A key to understanding the climate wars (about one of our big weaknesses)

Summary:  Debates about science occupy a central place in many public policy issues. To name a few: education, climate, public health, and medicine. In most of these the debate revolves around (silently, often ignorantly) questions of epistemology — the philosophy of knowing. Today we look at one example.

Knowledge: venn diagram


Although the IPCC and major climate agencies give ample clear information, laypeople’s confident guessing dominates the public debate about climate change. Voices such as Al Gore and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Advocacy institutions, such as the folks at the Heartland Institute and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT, running Climate Depot).

Together they fill the air with chaff, confusing the public and paralyzing the public policy process. The climate wars show with horrifying clarity America’s inability to clearly see and respond to our rapidly changing world.

There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of laypeople active in the climate wars (this typology does not apply well to scientists):

(a)  What’s becoming the consensus Left-wing position: doom approaches (or more extreme, we’re already doomed). This goes far beyond the consensus of climate scientists; seldom do these alarmists bother to even cite scientists to support their extreme claims. It’s terrorism of the mind to promote their policy agenda.

(b)  The large middle area of debate about the appropriate public policy response to climate science forecasts. The IPCC gives a wide range of forecasts, growing wider throughout the 21st century, driven by many kinds of uncertainties (e.g., many poorly understood aspects of climate dynamics, the size of Earth’s recoverable fossil fuel deposits, and the duration of the fossil fuel era). Against that are a range of public policy alternatives, with varying costs and possible effects.

(c)  The consensus Right-wing position: disagreement with basic elements of climate science. This takes many forms, such as

  1. skepticism about the ability of climate scientists to forecast climate,
  2. belief in the fraudulent nature of the IPCC and climate science,
  3. belief that CO2 does not increase temperature.  Just as with the Left, there is little scientific evidence for their beliefs.

Much of this debate is tribalism, Left vs Right. Much is motivated reasoning in the service of tribalism. But there are elements of logic, sometimes, in these debates. A common one, as in so many issues these days, is epistemology. How do we know things? What determines the shades of knowing? Who should we listen to with respect? Listen to as authorities?

There are no guaranteed answers to such questions, and few reliable guides. Today we look at one example of such a question, and one reply. Here is a comment posted on a post about our oceans.


As I see it, the predictions of the IPCC have not been accurate. … I consider that the climate is a chaotic system and MAY be beyond the powers of humans to fully understand. … I think what happens is that the variables, and the variables affecting those variables, become insurmountable even to sophisticated algorithms.

This asks what we can know, and if scientists’ belief about their knowledge should be trusted. Such questions are a constant in the history of science. Every step met with cries that progress is impossible. There is often no reliable rebuttal to these questions (e.g., proving evolution). Although not always wrong, this form of skepticism has proven a bad way to bet.

As so often in life, one’s choices come down to faith in a process. In this case, confidence in the scientific method, the institutions of science, and the ability of humanity to understand our world. We can gain confidence by looking at past examples of skepticism about progress.

Purpose of the Moon

Note that, unlike usual practice on the FM website, these quotes have not been verified. Some are probably attributed but unsourced; some are probably apocryphal.

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
— Robert Goddard (1882-1945)

“What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”
The Quarterly Review, England (March 1825)

“The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it… Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient.”
— Dr. Alfred Velpeau, French surgeon (1839)

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
— Dr. Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London (1793-1859)

“Men might as well project a voyage to the Moon as attempt to employ steam navigation against the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.”
— Dr. Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London (1793-1859)

“There is a young madman proposing to light the streets of London—with what do you suppose—with smoke!”
— Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). On a proposal to light cities with gaslight

“Well informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.”
— Editorial in the Boston Post (1865)

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
— Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist (1895)

“…no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air …”
— Simon Newcomb, astronomer and head of the U. S. Naval Observatory (1835-1909)

“That Professor Goddard, with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
— “A Severe Strain on Credulity“, editorial in the New York Times, 13 January 1920

“This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments. Let us critically examine the proposal. For a projectile entirely to escape the gravitation of earth, it needs a velocity of 7 miles a second. The thermal energy of a gramme at this speed is 15,180 calories… The energy of our most violent explosive–nitroglycerine–is less than 1,500 calories per gramme. Consequently, even had the explosive nothing to carry, it has only one-tenth of the energy necessary to escape the earth… Hence the proposition appears to be basically impossible.”
— W. A. Bickerton, Professor of Physics and Chemistry at Canterbury College, New Zealand (1926)

“There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
— Albert Einstein (1932)

“… any one who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine …”
— Ernest Rutherford (1933)

“There is not in sight any source of energy that would be a fair start toward that which would be necessary to get us beyond the gravitative control of the earth.”
— Forest Ray Moulton, astronomer (1935)

“That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The Bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.”
— Admiral William Daniel Leahy, advising President Truman on the U.S. atom bomb project (1945)

“To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth–all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances.”
— Lee deForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube (25 February 1957)

“Space travel is utter bilge.”
— Dr. Richard van der Reit Wooley, Astronomer Royal, space advisor to the British government (1956). Sputnik orbited the earth in 1957.


Examples of the Right fogging the climate debate

(a)  See the comments for scientists discussing our ability to predict changes in the climate.

(b)  About the right-wing:

(c)  Posts about global cooling:

  1. Articles from the 1970′s about global cooling/warming
  2. About the headlines from the 1970s about global cooling, 2 November 2009 — Not what they seem
  3. The facts about the 1970’s Global Cooling scare, 7 December 2009
  4. Looking into the past for guidance about warnings of future climate apocalypses, 17 October 2010
  5. Start of another swing of the media narrative – to global cooling?, 11 September 2013
  6. Global Cooling returns to the news, another instructive lesson about America, 25 January 2014

(d)  About the facts behind the stories about global cooling:

  1. An important letter sent to the President about the danger of climate change, 21 October 2009 — About global cooling
  2. A look at global warming written in a cooler and more skeptical time, giving us a better understanding of climate science, 23 November 2009
  3. The slow solar cycle is getting a lot of attention. What are its effect on us?, 11 February 2012







1 thought on “A key to understanding the climate wars (about one of our big weaknesses)”

  1. Can changes in Earth’s climate be predicted?

    (1) Simplicity amid Complexity“, Isaac Held, Science, 14 March 2014 — Gated. Opening:

    We live in interesting times as we watch diverse effects of human activities on Earth’s climate emerge from natural variability. In predicting the outcome of this evolving inadvertent experiment, climate science faces many challenges, some of which have been outlined in this series of Science Perspectives (1–6): reducing the uncertainty in climate sensitivity; explaining the recent slowdown in the rate of warming and its implications for understanding internal variability; uncovering the factors that control how and where the land will become drier as it warms; quantifying the cooling due to anthropogenic aerosols; explaining the curious evolution of atmospheric methane; and predicting changes in extreme weather.

    In addition to these challenges, the turbulent and chaotic atmospheric and oceanic flows seemingly limit predictability on various time scales. Is the climate system just too complex for useful prediction?

    (2) Simplicity amidst complexity (?)“, Judith Curry at Climate Etc, 17 March 2014 — Opening:

    Held’s article raises a very important issue – whether climate change is predominantly linear and dominated by external forcing, or whether natural internal variability is the intrinsic mode of variability on decadal to century timescales. In other words, is natural internal variability the icing on the cake, or the cake itself?

    While I like Held’s article in the sense that I find it to be provocative, I disagree with much of it. …

    (3) Do GCM’s predict the climate… or macroweather?“, Shaun Lovejoy et al, Earth System Dynamics, 28 November 2013 — Abstract:

    We are used to the weather–climate dichotomy, yet the great majority of the spectral variance of atmospheric fields is in the continuous “background” and this defines instead a trichotomy with a “macroweather” regime in the intermediate range from ≈ 10 days to 10–30 yr ( ≈ 100 yr in the preindustrial period). In the weather, macroweather and climate regimes, exponents characterize the type of variability over the entire regime and it is natural to identify them with qualitatively different synergies of nonlinear dynamical mechanisms that repeat scale after scale. Since climate models are essentially meteorological models (although with extra couplings) it is thus important to determine whether they currently model all three regimes.

    Using last millennium simulations from four GCMs (global circulation models), we show that control runs only reproduce macroweather. When various (reconstructed) climate forcings are included, in the recent (industrial) period they show global fluctuations strongly increasing at scales > ≈ 10–30 yr, which is quite close to the observations. However, in the preindustrial period we find that the multicentennial variabilities are too weak and by analysing the scale dependence of solar and volcanic forcings, we argue that these forcings are unlikely to be sufficiently strong to account for the multicentennial and longer-scale temperature variability.

    A likely explanation is that the models lack important slow “climate” processes such as land ice or various biogeochemical processes.

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