I’m sure James Hansen has better things to do with his NASA paycheck than hire a lawyer to sue a 16-year-old over a libelous statement on her website. Give the amount of time he’s spent crafting public letters to governors, prime ministers and corporate CEOs, though, perhaps he could find the time to write a small note expressing his concern to the parents of Kristen Byrnes of Portland, Maine.
Ms. Byrne was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition this Tuesday. She’s a top student at her school, and to her credit has recognized the importance of skepticism in science, something it took me an extra couple of decades to fully grasp. Her parents have set up the “Kristen Byrnes Science Foundation” to help raise funds to “allow Kristen to continue studying and promoting quality climate science.”
Wow. Imagine if all budding scientists had such supportive parents, and the added benefit of national radio exposure — Morning Edition has upwards of 30 million listeners, I believe — to attract like-minded philanthropists to their websites. (By the way, while I can’t guarantee that my 17-month-old son will pursue a career in the sciences, the modest income generated from traffic to this site will benefit his college fund. So tell your friends.)
And what a site it is. I am so envious. Unfortunately, Ms. Byrne’s skeptical philosophy seems to be directed only at peer-reviewed science, and not the amateur propaganda masquerading as honest criticism of that science. For example, she calls her website “Ponder the Maunder,” in a reference to the Maunder minimum in sunspot activity a few hundred years ago. The minimum is associated with a cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere known as the Little Ice Age. The implication is that a corresponding increase in solar activity is responsible for today’s warming.
That idea has been considered and soundly rejected by those who earn their living studying such things. See “Pattern of Strange Errors Plagues Solar Activity and Terrestrial Climate Data” (Eos,Vol. 85, No. 39, 28 September 2004), in which the authors note that “the apparent strong correlations … have been obtained by incorrect handling of the physical data.”
Misreading the science is excusable for a 16-year-old, even one as obviously intelligent and curious as Kristine Byrne. What’s more troubling is her disdain for those who don’t agree with her brand of skepticism. On her home page, she asks, not so rhetorically, of James Hansen: “Will his history of allowing money and politics to affect his science stop him from fixing the recently discovered human errors in the temperature record.”
Them’s fighting words. I have been known to engage in similar tactics, but I try to have science on my side. Truth is after all, the best defence against a libel suit. But Ms. Byrne’s opprobrium is based not on evidence that Hansen deliberately distorts his science to suit his politics or financial supporters. Instead it stems from blatant misreadings of Hansen’s own words. For example, to support her contention that
Hansen continues to make extreme claims. One such claim that contradicts even AGW scientists is that sea level is and will remain rising one meter per 20 years…
she refers to an interview Hansen gave to Der Spiegel in April of 2007. What Hansen actually said in the interview is that “During the last melting period, the sea level went up 20 meters in 400 years, which is one meter every 20 years.” He was talking about conditions 11,000 years ago. It’s called paleoclimate data, and it’s one of the only tools we have at our disposal to anticipate the consequences of changes to global ecosystem. Yes, Hansen does worry about sea level rise, and he does suspect it will likely rise faster than many of his colleagues do. But he isn’t saying it’s rising at a meter every 20 years right now. That’s just plain silly.
I am hopeful that someone as obviously intelligent as Ms. Byrne will eventually learn to tell the difference between ideologically driven pseudoskepticism and genuine science. If she does indeed continue her climate studies through the post-secondary level, that’s bound to happen. But to do that, she will have to overcome the inertia of success brought on by her naive enthusiasm. From the NPR story:
Kristen had no fear. She took on Al Gore the Nobel laureate, Academy Award winner and former vice president. She went after Jim Hansen, one of NASA’s top climate scientists. E-mail poured in, mostly from skeptics happy a young person had taken up the cause.
“I got a letter in the mail on my birthday from a senator,” she says.
Someone runs off into another room to track it down and returns with an envelope from the office of Sen. James Inhof[e], the Oklahoma Republican famous for calling global warming a hoax.
“Dear Kristen,” the letter begins. “Thank you so much for your letter and e-mail and for your kind words. I appreciate your help in the fight against global warming alarmism. You are a common sense young lady and an inspiration to me. I want you to keep up the good work. We are winning.”
Mainstream scientists would argue that many of the issues on her Web site are red herrings or have been put to rest — and Kristen did get emails from people challenging her science. But after a few exchanges, she says, her opponents backed down. “A few of them gave up and figured they can’t win against a 15-year-old,” she says.
She’s probably right. But just wait until she’s old enough to take responsibility for her arguments. The next time NPR profiles her, I doubt the reporter will be wearing the same kid gloves. I just hope it’s not too late by then for her opinions to make a difference.
[Update: Janet Stemwedel goes into waaaay more detail as she deconstructs the entire NPR report, and finds it wanting. Which it is.]