Obfuscating the climate change “debate”

The earth may soon burn due to climate change

Let's not let this happen, please.

I read a recent blog post by Steve Milloy, about one aspect of the recent Climategate controversy.  Milloy’s is a great example of the kind of faulty logic employed by many deniers of climate change: he conflates the political and social issues of scientists and their institutions with the science itself.  This just obfuscates efforts to convince the public that climate change is real and dangerous, which is reprehensible behaviour.

Milloy’s blog describes the process by which Professor Michael Mann of Penn State University was exonerated of wrong-doing in the Climategate matter, and calls into question the accuracy and conclusions of that process.  At no point does Milloy offer any counterarguments to the actual science that was performed and that was at the heart of Climategate.  Instead, he implies that since the investigation by Penn State was, according to him, seriously flawed, then Professor Mann is somehow guilty.  This is, of course, ridiculous.

I should note that Milloy is apparently a commentator for Fox News, a program known for it’s biased reporting on many issues.  (I say “apparently” because I would sooner eat paint than watch Fox News.) Perhaps that’s enough to label Milloy’s efforts as suspect.  But it’s easy to find more evidence.  There’s a great web page at info-pollution.com that describes sundry efforts by Milloy to undermine the science of climate change and how easily they are disproved.  There’s another account of Milloy’s tendencies at trwnews.net.  Or you can try the page at desmogblog.com.  I found all this information in 5 minutes thanks to Google.  I imagine there’s much more information available.

So it is quite evident that Milloy has got a hidden agenda connected to conservative political groups and stands clearly with Big Pharma/Agri/Business rather than on the side of science.  In other words, he’s a classic conservative.

Still, the best and most unassailable argument against Milloy’s position on climate change is that he doesn’t dispute the science, he only disputes the scientists.  I have argued elsewhere that it’s absolutely essential to separate the scientific facts from the individuals who endorse them and advocate for them.  Just because the Church forced Galileo to recant his declaration of a heliocentric universe doesn’t make it false. The facts are all already there – all we do is discover them – and it doesn’t matter what you do to the scientists, the science will stand or fall in the long run purely on its own merits.

Do we question the results of Stephen Hawking’s work because he’s disabled?  Are the theories of John Nash to be ignored because he’s a paranoid schizophrenic?  Are Newton’s Laws of motion disproved because Newton was a religious zealot who thought the world will end in 2060? That Marie Curie’s career as a scientist was nearly destroyed because she had an affair with a married man seems ridiculous today, but should the people of her time have set aside her discoveries because it?

Of course not.  The facts persist in spite of whatever else the scientist might do.  To try to disprove the science by undermining the scientist is not only wrong, it’s stupid.

The only arguments that people like Milloy can bring to bear against climate change that would have any weight at all, are scientific arguments.  If they clearly point out errors in data collection or analysis and do so in context of all the other work that exists on the subject, then scientists will listen.  And they will either agree, or they will disagree, but they will do so with more data.  It’s the data that matters; not the politics, and not the innuendo of unethical behaviour.

Unfortunately, when climate change deniers try to use the science to support their arguments, other climate scientists tend to quickly figure out rock-solid counterarguments.

Here’s a quick example: Professor Jerry Mitrovica gave a presentation in 2008 at the Design Exchange, in which he talked, amongst other things, about modelling changes to sea level in response to melting ice at the North and South poles.  He started with an argument used by climate change deniers: that sea level models of the time were not predicting sea level changes that lined up with observations.  The observations were that sea level was rising in some places, but going down in others.  Since the models were wrong, the deniers argued, then there was no climate change.  Other scientists took this at face value: it could be that the models were wrong.  So they set about looking for errors in the models and correcting them.

And they found a doozie!  It turns out that the ice in Greenland and Antartica is sitting on land, and adds substantially to the gravitational force that pulls water down to the poles.  So as the ice melts, it both adds to the total amount of water (because the ice sits on land, above sea level), and stops pulling the water to the poles.  The Earth’s spin makes the water flow away from the poles and towards the equator.  So while sea level goes up in the equatorial areas – and goes up more than expected – it can go down at the poles. And the new models that account for the gravitational pull of polar ice turned out to match actual observations extremely well.

So the climate change deniers actually instigated efforts that led to a vindication of the existence of climate change by building even better models that showed the effects of climate change will be even more pronounced than anyone had thought.  Talk about irony!

The truly abhorrent part of it is that many people believe Milloy and his denialist compatriots are correct, because they lack the training in debate, rhetoric, and (of course) science to understand just how subversive climate change denialism really is, and how vacuous the arguments of the denialists really are.  These unfortunately misguided people then sway politicians interested only in maintaining their own power to make poor decisions on matters of sustainable practises, research funding, education, industrial regulation, and health and welfare.  All this does is confuse things, push us ever closer to a global environmental disaster, and undermine the public trust in the real experts.

In summary, Steve Milloy is an entirely untrustworthy source of information on climate change (and, if other information sources are to be trusted, pretty much everything else too).  All that his vacuous pronouncements and ill-considered ramblings do is force real scientists – the ones who only care about discovering the facts – to waste their time undoing the damage that the climate change deniers do in the public eye.

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One thought on “Obfuscating the climate change “debate”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Obfuscating the climate change “debate” « the trouble with normal -- Topsy.com

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