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The value of coherence in science

Posted on 6 October 2010 by Stephan Lewandowsky

Guest podcast by Stephan Lewandowsky
(listen to the original audio podcast)

Suppose a bloke drifts up to you and says, “Apples don’t exist”... While your eyebrows are still rising, he adds, “but they grow naturally on trees!”

What?

“Apples don’t exist but they grow naturally on trees?” Surely you wouldn’t trust that bloke with the lives of your children if their future depended on logical coherence.

Now suppose you walk down the street and some other bloke sidles up and says, “The price of sheep is unknown, but I’d buy some now because they are cheap.”

‘Scuse me?

The price of sheep is unknown but they are cheap? No point trusting that bloke with your kids’ lives either, if their future depended on logical coherence.

Now here’s a surprising fact: Your kids’ future, and the future of their kids, very much depends on logical coherence—very much hinges on protecting them and their future from the incoherent claims of so-called climate “skeptics.”

One of the reliable insights of philosophy of science is that scientific knowledge is virtually never incoherent. In science, a hallmark criterion of whether you can possibly be right is whether or not you are coherent. If you are coherent, you might be right. If you are incoherent or contradict yourself, then you are most likely wrong.

The beauty of this is that you don’t even need data or peer-reviewed science to be sure: If an argument is incoherent or mutually contradictory, then you can be fairly confident that it is wrong or stated for entertainment purposes only.

What does this have to do with so-called climate “skeptics?”

Everything.

Because the sum total of so-called “skeptic” arguments is an incoherent muddle of contradictions.

On a Monday morning your resident “skeptic” might tell you that global warming does not exist. On the Monday afternoon, she may tell you that the warming is all natural, just the same way that non-existent apples grow on trees.

Nothing this incoherent can be right.

And on Tuesday, a so-called “skeptic” may drift into town and make claims about the temperature record not being accurate. He might also assure you that there is nothing to worry about because it hasn’t been warming in the last 23 days anyhow. So the sheep are cheap but no one knows their price.

Nothing this incoherent can be right.

By Wednesday morning, your excited “skeptic” may have invented the possibility that the sun is causing global warming, and by afternoon tea time it might be cosmic rays, or El Niño, or Inspector Clouseau or whatever.

Now, you may find it hard to believe that anyone could be so muddled, but in fact, it takes little effort to go to a “skeptic” website and dig out dozens if not hundreds such contradictions. Hundreds of instances in which apples were said not to exist but then happily grow on trees. Hundreds of clear indications that this so-called “skepticism” amounts to little more than muddled mutterings.

There is, of course, a coherent alternative. It is the coherent and overwhelmingly supported scientific fact that the Earth’s climate is warming and that humans are largely responsible for it. That is coherent, backed by peer-reviewed science, and endorsed by all major scientific organizations in the world.

LISTEN TO THE AUDIO PODCAST

This 3-minute podcast was previously “blog reviewed” here on www.skepticalscience.com, and I wish to thank those who contributed to improving this piece through their thoughtful and detailed comments. For new readers, please bear in mind that the podcasts are spoken and hence must be understandable by listening alone—though obvious, this is no trivial matter because it mandates simplifications that would be unnecessary in writing.

For aficionados of philosophical esoterica, a theory of ontology known as Meinongianism, after Alexius Meinong, holds that even non-existent entities (e.g., Santa Claus) have some type of “being” simply because one can think about them, which in turn means that they may be thought to have properties (e.g., living at the North Pole). This position has been critiqued by several philosophers, Bertrand Russell foremost among them, and I am not aware of it having any influence on contemporary science.

I thank my philosopher colleague Dr Nic Damnjanovic for helpful discussions about the issues raised in this podcast.

There will be a post forthcoming on this website in the near future that explicitly enumerates contradictions and incoherent statements made by “skeptics.” In the meantime, you may wish to check Eli Rabbett’s earlier analysis of contradictions.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 85:

  1. You are correct that coherence is important. It is not incoherent to say that the Earth goes through short cycle and long cycle changes. The Earth is experiencing a short cycle of warming during a long cycle of cooling. The data supports that statement.

    You argue about not knowing the price of sheep, but wanting to buy while they are cheap. I pointed out that the Taylor Dome shows the past 6,000 years cooling while having 10,000 of increasing CO2 levels. I am told that CO2 is the main forcing factor in climate, but not to concern myself with the data. That is incoherent.

    There are many incoherent people that are skeptics. There are many incoherent people that believe in AGW. I will be called incoherent for not believing in AGW, but in the end CO2 has been rising for the past 10,000 years and the Earth has been in a long term cooling trend for the past 6,000 years. The Earth is not a linear system and as such there are many peaks and valleys along the way. The current period is a peak, I hope it lasts a long time because the valleys are unpleasant.

    The Earth is always changing. It has never and will never stay the same. Our current technology is allowing to see and measure that change.

    John Kehr
    The Inconvenient Skeptic
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  2. @TIS: There's nothing incoherent with CO2 rising by a relatively small amount and temperatures in slow decline. The reason is that CO2 is one of the main forcings but not the only one.

    What this means is that, since the Holocene Climate Optimum, the slow rise in CO2 has not been enough to counter the other long-term forcings (Milankovitch cycles in this case, IIRC).

    What you don't seem to understand is that the CO2 increase you refer to is *three* orders of magnitude smaller (i.e. about 1000x less) than the current increase. As for the temperature drop, it is also dwarfed by the current increase, representing only 2.5% of it in absolute terms.

    The Earth does go through cycles, short and long, but what you have to realize is that it's highly unlikely the current warming is due to a natural cycle. In fact, considering what the science tells us, it's nearly impossible.

    Oh, one more thing: you should really quit spamming links to your blog. It's not a very classy move.
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  3. The natural increase was a 9% increase. Since then there has been a 39% increase in CO2. That is a multiple of 4.3 not 3 orders of magnitude. 280ppm to 390 ppm is in no way an increase of 1000x.

    I was not insulting although the article was to those that disagree. I don't mind being insulted, but please look at the Taylor Dome temperature of the past 1,000 years before saying that the current warming is very unlikely to be natural. The Taylor Dome shows 4 warming periods comparable to the current.
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  4. TIS at 1,

    Why are you using the extreme ends of the Earth - Arctic on your website, and Antarctic in your link - to make an argument about average global temperatures?

    Surely a dataset with a decent spread of locations across the globe would be far more suitable?
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  5. @TIS: "The natural increase was a 9% increase. Since then there has been a 39% increase in CO2. That is a multiple of 4.3 not 3 orders of magnitude. 280ppm to 390 ppm is in no way an increase of 1000x."

    A 9 percent increase over millenia, which amounts to a rate of increase of 0.27ppm per century (the figure from the graph on your blog) , vs. a rate of increase of 2ppm per year, which is likely to increase to 3 and more if the current trend in emmissions continues.

    As I said, about three orders of magnitude.

    "I was not insulting although the article was to those that disagree. I don't mind being insulted"

    Uh...who said anything about insults? I didn't insult you, nor did I insinuated you insulted others. I simply asked you to stop spamming your blog.

    "but please look at the Taylor Dome temperature of the past 1,000 years before saying that the current warming is very unlikely to be natural. The Taylor Dome shows 4 warming periods comparable to the current."

    It's hard to say because your graph does not show how it compares to the instrumental record. Without providing the context of temperatures for the last hundred years, your claim is meaningless.

    In other words, your graph does not allow to make the claim that similar average temperature increases have occured in the last 1,000 years, nor that average temperatures have been higher than the current ones during the past millenium.

    You should learn more about the science before adding one more outlet to an already crowded contrarian blogosphere...
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  6. TIS, you may want to have a look at this to get a sense of proportions with regards to temperatures during the last millennium.
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  7. Re: The Inconvenient Skeptic (1, 3)

    I looked at your Taylor Dome link. What I see is a graph with trend lines fitted...with no real analysis, no discussion of the radiative physics involved; in short, no evidence that you possess a substantive understanding of what you are trying to debunk.

    Climate Science is an extremely complex subject. Unless you have a multi-disciplinarian background, playing with data sets to create graphs reveals no insights into the underlying processes involved due to the lack of context and understanding.

    For example, your statement:
    "The Taylor Dome shows 4 warming periods comparable to the current."
    is rebutted by a layman's discussion here.

    I second everything archiesteel said in his most excellent comments above (except for #6). ;)

    You really should try to gain a greater understanding of the role of CO2 as the Biggest Control Knob.

    The Yooper
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  8. Bringing back the discussion to this podcast (still can't find the RSS feed to subscribe to the podcast), I think the topic of coherence is essential to repeat often.

    Someone doesn't have to be an expert to understand that incoherent explanations have problems.
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  9. TIC,

    Sigh. You say " I am told that CO2 is the main forcing factor in climate,"

    You are getting confused between the relative contributions of different forcing mechanisms, and the time scale involved. Moreover, you seem to be confusing different eras and forcing mechanisms, and also seem to misunderstand the importance of rate of change.

    For some time now, anthro GHGs have been a significant forcing mechanism (they are of course not the only forcing mechanism, that is why the global temperature has not been increasing monotonically), and that forcing will increase continue to increase with time anthro CO2 and other GHGs concentrations continue to rise (not to mention increases in GHGs from feedbacks as the permafrost melts, for example).

    You also fail to propose a physical and realistic natural mechanism which explains the the recent warming. Not only that, but one which explains the distribution of the warming around the globe (i.e., polar amplification), timing of warming (i.e., evening temperatures warming faster than day-time temperatures and most pronounced warming in winter), as well as the vertical profile of warming (warming of troposphere and cooling of stratosphere). Now there is a well-established and tested coherent theory which can explain all that, and it is not natural.....

    Many of the misconceptions and myths surrounding anthropogenic climate change are addressed elsewhere on this site. I really do recommend you read them and the literature cited therein.

    Let us cut to the chase, because this is what it ultimately boils down to, and this is where the uncertainty lies:

    1) What do you understand equilibrium climate sensitivity to be without feed backs for doubling CO2 (or CO2 equivalent)?
    2) What do you understand equilibrium climate sensitivity to be with feed backs (positive and negative) for doubling CO2 (or CO2 equivalent)?

    Thanks.
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  10. I suppose you would also say the stockmarket would only be correct, or useful, or practical, if it was coherant.

    It took several thousand years to get this nonsense about 'coherance' out of economics, and I suppose it's goung to take several thousand years to get this nonsense about 'coherance' out of fields of science which deal with projections and non-verifiable theories.
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  11. thingo #11

    So what you're saying is that one of the assumptions surrounding economics is that it doesn't have to make sense, and consequently the same should be true of science. There's a reason that economics is called the "dismal science". Alternatively there's the old joke: Why did god invent economists? To make weathermen look good.

    With respect to the stock market, it tracks money, which is an abstract construct created by humans. It's reality is internally generated (which is why insanities like refusing to price externalities exist in that field). Natural sciences on the other hand exist to explain phenomena that usually have some sort of existence outisde of human concerns.

    As a result, your argument makes no sense whatsoever to me.
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  12. @thingadonta: "I suppose you would also say the stockmarket would only be correct, or useful, or practical, if it was coherant."

    Why would anyone say that? You're comparing a chaotic transactional system with argumentation about a scientific theory. You're not just comparing apples and oranges, here, but apples and screwdrivers.

    By the way, the field of Economics dates from the 18th century. I fail to see how getting "coherance" (sic) out of it could have taken "several thousands of years."

    I'm puzzled by what you're trying to say. Are you arguing in favor of incoherence?
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  13. The stockmarket is no more coherent than people. It is a social phenomenon.

    The basis of science is not a social phenomenon.

    > non-verifiable theories

    Please read Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming and comment there.
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  14. No doubt, thingadonta. Why not get it over with all at once and give mathematics a good stirring? Who cares whether or not multiplying and dividing from different directions gets us to the same place?

    As the fellow said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..."

    If we're orbiting satellites and they're not quite behaving correctly, there's absolutely no reason why people doing orbital mechanics and other people researching mascons should care if their findings agree, it simply doesn't matter.

    Oh, wait, I just noticed. No matter how hard I frown, regardless of whether I buy or do not buy "white goods," Big G stays the same. Oops.
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  15. thingadonta, your argument about economics is sort of irrelevant to this particular issue in science and coherence versus incoherence.

    The big difference with the coherent science and the incoherent opposing arguments is the *strength* of the scientific coherence. The calculations about CO2 in climate science are entirely consistent with the calculations about CO2 used in lasers.

    It doesn't matter that these calculations are done within models you don't like. If they were done in pen and ink on parchment by 100,000 mathematicians in cubicles, they'd still have that irreducible core of coherence with the physics used in laser technology and any number of fields I couldn't pronounce the names of, far less spell.

    Disprove climate science? Go right ahead. The first thing you have to do is prove that it is *possible* for CO2 to have different radiative properties in atmosphere compared to exactly the same molecules in a laser. Once that's done, I'll leave you or your team of Nobel Prize winners to come up with the next step.
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  16. The Inconvenient Skeptic's site is illuminating - in that it reveals how the mythological conspiracy theory that sustains the anti-AGW industry has grown up.

    Two crucial paragraphs:

    The science of global warming, it says is "a flawed theoretical idea, even from the beginning. Unfortunately it was 80 years before it could fully be proven as incorrect and as a result the flawed idea had plenty of time to become well entrenched in the scientific community."

    ['Fully proven' in this case means eyeballing a non-attributed graph that bears no relationship to any actual temperature data from any reputable source.]

    In the many decades since Arrhenius, the site claims, the only physicists who have challenged this (mythical) orthodoxy have been ignored "much like the real science continues to be ignored today."

    It then sets the records straight:

    "If there were no CO2 in the atmosphere at all, the earth would be ever so slightly cooler, but barely enough to notice. Once there is about 50 ppm in the atmosphere, any additional amounts do not matter."

    The confidence with which such assertions are made is what lies behind the credibility that sites like this enjoy in the Anglo-Saxon world among laymen of a certain political disposition.
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  17. Is there a way to clasify how incoherent a set of arguments are ? A sort of Mohs scale for invalid arguments.

    And perhaps there could be a simple visual representation of how certain websites are self contradictory ?

    Also, would be better to refer to Climate Skeptics (as in 'denialists') as Climate Incoherents .
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    Response: We have a database of "contradiction pairs" - pairs of skeptic arguments that contradict each other. One thing I noticed about them was some pairs were more in conflict than others. I welcome any suggestions on how to rate the degree of contradiction :-)
  18. I've looked at the contradictions. A long list- do you have any triplet states :-)

    Visually I'd like to see a set of points on a two axis plot. The aim would be to see if an position is easily understood to be contradictory , and/or also to understand if an argument implies multiple contradictions.

    I'm thinking of one axis representing the level of knowledge you'd need to understand the contradiction ( 5 year old , 10 year old , pre graduate ,...).
    Another (perpendicular) axis representing number of contradictions in the positioning of the argument .

    If it very easily understood as contradictory and there are lots of contradictions you're in the red zone (or worst cases the IR zone) ... the fewer contradictions the more orange/green you become .

    You could then use this to clasify a particular source of (dis)information .
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  19. This article is about the coherence. I am trying to point out that a person can be coherent and still be a skeptic. Please re-read my statement. I am not trying to debate the entire scientific battle of global warming in a few paragraphs.

    The article basically states that anyone that is a skeptic is incoherent in there views. I am trying to point out that skeptics are fully capable of coherence.

    I do understand all the other factors involved in the science, but this specific article is about consistency in views and statements.

    Let me ask a question. Do any of you believe that a skeptic can be coherent as described by the article? The article concludes that it is not possible, or fairly close with

    "There is, of course, a coherent alternative. It is the coherent and overwhelmingly supported scientific fact that the Earth’s climate is warming and that humans are largely responsible for it. That is coherent, backed by peer-reviewed science, and endorsed by all major scientific organizations in the world."

    So do any of you believe that skeptics can be coherent?
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    Moderator Response: In principle, a skeptic position can be coherent. For example, it would be coherent to state "there is no warming and thus we need not worry about anything." It would also be coherent to state "there is warming but it is caused by XYZ not human CO2 emissions." If you look carefully, you will find that most 'skeptics' blend the two positions together, at which point they become incoherent. (As pure but entertaining speculation, I suspect this is because each coherent position is so weak on its own that they seek more argumentative force by combining them--alas, that achieves the opposite.) SL
  20. TIS #19: Having read your article on Arrhenius I can say that your arguments are certainly NOT coherent. For instance, you claim that Arrhenius's ideas were accepted basically unchallenged for 80 years... and then cite Angstrom's 'proof' to the contrary from just a few years later. Contradicting both yourself AND reality in that Angstrom's findings were widely accepted and Arrhenius's AGW theory considered incorrect for decades until it was proven that Angstrom got it wrong.

    Can any skeptic be coherent? Certainly... but then every remotely coherent skeptic I can think of (e.g. Roy Spencer) acknowledges that anthropogenic global warming is real and currently taking place. True skeptics (e.g. Kevin Trenberth) of course seek to uncover the details of the warming impacts by determining the gaps and errors in our current understanding.
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  21. @CBD,
    The Arrhenius article is about the origin of the idea behind global warming. Angstrom pointed out the flaw at the time, but Arrhenius persisted and tried to ignore the skeptical
    view. An article is just that, it tells one tiny piece of the puzzle. That was an article on the historical origins of global warming and what it looks like if projected out.

    The two main ideas for "dominant" factors in climate are CO2 and 65N insolation. The question is which is dominant right now.

    Right now in this article I am curious as to my previous question. Thanks for you view. I do appreciate it.
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  22. I will admit first off that my impression of many "skeptics" is that they will happily seize on any argument that supports their belief, regardless of whether or not it logically contradicts something else they may have been saying earlier.

    That said, there's nothing inherent in climate skepticism that demands this kind of incoherence, and there are people out there who have what seem to me like coherent skeptic belief systems. Most of the people I have in mind are perfectly cognizant of the basic physics of AGW, they recognize that the observed increase in CO2 is anthropogenic, they will readily agree that the Earth is warming and that this is mostly due to radiative forcing from GHGs, but they think climate sensitivity is on the low end of the scale and/or that the mainstream view of the impacts is unduly pessimistic.

    These are very defensible views. I think we do everyone a disservice when we treat all climate-skepticism as if it were coextensive with the commentariat at WUWT.

    I do think it's not random chance that the skeptics who seem most consistent are also those whose skepticism is limited to the more readily supportable arguments. Belief in the more extreme skeptic claims (AGW violates the second law of thermodynamics, CO2 doesn't warm the atmosphere, CO2 is coming from the oceans, it's all a big conspiracy) is probably a pretty good indicator of fuzzy thinking in general.

    That said, there are a few more points to make here. First, it's easy to get an exaggerated impression of how widespread incoherence is, when you have lots of individuals on the same "side" making lots of different claims and failing to explicitly dissociate themselves from each others' claims.

    This is something I harp on all the time ... but I'll make it again. If people on this site who hold more "sensible" climate-skeptic positions were actually willing to speak up and disagree when the more irrational claims are promoted, it would do a lot to promote trust, confidence, and friendly communication on this site. Unfortunately that virtually never happens.

    With almost no effort right now I could put up links to a dozen recent discussions on here where one or another skeptical commenter made breathtakingly wrong claims or howlingly fallacious lines of reasoning, and in each case it's the "regulars" on this site who show up to provide the answers or rebuttals, while the entire "skeptic" contingent basically sits on the sidelines. (Sorry if I sound a bit emotional about this, but for a year or so now I've been increasingly frustrated by what I perceive as a passive demonstration of near total irresponsibility on the part of my "skeptic" friends on this site).

    Getting back to the topic of this thread, another point is that it's easy to exaggerate the incoherence of one's opponents and to inadvertently minimize the incoherence of one's friends. I think there are no shortage of cases where people make incoherent arguments in support of mainstream climate science. (If people doubt this, I can go into detail in another comment).

    It's probably good to try to reduce incoherence and inconsistency in our own arguments, and it's occasionally valuable to point out when our rhetorical opponents are making inconsistent claims. But let's not fetishize consistency. In another thread, we've seen a "skeptic" criticizing Mann 2008 for showing greater century/milliennial-scale variability than Mann 1998. Is that inconsistency? Is it bad?

    Ultimately, we should only worry about being consistent in seeking to understand the truth and in using that understanding to inform our stewardship of this fine planet we've been lucky enough to inherit from those who went before us.

    OK, epic rant over. Sorry!
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    Moderator Response: Well put. SL
  23. Don't tell us that there are contradictions; tell us why. Why are the messages not getting through to the public? Why would the average Joe prefer to condemn his offspring to an eternal life of suffering than to sacrifice now? It would appear that the average Joe is not taking climate change warnings seriously, so rather than worrying about whether all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed, maybe it's time to start worrying about how those i's and t's are arranged within the messages.
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    Moderator Response: Good question. There is a fairly large psychological literature on skepticism and climate change that partially answers your question. I hope to get around to doing a podcast/post on this issue in the near future. SL
  24. I wrote: OK, epic rant over. Sorry!

    Actually, not over. I'm feeling a bit cantankerous this morning, so let me just add a bit more. (This is freely self-plagiarized from something I wrote on another forum ... it's not open-access, or I would just provide a link rather than restating it).

    Is there really anything wrong with a person offering contradictory (or incoherent) alternatives to someone else's theory?

    Let's say you're a chemistry professor and one of your grad students comes to you with some results that seem to contradict some fundamental aspect of basic physical chemistry. You know their results are probably wrong, but you don't know exactly why. So you suggest that maybe they used the wrong materials, or they measured something incorrectly, or they failed to maintain the proper temperature or pressure, or they recorded the data incorrectly, or they forgot to add the catalyst, or ... whatever.

    Obviously, all of these explanations are contradictory, but that's OK because what you're really doing is proposing a range of alternatives that need to be considered rather than proposing a single coherent argument of your own.

    In essence, the burden of "coherence" is on those who are actively supporting a specific theory, e.g. the mainstream view of anthropogenic climate change. Our theory only works if CO2 really is a greenhouse gas and we really are increasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and the assortment of positive feedbacks is strong enough to yield a climate sensitivity > 1 C or whatever and the economic/environmental impacts of climate change are negative enough to worry about.

    The skeptics' advantage is that they "win" if they can break any one of the links in that chain. Our advantage is that it's a very strong chain; the first two links are rock-solid, the third is at least close to rock-solid, and the fourth is pretty convincing to me but probably the source of greatest uncertainty.

    However, what this doesn't do is free the "skeptic" from the burden of reducing her or his "incoherence" over time in response to the evidence.

    In my analogy above, the chemistry professor needs to drop one of her alternative explanations for the student's odd result once the student provides sufficient evidence to rule out that particular alternative explanation.

    Likewise, let's consider a recent example from this site. A commenter recently suggested that if there really were significant positive feedbacks in the climate system, then "any change in CO2 would cause unbounded feedback and thermal runaway." She/he then concluded (logically) that the lack of any Venusian-style runaway warming at the end of the last interglacial "is a serious problem for computer models".

    Now, many people have this mistaken idea (that positive feedbacks would lead to "thermal runaway", and so they must not exist). This idea has been debunked many, many times on this site, including on the page Does positive feedback necessarily mean runaway warming?.

    So, I pointed this out to the skeptical commenter in question. What happens next? Does she/he persist in claiming that climate models must be wrong because the Earth isn't experiencing a "thermal runaway"? That persistence would be consistent (over time) ... but that virtue would pale in comparison to the much greater intellectual sin of hanging on to false beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    Alternatively, does the commenter drop that particular "alternative" to the mainstream climate consensus? Logically, accepting that the "thermal runaway" thing isn't actually a sign of a problem with climate models does not force one to accept the entire IPCC AR4 in all its glory.

    But the point here is that while it's OK for individual "skeptics" to offer lots of disparate alternatives, they need to show some willingness to eliminate those alternatives when confronted with the evidence. Failing to do so will understandably lead to uncomfortable conclusions about people's intellectual honesty. (I am speaking hypothetically here, not referring to anyone in particular.)
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  25. I haven't visited John Kehr's website, but Philip64 quotes that site as follows:

    If there were no CO2 in the atmosphere at all, the earth would be ever so slightly cooler, but barely enough to notice. Once there is about 50 ppm in the atmosphere, any additional amounts do not matter.

    There is overwhelming evidence that this is not true. Much of it is summarized on this site (e.g., here or here); much more can be learned by careful perusal of the excellent site Science of Doom, particularly the series of posts on CO2: An Insignificant Trace Gas (note the particular discussion of "Saturation" in Part Eight).
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  26. Well said, Ned. You've lent coherence to a number of related thoughts sloshing around in my wetware.
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  27. Ned, I like your rant. Maybe answers to some of your questions would be forthcoming if intelligent people could only answer the question of why so many intelligent people still insist that the earth is 6,000 years old, when evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming.
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  28. @Ned,

    I like your posts very much. I agree that skeptics should hold other skeptics accountable. There are coherent arguments to being a skeptic.

    This is not the forum for a detailed view of why 50 ppm is important, but I will be putting together a simple article on it. It is based on the opacity of CO2 in its absorption bands.

    It could be wrong. I accept that. If I find sufficient evidence that it is, I will change my views. So far I am not convinced otherwise.

    One thing I have found is that most people have very little grasp of the science behind AGW. I am very intentionally writing simpler articles first to build into more complex ones later.

    I do hope to have many fruitful discussions here. If I link an article I do it because that is a much easier. The level of the discussion needs to be elevated. I am hoping that we can accomplish that.
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  29. The Inconvenient Skeptic writes: This is not the forum for a detailed view of why 50 ppm is important, but I will be putting together a simple article on it. It is based on the opacity of CO2 in its absorption bands.

    It could be wrong. I accept that. If I find sufficient evidence that it is, I will change my views. So far I am not convinced otherwise.


    Fair enough. Obviously, I haven't seen your line of reasoning to support that idea. However, I'd just caution you that there are good a priori reasons to assume that it's probably wrong.[1] Thus, while working on the article, it would probably be worth your while to step back and take an extremely skeptical approach toward your own argument.

    Also, not to be repetitively redundant, but if you haven't done so already, spending some time perusing Science of Doom would probably help you hone your argument.

    -----------------------------------

    [1] An examination of the historical record would probably show that for every case where a widely held scientific consensus is overturned by the work of an outsider to that field, there are several orders of magnitude more cases where the would-be Einstein turns out to be mistaken. Thus, without knowing anything about your argument per se, from a Bayesian perspective the odds are against it.
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  30. nice ranting there Ned! I particularly like your point about questioning the intellectual honesty of skeptics who hold to a position after they have been shown time and again that their position is in blatant contradiction of the evidence. I've had arguments with a number of skeptics on a different site where I point them to papers very clearly showing their position to be in error, say, lack of empirical evidence for CO2-driven warming, or 'it's the Sun', or 'it's natural cycles/ clouds' kinds of arguments. Often I point them to articles on this excellent site where nearly all the information you could need is in one handly location!

    But what I have often found is that the more stubborn of these skeptics will steadfastly continue to hold their incoherent views, and will repeat the same fallacies over and over again. At that stage I wonder if they have lost the capacity to learn...

    @TIS: you do seem to hold incoherent views. On CO2, you could do worse than read Chris Colose's post from February "Greenhouse Effect Revisited". He specifically plots the spectrum of CO2 absorbtion effect for 50ppm, and very neatly demonstrates that the effect does not stop even though the central band becomes saturated (absorbtion line broadens after that point), and plots the spectrum for 390ppm, and even 10,000ppm. If there's further discussion of this, maybe it should move to an appropriate thread. But on topic here, TIS, now you have been shown rather strong evidence (and more at scienceofdoom) that your 50ppm claim is wrong, will you now cease holding on to that claim?
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    Moderator Response: Yes, further discussion of CO2 absorption must be done on a more appropriate thread. There are several, but the most appropriate probably is "The CO2 Effect Is Saturated."
  31. Complexity is a common engineering problem. The common approach of an engineer to a very complicated problem is to determine the parts that are important by examining each parts contribution to the whole and ignoring the parts that don't matter very much.

    The Earth's climate is such a problem. Feedbacks are a problem, but engineers get used to the occasional black box issues. My approach towards the climate is an engineers approach.

    Scientists and engineers are similar in their science background, but very different in approaching problems. I have come up with a variety of new ideas that are not yet in discussion, but they will be.

    In a way we have already had some success because this is turning into a discussion instead of a flame war. Little steps. :-)
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    Moderator Response: As you inform us of your ideas, please carefully choose the appropriate pages on which to post those comments, by clicking the "Arguments" link in the blue horizontal bar at the top of every Skeptical Science page. But I suggest you first get an overview by clicking on the two big boxes at the top of the Home page: "Newcomers Start Here" and "The Big Picture." For example, for the topic of correlation between CO2 and temperature, please comment at There's No Correlation Between CO2 and Temperature.
  32. TIS,

    I see you have not provided a coherent alternate theory to that of AGW which explains how the warming is manifesting itself in the biosphere and upper stratosphere. This coherent response of the biosphere is an incredibly important aspect which demonstrates the robustness of the theory of AGW.

    Right now you have a hypothesis as to why you believe higher GHG concentrations (CO2 in particular)is an issue...as it happens it is not a unique one.

    Have you read Spencer Weart's Book "The Discovery of Global Warming" He provides a more thorough discussion here.

    TIS, not only engineers (like you) deal with complex systems and/or problems. Surely I do not need to provide a list of scientific disciplines which deal (very successfully) with complex systems and problems.....

    And I would caution some humility, many very qualified and intelligent people think that they have refuted the theory (not hypothesis) of AGW/ACC and failed. Unfortunately, it is robust, but if someone can make the problem of AGW and ocean "acidification" go away, that would make me very happy.

    Good luck.
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  33. Skywatcher said "I particularly like your point about questioning the intellectual honesty of skeptics who hold to a position after they have been shown time and again that their position is in blatant contradiction of the evidence."

    This has been posted before, I believe, but it's worth another post.
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  34. Related somewhat to Ned's remarks, climate science and the whole weird sideshow of outsider scientific "debate" around the matter of climate change seems akin to the relationship between automobiles and dogs. Here's a novelty with an eager and enthusiastic crowd of participants seemingly waiting for its arrival and bred to enjoy participating in the new activity in a way entirely secondary to its utility.

    Both populations do a lot of incoherent yapping but one noise source is merely irritating, while the other is of more concern. Besides number of legs and amount of fur, another difference between the two analogues is that-- other than sometimes being squashed-- canine affection for cars is benign, while the ranks of amateur, skeptic "climate scientists" happen to be messing up our ability to create public policy dealing with C02.
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  35. Thanks so much for the reminder link to the "How facts backfire" article, DSL. For folks who've not read it, it's a review of scientific approaches to understanding why we're all victims of our own obduracy to a greater or lesser extent, well worth 5 minutes' time.
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  36. Speaking of Science of Doom, there was a post over there last winter that is highly relevant to this topic:

    New Theory Proves AGW Wrong!

    If, for example, you celebrate Richard Lindzen’s concept as put forward in Lindzen & Choi (2009) then you probably shouldn’t be celebrating Miskolczi’s paper. And if you celebrated either of those, you shouldn’t be celebrating Gerlich & Tscheuschner because they will be at odds with the previous ones (as far as I can tell). And if you like Roy Spencer’s work, he is at odds this all of these. [...]

    So, if New Theory Proves AGW Wrong is an exciting subject, you will continue to enjoy the subject for many years, because I’m sure there will be many more papers from physicists “proving” the theory wrong.

    However, it’s likely that if they are papers “falsifying” the foundational “greenhouse” gas effect – or radiative-convective model of the atmosphere – then probably each paper will also contradict the ones that came before and the ones that follow after.
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  37. TIS

    Scientists and engineers are similar in their science background, but very different in approaching problems.

    As a blanket statement, this seems pretty dubious. But what concerns me more is the implication that engineers are somehow "better" at science (e.g., more practical, more realistic, or what have you).

    In fact, science is a group endeavor and one of its greatest strengths is the fact that when you make mistakes, or get basic facts wrong, a lot of people will let you know about it, at length and in excruciating detail. Whether you're an engineer or not, if almost all of the experts in a given field are telling you you're wrong, the solution is not to assume a conspiracy, or play the victim, but to look at your argument critically, from their standpoint, and consider in all humility whether they have some valid points. Then, you can attempt to form a coherent, informed argument that will actually satisfy their objections and win them over.

    In my experience, this is something that far too few "skeptics" are willing to do. As a teacher of mine once said, if you're getting results that are drastically at odds with the accepted science, there are two possibilities: 1) you're a genius who has a good shot at winning the Nobel Prize; or 2) you made a mistake somewhere.

    Sincere skeptics should have at least as much skepticism toward their own arguments as they do toward the consensus view, for the simple reason that the consensus view is far less likely to contain undiscovered mistakes.
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  38. I think TIS's example of CO2 saturation at 50 ppm is a good example of exactly what this Stephan's blog post is all about.

    Okay, TIS puts forth this analysis that CO2 absorption is saturated at 50 ppm. How does that square with the MUCH larger puzzle of climate? How do we get glaciation cycles? Why do we see a warming trend in the pat 30 years? What about tropospheric warming with stratospheric cooling? The onus then is upon you to provide a theory that explains all the observed phenomena better than current theory.

    Also, I have to state, Kler's header graphic really bothers me. On his site he states that the data comes from GISP-2. When you go to the actual GISP-2 data you find that the data ends at 0.951 thousand years before the present (95 years ago). But Kler has chosen to mark that point on his header graphic as "global warming part."

    John Kler. Did you make any attempt to add to that chart the current temperature trends from central Greenland since 1913? The statements you make here sound as if you are attempting to be genuine and honest in your attempts to present coherent science. But I would put to you that that the very face of your website is doing exactly the opposite. Again, providing coherence in science means presenting ALL the facts.

    I'll give you a little clue. I've seen the data for modern Greenland temps and I believe they are about in line with the peaks in your header graphic for 3500 years ago.
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  39. I wondered about that header graphic too Rob, thanks for confirming my suspicion. And why did he specifically choose that particular ice core?

    This post by Chris on another thread is helpful.
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  40. Doug, thanks for the link to "How facts backfire" - a worthwhile article. (By the way, are you of Danish or Swedish background? I've never come across a Brostrom outside my family before.)

    A question that I have for any of the skeptics here is - What evidence would you find sufficient to change your mind about ACC? I ask because I think that our current understanding of climate is a broad, consistant, theory. What do you think is missing?
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  41. @Rob,

    Good eye on the header. The GISP-2 ends about 100 years ago. The person who did the website put it all together after sorting through bunches of graphs and pictures. I like the look, but I agree it isn't... precise.

    To be fair, this site shows a plant growing through an ice sheet. I did make sure to post the link to the data. I did consider adding instrument data in a different color, but it was confusing..

    The Taylor Dome data is more recent and basically shows comparable results, even with my smoothing it gets into the 70's. Any heavily smoothed data loses recency. The GISP-2 is heavily smoothed.

    I accept that it isn't perfect.
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  42. TIS,

    What is so confusing about this graphic? It can and has been done.

    In contrast, the inset in the linked graphic is misleading because it does not tell the whole picture. Neither does the header on your page. In fact, when complete the data tell a very different story.

    As far as I can determine, the header for this site is not intended to be taken seriously. Either way, it is not presenting data as yours is. Altogether a different story.
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  43. John... When I look at your header graphic "isn't perfect" is not the description that comes to my mind. You've drawn a pointer to the start of the 20th century and labeled it as if it were NOW. "Highly misleading" would be a much more apt phrase.

    I would suggest that if you actually did add the instrumental data (not global averages because that's not what GISP-2 is measuring) for Greenland you'd see something on the line of 2C warming since the end of that chart. Is that confusing, as you say, or is it inconvenient to the message you're trying to deliver?

    It would also be decidedly UNscientific to dump that data because it doesn't fit your selected conclusion and try to find other data that does. I'm looking at the Taylor Dome data right now and I'm not finding temperature data. I'd be interested where the conclusion comes from that Taylor dome shows comparable results.

    None of this is personal. I'm very confident that you are an intelligent person and a very good chemical engineer. In your photo you look like a someone with whom I'd enjoy downing a few pints at the local pub. But I find this to be a case where you are crossing into a field of expertise outside of your own.
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  44. John... Ah. I missed your post at the very top regarding Taylor Dome. But again, here, I would suggest that you're not exploring the situation any further than where it confirms your expected result (confirmation bias).

    If you add current CO2 rise and Greenland temperature records since 1970 I think you're going to see a very very different picture. CO2 level, obviously have gone from 285 to 390. That's going to put a sharp dogleg in that line. Then the temperature since 1970 (according to the data I've seen) has risen maybe another 1.5C.

    The chart you've created on your Taylor dome page relies heavy on the scaling of each X axis to get the effect you want. Once you add the current CO2 levels and temps into that chart you're going to have to rework the axes. I think that will give a more rational perspective between the two lines.
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    Moderator Response: This discussion is getting specific enough that I think it belongs in another thread. How about There's No Correlation Between CO2 and Temperature?
  45. Ned @ 22:

    I was impressed by your very thoughtful post. I particularly noted your comment:

    'This is something I harp on all the time ... but I'll make it again. If people on this site who hold more "sensible" climate-skeptic positions were actually willing to speak up and disagree when the more irrational claims are promoted, it would do a lot to promote trust, confidence, and friendly communication on this site. Unfortunately that virtually never happens.'

    Actually, with respect, I think there is far too much labelling of positions taken by various players. I have sometimes posted comments broadly supportive of AGW perspectives only to find others taking issue with them because I am viewed as a 'sceptic.' I've often spoken of my extreme discomfort with the Monckton/ Plimer/ WUWT commentariat modus operandi.

    However, I often feel I have to couch what I say with great care to maintain credibility as a poster - far more care than if I was perceived as a card carrying warmist. I had a very grumpy moment the other day provoking a strong response - well, we won't go over that territory again. Overall, this site is far more tolerant of sceptics than the other players in the AGW team. Still, the feeling of differing standards and expectations doesn't go away. Nevertheless, I'm old enough not to go take my toys home or sulk in a corner - I appreciate this sort of thing is near inevitable on any site where people feel passionately about a topic.

    I would add that on the very rare occasions I've posted on WUWT, I have usually been in polite disagreement with the presentation (maybe 75% of the time but I'm only guessing - I post so rarely there because I often feel it's not worth the trouble). However, I haven't felt as if treading on eggshells when posting even when in disagreement.

    By way of further illustration, I'm currently reading Pielke's 'Climate Fix.' He is clearly not a sceptic but is often perceived that way because he does not accept so-called 'catastrophic' scenarios unquestioningly. He also highlights the logistical difficulties in decarbonising economies. He does support decarbonisation as best as I can tell - I haven't got that far in the book. Whether Pielke is right or not is a separate issue.

    Similarly, when I've spoke favourably of Judith Curry's or Mike Hulmes' efforts to engage the blogosphere in constructive debate, folks have responded negatively somewhat to my disappointment. Judy Curry, however, has been producing some very sophisticated discussions. Somehow, their efforts seem to be perceived as a betrayal of the cause.

    However, there really is only one cause - our welfare as people and our good custody of the planet.

    At the same time, your acknowledgment that the AGW side has its own issues with lack of coherence bespeaks considerable intellectual honesty. The empirical data and the hypotheses they lead to do not mesh into a neat package - one could hardly expect perfect coherence in any attempt to evaluate a system as large and as complex. Herein lies a further problem: those who note lack of coherence in some aspects of the big picture are often decried as 'sceptics.'
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  46. Chris, a lot of folks find Judith Curry a puzzle. As a publishing scientist and thus a professional communicator well-versed in expository writing crafted so as not to leave distracting ambiguity hanging in the air, nonetheless her less formal writings on the topic of climate science are riddled with strangely unintelligible remarks, innocent I think but which some take as equivocation.

    The other matter I find dismaying about Dr. Curry is her encouragement and stoking of sectarianism, of totemic encampments by her use of terms such as "tribalism" and "post-normal science." Her communications are often 180 degrees at variance with her quite reasonable stated objectives.
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  47. #45 chriscanaris

    Similarly, when I've spoke favourably of Judith Curry's or Mike Hulmes' efforts to engage the blogosphere in constructive debate, folks have responded negatively somewhat to my disappointment. Judy Curry, however, has been producing some very sophisticated discussions. Somehow, their efforts seem to be perceived as a betrayal of the cause.

    It depends which cause you're talking about. The reason "warmists" tend to perceive Dr. Curry negatively, in my view, is that she has tended to make rather grandiose pronouncements about the "problems" with climate science, and then retreat when asked to elaborate on them.

    Most of us don't see this behavior as "constructive" or "sophisticated," for better or worse.

    I don't pretend to know anything about her motivations or her sincerity, nor do I really care. But I do think that her recent activities haven't been very helpful. A number of people -- Joe Romm and Gavin Schmidt, for starters -- have engaged with her at length; watching from the sidelines, I've seen that she tends to respond to their very detailed criticisms with vague, gnomic remarks about "tribalism." The more substantive issues often wind up on the back burner, to be discussed at a later date that never seems to arrive.

    Tribalism is a legitimate concern -- and plenty of sociologists and philosophers of science have discussed it with far more rigor than Dr. Curry -- but it's not a legitimate response to pointed, specific, science-based criticism of Dr. Curry's interpretation of climate research and data. Perhaps I'm naive, but I don't think you have to be a "warmist" to understand why some people would perceive her behavior to be frustrating, counterproductive and -- far too often -- evasive.
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  48. Getting somewhat back on topic and speaking of coherence, although contrarians find themselves bemused when Dr. Curry does not monotonically disavow mainstream science, they eagerly accept her musings on what can only be termed social science topics, again "tribalism" and "post-normal science."

    The coherence problem becomes visible when we compare contrarian acceptance of Curry's extracurricular communications with other examples, such as Steven Schneider's exploration of scientific consensus. On the one hand, endorsement and accolades, on the other bitter condemnation.

    So we have a conspicuously disjointed feature in that contrarians find their least comfort when Dr. Curry is speaking on what she's most qualified to talk about, more happiness when she's delving into matters outside of her expertise, with this odd standard of appraisal selectively reversed in other cases.

    Perhaps this behavior is better classified as inconsistency as opposed to incoherence.
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  49. To boil it down, Judith Curry is an expert in atmospheric studies, and gives mainstream views on this topic.

    She knows nothing special about palaeoclimate studies, and chose to accept McIntyre's version of the debate, hook, line & sinker, rather than to consult people she knows who actually work in the field. Her wallowing in the ClimateAudit mania was disappointing and embarrassing.

    Her postings I have seen on her new blog tend to be open-ended bringing up of issues, which she then turns over to essentially unguided commenting. It's all very polite, but I haven't so far seen anything that would lead to clarification or resolution of anything.
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  50. I love this podcast! The examples of non-existent apples and cheap sheep at unknown price are great!
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