Monbiot: Tools and Fools

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

RealClear Politics posts a link to an article by George Monbiot in The Guardian in which the noted advocate of government controls premised on global warming moves from defense to offense in the aftermath of the breaking of the ClimateGate scandal. I had earlier noted here that I found that an earlier response of his to the leaked emails at least bore some resemblance to what that of a conscientious scientist would be like.

But the global warming debate is a confused mess of state-funded science and pressure group warfare, and Monbiot is firmly in the government coercion camp of the political debate. Today, we see how he reacts as the political activist he is. I must say that I find him much more disappointing on this level.

Monbiot's piece takes three observations as his point of departure. Here they are below, listed as bullet points directly from his piece. I follow each with my brief response in bold.

  • The first is the tendency of those who claim to be the champions of climate science to minimise [the] importance [of the leaked emails]. True.
  • The second observation is the tendency of those who don't give a fig about science to maximise their importance. Also true, and, moreover, even some who do care about the science might be jumping the gun.
  • The third observation is the contrast between the global scandal these emails have provoked and the muted response to 20 years of revelations about the propaganda planted by fossil fuel companies. This is where things get interesting.
The meat of this piece is the third point, in which Monbiot slams the "denial industry." Given the saturation of our culture with anti-capitalist sentiment, the very term is a smear and leads in almost predictably to Monbiot's rhetorical approach, which I will return to shortly.

But first, a word about the science. I am not a climatologist, but I am a scientist. I have recently started looking at the scientific side of this debate and find that the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis (or at least parts of it) to be reasonable, but I am still learning about the evidence pro and con. Although I am disinclined to accept the hypothesis, I am still weighing it.

At this point, I have to declare my official position to be agnostic on the scientific questions of (1) whether there is warming, (2) if so, whether it is due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; (3) if so, whether human activity has caused a substantial portion of said increase; and (4) what effects would accrue from such warming. Nevertheless, as an advocate of capitalism, I am completely opposed to the economic strangulation of the global economy that is being proposed as a "solution" to this alleged crisis and would be even if I regarded the most dire predictions to be likely.

With that in mind, I do have to take issue with one scientific point Monbiot makes.
Even if you were to exclude every line of evidence that could possibly be disputed -- the proxy records, the computer models, the complex science of clouds and ocean currents -- the evidence for man-made global warming would still be unequivocal. You can see it in the measured temperature record, which goes back to 1850; in the shrinkage of glaciers and the thinning of sea ice; in the responses of wild animals and plants and the rapidly changing crop zones.
No. I think you would see an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and an increase in global temperature for this time period. However, without proxies (for temperature, carbon dioxide, and any number of other things), you would have no way of discerning whether anything like what we're observing has also occurred before the Industrial Revolution or is within the normal range of variability of the global climate. Proxies are vital to evaluating this theory in the same way that we use historical evidence to evaluate political theories: We simply can't run experiments on the the entire planet, so information from the past is the next best thing.

Also, you would need climate models to integrate all the climate data with your theory to (a) discern whether your theory might indeed accurately describe what is going on now, (b) look into the past to see whether your theory still explains things without man's current output of carbon dioxide, and, thereby (c) determine whether there might be something your theory is still failing to account for. (And, yes, if everything holds up, you can reasonably attempt to forecast what might happen to earth's climate in the future.)

Ditto for "the complex science of clouds and ocean currents." For one thing, these (and many other factors that affect climate) would need to accounted for in anything as complex as a decent computer model of the climate. If correlation does not equal causation, it certainly doesn't equal "unequivocal" proof of the hypothesis that man is causing the earth to warm, and indeed "a novel and radical theory [might] be required."

Moving on...

Monbiot's third argument is something of a cross between, "May he who is without guilt cast the first stone," attempting to hide the elephant we have all just found in plain sight and right under our noses while we watch, and the argument from intimidation.

Predictably jumping straight for the throats of the wicked "energy companies," Monbiot screams payola and cites deliberate attempts by companies to plant "memes" with the help of "PR companies and hired experts." These "memes" are targeted at less educated and less intellectual demographics who are "more confident expressing opinions on others' motivations and tactics than they do expressing opinions on scientific issues." (Would you feel more confident arguing about the minute details of how a carburetor works with a mechanic or discussing his honesty? Some things simply are more accessible to more people.) The "memes" include such ideas as, "climate scientists are only in it for the money, or that environmentalists are trying to create a communist world government."

"Remember," Monbiot says, "these ideas were devised and broadcast by energy companies." Never mind that the measures being considered are worldwide economic controls that include massive redistribution of wealth. Never mind that the climate scientists' government patrons are busy spreading memes of global catastrophe of their own devising. Never mind that our government-controlled education system is so saturated with tenured radicals and global warming alarmists that the best chance at persuading someone that these measures are a bad idea might appear to be to reach out to those not subjected or susceptible to its constant ideological barrage. Never mind that pervasive government controls of the economy necessitate public relations campaigns targeted at voters by all kinds of corporations. And never mind whether these "memes" might actually be true: If you buy them, George Monbiot has just called you a fool or a tool.

I personally don't think that fighting mainly over the science is the best tactic for the embattled energy companies to take. Rather, they should start proudly standing up for themselves as producers on moral grounds and for everyone's freedom on the basis of the idea that a government's sole proper purpose is the protection of individual rights.

It has been the sheepish acceptance of altruism and state controls by the corporations that has caused them to cede the moral high ground to people like George Monbiot and Al Gore, and desperately fight them on the home turf of climate specialists, gambling that either they're wrong about the science or (worse) that they can wrongly convince most of the public that these scientists are wrong. The proper tactic, again, is this: Whatever the science says (yes, no, or maybe), admit it. And then argue from correct political principles that take into account man's nature and the proper role of government when engaging in the political debate about global warming legislation.

-- CAV

25 comments:

Mike said...

Well observed.

Science is supposed to welcome scrutiny and celebrate skepticism. The entire basis for virtually every scientific advance ever has been a willingness to challenge existing conclusions by testing new ideas by experiment.

It's even more a sign that environmentalism is a religion, to borrow a turn of phrase from Michael Crichton, and not science, when we see people who are ostensibly "scientists" waging a political propaganda battle against everyone in disagreement with their orthodoxy.

It's hard for anyone to sympathize with their position when they speak to one another of using "tricks" to make the data appear more consonant with the political goals of their grant-funding benefactors.

Gus Van Horn said...

Mike,

Thanks.

Regarding your last sentence, that seems to be the main thing Monbiot is concerned with here.

Gus

madmax said...

Gus,

I'll be interested in your assessment of the scientific debate. Many Objectivists are drawing attention to Lord Mockton's recent speeches which claim that AGW has been scientifically invalidated. I just don't know enough to agree.

It is my fear though that AGW is true. Because if it is, the O'ist argument that the science is irrelevant to the moral political defense of liberty/capitalism will be impossible to make in this culture.

I also have something of a metaphysical reaction to AGW. The environmentalist movement presents industrial society as "unnatural" but this is false. Man's survival mechanism is reason thus industrial civilization is entirely natural given man's nature. If AGW is true it would seem that man's very tool of survival - reason - is working against him in that the products of reason - technology - are contributing to the ruination of the planet. This would be depressing if true on many levels. Which is why I hope that AGW turns out to be false. But in the end, reality is what it is and can't be conned.

Gus Van Horn said...

It is my fear though that AGW is true. Because if it is, the O'ist argument that the science is irrelevant to the moral political defense of liberty/capitalism will be impossible to make in this culture.

I disagree. Furthermore, if AGW weren't an issue, the environmentalists would seize on some other real or imagined problem caused by technology, so we's still have (and do have) the problems of helping people understand that philosophy precedes science in the philosophical hierarchy AND properly laying out the appropriateness of science in debates concerning politics. (It does have a place, but not in determining whether the government should redistribute wealth.)

"If AGW is true it would seem that man's very tool of survival - reason - is working against him in that the products of reason - technology - are contributing to the ruination of the planet..."

This is exactly the kind of context-dropping they indulge in and hope to trick you into doing as well. Technology can mitigate such a problem in many ways and a rational political structure would leave us free to act at the level that counts to reduce its impact on our own lives: as individuals.

I am being vague here, but I am thinking about these questions (and AGW) myself and have more thinking to do. But for now it is indeed interesting how much those who regard man as a natural abomination have invested in making it seem like man is destroying his own habitat, while ignoring the fact that man's peculiar mode of existence entails adapting his surroundings to meet his needs!

AC said...

madmax,

How do you get "AGW true" => "reason ruins our planet"?

That doesn't follow, IMHO. Maybe you could fill in some of the details you left out?

Andrew Dalton said...

madmax -

There's no use trying to second-guess and triangulate against all of the possible ways in which people might irrationally think about environmentalism (or any other issue). As always, the solution is to lay out and defend the correct principles from the beginning. It's an uphill battle, but it's also the only method that has a chance of success.

Anything less is like trying to pick up a turd from the clean end.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Anything less is like trying to pick up a turd from the clean end."

Quite true.

On a lighter note, and on a literal level I prefer leave such activities to those, "who would pollute any stream by stepping into it."

Mo said...

on HBL the philosophical issues given for global warming all involve the science. to sum them up:

1)philosophical corruption of science with social subjectivism,

2)the philosophical corruption of science with the quasi-Platonism of computer models and

3)The philosophical prejudice against capitalism as you alluded to in your post.

madmax said...

AC,

Essentially I was fearing that the core environmental premise might be true and that is "rational man if left free might destroy himself by means of his own technology." This would mean that man, the great tool builder, would be killing himself indirectly in the very process of building his tools. But as Gus indicated to me, that is the very premise which needs to be challenged and not tacitly accepted.

Gus Van Horn said...

Mo,

On HBL, there is a discussion going on ABOUT the science specifically, and you do touch on some of the issues that come up, but your bullet points are too terse to accurately characterize them here.

In addition, I have not read all the posts in that exchange, and so will refrain from commenting on it.

That said, it is possible to use models objectively in science as a means of testing one's hypotheses when an experiment is unfeasible for any number of reasons. I am not speaking for (or about) anyone at HBL, but you do bring up something I have noticed: I have seen models dismissed too lightly (or even completely, as such) by non-scientists, particularly many people opposed to global warming legislation.

A model -- like an abstraction -- is just a tool, and a model -- like an abstraction -- can be formed in an objective way or not. To dismiss all models as "Platonic" (which I don't think anyone there has done) would be just as wrong as dismissing all abstractions as "Platonic."

Gus

Mo said...

Gus

Personally,I support using computer models for climate research. what I don't support however is preaching computer models that are not robust, ie, models that only work in narrow domains. Climate models are not consistent with with a wide range of observations.

The claim of AGW is about certainty, ie, the model purportedly found that upward trend is not due to natural phenomena but it's due to external driver forcing (ie, someone is responsible and it must be humans)

Most of the IPCC authors are dudes who only understand statistical analysis. Hansen's understanding of numerical models for example is pretty primitive.

anyhow there isn't enough space to get into all of this.

just my 2 cents

madmax said...

Robert Tracinski made the three points listed by MO. They're interesting points but they would have to be grounded in proper argument. And we know Tracinski has a tendency for rationalism, so I hope he doesn't make the argument that all computer models are Platonic. That would be right up there with soccer being inherently socialistic.

Steve D said...

We simply can't run experiments on the entire planet.”

This is the proper way to settle the issue. Take twenty planets similar to Earth, divide them into an experimental group and a control group. Increase the carbon dioxide level in one group and not in the other. Measure the atmospheric and surface temperature for all the planets for several hundred years and look for statistically significant differences between the two groups of planets. Then your conclusion would then have the rigor of biochemistry.

Of course your next best thing will always have to deal with the possibility that an unknown factor is involved but it is impossible to control for this when you have only one planet to access.

The temperature record doesn’t prove anything. Even if the temperature drops you could argue that it dropped less than it should have because of increased carbon dioxide levels.

The main issues in my opinion are the incredible complexity of climate and the difficulty of discerning cause vs. effect. Also, I would still like to understand the discrepancy between atmospheric and surface temperature; if anyone has a good explanation I would love to hear it.

“Which is why I hope that AGW turns out to be false.”

The problem is that most of the major advances in history have been associated with warmer temperatures. I think within reason that AGW would be good for humanity. The average temperature of the Earth is well below the optimal level for humans and crops.

Gus Van Horn said...

Mo,

Can't argue with the need for robust models, but can't yet get into great detail about them now anyway.

madmax,

"Robert Tracinski made the three points listed by MO. ... And we know Tracinski has a tendency for rationalism, so I hope he doesn't make the argument that all computer models are Platonic. That would be right up there with soccer being inherently socialistic."

Well, maybe that's why these are among the points I hadn't read!

Somehow, I saw that he interviewed Ian Plimer, too. Figures.

Steve,

It is interesting not only how much global warming alarmists have invested in making man out to be a villain, but also how little they consider the benefits that might accrue to man due to a warmer climate!

Gus

mtnrunner2 said...

Although I'm highly suspicious of the science, I'm also agnostic on it until further notice.

Having grown up as a child of a (partially government-funded) university scientist, I don't buy the idea that climate science is all a sham. Most scientists do science to find out what is happening in the world, and would bristle at the suggestion that they are purposely cooking the books just because it suits some ulterior political motive.

HOWEVER...

...government money is taken by force, will be subject to pressure to support the ends of policy makers (both by pressure from them, and by the scientist seeking grants in areas that offer abundant funding), and works against rational choice by virtue of being stolen funds. Washington probably does not care about some obscure insect species for which it gave a research grant. But it does care about global warming, and there is doubtless incredible pressure to produce results that are relevant to the policy goal. After all, they don't call it the "International Panel on Climate Maybe-Change-Maybe-Stasis-Cooling-Warming-Who-Knows?".

Government funding gives momentum to something that may have died out for lack of support in a free society. It may be that some of the science is good, or it may not. But the massive funding of government, and the massive power of governments to enact punitive laws over its helpless, voiceless minions (and business-minions), has the power to propel a fringe idea to center stage. It is being forced upon us whether we agree or not.

It's also utter nonsense for environmentalist sympathizers to try to whitewash the CRU emails as meaningless everyday scientific banter. They are clearly engaging in deception, which can be called "fudging" at best.

Nonetheless, the science is secondary to the matter of how humanity faces its problems and treats the individual. The crucial part of my comment (http://tinyurl.com/y8kql8e ) to Mr. Moonbat... er... Monbiat was as follows:

"If any progress is to be made by humanity, it will not be made by an enslaved, rightless populace that has its earthly income stripped from it for purposes unknown and unwanted. Regardless of what natural disasters may face us, only a free population can properly think, act, and therefore respond to them. Funding government science, and imposing onerous environmental laws, takes away this right."

Gus Van Horn said...

Jeff,

Both the above comments and the ones you left at Monbiot's article are on the mark.

I especially appreciate your comments on how the massive funding of certain "hot" areas can affect the overall direction of scientific research, as well as your comments regarding the role of poor government in harming the third world (at the other site).

Gus

Grant said...

In my opinion, the stance to be taken is this: AGW (the problem) vs. government-imposed preventative measures (the solution) achieve the same end.

If not for industry (and the excessive above-subsistence consumption those in the West enjoy which incentivizes that industry) the people in the developing and undeveloped parts of the world would not be alive. It is the West's economies of scale, it's sharing of technological know-how, and it's cultural influence which has caused the populations of those parts of the world to grow. If you reduce industry in the West (either outright, or by taking away the incentive to maintain it), those people die and us in the West are reduced to subsistence.

This the exactly the same scenario feared by the AGW-proponents. It's just that instead of them being worried that the government will cause the death and destruction, they think mother nature will do it.

So really, what difference does it make if the science turns out to be true or not? If it turns out to be true that the amount of people and consumption happening right now is too much, we'll pay the price for it, and so government making it pay it prematurely is pointless.

Gus Van Horn said...

Grant,

It's true that this legislation would guarantee many of the aspects of the worst-case scenarios the AGW scaremongers would have us believe, but morality and politics (i.e., egoism and individual rights) is the proper framework for our side of this debate.

The problem with your retort to the warmists is that it risks the same pitfalls as the arguments of pro-capitalists who tout capitalism as being better able to meet the needs of the poor (which it is), but leave it at that: It's too easily seen as a capitulation to the morality of altruism.

There's nothing wrong with pointing that out, but the real reason to defend industrial civilization is because it improves your own life by protecting your ability to be good.

Gus

Steve D said...

“But morality and politics (i.e., egoism and individual rights) is the proper framework for our side of this debate.”

From the political side yes, but if the data is being seriously over interpreted and more so if it has been fudged that’s a whole different debate worth having.

Gus,

If you are planning on following up on this here are some interesting issues to investigate:

1) CO2 is known to be a greenhouse gas when measured in a pure state in high concentration. It is not known whether it will retain these properties in a complex mixture and in the tiny amounts it is present in the atmosphere, since we cannot measure greenhouse effects that small. Certain assumptions have been made but I don’t know the science well enough to evaluate them. Are these assumptions reasonable?

2) Assuming that under these conditions CO2 has the approximate GH properties assigned, what effects does this have in a dynamic system such as our atmosphere?

3) What is the historical cause and effect relationship between CO2 and temperature; If as is generally observed increased temperature precedes increased CO2, can this work in the opposite direction or have a positive feedback loop?
a. Is the CO2 increase in the atmosphere directly attributable to industrial activities? After all many changes in CO2 level have occurred in the past due to natural causes.

4) Since atmospheric measurements have been made, surface temperatures have increased by atmospheric temperatures have not. This is really perplexing because AGW theory predicts that the atmospheric temperature should increase first. In fact, other theories for increased temperatures also predict atmosphere first. Therefore, AGW or not something is going on that is not well understood.

5) A lot of physicists point to changes in solar intensity as the cause. In fact the changes in solar temperature correlate well to changes in the Earth’s surface temperature. The problem is the energy involved appears to be too small to cause the effects observed unless there a positive feedback loop of some sort – One wild idea I have is that perhaps increased CO2 levels could magnify the effect of solar changes. It is interesting to note that many physicists are skeptical about AGW vs. climatologists who are more likely to support it.

6) There is a strong argument that small amounts of GW would be good for humanity. The problem is that if GW is occurring it probably would not stop at that small amount. What would the optimal temperature be for people and crops to benefit mankind?

“I don't buy the idea that climate science is all a sham. Most scientists do science to find out what is happening in the world, and would bristle at the suggestion that they are purposely cooking the books just because it suits some ulterior political motive.”

The issue is not the data itself but the interpretation of the data. As a scientist, every day I see how two very intelligent and competent scientists can come to a completely different interpretation using the same data. With something as complex as climate, the science of which is still in its infancy one would expect multiple interpretations.
By the way, increased levels of CO2 will have benefits (increased photosynthesis) and hazards (decreased respiration) which go well beyond AGW. My general feeling is that if all or part of the increased CO2 is due to human activities it’s probably not a good idea for this not to go on forever. The solution to the problem is to gradually switch over to nuclear energy. The nuclear industry has almost been regulated out of existence and in a freer economy would probably be the major form of energy production and AGW would not even be an issue. This is the solution that environmentalists should be advocating. Why aren’t they?

Mo said...

yep thats what the pro-capitalists due. defend capitalism on economic grounds but not on moral grounds ( individual rights and rational self-interest).

Condemning the ideas of anti-capitalists as immoral and evil has a very powerful effect compared to anything else.

Gus Van Horn said...

Steve,

Thanks for the many intelligent comments and observations about the difficulties of assessing the AGW hypothesis, especially the following general comment:

"As a scientist, every day I see how two very intelligent and competent scientists can come to a completely different interpretation using the same data. With something as complex as climate, the science of which is still in its infancy one would expect multiple interpretations."

Indeed. This is on top of becoming familiar with a new area, which is not as easy or straightforward as many would like to believe.

And even then, there will be areas I have not read as much as others. I will reach a point where I have satisified myself that I understand the science and make up my mind on some issues or decide I don't know about others.

And yet, ...

There is no such thing as being able to read and understand enough in an area of science to argue against an expert thoroughly convinced (even if wrongly) or a layman thoroughly indoctrinated with one side of such a debate.

Take the usual problems of any debate and multiply them tenfold with liberal doses of minutiae, some of which you'll never be familiar with!

To read, and read, and read up on an area of science with the mission of winning arguments is a fool's errand.

This last is perhaps the nastiest trick in the rhetorical arsenal of tyhe warmists!

Gus

mtnrunner2 said...

Gus,

You reminded me of something I once remarked... maybe on NoodleFood: IMO one reason the environmentalists have seized upon global warming as a flagship issue is *precisely because* it is hard to understand. The better to befuddle their opponents.

While we are busy being conscientious and trying to decide if the science is good, they will do an end run and enact their altruist political agenda.

That's why I push the individual rights side of the equation. Regardless of what science says, they can't enact their plans without a moral sanction. We need to destroy that sanction.

Gus Van Horn said...

Jeff,

That's an astute observation, and I think you are absolutely right.

I think that it is essential, in addition to admitting what the science says in fighting back against this type of argument, to also undconditionally separate it from what is being put over on people.

Gus

Steve D said...

To read, and read, and read up on an area of science with the mission of winning arguments

Probably not worth it but:

To read, and read, and read up on an area of science with the mission of learning the truth.

Might be worth it if the issue is important and of interest to you.

“IMO one reason the environmentalists have seized upon global warming as a flagship issue is *precisely because* it is hard to understand.”

This could be or it could be they just got lucky. In any event the complexity certainly works to their advantage. However, one thing I should point out is that the argument that the sheer amount of data supporting AGW is a red herring. No matter how much data you have to prove that the Earth is warming none of it addresses the cause. That is a completely different argument and requires a completely different method.

Proving cause and effect is hard. Some climatologists believe that the 20th century warming is the back end of the world coming out of the little ice age and just by chance happened to coincide with industrialization. 1000 years ago the Northern Hemisphere was much warmer than it is today otherwise Greenland wouldn’t have its name.

Some other points for consideration:
1) A majority of studies and weather measurements have occurred in the Northern hemisphere. Statistically methods can be used to normalize the smaller amount of data from the Southern hemisphere. How valid are these?
2) How does the recent observations that other planets (Mars, Jupiter, Venus) seem to be warming factor into this debate
3) Does the CO2 added to the atmosphere replace N2 or O2 or is additive making the atmosphere slightly thicker?

I posted my rhetorical question about why environmentalists do not support nuclear energy because when I was young, it was an epiphany to find out they didn’t support it and it made me realize they really were anti-life, not just looking for a practical solution to our problems.

Gus Van Horn said...

"I posted my rhetorical question about why environmentalists do not support nuclear energy because when I was young, it was an epiphany to find out they didn’t support it and it made me realize they really were anti-life, not just looking for a practical solution to our problems.

That's very interesting. My epiphany was learning about the water cycle after a year or so of turning the faucet off and on when I brushed my teeth in order to "conserve water."

I was always suspicious of them after that.