Sunday, May 6, 2007

Cockburn Publishes Attack on Greenhouse Warming Theory

Alexander Cockburn published a story on Counterpunch today called "Is Global Warming a Sin?" attacking the theory of global warming. Initially the argument seemed somewhat personal and political but also cogent and founded on legitimate data and observations. However, after rereading it and looking for criticism -- especially of the arguments he raised that seemed original and missing from the mainstream debate -- cracks in his argument started to appear. And the closer I looked the more I realized that it's pretty sophisticated politically but really inadequate with respect to what I am beginning to expect of science journalism.

Despite the weaknesses of article, however, it is a great opportunity to understand the anatomy of a cultural and political attack on science itself.

Let's begin with a quick reply by George Monbiot, like Cockburn, a journalist and political activist. Unlike Cockburn, however, he begins his post by reminding us that he is a journalist not a scientist. Then he adds that he is writing about science with policy implications, not just politics and therefore that he is concerned with evidence and peer-reviewed research, which he carefully cites in his article. He is reporting on what scientists know and, to some extent, how they know it.  Finally, he models civil dialogue:  you know, he actually refers to what Cockburn has written, interprets it in context, replies to specific points and makes clear counter claims with supporting evidence.

I am neither an experienced journalist nor a scientist.  But even I can use what I learned in 8th grade English to illustrate how Cockburn's piece fails to meet the most basic test of legitimate public discourse: it neither argues against anything specific nor does it contribute any meaningful data in support of its own claims.  Although it sounds wonderful, it actually says nothing about the science he is attacking, the specific claims he is making, OR the evidence supporting them.

It does, however, call scientists bad names.

Cockburn wrote:  “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend.”

This is a lie. Not opinion. It is a lie.  There is certainly empirical evidence.  It was controversial evidence in the 70's, 80's and into the 90's.  It's a lot better now.  And serious people have spent serious time and money, collectively thousands of years and millions of dollars arguing both sides of this issue with data.  But for the last ten years it is converging evidence on climate change induced by CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.  He asserts that it’s all nonsense but doesn't actually refer to anything specifically.

Can it be that simple?  Just ignore the evidence of climate scientists?  And assert evidence of his own? I guess so.  But that's just the beginning....

Next he attacks his opponents instead of their ideas by calling them “fearmongers.”  And then he attacks their ideas, again without substantiating his claims:  “The greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified computer models to finger mankind's sinful contribution.”

Does he really intend to discredit the use of models in science?  All models?  Number models?  Or just "computer models"?  Who trusts models?  Well, people who use automobiles, airplanes and telephones, for example.  People who use medicine, electricity and the Internet also come to mind.  We understand LOTS of things that are too complicated to physically construct on a laboratory bench.  LOTS of things are easier to instrument and control using models instead of the real thing.  And we know that there is a difference between the model and reality, between the map and the territory.  Yet, we know we can learn things about reality from a good model, even the dynamics of a business, for example. Models are valuable and useful because they help us understand the reality they model, not because of their political or cultural appeal.

He says the models are “unverified and crudely oversimplified” but does not substantiate these claims. In fact, these models have emerged from decades of observation, testing, peer-review and publication. And every time results are published, they are reproduced.  And criticized.  And the result is a kind of constructive conversation. Valid criticism sticks. Experiments and analysis are changed and repeated. Reasonable, skeptical people come to new understandings and the models are refined and their predictive value grows.  The cycle is repeated. Although politics and charisma can affect the process in the short run, over time, skeptics become supporters because the models develop, not because they are politically manipulated or seduced.

By ignoring decades of peer-reviewed literature, Cockburn ignores this process and the hard work of thousands of serious, skeptical scientists.  Just ignores it.  Can't readers see what he is doing?  But by ignoring this fundamental aspect of scientific inquiry, Monbiot and other journalists are also missing the boat:  tell us HOW we know what we know!  Don't just point out that Cockburn's claims are missing citations.  Tell us who these people are and how they got their data!

Cockburn seems to be using a meteorological model of a Dr. Martin Herzenberg who “was a meteorologist for three years in the U.S. Navy.” If we assume is 70 now and that he completed 4 years of college before joining up at the age of 22, that put him in the army between 1959 and 1962 or so. Somehow, although he probably never saw a computer, he acquired a “lifelong mistrust of climate modeling.”  After the Navy, he spent his professional life studying the chemistry and physics of combustion:  explosives apparently.

I googled Herzenberg and only found hits on no-name blogs who cut and paste identical text from each other....  He’s published nothing although he seems to have found an uncritical fan in Cockburn who he met on a cruse in 2001.   Hmmm....

(In the process I found one blog that was kind of fun.  Called, it reported how a sixth grade Earth Science class put global warming on trial and found the scientists guilty of making exaggerated claims.  The teacher proudly reported that they didn’t find the Theory of Evolution very convincing either....  Go figure.  I sure hope none of THOSE kids grow up to be doctors.  Or lawyers or engineers or business managers either, for that matter.  Then they would have to use data, evidence and logical discourse in their jobs!)

Herzenberg's data is cited here as if it contradicted and discredited the "oversimplified" models used by climatologists to study long-term trends in the climate.  But no references to Herzenberg's data OR the models they presumably contradict have actually been provided.

In fact, the differences in the rates that CO2 have been produced by our economy and the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are actually part of the models.  Lag-times and feedback cycles in the system such as these have been studied and argued about endlessly.  And these arguments are exactly why the models are complex and verified, despite their claims to the contrary.  And the entire, real process is ignored in his column.  Unfortunately, this is missing from most science media on climate change as well.  Why won't journalists tell us what's in these models?

The absence of evidence suggests that it is COCKBURN and HERZENBERG’s political opinions that are oversimplified while the models they criticize actually DO account for these discrepancies.

On the other hand, if Cockburn's aim is disrupting civil discourse and discrediting scientists, his is a very sophisticated argument using implicit messages and innuendo in very clever and effective ways....

Then he returns to their motives:  “Devoid of any sustaining scientific basis, carbon trafficking is powered by guilt, credulity, cynicism and greed, just like the old indulgences, though at least the latter produced beautiful monuments.” That’s it.

Now you know you are reading politics, a peculiar brand of personal attack politics that isn’t troubled with evidence or even reality.  Who needs civil discourse based on an exchange of mutually accepted evidence and a body of logical argument?  He just ignores data to the contrary and attacks, as if science were just an alternative point of view, as if the “fearmongers” just sat in libraries, read about indulgences in Medieval History, theorized and argued how many angels could sit on the head of a pin, and periodically thought deeply about whether or not sea levels will rise.

So how do we ACTUALLY know?  Cockburn is forgetting that some of these scientists actually went to Hawaii. And Greenland and Antarctica.  Several times.  And they gradually learned how to measure CO2 that was trapped in glacial ice millions of years ago.  Without their families.  And all the while they worry about their data and their results.  Will other labs be able to reproduce what they've found? Or will it be rejected by their peers?  Maybe we should pay attention to the people who worry about data instead of commentators posing as "experts."

Cockburn wrote:  “Several new papers show that for the last three quarter million years CO2 changes always lag global temperatures by 800 to 2,600 years.” Tricky.  Right on the facts but wrong on the spin.  These aren’t new.  This is a reasonable question and many scientists agree that in the past changes in CO2 were driven by changes in temperature not the other way around.  They know that these temperature changes were due to the orbit of the Earth, the axis of the Earth's spin, the distribution of the continents on the surface of the earth, volcanic activity, and possibly changes in the energy produced by the Sun itself.  These variables are included in the current models.  However, none of these factors can explain the current trend in temperature without also taking into account the effect of CO2.

Finally, the “Greenhousers” as Cockburn calls them are not a fringe or loony minority engaged in a legitimate scientific controversy in 2007.   According to Kerry Emanuel from MIT, most of the field was skeptical for several decades while the pioneers did lots of the early research and modeling.  It actually was a controversy in the 70's and 80's:  there were several models and they did not agree. Then, according to John Sterman of the Sloan School, these independent models started to converge in 1994-5. They disagreed about the magnitude and rate of the predicted climate changes but agreed on many other findings.  Most importantly, their predictions of time delays in average temperature increases as a result of greenhouse gas concentrations converged:  it seemed even then that there was agreement that it would take 40 or even 50 years to stabilize once concentrations of greenhouse gasses stabilize.  By 2003 the actual temperature data was so far outside the predicted normal range that it “could not be explained without the presence of the CO2” according to Emanuel, and he actually changed his mind.

Consensus does not mean that the theory is right.  It may be wrong.  But it is incorrect to assert as Cockburn does that there is serious controversy in the field, the retired mining engineer who studied Meteorology in the 1950's notwithstanding.  There is not.  Rants like Cockburn's don't meet minimum standards for political opinion, let alone science journalism.  But they can be useful to learn more about the rhetorical techniques that are being used so we can all become more critical readers.

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