So I get a lot of “sceptical” comments on the “How to Talk to a Sceptic” guide, as one might well imagine. They cover quite a range from subtly misguided to poorly informed to angry political rants. I always try to answer if it seems like there might be a point.
A recent comment, made on the main guide page (usually a bad sign), is a bit of a head scratcher in terms of assessing whether it is sincere and whether there is a point in replying.
While, as I said, it is posted on the main page, Frederick targets the “It’s cold in Wagga-Wagga” article and he is upset at me because I imply that it is an idiotic argument. He says my answer is:
similar to calling someone an idiot and walking away.
It’s true I alowed myself a little snark (“Does this even deserve an answer?”) but come on, this is one of the shallowest arguments against AGW that is out there! He doesn’t say if he finds my refutation of it correct or not and in fact he then devotes the rest of his comment to an examination of the temperature trend in Boulder, Colorado. That seems to imply he might actually think that “it is cold today in Wagga-Wagga” is a valid point to debate about.
So what’s to discuss, right? Well, the interesting thing is he precedes his comment with a personal introduction and says he’s a research scientist for a large biomedical company. Now, I’m not a biomedical researcher, but I suspect that if there were only one field of science where an understanding of statistics is essential it would be biomedical research.
I like to try to understand where people’s views come from. Is this fellow simply lying about his job? Is he shockingly ignorant about trends and averages and statistics in general? Is his political ideology so strong that he allows himself an utterly incompetent point of view on one field even while he is competent in his own? Perhaps there is some other explanation for him thinking that the temperature trend in a single city says anything, anything, about global temperature trends.
I suppose it doesn’t matter in the big picture, wrong is wrong, but as I said, I would like to know.
He finishes with a rapid fire of six things I need to do to convince people, and I did want to respond to them:
1. show data that is accurate
Hard to answer…which data? I assume he means the instrumental temperature record, that’s a really big chunk of data. But anyway, this makes the assumption that I have supplied or relied on data that is inaccurate, so again, which data?
2. explain that there have been no “corrections” made to the data
This is an interesting one. Are corrections bad? The scare quotes make it pretty clear he believes that. But once again, if he really crunches data for a living, surely he knows that data comes from an imperfect world and not correcting it based on your knowledge of that world is simply Wrong. If a station finds a systematic bias in its reading method and fixes it, shouldn’t we “correct” that data to make it consistent? If we discover urban heat islands of caused a rising trend seperate from the local climate shouldn’t we “correct” that? This is a “scare” tactic and an argument from ignorance (“why would anyone mess with the data?? What are they up to?!”)
3. explain exactly how the data was obtained
Lot’s of data, lot’s of explanation. I think if he had anything specific in mind he would have specified it. Besides, all that info is available within research papers and references and the references of references etc.
4. explain how this can be reproduced
5. show that the world warms and cools because CO2 % rises and falls
This is an interesting one too! How do you think he would like me to do that? I took a general stab at that here, but I don’t know if that is really “showing” anything. Perhaps he would like to run a few global experiments, alternating between cranking up the CO2 levels and cranking them down. We would have to hold volcanic action and solar output steady too, and then track the temperature changes. Maybe a time machine or two would help. Sounds like a tall order!
The article I referenced above does show why we expect it, and that this expectation is consistent with past and current observations, but I can’t really say it shows it happening. Will that be enough for Frederick?
6. ask someone else to check what you did, to make sure you are not cheating
I think this is what peer review and publication in journals read by your entire field of researchers is all about. It has been going on about climate change for many decades.
That’s the best answer I can come up with at the moment. Anyway, we can only try, right? Besides, I always write my comment replies for the benefit of lurkers more than the actual participants.