It wouldn't be fair to call James Randi a pseudoskeptic, but...

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.

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I fear that perhaps Randi has been listening to Penn Jillette, who is an AGW denialist. Certainly, it's amazing that he fell for The Petition Project, which is at its core no different than the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwin" project, which Project Steve so brilliantly parodies.

"when they say we're responsible for at least half of the observed warming."
James, I'm interested in this statemnt as the most I have ever seen is the contention that it is "Very Likely" we are responsible for the observed warming. The problem with that is that "very likely" is one of those un-quantified & un-quantifiable statements. So I'm interested in your statement regarding the "at least half" and would be interested in knowing where you had seen that particular "more quantified" estimate.

By Phyllograptus (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

James, thanks for this excellent post.

The likelky/half/etc. thing is kind of vague and a little like when the weather reporter gives you "40% chance of rain" and that is hard to understand.

More than half of the increase in temperature is accounted for by C02 increases. It is very close to certain that very close to all of the added C02 is human-added, but there is also extra C02 because of loss of carbon sinks, and that is harder to quantify (but is probably all or mostly human caused as well).

If someone came along with a likely true and verified explanation for this carbon that excluded humans, and explained it at a major climatology conference, most of the people in the room would pass out form indredulity. And not becuase they are hiding something. We know the carbon is coming from fossil sources, we know CO2 changes the infrared opacity of the atmosphere, we know the relationship between the amount of CO2 and energy in the atmosphere. The climate models have been mostly wrong in that they've underestimated the heat because they've not included enhancement effects to the degree they should have. Nobody expected such a large percentage of the earth's shiny bits to melt away so fast, for example.

by "mostly wrong" I mean "mostly right except to the extent that some have underestimated warming"

Phyllograptus: While "very likely" is often used in a vague way, the IPCC Report has specific definitions for the qualifiers used to describe uncertainties. "Virtually certain" means >99% probability, "very likely" means >90% probability, "likely" means >66% probability "about as likely as not" means 33 to 66% probability, "unlikely" means <33% probability, "very unlikely" means <10% probability, and "exceptionally unlikely" means <1% probability.

Whoops, my less-thans got eaten by HTML parsing, along with the end of that sentence. Unlikely means less than 33%, very unlikely means less than 10%, and exceptionally unlikely means less than 1%.

Thanks for the definitions of the probabilities of "Likely" etc. But I was already aware of them and the definitions. I am interested in James's statement that "we're responsible for at least half of the observed warming" and where that is from becuase all I have ever seen is the probabilities

By Phyllograptus (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

@Phyllo: That phrase is an accurate summary of thousands of published papers and conference reports. At this point 14 years after the IPCC said as much, it's not necessary to source it.

The nub of the matter, that too rarely gets surfaced, is that climate science is quite a bit different epistemically from many other branches of science. Undergraduates in a first physics class can do a variety of experiments to observe conservation of momentum, or even set up the two-slit experiment to see the dual nature of electrons. Biology students can do dissections, field work, and a wide variety of experiments bearing on evolution. Many of us who are neither physicists nor biologists have done all of the above, just as part of a good science education.

Climate science, by its nature, is complicated by sitting out at the applied end, the claims of which rely not only on the application of more basic science, but on the validation of complex statistical models against global data. Even most of us with the math background aren't going to take the time to really examine those models. I can't defend climate science because I haven't taken the time to do that. Those who do have the problem of communicating what that entails, often to an audience without the math background.

I think the difference with Randi wiill be apparent in the next few days, as he reads responses to his casual statements and appreciates that he doesn't know enough about the subject of global warming and talks to people who do.

The true test of skepticism isn't always being right, but in admitting when one is wrong. It takes a far bigger person to admit a mistake than to try and cover one up.

Russell: There's actually a fascinating paper by a climate scientist and philosopher of science that argues that climate modeling calibration is actually the same kind of epistemic problem as other forms of experimental apparatus calibration.

Stephen D. Norton and Frederick Suppe, "Why Atmospheric Modeling is Good Science," in Clark A. Miller and Paul N. Edwards, _Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance_, 2001, MIT Press, pp. 67-105.…

Actually I would say that a source is reccommended. Your statement implies that the amount of global warming attributable to anthropogenic sources is somewhere around 50%. Which implies that somewhere around 50% is attributable to other causes. What the IPCC has said is that âMost of the observed increase in global average
temperatures since the mid-20th century is very
likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic
greenhouse gas concentrations.â IPCC WG1 AR4 Report
Which as Jim points out means they believe that there is a greater than 90% probability that anthropogenic sources are causing the warming, not that >50% of it is caused by us. So I'm wondering where you got the 50% number?

By Phyllograptus (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

I never said 50%, just "at least half," which was my way of being as conservative as possible. What the IPCC said is that they are better than 90 per cent sure that we're responsible for most of the observed increase. Let's move on.

Jim, I agree with Norton and Suppe that the core epistemic issues for climate science are not different from verifying a CAT scanner, with one important difference: in the case of climate models, we only have one test subject. Most physicians, I suspect, don't really understand how CAT works. Integral transforms and signal processing are not what they studied to become doctors. But they don't rely on understanding how tomography works to know that it works: they have experience comparing the results of CAT scans against other observations on many patients.

With climate science, the problem is that there is one study subject, and so being convinced that the models work requires more understanding of how they work. Mind: I'm not questioning the validity of modeling. I'm pointing out that a science that relies so largely on this kind of modeling is more difficult for an interested individual to retrace the groundwork, than for sciences that do not. (Interestingly, the reconstruction algorithms that are now used for tomography were used to study the sun decades before the technology was available to apply them to people.)

@Orac: you might be correct that it is mostly about the people Randi is surrounded by. Not too long ago there was an article by Jeff Wagg on global warming where he said this:

I know some of you will savage me in the comments for this, but global warming is one of those issues where I have no clear opinion. I think it's always good to pollute as little as possible, and to have as little impact on the Earth as is reasonable, but the environmentalist movement has been ruthless in spreading its political agenda, and I simply don't trust them. On the other side, I don't trust the political pundits who say it's all a matter of left-wing propaganda. I believe the truth lies in the middle, and we should continue to gather data and study what's happening, while at the same time preparing ourselves for the worst case scenarios.

The comments were indeed quite critical of his piece, by the way.

@Russel: the Mythbusters had a special episode where they demonstrated the greenhouse effect right there in their workshop. The devil's in the details, of course, but some of the basics are not that difficult to check. With AGW, I think for most people it's simply that they don't want to accept the implications if it were true, and therefore prefer to deny it.

Uh Oh!!!!!!!!!!!!

Climategate has already affected Russia. On Tuesday, the Moscow-based Institute of Economic Analysis (IEA) issued a report claiming that the Hadley Center for Climate Change based at the headquarters of the British Meteorological Office in Exeter (Devon, England) had probably tampered with Russian-climate data.

The IEA believes that Russian meteorological-station data did not substantiate the anthropogenic global-warming theory.

Analysts say Russian meteorological stations cover most of the countryâs territory, and that the Hadley Center had used data submitted by only 25% of such stations in its reports.

Over 40% of Russian territory was not included in global-temperature calculations for some other reasons, rather than the lack of meteorological stations and observations.

The data of stations located in areas not listed in the Hadley Climate Research Unit Temperature UK (HadCRUT) survey often does not show any substantial warming in the late 20th century and the early 21st century.

The HadCRUT database includes specific stations providing incomplete data and highlighting the global-warming process, rather than stations facilitating uninterrupted observations.

On the whole, climatologists use the incomplete findings of meteorological stations far more often than those providing complete observations.

IEA analysts say climatologists use the data of stations located in large populated centers that are influenced by the urban-warming effect more frequently than the correct data of remote stations.

The scale of global warming was exaggerated due to temperature distortions for Russia accounting for 12.5% of the worldâs land mass. The IEA said it was necessary to recalculate all global-temperature data in order to assess the scale of such exaggeration.

Global-temperature data will have to be modified if similar climate-date procedures have been used from other national data because the calculations used by COP15 analysts, including financial calculations, are based on HadCRUT research.

They specifically state that lack of measurement is not the cause. If they claim the full set of Russian data does NOT support global warming, imagine how different the bright red dot over Russia would look. Again the accusation is completely believable, yet is completely unverifiable because CRU has refused to release the data. This data and code release is the subject of illegal blocking of FOIAâs is one of the keys in the Climategate emials. We need to know the list of stations used and we must have copies of the raw data.

This is a very powerful accusation, which if true could change much about the climate science debate. Many of the so-called "peer reviewed" papers are based on this dataset which has the highest trend of the major ground datasets.

Russell, I have taught paleoclimate and climiate change, and covered global warming, in detail in intro and mid level classes in anthropology and as part of a program in climate studies called Quaternary Paleoecology (that was a mid level UG wiht a Grad option with more work). I've also taught a human evo. course with a great deal of coverage on climate systems and climate change, with a foray into climate change.

When I did that, a local member of the state legislature got mad at me and tried to pass a bill that would illegalize university courses that disagreed with her position on various issues. But putting that aside, the students loved it, got it, and have gone off in the world knowing what they need to know to evaluate the evidence.

GL: right on.

It's just not that tough to understand. CO2 levels have skyrocketed in a tiny amount of time. It doesn't matter whether those CO2 levels are causative, or are part of other alterations from human beings of the planetary biology, or part of a feedback loop arising from a small perturbation.

It doesn't depend on the models being exactly right. Hell, they could be in the wrong direction, for all I know.

But what I do know is that the indicators are off the chart. That this is an unprecedented state of events, with indicators moving through regions that normally take on the order of ~10 million years. That at some point, the resiliency of the system is going to fail, and we'll get a sudden systematic shift.

I don't need to know more. It would be nice to know more -- it would be useful. But skepticism is about appropriate skepticism. You can be skeptical about the details and methods of a paper, and still recognize a point that is on the money. You don't have to prove EVERYTHING beyond a doubt -- you have to just sufficiently support the point.

And in this case, it's that humans are monkeying massively with a system we don't understand. That it's stupid not to expect catastrophe from such a situation. That it's better to try to be at least conservative in our behavior until we do.

A right-wing (Russian) thinktank making claims of fraudulent use of data. Ask them why GISTEMP, UAH TLT, and RSS (the latter two being satellite) give the same temperature increase as HADCRU.

Expect "conspiracy" to be in the response.

Apparently we are only suppose to trust the the scientist who agree with you. You should lose your skeptic badge.

Randi's not a scientist, but never fear, we know that accuracy isn't a strong point within the denialsphere.

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 was beginning to think it was all a testing joke (Randi often warns about posts that include namedropping Galileo and Einstein, which he did here),
to see if he was going to be believed no matter what he says,
or just in order to illustrate the problem around when skepticism approaches solipsism. "can we really know this, can we really be sure of that, can we really state anything at all?"

Cecilia: skepticism approaches solipsism.

That may be a better statement to explain what I was trying to say. There's a hierarchy of "suredness". I may be skeptical of a particular model, without being skeptical of the principle involved. I may be skeptical of a piece of data, or an interpretation, without dismissing a central point.

When it all gets flattened into a smear of skepticism, skepticism becomes indistinguishable from the post-modern nonsense of perfect relativity -- that every statement is just as ambiguous a text as every other one, so they're all on the same plane. That since there's no Truth, that means there's no relative truths.

As usual, if you push any ideological commitment to it's logical extreme, it becomes indistinguishable from it's opposite. There is something to learn from the postmodernists -- just not what they think they're teaching.

It's not about taking folks with extra-training "at their word" -- other than in the general sense of not assuming that they're liars. It's about distinguishing what's essential from what's peripheral, what come's out of the haze of probabilities over the entire ensemble that is knowable.

...although not too much better. It contains this curious comment:

Yes, I'm aware of the massive release of energy -- mostly heat -- that we've produced by exhuming and burning oil, natural gas, and coal. We've also attacked forests and turned them into fuel by converting them into paper at further energy expense, paper that is also burned, in turn.

Deen, the problem isn't with the basic physics. That was climate science a century ago. Nor is it with the reconstruction of past climates, which is interesting but has relevance to policy only with respect to how it informs the future. The core science question a citizen might ask themself about policy is how to evaluate the robustness of the models that claim to project results forward. That's not an easy task. If James has his undergrad students able to do this, I'm impressed.


That was climate science a century ago.

I know, but that hasn't stopped many denialists arguing about it. Maybe not so much the ones that write books about it, but you can find it regularly enough among the average denialist commenters on blogs. Just like creationists still bring up arguments that have been refuted by Darwin himself.

I agree that it's difficult for most people to evaluate the climate models. I also agree that there is quite a distance from being able to understand basic atmospheric science and modern climate models, but there's also a lot of distance between performing a double-slit experiment and solving Schrödinger's equation or being able to understand a QCD lattice simulation.

My main point is that it would already help if more people were familiar with some of the basic effects that are part of the models, and those are not all that difficult.

The difference, Deen, is that QCD lattice simulations haven't much made their way into politics. Climate models have. For a citizen, legislator, or political pundit to act on the relevant political issues involves them forming some opinions about those climate models. Imagine if voters selecting between candidates had to resolve some advanced issue on QCD lattice simulations! I couldn't do that with the time investment I make in most political decisions, despite having a bit more physics under my belt than the average voter.

There are only two ways that I know to form an opinion about the reliability of climate models. 1) Invest the time to investigate them and determine their reliability, becoming a bit familiar with the field. This, of course, presupposes the scientific background to do this. 2) Determine through some social process that other people have done this.

Skeptics and scientists naturally lean toward the first alternative, and encourage people to do the same. "Go, see for yourself." And for a lot of basic science, from biology to physics, we are vested in providing courses in secondary school and universities that help people do this. (Get those students into the field!) That imposes a barrier to those who advocate for policy related to climate science, because those who actually become science nerds are a minority. We don't require that anyone is able to pass high school algebra, much less taken Greg Laden's course in paleoecology, much less evaluate climate models, in order to vote or run for office.

Which means that advocates for policy based on climate science must rely on the second alternative: convincing people to trust current climate science models through a social process. Which plunges a primary advocate right into an epistemic and rhetorical stew that is very different from the one to which they are accustomed in first convincing themselves.

I don't know how to put this without offending you, or anybody else in the same position as you.

Hm...from time to time I, as everybody else, make some mistakes.
The difference, however, between you and me is that I can say: "I am sorry. I made a mistake. The evidence provided by the IPCC are quite convincing. I know now that all of it was orchestrated allmost at IPCCs' birth."

This is what JFK had to say about it in the sixties:
"The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings."
-And he got assasinated for it.

Most enlightened and critical thinking beings these days tend to question things before we accept it.
When scientists are denied any say in AGW, even experts in the same, or at least a relevant field, that should ring a bell in ANY journalists head.

Anyway...I'm not going to be the person to say "I told you!" when the crap hits the face, or fan if you will.

Congratulations on trying to bend over an old and respected man, by the way.

Your head is so far up your own arse I`m amazed you know what climate is.Randi is the greatest debunker of charlatans (such as yourself)the modern world has known. Leave him alone, and if you want to pick on somebody who doesn`t agree with you,youknow where to find me.

By trevor marshall (not verified) on 18 Dec 2009 #permalink

What a pompous self-satisfied pile of crap. I have a question for you. Do you think that Al Gore and his pal Dr Pouchari are financially better off due to the AGW scam or worse off? Just follow the money. This whole thing is a pile of crud and you are all soon to be found out. I for one will be overjoyed when it happens.

The scientific method requires scientists to be skeptical of hypotheses like AGW. As a matter of fact, the only honest kind of scientist is a skeptic. We can see what happened to the corrupted scientists in the CRU, who have been paid millions by quangos and government agencies with a pro-AGW agenda: they have forfeited their skepticism, becoming bought an paid for pets beholden to the global warming industry.

Because he recanted, and then recanted his recanting, Randi is now distrusted by both sides. That is unfortunate for him, but of little concern to those who want to find the truth of the CO2=AGW hypothesis.

Does an increase in a *very* minor trace gas cause runaway global warming and climate catastrophe? Well, does it? That is the central question.

The answer, based on skeptical science [the only honest science] is an emphatic "No."

Further, the ultimate authority proves that a rise in CO2 ["carbon" to the scientific illiterati] cannot cause runaway global warming -- or any global warming at all.

That ultimate authority is planet Earth: as CO2 has risen sharply, the global temperature has steadily declined. And it has not declined only recently; the planet has steadily cooled for most of the past decade:

As we see, the four major government and university climatological sources are all in agreement that the climate is cooling. In addition, the 3,300 ocean buoys in the government's ARGO network show that the deep ocean is also cooling.

So who are you going to believe? The well paid purveyors of the global warming scam? Or planet Earth and your lying eyes?

Given the widespread cognitive dissonance that infests those spoon fed with alarmist propaganda, the answer is obvious: they will continue to believe, against all contrary evidence, that CO2=AGW.

Rational folks, on the other hand, will accept planet Earth's judgement.

The understandable skepticism about AGW is spreading fast. That is the reason that the Copenhagen climate talks ended in complete disaster. Nothing was accomplished. It is dawning on the general population that they are being sold a pig in a poke. And their response of "No Sale" will carry over to future climate scam conferences. AGW has jumped the shark.

You come across as a conceited pompous little jerk. I am sure you are possibly far worse in the flesh

Naturally zimbo would say something like that, since he lacks any facts to refute my analysis. So he falls back on the usual alarmist response: fact-free ad hominem name-calling. How impotent is that? Planet Earth debunks the AGW conjecture, and the globaloney crowd's predictable response is a temper tantrum.

I was hoping for some sort of honest debate over the points I raised and that graph that I linked to.

Further, the ultimate authority proves that a rise in CO2 ["carbon" to the scientific illiterati] cannot cause runaway global warming -- or any global warming at all.

Great! Now if you can show why the earth is as warm as it is, rather than an iceball 33C colder than at present, without including CO2 forcing in your model, and win over science, you'll be awarded a Nobel in physics.

Go for it. Don't forget to show your work, and please, don't bother us until you're done. It's a difficult task, it's going to take you awhile.

'So what's the real story? Could it be that the fact he is currently suffering through chemotherapy for intestinal cancer explain the lapse?'

You are a nasty piece of work! This is typical of the evil, cheap insults that are casually dished out to anybody who dares to question.

By Ashtrayhead (not verified) on 19 Dec 2009 #permalink

Gee, it took a little while for the climatrolls to show up this time. Whassamatter, guys, Glenn Beck made you stay after class to lick his dipstick?

Does anyone here have any idea where 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" schtick came from?

That's a new one on me - and I don't claim to know very much about climatology, but I thought I knew my steampunk science fiction...

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 19 Dec 2009 #permalink

"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."

Yet you would discount such scientists giving contrary opinions. Such as Dr. Edward Wegman, Prof. Hendrik Tennekes, Dr. Richard Lindzen, Prof. Freeman Dyson, Dr. Richard Tol and hundreds more.

You're nothing but a bully, shame.

By David Quimby (not verified) on 21 Dec 2009 #permalink

@Air Gore:
Did you just seriously list Edward Wegman as someone who is an expert in climate science? Funny. Same goes for Henk Tennekes (check his publication list, he's been an administrator most of his life), Dick "now even Roy Spencer falsifies my publications" Lindzen, Freeman "I'm no climate expert" Dyson, and Richard "it will cost too much" Tol.

'So what's the real story? Could it be that the fact he is currently suffering through chemotherapy for intestinal cancer explain the lapse?'

What a horrible suggestion! I hope you never have to go through chemo. If you do, please reflect on your poor judgment.