Climategate – Red Herrings, Non Sequiturs and the Misinformed

The biggest question in dealing with the whole climate change/global warming topic is : What conclusion can a non-climate scientist individual draw from the mountain of contradictory claims?

Okay, this whole global warming thing has gone way into the stratosphere of misinformation and kookiness. So a bunch of climate scientists get their emails hacked. The seem have been framed as a cover up by climate scientists. Maybe, maybe not, but contents of those emails really has no bearing on climate change theory as a legitimate science.

Update: Since I wrote this, 3 independent reviews have cleared the Climate Research Unit attacked by hackers trawling through their email. Have the deniers change their positions on the matter? Hardly.  My point still stands – the views/actions of any one lab or individual scientist is irrelevant as the methods of science are designed to correct for error and bias.


For my take on how to evaluate claims in the media see my toolbox at the bottom of this post. We have the scientific method on one hand that ha amassed a large collection of evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and then we have the “dissidents” dedicated to muddying the waters and throwing public opinion into a tail spin.

Clearly, we must ignore the media, the ideolgoues with shady backgrounds (Ian Wishart springs to mind) and what people think. “Personally I believe…” and “It seems to me that…” are the exact kind of sentence beginnings that science was designed to address yet these are the common phrases sprinkled into online debates about AGW.

Our intuitions are poor indicators of the data. What’s a good indicator of the data? THE DATA. And given that scientists all over the planet can test a hypothesis and come to the same conclusion is not evidence of a grand conspiracy (the implausibility factor of said conspiracy is overwhelming).

There are not “two sciences” as one commenter suggested online. There is one science and an army of either politically motivated or misinformed people who are quite happy to wax lyrical on their pet “theory” of why the sun is doing all the warming or how we can happily keep pumping CO2 to our hearts content.

It is common to hear people say that AGW is the “new liberal religion” or other such comments. Cute names for people who accept the scientific consensus is a semantic weapon rather than evidence for or against the theory. Remember, provisional trust in the scientific consensus is valid for historical reasons – science has proven itself as a method that works. As a default position, this is not a bad one when we don’t know any better (and 99% plus of us don’t know any better).

I am not suggesting take science on faith -that is the opposite of what I am advocating. I am saying that one needs to seaparate value judgements from facts and actually look at what the science says before coming to a reasoned conclusion.

We know science has self-correcting mechanisms and ways of eliminating bias. Ask yourself, can this be said of the loud dissenters? Who is making the extraordinary claim here? We all should be asking “do I have sufficient knowledge of the scientific claims to have a well-reasoned position?” My point here is this:

  • People can claim anything but we should be skeptical of claims that haven’t got the support of the scientific community. This is not an appeal ad populum as consensus is formed through peer review testing (a rigourous take-noprisoners process of checking results and weeding out bad data and conclusions).
  • If you don’t really know, then say so. Be humble enough to admit your ignorance.

It is clear that the references to AGW as “religion” are in fact the exact examples of what these people are trying to claim of the science. Notably, many make their claims on faith, they probably aren’t going to change their minds because they aren’t plugged into the science as it is, and the science is pretty clear that climate change is happening and that the cause is almost certainly due to human emissions.

Is it a hard concept to grasp? Even the most uneducated fool can put the simple logic together. Think about it for a minute. We know that carbon dioxide traps heat. This is not a new claim and is established beyond all doubt. And we pump billions of this stuff into the atmosphere. There are natural sources of greenhouse gases but these are fairly closely monitored – have you seen how many scientists rush into battle when a volcano blows it’s top? It isn’t as simple as this of course – we need to know how much is going into the atmosphere and how much stays there and for how long.

Now we’re starting to ask scientific questions and the answers to these are fairly well established in scientific circles. Of course, the march of science guarantees that as time passes the error bars on any climate change claims diminish.

Beware – Logical Fallacies Lurking

I’ve heard numerous of complete red herrings and non sequiturs on the AGW front that frankly it’s laughable. Here’s the best of them: “Well, we’re just returning the CO2 back to the atmosphere”. Yes, but when CO2 was abundant in the atmosphere, as it was on the early Earth, the planet was scalded to a crisp by the greenhouse effect. If you’re making the argument that we’re returning CO2 back to the atmosphere, then you agree with the science because when there was more CO2 the place was extraordinarily hot.

The other great example of a red herring combined with a non sequitur is the claim “well, CO2 is great fertiliser for plants”. Okay. Plants take in CO2. So what, plants already receive a lot of CO2 from natural processes like say, animals breathing, volcanoes, and the carbon cycle. Before industrialisation, the Earth was covered in more trees and plants than we see today. The lack of CO2 was not an issue then and it certainly isn’t an issue now. So that’s a red herring, where’s the non sequitur? I’m glad you asked. Here it is: “plants need CO2 so… we should pump more CO2 into atmosphere. The plants will love us!” No, the plants will love us when we stop polluting atmosphere and cutting down so many of them. The plants argument is only any good when the idea of planting and conserving more trees is advanced to remove the excesses of CO2 that we have put there. Besides that, CO2 is poisonous to humans, but hey, as long as the plants win!

This argument was made recently in the New Zealand media by Herald columnist Jim Hopkins – the same man that looks at the hacked email controversy as evidence that the whole global warming/climate change theory was made up by scientists with a political agenda. Who knows what the scientists whose emails were hacked and trawled for anything incriminating. Who cares what they believe and what their emails say? Does the entire climate change field of science suddenly become obsolete because of what a handful of scientists may or may not believe? No is the short answer. In fact, sloppy, ideological and crazy scientists are to be expected because… (drumroll please)… Scientists are humans. The scientific method is designed to work in spite of these human flaws.

Toolkit For Critical Analysis of Media Treatment of Scientific Issues

  • Is the writer someone with a proven track record for representing science in an unbiased way?
  • Does the writer have a history of distorting science to suit political, religious or other ideological devotions?
  • Is the writer qualified to make an assessment of the state of a scientific field/theory?
  • Is the publication dedicated to undermining science? Does it have a track record of science abuse/shody reporting? Is it a reliable source?
  • Is the claim against the prevailing scientific consensus? Is the counter claimant making logically valid arguments?
  • Has the counter-claimant satisfied a reasonable burden of proof, given their opposition to the consensus of expert opinion?
  • What do reputable scientific journals and writers have to say on the issue/scientific theory?
  • Be skeptical when confronted with a dissenting opinion to the prevailing scientific consensus – everyone wants a piece of science to suit their own agendas.
  • Want to make an informed opinion? Investigate the data and the science behind the claims. Educate yourself. Otherwise, realise you are only guessing until you are fully informed and have asked the questions of the media I have outlined above. Empower yourself with knowledge: How did scientists arrive at their conclusions?
Top Tips For Critical Analysis of Media and Scientific Issues
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One response to “Climategate – Red Herrings, Non Sequiturs and the Misinformed

  1. Pingback: Kahui book hubbub – Moral outcry or madness? | Fresh Views From Reality

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