Friday, 23 February 2018

On Global Warming

Imagine if a visitor from another star came, right now in early 2018, to investigate our planet and our human civilization. What would he think? And what, in particular, would he think about the issue commonly called “global warming” or “climate change?”

I’ll assume that an alien civilization able to reach Earth would have sufficient knowledge of mathematics, physics and chemistry – as well as history and psychology – to understand the issue at least as well as we humans can. And that our visitor would be a predominantly objective and rational being. For I wouldn’t expect that a civilization in which most, or even many, were irrational could last long enough to develop the technology to voyage over interstellar distances.

The accusation

Again and again, so we’re told, the Earth keeps on setting new global temperature records. 2017, or some other recent year, was the second or third hottest evah! But so what, I ask? From roughly the 13th century, the planet was cooling, from a peak at least as warm as today – if not warmer – down to a trough in the 17th century. In the last quarter century or so, it has warmed gently; much as it has been doing for 350 years or so. So, what is there to worry about?

Ah, say the alarmists, it’s all the fault of that deadly “pollutant,” carbon dioxide! CO2 in the atmosphere, put there by human beings through burning fossil fuels, is trapping heat and causing the global temperature to rise – out of control! Ah, woe is us! These CO2 emissions will cause more and worse heat waves! More and worse floods and droughts! More and worse storms and hurricanes! More and more cold and snow! Huge sea level rises and coastal flooding! Children won’t know what snow is! (Nor the meaning of the word oxymoron). It’s unprecedented! And it’s all our fault! We have to act NOW! There’s no time left for “paralysis by analysis!”

At first sight, this ought to be a really easy issue to clear up. Shouldn’t it? All we need do is look at the facts of the case, and judge according to those facts. Either the alarms are justified, or they are not. And that decision can be made objectively, using honest, unbiased science. There shouldn’t be any clash of values between alarmists and skeptics. There shouldn’t be any need to bring politics into it, or to resort to dirty tricks or name-calling.

And yet, what we see is a highly charged rumpus (“debate” is the wrong word), in which virtually the entire political class and their hangers-on are vehemently on the alarmist side. Many ordinary people seem to think the whole issue is unimportant, and prefer to tune out all the hubbub. And those of us, who are and remain unconvinced by the alarmist rhetoric, are showered with pejoratives like “denier,” “heretic” or even “flat earther.”

So first, let’s be clear what the crime we are accused of actually is. The charge is that warming caused by human emissions of CO2 – warming which wouldn’t have happened without those emissions – will, beyond reasonable doubt, bring about the awful catastrophes alarmists so love to wring their hands about. But such a charge demands proof; and proof requires very strong, substantive evidence. So, I say to the alarmists: Prove your case, Sirrahs!

CO2 and warming

Now, there’s a believable scientific hypothesis that says more CO2 in the atmosphere can cause warming on a global scale. But how much warming? The direct effect from the “forcing” caused by a doubling of CO2, averaged over the planet, seems to be about 1.2 degrees Celsius (a little over 2 degrees Fahrenheit).

There doesn’t appear to be much dispute between alarmists and skeptics on the size of this direct effect. But does the warming feed back into the system, and cause more warming – or even much more, as the alarmists claim? Or do clouds, for example, reduce the overall warming effect to less than the direct effect of the forcing? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? The alarmists seem to think the Earth’s climate equilibrium is unstable, not stable or neutral. I don’t find that at all believable, given how long the Earth has supported life.

And then there’s the question: how can we separate out human caused warming from other causes like ocean oscillations and the Sun’s activity? The alarmist position seems to be that “everything we don’t know about is caused by humans.” But surely human emissions of CO2 couldn’t have affected global temperatures before the 20th century? So, what were the causes of the mediaeval warm period and the 17th to 19th century warming? These must be independent of any human activities – must they not? Are those causes still in play? If not, why not? If so, how much of the modern warming is due to those causes, not to human emissions of CO2?

Moreover, as I showed in an earlier essay, the alarmists have taken the precautionary principle of “look before you leap,” and subverted it. They have cunningly moved the goalposts, so as to negate the presumption of innocence, and invert the burden of proof. Then, the alarmists don’t need to take the trouble to prove their case objectively and beyond reasonable doubt. Instead, they require those they accuse of causing catastrophic global warming through CO2 emissions – that’s us – to prove a negative. Doesn’t that suggest they may be behaving in bad faith?

Evaluating the case

To look at the global warming issue objectively, one must follow several strands. First, the science. Is the claim, that human activities cause (or will cause) significant global warming, scientifically sound? Second, the consequences if the accusation was true. How much damage would be caused if human activities were to raise global temperature by, say, one degree Celsius? And wouldn’t modest warming actually be a benefit to humanity? Third, the nature of the organizations promoting the case. Are they honest, independent and unbiased?


I’ll begin with the IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is a United Nations organization. To me at least, that’s an obvious red flag; for the UN has been the primary driver of the green agenda since way back in 1970. The IPCC has issued five reports since 1990, the latest being in 2013. Along with each, there is a “Summary for Policymakers,” which tends to be more alarmist than the technical reports, and to gloss over the scientific uncertainties.

The IPCC reports are supposed to be based on the peer reviewed scientific literature on the subjects they cover. And yet, there have been conclusions stated with “high confidence” that aren’t supported by the scientific literature. And vitally important numbers are missing. For example, the latest report doesn’t even give a best estimate of how much warming the IPCC expect to result from a doubling of CO2!

Moreover, parts of the reports – including the Summary – are approved line by line by government officials. Back in 1996, one section of the Summary was re-worded in a more alarmist way at the request of governments. And the technical reports were then updated to match. That isn’t science!

The data

Beyond all this, there are issues with the quality of the temperature data on which a lot of the alarmist case rests. First of all, the claimed year on year differences in global temperature – of the order of hundredths of a degree – are far less than the error margins in the individual temperature measurements, on which they are based! But it’s worse. The raw data is noisy and full of errors. It includes readings taken by different means (for example ships, buoys and satellites), by instruments of different types, and at different times of day. And it includes readings from high and low quality sites.

Furthermore, many – if not most – of the numbers have been “adjusted,” in ways that are often documented poorly or not at all. And adjustment practices seem often to change, usually in the direction of showing steeper warming. Further, missing data is often filled in by averaging neighbouring sites; so, readings from areas of good coverage are extrapolated to areas of poor coverage. How can we be sure this data represents reality?

And it isn’t just temperature data that is being adjusted and interpreted in ways that might not be honest. There’s no doubt, for example, that sea levels are rising; as they have been for many thousand years. And the global rate of rise, over the last century or so, has been fairly stable. But just this year, sea level data has been newly re-interpreted in a way that claims to show a recent acceleration in sea level rise.


Another issue is that climate science makes extensive use of models. These are computer simulations, that attempt to mimic the physics involved. But models must necessarily be built on assumptions. How do we know these assumptions don’t simply reflect the prejudices of the model builders? Like, believing that feedbacks to warming are strongly positive?

Moreover, the results of the models aren’t treated, as the scientific method would require, as predictions to be compared with measurements, and the underlying hypotheses falsified if the results differ by enough. Indeed, the IPCC calls a model-derived estimate of future climate a “projection,” and says “when a projection is branded ‘most likely’ it becomes a forecast or prediction.” All of which raises the question: is this really science?


In and around climate science and the global warming issue, there have been many examples of what I call nonscience.

Under the heading of technical nonscience, we’ve seen the grafting together of unrelated data, without explaining what was being done. We’ve seen data inconvenient to the alarmist case dropped altogether. We’ve seen statistical methods that exaggerate the contribution of a small sample; even down to a single tree! (Or of less than 80 respondents to a questionnaire...) We’ve seen attempts to minimize, or suppress the existence of, the mediaeval warm period.

Then there’s media nonscience. 97 per cent of climate scientists, so we’re told, agree that human activity is causing global warming. This has about the same information content as “97% of communist supporters agree that communism is a good thing.” Every time an unusual weather event occurs – even if it’s extreme cold! – we hear cries that it’s all due to “climate change.” Journalists are exhorted to “avoid false balance” in discussing the issue (meaning: only tell the alarmist side of the story!) And the media love to play up the latest scare stories, and to make out that human emissions of CO2 are responsible. We’ve even seen faked alarmist pictures on the front covers of journals. Polar bear on ice floe, anyone?

And there’s political nonscience. We’ve heard repeated claims that “the science is settled,” when anyone who understands science knows that it’s never settled. And if it was, why are people still working on it? We’ve seen attempts to stop publication of skeptical papers. We’ve seen skeptical scientists and journal editors persecuted or even sacked. And we skeptics have been called nasty names like “denialists” or “conspiracy theorists,” and accused of being funded by Big Oil.

The economic case

So if, despite all this nonscience, human emissions of CO2 were responsible for significant warming, how much damage would be caused by that warming? The 2013 IPCC report gives a figure of 0.2 per cent to 2 per cent of goods and services produced worldwide, that would be lost as a result of a warming of 2 degrees Celsius. But it adds caveats that the cost may be higher, because the economic models used don’t include some potential factors, and others are poorly understood. And governments, particularly of the UK, seem to think these numbers aren’t alarmist enough!

Two things stand out for me here. First, my common sense tells me that a small amount of global warming, like 2 degrees Celsius, could easily have more positive economic effects than negative ones. For example, by allowing crops to be grown further north, or by reducing winter heating costs in parts of the world where many people live. And a warmer climate seems to have been beneficial to human civilization when it has occurred in the past, for example in Minoan and Roman times. So I’m not even sure that the sign of the numbers is right!

Second, I’m struck by the factor of 10 difference between the low and high estimates. And that’s ignoring factors that haven’t been quantified! If I was a businessman who had commissioned a cost-benefit analysis that produced such a result, I’d tell the analysts, in no uncertain terms, to go away and not to come back until they had some figures I could use.

Despite no certainty in either the amount of human-caused warming or its costs or benefits, the politicians still took it on themselves to set an arbitrary “target” of no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To be enforced by governments on ordinary people, of course, by loading us with lots of new taxes and regulations. When it looked, between 2000 and 2015, as if warming was lessening or even stopping, they decided to reduce this target to 1.5 degrees. The arrogance and effrontery of those, that could even contemplate setting such limits, are beyond the bounds of description.

Scandals and whitewashes

Then there was the Climategate scandal of 2009, when e-mails were leaked from a UK climate research unit (CRU). These e-mails showed, to those who bothered to look, that alarmists had interfered with the review and publication process for papers on which the IPCC was supposed to rely. They had dropped or misrepresented data to produce an alarming effect. They had refused to share data to allow others to replicate their work. They had deleted data to evade Freedom of Information requests. They had conspired against journal editors who published skeptical papers. And more. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t science, and it wasn’t honest.

The UK government commissioned no less than three inquiries into the matter. First, a parliamentary committee, which seemingly chose to avoid the most important questions. Second came the Oxburgh inquiry. It failed to publish its own terms of reference. It did not interview any critics of the CRU. It claimed that it would assess the quality of CRU’s science; but the papers it chose to look at did not cover the controversial areas, and did not address work done for the IPCC. Yet the UK’s chief scientist at the time described Oxburgh’s inquiry as “a blinder well played.” The third review, by Muir Russell, examined the CRU’s scientific practices, but not the science itself. It avoided answering the important questions, and the ones it did investigate were largely irrelevant. So, the outcome of all three inquiries was no more than a whitewash.

The green mind set

There is a way of thinking, which seems to be rife among those that promote or support the green agenda, including the global warming ruckus. This mind set can be seen in the activists and their followers, in politicians that support the agenda, and in the alarmist “scientists.”

First, they don’t build support for their ideas by honest persuasion. Instead, they seek power, to enable them to impose their agenda by government force. And those, that already have power, also find the green agenda very useful as an excuse to increase their own power, and the power of their political state. The green activists and the politicians work hand in hand very nicely; for them, but not for us.

Second, they seem to have little or no sense of right and wrong, or of personal responsibility. This leads them to behave as hypocrites. For example, Al Gore tells us we should cut our energy use, yet consumes 20 times more electricity than ordinary people. Gore also rants about rising sea levels, yet buys property near the beach. And Prince Charles demonizes CO2 emissions from cars and planes, yet himself is chauffeured around in limos and goes on holiday by private plane. Moreover, Peter Gleick, chairman of a task force on scientific ethics, used identity fraud to obtain confidential papers from a climate skeptic organization. The ethics of the government officials involved in the IPCC process, and of the Climategate scientists and those in charge of the subsequent inquiries, are also very dubious.

Third, they are downers and troublemakers. They do not seek to solve problems or to contribute to solving problems, and so to make the world a better place. Instead, they rant about how bad things are; and they seek to raise the profile of existing problems, or to create new ones.

Fourth, they seem not to be interested in truth or rationality. All that matters to them is their narrative. This is why many green followers come over like religious nuts. It’s also why almost all the media parrot alarmist messages, even when to rational people those messages are crazy or even obviously false.

Moreover, when a skeptic raises a good point against an alarmist, the alarmist almost never acknowledges the point. Instead, alarmists usually obfuscate, change the subject, or resort to name-calling or other ad hominems. The alarmists’ “post-modern” lack of respect for the truth makes it all but impossible for skeptics to reach any kind of rational compromise or friendly agreement with them.

To sum up

So, what would our visitor from another civilization make of all this?

I think he would be appalled by what he found. He would be horrified that a species, at the technological level we humans have reached today, is still using a political system that allows unethical, irrational troublemakers with no respect for truth to acquire power over others. He would be repelled by the behaviour of activists, “scientists,” politicians and media over the global warming issue. He would be dismayed that not only do these individuals get away with their crimes, but they enjoy cushy and well paid jobs, and even fame and respect.

I suspect that he would look in his database, to find out about other civilizations who have been through, and survived, similar traumas. And he might even put in a Mayday call on our behalf.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Is the Earth Flat?

Some people are still arguing about whether the Earth is round or flat.

I once did an experiment to try to prove that the Earth is round. The date was Sunday, 8th May 2016. My experiment failed, as I’ll relate in due course.

Here’s the idea. You visit a high hill, adjacent to flat country. You go there on a day when the visibility is perfect. You take your camera, and if you have them some decent binoculars.

You walk (slowly!) up the hill, and once you’re clear of any buildings between you and the plain, you measure how far you can see. Not to church steeples, but to objects close to the ground – like cows. You do it at several different heights above the plain. Then you plot how far you can see against how far you are up the hill.

Now if the Earth was flat, how far you can see wouldn’t depend on how high you are up the hill. With perfect, unobstructed visibility, you could see a cow 5 or even 10 miles away across the plain as soon as you could see one 1 mile away.

If the Earth was round, on the other hand, you’d expect to be able to see further the higher you are up the hill. I’ll leave out the trigonometry, but you’d expect the distance you can see to be very close to proportional to the square root of how far you are up the hill. Otherwise put, if you’re four times as far up the hill, you should be able to see twice as far.

Anyway, the hill I picked for my experiment is called the Worcestershire Beacon. Its top is almost 1,400 feet above sea level; and about 1,200 feet above the plain to the east, which includes the spa town of Malvern.

It was a beautiful walk. The east side of the hill is steep, so I climbed it from the north. And as I went down the easy south side, gradually losing altitude, I took many photos of the plain.

Imagine my chagrin, then, when I found on reaching the pub at the bottom of the track (the Wyche Inn – I recommend it), that my camera had run out of memory. And that all my photos had disappeared into the great byte sink in the sky.

But what if my photos had come out? Would I have been able to present incontrovertible evidence, even if only to those whose eyes are far better than mine, that the Earth is round?

No. For all I set out to do was to adduce evidence to verify one prediction of the hypothesis that the Earth is round. Namely, that how far you can see over a level plain is proportional to the square root of how high up you are above that plain. I didn’t even manage to do that. And let’s not even think about whether in some places the planet might be “locally round,” and in others not.

Science, when it advances, advances one failed experiment at a time.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

In the age of fake news, who do we believe?

This started life as a comment on another blog, but I thought it was good enough to publish it here too. It's a reply to the question: "In the age of fake news, who do we believe?" Thanks to Opher Goodwin for the question.
  1. Trust your own experience.
  2. Trust those who have treated you well in the past.
  3. Trust those who behave honestly and reasonably, and seem to want to treat you well.
  4. Tend to mistrust anyone that obfuscates or over-complicates matters.
  5. Tend to mistrust anyone that parrots someone else’s ideas.
  6. Tend to mistrust anyone who prefers to talk of we rather than of I.
  7. Tend to mistrust anyone you catch out lying, or being dishonest or hypocritical.
  8. Mistrust anyone with any political or religious agenda.
  9. Mistrust anyone that cries “the end is nigh!” or any other such ruse.
  10. Mistrust anyone that says “I’m an expert, trust me.”
  11. Mistrust anyone that says “You’re not an expert, so you must be wrong.”
  12. Mistrust anyone that resorts to specious arguments or to ad hominems.
  13. Mistrust anyone that profits from schemes that rip you off.
  14. Mistrust anyone you think may be trying to sell you something you don’t want.
  15. Mistrust the mainstream media, most of all if government funded.
  16. Mistrust, above all, anyone that denies the existence of truth.
And then, depending on which way you’ve gone initially, it’s either “trust but verify,” or “mistrust, but still be open to evidence that they might not be wrong on this matter.”