Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fred Singer and skeptics vs deniers

American Thinker and Anthony Watts' blog published an essay by Fred Singer,
Climate Deniers Are Giving Us Skeptics a Bad Name.
Fred says that when it comes to the climate debate, the people are divided into three groups, warmistas, skeptics, and deniers, and he considers himself a skeptic. I am not sure whether he has defined the groups sharply enough in his article but my understanding is that the warmistas are the only ones who think it's a good idea to regulate CO2 while the deniers are those who deny that CO2 absorbs infrared radiation and/or (?) similar physics facts.

What do I think about his views?

Well, first of all, I am confused by the motivation for this division of people into three boxes. Why exactly three? There are dozens of questions in which various people disagree with each other and we could divide the population into dozens or hundreds of groups if we wanted. We may need an even higher number of groups if we started to discuss about the relative importance of the Sun, cosmic rays, oceans, volcanoes etc. in climate change. Still, the most far-reaching and general question in the climate debate is whether or not there exists a scientific justification for an urgent struggle against the fossil fuels.

Almost everyone answers either Yes or No. People have different intermediate thinking that leads them to one answer or another and I also believe that various people on both sides make many errors – sometimes very basic errors and omissions – and people on both sides are sometimes prejudiced if not dishonest. However, this is just a trivial tautology. People are just humans. No large enough group of people may really be "perfect". Despite this imperfection, one may still ask whether we're facing a climatic Armageddon in the next 100 years or not and whether the elimination of the fossil fuels from our lives can save us. There are basically two possible answers, Yes or No, but only one of them – No – is the right answer.

Quite generally, I am surprised that Fred buys this separation of the climatic cool heads into skeptics and deniers. As far as I can say, the term "denier" is just a synonym for a "skeptic" that was invented by alarmists to offend skeptics and compare them to the Holocaust deniers. Should you call yourself a denier? It depends on "denier of what" you are supposed to be.

My understanding is that what we're mainly supposed to believe or deny is the "composite" proposition that there exists an important climatic problem caused by the rising CO2 concentrations. I deny this proposition – because of the evidence, it seems self-evidently invalid to me – which is why I consider myself a denier. A skeptic is a synonym that may be used in a more serious context. Richard Lindzen likes to call himself a proud denier, too. I surely see his point. Czech President Klaus sometimes offers a reasoning that is very similar to Lindzen's.

Much like many alarmists, Fred tries to define himself as a centrist or moderate – the strategy may be that "many people love to be in the middle so it's great to hijack the center". In both cases, I find it bizarre. We're still talking about very tangible tens of trillions of dollars that some people want to "invest" while others don't. I don't understand in what sense one may be a centrist here. One-half of trillions of dollars are still equal to trillions of dollars, or at least one trillion and if you want to invest this amount, you're still a full-fledged alarmist in my eyes. ;-)

At the same moment, I don't quite understand the precise criteria that Fred wants to use to divide the non-alarmists to skeptics and deniers. If I were forced to define similar two boxes, and fortunately I am not forced, I would probably use the question "do the temperature records since 1979 show a statistically significant warming trend?" My answer is Yes and I could define deniers as those who say No. Needless to say, Fred Singer would squarely fit in the denier camp here and some of us could argue that the deniers are giving us skeptics a bad name. ;-)

When he offers his opinion that the satellite record shows no warming since 1979, I tend to be deeply puzzled. There are clear numbers, URLs of web pages that lots of people know very well, and those unequivocally show that the warming trend since 1979 (computed e.g. by linear regression) is about 1.5 °C per century and it is indisputably statistically significant if the temperature is modeled as a trend plus white noise (or by one of many other models that end up as nearly equivalent ones here). It still doesn't mean that the trend may be extrapolated into the future but the warming is there.

Is Fred totally ignorant about the RSS or UAH AMSU numbers? I think the answer is No. What Fred means by saying that there's no underlying warming trend is that he prefers the description of the time series in terms of a piecewise constant temperature function. The temperature was pretty much constant all the time. It just made a jump, like in a step function, around 1998. Well, even if you decided that this piecewise constant function is a better description, there was still a positive jump in 1998 – and a positive jump may be called "warming", too. It's just a more concentrated warming. One may still ask about its causes and its repetitions (i.e. more warming) in the future.

I just picked this example which may be the main point in which I could disagree with Fred Singer's opinions, in which I am really surprised by what he's saying. Be sure that my agreement with him is otherwise very high and deep. Of course that I agree with him that CO2 absorbs a lot of infrared radiation and in the troposphere, its presence consequently reduces the ability of the Earth's surface to get rid of heat. I agree with him that people who question the rising CO2 concentrations or the IR absorption by this gas or the existence of the greenhouse effect don't know what they're talking about when it comes to rather basic 19th century physics.

Nevertheless, many of those people reach the same answer about the big question – the $64 trillion question, if I recall a TV show. There are many types of ignorance one may choose to define the separation between different personal opinions. I am a theoretically oriented chap so when someone misunderstands that the CO2 goes up or absorbs IR radiation or prevents some heat from escaping from the surface, he looks pretty stupid in my eyes. But I still agree that in the big picture, the question "should we spend trillions of dollars on it" is more important and the people who reach a wrong answer to this question have to be even more confused than the "deniers". They have to be confused about some very general facts concerning the society and the economy. It seems very clear to me that even if the overall 21st warming were going to be 3 °C, it would be nonsensical to spend tens of trillions of dollars by trying to fight it. The expenses would exceed the benefits by orders of magnitude.

If and when the climate science regains its scientific attitudes and academic freedoms, the skeptics (I mean all non-alarmists) will find out how much they differ etc. (This will resemble the decay of the Civic Forum, a very broad anti-communist coalition during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.) Their coalition will be recognized as a pragmatic one. We may fully acknowledge that some people in our camp will have looked really silly if not dishonest to us, much like the alarmists. But we're not really there yet. We're still living in a world where the intolerant totalitarian warming ideology pretty much rules the climate-science-related "establishment". Does Fred deny this point? Maybe I will ask him in an email. Even during the Velvet Revolution, the Civic Forum first had to win the first 1990 democratic elections in Czechoslovakia before it could have been safely split.

So I am confident that one of the last things we need today is to artificially build three boxes and to initiate a civil war among the non-alarmists. People from all groups are sometimes saying lots of wrong and silly things and sometimes they seem prejudiced and imbalanced, too. But they're just humans. Just because people are imperfect doesn't mean that we shouldn't see a much bigger problem than an imperfection – the attempt by an organized group to seriously change, weaken, or terminate the modern industrial capitalist civilization and prohibit independent thinking in the scientific community along the way.

I am not sure Putin really deserves this caricature of the 2012 elections in Russia but it's pretty funny. The situation in the climate science and activities that depend on it is still pretty similar, with climate alarmists behaving in the same way as the cartoon Putin above.

The global warming movement is politically motivated and it has always been politically motivated. That's why a big part of the opposition to the global warming movement is inevitably political in character, too. If Fred wants to prevent politicians etc. with a shallow knowledge of atmospheric science from becoming climate skeptics, I seriously disagree with him. Most people will always have a shallow knowledge of optics or thermodynamics but they must be allowed to have diverse opinions. More specifically and more importantly, they must be equally allowed to have Yes or No opinion about the $64 trillion question, too. This is kind of essential for the neutralization of the political pressure on the scientists, too. If Fred wants to slam some climate skeptics just because they have opinions even though they haven't studied atmospheric physics for decades, I just disagree with him. It's a basic human right – and the discussion about this human right doesn't belong to science.

So I am not a centrist, I am a denier, and I am confident that every sensible person who has honestly studied these issues must be a denier, too. Even if some other people reach the same conclusion by adopting wrong answers to various intermediate questions, it's very important that people are allowed to err once again and that a meritocratic process to remove people who "err too often" is restored in the climate science (and related sectors of the society) again. It seems very clear to me that to achieve this goal, many more "alarmists" than "deniers" will have to be removed from the system where they have no moral right to oxidize. As far as I can say, this process we're still waiting for will be and has to be analogous to the removal of the communists from most of the important places in the former socialist societies during the fall of communism.

So Fred, please, shelve the silly alarmist-made labels, boxes, and attempts to start a civil war among skeptics for a while...

And that's the memo.


  1. "I agree with him that people who question the rising CO2 concentrations or the IR absorption by this gas or the existence of the greenhouse effect don't know what they're talking about when it comes to rather basic 19th century physics."

    Thank you, Sir. I am absolutely certain, that you, and none other I have heard to date, can explain to me the fallacy of the following reasoning:

    The stratosphere must cool in response to a troposphere warmed by the addition of participating gases to the air. No question there.

    The atmosphere, as a continuum, must conduct heat by molecular conduction, albeit weakly between the stratosphere and the troposphere, as the eddy diffusivity of heat must be marginal through the tropopause. However the rate of heat transfer by molecular conduction through the tropopause acts over the same time period as the troposphere takes to warm by the addition of gases to the troposphere, and from a macroscopic standpoint it appears that the relation of the addition of participating gases to the atmosphere is to warm the troposphere by cooling the stratosphere with the same amount of heat without the expenditure of work by the atmosphere or anything else.

    [From a phenomenological standpoint there is no measurement capable of contradicting that relation.]

    That is to say, radiant heat transmission might not culminate in the same consequences for an open system as it does for a closed system, and your enlightenment would help me to remove my impression of myself as a "crank denialist"

  2. Note added:

    There is no need to give the impression of provoking internecine warfare, Dr Singer, as this serves only the cause of those who would like to see anybody who questions "man made global warming" demolish themselves and save considerable labor.

    Suffice to say there are people who, for one reason or another, believe that the warming rate by the addition of participating gases to the atmosphere might not be as large as some others do