS. There is absolutely nothing in “The Skeptical Environmentalist” that is “anti-science.” In fact, Lomborg details in The Skeptical Environmentalist exactly how he originally set out to **disprove** arguments made by the late Julian Simon…but later came to agree with most of them.

2) All of the scientists chosen by “Scientific” American were scientists whose work has clearly established their opinions as being in opposition to those of Bjorn Lomborg. In fact, several of them (if not all of them) had specifically been criticized in The Skeptical Environmentalist. There was absolutely NO attempt by Scientific American to try to find any balance between scientists who agreed with Lomborg, and those who don’t.

3) Stephen Schneider’s critique of The Skeptical Environmentalist, in particular, was an absolute disgrace. It was little more than a series of personal attacks on Dr. Lomborg. NO decent, respectable editor would have allowed such garbage in his magazine. John Rennie, the editor of “Scientific” American, should have been fired.

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Ophelia Benson 09.09.03 at 10:58 pm

You’re just arguing in a circle. Scientific American disagreed with Lomborg therefore it must be leftist. But the whole point of my question was the opposite of that assumption (and yes, it is indeed an assumption, because all there is up there is a string of assertions). I am aware that SciAm disagreed with Lomborg, but I want to know if there is any other reason to call it leftist – therefore answering me that Yes indeed it is leftist because it disagrees with Lomborg is the one answer that (obviously) doesn’t answer the question I asked.

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Ophelia Benson 09.09.03 at 11:02 pm

P.S. Peer review is not a political or journalistic endeavor, you know. It’s not normally expected to provide ‘balance’. Balance is a completely irrelevant concept in scientific issues. This isn’t a political campaign; truth isn’t determined by noegotiation and consensus (Rorty to the contrary notwithstanding); scientists attempting to falsify another scientist’s findings are not required to be balanced. It’s an adversarial process, that’s how it works.

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Ophelia Benson 09.09.03 at 11:30 pm

Just for one example…here is Schneider.

“Before providing specifics of why I believe each of these assertions is fatally flawed, I should say something about Lomborg’s methods. First, most of his nearly 3,000 citations are to secondary literature and media articles. Moreover, even when cited, the peer-reviewed articles come elliptically from those studies that support his rosy view that only the low end of the uncertainty ranges will be plausible. IPCC authors, in contrast, were subjected to three rounds of review by hundreds of outside experts. They didn’t have the luxury of reporting primarily from the part of the community that agrees with their individual views.”

Can you explain why that is garbage? Why it’s an ad hominem attack? Why it’s not just a factual statement about a flawed methodology? Because that certainly is what it looks like to me. Can you explain – not assert, explain – why you’re not just arguing in a circle? X disagrees with Lomborg ergo X is leftist? Can’t you do any better than that?

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Mark Bahner 09.09.03 at 11:33 pm

“As far as I could tell, there was near-unanimity among (what adjective to use? responsible? disinterested? orthodox? agenda-free? detached?) scientists in the relevant fields,…”

If you characterize Stephen Schneider as “disinterested,” “agenda-free,” or “detached,” you haven’t read much by Stephen Schneider, of the (in)famous quote:

“To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest.”

NO true scientist has to find the “right balance” between being “effective” and “honest.” The search for Truth is the very heart of science; the first duty of every scientist is to be honest. (And don’t even get me started on, “…we have to offer up scary scenarios…”!)

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Mark Bahner 09.09.03 at 11:39 pm

“… scientists attempting to falsify another scientist’s findings are not required to be balanced. It’s an adversarial process, that’s how it works.”

???

Are you a scientist? My apologies if you are; I’m not attempting to offend.

Science is the pursuit of the truth. It is NOT necessary that pursuit of the truth be “adversarial process,” since all parties have the same goal.

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back40 09.09.03 at 11:39 pm

I think it’s a mistake to interpret opposition to Lomborg by the science community as leftist. Lomborg is opposed for heresy not for political views.

Heresy is nothing to be ashamed of in science. Often science advances funeral by funeral and young heretics just have to endure rejection for a time no matter how sensible their works.

You can play it safe, avoid incurring the wrath of the silverbacks, and so cruise to a comfortable mediocrity by holding your tongue until there’s some salt in your pepper. At that time, assuming you have not digested your brain yet, you can more safely voice heresies.

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Mark Bahner 09.10.03 at 12:03 am

“I think it’s a mistake to interpret opposition to Lomborg by the science community as leftist.”

I would be absolutely shocked if John Rennie (“Scientific” American editor), Stephen Schneider, Thomas Lovejoy, John Bongaarts, or John Holdren are registered as Republicans or Libertarians.

“Lomborg is opposed for heresy not for political views.”

Oy, vey! “Heresy” has absolutely no place in science! The origin of heresy is religious. From dictionary.com:

“…from a Greek word signifying (1) a choice, (2) the opinion chosen, and (3) the sect holding the opinion. In the Acts of the Apostles (5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14;
26:5) it denotes a sect, without reference to its character. Elsewhere, however, in the New Testament it has a different meaning attached to it. Paul
ranks “heresies” with crimes and seditions (Gal. 5:20). This word also denotes divisions or schisms in the church (1 Cor. 11:19). In Titus 3:10 a “heretical person” is one who follows his own self-willed “questions,” and who is to be avoided. Heresies thus came to signify self-chosen doctrines not emanating from God (2 Pet. 2:1).”

There is no heresy in science, because there are no “doctrines emanating from God.”

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Mark Bahner 09.10.03 at 12:21 am

“Why it’s an ad hominem attack?”

Here are ad hominem attacks in Stephen Schneider’s review in “Scientific” American:

“On page xx of his preface, Lomborg admits, “I am not myself an expert as regards environmental problems”–truer words are not found in the rest of the book, as I’ll soon illustrate.”

“That kind of deadweight of detail alone conjures at least the trappings of comprehensive and careful scholarship. So how does the reality of the text hold up to the pretense? I’m sure you can already guess,…”

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back40 09.10.03 at 1:15 am

“There is no heresy in science”

Tell that to Hannes Alfven.

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Ophelia Benson 09.10.03 at 1:51 am

Oh I see – there are some hostile comments in Schneider’s article – ad hominems, if you like. But you said

“It was little more than a series of personal attacks on Dr. Lomborg”

Which is complete and utter nonsense. That quotation I gave is far more representative; the article is a *great deal* more than a series of personal attacks on Lomborg. So I’ve had enough, you’re just shouting, not discussing. Not interesting.

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Bill Brown 09.10.03 at 10:39 am

There’s also some indication that ice cap melting is happening on Mars, which is quite short of human activities. I’m not a subscriber to New Scientist so I can’t positively verify that there’s an article about this subject, but I don’t know why someone would lie about something so easily verifiable.

I am a libertarian of sorts and I must say that I find the environmentalist arguments untenable in general. I don’t think the variables at play in the earth’s climate are well-enough understood to accurately make predictions since they can’t even accurately model the past and present. It seems like more and more factors are cropping up regularly, which could indicate either that we’re understanding the system better or that we’re really not understanding the system at all. Of course, that hasn’t stopped anyone from making the most outrageous predictions.

The science I’ve heard from dissenters from the global warming orthodoxy makes sense to me, but I don’t pretend to be anything but an interested observer. If our understanding were more certain, then I would tend to agree with the global-warming-predicting scientists because they’re plausible too. But their understanding is, as I said, imperfect and I can’t see making far-reaching policy decisions on uncertain foundations—though this wouldn’t be the first or last policy made on such shaky grounds.

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chris 09.10.03 at 12:22 pm

I can’t really share your view of the SciAm treatment of Lomborg, Ophelia. The impression I got was of people (especially Schneider) who were annoyed at someone running interference on the fairly simple (indeed oversimple) message they wanted to communicate to the public. Indeed they were especially annoyed that the person so doing lacked, in their view, the appropriate credentials.

This was a pity, because I think that there’s a great deal in Lomborg’s book that is plain misleading (for example his treatments of fish stocks and deforestation; his tendency to switch from short- to long-term trends depending on which supports his “sceptical” case). The net result of the SciAm critique was not to demolish Lomborg but to boost his public credibility (ditto for his condemnation by that panel in Denmark).

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raj 09.10.03 at 12:26 pm

Mark Bahner says

“You’re wrong. Scientific American’s treatment of Bjorn Lomborg’s book is conclusive proof that Scientific American is “leftish” and “politically biased.””

I have to admit, whenever someone comes out and starts spewing things like “leftish” (or “leftist”), I usually tune him or her out. That is certainly an ad hominem “argument.”

Mark Bahner also says

“Science is the pursuit of the truth. It is NOT necessary that pursuit of the truth be “adversarial process,” since all parties have the same goal.”

This is a joke, right? Science is indeed a pursuit of the truth, but those that engage in the pursuit do indeed engage in an adversarial process. One scientist proposes a theory, and provides evidence and analysis that he believes supports his theory. Other scientists examine the evidence and analysis to determine whether they support the theory, and may try to find other evidence that either supports or refutes the theory. That is not an adversarial process?

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Robert Schwartz 09.10.03 at 4:21 pm

Keith M Ellis:

The “you guys do it, too” defense is remarkably weak, because it’s a diversionary defense.

I even know that the name of the argument is: Tu Quoc.

That liberals behave similarly badly on other issues is completely beside the point.

Actually it is the point. Everyone does it. Even “Scientists” do it. Believe it or not, but if “Scientists” restricted themselves to pontificating about science it would enhance their credibility and make their science less subject to attack, although they would get less ink in the dailys. One may argue, as Trish does above, that certain facts have occured and that they made lead to certain factual concequences. But, once you go into the policy thicket, you are acting as a politician, and may be attacked by people with other political agendas. Global warming may be afoot, but what do do about its a political question. One faction wants us to abandon industrial civilzation and another says buy more sunscreen and air conditioners. If there is a real problem it may be soluble. Although I have a deep suspicion that those people who claim care more about rocks and fishes than men, want to be problems not solve them.

That people like you don’t understand this demonstrates that they see this sort of thing as a sort of a contest, a football match, that’s all about who scores the most points against the opposition.

I take it that you are speaking of what we in America call “soccer,” as no one here would call a real football game a “match.” I always thought that the whole point of a “football match” was to produce a scorless tie so that the fans could get drunk and kick each other with steel-toed boots.

Some of us, however, are more concerned with silly little things like the truth and actually solving problems.

Good for you. Unfortunately that puts you in a very distinct minority.

. . . I see at least as much bad-science-based arguments from the left as I do from the right. I find it all quite objectionable.

On that much we agree.

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Mark Bahner 09.10.03 at 5:16 pm

I wrote, to Ophelia Benson, “You’re wrong. Scientific American’s treatment of Bjorn Lomborg’s book is conclusive proof that Scientific American is ‘leftish’ and ‘politically biased.'”

Raj responds, “I have to admit, whenever someone comes out and starts spewing things like “leftish” (or “leftist”), I usually tune him or her out. That is certainly an ad hominem ‘argument.'”

Read more carefully, Raj. **I* did not “come out” and “start spewing” things like “leftish.” That word was a direct quote of Ophelia Benson.

Ms. Benson wrote, “…I don’t take, for example, the Scientific American to be a leftish or politically biased magazine. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my impression.”

I was simply responding to her request to be corrected, if she was wrong. She was wrong. Scientific American is a leftish and politically biased magazine. The “Scientific” American review of Bjorn Lomborg’s book demonstrates that Scientific American is “leftish” and “politically biased.”

I also wrote, “Science is the pursuit of the truth. It is NOT necessary that pursuit of the truth be “adversarial process,” since all parties have the same goal.”

Raj responds, “This is a joke, right?”

No, it was not a joke, Raj. I was completely serious.

Raj continues, “Science is indeed a pursuit of the truth, but those that engage in the pursuit do indeed engage in an adversarial process.”

Some scientists do engage in an “adversarial process.” But it’s completely unneccessary.

http://www.dictionary.com defines “adversary” as:

“1) An opponent; an enemy.
2) Adversary The Devil; Satan. Often used with the.”

There do NOT need to be “adversaries” in science, by that definition.

I’ll give you an example, based on personal experience. I was working on determining styrene emissions from the manufacture of fiber-reinforced plastic products (such as boats, tubs and shower stalls, spas, etc.).

I hypothesized that air flow over the molds would increase emissions of styrene (logical, since it’s an evaporative process).

Then my group and an industry trade association ran tests, at air flow velocities over the mold of 50 feet per minute and 100 feet per minute. Both tests showed essentially no effect on emissions.

Subsequently, ANOTHER trade association claimed that air flow velocities over *their* process would affect emissions. But they were talking about much lower velocities (essentially zero to ~20 feet per minute). That second trade association DID find an effect.

I and the first trade association agreed that the second trade association’s tests were valid; we ALL agreed that, if velocities were reduced low enough, emissions would be reduced.

There was no “adversary” in that process. We were all seeking the truth.

A second example: Stephen Hawking and another physicist (whose name escapes me) had a one dollar bet about some obscure (to me at least) point of cosmology or astrophysics. After about 10 years of debate back and forth, Stephen Hawking agreed that he was wrong, and sent the physicist $1. The physicist framed the $1 on his wall, along with Stephen Hawking’s note admitting he was mistaken.

The men weren’t “adversaries.” They were colleagues/friends, with a simple disagreement about a matter of science.

“One scientist proposes a theory, and provides evidence and analysis that he believes supports his theory. Other scientists examine the evidence and analysis to determine whether they support the theory, and may try to find other evidence that either supports or refutes the theory. That is not an adversarial process?”

No, it’s NOT an adversarial process. First off, the person who proposes the theory is obligated by science to ALSO provide evidence that does NOT support his/her theory if he/she generates such evidence (just as happened with my theory about air flow over molds). The other scientists are similarly obligated by science: 1) those who disagree with the theory are obligated by science to present data that SUPPORT the theory, if they generate such data, and 2) those who agree with the theory are obligated by science to present data that do NOT support the theory, if they generate such data.

It is not necessary that science be an adversarial process; in true science, ALL participants are on the same side…they all are seeking the truth.

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Mark Bahner 09.10.03 at 5:51 pm

Ophelia Benson writes, “Oh I see – there are some hostile comments in Schneider’s article – ad hominems, if you like. But you said ‘It was little more than a series of personal attacks on Dr. Lomborg’…Which is complete and utter nonsense.”

It can’t possibly be “complete and utter nonsense,” Ophelia, if you admit that there are indeed “ad hominems” in Schneider’s piece.

You may disagree with the characterization that it is “little more” than personal attacks, but it can’t possibly be “complete and utter nonsense.”

Regarding the single paragraph you chose (your post of September 9, 11:30 PM):

1) Have you ever actually even read The Skeptical Environmentalist? If not, don’t you think should?

2) Stephen Schneider wrote, “First, most of his nearly 3,000 citations are to secondary literature and media articles.”

This is nothing more than a personal attack on Dr. Lomborg, because Dr. Lomborg explained, in detail, in his book, why he chose to cite “secondary literature” and “media articles.” The “media articles” were chosen to demonstrate how environmental problems were signifantly exaggerated in the popular press. The “secondary literature” references were sources such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and publications from the U.S. EPA. Dr. Lomborg made the point that he was including them because they were: 1) authoritative, and 2) generally readily available at no cost (where professional journal articles are typically not available at no cost).

For Stephen Schneider to not include mention of the REASON for Dr. Lomborg including those citations demonstrates that Stephen Schneider is either an extremely careless reviewer, or dishonest, or both. (For John Rennie, the editor of “Scientific” American not to catch and correct Stephen Schneider demostrates that Mr. Rennie is either a lousy editor, or dishonest, or both.)

3) Stephen Schneider also wrote, “IPCC authors, in contrast, were subjected to three rounds of review by hundreds of outside experts. They didn’t have the luxury of reporting primarily from the part of the community that agrees with their individual views.”

This is also a dishonest slur against Dr. Lomborg. Stephen Schneider ought to know that the IPCC scenarios (“stories”) in the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) that had the highest greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increases were added ***after peer review*** by Robert Watson, the former head of the IPCC. They were therefore NOT subject to “three rounds of review by hundreds of outside experts.”

Ms. Benson concludes, “So I’ve had enough, you’re just shouting, not discussing.”

I haven’t shouted at all, Ms. Benson. You asked to be corrected if you were wrong in saying that Scientific American is not “leftish” or “politically biased.” I was correcting you; Scientific American is “leftish” and “politically biased.”

Please don’t get me wrong; I subscribe to Scientific American, and it has many good articles. But it is “leftish” and “politically biased”…and the “Scientific” American review of Bjorn Lomborg’s book was a disgrace.

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Katherine 09.11.03 at 5:37 am

There was not a scientific consensus five, ten years ago. There is today. There are still respectable scientists who disagree, but I think they’ve had a hard time explaining the stratosphere’s cooling as the lower atmosphere warms.

The existence of natural sources of climate change doesn’t mean that it isn’t also man made or largely man made–and even if it were 10% manmade, it has the power to be incredibly destructive and that’s the only part we can control.

As to what the exact effects will be, it’s much less clear. The analogy one Columbia prof came up with is “poking an angry beast with a stick.” Not something we want to do. The consequences of acting are far less than the consequences of not acting.

This administration’s slow, methodical, cautious approach sure does differ from their foreign policy. Gee, why could that be?

Basically they’re throwing around sixth grade book report language–“global climate change is a very complex and very interesting issue” was the gist of that recent EPA report–to keep the public confused until they can no longer plausibly argue that the problem isn’t real. (There’s even an internal memo that was leaked, about how “the window for scientific debate is closing–against us–but not yet closed.”)

Whereupon the argument will shift too, “well the damage is done, it’s too late and too costly to fix it now.”

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Michael Blowhard 09.12.03 at 3:43 am

A few thoughts from a know-nothing in the peanut gallery? But one who did read the Lomborg, and who followed the debates about it closely?

* A point no one seems to have made in this thread is that Lomborg never claimed to be doing any original science. He was deliberately confining himself to what he knows, which is statistics. He was examining the scientists’ own figures — that (as I recall) was the whole point of his book: that, using their own figures, very different conclusions could easily be drawn than were usually being drawn.

* So criticizing him for not being a true environmental scientist (which, again as I recall, was the gist of a lot of the SciAm pans of him) seems to be rather willfully missing the point of the book. He wasn’t questioning the science, he was questioning the use that’s made of their figures.

* Just a proof-less impression here, but SciAm often strikes me as terribly PC these days. I read it years ago, dropped it for a long time, came back to it, and found that it had become quite a different magazine than it once was.

* I’ve got no science myself to call on, but I did spend some years hanging out on the farther ends of the eco movement, and was finally appalled by much of what I saw — exaggerations and misrepresentations by management (who were often hippie scientists playing politics), and naive credulousness on the part of the followers, for whom environmentalism was clearly a secular religion. So, much of what Lomborg — who, for all I know, is wrong wrong wrong himself — wrote about the kinds of misuses eco-people sometimes make of science rang true to me.

* I recall seeing Lomborg speak to a conservative audience, and he tweaked and teased them quite a lot, making the point many times over that he considers himself an environmentalist and that he himself dislikes Bush. He was quite the provocateur, really, and clearly enjoyed raising their ire a bit. He also stated over and over that he wants to see steps taken to protect and improve eco-conditions and that the goal of his book wasn’t to question anyone’s science; or to let anyone off the hook. Instead, it was to help people see how and where to get the most eco-improvement for their buck and effort.

All very subjective and anecdotal, I know. But offered in a FWIW spirit.

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Thorley Winston 09.12.03 at 3:56 pm

Katherine Rose Hawkins wrote:

As to what the exact effects will be, it’s much less clear. The analogy one Columbia prof came up with is “poking an angry beast with a stick.” Not something we want to do. The consequences of acting are far less than the consequences of not acting.

I am a bit confused here. How can you go from saying “as to what the exact effects [of global warming] will be, it’s much less clear” to saying “the consequences of acting are far less than the consequences of not acting”? It seems to me that you cannot credibly state that the consequences of not acting are worse then acting when you admit that you do not know what those consequences will be.

I do not think it is a settled matter at all what the consequences of acting versus not acting will be (especially when there are so many different things that might be considered “acting”). It could very well be that by not doing anything major or draconian now (e.g. Kyoto), we create enough wealth and technological advancement that we find a much more cost-effective solution later. It could also be the case that the costs of “not acting” are really not as great as the worst-case scenarios so often put out by the proponents of “action.”

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Dano 09.12.03 at 6:24 pm

I was a frequent contributor to the feedback section of TCS, now removed.

It was an easy thing to find where the Think-Tank employees posing as authorities cherry-picked journal articles to push their point of view.

The mendacity and tendention on that site is both blatant and disturbing.

The extraction industry ads on the site are a big clue as to the ideological bent.

Dano

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Ken Silber 09.19.03 at 11:04 pm

I think there’s some confirmation bias in this very post. You note that I (Kenneth Silber) show up in the search results for Shaviv and Veizer. But you make no comment on (and maybe didn’t read) the TCS article I wrote about them. Then you cite Shaviv’s website as if it were something ignored or hidden.

Among other things, my article says this:

On his website, Shaviv states that human activity may still be responsible for a third to a half of present-day global warming, and expresses a hope to see fossil fuel use reduced, “even though global warming is not the main reason.”

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Ken Silber 09.19.03 at 11:08 pm

By the way, the new URL for my article is

http://www.techcentralstation.com/071403C.html

Also, Dano, comments at TCS are open again. Hope you come back.

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Steve Grimwood 01.15.04 at 3:39 pm

Did you know your site is a googlewhck. Thats not rude it’s quite impressive if you enter the words astrophysicist and silverbacks into the google search engine you are the only site out of 3 billion on google that registers a hit.
I’m not a weirdo just thought you made find that quite interesting.
Try it yourself and see better still try and find another whack and drop me a line to let me know. Bet you can’t it’s harder than it seems
Steve

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