Remember how yesterday I said that sometimes writing this blog depresses me? At the time, I made that observation because there are times when the unending constant onslaught of pseudoscience, anti-science, and woo leads me to despair that the human race will ever overcome its cognitive defects. However, there are other times when blogging depresses me. It’s for an entirely different reason, though. There are times when people I admire, people who should know better, fall and fall hard. No, I don’t mean Tiger Woods getting it on with a bunch of blondes. The level of horniness and lack of control all too common among powerful and well-accomplished men have long since lost their power to shock me. Rather, I’m talking about when skeptics whom I admire show a most unskeptical side. I’m talking about when a skeptic who really, really should know better makes an enormous mistake, a mistake that puts him firmly in the camp of denialists, although hopefully he doesn’t realize it. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often that such a prominent skeptic makes such an error, but it’s very disconcerting when it does.

The first time it happened for me was around five years ago, when I first found out that Penn Jillette frequently allows his Libertarian political views to interfere with his skepticism and appreciation of science. The examples are multiple, including a Bullshit! episode in which the deleterious health effects of secondhand smoke were denied (which ultimately Penn had to admit to have been in error). Penn has also frequently parroted anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denialist tropes as well. I will admit that at TAM7, I saw Penn come as close as I’ve ever seen him to admitting that he was wrong about AGW, but he stopped just short, by retreating to the lame excuse of “I JUST DON’T KNOW!”

Unfortunately, the latest time this happened was yesterday. The prominent skeptic was James Randi. The disappointment came in the form of an article Randi posted to the JREF Swift Blog Monday night entitled AGW, Revisited. It greatly saddens me to say it, but in this single post, Randi unfortunately dropped a huge turd on the blogosphere. I take no pleasure at all in saying this because I’ve admired Randi for a long time. I even met him for the first time last summer at TAM7, and he was every bit as delightful as expected. Even weakened by surgery and chemotherapy, the mischievous twinkle in his eye was intact, and he seemed just as sharp as ever. Whether he was cruising around in his wheelchair or on his feet, Randi was still clearly the heart and soul of the skeptical organization that bears his name. That’s why his post on global warming is such a disappointment to me.

First off, let me just say that “doubting” the science behind anthropogenic global warming (AGW) does not per se make one a denialist. Nor does bucking the scientific consensus. Denialism does not involve questioning science so much as a fallacious manner of thinking that denies science and evidence. Evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists), for example, are not anti-science because they “question” evolution. Rather it is how they question evolution, using straw men, misrepresentations of the science, cherry picking, and whatever it takes basically to try to torture the evidence into the appearance of backing up what they already believe and want to keep believing. The same is true of “alternative medicine” mavens, 9/11 Truthers, and any manner of conspiracy theorists.

Also, let me point out that I am not accusing Randi of denialism. What almost certainly happened is that Randi unwisely jumped into an area about which he did not know enough to distinguish valid scientific arguments from denialist pseudoscience. Indeed, he practically admits as much, calling his writing “in my amateur opinion.” Unfortunately, his amateur opinion failed on many levels. For the average person, such a failure might not be that big a deal, but Randi is not a “normal” person. He’s a major figure in the skeptical movement. In any case, even if the global warming “skeptics” are completely correct in their criticisms of AGW, the arguments Randi uses against the current AGW scientific consensus would still be bad arguments, because they’re chock full of logical fallacies and misunderstanding of the science. Let’s start at the beginning, where Randi opens with an observation that’s trivial but ends up coloring the entire post that follows:

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us, in that they are strongly influenced by the need to be accepted, to kowtow to peer opinion, and to “belong” in the scientific community. Why do I find this “unfortunate”? Because the media and the hoi polloi increasingly depend upon and accept ideas or principles that are proclaimed loudly enough by academics who are often more driven by “politically correct” survival principles than by those given them by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. (Granted, it’s reassuring that they’re listening to academics at all — but how to tell the competent from the incompetent?) Religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.

All of which is more or less true, but, as I said, rather trivial. It’s not individual scientists we are talking about when we speak of a scientific consensus, each of whom is (hopefully) human and thus prone to the same sorts of emotions and motivations as any other human. It’s also more than a bit odd that Randi would mention Newton, who was in fact also an alchemist and prone to all sorts of paranormal and strange religious beliefs when he wasn’t busy formulating his laws of motion; some of his studies were into the occult. That Newton was prone to believing in woo doesn’t render his laws of motion invalid any more than the observation that some climate scientists are not the nicest people in the world and have become a bit defensive invalidates AGW science. The science is the science. It stands or falls based on the evidence and how well observations and experiment describe reality.

Whether Randi realizes it or not, his framing his argument by beginning with an argument that scientists are prone to peer pressure and to kowtowing to “political correctness” is a pre-emptive ad hominem attack, most likely based on the recent “climategate” affair. He comes across as attacking scientists as close-minded and hopelessly in the thrall of peer pressure as a prelude to making some spectacularly bad arguments about AGW, chock full of logical fallacies. For example, there is the appeal to authority. First, he says this about The Petition Project:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a group of thousands of scientists in 194 countries around the world, and recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — has issued several comprehensive reports in which they indicate that they have become convinced that “global warming” is and will be seriously destructive to life as we know it, and that Man is the chief cause of it. They say that there is a consensus of scientists who believe we are headed for disaster if we do not stop burning fossil fuels, but a growing number of prominent scientists disagree. Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous.

And concluding:

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.

I fear Randi’s skeptical antennae are growing less sensitive. Regardless of what one thinks of the science behind AGW, accepting or rejecting it, surely the clever wizened old fraud spotter should have been able to see a striking similarity between The Petition Project, in which AGW denialists have tried to slap a patina of scientific respectability on their arguments by making it look as though many many scientists support them, and similar projects done in the name of creationism, for example, the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwin” list, the vast majority of signatories of which have no special expertise in evolution. So ridiculous is this “Darwin dissent” list that there is even a parody of the effort called Project Steve whose mascot is a panda puppet called Professor Steve Steve. I’ve been embarrassed by a similar effort to find physicians and surgeons who “dissent from Darwin.” The bottom line is that lists of this sort are very often the product of cranks trying to give an air of scientific legitimacy to their views. One should always–I repeat, always–be very skeptical of such lists. They are almost always more the tool of propaganda and very often are dominated by the names of people who have no special expertise in the subject being argued but do have letters and titles after their names.

Randi also repeats an argument that never fails to raise my hackles when I see it:

Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Nooooo! Not you too, Randi! The appeal to “science has been wrong before”is almost always an intellectually lazy shortcut, because what matters is not so much that science has been wrong before but how it’s been wrong. There are many ways of being wrong and probabilities of being wrong. It’s not enough to point out that science has been wrong in the past. Of course it has! That’s rather the point, isn’t it? Science is a self-correcting enterprise. Being wrong about things and finding answers that describe and predict nature more accurately is how science advances. In fact, we can say that virtually all of our current science is incorrect in some way or another to some degree or other and subject to correction and refinement as new observations are made and new experiments done. The question is how close science comes to describing nature. In many cases, it’s very close indeed, which is one reason why it is completely insufficient to invoke the “science was wrong before” gambit as though in and of itself that is sufficient to cast doubt on well-accepted science. If you’re going to argue convincingly that current science is wrong on a topic, you have to be able to show flaws in the science sufficient to cast serious doubt on the current scientific consensus, and you can’t do that if you don’t understand the science. Denialists often “find” new “flaws” that they think no one else has noticed before, when in fact scientists have nearly always already considered virtually every such objection and concluded that they aren’t supported by the evidence. Such objections often spring from ignorance of the background of an issue.

Which brings me to the bugaboo of “consensus science.” Actually, as much as it pains me to say this too, Randi is dead wrong here. Consensus is very important to many areas of science. Think about it. When you come right down to it , what is a scientific theory but a scientific consensus agreeing that a proposed set of principles describing a phenomenon is the best current explanation of that phenomenon that science has to offer? Moreover, when it comes to applying science to real world practical problems, consensus is incredibly important. In medicine, what are clinical guidelines but a statement of expert consensus of how medical science should be applied to specific diseases or clinical problems? Indeed, the NIH periodically publishes consensus statements about various conditions, with recommendations about how they should be treated. In treating breast cancer patients, I frequently refer to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines. In any case, if you want to challenge a scientific consensus, you have to have the goods. You have to be able to produce sufficient evidence against the current consensus to throw it into doubt. It’s even better if you can produce positive evidence for an alternate consensus. Cranks are almost always unable to do either on a rigorous basis, although to the ignorant their “doubts” often look convincing on the surface. It’s disappointing that Randi accepted such superficial objections without actually, oh, asking someone about it other than perhaps Penn Jillette. Phil Plait, for instance. Or one of the many climate science bloggers out there.

Even more distressingly, Randi in essence invokes a classic argumentum ad ignorantiam or perhaps an argument from personal incredulity:

I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts about planet Earth. This ball of hot rock and salt water spins on its axis and rotates about the Sun with the expected regularity, though we’re aware that lunar tides, solar wind, galactic space dust and geomagnetic storms have cooled the planet by about one centigrade degree in the past 150 years. The myriad of influences that act upon Earth are so many and so variable — though not capricious — that I believe we simply cannot formulate an equation into which we enter variables and come up with an answer. A living planet will continually belch, vibrate, fracture, and crumble a bit, and thus defeat an accurate equation.

I’m not even going to go into the errors in basic understanding of climate science in the discussion above. James Hrynyshyn, Greg Laden, and P. Z. Myers have already taken some of this on. Sadly, many are the errors, and Randi isn’t even consistent. Instead, I’m going to comment on the form of his argument. This may be harsh, but consider it tough love. I’m going to recast Randi’s argument into a bit more familiar of a form:

The myriad of influences that act upon living organisms are so many and sovariable–although not capricious–that I believe we simply cannot formulate a theory that explains how life evolved. A living ecosystem will continually change, fracture, and thus defeat an accurate theory.

Where have we heard arguments of this type before?

Randi should know this, but just because he personally can’t conceive of how science could possibly produce models to describe the earth’s climate and to make predictions based on those observations does not mean that it can’t be done by scientists who understand the issues involved any more than the fact that “intelligent design” creationists can’t conceive of how evolution could have produced the diversity of life says anything about evolutionary biology. If you know your understanding is rudimentary, then perhaps you should either not pontificate about an issue in such a way or make your knowledge less rudimentary before doing so.

Lest anyone think that I’m just lazily “defending the scientific consensus,” let me refer readers to this post I did a couple of years ago in a post I’m particularly proud of even all this time later (which is why you should read the whole thing). The post discussed skepticism and the scientific consensus, in which I expressed discomfort with the statement that a “real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.” Basically, I agreed that the scientific consensus is the best place to start for a skeptic who is evaluating individual issues with which he is not familiar. I also pointed out there, as I did then, that what distinguishes denialism from skepticism is not bucking the scientific consensus. Bucking the scientific consensus is a good thing if you do it right; i.e., with data, a deep understanding of the flaws in the current scientific consensus, and a good modification of current science that might account for new observations and decrease or eliminate the those flaws. That’s one way that science advances. Old paradigms are overturned to be replaced iwith paradigms that describe nature more accurately. Rather, I agreed with Mark Hoofnagle denialism it is more about tactics and how evidence is used to support an argument than it is about the position taken. This is what I wrote back then. I repeat it now because, quite frankly, I can’t think of a better way to say it (either that, or I’m too lazy to think up a better way to say it right now):

Scientific skepticism looks at the totality of evidence and evaluates each piece of it for its quality. Cranks are very selective about the data they choose to present, often vastly overselling its quality and vastly exaggerating flaws in current theory, in turn vastly overestimating their own knowledge of a subject and underestimating that of experts. This is perhaps the key characteristic of cranks and the biggest difference between a crank and a true skeptic. In addition, because the mainstream rejects them, there is often a strong sense of being underappreciated, leading them to view their failure to persuade the mainstream of the correctness of their views as being due to conspiracies or money. Antivaccinationists, for example, view the rejection of their belief that mercury in vaccines or even vaccines themselves cause autism by mainstream medicine as evidence that we’re all in the pocket of big pharma. Global warming denialists see the consensus as being politically motivated by the desire of “liberals” to tell them how to live. Evolution deniers view evolution as the result of atheistic scientists wanting to deny God. People like Sandy Szwarc view the consensus that obesity leads to health problems as being due more to moralizing and bigotry against the obese, which, whether it is true or not, is an easy claim to make because there has been and is a lot of bigotry against the obese.

Yes, scientific consensuses can sometimes be wrong. It’s even possible, albeit unlikely, that the scientific consensus regarding AGW is in significant error and either no warming is occurring or the warming that is occurring is not caused by human activity. However, if you’re going to show a scientific consensus to be wrong, using logical fallacies and a rudimentary understanding of the science to argue against the scientific consensus is not going to convince anyone who knows a lot about the topic, although it might convince the ignorant. There are real controversies in climate science regarding the mechanisms of climate change being argued among scientists, who are not as monolithic as they are all too often represented. To engage in these arguments, though, one has to understand at least the rudiments of the issues involved, which is why I refer Randi to How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, an resource I’ve used myself in rather heated e-mail exchanges with a friend of mine who is, as much as it pains me to accept, an AGW denialist. Another good resource is The New Scientist’s demolition of AGW denialist canards, one of which, I’d point out, is an argument very much like Randi’s doubt that we could ever construct an equation to account for the complexity of climate. Yet another good resource is John Rennie’s recent Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense.

I assure you, my readers, and Randi (should he read this) that it gave me no pleasure to write this post; indeed, as I said in the beginning, it depressed the hell out of me. However, as is the case for so many things I write about, it was something I felt that I just had to comment on after someone e-mailed me a link to Randi’s post yesterday morning.

Finally, Randi’s post should serve as a warning to skeptics. One lesson to be learned is that a skeptic should not make sweeping pronouncements about a topic he clearly does not know enough about to be able to discuss knowledgeably. Clearly Randi failed in this. I can sort of see why it may have happened. Randi pointed out at the beginning of his post that many of his readers and admirers have asked him about AGW and whether he would “turn his skeptical eye to it.” Randi may have felt obligated to try to satisfy the requests of his fans. His failure clearly came as a result of his not sufficiently educating himself about the issues involved before commenting. At the risk of the hubris of comparing myself to Randi, I’ll point out that I not infrequently get requests to write about various topics. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a very, very bad idea for me to grant these requests if they are about topics with which I’m not familiar unless I’m willing to take the time necessary to learn about the issues involved–and even then I don’t have a lot of confidence. So if you ever wonder why I don’t respond to a request that involves a topic that’s not regularly featured on this blog, nine times out of ten it’s because I don’t know enough about it to comment intelligently (or even not-so-intelligently) and it would take me too much time and effort to come up to speed on the issues involved. You may wonder why a surgeon can write so confidently about, for instance, vaccines. Wonder no more. I took the time to learn the science, background, and nuances necessary, and I’ve been at this for over five years. In the process I made some mistakes and, early on, anti-vaccine loons occasionally took advantage of those mistakes to embarrass me. Another lesson to be learned is that skepticism does not necesarily mean rejecting a contention. Indeed, although it doesn’t necessarily mean a reflex acceptance of the scientific consensus, skepticism usually does mean accepting the consensus in the absence of compelling evidence against it, at the very least as the starting point for learning about the science involved.

Obviously, I’m disappointed in Randi for publishing a post that gives aid and comfort to a most distinctly unskeptical movement, namely the AGW denialist movement. I really wish he hadn’t done that. Because of his fame and decades-long work combatting pseudoscience and woo, he is revered among most skeptics, and justly so. However, being a skeptic does not mean always being right–far from it. What will determine Randi’s mettle is how he reacts to the much-deserved criticism of his mistake that has erupted in the day and a half since he posted his piece, and, indeed, Phil Plait has said that Randi is working on a followup to his post. Will Randi educate himself and admit his errors, or will he dig himself in deeper? Randi has a very deep well of good will that is justly deserved for all his past contributions in demolishing faith healers, smacking down Uri Geller (one of my personal favorites), and showing the utter bogosity of facilitated communication, among other achievements. I, for one, am willing to give him all the time he needs to bring himself up to speed on the issues involved. If, after having done so, he still has a problem with AGW and bases his doubts on arguments that address the science, that’s OK with me, although I’ll still think he’s wrong. At least he’ll then be able to argue his case without resorting to logical fallacies. In the end, skepticism, like science, is a method designed to protect us humans from our cognitive shortcomings as we try to divine how the universe works, and no one, not even Randi, is flawless at exercising it.


  1. #1 red rabbit
    December 17, 2009

    I’ve been surprised by Randi’s statements as much as anyone, but I suppose I am less concerned. Clever people can be wrong, and fall prey to emotional arguments which appeal to human biases. (I love vanity sizing, even though I know it’s a patent lie.)

    This doesn’t invalidate his other works, merely puts him in the spotlight and reminds us, again, not to trust authority but to look at the data. James Watson comes to mind- he was part of one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century; yet he is (in my opinion) a complete ass most of the time these days.

    @bigjohn #98- Nope, that’s the lazy way out. The general public has a responsibility here, too, if they want to live in a democracy with modern healthcare and sanitation etc. The general public needs to keep itself something like informed. It needs to use a critical eye. It needs to learn to pick out the real information from the noise- as Randi has demonstrated, this can be more difficult than it appears.

    If you want it spoon-fed to you, you’re better off in Cuba where someone else (who has more information) makes your decisions.

    @Kristen #42: This above may seem to agree with your point, but it doesn’t really either. There are exceptions, but by and large, the information which is accessible to someone without a very specific background is not the complete story. This is not on purpose, but as one gets deeper into a subject, things become more obscure and specialised.

    In order to make a contribution which is more than merely noise, one almost invariably needs to have some considerable depth to their understanding, which often means postgraduate level work in the topic.

    My contribution, as a GP, to the climate change discussion: pretty much surface noise. I have a rudimentary grasp, but I learned something over at pharyngula today (big tree ring = cooler, wetter time… I thought it was the opposite). I can understand that the new data regarding methane from thawing tundra is very bad news. However, I have a great respect for how much of this is simply beyond my understanding.

    So, whereas I don’t advocate taking authority at face value, I recognise that a scientific consensus really means a best understanding based on available data. The layperson really does not have a great deal to add to such evidence.

  2. #2 Luke Weston
    December 17, 2009

    “If, after having done so, he still has a problem with AGW and bases his doubts on arguments that address the science, that’s OK with me, although I’ll still think he’s wrong.”

    So, if (in principle) Randi presents a body of solid science and convincing evidence that “addresses the science”, you will still think he’s wrong, period?

    That doesn’t sound like good science or skepticism to me.

  3. #3 Gil
    December 18, 2009

    “It greatly saddens me to say it, but in this single post, Randi unfortunately dropped a huge turd on the blogosphere.”

    Talk about calling a spade a spade. On the other hand, don’t forget Galileo’s Fallacy: “Galileo was against the establishment and he was eventually proved right, I’m against the establishment therefore I’m right”.

  4. #4 BoxNDox
    December 18, 2009

    In regards to the training of engineers, it really depends on where you went to school. In comparing notes with other engineers at work, I’ve found that quite a few of them received what amounts to vocational training with little if any scientific or other background material included.

    Others schools are different. Using my own school (Harvey Mudd College) as an example, I had multiple required courses in chemistry and physics. No biology, but that’s probably changed now that Mudd has a biology department and major. And these weren’t some “watered down for engineers” course variants, but rather the same courses the chemistry and physics majors took.

    As I recall, there was also a required freshman course that covered the scientific method and the philosophy of science. That course was where I was first introduced to Kuhn.

    (Mudd also requires all students to meet distribution requirements in the humanities and social sciences, but I don’t see how that’s relevant.)

    Mind you, I remain to be convinced that the training of engineers – even when it is largely vocaional – explains the presence of large numbers of engineers on this particular list. As someone else pointed out, it could simply be a matter of a larger available population. Or some other factor.

    I do think that having a broader basis for understanding the world makes me a better engineer, but my career has hardly been typical (I’ve done a fair amount of research and published papers in peer-reviewed journals) so I’m careful not generalize what worked for me to engineering in general.

  5. #5 Jimbo Jones
    December 20, 2009

    Sock Puppet of the Great Satan:

    I’ve found a handful of studies, from a fairly quick search. More should be available fairly easily, although few studies actually directly mention hindcasting. As well, I don’t think you’d find a study that bothered comparing the entire global climate of models. There’s just far too much information, and not enough useful data to be found in such a mountain.

    That said, the studies I’ve found:

  6. #6 Terry Oldberg
    December 26, 2009

    To argue that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is “correct” because a “consensus” of scientists are supporters is to employ the fallacy of argument from authority.

    In science, the essential characteristic of a theory is not consensus but rather statistical validation. In order for a theory to be validated, it must be falsifiable. In this respect, the climate models of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fail. According to the climatologist Kevin Trenberth ( ), the IPCC models do not make predictions. It follows that: a) the IPCC models are not falsifiable and b) the IPCC models are not scientific models.

    Rather than make predictions, the IPCC models make what the IPCC calls “projections.” A projection is a mathematical function that maps the time to the computed global average temperature. A “prediction” is a logical proposition which states the outcome of a statistical event. A “prediction” is a different kind of entity from a “projection.” Only the former kind of entity supports falsification.

    By the way, under the philosophy of science, theories cannot be proved correct. They can only be proved incorrect.

  7. #7 Steven Sullivan
    December 28, 2009

    The IPCC model is falsifiable, Mr. Oldberg. All one has to do is show that the data trends can be plausibly explained without human greenhouse gas contribution as a major driving factor.

    We’re still waiting.

    Oh, and btw:

  8. #8 Steven Sullivan
    December 28, 2009
  9. #9 hro001
    January 13, 2010

    Orac, I’ve read a few of your posts on this issue – and I must say that I’m quite surprised to see that you so readily engage in the delegitimization of those who have the temerity to question the so-called “settled science”.

    I’m certainly a newcomer to the “climate wars”, but my baseline was “how on earth did C02 – which is beneficial to the planet, not to mention its inhabitants – get fingered as the “primary cause” of climate change (formerly known as global warming)? In all the reading I’ve done since in search of an answer to this question, I’ve seen a lot of “fog”, “mush”, handwaving and even uncertainty. But no sign of any evidence whatsoever to substantiate this rather important claim.

    As a few others have noted, the Climategate emails (which contrary to the declarations of some have not been proven to have been “hacked” or “stolen”) merely confirm what many have known for quite some time. These emails also provide considerable insight into the derivation of this so-called “consensus”. And no, they are not taken out of context … in fact, time after time, the “context” makes the behaviours of these “climate scientists” even more reprehensible.

    Not sure how many links are allowed here before a response gets trapped in a spam filter, so I’ll just use one:

    Feel free to follow the links from there … or not!

  10. #10 Orac
    January 14, 2010

    ‘m certainly a newcomer to the “climate wars”, but my baseline was “how on earth did C02 – which is beneficial to the planet, not to mention its inhabitants – get fingered as the “primary cause” of climate change (formerly known as global warming)? In all the reading I’ve done since in search of an answer to this question, I’ve seen a lot of “fog”, “mush”, handwaving and even uncertainty. But no sign of any evidence whatsoever to substantiate this rather important claim.

    You obviously haven’t looked very hard, then.

    I must say that I’m quite surprised to see that, as a newcomer, you so readily engage in fallacies that have long been dealt with and debunked. Well, no I’m not.

  11. #11 hro001
    January 14, 2010

    You obviously haven’t looked very hard, then.

    You seem to be suggesting that I should take the word of Colby Beck, a “software developer, specializing in Artificial Intelligence” who’s been “blogging about climate change” for 4 years over that of (amongst many others)
    Dr. Richard Lindzen, an MIT meteorologist. That will give you a good idea of his background, and here’s what he has to say about the role of C02.

    You can take Beck, if you like. But I’m sticking with Lindzen.

  12. #12 Orac
    January 14, 2010

    Silly boy. That was just one example among many, and Lindzen isn’t exactly reliable, as many of my fellow SB’ers have pointed out:

    He also seems to be pretty close to a lone voice among climate researchers, too. Why do you choose him versus hundreds, if not thousands, of others? Oh, that’s right. It’s because he confirms what you want to believe.

  13. #13 hro001
    January 14, 2010

    LOL Listen, kiddo! Your “one example of many” makes us even!

    Besides, Lindzen is far from being a “lone voice” – notwithstanding the fact that he was described as such in the article (if you actually deigned to read it).

    Have you actually ever actually read Lindzen or Lomborg, McIntyre, McKitrick, Michaels, Singer, Douglass, Spencer, Baliunas, Hayward (to name but a few)? Why do you choose not to? Oh, that’s right. No need to waste your precious time because … well, because your “fellow SB’ers” have deemed them to be “unreliable”.

    Furthermore, your repetition of the “hundreds, if not thousands” mantra tells me that while I may be a relative newcomer to the “climate wars”, I have probably done far more examination of sources than you have.

    But if you want to continue to believe that the scientific evidence for anthropogenic C02 as the “primary cause” of climate change aka global warming, is solid enough to warrant the advocated actions, be my guest. I, for one, am not prepared to make that leap of faith – certainly not on the strength of your dismissive and disrespectful responses.

  14. #14 Orson
    January 15, 2010

    I am yet to see a debate on man-made global warming where the defender of “consensus” actually wins.

    This should not be a fact of merely passing interest to skeptics. It should send up alarm bells for all to see. But sadly, skeptics aren’t all that “skeptical” when it comes to falling for pseudoscience. More sadly, Orac does not escape the clutches of unreasoning political fashion.

    Were the situation otherwise, Orac could simply point Randi to the debate and its key points of science and conclude “case closed.” He could see, we could see, ALL could see and move on.

    The truth is that paleoclimate data does not support the notion that CO2 levels drives climate change. Rather, CO2 follows changes in temperature.

    IPCC bodyguards like Thomas Crowley and co-chair Pachuari state that the case for AGW rests on “the weight of the evidence.” Nevermind the several falsifications of AGW theory like the foregoing.

    However, when funding consists of pleasing bureaucrats and the central gate-keepers constitute a corrupt clique, the empirical “weight” is determined by anomalous fingers on the scales, as “climategate” proves, this “scientific” method will yield politicized “results” – not sound empirical ones we rightly call science.

    And this the situation we now find ourselves in.

    Sadly, skeptics are in no place to untangle the tangled wed that has been so nefariously weaved.

    A sounder approach is the one employed by epidemiology. A good example is cancer and tobacco.

    Cancer was poorly understood in the first half of the 20th century, and statistics on even causes of death for humans were unreliable. It literally took decades to eventually isolate various confounding variables (eg, coal burning pollution), and show the unique impact of tobacco smoke on lung cancer.

    This mid 20th century situation is similar to climate science today.

    Just google the IPCCs own “LOSU” chart – “Level Of Scientific Understanding” – to see their summary of the many climate change variables. There are many relevant variables, and CO2 is virtually only one meriting “High Level” of scientific understanding. Thus, too many variables too poorly understood simply contradicts the executive Summary For Policy Makers “90%” level of anthropogenic certainty.

    Colorado State University’s William R. Cotton’s (et al) textbook now in its second edition (2007) summarizes the data in “Human Impacts on Weather and Climate.” Natural variability within the climate system simply overwhelms the empirical extraction of human-caused variables.

    Sans politics (yes, Virginia, the United Nations is a political organization, even when dealing with science) and special pleading, this is the state of climate science. One would hope that good skeptics would be honest enough to recognize this.

    Apparently, Orac isn’t good enough to be so honest. Which makes him a poor example for skeptics who would otherwise learn from science and the scientific method.

  15. #15 bill capron
    February 12, 2010

    I saw the term ‘hindcasting’ used as if there are actual models today that post-dict the current climate. This inquiring mind wants to know which model[s] this is. I read on the topic every day and don’t know of such a model, and in fact have never heard tell of one, but it was spoken of as if it exists, or is it, that is should exist. So, “I don’t know,” but if it exists, I’ll move gladly from the denier camp. The name-calling in these posts with their prejudicial labeling is at best sophmoric, and at worst demeaning. Thank you, Bill Capron

  16. #16 Joseph
    February 12, 2010

    I saw the term ‘hindcasting’ used as if there are actual models today that post-dict the current climate.

    This post by Tamino should answer your question.

  17. #17 Apuleius Platonicus
    February 15, 2010

    I outgrew Randi’s brand of knee-jerk debunkery a long time ago, but I still very much prefer him to the current crop of evangelizing skeptics (Harris, Dawkins, & Co.). Randi is a great writer and a genuinely funny guy — AND he really can pull a rabbit out of his hat!

    It really is sad to see The Amazing Randi in the company of Glenn Beck!! I wonder how he likes his new friends?

  18. #18 bill
    February 17, 2010

    per the hindcasting, this is of course dependent on my believing the sources for the temperatures, and I’ve got to say the jury is out on that and the impact of heat islands … we’ll revisit this in 6 months and see what the result is

  19. #19 Bork
    February 19, 2010

    I can’t say I’m surprised by the slimy framing and underhanded arguments in this blog. I’ve seen them anywhere that the oil industry finds it’s interests being attacked.

    My issue with James Randi is that many of his statements fail to pass the most basic application of informal logic. When a person makes a persuasive argument, there is always a motivation to subvert. It’s easy to gain popularity as a skeptic with feel good rhetoric and demonstrations attacking the lowest hanging fruit (psychics and faith cons). When this is used to spread FUD about science it should be an indication of motivation to the people witnessing it. Pleading ignorance or confusion is only a tactic.

    I believe this is the first time I’ve seen him veer in to the realm of outright frauds like penn juliet though…

  20. #20 Andrew Dodds
    February 19, 2010

    Orson –

    To take one part of your post; you claim that ‘CO2 levels follow warming in deglaciations, therefore CO2 cannot drive warming’.

    This statement is akin to saying that because I once moved my car by pushing it, it can never move for any reason other than my pushing it. It is a fairly basic logical fallacy – the best evidence we have regarding deglaciations suggests that they are mostly driven by orbital changes causing greater summer insolation in the Northern Hemisphere, with CO2 increasing as this process raises ocean temperatures and helping to ‘fix’ the temperatures.

    In the current situation, orbital changes should be gradually moving us towards colder conditions, with changes in the solar flux and frequency of volcanic eruptions giving us some minor blips on top of that. Were this all that was happening, temperatures should have been declining since around 1950. Instead they have been rising strongly, and there is no known natural explanation for that. If global warming ‘skeptics’ were working on one, as opposed to grubbing through other people’s inboxes, they would deserve to be taken more seriously.

  21. #21 libertarian conversation
    January 7, 2011

    Orac, I’m glad you managed to be respectful in your criticism and not call skeptics of glboal warming deniers. I do not think it is that Penn Jillette denies the effects of 2nd hand smoke (which I think also have reasonable skepticism), but that as libertarians, we value other people’s choices, and think that society has agreed that they prefer the freedom to smoke over the effects of 2nd hand smoke. This is a fundamental distinction between libertarians and liberals that people cannot understand. Liberals look at statistics and decide where to go from there (although sometimes they look at the wrong statistics, or don’t consider all factors involved, but I digress). Libertarians on the other hand, base their values on 1st principles and ethics and morality (specifically, the non-aggression principle which most libertarians adhere to whether they’re on the scale of libertarianism [i.e. state’s rights fiscal conservatism socially liberal] or anarcho-capitalism [no state at all]). This is something liberals can’t understand. In order for liberals to fit their world view, they MUST have all statistics either fit the way the see it (meaning the fetus can’t be a life, guns can’t lead to less crime, violent video games must lead to more violence, 2nd hand smoke must cause damage, global warming must exist and must be man-made). I sometimes wonder if we’d even be debating these issues if government wasn’t in charge of these statistics whether they’d ever favor the government.
    But considering the government is in charge of statistics, it is no wonder that they always come out with statistics that favor bigger government.

    As there was much religious dogma surrounding much of science in the past, I believe there is a lot of political dogma surrounding science with regards to global warming. That is why I believe it is perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of global warming.

    But libertarians on the other hand, are willing to risk a little bit of security if it means a little bit more freedom. I think James Randi is a libertarian. And I think it is perfectly logically consistent to at least be skeptical of global warming.

    I appreciate you making this article and opening up the conversation.

  22. #22 King Canal
    September 1, 2011

    I think the US will fall a bit on the list because we’re set to experience droughts in some of our most agriculturally productive areas (most notably California). This will reduce our GDP, and food and water shortages could potentially impact our life expectancy as well.. . I think one of the countries which will be hit the hardest is Australia, as they’re already experiencing a decades-long drought which is decimating their agriculture, and things will only get worse there. Plus they currently rely on coal for 80% of their energy, which can’t last in the face of carbon regulations. It will be difficult for them to remake their whole energy infrastructure. And on top of that, the continuing drought will make conditions ripe for huge wildfires, which will result in a number of deaths and decrease life expectancy.

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