A lesson from Bob Carter's book


How climate “sceptics” get it wrong: a lesson from Bob Carter’s book

One of the hardest things to understand about climate science is why its findings about the human influence on global climate have provoked such fervent and widespread opposition. What makes it harder still is that among the most visible opponents are some senior scientists who ought to know better, using the methods of propaganda rather than science to make their case, all the while insisting that it is their enemies who have abandoned scientific rigour.

One of them is Australia’s Professor Bob Carter, a retired geologist with a distinguished record of achievement in his field, and a handy skill at public presentation which makes him a very plausible advocate for the views he shares with other “sceptics”.

Let me say right away why I don’t think these people are real sceptics. To be sceptical, if it means anything, means to take a questioning attitude to all evidence, to practice carefully the methods for sorting good from bad, and to place a high standard of veracity on what you admit. It is essentially an open-minded stance, and it is absolutely characteristic of science in every field of enquiry. Scientists, like everyone else, get into trouble the moment they forget it. But that is exactly what the climate “sceptics” have done with a vengeance.

The one thing no scientist can ever do while practicing his craft is to approach some problem or question with a fixed answer and search for whatever can be found to support it. That is the method of story-tellers and persuaders; it is natural to people of conviction, but anathema to scientists. That’s why it is so strange to see that it is the sole support for Bob Carter’s new book Climate: the Counter-Consensus.

Here, I don’t intend to review the book, but just give you an example (an interesting one though) of how corrupt the case against climate science is. It comes right at the beginning of the book, in the author’s introduction, when he explains that the world has been cooling since 1998 and the scientific “establishment” has been trying to hide this fact from us.

On page 30, he tells readers that a paper in Geophysical Research Letters, a very eminent and respected journal often used for publishing new findings in climate science, confirms his view. He then quotes a few lines from the article, which make it appear as if these authors are indeed confessing global warming stopped a decade ago. Then he refers to another GRL study by David Easterling & Michael Wehner, “who, whilst acknowledging the cooling, put a brave face on the matter” by providing a caveat.

“It is clearly difficult,” continues Carter, “for even the most straightforward of facts to shift the fierce belief in human-caused warming that is held by these and many other scientists.” What is almost incredible about this little passage is that the two cited papers were written explicitly to contradict the very view that Carter attributes to them. The authors in neither case “admitted” any such thing, but wrote in order to explain how there could and would be periods of up to a decade or two of little or no warming embedded in any long-term warming trend. No one, as far as I know, who works in the field (Carter does not) has been persuaded that warming stopped in 1998 - because the evidence overwhelmingly refutes this.

What Carter did in this case was to extract a couple of sentences, just the way a religious fanatic would do, to make a case out of nothing. No one, reading the two studies with an open mind could possibly impute the meaning he claims to have found in them. As he’s perfectly capable of interpreting a scientific paper (he’s done that all his professional life) one must suppose he didn’t want to understand them, just to exploit them.

The strangest thing is that Easterling’s paper shows in detail why it is unjustified to infer anything about the long-term warming trend from the 1998 hot El Nino year. 30-year trends through this year show the warming; ten year trends starting in 1999 show it; the decade 1999-2008 was the hottest decade on record; intervals of 10 years or more with no trend occur in warming simulations. The only way the “cooling after 1998” claim can be upheld is by “cherry-picking” just the decade that suits the case and ignoring everything else. All you can really do with this is emphasise what a hot year 1998 was (which is hardly necessary); the fact that this record wasn’t equalled for another decade should surprise no one, and tells us nothing whatever about the irregular phenomenon of surface warming.

How can an Earth scientist with Bob Carter’s experience get it so wrong? Well, a reader finds an answer to this on the very first page, with his first mention of the IPCC. This group was established by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization in 1988, when it first became clear that the warming of the planet’s surface was going to be a very big problem. Understanding the problem is a highly technical matter - but it can’t be managed without suitable public policies, so a large number of working scientists from dozens of universities all over the world were given the job of summarizing what was known about the changing climate into a report that would be accessible to officials, policy-makers, educators and anyone else who needed to know about the nature of the problem and its implications for our future welfare.

The IPCC is not a UN bureaucracy, it’s an ad hoc committee of experts who volunteer to give some of their time so that politicians and the public can be better informed. It is not a political organization; it’s a scientific one. It makes reports to politicians, and politicians have some oversight of what gets published. According to IPCC members, this has the effect of muting the degree of concern expressed therein - and indeed, the judgements that make it into final reports tend to be, in the opinion of expert scientists outside the IPCC, very conservative. Nevertheless, beginning on his first page, Bob Carter tells us, as if it was something everybody knew, that this body is a corrupt, dishonest, secretive, darkly political & anti-scientific cabal.

According to him, every one of its pronouncements is suspect; it is guilty of lies, manipulation of data, endemic political bias; and it propagates a subversive cultural/political agenda that is inimical to freedom and prosperity, as well as scientific integrity. That’s a lot of guilt. This view of the IPCC is shared by every climate denier I know of - Carter’s fellow geologist Ian Plimer likens it to State-controlled science in Stalin’s Russia. Once you understand this prejudice, the rest of Carter’s case makes more sense. He doesn’t need to engage his opponents in genuine scientific debate because they are not real scientists, but phoneys, dupes and crooks. He isn’t required to deal with their evidence because it is ipso facto contrived and unreliable. Instead, he can search for evidence of his own like a fanatic.

That’s why the assembled evidence looks so peculiar. Certain of the truth, Carter can by-pass normal evidential standards. Anything confirming what he already believes can be admitted. Refutations, because they come from people he doesn’t respect, do not count, and mountains of counter-evidence can be treated as if it never existed. Climate “scepticism” is no more scientific than creationism is. That would not matter too much were it not for the awful tragedy its success will visit upon our innocent grandchildren. Take away their audience and let them rant to each other while the rest of us fix the problem.

The two papers can be read using these links