Bad Skeptics and the Relativity Deniers

Astonomer Phil Plait, creator of the skeptics site Bad Astronomy, has a post up in Discover Magazine attacking an article by Robert Bryce in the Wall Street Journal which shows as so often how badly out of their depth many skeptics quickly become when they stumble into the quagmire of the climate change issue.

Plait begins by referring to Bryce as of “the far-right think-tank Manhattan Institute”.

That is worth a double-take and alarm-bells- far-right?? In conventional parlance, the “far-right” is a term reserved for neo-Nazis and fascists. This most certainly does not apply to the Manhattan Institute, which might better be described as “libertarian”. By opening with this egregious error Plait sets out his stall as taking a political stance on the issues he examines- while hiding behind science and skepticism.

Plait calls the article “one of the most head-asplodey antiscience climate change denial pieces I have seen in a while- and I’ve seen a few” ignoring that Bryce’s piece clearly identifies itself as being, not about climate science per se, but concerning what he sees as “five obvious truths about the climate-change issue.”

This is what usually happens when so-called “warmists” or those who accept unquestioningly the consensus view of climate change, namely that this is the most pressing issue facing us and we must respond immediately with drastic CO2 cuts and international treaties if we are to save the planet and humanity- examine the climate change issue- science and policy and politics are confused, and claims are made to the effect that, since in their view “the science is settled”, so must be the policy response.

Plait goes on to say the article is “almost a textbook case in logical fallacy”, an attempt to “smear the reality” of climate change, but then skips the first four points of Bryce’s article- ie. the bulk of it- because in these Bryce “doesn’t actually deal with science and makes points that aren’t all that salient to the issue”.

But as already made clear, the issue Bryce is addressing is much broader than just the science, and since this is a topic that is indisputably highly politicized- underlined by Plait’s opening salvo of the “far-right” connection- the issues Bryce raises appear to be extremely pertinent to any understanding of climate change:

-1) despite Al Gore’s notorious film winning an Oscar, and sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with the IPCC in 2007, and despite the international convention in Copenhagen in 2009, carbon emissions just keep rising:

Carbon-dioxide emissions are growing because people around the world understand the essentiality of electricity to modernity. And for many countries, the cheapest way to produce electrons is by burning coal.

This is not a smear designed to obscure the reality of climate change, but a very salient fact exposing the failure of climate change activists to address issues of poverty and global development.

2) Regardless of whether it’s getting hotter or colder— or both— we are going to need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable.

Now, how exactly we are to do this- or even if it is possible- is a very different issue, perhaps more pertinent to Peak Oil than climate change- but again, it is an obvious point that activists really need to take on board- rather than merely repeating the usual platitudes about how scary climate change is, I would urge activists to get real about how scary not having enough energy to keep warm or cool is as well.

Bryce’s third point is that you can’t just keep pointing the finger at Big Bad Gas Guzzling America- because of massive and rapid increases in energy consumption in China and India, which is helping those countries to lift millions out of poverty,

over the past decade, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions—about 6.1 billion tons per year—could have gone to zero and yet global emissions still would have gone up.

Again, this is clearly a pretty important and amazing statistic which really needs to be engaged with if people are serious about a realistic climate policy.

Bryce’s fourth point is about increases in efficiency- this is actually his weakest point, because while certainly true that we should work to increase efficiency in appliances and power generation, the evidence seems to support Jeavons’ Paradox, which means that increased efficiency tends to lead over-all to increased energy consumption as we find more useful things to do with the energy savings. So this is not really a point about climate change but about energy use.

But it is Bryce’s fifth point- about science– that really gets the Bad Astronomer’s goat:

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Plait responds:

And he’s wrong anyway: even if the neutrino story turns out to be true, it doesn’t prove Einstein was wrong. At worst, Einstein’s formulation of relativity would turn out to be incomplete, just as Newton’s was before him. Not wrong, just needs a bit of tweaking to cover circumstances unknown when the idea was first thought of. Relativity was a pretty big tweak to Newtonian mechanics, but it didn’t prove Newton wrong. Claims like that show a profound lack of understanding of how science works.

But this is clearly a response to the “climate science is settled” meme which Plait- with his repeated use of the toxic phrase “climate deniers” has apparently bought into unquestioningly. Bryce is not saying, or even implying, that this proves anything- just that, in science, skepticism is the key, skepticism is the process to be adhered to and respected- in climate science just as in well-established fields such as Relativity.

It is shameful that Plait abuses this principle with his parroting of the extremely unhelpful “denier” charge.

Now I don’t actually think that CERN and neutrinos make for a particularly good example, since it would appear to me as a complete layman when it comes to physics that the most likely explanation is simply that there is an error in the measurement (last time I tried to measure the speed of a neutrino I was way out).

However, in climate change, science has constantly been pressed into the service of forcing through a particular policy response- of completely unrealistic carbon cuts- under the banner of science that must not and cannot be questioned– that there is a consensus– and that anyone who questions any aspect of this at all is a denier.

So it seems reasonable enough to compare the state of climate science with the far, far more solid case of Relativity. Are the CERN researchers being jumped on as being Relativity deniers? Could it possibly be, Mr. Bad Atronomer, that the reason for this is that there is no current highly politicized issue concerning the finer details of Relativity (apart from possibly the issue of how much more funding to throw at the LHC)? What would the correct policy response be to discovering that neutrinos might travel faster than light, given that this would open the possibility for time-travel? Maybe we would be compelled by the consensus scientists to travel back in time and prevent our ancestors from discovering fire!

Most climate skeptics- including Bryce- are not “deniers” in the sense of “denying” the scientific method as do homeopaths (with whom @SLSingh, from whose tweet I picked up this story, is fond of lumping in with what he calls the “climate numpties”) or even “denying” that the evidence suggests the earth is indeed warming- they are skeptical about the politicization of this science, and about the proposed policy responses which, as Bryce shows above, are all but irrelevant at this stage.

Let’s accept that man-made CO2 is contributing to global warming- there still remain plenty of questions:

do we know by how much? do we know what the effects will be? do we know if the feed-backs will be positive or negative? do we know what, if anything, we should do about it?

do we know for sure if drastic cutting of CO2 emissions will actually be of benefit given the huge cost to human development that they would entail?

-and should we really be expected to trust the IPCC whose leader apparently told us in 2007 that we would all be doomed if we didn’t have effective action to reduce CO2 emissions in place by 2012?

Bryce concludes by pointing to a study that suggests that the benefits of moving to cleaner fuels could be cancelled out by losing the particle pollution (eg from coal) that help cool the planet through the so-called “global dimming” effect- just one of many variables and unknowns in the still young (much younger than Relativity), still evolving and still highly unsettled science of climate change.

On the “traditional” but soft skeptics topics such as fake moon-landings and UFOs, I’m sure Bad Astronomer is doing a good job- but when it comes to climate science, he is just being a Bad Skeptic. I really wish that he, and other “celebratory” skeptics like Simon Singh would make an effort to understand the difference between science and policy- and in so doing desist from giving skepticism a bad name. Thank-you.

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  1. phayes

     /  January 3, 2012

    Plait’s criticism of Bryce’s relativity and climate science-illiterate and perhaps unwittingly pseudoskeptic fifth point is spot on. If Bryce really isn’t a climate science denier (or at least pseudoskeptic) I’m afraid he’s done a pretty good imitation of one in that article – as have you here. Plait isn’t the one being a Bad Skeptic. If you’ve got good points on policy responses to make – as I’m sure you have – why shoot yourselves in the foot over the science like this? Why so unnecessarily make yourselves look as foolish as this lot:

    • No, you’re wrong- I hoped my explanation in the post was sufficient but clearly not so here goes again:
      homeopathy is not the same as climate change, because there is only one variable- does taking the remedies work? This is easy to test even at high-school level, and has been hundreds of times. Plus there is no active ingredient in homeopathy, claims of efficacy break fundamental laws of physics. So there is no basis for being skeptical about the scientific evidence about homeopathy- case is closed.
      Climate change is very different- multiple variables in highly complex non-linear systems;
      yes skeptics broadly accept that CO2 from humans is contributing to warming, other things being equal– but other things (feedbacks) may actually turn out not to be equal, so skepticism here is perfectly valid.
      this is not nearly as settled as the science of either homeopathy OR Relativity, and the degree of warming, and what will happen in the future over 10- and 100 year timescales is quite simply unknown- all we are talking about is levels of uncertainty for different scenarios.
      And yet warmists insist that “the science is settled” as if predicting future climate effects are as simple as testing homeopathy!
      and he claims Bryce is misunderstanding how science works…. I don’t think so.

    • But the article you ink to amply confirms Bryce’s point- that feedbacks are uncertain, they are unknown. We cannot predict what the future climate will be.
      good discussion of uncertainties in climate science here:
      And one more time- Bryce does NOT say that new discoveries from the LHC would “prove Einstein wrong”- his point is very simple and unambiguous: if it is respectable to question aspects of relativity- a much more solid theory than AGW- then is it most certainly respectable to take a skeptical view of climate science, all the more so since it is clearly so politicized- as Plaits’ repeated use of the word “denier” makes very clear.

      • phayes

         /  January 4, 2012

        The article I linked to thoroughly refutes Bryce’s bogus ‘point’: as I said, Bryce just hand-waves and even misleadingly implies we don’t even know whether CO₂ is “bad” or not. To say things like “we cannot predict what the future climate will be” is being correct but it is being (deliberately?) inanely correct.

        The reality of the silly relativity comparison is very simple and unambiguous but not in the way you or Bryce seem to think it is. This:

        “If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.”

        is a simple, blatant non sequitur. But – as if that wasn’t enough – it’s actually a double (nested) non sequitur: uncertainty about whether or not Lorentz symmetry is soft (or even hard) broken for some SM(E) field does not equate to Einstein’s theory of relativity being “questioned” in a way remotely comparable to this “questioning” of climate science.

        This is all so completely unnecessary. Bryce could’ve said everything he wanted to say in that article (and I’d probably largely agree with it) without any distortion of the climate science whatsoever and without the silly and ignorant relativity comparison.

  2. Caroline Webb

     /  January 3, 2012

    Good article. Phil Plait is just one of many who browbeat people and try to argue that not a word of questioning or criticism about poor scientist conduct (with data use and actions against other scientists) and poor science is allowed. All he can think of to say is ‘you don’t understand how science works’. Hmm. The more they protest, the worse it gets. They protest too much. There is a growing dishonesty and self-deception at work, fueled by ‘noble cause’ thinking which would turn everyone turn into black and white thinkers if it could do it without penalty. Then they can start closing down blogs like this and firing teachers who dispute the ‘consensus’ – and all hell will break loose. It is essential to raise our voices about this behavior and attitude by people like Plait.

  3. @phayes
    well that’s fascinating, because the article you linked to confirms very well Bryce’s point about uncertainty in feedbacks- we do not know. And although I am very happy to concede that new findings at the LHC do not undermine E=mc2, it still a relevant point for Bryce to make, which is clearly in response (though he doesn’t actually state this) in the context of warmists continually claiming that “the science is settled”- as regards policy response, the science is certainly not settled. Outside simple single-variable things like homeopathy, and the basic physics of CO2 as a warming gas, there is no other field of science that would claim it is “settled” -and that therefore no new discoveries are possible.
    Bryce’s point is that, if new and surprising discoveries are possible in relativity, how much more likely is it that new findings will emerge in the relatively young field of climate science, which, unlike relativity, cannot be verified in experiments- it is all about predicting the future.
    Climate science is rather unique in this respect I think- I concede that it is not directly comparable to relativity (any more than to homeopathy)- but what is? Bryce is making a wider, more general point about science.
    So, yes, my point abut not being able to predict future climate is the WHOLE point- if we cannot do that with any real certainty, then we do not know with certainty what the correct policy response should be.
    As to whether CO2 is “bad” or not- clearly this is not (only) a scientific issue. As soon as you move away from the solid science of “CO2 causes warming” (which in itself tells us very little) you are into uncertainty and policy and politics and values.
    Unnecessary? Like your completely made-up claim that Bryce implied Einstein would be proved wrong? Like your (and Plait’s) chanting of the refrain “denialist”- a clearly value- laden and political concept?
    The real denialists are those who deny that the science of climate change is not thoroughly politicized.

    • phayes

       /  January 5, 2012

      “the article you linked to confirms very well Bryce’s point about uncertainty in feedbacks- we do not know.”

      Okay, well perhaps this time it’s my explanation that isn’t clear enough…

      The measure of our uncertainty as represented by the graph in that linked article is peaked on ~3 ℃, tails off gradually to the right and very sharply towards zero. The measure of our uncertainty as represented by “we do not know” a là Bryce is some symmetric graph centred on ~zero¹. “Confirms very well”?! The two could hardly be more different and it certainly is reasonable to say that “the science is settled” as to the question of which is correct. No politics at all went into the construction of the former whereas (nearly) no science went into the latter. Whether that’s a deliberate, politically motivated denial of the science or just ignorance I don’t really know or care (which is why I actually prefer the term ‘pseudoskeptic’ to ‘denier’).

      “Unnecessary? Like your completely made-up claim that Bryce implied Einstein would be proved wrong?”

      I was merely quoting Plait but I do think it’s fair to infer that that was Bryce’s implication – not least because in the wake of the recent neutrino results some well known physicists (who should know better of course) have said as much /explicitly/. Not that it really matters because – as I’ve said – however you interpret “questioning” the situations are not in the least comparable.

      On the other hand, what science it is comparable to is quite an interesting question. I’ve actually had this argument before and suggested cosmology:

      ¹ See e.g. to see where this sort of quantification of knowledge and uncertainty comes from.

      • But Bryce doesn’t say “the science is not settled about sensitivity“- in fact he goes on to discuss a paper about the loss of a dimming effect from aerosols if we were to reduce coal use, indicating again what is clear in the rest of the article, that his concern is mainly about policy; nowhere does he indicate that he believe the true value to be around zero as you claim.
        but even if we accept the 3 k sensitivity of your 2009 paper, this in itself tells us little- is it “bad”? How bad? what should we do about it etc.. The science of all these questions is clearly far from settled.
        However, you are quite wrong in any case to claim that even this issue of sensitivity is “settled”- again, this is a political position, not a scientific one, as discussed in a previous post.
        Note that “Annan made repeated comments during the IPCC AR4 review process that the IPCC’s handling of climate sensitivity and its probability distributions were incorrect. His complaints largely fell upon deaf ears.”- which leaves it open to question whether the process of arriving at 3k had a political dimension or not- IMO the IPCC is primarily a political organisation, the politics cannot be divorced from the science so easily. In no way can the climate sensitivity be claimed as being “settled” in the way that a physical law like E=mc2 can be. It cannot be verified experimentally (I believe in replicable lab conditions the sensitivity is nearer 1k). To claim that an issue such as this, depending on multiple data sets, each with their own difficulties, and many different disciplines, is “settled” strikes me as fundamentally unscientific- an attempt to squash dissent and interfere with the scientific process.
        Cosmology won’t cut it either- it doesn’t have the same politicization or immediate policy implications as does climate science.
        Thanks for the interesting link from Al-Khalili btw- Im pleased to see he agrees with me that there is probably a problem with the measurement😉

  4. – Spot on – Bad Astronomer is Bad Climate Expert in the opposite sense of the word. Did you see his blog posts about Gleick/Heartland ? It provided classic material for an item on my website about for teaching critical thinking in schools.
    – Like I said first the Green movement left me, then the skeptical movement, left me as they stopped being skeptical about something that confirms “their dogma” & shout denier at people who do question it.
    – Great Blog


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