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Motl-ey Cruel

Posted on 25 February 2011 by dana1981

Skeptical Science readers may recall my recent post in response to Roy Spencer, explaining How We Know Recent Global Warming Is Not Natural.  The article has spread around quite extensively, including re-posts and associated articles at TreeHugger and Climate Progress, and some less prominent sites such as "skeptic" Lubos Motl's blog.  Knowing that Motl has a physics background, I was interested to see if he could produce a knowledgeable critique of my arguments.  Alas, upon reading his blog post, I was immediately disappointed.

Moncktonian Motl

The blog post started out on a low note.  Consistent with his previous treatment of John Cook, Lubos immediately launched into an inaccurate description of my personal background, with a few childish insults peppered in for good measure.  Not a good sign, but sadly, Motl managed to continue downhill from there.  What followed was a Gish Gallop of Moncktonian proportionsTM

The sheer volume of scientifically absurd statements following the introductory unpleasantries would take significant effort to debunk, and, to be blunt, simply doesn't warrant the effort.  However, one particularly egregious error seemed to stick out like a sore thumb.  Responding to my discussion of the "fingerprints" of man-made global warming, Motl argued that one critical fingerprint was missing: the tropical troposphere 'hot spot'.

Anthropogenic the Hot Spot is Not

As thingsbreak has just discussed in a guest post, the tropical troposphere hot spot is not an anthropogenic fingerprint.  As John Cook has previously explained, when the surface warms, there's more evaporation and more moisture in the air.  This decreases the adiabatic lapse rate - there's less cooling aloft.  This means warming aloft is greater than warming at the surface.  This amplified trend is the hot spot. It's all to do with changes in the lapse rate, regardless of what's causing the warming. If the warming was caused by a brightening sun or reduced sulphate pollution, you'd still see a hot spot. Contrary to Motl's claims, the hot spot is neither an anthropogenic fingerprint, nor a construct of climate models.  It is an expected result of any surface warming, based on fundamental atmospheric physics.

The Not-So-Missing Hot Spot

The supposedly 'missing hot spot' can mean two things.  It could mean the planet is not warming, but we have many other lines of evidence that the planet has warmed over the past 30 years.  The other thing this could mean is that the hot spot is devilishly difficult to pin down.

As thingsbreak discussed in his guest post, the presence or lack of a tropical troposphere hot spot is not cut and dried.  On short timescales, the data are in relatively good agreement with theoretical and modeling expectations regarding the hot spot.  There is less certainty about the presence of the hot spot over longer timescales, but several recent studies indicate that the tropical troposphere is warming in a manner consistent with climate models.  I highly recommend reading the guest post for the details on this subject.  The long and short of it is that there's no physical reason why we should observe a hot spot on short but not long timescales, and newer studies indicate that the long-term hot spot may be there, so the seemingly 'missing hot spot' may very well be a consequence of problematic data. 

Motl Censorship

Upon noticing Motl's error, I decided to engage in a discussion on the subject in his blog comments.  Surely someone with Motl's physics background would readily realize and correct the mistake.  Again, disappointment ensued.  Motl quickly admitted that the hot spot is not specifically anthropogenic, but continued to insist that it is a construct of climate models, and thus if it is not present, the models are "falsified" and "dead".  I politely attempted to explain the physics behind the hot spot, and for my trouble, Motl deleted my comments, banned me from commenting on his site, and again insulted me personally.  On top of that, most of the comments from his readers (his Motl-ey Crew, if you will) followed his example with nothing more than petty insults.  It was a disappointing display of a complete lack of willingness to engage in intellectual discourse.  I have to admit, I was rather stunned at being banned from a site for doing nothing more than posting four polite comments pointing out an obvious error made by its author.

Biased "Skepticism"

Regardless, the main point remains that the hot spot is not an anthropogenic fingerprint.  Motl mirrored the biased perspective in the NIPCC report which we are examining as part of Prudent Path Week.  The NIPCC report has an entire sub-section devoted to fingerprints, and yet it only discusses one - the tropical troposphere hot spot, with no mention of the many actual anthropogenic fingerprints which have been observed (I listed ten in this rebuttal).  Instead, the NIPCC focuses on the one fingerprint which may be missing, even though it's not anthropogenic in origin!  What form of "skepticism" is this, which ignores the inconvenient scientific data?

At least Motl does one better, mentioning a few real fingerprints in his blog post.  Unfortunately he makes completely physically wrong statements regarding each one.  Just as one example, Motl claimed that my statement that nights would warm faster than days as a result of an increased greenhouse effect (also known as 'decreasing diurnal temperature range' - the difference between daily maximum and minimum temperatures) was backwards.  In fact, he described it as a "breathtakingly stupid mistake".

However, Motl is wrong.  As I discussed in my article, greenhouse gases make more of a difference in nighttime temperatures.  And this physical reality is not even remotely controversial.  In fact, Svante Arrhenius correctly predicted that increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases would cause nights to warm faster than days over a century ago, in 1896:

"The geographical annual and diurnal ranges of temperature would be partly smoothed away, if the quantity of carbonic acid was augmented."

I suppose misunderstanding the physics behind the fingerprints is better than simply ignoring them, but before expending the time to refute a climate science article, one should first take the time to understand the relevant underlying physics.  Especially if one has a background in physics.  This sort of behavior is unfortunately all too common among those who wish to be considered "skeptics".  They substitute their "common sense" for scientific research, and if the scientific experts say something which conflicts with their beliefs, the "skeptics" assume it's the experts who are wrong.  Unfortunately, "common sense" when based on ignorance will usually lead to wrong conclusions, and assuming that it's the experts who are incorrect is unwise.

Skeptical Behavior

Those like Motl and the NIPCC who wish to be considered skeptics must amend their behavior.  An honest skeptic does not run away and hide from intellectual discourse.  An honest skeptic does not ignore the data which he finds inconvenient, or form absurd conclusions rather than make the effort to understand the underlying science.  A real skeptic should behave as scientists do: examining all available evidence and discussing it in an open manner. 

This string of events has illustrated the need for civil and unhindered discussion, which we'd like to remind all of our readers to pursue, lest the possibility of a common ground from the debate be lost.  There are legitimate climate uncertainties worth discussing, but we must all first be willing to acknowledge, understand, and engage in open discourse about them.

Skeptical Science readers, let's please show the Motl-ey Crew how honest skeptics behave, and keep the comments civil and on-topic.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 28:

  1. Well, again its "pseudo-sceptics" rather than sceptics. (No surprise there) And - as nearly every time - its also easier to disinform than to explain real science.
    That is why the work here at sks is so important: rebuttals from basic to advanced to point to, ready for informing the really interested.
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  2. I was watching some of the debate at Motl's site as this was going on. I was completely surprised how fast Motl caved. I was excited to maybe see some interesting exchanges and maybe have the chance to learn a thing or two. But... zilch.
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  3. Agreed Rob, as I said I was shocked and disappointed. Motl immediately began backtracking and moving the goalposts on his hot spot fingerprint claim. After just 4 of my comments on the issue, he folded and banned me for no apparent reason.

    It's no way to behave if you want to be taken seriously in the climate debate.
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  4. Likewise I was surprised (and dissapointed) that my posts on Roy Spencers blog ended up in permanent moderation limbo, also for no apparent reason.
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  5. I had the same experience on Spencer's blog.
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  6. You say, " I have to admit, I was rather stunned at being banned from a site for doing nothing more than posting four polite comments pointing out an obvious error made by its author."

    I would not have been stunned by such behavior. Despite all the bland pronouncements of a new age of opennness the Internet has started, I knew all along that such dishonest banning still rules the day. The Internet has done nothing to even moderate such bad behavior, far less to ban it. The public discourse is still controlled by the criminally dishonest.
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  7. And we'll continue hearing the endless belly-aching of so-called "skeptics" about being censored here on SkS. Same old.
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  8. A very concise and revealing example of Motl's view of the world and climate science can be found in his explanation that a rise in global temps of 13C would be just peachy. (Actually, he's talking about the Czech Republic being 13C warmer, which would result in much greater Arctic warming and who knows what horrors from the knock-on effects of rapidly melting that part of the world.)

    The post in question:

    http://motls.blogspot.com/2010/01/13-c-of-warming-would-be-fine-for-life.html
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  9. The rise and fall, it's really sad to see how low a scientifically trained man can fall.
    I know many physicists, many conservatives, but no self-proclaimed "conservative physicist"; what does this suppose to mean? The disclosure of his political bias in science?

    Dana ignore him, for he (hopefully) does not know what he's saying. Keep going with your very informative posts; luckly, only a few share the not-so-enviable destiny of crashing years of study under their own feet.
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  10. We are dealing with an industry (oil, gas and coal) that probably has more than $1 billion a day in profits. Some people who work less hard than a tomato picker make thousands an hour from this industry. Banning people from a blog is on the low end of what has been done for much less money.

    It will get worse. Many of them apparently think the survival of western civilization is less important than more money.
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  11. What do you expect from a blog carrying a link to 'the list'?
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  12. Started reading, saw the personal stuff and gave up. If he cannot make points without feeling the need to embellish them with unpleasant personal stuff, then frankly his arguments aren't worth following up.

    Cheers - John
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  13. since starting to research the subject of Global Warming/Climate Change a couple of months ago I have visited a good few websites and blogs and have found that even without a scientific background it is remarkably easy to judge whether a site is likely to yield any good information or is simply a front for some vested interest or inflamed ego. I started with an open mind but very quickly realised that the sites that openly discussed the issues and the science were those that accepted AGW as fact. Most 'denier' sites seem to be a triumph of (poor) style over substance. This site may be about the science, but it is the willingness to discuss the facts and engage with the contrarian view however tedious that make it work and worthwhile
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  14. Dana,

    I know it can be upsetting to be verbally attacked by someone, but don't let it get you down. When someone attacks me personally, I generally smirk and make popcorn.

    I was only trying to heckle you for your loose language. You're otherwise clear in your writing, and so it's obvious to everyone that you're not actually illiterate or anything of the sort.

    I had a right to be ticked off at Acton last year, specifically because of his loose language that made it seem like CRU couldn't release their data because Canada's some kind of a draconian datapig. So, I do get a little testy when I see people beaking off about climate science.

    Anyway, please don't put me on your list of deniers quite yet. I shovel snow for a living, and so I'll be my own judge, in due time.

    For what it's worth, I'm crazy enough to believe that chaos exists in the ice age cycle. I mean, it's cyclical, but never ever exactly repetitive. Sounds like the work of a chaotic attractor to me -- an idea that I can guarantee that Lubos Motl would think is naive. So please don't think of me or anyone in particular as part of a Motl-ey crew. That's way too black and white a model of reality.

    Shawn Halayka
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  15. Shalayka - ice age cycle is not chaotic. Do spectral analysis and you see instead that is the sum of the milanvokitch cycles. Not the pattern of a chaotic attractor.
    Look at series here to see this but easy enough to repeat yourself.
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  16. scaddenp,

    Thank you for the information. I can agree that the intensity of sunlight has a lot to do with how warm it is on Earth. :)

    My main concern is that no ice age is ever the same as the previous one.

    As you know, Henon studied something superficially similar when he did his work on modeling the orbits of stars in galaxies. As far as I know, Henon used Newtonian gravitation, and so his model galaxy is as deterministic and static as Milankovitch's solar system. Of course, the model galaxy's stars never follow the exact same path twice, though they do stay roughly along the galactic plane. This is deterministic chaos in action.

    So I ask earnestly... what is the name of the cause behind the fact that the glacial/CO2 cycles are roughly regular (like a galactic orbit), but never the same (like a galactic orbit)? This is something that I have not really got a satisfactory answer to, from either polluters or treehuggers.



    - Shawn
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    Moderator Response: [muoncounter] Your question is addressed on the CO2 lags temperature thread, specifically here. I'm not at all sure why you feel these cycles should all be the same, nor why there is a single name (ie, a single cause?) for these similarities/differences. Subsequent comments should go to that thread.
  17. Shawn,

    My first guess would be continental configuration.
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  18. I would consider getting banned from a trash site like that a badge of honour.
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    Moderator Response: [Daniel Bailey] This thread is, in Dikran Marsupial's words, "Sailing too close to the wind". Let's all return to the topic of the thread and tone down the invective a bit. Constructive criticism is fine (when it complies with the Comments Policy, anyway). Thanks!
  19. As a non-scientist who has been educating myself on the topic of climate change for a while now, I sometimes feel vulnerable when discussing the subject with persons who might have a stronger science background than me. Sometimes someone will in fact raise a point that I do not have sufficient understanding to answer. More often with climate skeptics, though, I find myself with the advantage simply because I have researched and thought about the subject, and they, evidently, have not.

    I frankly find it refreshing when a climate skeptic can actually talk about the science and is unafraid of addressing the evidence. When that happens there is actually a chance for an argument to evolve. Too often, alas, it's merely political or personal.
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  20. I have never understood the authority which so-called "skeptics" give to Motl. Well, I get that they want to include anybody in their ranks with a doctorate, however nutty their views, in order to boost the illusion of scientific respectability. But Motl is really off the deep end, and I don't just mean his Moncktonesque whoppers with the science. That's bad enough. But anybody who reads his posts for a length of time has to come away with the view that the guy is not all there. He's more than once likened climate scientists like Mann and Jones with the Taliban, and said explicitly that they should and will be treated the same and hunted down. In the post you just linked to he likened climate scientists to islamic fundamentalists. The man has serious issues, and it might be better to just ignore him lest he decide to be more *proactive* in his arguments. He sees himself as someone engaged in a holy war. If I were a climate scientist that would make me nervous.
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  21. Robert @20,

    All too true (well most likely). It is odd though that Dr. Motl has not been here to defend his misguided understanding of the science.

    Dana just picked one of the most egregious errors in Motl's post, but Motl erred in practically every one of his "rebuttals".

    I think John and Dana are still being willing to engage Dr. Motl and discuss the science, even after the personal attacks that he has made against them, goes to show just how what a genuinely people they are and how much confidence they have in the science. They are bigger and better people than I.
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  22. Sure, I'm pretty patient when it comes to discussing the scientific evidence. Though there are limits - I've been commenting on Curry's "hide the decline dishonesty" post for the past day, and I'm to the point where I'm no longer responding to several of the commenters there, because it would just involve a Gish Gallop whack-a-mole on my part. Plus they're very rude people.

    But since Motl banned me from his site after just 4 comments, I never reached the point where my patience with him ran out! Motl doesn't understand climate science, but he's capable of understanding it (based on his physics background), so if he were willing to learn, I'd be willing to discuss it with him. Unfortunately he seems completely disinterested in learning.
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  23. My post @ 21 should have read:

    "... goes to show just how what genuinely good people they are and how much confidence they have in the science. "

    Dana, good for you to engage the aggressive and misguided crowd at Curry's blog-- you probably realise this, but I'l say it anyways, you are very likely wasting your time their. Don't confuse them with the truth and reality, it angers them
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  24. I think it's a little worse than that with Lubos Motl. The guy quite literally possesses a genius level brain, he's just choosing to apply it very selectively. The tiff that I got into with him over the Phil Jones interview he was trying to tell me that something that "did not have a 95% confidence level did not exist." It was absent, so there was no warming since 1995. I was shocked that a person of his level could make such an utterly absurd statement about statistical significance.

    My suspicion is that Lubos Motl has a political ax to grind and he will attempt to use the skills he has to further that agenda regardless of reality.
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  25. "My suspicion is that Lubos Motl has a political ax to grind" ...

    Well, as a self-styled conservative physicist, I'd say it's a good bet. "conservative" relates to his politics, not to his physics - he's a string theorist, after all! :)
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  26. I believe skeptics, particularly scientist skeptics, should be encouraged to express the reasons for their skepticism and given every opportunity of defending their position. Attempts by the skeptic to impose censorship rather than argue their position merely confirms that their position is indefensible.

    What really surprises me is that some scientists, often distinguished in their own field, should put forward and cling to skeptical views on AGW and related issues. If a review of the literature shows their view is wrong, if they can not defend their position in argument or peer review, why would they cling to it?

    Doing so, or presenting a position which is based on partial, spurious, or tampered data (Plimer) amounts to intellectual dishonesty. For anyone but particularly a scientist, intellectual dishonesty is surely the worst of offences and to indulge in it so as to deliberately and knowingly mislead is both stupid and unforgivable.

    Maybe I’m too jugemental but I still can not understand why Dr Motl, a distinguished scientist would resort to gagging a critic rather than defend the position he has taken? Have others criticized him for his position on arguments put forward by Dana1981 and have they too been censored?
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  27. Agnostic - I haven't checked the comments for a while, but every commenter besides me was a "skeptic" who thought Motl's error-riddled post was just brilliant. None objected to him banning me. It's possible that he didn't allow any objectionary comments through his iron-fisted moderation process.
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  28. I don't think it's surprising we can't see any "hot spot", as the effects of greenhouse effect are currently overwhelmed by arctic amplification.
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