Monday, December 14, 2009

Climate Change: The Ice Age Fears of the 1970s

Another argument that we see repeated among global-warming deniers is the argument that scientists 40 years ago were warning about the coming ice age. Now they warn us about global warming. Just as they were wrong about the ice age, it is safe to assume that they are wrong about global warming.

Dennis Miller brought out a copy of a Newsweek cover story on the David Letterman show a while back warning about the coming ice age, and from that cover he concluded - and invited his audience to conclude - that global warming was a hoax. He invited them to do nothing about a potential threat to whole cities and the suffering of whole people on the basis of an argument that only a person who is callously indifferent to those costs could have used.

He made a choice to go on a highly rated national television show to make this argument. If a person makes that type of choice, he takes on the moral responsibility to make sure that what he is saying makes sense. It is one thing for me to get a piece of data wrong in the comment section of a blog. It would have been something quite different for me to have gotten that data wrong if I had been in front of a multi-million person audience.

I am going to get to the facts behind that cover story in a moment. For now, I am going to assume that the story had merit, and that scientists really were concerned with a new ice age 40 years ago.

There is nothing in science that says that scientists are prohibited from changing their minds in the face of additional data.

If you want a discipline where people refuse to change their mind regardless of new evidence, go to church. It is the very nature of science that any theory can be overthrown at any minute as soon as new and better data comes along.

Miller's argument has the same absurdity as claiming, "Look, scientists once thought that malaria was caused by bad air. Look, it's in the name - mal-aria (bad air). Now they tell us it is caused by bacteria that you get from mosquito bites and that we should control the mosquito population. Obviously, we don't need to do anything about the mosquitoes because these scientists do not know what they are talking about."

So, even if we assume that scientists seriously thought we needed to fear an ice age 40 years ago, it is foolish to imply that, with additional evidence, they do not have a better understanding of what we need to fear today. When Dennis Miller decided to go on national television and present his argument, he at least had an obligation to take a look at the reasonableness of his claims.

I consider this to be one of the most contemptible arguments used against scientific findings among those who wish to bury its conclusions. It is the very nature of science that new data will lead scientists to change their mind. Scientists do not have a book of dogma that must at all times be taken as literally true and which no amount of evidence will call into question. If that were the case, then we would still today be stuck with the 'science' of Hippocrates and Ptolemy. Science gives up old ideas for new ideas when better evidence provides it.

Yet, the perpetuators of dogma like to use the argument that since scientists change their mind in light of new evidence, we are not permitted to trust anything that scientists tell us. The only people who we are supposed to trust are those who insist on holding to their opinion - their dogma - regardless of what evidence might be brought against it.

This is entirely backwards.

A responsible person properly worried about the potential destruction of whole cities if he were wrong would have asked the question, "Is there any reason to believe I am wrong?" He would have done his research, and it would not have taken him long to find his answer.

The very fact that Dennis Miller was not motivated to do his homework tells us that he really did not care about the potential costs of being wrong. It says that he, unlike the morally responsible person described above, must have been substantially indifferent to the potential destruction and suffering that he could contribute to by misleading people in this way.

Once again, I remind you that he made the deliberate and intentional decision to use his time before millions of people to present this bogus argument.

But the situation is far worse.

Consider the fact that the source that Dennis Miller used in arguing that scientists 40 years ago were worried about a new ice age (and, thus, we have no reason to be concerned about global warming today) was a Newsweek cover story. If one wanted to show that scientists 40 years ago were certain about a coming ice age, one should be able to come armed with a long list of articles in peer-reviewed scientific literature comparable to what we see today with respect to global warming.

The story, The Cooling World does not cite any peer-reviewed literature. It quotes scientists who are concerned about the implications of climate change. However, those quotes are neutral as to whether the people making them were concerned about warming or cooling. It does not give any evidence that scientists were united in predicting any type of cooling - and the peer reviewed literature tells us that there was no evidence to give.

However, there is no such list. The Time Magazine cover story is being used as a prop in an act of deception. I cannot say whether this is an act of deliberate deception or gross negligence. However, I can say that those who perpetuated this fiction could have easily checked the facts before presenting their argument. Their failure to do so suggests a gross lack of concern for the potential destruction of whole cities and the suffering of whole populations that they could otherwise be contributing to.

There was, in fact, ONE paper in the peer-reviewed literature in 1976 that argued that "increases in carbon dioxide should be associated with a decrease in global temperatures". The authors in this case argued that CO2 production was associated with the production of atmospheric aerosols. While CO2 contributes to warming, the aerosols contribute to cooling. As the temperature record for the previous three decades had shown, the effect of the aerosols exceeded that of CO2.

(Bryson, R.A. and G.J. Dittberner, 1976: "A non-equilibrium model of hemispheric mean surface temperature. Journal of Atmospheric Science, 33, 2094-2106.)

Other scientists quickly responded that CO2 remains in the air a lot longer than aerosols (that are washed out of the atmosphere in the rain). Therefore, the aerosol effect was only a short-term effect. The short-term effect of aerosols, combined with pollution laws that severely cut back on the amount of aerosols being released into the atmosphere, quickly eliminated the aerosol effect. What we have seen since then is the long-range effect of CO2 buildup in the atmosphere.

ONE peer-reviewed paper quickly refuted, producing some front-page headlines (because these types of stories help to sell newspapers and news magazines) becomes the basis for rejecting all of the global science research that has been done.

On an issue relevant to the potential destruction of whole cities and the suffering of whole populations, this is not an innocent mistake. This amounts to gross negligence. Clearly, whatever aversion the author of such a statement has to these huge costs, it was not enough to motivate that agent to do a little bit of fact-checking to discover the true story behind the ice-age fears of the 1970s.

Like the drunk driver who is willing to risk killing people so that he can get home, the global-warming denier who uses the 1970s ice-age fears as a reason to reject global warming science is a creature worthy of our contempt. He is not willing to do even a little bit of investigation or even to ask some simple questions relevant to the logic of these types of claims.

15 comments:

John Doe said...

Interesting post, and I agree that we should be very careful not to persuade persons to believe in a lie.

However, a point behind showing the cover of Newsweek is that scientists are not infallible. Sure, they can and should change their minds based upon new evidence. But those scientists who thought we were entering a new ice age just 40 yrs ago were just as cocksure as those global warming alarmists are now. Much of AGW is based upon computer models, that for the past decade appear to be incorrect. What's to say that in 10 years, when "new" evidence comes out, they will change their minds again?

As a lawyer, I'd say that the burden of proof is on the alarmists to prove pretty darn well that their science is sound. Before we spend trillions of dollars we ought to have proof that it is really necessary.

I'm open to proof, that is why I am here, reading what you have to say, but I am still skeptical. This should not be a political issue, and I don't know why it has become such a political issue.

Imagine if instead you were trying to persuade us that you had found a cure for cancer. We would not be trying to shoot you down, nor would we be hoping that you were incorrect. We would be [VERY] skeptical, but we would listen to what your side had to say. But we sure as heck would not say, hey, he hasn't proven it, but let's spend trillions of dollars anyway, because he might be right, and a cure for cancer is so dawg gone important that we must act before he really proves his case. Nor would we believe just because some fat huckster made a movie and won a Nobel Prize for a film that is riddled with propaganda, and who refuses to even debate with skeptics.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I'm open to proof, that is why I am here, reading what you have to say, but I am still skeptical. This should not be a political issue, and I don't know why it has become such a political issue.

This is not a site that I would select if I wanted proof with respect to the science of global warming. There is absolutely no reason to think that a blog called "Atheist Ethicist" will have any particularly keen insights on the science of global warming.

This is an ethics blog. The specific conclusions that I will seek to defend are that the use of particular arguments from the denial side of the camp represent gross moral negligence. They evidence a lack of concern with the potential destruction of whole cities.

A person who is properly concerned with the potential destruction caused by global warming would want to keep the arguments clean. They would consider it an act of gross negligence to clutter the debate with noise such as the "Ice Age Fears of the 1970s Argument" or the "It's Not The End Of The World Argument" or "The Three Percent Argument" or any of the other arguments I will discuss in the posts ahead.

Those arguments are critically flawed and would not be used by a person with an honest interest in the issue. People who use these are arguments are morally negligent, with the magnitude of their negligence determined by the size of the audience they are talking to. A morally responsible person would, instead, focus on sensible criticism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

A point behind showing the cover of Newsweek is that scientists are not infallible.

Who exactly is saying that scientists are infallible? It is the very nature of science that its conclusions change constantly as new evidence is brought into the picture. The whole history of science has been a history of revision.

But those scientists who thought we were entering a new ice age just 40 yrs ago were just as cocksure as those global warming alarmists are now.

First, can you back this statement up? How do you measure "cocksuredness" and what evidence is there that the level of cocksuredness was the same 40 years ago?

Keep in mind that, 40 years ago there was 1 peer-reviewed article supporting such a conclusion (based on emissions of aerosols) and that it was quickly refuted by the scientific community. Compare this to 150 years of scientific research supporting the thesis that human CO2 emissions will lead to global warming.

Second, how "cocksure" scientists are have nothing to do with the scientific facts. If global warming is a genuine concern, this conclusion needs to be based on the evidence for or against global warming, not on the "cocksuredness" of scientists.

The argument, "Scientists have been wrong in the past so we have no reason to avoid business as usual today in spite of the alleged risk to whole cities" simply has no merit. It is not an argument that a morally responsible person would use.

It's like a defense attorney claiming, "The prosecuting attorney has made mistakes in the past so - without regard for the actual evidence in this case - you should return a verdict of not guilty."

No. Guilt or evidence depends on the evidence in this case.

We already know that prosecutors are fallible. We do not need to introduce evidence into the discussion that shows this fact. That evidence is inadmissable because it is irrelevant as to what the evidence currently shows in the issue we are currently discussing.

As a lawyer, I'd say that the burden of proof is on the alarmists to prove pretty darn well that their science is sound. Before we spend trillions of dollars we ought to have proof that it is really necessary.

Standard risk analysis says that the amount of money it is rational to spend depends on risk * benefit. It is worthwhile to spend $9 trillion to avoid a 10% chance at the destruction of $100 trillion in assets.

However, that is beside the point. In making one's case one should not have to contend with morally irresponsible garbage arguments that serve more to mislead and misdirect than to inform people of the issue.

The purpose of these posts is to identify arguments that misinform and misdirect people - to identify those arguments whose use represents gross moral negligence on the part of the people who use them.

I am leaving it an open question as to what the landscape would look like once the garbage arguments are cleared away. Whatever that answer turns out to be, it is morally contemptible for people discussing the global warming issue to contaminate public debate with filth arguments such as the Three Percent Argument, the It's Not The End Of the World Argument, the Scientists Have Been Wrong In The Past Argument, or any of the arguments that I will be discussing in the posts to come.

It is utterly contemptible of a person, in a debate such as this, to contaminate public discussion with misleading fictions and fallacies such as these.

John Doe said...

"A person who is properly concerned with the potential destruction caused by global warming would want to keep the arguments clean." AGREED. But so too would a person seeking to persuade others of the truth of anthropgenic global warming not 1) seek to silence critics; 2)not hide or lose data; and 3) not argue that a consensus exists within the scientific community (there was consensus that the earth was flat, too).

"Scientists have been wrong in the past so we have no reason to avoid business as usual today in spite of the alleged risk to whole cities" simply has no merit" Au Contraire. It is a reason to be skeptical, unless and until they prove that they are correct this time. It is a reason not to buy into AGW just because "a consensus of scientists agree," (which argument is merely an appeal to authority, not a real argument at all). Persons who are the jury, or who are deciding whether the arguments in favor of AGW are true, should keep in mind that scientists are infallible humans. It is no less valid than to point out the potential biases of scientists on both sides of the argument.

As to risk benefit analysis, I think you are putting the cart before the horse. You have not proven that there is ANY risk, let alone a 10% risk, due to AGW. Be that as it may, now that I see that you are not trying to actually persuade anyone of the truth of AGW, but rather only trying to clean up the debate, I shall stand back and watch (and hopefully learn).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

"Scientists have been wrong in the past so we have no reason to avoid business as usual today in spite of the alleged risk to whole cities" simply has no merit" Au Contraire. It is a reason to be skeptical, unless and until they prove that they are correct this time.

Yet, you have set up a standard whereby proof is impossible. No matter how much 'proof' is offered, it will always be possible to say that, "People have thought they have had proof of things in the past and been totally wrong." By your standards, the claims of scientists can and, indeed, must always be rejected. They can never be good enough for you.

This is a great rhetorical tool - a great way to politically dismiss another person's claims no matter what they are or how well backed. However, it is not a good way to get at the truth.

It is a reason not to buy into AGW just because "a consensus of scientists agree," (which argument is merely an appeal to authority, not a real argument at all).

The fallacy of "appeal to authority" only applies to illegitimate authority. Unless each and every individual wishes to obtain a PhD in climate science and look at the evidence themselves they have no choice but to appeal to authority.'

What other standard would you have the secretary and the construction worker use?

As to risk benefit analysis, I think you are putting the cart before the horse. You have not proven that there is ANY risk, let alone a 10% risk, due to AGW.

For the point that I was making I did not need to offer such a proof. The proposition that a $9 trillion investment is worthwhile as a way of avoiding a 10% chance of a $100 trillion loss is a true statement.

You said that the spending of trillions of dollars requires "proof". I answered that your claim is false, and gave an example in which, instead of proof, we had a mere 10% risk, and still the spending of trillions of dollars would be justified.

Andy said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_cooling

Global cooling has never had significant scientific support. Only a small minority suggested the possibility of it.

Here's a pretty good list of FAQ's about global warming.

http://co2now.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=81&Itemid=106

This is a good source to explain the basics of global warming and its causes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming

Here's a good global warming source.

http://www.realclimate.org/

Anonymous said...

Malaria is not caused by bacteria, but by eukaryotic parasites of the genus Plasmodium. ;)

Eneasz said...

(there was consensus that the earth was flat, too).

I'm not sure if this is a nitpick or not, but I want to point out that there was never a scientific consensus that the earth was flat. There was a commonly-held belief among the general populace that this was true, but never a scientific consensus. As soon as the tools of analysis were turned to this view, hundreds of years BC, (I can't even call them the tools of science, for science didn't exist then, merely mathematics and logic) it was understood that the world was not at all flat, and likely to be spherical.

There have been things that the scientific consensus has been wrong about (such as phrenology), but a flat earth was never one of them.

John Doe said...

Oh, STOP. Now you are going off the deep end. I've never said it's an impossible standard of proof. It's pure healthy skepticism. Show me the raw data. Show me the computer program. Don't hide when a Freedom of Information request is made. That isn't too much to ask. As opposed to "Al Gore and a majority of scientists say it's true, therefore I believe it. Without any f'n details."

"Dismiss all their claims, no matter how well they are backed"? Scuze me, you haven't shown ANY backing of your claims yet. I came here hoping that you would. But apparently you are just going to critique the skeptics' methods of arguments, and hope that gullible sheep will buy into arguments that others, better than yourself, will make elsewhere. Whudupwiddat? Make the arguments, or STFU and direct us elsewhere to your betters.

And yes, it is a fallacy to appeal to authority. It is not an argument. If, IF 2+2 = 4, show us the proof. Hell, I'm an intelligent person. I can follow any argument.

I don't need to become a Ph.D. in science to follow an argument. Sorry, son, I've been a lawyer for 23+ years. I don't need to be a brain surgeon to explain to a jury what a brain surgeon does or thinks. If it is so hard to explain, perhaps you don't understand it well enough. I'm not asking for something that I don't do every time I go to trial. Make it elementary enough so that a sixth grader can understand it.

Ok, I'm starting to think that you are arguing just for the sake of arguing. You don't seem to know, or you are unable to articulate, or you just don't want to articulate, WHY you believe in AGW. I guess you want us to go elsewhere to find the answer to that question. You come to the table convinced that AGW is true, and you want to do everything in your intellectual power to persuade us, without actually getting into the details.

OK, so I'm imagining the perfect Atheist Ethicist reader, from your point of view: believes in AGW, asks no difficult questions, and only wants to hear critigues of how skeptics debate, not critiques of their actual facts. I'm sensing a serious waste of time here.

Eneasz said...

Show me the raw data. Show me the computer program.

Because you'd be able to understand them, right?

Make it elementary enough so that a sixth grader can understand it.

That's been done. Many, many, MANY times. And yet you seem to be lacking the intellect of a sixth grader...

Just a paragraph earlier you asked for the raw data and computer programs. First - they are available. But secondly... can a sixth grader understand the raw data and computer programs? Or would it take someone with several years of post-grad education in the field in question?

You seem to be setting two separate standards, and jumping back and forth between them as it suits your needs. Either accept the data as presented for a 6th grader, or go get your PhD. Hopping back and forth whenever it's convenient makes you look dishonest.

Scuze me, you haven't shown ANY backing of your claims yet. I came here hoping that you would. But apparently you are just going to critique the skeptics' methods of arguments.

You seem to be idiotically assuming that this backing doesn't exist on actual science sites/journals. Go to the right source for the right material. Perhaps you regularly go to TMZ for political news?

When the deniers' methods of argumentation are intellectually or morally bankrupt, then yes, they SHOULD be criticized. They are factually refuted at every turn, but they aren't actually criticized enough for the reckless garbage they are, which is what this site does. It's the equivalent of calling out "Objection!" in the courtroom, which I hope you have some familiarity with.

If, IF 2+2 = 4, show us the proof.

Seriously? I don't think you could have chosen a worse example. It took two extremely talented mathematicians years of work and 378 pages to prove that 1+1 COULD equal 2. Do you really want to go there? Because if you really want to argue with the climatologists using your FOX-News Talking Points, you're going to get spanked.

I've been a lawyer for 23+ years.

It shows.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Oh, STOP. Now you are going off the deep end. I've never said it's an impossible standard of proof.

Of course you haven't said it. But that does not change what it is. Your standard of proof seems to be that one cannot possibly be in error - that no person in the past has ever felt as confident about something and still been wrong. However, there is absolutely nothing that can meet that standard. It is, in fact (whether you say so or not) an impossible standard of proof.

Show me the raw data. Show me the computer program. Don't hide when a Freedom of Information request is made.

This, I agree with. However, I also know exactly what happens when these demands are met. Demagogues with a strong interest in obscuring the facts and generate confusion in order to manipulate the voting public take this information out of context to generate false controversy.

The people whose moral character is such that the present the distortions and fictions I am discussing here will get material for a whole new set of distortions and fictions.

To them, it is a game - to discover just how much confusion and misunderstanding they can generate.

Scuze me, you haven't shown ANY backing of your claims yet.

I have shown a great deal of backing for my claims which is that these arguments that are being used are garbage arguments that no morally responsible person would allow. My claims are that, whenever one finds these claims in the works of one of these anti-global-warming "skeptics" that they flag that person as having the intellectual integrity of a con man.

One of those garbage arguments I can very easily add is to present an impossible standard of proof and call it 'healthy skepticism'.

Another garbage argument is to claim that anything that cannot be reduced to that which a 6th grader can understand can be rejected.

I can follow any argument.

This may be true. However, some arguments you can follow will take require 6 years of post-graduate education to complete.

I don't need to become a Ph.D. in science to follow an argument. Sorry, son, I've been a lawyer for 23+ years. I don't need to be a brain surgeon to explain to a jury what a brain surgeon does or thinks. If it is so hard to explain, perhaps you don't understand it well enough. I'm not asking

But do you feel qualified to actually PERFORM brain surgery?

anton said...

"and I don't know why it has become such a political issue."

Gee, I thought a lawyer of +23 years would at least understand this one! What kind of law did you practice . . . divorce law?

The possibility that the earth was round was advanced long before the "so called" time of Christ. The "claim" that the earth was flat was sustained for hundreds of years by the Catholic church who had their "book" and needed to control the "uneducated" people in order to keep their control.

Fast forward 1500 years or so and you have George Bush stating that US America would co-operate with the rest of the world in dealing with global warming "as long as doing so had no adverse effect on the US economy"! Hmmm, sounds like the same arguments used by the Pope(s)! Of course, the Popes had their cardinals to put down dissenters. I would imagine that as a lawyer, you show up in court with crimson robes.!

John Doe said...

Yeah, this is how global warming alarmists work in real life: attack the messenger.

Puhleeze, you guys can't even keep your "arguments" straight. Eneasz says that "the raw data is out there" [which is pure bullshit, because it has been destroyed, at least in the Climategate case]. Thanks for the condescending comments, dude, they really are persuasive. Not.


At least Alonzo has the decency to agree with me on this, at first, but then he goes on to whine about what happens when the raw data is released. Those mean ugly dirty rotten skeptics, ER, I MEAN DEMOGOGUES, manipulate the data.

What you mean, Zo, is that they critically examine the facts. That. Is. The Essence. Of science. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If your facts backing your theory can't stand up to scrutiny, perhaps your theory is incorrect. Take it like a man, not a little girl. Oooo, boooh hooooo! Those wascally wabbits are "manipulating" our widdle data.

p.s. Thanks Andy, I'm going now to read those links.

Eneasz said...

Eneasz says that "the raw data is out there" [which is pure bullshit, because it has been destroyed, at least in the Climategate case].

I suppose it depends on the particular data in question. The original moon-landing footage is gone too. Lots of data is still out there though. Have you tried here or here?

Thanks for the condescending comments, dude, they really are persuasive. Not.

Back at'cha, Mr "Scuze me, STFU, Sorry son". You can dish it out but you can't take it, eh?

Mohammed tahiri said...

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