Saturday, January 16, 2010

Science and Junk Science

Two academic experts in marketing, advertising and statistics are working on a paper which concludes that climate change has taken on more "the character of a political movement than that of a scientific controversy."

J. Scott Armstrong, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kesten C. Green, of Graduate School of Business, University of South Australia, acknowledge that "Effects and outcomes of the global warming alarm: A forecasting project using the structured analogies method"  is "a work in progress."

Their unfinished work flatly concludes that "the current global warming alarm is simply the latest example of a common social phenomenon: an alarm based on unscientific forecasts of a calamity . . . the global warming alarm will fade, but not before much additional harm is done by governments and individuals making inferior decisions on the basis of unscientific forecasts."

I suspect that their paper is simply the latest example of junk science muddying the waters of scientific discourse.

There is, first of all, the hubris of advertising experts questioning the peer-reviewed science of climatologists, biologists, meteorologists, astrophysicists, oceanographers and others with expertise in relevant and related disciplines.  Picture an orthodontist questioning the science of Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein.

"Using structured analogies," they write, "we forecast that the global warming movement, like the previous alarmist movements that we were able to identify and analyze, will continue to produce poor forecasts and harm people. Resources will be used inefficiently, and most people will be worse off than they would have been had the alarm never been raised."

Armstrong and Green invented "structured analogies" and wrote the rules for using the technique to make forecasts.  Not just marketing forecasts.  Any  kind of forecasts.

They fault the climate scientists for not playing by their rules. ("We found that they violated 72 of the 89 principles that were relevant. . .")  I am reminded of the richest kid on the block where I lived as a boy in Cincinnati.  He lived in a big house surrounded by lots of land on which Daddy Lottabucks had built his very own, groomed baseball field.  The rest of the kids, avid baseball players who worshipped the Cincinnati Reds, yearned to be invited to play on that field -- but to do so, they had to play by the rich kid's rules.  They bore little resemblance to the official rules of baseball.

Armstrong and Green argue that "the basic claim by those who promote alarming predictions of dangerous manmade global warming is that nearly all scientists agree that it will occur. . . .the claim that nearly all scientists agree has been shown to be false by surveys and by petitions signed by identified scientists with relevant qualifications (e.g., Bray and von Storch 2007; Robinson, Robinson and Soon 2007)."

Surely Armstrong and Green know the difference between "consensus" and "unanimity" and that even within a broad consensus there can be disagreement among scientists on the interpretation of discrete subsets of data.  In the United States alone, the consensus of 18 leading U.S. scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society, states:

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. ... If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced.”

Hans von Storch, a German climate scientist cited by Armstrong and Green as having shown the claim of consensus to be false, has been quoted as saying, to the contrary, that  "Based on the scientific evidence, I am convinced that we are facing anthropogenic climate change brought about by the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."  However, in an article for Der Spiegel, he did criticize "public figures (who) are overselling the issues to gain attention in a hotly contested market for newsworthy information."

Another scientist Armstrong and Green cite twice in their paper is Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at the Solar and Stellar Physics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon is infamous for having co-authored  a paper in Climate Research,  concluding that "the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium." Immediately, 13  authors of papers cited by Soon disputed his interpretation of their work. Half of the editorial board of Climate Research resigned in protest against what they felt was a failure of the peer review process on the part of the journal, whose editor was removed -- and replaced by von Storch.  The Soon research paper was largely funded by the American Petroleum Institute.  Follow the money.

Armstrong-Green cite research by Idso and Singer of the Heartland Institute. Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso and their foundations -- Heartland Institute and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change -- have been recipients of huge chunks of the nearly $23 million Exxon Mobil has given to fund junk science specifically intended to derogate legitimate climate science. The Idso coalition also receives major funding from the biggest western states lobbyist for the coal and oil industries.  Follow the money.

Fred Singer, a scientist at the University of Virginia, helped to plan a $5 million campaign suggested by the API, Exxon and the Exxon-funded Marshall Institute "to convince the public that the science of global warming is riddled with controversy and uncertainty."  He has been a paid consultant to  Exxon, Shell and Sun Oil.  Follow the money.

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