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Why Rational Skepticism is Proper Response to AGW Claims

Many thanks to Ed Darrel at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub for pointing once again to the extraordinarily compelling case put together by Patrick Frank in “A Climate of Belief“, an article for the Skeptic society’s online magazine, Vol.14, no.1, May 2008, that:

the claim that anthropogenic CO2 is responsible for the current warming of Earth climate is scientifically insupportable because climate models are unreliable

I had mentioned it at the time but had not had the time or memory to read it again. For those in need of a quick, heavily emphasized (by me) quote:

The proper response to adamant certainty in the face of complete ignorance is rational skepticism. And aren’t we much better off accumulating resources to meet urgent needs than expending resources to service ignorant fears?

Here a longer extract, from the final remarks (my emphasis):

It’s not that we, “lack … full scientific certainty,” it’s that we lack any scientific certainty. We literally don’t know whether doubling atmospheric CO2 will have any discernible effect on climate at all.

If our knowledge of future climates is zero then for all we know either suppressing CO2 emissions or increasing them may make climate better, or worse, or just have a neutral effect. The alternatives are incommensurate but in our state of ignorance either choice equally has two chances in three of causing the least harm. Complete ignorance makes the Precautionary Principle completely useless. There are good reasons to reduce burning fossil fuels, but climate warming isn’t one of them.

Some may decide to believe anyway. “We can’t prove it,” they might say, “but the correlation of CO2 with temperature is there (they’re both rising, after all), and so the causality is there, too, even if we can’t prove it yet.” But correlation is not causation, and cause can’t be assigned by an insistent ignorance. The proper response to adamant certainty in the face of complete ignorance is rational skepticism. And aren’t we much better off accumulating resources to meet urgent needs than expending resources to service ignorant fears?

So, then, what about melting ice-sheets, rising sea levels, the extinction of polar bears, and more extreme weather events? What if unusually intense hurricane seasons really do cause widespread disaster? It is critical to keep a firm grip on reason and rationality, most especially when social invitations to frenzy are so pervasive. General Circulation Models are so terribly unreliable that there is no objectively falsifiable reason to suppose any of the current warming trend is due to human-produced CO2, or that this CO2 will detectably warm the climate at all. Therefore, even if extreme events do develop because of a warming climate, there is no scientifically valid reason to attribute the cause to human-produced CO2. In the chaos of Earth’s climate, there may be no discernible cause for warming. Many excellent scientists have explained all this in powerful works written to defuse the CO2 panic, but the choir sings seductively and few righteous believers seem willing to entertain disproofs

  1. 2008/07/22 at 21:34

    I cannot think of any other field of science where this happens; it’s more the way a certain type of committee behaves – set up to look into something, it will find lots of the thing it has been established to investigate, and it will then proceed to perpetuate itself, through a never-ending series of investigations that will provide essentially the same result but say it in lots of different ways, thus keeping its sponsors happy.

    I just found a quote by physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar which seems apt: “The moral is that a certain modesty toward science always pays in the end. These people… terribly clever, of great intellectual ability, terribly perceptive in many ways, lost out because they did not have the modesty to say ‘I am going to learn what physics teaches me.’ They wanted to dictate how physics should be.”

    He was talking about Arthur Eddington, but I can think of a few lesser minds to which this would also apply.

  2. 2008/07/21 at 21:16

    thank you Alex. I am always attracted by historical comparisons. Do you or does anybody know of any field of science that proponents declared “settled” from the very beginning? Just as with the IPCC, set up to investigate human-related climate change and that (lo and behold!) justified its own existence from the catastrophical First Assessment Report.

  3. 2008/07/21 at 21:06

    I find it interesting to compare different chapters from the history of science – there seems to be a very wide range of certainty, from the cases where things worked out pretty much to confirm this or that theory, to cases where observations went the opposite way or were inconclusive. In a book I’m reading at the moment, there’s an account of George Gamow’s and Mario Schoenberg’s theory (published in 1940) that collapsing stars would release a burst of neutrinos; after the Sanduleak-69° 202a supernova explosion witnessed in 1987, this was actually confirmed at multiple sites around the world. I’d hesitate to call it “settled” science, as nothing is ever really settled in science, but I think this example is probably about as close as it gets. On the other hand, the question of man-made carbon dioxide emissions causing a long-term biosphere-threatening global warming trend seems to be about as unsettled as the typical weather we experience on a British bank holiday, i.e. extremely. Thus a sceptical and questioning attitude is definitely required (much like an umbrella on the aforementioned bank holiday.)

  1. 2012/03/21 at 07:06

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