This guest post comes from Louis A. Derry, an associate professor of geological sciences at Cornell University. It was originally posted as a comment to a post at the Dot Earth blog of The New York Times which discussed one angle of The WSJ 16’s climate disinformation OPED. RE that monstrocity, see Whacking 16 Moles and Whacking Moles: A Smörgåsbord of Sanity About “The WSJ 16? which provides links to numerous scientific (and otherwise) looks at the inadequacies, misrepresentations, errors, and outright deceits in The WSJ 16’s oped.
The recent WSJ op-ed piece by “sixteen concerned scientists” is a tired retread of the unscientific and unsubstantiated attacks against the science of climate change and the scientific community that works on climate change. The piece recycles all the usual vague but pernicious arguments of climate change deniers, using now-familiar methods. Nothing in this piece is new, nor is any of it remotely classifiable as science. But it is deeply disingenuous.
Here are the “Usual Techniques” as illustrated in the WSJ op-ed. Caveat lector:
· Prominently feature a Nobel laureate, always from another field and without any particular qualifications in climate science, who is unhappy with statements about climate change. Never once do they actually rigorously poll Nobel laureates (few of whom work in climate anyway), they just pick one of a handful who have expressed concern over climate change research and loudly trumpet his qualifications.
· Cite the “large number of concerned scientists, growing every year” without providing a shred of evidence that this is true. As is well known and well documented, the weight of the scientific literature is very clear. Only a few of the authors of this piece have ever published anything on climate change in a peer-reviewed source, and their skeptical views are heavily outweighed in the scientific literature.
· Claim that warming “stopped” over the last decade. This conclusion depends on what record you choose, and the deniers of course choose the satellite record because it gives one very warm year in 1998, making subsequent years look less notable. This is curious, to say the least, because the satellite record has, in the past, had major errors (few people realize how difficult it is to go from radiometer measurements on a satellite to an accurate global temperature record, and what models and assumptions are involved). We hope the errors are now all fixed, but can’t be sure. In other words, the 1998 satellite data T anomaly is not the same as the four different ground station records, but they pick it anyway without any objective reason to do so, apparently because it suits their prejudices.
· Talk about “smaller than predicted warming.” But, wait, a few lines before they said there was “no warming? OK guys, which is it? They are all smart enough to know that ten years is too short a time frame to diagnose a warming or cooling signal. This is very elementary time series analysis, conveniently forgotten by people who most certainly know better.
· Make a reference to “Climategate,” of course. Never mind that this is a completely irrelevant sideshow with zero influence on whether climate is actually changing or not. The mere mention of “anything-gate” can be counted on to cast the pall of conspiracy on any activity, irrespective of the actual evidence.
· Tell us how good CO2 is for plants. Not exactly a new insight, and not exactly relevant. Of course plants like more CO2, all other things being equal. But all other things are most certainly not equal, outside the controlled environment of the laboratory. Any number of field experiments to test the response of real ecosystems to elevated CO2 has shown muted and often very short-term responses. The world is not a Dutch flower greenhouse. Again, this is elementary. If the op-ed authors don’t know this they have no business opining on the issue, and if they do they’re being dishonest. The notion they advance that the Green revolution and increased crop yields over the last several decades owe anything significant to increased CO2 has no legitimate scientific basis. The claim that “part of the increase almost certainly came from additional CO2” is meaningless arm waving. What does “part” mean, anyway? In this case, it means “unmeasurably small.” How about “almost certainly”? Honest translation: “we wish it so”.
· The op-ed authors claim that “many” young scientists are afraid to voice their doubts about climate change. Again, a broad indictment of the field without a shred of evidence; who are the “many”, and just how many are they? Nor do the present authors mention how many people have turned away from doing climate research because they don’t want the hassle or legal and illegal threats that have been inflicted on some well known climate researchers, or the frequent low level harassment that others receive. How many of each kind there are, I don’t know, but assuredly neither do they. This is the most insidious type of accusation – vague, uncredited, lacking in any evidence, but darkly hinting of a conspiracy. Of course they also include the usual persecution story, and so they cite the case of [Chris] de Freitas, who voluntarily resigned from an unpaid editor post in the face of criticism that he has done a poor job. Funny, they don’t mention the numerous calls to fire and indict scientists who have been the public face of climate change research, including the attempted prosecution of at least one. If the worst case they can point to is someone voluntarily stepping down as a journal editor, this hardly compares with the multiple subpoenas and threats of prosecution that have been visited upon well-known climate scientists.
· Invoke Lysenko and the gulag. This is simply outrageous and ludicrous. No further comment necessary.
· Charge that climate science exists to wring money out of the government, and is some kind of secret agenda to promote government bureaucracy. Another outrageous and utterly unsubstantiated and false smear, once again invoking Lysenko. This ugly, unconscionable tactic brings Joseph McCarthy to mind. It may appeal to a subset of WSJ readers, but is pure fantasy.
· Claim that the cost-benefit analysis shows that no action on CO2 emissions is warranted. They cite Nordhaus, who is but one of many economists who have looked at this question, and, as usual, different assumptions and models give different results. [Editor's note: Professor Nordhaus explicitly disavowed The WSJ 16's (mis)use of his work.] The question of costs and benefits is particularly complex, because it convolves the uncertainties of climate model predictions with the uncertainties of economic models and subjective choices about how to value “costs” and “benefits.” Despite these major unknowns, the authors present Nordhaus’ analysis as simple, when the reality is anything but, and of course they don’t mention other analyses that give very different results. Go ahead and put the predictions of climate models over the last 20 years up against those from Friedman-esque economic models (speaking of Nobel laureates). I don’t think there would be much contest. Do you remember when tax cuts were guaranteed to boost the economy and lower government deficits, there was no housing bubble, and financial regulation was harmful? Compare those abject failures to the criticism of “smaller-than-predicted warming.” ‘Nuff said.
· Claim support for “excellent” climate scientists, having just compared them to Soviet apparatchiks. Once again, OK, guys, which is it? And they imply that “huge” sums are being misspent on climate research. Expenditures on climate related research are not “huge” by any reasonable definition, and in fact are almost certainly inadequate, irrespective of how effectively one thinks they’re being spent. Once again, no numbers, no specifics, just innuendo and dark hints.
This is, in my view, one of the most irresponsible and sad pieces of opinion writing I’ve seen in a long time.
It is by no means science or even vaguely scientific, despite the scientific background of its signatories. If this is where debate among scientists about climate change is headed, we’re doomed to a dark age where politics, PR, and unfounded accusations will rule and science will become irrelevant. I have come to expect that from some of our politicians and paid talking heads. But to see people with once-respected scientific credentials stoop so low is truly depressing, and bodes very poorly for the future of science as a means of finding viable solutions to the many problems faced by society. What’s worse, I know some of these guys, and have hard time believing they actually read what they signed (I may be naïve). All of them have made productive careers doing science. To see them turn on science itself in such a profoundly unprofessional, disingenuous and dishonest way is particularly disappointing.
Editor’s note: Links added by editor.