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Wednesday, February 14, 2007


The Australian is Anti-Science

The Australian is Anti-Science, it's a conclusion I'm reluctant to draw, but the accumulated evidence drives me to it.

Science must not become a slave to its own orthodoxies, begins this editorial in todays Australian. Mmmm, Science as Orthodoxy, now where have I heard that before? It's the standard tactic used by Intelligent Design Creationists, HIV deniers and anti-vaccination folks. This isn't a good start, not helped by the anti-IPCC rant from some Polish politician given space on the same page. Look, the IPCC report is the distillation of over 15 years of research, compiled by over a thousand international scientists, it's not orthodoxy, it is evidence, carefully collected, intensely studied evidence.

But on the other hand there is a growing chorus of murmurs against the received orthodoxy of climate change.

Ah, just like the creationists, there is always a claim of growing opposition (which somehow is never identified with actual people), but in fact many climate skeptics have ceased their skepticism, or have switched to economic arguments, instead of denying the reality of global warming (there is a good article in Nature on this, but it is subscription only).

While the recent IPCC report was held up as the last word on the subject, many scientists have pointed out that the 90 per cent certainty ascribed to the reports findings is in scientific terms not very certain at all.

That is a meaningless statement. Who are these "many scientists?", ones who don't know statistics from a hole in the ground. Firstly, its not "certainty", we are looking at confidence interval. For many of the IPCC average values, there is a 5% chance the real could be lower, and a 5% chance it could be higher (but not all, several figures are 95%, ie value +/- 2.5%). This is quite good and policy makers would be foolish in the extreme not to take action. Even if the figures are lower, it is still pretty bad for us (look at the ranges given in the IPCC figures, the world heats up even at the lowest ranges). This is a standard creationist tactic. If you data has error bars, it must be in error (sheesh). Basically, what we really have is very good estimates with very narrow error margins, and the editor is trying to spin this as "uncertainty". Next tactic, non-sequiturs

For example, at the Danish National Space Centre in 2005 an experiment successfully linked cosmic rays to the formation of clouds. .... At the same time it provides a more satisfactory explanation for contradictory Antarctic temperature trends that cannot be explained by conventional greenhouse global warming models.

Yes, this is all very well and good, a nice interesting contribution to long term climate. But it doesn't explain the Antarctic data (which aren't contradictory) because cosmic ray levels haven't changed significantly, they are not relevant to the warming we are currently experiencing.

For while there are many valid reasons to cut unhealthy smog-creating carbon emissions, there are also many reasons to be skeptical about the near-religious fervour with which the simplistic carbon-equals-warming equation is too often defended

It's like the near-religious fervour with which scientists defend the fact that Earth is an oblate spheroid, or gravity, it's a fact of physics you can't get way from. An editor may have their own opinions, but they don't get to have their own facts.

It was skepticism that led Copernicus to challenge contemporary orthodoxy and assert that the Earth is not the centre of the universe.

Well, chalk up ignorance of history as well, but trying to hijack the Copernican movement backfires. Galileo had significant problems convincing people of his ideas as many were not prepared to look at the evidence, in some cases refusing to look through his telescope to see things for themselves. In the global warming arena, scientists have produced massive amounts of evidence, only to be ignored by political leaders and editors of the Australian. The position of scientists is not the orthodoxy, the orthodoxy is that of the politicians who claim that humans aren't changing climate. The editors response to the massive amount of evidence appears to be sticking their fingers in their ears and saying "nayh-nayh can't hear you".

The fact is that our climate is infinitely complex.

No, it is finitely complex, very very complex, but finitely so. Here the editor is trying a "scientists can never know" tactic. Our models may be crude, but when several different models give the same predictions, and the predictions have been closely tracked by real temperature rises, you better take them seriously.

And scientists are often woefully out of their depth in the real world.

Funny, when I was making my kids lunches this morning, I was sure I was in the real world, and not doing too bad a job of making the lunches. Scientists do just fine in the real world dear editor, the computer you typed your missive on, the mobile phone you use, the car you drive are all products of scientists producing real world solutions to real world problems.

History is littered with lives and regimes that were wrecked when science was allowed to drive policy with no thought to humanity.

Yeah, like the campaign to eliminate small pox, that certainly wrecked a lot of lives and not a few regimes, and the campaign to bring clean drinking water to everyone, and the weather satellites that give people decent warning of approaching storms, the "slip slop slap" campaign to prevent suncancer did in a few regimes too. Stopping production of CFC's before the ozone layer disappeared has caused untold misery and wrecked several regimes.

That was sarcasm if you didn't realise. Science drive policy, we wish. It has never happened, and is unlikely to happen. Oh sure, bad and/or foolish people will co-opt science to support their irrational campaign du jour (like the campaign of forced sterilization for "mental defectives" in the United States in the 20's and 30's, it was a political movement that coopted science, not a science driven policy). The argument that Scientists have done bad /foolish things in the past, therefore we should ignore the weight of evidence before us now, is not a logical one. The editor can't come up with real counter arguments to the evidence arrayed by scientists, so now resorts to ad-hominems.

It is only by tempering science with economics and the market, which is the most efficient arbiter of humanity's wants and needs, that smart climate policy can be made.

Yeah, right. That worked so well with fish stocks, you know the ones scientists said needed to be harvested at lower levels to be sustainable. The politicians and economists ignored them, the fish stocks crashed, and so far haven't recovered.

The same song was sung over CFC's and ozone depletion, giving in to alarmist scientists would ruin us, claimed industry and economists. Then the NASA images of the ozone hole came out, and suddenly CFC's were replaced and the economy hasn't collapsed.

Mysterious murmurings of unnamed "scientists", non sequiturs, rants about "evil" scientists, all tactics I know and loath from the creationists, HIV deniers and anti-vax people. If this was some tabloid journal I would expect this, but this is the National broadsheet newspaper, we really should expect better.

On the other hand, the Australian has a history of letting Intelligent design creationism romp all over its pages, and has published appalling pieces of nonsense about global warming. I've written about this before.

So one is left to conclude that the Australian (or rather its editors), is anti-science. A very sad fate for the premier national newspaper. At a time when we need our citizens to be scientifically literate, especially as we try to sort out effective response to global warming, we have The Australian peddling nonsense to them.

That was good to read - I had just been sent the stupid "Australian" editorial through a mailing list for climate change renegates and was wondering whether one should respond ...
Ian, as I read the quotes from The Australian that you included I started to see why you were so angry about this. I agree that it looks like an attack on science. I was at a loss to think of any examples of history being "littered" with science driving policy causing problems.

The comment about science as othodoxy (implying that it maintains the status quo) annoys me. Science is constant revolution towards a better and better understanding of the world around us. It isn't about maintaining the status quo although selling newspapers and being re-elected is.

Don't fret too much, I'm sure British broadsheets can be just as bad. Having said that, I did manage to read a great piece exposing the (not a real doctor) Gillian McKeith in the Guardian. Ben Goldacre did a great job of detailing her fake science and her claims of authority.

We are 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin. He published in 1859. Since then the evidence has just mounted to a main pillar of science that is part of our explanation of how we can to be.

Global warming is a totally different animal. There is enough politics in this to make it non-science. Remember the hocky stick graph? The controversy over whether the medival warm period was global or not. The IPCC is not a science body, it is a political body. It has issued a summary without the supporting science, with a suggestion that they don't care for the facts.

You can push the GW hysteria as much as you like, but have you even contemplated the damage to science in the public domain if much of it is wrong? If the hysterical predictions are wrong?

This is not 200 year old science.

It is very complex, and the more I look at the details the more I have caause to pause and question.

Tying evolution and GW together may cause untold damage to the former if there are problems with the latter.

I am not worried by GW, as much as the hysteria around it.

So Ian have you turned off your electricity yet? Sold the car? Given up meat and dairy products? Reduced your CO2 footprint to almost zero?
For something that has been lauded as being an excellent "fisk" of the editorial in the OZ I was rather disappointed by your rant here.
As your commenter William points out there is a great deal of hysteria about AGW and most of it is based on some rather shaky science.
Just to remind you, 90% is the probability that a randomly chosen digit such as 7 is not equal to 7. :-) (source)
Check out the link for a skeptic who knows his math and his science and then consider that science, unlike religion, actually REQUIRES skepticism; you present a religious argument here and need to seriously lift your game.
I'm putting up a second post on the Australian and climate change, which will address a numebr of issues rasied in the comments, but here's some individual responses.

Yes, I remember the “hockey stick” the study that has been independently reproduced at least 5 times using different methodologies. That’s one key aspect of science replication, and the “hockey stick” has been independently replicated.

You don’t need science to go on for 200 years to reach a conclusion. The ozone layer-CFC connection was accepted and acted on in a much shorter time frame than the current climate consensus. In many ways the global warming debate is a replay of the CFC debate, with governments and business crying it was not proven, all too hard and economically disastrous. Now we are removing CFC’s from everything, the world hasn’t collapsed economically and the ozone hole may repair itself by around 2060.

Think about that, it will take nearly 60 years for the damage to the ozone layer to be fixed, and we are moving relatively quickly on this. Even with the smallest estimated rate of global warming, there will be substantial changes to coastal inundation, and rainfall to food producing areas. These changes will take a long time to reverse. To be worried about these consequences is not being hysterical.

As to our personal contribution, we have replaced all our globes (except the rarely used party lights) with energy efficient fluorescent globes, and turn off unnecessary electrical equipment (not that we have a plethora of gadgets anyway, although the manual apple peeler/corer is pretty cute). The equipment that we have is high energy efficiency rated (except the dishwasher, because that’s me, my energy efficiency is pretty low :-). We use public transport, walking and bicycling wherever possible. I commute to work with a combination of bicycling and walking. Not only does it reduce greenhouse emissions, it improves health. If more people did this, we could substantially reduce mortality from cardiovascular disease. We are not big meat eaters, but we are big tree planters, involved in revegetation in a variety of ways (not only sequesters carbon, but helps reduce dryland salinity, and encourages and protects native species).

Simple personal changes (like near universal uptake of high efficiency fluor or LED lights) would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emission. It’s something was all can do (you can just replace conventional bulbs on their natural attrition cycle so as to not waste money). Joining your local landcare group, or Trees for Life (or the local equivalent) helps too, in many ways as well as reducing greenhouse gasses. But for substantial changes, we need national and international policy action. Just like personally not using CFC containing products was helpful, but international policy was required to make substantial headway.
Iain Hall:
"Just to remind you, 90% is the probability that a randomly chosen digit such as 7 is not equal to 7. :-)"

That is plain rubbish, but I may use it (de-identified) as an example of statistical innumeracy for the Biostatistics class I teach. Zarquon preserve us from thse that think they know stsistics.
It is only by tempering science with economics

Well, at least it's good to see the Australian recognises that economics isn't science.
The science may not be 200 years old, but it's over 100.

"Well, at least it's good to see the Australian recognises that economics isn't science."

Snicker :-)
Great stuff.. I saw this article and was absolutely disgusted with it. The editorial staff of the Australian really are far-right loonies, it is seriously disturbing.
Oh my god. You start with saying it's a fact then immediatly proceed to 90% certain. Do you even read what you write?
You said cosmic rays remained steady over the antarctic but for got to mention the antarctic is cooling
Yes, PARTS of the Antartic are cooling, and the Antartic peninsula is warming, all of whilc is irrelevant to cosmic rays, as they have not chaged significantly.
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