Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Science, Averages and Hokum

Suppose your doctor is sure that you have a serious condition, but the causes and treatment are not fully understood by medical science. She recommends a treatment. You go to another doctor, who says the same thing. Many other doctors in many different countries all say the same thing. On the internet you read about a doctor who says something very different and proposes a much cheaper medication, whose manufacturer pays him to praise it.

What do you do?

Republicans advise us to listen to the internet. Not about your personal medical condition, but about the health of our earth.

Republican politicians nearly all say the same thing. Don’t worry about climate change. The science is uncertain. Global warming is not happening. But if it is happening, it’s a good thing. Whatever is happening, don’t do anything about it.

Both NASA and NOAA reported that 2014 was the warmest year since data began being collected in 1880. That assessment was echoed by scientific agencies in Japan, Germany, and England.

Recently, climate scientists said that 2015 will most likely be even warmer. July was the warmest month ever measured.

Are the vast majority of climate scientists around the world right? What about those people on the internet who say “no”? What about Republican politicians who say “no”? How can you tell what we should do?

Numbers matter. The fact that well over 90% of climate scientists agree that the globe is warming and that human actions are the main cause is significant, just as you might be convinced if nearly every doctor agreed that you had a disease and needed treatment. What about that tiny minority, though?

That is where some understanding of science is important. When tobacco companies were denying that smoking was addictive and caused cancer, they paid and deployed scientists to write articles which “proved” there was no connection. The tobacco industry also overwhelmingly funded Republican politicians. When the Food and Drug Administration said in the 1990s that nicotine should be regulated as a drug, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that the agency had “lost its mind”.

So-called think tanks, like the Heartland Institute, transferred money from tobacco companies and conservative donors to scientists who wrote articles denying the link between cancer and tobacco. The president of Heartland, Joseph Bast, wrote a piece in 1998 that is still on their website denying that moderate smoking or second-hand smoke was bad for you. A year ago, Bast publicly denied writing that article.

Scientists with PhDs, writing advertisements for private companies or political donors who pay them, do not produce science. Real science is much more complicated: funding comes from sources who are not committed to particular results; articles go through a lengthy process of peer review; every claim, every footnote, every number is checked for accuracy. The method of argument must stand up to careful scrutiny.

The science of global warming and the “science” of denial are separate and unequal worlds. The scientists quoted by deniers might have impressive credentials, but like the scientists who so confidently asserted that smoking was good for you, their results are bought and paid for. Their articles, reproduced in many forms by people with political interests, do not stand up to scrutiny. Take one of the most often repeated claims by warming deniers, that we have been in a cooling period since 1998, thus global warming is a hoax. The Heartland Institute has used a seemingly impressive graphic to make this claim for years. The graphic is not a fake, but the conclusion from it is. July 1998 was the warmest month ever at the time. The year 1998 was the warmest ever by a significant amount. That yearly record was not broken until 2005, but the monthly record was only broken this July. By highlighting the peak of July 1998, Heartland and others still claimed earlier this year “No global warming for 18 years”.

Measuring the temperature of the earth means averaging many thousands of temperature readings. Temperatures vary considerably by season and by region. In 2014, parts of Illinois were much cooler than usual, while California, Arizona and Nevada had their warmest year ever.

The variation across the globe in July 2015 can be seen in this map. Global warming is a long-term process that cannot be measured in any one month. In fact, the decade after July 1998 was significantly warmer than the decade before it, or any decade since measurement began. Averages show that no cooling occurred.

When you take the claims of global warming deniers, such as the so-called pause in warming, or the number of scientists who are skeptics, or the lack of consensus of the world’s scientists, and investigate the footnotes or check the math, you see that they are not doing science. Their work cannot stand peer review, so it is published on the internet, where they get maximum readership with minimal credibility.

Just like the miracle cures of snake oil salesmen, it’s hokum, paid for by oil companies and conservative billionaires, all to prevent government from doing anything. Like any miracle cure, it’s seductively attractive – take this pill and you’ll lose weight, cure cancer, prevent aging.

Swallow that at your own risk. It’s bad for your health.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 1, 2015

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