Don Aitkin and IPCC history

In the second part of his Ockham's razor talk Aitkin said:

I gave a public address on this subject a few weeks ago, which was picked up in the daily newspapers, the text of the address was put on one newspaper's website, and a vigorous correspondence developed. In all, I received, well, 150 or so communications. The majority of them were positive. The negative ones fell mostly into one or other of two groups: either I was trespassing on someone else's patch, that is, only scientists are allowed to talk about these issues, and I am not a scientist; or I was a 'denier', someone who, in spite of the authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, and the weight of scientific opinion, was persisting in error. Some of these critiques had an almost religious tone to them, as though I was challenging fundamental spiritual beliefs. But none of the critics took issue with my three central issues, or provided their own evidence that in each case I was wrong. A number provided me with their own papers, or pointed to other work that they felt to be decisive, but my three central issues remained there, virtually unchallenged.

Well I wrote to him about his use of the argument from incredulity and suggested he read the IPCC reports for an explanation of the greenhouse effect. Here's part of our exchange as he explains why he doesn't trust the IPCC assessments of the science:


Nor do I think that the IPCC offers disinterested advice, since it was set up to offer ways forward in dealing with human-induced climate change. Ergo, it starts with that proposition.


The IPCC was set up to assess "the scientific, technical and
socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk
of human-induced climate change." It did not start with the
proposition that AGW was underway.


I would have been happier if it had been given the task of telling us the extent to which any warming was due to human activity. If you will allow me to say so, the language in which the IPCC reports and especially the SPM is written seems to me to admit of no doubt whatever.


The SPM is full of language like "likely" and "probably". They even
quantify what this means, so we know that they are saying that there
is a more than 90% (but less than 95%) chance that more than half of
recent warming is man-made. How you can describe such language as not
admitting to any debate is beyond me.

Now it's one thing for Aitkin to get the science wrong, since he is not a scientist. But he is a historian and he got the history of the IPCC wrong.

What's worse, is that his Ockham's razor piece was written after I corrected his erroneous history and he repeats his falsehood about the IPCC:

But [the IPCC] is not, to put it simply, a disinterested body. When the IPCC was set up, scientists had noted that a sharp increase in temperature had occurred since 1975 and there was a growth in carbon dioxide concentrations as well. The IPCC's charter makes it clear that it is there to advise governments on how to counter human-induced global warming.

I guess he has to cling to his reason to reject the IPCC's findings.

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Yeah, Aitkin, that'll explain why there was such a huge crapfest crapfest over Chapter 8 of the 1995 IPCC report -- dedicated to attribution and detection. In fact I'm reading Myanna Lahsen's book chapter on this subject even as I type this. Seriously, what the...?

What in the blazes is Aitkin's "fact-checking" methodology anyway, with regard to AGW? It sounds like he just grabbed a bunch of inactivist talking points, picked and chose the ones that sounded nice to him, and then just threw out the rest.

History isn't written by the winners, it's written by the historians employed by the winners.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 17 May 2008 #permalink

Aitkin has the style and presumption of a man who has become accustomed to being listened to.

One of the more unusual assignments I had in college (while taking a historiography (the study of the study of history)) was a cherry-picking paper. We were to write a paper which we knew supported an erroneous conclusion through quote mining, cherry picking, fallacious arguments (we had to include at least two) and misrepresentation. I did mine on Lincoln and slavery. But using the tactics suggested, I was able to use Lincoln's speeches and writings, plus newspaper articles and secondary sources to show that he supported slavery, was a racist, and supported the right of seccession. I got an A on the paper (and I still have it on disk (but its real hard to find a computer with a 5 1/4 inch floppy these days). It was a fun assignment and helped immensely in spotting these tactics when used by others.

It sounds like this asshat is (or claims to be) an historian/political scientist. Either he never took a course similar to this one, or he took one and learned way too well.

Changing views of historical events is normal. It is called revisionism. Revisionism happens because of changing data - new sources become available, new insights into human behaviour are gained, and new theories regarding the why's of history are developed. Historical revisionism, though, just like in science, depends upon facts: the documents (personal writing, news accounts, official proclamations, etc.).

Willful misrepresentation of the facts is grounds for a D- (or worse). I don't pretend to be a climatologist (and the only statistics course I took was one titled "How to Lie With Statistics (fun course)) but even I can see that climate change denialists (CCDs?) are full of it.

The importance of historical research comes not in finding the facts (though that is important) but in answering the question 'why?' Why do CCDs use unethical means to make their point? One of my professors in college had a wonderful phrase (and he worked it into every single class at least once): "Marx was wrong about just about everything. The one thing he got right is that history happens because of money." Where does Mr. Aitkin's funding come from? Who are his backers?

Sorry for the long post. It's an occupational hazard.

Ockham's Razor posted a response to Aitken's nonsense from Steven Schneider; Link

I doubt whether Don Aitken will find it particularly compelling. Is it just me that finds the fact that he was the ARC chair somewhat disturbing? I don't assume that such people can comprehend the science, but I do assume they at least know how to read it logically. Perhaps this goes some way in answering some of the questions I have about the state of Australian science.

re: #8
minor typo: Steven -> Stephen

In any case, he is excellent. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak and ask questions, do it!

By John Mashey (not verified) on 18 May 2008 #permalink

billy --

There are sites on the internet that sell obsolete computer equipment. I know that there were, at once time, parallel-port floppy drives in both 3.5" and 5.25" sizes. If they haven't all been melted down for scrap, you can probably buy one through ebay or at your town's next computer show.

I'm relieved to hear he is a political scientist and not a historian. Political scientists and economists... what is wrong with these people, anyway?

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 19 May 2008 #permalink


Thank you for taking the time to respond to Don Aitken's articles and his speech at the IPA. In my frustration at his blatant misrepresentation of the available AGW evidence and his ridiculous assertion that the precautionary principle should not be applied, I wrote half a letter to him at the time, but never quite finished it - the counter arguments just became too long.

It is disappointing that someone of such academic credentials would choose (and I say "choose", because there does not seem to be any other explanation for his use of certain unsupported theories in arguing against other well supported hypotheses) to misrepresent the current state of knowledge on climate change related matters. It is also concerning, because people will believe the Professor's baseless assertions on the grounds that he contends that he has undertaken extensive research and this is the best that he could find.

There are so many holes in Prof Aitken's assertions that I don't even know where to start in my critique. Fortunately many of you on this blog have done most of the hard work for me, though I doubt that Prof Aitken would bother to read the (mostly) well reasoned and well researched arguments presented in this forum.

Anyway, thanks to Tim Lambert for at least trying to take it up to Prof Aitken - I would love to know the full details of the exchange.


There's no doubt Don Aitken partially stepped outside his expertise; he was well entitled to comment on general issues like the scientific method and notions of scientific certainty and the political context; as for the rest, he did make it plain he was offering an opinion; that right can't be questioned and about the main issue is whether a credentialled person in one area should lend his gravitas to an opinion in another area; anyway he has got his lumps, so I suppose he should now wander off and die.

As to the fine IPCC report; I had another look at it; the official summary is interesting; conclusions are given a probability/confidence rating and a measure of scientific understanding; there was one probability rating of extremely likely, and that was in respect of a 'substantial' human climate effect; there was also one exceptionally unlikely rating, and that was that natural RF was equal to human RF since 1950; there was one medium, one likely and one very likely.
The levels of scientific understanding (SU) are worrying; there was one high level of SU, and that was to do with the RF of LLGHG's; however there 5 low levels of SU, one poor and one very low; these were to do with H2O, clouds, albedo, linear contrails and good old solar; there was also a limited SU in respect of volcanoes prior to Pinatubo; the other SU's were 2 medium-lows in respect of albedo and aerosols and a medium for something or other.

Now, I predict the probability of me being called something disparaging is extremely likely, and that most of these comments, if any, will have a poor SU.

It is disappointing that someone of such academic credentials

Regardless of his academic credentials, Aitkin has been a professional advocate/administrator for many years. I'd guess this is a much more important characteristic than his academic credentials.

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 20 May 2008 #permalink

The levels of scientific understanding (SU) are worrying; there was one high level of SU, and that was to do with the RF of LLGHG...

This is all you need to know that the world will warm as they increase. The other areas of scientific understanding are details and are why the climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 is given a relatively large range (about 2 to 4C). Increasing our knowledge in these areas will narrow the range, that's all.