James Randi has few peers when it comes to applying scientific rigor to claims of paranormal or supernatural activity. He’s been doing it for what seems like eons, all without any formal scientific training. So when he even hints that climate change denialists might have a point, it’s time to see what’s up. After all, he’s made a honorable career of attacking pseudoscience, not science itself.
The most recent post at his blog, named after Johnathan Swift is a bit on the rambling side, and little inconsistent. The most surprising paragraph is:
I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. 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. Please note that this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data.
The Oregon Petition is, of course, one of the most discredited elements of the climate science pseudoskeptic’s bag of tricks. To invoke even the possibility that it may have merit suggests that Randi has done little research into the subject, a theory that is bolstered by the subsequent claim that the planet has cooled by 1 °C since 1850. Not only is there no evidence for that, but Randi himself contradicts the idea in the next two paragraphs:
It appears that the Earth is warming, and has continued to warm since the last Ice Age, which ended some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. But that has not been an even warming. Years of warming followed by years of cooling have left us just a bit warmer than before. This conclusion has been arrived at from data collected at some 1,200+ weather stations in the USA, though bear in mind that there are very few weather stations over the vast oceans that cover 70% of our planet, or on the continents Africa, South America, and especially Antarctica.
We can now record temperatures with much better than the former fraction-of-a-degree accuracy we had just a decade ago, but that temperature change appears to be just about half a degree Centigrade.
So what’s the real story? Could it be that the fact he is currently suffering through chemotherapy for intestinal cancer explain the lapse? I don’t think so. At least, that’s the conclusion I came to after calling him up this morning for a chat. He seemed as sharp and witty as he was when I saw him give a talk in Woods Hole, Mass., 20 years ago.
Randi did admit, however, that he couldn’t remember where he got the information about the “lunar tides, solar wind, galactic space dust and geomagnetic storms.” And he repeated his concession in his post that he is only an amateur whose opinions on the matter shouldn’t count for much. His main problem with the consensus view on anthropogenic impact on the climate is that the Earth’s ecosystem is so complex he doubts we are capable of understanding it well enough.
“The idea that we can work up a formula [to explain climate change] is very premature,” he said.
This argument popped up the other day in a list of 100 pseudoskeptical reasons to distrust the scientists published by a British paper, The Daily Express. New Scientist demolished the first 50 before deciding enough time had been wasted. Among the bogus arguments is
12) Philip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London says climate change is too complicated to be caused by just one factor, whether CO2 or clouds.
He is right. All sorts of factors affect climate, even the lead in petrol. However, the recent warming is mostly due to rising greenhouse gases, and if we pump out more CO2 it will get even hotter.
I wondered if perhaps Randi, who is very good at finding simple explanations for chicanery masquerading as magic, is just too skeptical of anything that requires a post-graduate degree to understand. I pressed for a reason why those of us who are basically amateurs shouldn’t grant those who have devoted their lives to understanding the subject a little respect and take them at their word when they say we’re responsible for at least half of the observed warming. I am please to report that he replied that, yes, perhaps he has more thinking to do.
I am reminded of Freeman Dyson, one of the century’s great contributors to our understanding of the universe, but sadly misinformed on climatology.
Ultimately, though, Randi is right on at least one point. It shouldn’t matter what he thinks about a subject that lies far beyond his expertise. It shouldn’t, but his reputation is a skeptic means it does. Just look at what our own PZ Myers has to say on Pharyngula, arguably the world’s most popular science blog.