Sunday, February 19, 2006

It used to be ...

... we took it for granted that there's nothing to be done about the weather. Not anymore. President Bush is frequently criticized for (allegedly) not reading enough. Unlike me, of course, he's not paid to read, and I'm not sure what "enough" means exactly in this case. At any rate, he does meet and talk with writers from time to time and some people are upset now that they've learned about his chat with Michael Crichton: Bush's Chat With Novelist Alarms Environmentalists (are environmentalists ever not alarmed?) I reviewed Crichton's State of Fear and liked it. I would also recommend Ronald Bailey's excellent Two Sides to Global Warming. Follow the links if you want to get a pretty comprehensive overview of the issue.


  1. Michael Crichton may or may not write a good thriller, but scientifically credible on global warming he is not.
    My colleague at Nature, Philip Ball, wrote a great column at on "State of Fear" round about the time the books was published. See: for the full article.

    Here is the central part of Philip's posting:

    "He (Crichton) went and read the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and found that, contrary to his initial assumptions, the evidence for human-induced global warming is paper-thin.

    Crichton doesn't like the idea that someone else is better placed to make judgments than he is.

    You might be forgiven for wondering whether the IPCC report that Crichton read was the same one that says: "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Detection and attribution studies consistently find evidence for an anthropogenic signal in the climate record of the last 35 to 50 years". But Crichton wasn't going to buy into the scientists' conclusions; he wanted to make up his own mind, so he looked at the actual data.

    And just look what they said! Far from growing steadily warmer over the past century, global mean temperatures actually declined slightly between 1940 and 1970! And the overall warming was a piffling 0.3 °C!

    Part of the problem is that because Crichton has written a novel and not a scientific treatise, he has been granted the luxury of airing these views on arts programmes, where there is no one to challenge him. "You are nothing if not scrupulous in your research," one BBC presenter (who grills politicians ruthlessly) averred admiringly.

    No one pointed out that the global mean temperature rise since 1900 is in fact about 0.8 °C and that this is more than has been observed at any time in the past one thousand years.

    And the temporary reversal of the trend during 1940-70 is fully accounted for by climate models, as the IPCC report shows very clearly. The cooling seems to be largely the result of sulphur pollution, which created atmospheric sulphate aerosols that temporarily masked the greenhouse-gas-induced warming by reflecting sunlight and altering cloud cover.

    Crichton claims that he has no political motives in State of Fear, and no interest in writing propaganda to support the United States' refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Rather, he just wants to expose the facts.

    Although his apolitical agenda sounds genuine, this claim is hard to square with the way Crichton has ignored or dismissed facts in the IPCC's summary document that are plain to even the casual, non-scientific reader. Something else is going on."

  2. Ah, global warming always elicits a warm response.
    When I go into my office tomorrow I will post the interview I had with Crichton -- be forewarned: I just put some questions to him and let him go on without interruption. So you just learn what he thinks. I will also post my review of his book; the review quotes Freeman Dyson's superb piece on the subject that was published a few years ago in the New York Review of Books.
    There was a book published at the turn of the millennium called The Year 1000 in which it is reported that the temperature in England was so much warmer then than now that there was a flourishing wine industry in the midlands.
    There was also this piece from BBC News: Sun's warming influence 'under-estimated'.
    The latter would certainly help explain why there appears to be warming taking place on Mars anbd Saturn, since I don't think we can blame that on our SUVs.
    I don't doubt that human activity has a profound effect on the environment, but I have heard "global warming" cited to explain high temperatures, low temperatures, flooding, drought, and just about every other meteorological condition. It explains so much that one can for all practical purposes conclude that global warming is in fact the cause of weather, period. I agree with Ray Kurzweil that the solution to the environmental problems created by earlier technology will be new technology.
    As Dyson points out, the biosphere is the single most complex system we study and weather is a continuously changing process.
    Moreover, as Philip Ball also points out, "there are plenty of genuine uncertainties about global warming, even if most researchers now agree on the general picture." And Crichton is not just a thriller author. He is a graduate of the Harvard Medical School and has worked as a research physician. So he is qualified to raise questions regarding scientific methodology. His overriding concern, not just in that book, but in a series a speeches he has given concerns the politicization of science. And he is correct in noting that "consensus" has no place in science. The consensus among astronomers at the time of Galileo is that the Tychonic System devised by Tycho Brahe was the correct cosmological model. The consensus among physicians in Lister's day was that unclean conditions in hospitals had little or nothing to do with puerperal fever. In both cases, the consensus proved wrong.
    Finally, not everyone is enamored of the IPCC as an authority: Memorandum by Ross McKitrick, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Guelph.
    Of course, like David Hume, I am very skeptical when it comes to matters of causation.

  3. Yep, I agree, science is not decided by voting. (Spanish Inquisition a case in point.)

    However, I am not persuaded by Crichton on global warming. Trust the guys at Nature on this one.

    But my disagreement is your point, Frank, so you have me on a Morton's fork ;-)

  4. I never knew what a Morton's fork was until now. Clever guys, those archbishops!
    But I don't think we're quite as far apart as it may seem. Obviously, no one in his right mind opposes reasonable measures to minimize air pollution. On the other hand, a year or so ago I came upon an environmental advocacy Web site that cited a report about the calving of icebergs off Antarctica as further evidence of global warming. Problem is, I was familiar with the report and knew that the author had gone out of his way to point out that what he was describing was a naturally recurring phenomenon and had nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. The environmental advocacy group was misrepresenting the data.
    I don't see how one can minimize the relevance of solar activity when it comes to planetary temperature. Nor do I see how can one can minimiza the relevance of the historical record. Nor can I see why one should not at least consider the possibility that a somewhat elevated temperature might have beneficial consequences, rather than assume that it must result in something apocalyptic.
    In other words, I am as usual arguing not for or against a particular poaition but on behalf of clear and precise thinking that goes easy on the prognostication. Once again I cite Niels Bohr: "Predicting is difficult, especially the future."

  5. Frank, of course you are right about environmental advocacy groups (or any single-issue group) using or presenting "facts" to suit their purpose.

    But the fact that a group did this bad thing does not pertain to the main issue, which is whether or not global warming is real.

    I quite agree with you and Bohr, but at Nature and in other reputable science journals, there is plenty of independent, peer-reviewed research showing pretty clear evidence of a trend. IPCC, though it gets a lot of bad press from those "climate sceptics" who are so vocal, is also peer-reviewed before it puts out any reports.

    I personally am no expert, but I do see how research at nature gets scrutinised and published in a "message-neutral" fashion, and I would rather trust that kind of approach than Crichton, advocacy groups, climate sceptics et al, who are all basically offering opinion and/or twisting facts to suit their preconceptions.