The Island of Doubt

You know how some people can’t just leave that half-pint of ice cream sitting in the fridge? You know you shouldn’t, but you can’t resist. I’m that way with climate change stories. So when a friend called to alert me to a local NPR call-in show with a climate change dissident, I couldn’t resist. The guest of Monday’s episode of WFAE’s hour-long “Charlotte Talks” was one Joel Schwartz, who seems to be an intelligent and fairly decent guy. But as the man (Dylan, not Schwartz) says, “sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.” In this case Satan was a “scientist.”

This Joel Schwartz is described on the WFAE website as an “Institute scientist, Environmental consultant, The American Enterprise Institute” and “he happens to be a climatologist.” Sounds like a pretty authoritative fellow, one who might have some cogent and relevant things to say about global warming. But then, the episode is called “Why Al Gore is Wrong.” Uh oh.

Another red flag was waved by Charlotte Talks host by Mike Collins, who repeated described Schwartz as an unqualified “scientist,” as if that qualifies anyone to hold forth on any scientific subject. Unable to find any reference to any Joel Schwartz-authored peer-reviewed climatology through my DSL connection (being careful not to confuse him with this Harvard environmental epidemiologist of the same name), I wrote to WFAE, but received no reply.

Schwartz himself was more forthcoming, replying within the day (and apologizing for not responding sooner). He explained that he hasn’t written anything that has been peer-reviewed since grad school. He does have an M.S. in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology, but that was back in the early 1990s.

Joel Schwartz is an intelligent sort. He’s written lucid and insightful stuff, albeit for the likes of the American Enterprise and Cato institutes, clients with a penchant for ideology over science. But when it comes to climate change, as his WFAE interview demonstrates, he either doesn’t know what he’s talking about or has little concern for the facts. His point of view is littered with many of the common myths about climate science, including the notion that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today (it wasn’t), that the temperature decline between 1945 and 1970 undermines anthropogenic global warming models (it supports it), and there really is no consensus among climatologists (there is).

Schwartz has been touring North Carolina, talking about climate change, apparently in an effort to counter Al Gore’s climate slide show army (among them me). He’s also written a pamphlet, for the John Locke Foundation (a suitable companion for the American Enterprise and Cato institutes), “North Carolina Citizen’s Guide to Global Warming.” To get a sense of the tone of his little publication:

Gore says the only way to avert these disasters is through a ‘wrenching transformation’ of our way of life. As the Citizen’s Guide shows, this brand of over-the-top climate hysteria has nothing to do with reality.”

Of course, maybe I’m wrong and Schwartz is right. But why should a consultant for right-leaning and libertarian think tanks who hasn’t taken part in the scientific investigation of the issue be considered an expert? This is why I’m more disappointed with WFAE than Schwartz.

Calling him a “scientist” is disingenous at best. Al Gore is not a scientist, but he doesn’t claim to be one. I’m not really a scientist either; although I have a degree in biology, I don’t study life professionally, and don’t call myself one.

Science is a wonderful thing, and a good science education should make you capable of critically thinking about many things. But a degree in one field does not make you an expert in all fields. The media should ponder the notion of authority and expertise and little more deeply than did the producers at WFAE.


  1. #1 Sam Staley
    June 27, 2007

    For those interesed in how Joel Schwartz describes himself, rather than producers of a talk radio show, see his bio at the American Enterprise Institute: Joel’s professional and academic background certainly qualifies him to be considered a scientist. Many applied scientists do not publish in peer-reviewed journals, which are academic enterprises. Science is a much broader field than academic research, and Joel’s extensive applied and practical exeperience on air quality issues in policy research settings (including the Rand Corp.) should count for a lot. (Note that if peer reviewed academic research is the criterion for determining expertise, many purely theoretical scientists would qualify even though they have little practical knowledge or insight (which is important for public policy).

  2. #2 Max Borders
    June 27, 2007

    Consider the fact that Al Gore has far fewer credentials on the subject, and yet people have used his his movie as some sort of Green Celluloid Scripture. It gets even worse when you look at the backgrounds of the staff at the “Union of Concerned Scientists”. These people get quoted ad nauseum in the papers, and yet they’re just activists – nary a climatologist among ‘em. In any case, while you’re right that we should be suspicious of those claiming to be authorities, you need only evaluate Joel Schwartz’s work to see that he is competent to talk about this stuff. I’d also add that NPR is already chock full of slanted climate hysteria. Are you really prepared to make a stink about one little Mike Collins show even if you have already drunk the climate KoolAid? (Go do a Lexus-Nexus on global warming and tally up the coverage for your side.) Finally, evidence for natural climate variability ain’t so easy to dismiss, as you have here. You’d do well to look into it a little more before letting our energy sector fall into the hands of some power-hungry bureaucrats at the UN and a few corporate welfare renewables ventures/natural gas companies.

  3. #3 Rowan
    June 28, 2007

    I may be wrong, but I believe that I may have gotten this link from your blog, which I enjoy reading from time to time. If not, then no matter. The reason I have shared it here, is so that people like Max Borders, who are so steeped in the politics surrounding global warming issues, can actually become a little more informed on the matter before launching into a blathering critique of your good work.

    I believe that you clearly stated that where Al Gore has fewer credentials with regard to being a climatology “scientist”, he does not claim to be one. I don’t know anything about Joel Schwartz, so I can’t venture an opinion on his qualification to talk on such matters. However, I do believe that the overwhelming amount of documentation that supports the view that global climate change is a direct result of human activity is evidence enough to show that there is certainly a large amount of consensus in the scientific community about this issue.

    Personally, I don’t believe we stand a hope in hell as long as people continue to obfuscate the problems associated with climate change, and wander around offering up uninformed opinions tainted with paranoid conspiracy theory.

  4. #4 Jennings
    June 28, 2007

    Thanks for those comments Rowan. I would also like to add that if we are to look at the “politics” of those who could be considered proponents and opponents, then we have to look at their motivations.

    If climate change is real, and we face it and change, then good. If it is false and we change and become better stewards of our environment, then good. If we don’t change and it’s happening, then bad. Any betting man will take his chances with the better odds – at least I would. What do opponents of climate change have to loose?

    Max – I don’t think at any point there will be a huge surge of power falling into the UN’s hands – I do think that solving global climate change (whether anthropegenic or not) will require international cooperation. Saying that UN dominance is imminent puts that comment into the black helicopter and JFK-mafia conspiracy arena. And so what if new industries creep up to balance out the energy monopoly of petroluem? A little diversity never hurt anyone and it’s healthy.

    I think that healthy and diverse debate is necessary to help produce the best solutions – that we should have people discussing alternative ways to combat climate change and not still dwell on whether or not is is happening.

    Besides, Max, the House of Reps just passed legilsation recognizing climate change:

    So things are going to change – the question now is whether you are going to help or whether you are not.

  5. #5 Daniel
    June 29, 2007

    There is little doubt that climate change is happening. The question is what component of that change is attributable to human influence.

    You write, “If climate change is real, and we face it and change, then good.” Not necessarily. If human affect some climate change, and the results of our activities are benign, and then the undertake programs that dramatically reduce our economic well-being, then we are worse off for “changing.”

    Europe is trying to meet its Kyoto commitments and they are failing. Yet, for their efforts, electricity prices are up 25% in Germany and 16% in the UK as a result of the emissions trading system. The utilities are getting rich, consumers and workers who work in energy intensive industries are getting squeezed and Europe’s emissions are increasing this decade, not decreasing. Oh yeah, and Germany has plans in the works to build 26 more coal-fired power plants.

    In other words, Europe’s experience so far is all pain and no gain. Some people might like those odds, but I don’t.

  6. #6 WVhybrid
    June 29, 2007

    In regards to the comment “Al Gore has far fewer credentials on the subject”, Al Gore has at least one outstanding credential; he studied global warming as an undergraduate under Yale chemist Charles Keeling of the infamous Keeling Curve. Standing on the “shoulders of giants” is often a very effective credential.

  7. #7 Michael
    July 5, 2007

    Daniel, it would be nice to see the sources for your statistics so that I could understand the context of them better. Without context I’m afraid your statistics mean absolutely nothing. Of course I’ll do some searching on my own but it is always easier to have the same sources.


  8. #8 Harold Pierce Jr
    July 7, 2007

    Re: What global Warming? Global Warming and IPCC Trickery!

    The IPCC estimates that the mean global temperature has increased ca. 0.6 deg C since 1900. What they do not attach to this number is the average deviation. Here is some results that I have calculated from temp records from Cape Scott, BC., which is located on the very northern tip of Vancouver Island. The sample period is Mar 16-26.
    For years selected El Nino/La NIna indexes about 0

    Year—–Daily Min +/- Deg K
    1967—–275.7 +/- 1.2
    1972—–276.8 +/- 1.8
    1981—–277.9 +/- 1.1
    1982—–275.9 +/- 1.2
    1983—–278.1 +/- 0.6
    1986—–278.7 +/- 0.8
    1989—–277.6 +/- 0.6
    1997—–277.8 +/- 1.3

    Mean—–276.9 +/- 1.3
    Measurement Error = +/- 0.1 Deg K

    These data are typical for lighthouses on the west coast of Vancouver Island for March and for the last century. Note the average deviation. If this value is attached to the IPCC estimate from the increase in mean global temp, we get 0.6 +/- 1.3 Deg K.

    The IPCC has no justification for claiming that global warming has occured since the increase of 0.6 deg K is well within the range of natural variation.

  9. #9 Harold Pierce Jr
    July 8, 2007

    Hey James:
    You look pretty laid back. Got any commnent about my assertion that there is no global warming? Or are you “just takin’ care of business lyin’ in the Sun”?

  10. #10 James Hrynyshyn
    July 9, 2007

    I just returned from a 10-day vacation in Canada. And yes, I am pretty laid back. But still very worried.

    ‘Fraid the notion that there is no global warming just doesn’t hold water. The idea that just because the increase (which may be closer to 0.8 C now) in global temps is within the average deviation, one can dismiss the steady increase in temps betrays a lack of understanding of both statistics and climatology. You are confusing standard deviation with natural variability, among other things.

    Let’s face it: how likely is it that several thousand of those who study climate and statistics for a living would make such a fundamental mistake?

  11. #11 Harold Pierce Jr
    July 12, 2007

    Because they don’t know what there are doing, and the IPPC is totally corrupt and has its own political agenda.

    The authors of FAR-SPM have no concept of signifcant figures with repsect to temperature measurements. What weather station measures temperature to +/- 0.01 Deg C? None! In the USHCN temperaturs are recorded with an implied error of +/- 1 Deg F. In Canada, temperatures are now recorded with an implied error of +/- 0.5 deg C.

    As an analytical organic chemist, Dr Pierce is not confusing anything! The IPCC is using fraudulent reporting to trick the politicians!

    Now let us suppose I’m the external examiner at thesis defence and I ask the cadidate this question?

    Do you think it is legitimate for the IPCC to report the increase of mean global temperature as 0.8 Deg C with attachment of an estimate of error such as the average or standard deviation? If the candidate said yes, I’d flunk him right on the spot. Error analysis cannot be ignored as the IPCC has done. We analytical chemists are quite picky about error analysis.

  12. #12 Harold PIerce Jr
    July 13, 2007

    RE: Last Post. “…0.8 Deg C with attachment…” should have been “…0.8 Deg C without attachment…”. Sorry about that!