Saturday, May 28, 2011

I cannot deny this

This week the UQ Physics Colloquium was given by John Cook on Communicating Climate Science and Countering Disinformation. He is a UQ physics graduate and now writes an influential blog Skeptical Science which aims to present peer-reviewed climate science in an accessible fashion that answers climate change skeptics. He has also developed a popular Phone application which answers 10 common used arguments of climate change skeptics. He recently published a book Climate Change Denial.

Here is my summary of some of the main points.

97 out 100 climate scientists believe that humans are causing carbon dioxide levels to rise.
Why?  There are many different lines of evidence.
In contrast, only 58% of the general public believe this. This is because the mainstream media gives the impression of a 50/50 debate.

Several references were made to a book Merchants of Doubt"  by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway which documents how vested financial interests have funded disinformation campaigns to undermine public debate about issues on which the scientific evidence is clear.

John summarised a paper Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?
which argued that there are 5 characteristics common to other denials as well. e.g., dangers of cigarette smoking, HIV causes AIDS, young earth creationism,
[I think this also applies to some proponents of quantum biology!]

1. Cherry picking of data
e.g. glacier mass balance. there are a few glaciers that are indeed growing. But the vast majority are shrinking.
Human carbon dioxide emission is only a small fraction of total emission from the planet. This ignores that natural processes balance out absorption and emission.

2. Promoting the views of fake experts
e.g. The petition project - 31,000 "scientists" have signed it.

3. Impossible expectations
Always demanding more evidence and complete certainty.

4. Logical fallacies
Climate changed has happened before

5. Conspiracy theories
e.g. climategate. But, 8 independent investigations have found no evidence of conspiracy

In contrast, to denialism genuine skepticism considers all the evidence and weighs it. I would add a sixth common feature of denialsm: a lack of humility to acknowledge that their lack of relevant scientific expertise, experience, and knowledge may just possibly mean that their opinion is not valid.

John answered one question I have had for a while. Why do weather fluctuations increase with increasing global temperatures?
This is due to the water cycle because higher temperatures lead to more evaporation, more drought, more water in atmosphere.

There is one complex and subtle issue which was not addressed and I do not understand. That is the views of and role played by distinguished physicists such as Freeman Dyson, Bob Austin, William Happer, and Bob Laughlin. They are not climate scientists but on some level are "skeptics". Indeed, some of them unsuccessfully petitioned the American Physical Society to change its policy on climate change. Why do they believe what they do? Perhaps it is just a mixture of physics hubris and political sympathies...

Overall, I thought this was a great colloquium. It generated a lot of good questions and discussions.

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