Skepticism or denial?

Whilst I would describe myself as a scientific skeptic, in that I will try to investigate claims before coming to a judgement, I would not say I was a “climate change skeptic”. This term is often used to label those that are irrationally dismissive of the scientific evidence (or worse). Several commentators on climate issues, notably George Monbiot of the Guardian, have now started referring to many within this group as “climate change deniers” as it appears that any amount of evidence counter to their stance will alter their belief in that position. One prominent blogger, though, found the use of the denial tag unhelpful and has set himself the challenge, as a layperson, “to make sense of the global warming and climate change debates” via a new blog.

Now, though, we have an opportunity to test the scientific integrity of one of these skeptics. Anthony Watts, an American weather presenter, blogger and self proclaimed climate change skeptic, was instrumental in setting up a web campaign to survey the United States climatological surface station records – SurfaceStations.org. This is a laudable scientific aim, regardless of the fact that it was done in the belief that it would show that the surface temperature recording method was flawed and that the warming trend observed in the US was an artefact of the local micro-conditions.

The analysis on the website consists of quite a lot of not-very-scientific comments about photographs on how poorly sited some of these stations are. Watts has also published a report with some of the photographs alongside their temperature records. However, Matthew Menne (a scientist at the American National Climatic Data Center) and co-authors have published a peer reviewed, systematic analysis of the US surface station temperature records. The results show that the poorly located stations, as determined by SurfaceStations.org, actually show a negative bias relative to the well located sites. This means that the poorly located sites introduce an artificial cooling in the temperature record, not a warming as Watts predicted. Clearly, the uncovering of such a bias in the surface station network in the US means that the infrastructure requires tighter regulation as it is not, at certain locations, doing its job properly.

In this situation, I suspect that a true skeptic would be proud that their effort had highlighted a real issue and contributed to the scientific understanding. However, as SurfaceStations.org approached their investigation with the hypothesis that the network would introduce artificial warming, how will they react?

Reference:

ResearchBlogging.orgM. J. Menne, C. N. Williams, & M. A. Palecki (2010). On the reliability of the U.S. Surface Temperature Record Journal of Geophysical Research : doi:10.1029/2009JD013094

Links:

The paper can be found here
There is a more thorough analysis of the paper by the Skeptical Science blog
There is some comment in The Guardian’s Environment blog

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23 Responses to “Skepticism or denial?”

  1. gimpy Says:

    I think the difference between skepticism and denialism can be determined by asking a self proclaimed skeptic, on any issue, ‘what would it take to change your mind?’. The skeptic should be able to identify an observation that falsifies their logic, the denialist will merely assert the correctness of their judgement.

    It will be interesting to see how SurfaceStations.org react.

    • rogerthesurf Says:

      Gimpy,

      I have commented on many AGW blogs and pointed them to my blog, I have yet to receive a reply that is without insults and personal attacks, and worst of all I have never yet received a logical well supported explanation from an AGW believer, disproving or otherwise of the points I raise.
      Why dont you visit my blog and leave a message either here or on my blog.

      http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

      Cheers

      Roger

      • Matt (from New Zealand) Says:

        Hi Roger, it’s a pity to hear that you’ve received personal attacks. However, when you make statements like:

        “I have never yet received a logical well supported explanation from an AGW believer, disproving or otherwise of the points I raise.”

        Now, it’d be awfully nice if a climate scientist or other informed person took the time to spend some time analysing your views, but assuming that you’re correct just because no one’s taken the time to do so is foolish.

        Looking at your blog, it seems you hinge a lot on this idea:

        “The world has been warm before.

        And at that time it could not have been due to humans putting co2 into the air.

        So why do we think nowadays that CO2 causes global warming?”

        Unfortunately, this is false scepticism, and you don’t really need anyone to point out why: 5 seconds on google will bring you to:

        http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-little-ice-age-medieval-warm-period.htm

        Essentially, the problem is that you’re making the strawman assumption that AGW suggests that anthropogenic GHG emissions are the *only* influence on climate (and therefore that pre-human climate changes ‘disprove’ the theory). This assumption is completely inaccurate, though: climate scientists are well aware that are and always have been non-human influences on climate. For the *current* warming trend, human GHG emissions account very well for the warming: the multitude of known natural forcings do not.

        I don’t want to be mean, but the argument you’re making is not very sophisticated, and has been debunked ad nauseum in any number of sources. It seems like you need to spend time researching your claims, yourself, with an open a mind as you can muster.

  2. Marco Says:

    Surfacestations (i.e., Watts) has already reacted…it attacked a point already discussed in the Menne et al paper (homogenisation vs no homgenisation), complained about insufficient coverage (also discussed in the Menne et al paper), and still claims they will come with their own paper and analyses (with pre-determined outcome, or there will be no paper, of course).

    • andyrussell Says:

      Thanks for this. Here’s a link to the relevant post on WUWT. There doesn’t seem to be the level of analysis in this post that would rival Menne et al. (2010) so it will still be interesting to see how long a proper analysis takes them.

  3. rogerthesurf Says:

    There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes some issues connected with climategate and “embarrassing” evidence.

    In the pipeline is an analysis of the economic effects of the proposed emission reductions. Watch this space or should I say Blog

    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.

    Cheers

    Roger

    PS The term “porky” is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Slang.( So I’m told.)

  4. Benno Hansen Says:

    Hi there,

    Good to see another researchblogger looking at this study. I did so myself at TH!NK ABOUT IT #2 (http://bit.ly/dpULNr).

    To me there is absolutely no question about Anthony Watts being a raving denier. Just look at his site – he’s into pretty much ALL of the counter-consensus hypothesis’s.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Hi Benno

      I’ve only just worked out how to use ResearchBlogging but it looks interesting – I had a look at a couple of your posts from there.

      As for Watts, I’ve done my best to ignore him as much as possible but I got a bit annoyed about his blog being included in The Time Top 30 Science Blogs, which is otherwise quite a good list.

  5. Ed Creager Says:

    I think that the simple difference between denialism and skepticism is one of intent. If a person has an agenda that influences their thinking and/or their “science,” then they aren’t practicing science. They are, quite often, propagandists, pure and simple.

    By the way, some people here might like my blog, “Scientific Words of the Week” at: http://ScientificWords.wordpress.com

  6. rogerthesurf Says:

    Ed,

    Re your comments Feb 10.

    Im sure when one considers among the experts you are correct, but the propoganda among the masses has been so effective that AGW has become a sort of religion.
    These people have a faith that the world is going to end unless “we” do something about it.
    In other words they have a “faith” and something to crusade for.

    These people will not change their minds, because there is no logic at play and to break their “faith” would be far to traumatic to bear.

    Unfortunately these people also have the right to vote and elect politicians.

    I dont know about your country but in mine a politician will do anything to get votes.

    Cheers

    Roger

  7. 40 Shades of Green Says:

    Re Gimpy # 1

    Your question can just as easily be asked in reverse. What would it take to convince you, a presumed true believer, that manmade CO2 emissions will not cause a catastrophic increase in global temperatures.

    However I would like to answer your question as a skeptic.

    I would believe in catastrophic human caused global warming if

    1 – The vostok ice cores were reanalysed and somehow showed that CO2 rose before temperatures and not 800 years after.

    2 – If the famous tropical hotspot fingerprint of global warming was discovered. And please don’t quote the Sherwood and Santer studies as proof that it does. Indeed you would find very interesting the analysis linked below of how the Santer 08 paper epitomised the corruption of the peer review process as evidenced by the Climategate emails.

    3 – If satellite air temperature observations matched model predictions for 15 years , or Argos buoy measured Ocean Heat Content matched model predictions for 8 years.

    Over to you.

    example of the corruption of the peer review process.

    http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/12/a_climatology_conspiracy.html

    • andyrussell Says:

      Those are interesting points and I’m planning a post on the ice core issue and will look into the others. However, the post in question was about the instrumental surface temperature change and how surfacestations.org was trying to discredit it. At this point, they don’t seem to have managed that. I probably should’ve put this in the original post but here it is now: the relevant plot from the IPCC WG1 report showing the trend (up to 2005) in surface temperatures.

      IPCC surface temperature record from 1850 to 2005

      The version showing the UEA CRU data up to 2008 can be found here.

  8. PeterB in Indianapolis Says:

    II note that in the graph that you show, the IPCC uses the 1960-1991 temperature average as their “normal” and then proceeds to show the yearly data as “anomoly” which is “deviation from normal”.

    How would you characterize their choice of the 1960-1991 average temperature as their line for “zero”. Is it a good choice, a bad choice, the best we could hope for, or simply an arbitrary choice without much justification?

    I would like to see your thoughts on this. Obviously, no matter what temperature you pick for “normal”, the trend remains the same, and shows about 0.8 to 1.0 C warming over 125 years, or at most 0.08 C/decade of warming.

    So, what we need to figure out (in my opinion) is whether or not 0.08C/decade is historically unusual, if the temperature picked for “normal” represents in any way whatsoever the ideal temperature for life on earth, and what exact portion of the warming trend can be attributed to human activity. Is the warming trend 90% natural and 10% human induced, is it 50/50? Is it 96% human induced and 4% natural?

    The actions which we choose to take (or are forced to take) SHOULD be based upon sound, logical, defensible answers to these questions.

    Certainly, we should take strident action if:

    1. The current temperature is already warmer than ideal
    2. The trend can be shown to be continuing unabated
    3. It can be defensibly shown that humans are causing a significant percentage of the warming.
    4. The proposed solutions will actually solve the problem rather than having no effect or exacerbating the problem.

    If good, solid science can show all of that, then yes, we should take action. However, if it turns out that the current temperature is cooler than ideal for life on earth, the trend is well within natural variation, humans are not significantly contributing to the trend, and the proposed solutions would not actually help, and might even make things worse, then action would be recommended against.

    I personally think that what I just wrote is good sense, but I am sure that there are those who will brand me “denier” simply for wanting to insist on some reasonableness in this issue.

  9. rogerthesurf Says:

    Matt (from New Zealand)

    Sorry I didnt see your comment until just now.

    I take it that you have visted my blog at http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

    As you will see by the well referenced statements that I have been careful in my research.

    If the world has been as warm and warmer before (and I can give you plenty further references if the ones on my blog are insufficient) this does not support and in fact disproves the the Anthropogenic CO2 causes Global Warming hypothesis.

    The Anthropogenic CO2 causes Global Warming hypothesis is exactly that, an unproven hypothesis and no scientist can claim otherwise. In fact it is impossible to actually prove, something which climate models most certainly do not do.

    This being the case, facts that disprove the hypothesis should definitely be taken seriously. This is not false sceptism, this is simply looking at the facts in a scientific manner.

    At 380ppmv CO2 is actually a trace gas and is distant second to water vapour which is the main cause of the greenhouse effect. You do realise that watervapour makes up 95% of all greenhouse gases and CO2 only 3.7%.

    As an economist I believe the CO2 reductions and the transfers of wealth being advocated by the IPCC will have a profoundly negative effect on the world economy. So profound that I would expect starvation and poverty in all countries including our own.
    Now if this was all in aid of preventing the distruction of the planet, maybe it would be worthwhile, but we had BETTER BE DAMN SURE ABOUT IT.

    So to illustrate a good example of how hard it is to prove a hypothesis I suggest you watch the series of videos starting at the one below.

    You may think this is irrelevant but in this factual video, the pilots of the plane adopted a hypotheisis of the problem, their actions and subsequent events seemed to support the hypotheisis, but in the end they were tragically and terribly wrong. Yet at anytime they could have discovered the truth.

    We are in that situation with global warming right now. Nothing supports the hypotheisis, a number of facts disprove it.

    Cheers

    Roger

  10. Michael Larkin Says:

    You have an interesting blog here, Mr. Russell. Not quite as strident as most pro-AGW blogs.

    I consider myself a sceptic, which for me equates with being an agostic. I do not KNOW whether or not AGW is occurring. I lean towards it not happening because there has been quite a lot of fishy stuff going on, and the involvement of politico-economic interests.

    The state of the land surface temperature data sets is a concern. When I first became aware of how data was collected, manipulated and homogenised, I could hardly believe how crude it was and how much value was being placed on it. And it doesn’t help that there has been quite a lot of stonewalling in releasing data and code, etc. Maybe the conclusions reached about surface temperatures are correct, but if so, one can’t help but wonder about why there would be any need for resistance.

    I’ll tell you what would convince me about AGW. Get together a bunch of experts (would probably include geologists, physicists and statisticians amongst others), who didn’t have a dog in the race, either pro- or anti- AGW. Ideally, people who weren’t actually that interested in the topic either way. Let them review the evidence completely independently of the IPCC and indeed of any current centres for climate study.

    If they came back and said that AGW was real, I would be much more inclined to accept that. I’d also be interested in hearing their opinion as to what the likely consequences would be.

    You see, a non-scientists such as myself (I only possess a Bsc. in zoology) necessarily has to rely for some of the more complex stuff on expert opinion. If doubt is cast upon that by climategate, and a number of revelations about the IPCC, then I feel I need independent, disinterested opinion.

    In practice, I wonder whether one could ever actually assemble such a group of independent experts. So another option would be for each side to gather together its best team and have them appear at an enquiry under a senior court judge who was acceptable to both sides. The Dover Creation trial illustrated well, I believe, how a forensic legal mind can wade through scientific submissions and come up with sensible conclusions. Whatever those conclusions were, I would take them on board very seriously. The T.O.R. could include such things as:

    The reliability of the evidence
    The most probable outcomes
    The best way to deal with the situation

    To name but three.

    I would add that if the whole area is opened up, freedom of access to data and code is actively encouraged, and there are steps taken to ensure that the peer-review process is unassailably seen to be fair to papers supporting or not supporting the AGW hypothesis, then in time people would come to trust the science more: but it wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion, in that event, that AGW would emerge as being a significant environmental issue. I myself wonder whether there aren’t a number of other issues that might be of more serious concern for humanity. It could be that those are currently being neglected or underplayed and will in due course cause serious problems of their own.

  11. Bill S Says:

    I consider myself a climate change skeptic, and over the past year have come to find that many scientists are pre-disposed to believe any other scientist over any skeptic, notwithstanding the specific details of the arguments.

    Perhaps this is warranted, since there are more rules to pursuing scientific endeavor than there are when a bunch of people just argue about things. It takes discipline and mental effort to continue to think in the veins that science requires. However, there may also be a bit of the elitist in this view, regarding other scientists as peers that have passed the “gauntlet” and are now part of the club, and anyone else as outsiders that have to prove themselves worthy through extra effort not required of club members.

    From reading Watts’ blog posts on the subject, he has already indicated that when Menne took the data, the sample size was not large enough to represent all of the subgroups evenly (rural, urban, airports, etc.), and that some of the early documentation work by the volunteers was not up to par and had to be re-done later. Both of these issues would impact the final assessment, and I believe he has also indicated that there are more issues that he has not disclosed yet, but that will come out in the final paper.

    From your blog post above, it appears that you have already made up your mind about both Anthony Watts and the project. You indicate that his blog posts are “not-very-scientific”–well, they are blog posts, they don’t have to be journal-level reviewed documents. Maybe he’s just trying to get a point across without revealing all of his conclusions. You also say that a “true skeptic” would be happy to have contributed to science, already judging him as not a skeptic (I think we can both agree, though, that he is probably not happy about the Menne paper).

    This also reveals the same “let the scientists do the science” bias as I indicated earlier. You want him to stay in his place and not upset the natural order of things. None of us can know yet whether his journal submission will be up to par or not, but it’s illogical to suggest that it won’t simply because he doesn’t have some particular letters after his name. Pielke Sr. is helping with the project, so I imagine it will be up to spec.

    And I see nothing wrong with someone trying to prove something one way or the other. That should be part of science. If he can prove that the micro-site problems cause a warming influence, will the “official” climate science community thank him for his efforts and publicly issue a correction, or will they dismiss him because he isn’t a scientist and fix things behind the scenes and say nothing was ever wrong?

    As much as you believe that this is an opportunity to judge skeptics, I think this is an even better opportunity to judge climate scientists. Einstein was a patent clerk with no degrees when he did his early work–I am not seriously suggesting that Watts is in the same league as Einstein, but the corollary is the same. The scientific community at the time recognized the validity of his work regardless of his training, and I hope the current scientific community can accept Watts’ work as well, whatever the outcome.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Hi Bill

      Thanks for the comment.

      I think my post only said that Watts’ analyses of the surface station photos weren’t that scientific. I think that’s a fair comment.

      I tried not to be too judgemental in the post and question what the motive of Surface Stations was, a lot of others blogs I read were a lot more sneering about this issue. I thought it was an interesting case and I’m keen to see how it develops.

      Andy

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  13. 40 Shades of Green Says:

    I love the way people accuse Anthony Watts and the Surface Stations project of being anti scientific.

    [I didn't accuse the Surface Stations project of being anti scientific, my post was in fact pointing to the opportunity the project has to contribute something scientific. I guess you're referring to this part of my blog post: "The analysis on the website consists of quite a lot of not-very-scientific comments about photographs". I've not spent very long on SurfaceStations.org so if there is some proper analysis there, send me the link and I'll have a look at it. - Andy]

    These are the same people who think that Phil Jones is a good guy and his science is believable.

    Phil famously said “we have 25 years invested in this work. why should I give you the data when your aim is to find something wrong with it.”

    [This is veering a little off topic, unless your argument is that because Phil Jones once said something that wasn't very tactful then Watts is correct about things. - Andy]

    This statement is the very antithesis of science and the scientific method.

    It is worth pointing out, for those who do not know, that this message was not some closet conversation among climate scientists, but a proud and open message to the person who had the temerity to ask for data.

    Until the true believers condemn this statement, and by extension Jones, for being anti scientific, any criticism of Anthony Watts for being anti scientific is pure and utter hypocrisy.

    [I'm not here to condemn anyone or what they say. I don't know the context of that remark. - Andy]

    PS And don’t tell me that poor “lickle” Phil was being bombarded by requests for data and wasn’t able to get on with saving the world and in any case he was prevented from giving out the data by confidentiality agreements.

    Don’t tell me this because a) it isn’t true, and b) his statement above makes no mention of either of these excuses. His statement is quite simple.

    It amounts to “I don’t believe in reproducibility of results.” Therefore I am not a scientist.

    [Is anyone actually planning on reproducing Jones' work, though? In the comments to a Climate Feedback blog post Stephen McIntyre is pretty open about the fact that he has no intention to actually attemp a reproduction. - Andy]

    Come on. Restore some credibility to AGW science and condemn this statement.

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