Monday, December 29, 2008

Irrational warming

In my post below on Bill Cunningham's irrational arguments about global warming, a commenter responds, "Maybe he's been listening to all those liberals who claim that every example of an extreme weather event -- hurricanes, floods, drougts etc. -- are evidence of global warming, as though they never happened before before they came up with their theories."

This points to a different sort of rational error -- one that most scientists (if not all liberals) have been fairly scrupulous about avoiding, at least so far as I can tell. The deal is that some global warming scenarios forecast an increase in extreme weather events. The catch is that no one can say for sure what caused any one event.

Suppose, for example, that I have a .300 hitter in the middle of my lineup, and you have a .250 hitter. Over the course of a hundred trips to the plate, my hitter will get about five more hits than yours will. That's not a lot of hits, and nobody can tell which five hits they are going to be. They might be meaningless pop singles in the late innings of lopsided games, or they might be screaming liners with the score tied and the bases loaded.

But despite the fact that nobody can identify which hits make my hitter better than yours, everybody agrees that, other things being equal, or at least random, a lineup of .300 hitters will beat a lineup of .250 hitters every single season.

The global warming theory works the same way. We may never be able to blame any specific weather event on global warming, but that doesn't mean the threat isn't real. And if you don't buy that, then I have a .250 hitter I would like to trade you.


Matt Singer said...

Yeah, that's a pretty profoundly disappointing response. It's a bit like saying that newspapers or the Internet did nothing to aid public understanding because people already heard news before they started printing it. Or that coaches make no impact on performance because people played sports before people ever started coaching sports.

Alternately, it is a bit like arguing that global warming couldn't trigger global warming because the Earth wasn't at absolute zero a couple years ago.

The bigger difficulty is in discerning a couple degree shift globally averaged over years and years -- or noticing an uptick in extreme weather events. But given the tendency of the right to point to cold weather days as evidence against climate change, it seems perfectly fair (if nowhere near accurate) to me to point to any hot day or extreme weather event as "proof" of global warming.

Eric said...

Check the average temperature for the last decade - no temperature increase in a decade -

and the last two years decline more than offset any increases during the last 30 years -

Al Gore is a great showman, isn't he?

Anonymous said...

I chuckle at the idea that scientists (and even most liberals and journalists, apparently) are scrupulous about avoiding claims that extreme weather events are evidence of global warming.

I've heard those claims many times and, to put my memory to the test, did a quick search in the Gazette's archives. I found, just for example, a number of stories from 2005 in which Lee reporters cited the record highs from that year as evidence of global warming. Some also interviewed Steve Running, the UM scientist who is worshipped by so many. "This (year's heat wave) is just another data point further solidifying the scientific contention that global warming is well under way," he said in one of those stories.

I wish I had a buck for every news story I've read or heard that said a heat wave was caused by global warning, or forest fires were more intense due to global warming, etc. I'd be a millionaire today. If Cunningham is stupid for saying that this cold spell is evidence that global warming is a hoax, what does this practice say about the gray matter of journalists?

Journalists also tend to be gullible about more than global warming. And there are scientists who are happy to exploit that gullibility.

Remember the UM "scientist" who came out with the "study" earlier this year that claimed that rabbits had gone extinct in Yellowstone Park? You'd think reporters would have been suspicious of such a claim, but not so.

It wasn't until several Yellowstone based scientists wrote to the Gazette and said the guy was crazy and that the park was filled with rabbits that he retracted his claim. Funny thing, though, the same fellow was recently promoted at UM to a department chairmanship and the Missoulian did a long story on him. The story didn't mention his fraudulent research, but slobbered over his efforts to save the planet.

Shouldn't the press be exposing, rather than celebrating, junk scientists?

Speaking of junk science, some of the commenters in the other post brought up Al Gore. I won't get into his work on global warming work, but remember being struck by one of his claims in "Earth in the Balance." In that book, he says (page 24) that 40,000 animals and plants go extinct each year. This claim used to be repeated a lot, and I'm not aware of any journalists who have ever challenged it. But if you think about it, does it make any sense? If there are that many species going extinct, can anyone reading this name one or two dozen that have gone extinct in the last year? How about in the last decade? Last 50 years?

And this guy won a Nobel Prize and is celebrated by the left has some sort of science wizard.

Folks on the left have eagerly embraced other junk science claims, one of the most famous being Paul Ehrlich's prediction in Population Bomb that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation and disease in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation. Needless to say, Ehrlich blew it.

He also lost a famous bet with Julian Simon, the libertarian who argued that larger populations were a benefit, not a cost, and that resources would get cheaper over time. To test their contrasting views on resources, Ehrlich and Simon wagered over how the price of metals would move during the 1980s. Simons correctly guessed they would fall, and won all $1,000 from the bet.

That bet has relevance today. Dr. John Holdren of Harvard helped Ehrlich pick the five metals involved in the bet. Holdren is Obama's pick as his science adviser and according to John Tierney of the NY Times, has hardened in his views, rather than being humbled by the experience of being so wrong. Is this a sign that politics prevail over true science in this new administration? We'll have to wait and see.

I won't argue that the left is the only group that embraces junk science. All sides do at times when they want to lend a patina of scientific respectability to their political causes. But I think the left is more brazen about it because they know the press is less likely to call them on it than it will those on the right.

David said...

Anonymous 756, I'm not sure why you tried to expand my claim to include liberals and journalists, but you were wrong to do so. I made no such claim. The one piece of evidence that you cite from an actual scientist was, in fact, accurate. Running is correct to say that a heat wave is a data point solidifying a contention. When my .300 hitter goes 2-for-4 and your .250 hitter strikes out three times, that doesn't prove my hitter is better, but it is a data point. Had Cunningham made a similarly modest statement, you would hear no complaint from me. But Cunningham called the cold wave a "refutation" of the global warming "hoax." That's just nonsense, as you well know. So why are you defending it?

Instead, you bring in irrelevant material about bets on metal prices, species extinction and Ehrlich's population theories, which I haven't read but have always suspected were less of a scientific conclusion than a jeremiad aimed at staving off the future he feared.

Anonymous said...

Now I'm scratching my head. Where did I defend Cunningham's refutation of global warming as a hoax?

Actually, I'm open-minded about the issue. I'm willing to be convinced that we need to take strong steps to control greenhouse gases. But I'm skeptical of a lot of reporting on the issue. And I think a lot of the scientists working on the issue are advocates, rather than dispassionate researchers who will follow the facts and numbers regardless of where they lead.

As for bringing in liberals and journalists, I did that because you had a discussion of talk radio journalists and conservatives in the previous post. One of your commenters cited the Mill quote that it " true that most stupid people are conservative" ... a sentiment often expressed on this site. One of the stupid things they do, according to people who comment here, is they believe in things that have no basis in science.

That was the point of my bringing up liberals and journalists, who are on the other end of the spectrum from conservatives and talk radio. I provided examples of how they've been known to embrace junk science when it suited their purposes -- just as you say Cunningham has done.