Physician, Heal Thyself

By | December 31, 2007

Physician Heal Thyself

SPPI

[Illustrations, footnotes and references available in PDF version]

Back at Gristmill, Andrew Dessler stands by his cancer/doctor analogy in the in-whom-do-we-trust war, after some comments on his blog:

The complexity of climate change does not suddenly make a sociologist, economist, computer programmer, etc. a credible skeptic. In fact, the weakness of Inhofe’s list is readily apparent by the very fact that he had to include such people on his list.

The crown jewels of skeptics are Lindzen, Christy, Singer, etc., but as I’ve said before, there are only a small number of them. In order to bulk up the list, Inhofe lowered his criteria to basically include anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change — regardless of their technical background in the subject.

As far as my analogy being unsuitable, I stand by it. If your child is sick, you take him/her to the experts. Ditto if your planet is sick. You don’t take either your child or a planet to a sociologist or economist.

For the uninitiated, here is the lowdown: Andrew Dessler is a professor at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University. He is complaining about a US senate report which listed hundreds of individuals who have been reported in the media during 2007 as speaking against the "scientific consensus" on climate change, claiming that they are scientists. The report naturally challenges the very principle of the consensus, which has given climate policies the authority they have needed to be carried forward. The global warming camp have sought to undermine the value of this new list, by claiming that the scientists lack scientific qualifications, expertise, or moral integrity.

But Dessler has made a significant concession here. He is visibly shifting from the idea that the power of the consensus comes from the weight of scientific opinion – numbers. An "overwhelming number" of scientist’s opinions might indicate that the "science" had been tested. Now, you have to be qualified to have an opinion on climate change. But Dessler doesn’t tell us exactly how we are to measure the qualifications, we just have to take his word for it that the 400 sceptics aren’t qualified, but the IPCC scientists are. So it’s not simply a consensus, it’s a qualified consensus, and he gets to call the qualification. So much for science. So, apparently, the IPCC scientists who represent the consensus are more qualified than their counterparts. They are akin to the experts you would trust your desperately ill child to, not the ragbag of mavericks you would avoid. Worse still, many of the sceptics are in fact mere computer programmers or – gasp – sociologists!

We decided to test Dessler’s claim. So we downloaded IPCC WGII’s latest report on "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability". There were 380 contributors to the report [PDF of contributors]. A thorough and exhaustive analysis of the backgrounds of these experts (or were they?) was too ambitious (it’s Christmas, and we have wine to drink, and mince pies to eat, too). So, we focused on the contributors who operate in the UK. Of the 51 UK contributors to the report, there were 5 economists, 3 epidemiologists, 5 who were either zoologists, entomologists, or biologists. 5 worked in civil engineering or risk management / insurance. 7 had specialisms in physical geography (we gave the benefit of the doubt to some academics whose profiles weren’t clear about whether they are physical or human geographers). And just 10 have specialisms in geophysics, climate science or modelling, or hydrology. But there were 15 who could only be described as social scientists. If we take the view that economics is a social science, that makes 20 social scientists. This gives the lie to Dessler’s claim that IPCC contributors are analogous to medical doctors. There are economists working on saving that dying child!!! That’s got to be wrong, by Dessler’s own standards.

Nonetheless, were these contributors the "experts" that Dessler claims they are? There were a few professors, but few of them had the profile Dessler gives them. Many of them were in fact, hard to locate to establish just how much better than their counterparts they were. One professor (Abigail Bristow) wasn’t what you’d call a climate scientist, but a professor of Transport Studies at Newcastle University. How is she going to cure the sick child? Will she be driving the ambulance? Another Professor – Diana Liverman at Oxford University – specialises in "human dimensions of global environmental change" – Geography is a social science too. Another – John Morton of the University of Greenwich, specialises in "development Anthropology". Professor of Geography, and Co-Chair of IPCC WGII, Martin Parry’s profile merely tells us that he is "a specialist on the effects of climate change". But what does that actually mean?

Among the remainder – most of whom are not professors, but research associates at best, are an assorted bunch, many of whom are better known for their alarmist statements in the mainstream press than they are for their contributions to scientific knowledge – activists in other words, with their own political motivation. And in spite of being reported as "climate scientists", involved in scientific research, also seem to be working within the social sciences, albeit for "climate research" institutions, such as Tyndall. Johanna Wolf, for example, is an IPCC contributor from the University of East Anglia, who works in the department for "development studies". Does that make her a climate scientist? Anna Taylor, of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Oxford has no PhD at all, her research focuses on "stakeholder engagement in adapting to multiple stresses, including climate variability and change, water scarcity, food insecurity and health concerns" – not climate science, and has simply not been alive long enough to join the ranks of the specialists of specialisms that Dessler demands of sceptics. Similarly, Susanne Rupp-Armstrong, listed as a member of Southampton University only appears to have ever contributed to one academic paper. Research Associate at the University of East Anglia, Maureen Agnew does not focus her research on climate science, but on such things as “Public perceptions of unusually warm weather in the UK: impacts, responses and adaptations”, and “Potential impacts of climate change on international tourism.” Katherine Vincent specialising in "Social Capital and Climate change" at the UEA, only began her PhD thesis in October 2003. How can she be cited as a specialist in climate science?

Then there are the contributors whose involvement we cannot explain. Farhana Yamin is an international lawyer, based at the University of Sussex. Rachel Warren and Paul Watkiss are merely listed as "environmental consultants" at the latter’s consultancy firm, and clearly have a commercial interest in climate change policies being developed. Kate Studd is listed as a contributor, but she works for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and doesn’t appear to be an academic at all. What are these people doing on this list of the most expert climate specialists in the world?

We were surprised by the results. Was the prevalence of social scientists from the UK representative of the whole group? We decided to repeat the test for the contributors based in the USA.

Of the 70 US contributors, there were 7 economists, 13 social scientists, 3 epidemiologists, 10 biologists/ecologists, 5 engineers, 2 modellers/statisticians, 1 full-time activist (and 1 part time), 5 were in public health and policy, and 4 were unknowns. 17 worked in earth/atmospheric sciences. Again, we gave the benefit of the doubt to geographers where it wasn’t clear whether their specialism was physical, or human geography.

In a follow-up post, Dessler has set about ‘Busting the ‘consensus busters” by ridiculing the qualifications of Inhofe’s 400 experts, starting with a certain Thomas Ring. In the comments section he justifies this approach:

I agree it would be quicker to simply note the qualified skeptics on the list (there are probably a few dozen), but, from a rhetorical point of view, I think pointing out these immensely unqualified members of the list is more effective.

Well, we can all play that game… Included as contributors to WGII are Patricia Craig, Judith Cranage, Susan Mann, and Christopher Pfeiffer, all from Pennsylvania State University. It’s not that these people aren’t experts in their field – they probably are. Our problem with their inclusion on the list of Contributors to the IPCC WGII Fourth Assessment report is that their jobs are (in order) website-designer, administrative assistant (x2), and network administrator.

Also on the list is Peter Neofotis who appears to be a 2003 graduate of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology from Columbia. Are there many experts in anything who graduated in 2003? Would Dessler take his sick child to a doctor, who, according to our understanding of medical training, would have not yet qualified? Also at Columbia is Marta Vicarelli, who is a PhD candidate in ‘sustainable development’. Can she be the amongst the world’s leading experts on sustainability? It seems hard to take the claim seriously. Or what about Gianna Palmer at Wesleyan University, who, as far as we can tell, will not graduate from university until 2010?

And yet Dessler insists that Inhofe’s list is chock full of people without any recent, relevant research on the problem. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re skeptics: people with the relevant experience are immediately persuaded by the evidence. This should be compared to the IPCC, which includes exclusively people with recent, relevant expertise on the problem.

Anything which can be thrown at the sceptics can be thrown at IPCC contributors.

That is not to say that social scientists and computer programmers have nothing to offer the world, or the IPCC process. They are crucial in fact. What it is to say, however, is that, when social scientists, computer programmers and administrative assistants comprise a significant proportion of IPCC contributors, the global warmer mantra that the IPCC represents the world’s top 2500 climate scientists is just plain old-fashioned not true.

Dessler’s wish to maintain that the IPCC comprises unimpeachable experts in their field mirrors the common desire to create an unassailable scientific consensus that political changes in the world are a necessity. This is driven less from the data generated by these experts – they aren’t as expert as is claimed, and the consensus is not unassailable – and more to do with the desire to drive politics by creating scientific orthodoxy. This would be scientism, if there was any matter of science about it. The only claim to authority that the IPCC has is not tested, scientific expertise, but just the fact of being established as an authority. There is obviously no substantial attempt to select the best in the field to contribute, as there is no objective measure of such expertise. If we do not take the view that IPCC’s authority rests on its contributors’ expertise, then the consensus it generates is meaningless. It is merely a ‘ministry of truth ‘ – the existence of which is only designed to reduce inconvenient challenges to political, not scientific, orthodoxy.

Dessler says:

The problem is not the several dozen credible skeptics on Inhofe’s list, some of whom you’ve named, it’s the 350 others. Overall, there are nowhere near 400 credible skeptics on his list, or on the planet.

Even if it were possible to draw together the best scientific minds (and perhaps even the best sociologists and programmers too), would it even be desirable? Science has never ‘worked’ by measuring opinion, but by testing hypotheses. It doesn’t work by generating orthodoxy, but by challenging it. The IPCC doesn’t represent the best available understanding, but the paucity of understanding of the factors governing climate. If the ‘truth’ really is ‘out there’ then it doesn’t need to be decided by committee.

*****

Blogger Comment:

This very thoughtful message exposes one of the biggest hoaxes of the “disastrous anthropogenic global warming” activists: that of “consensus among the world’s experts”.

This elitist viewpoint is exemplified by Andrew Dessler’s “sick child” analogy.

Dessler’s argument is not only extremely arrogant; it is flawed in many ways.

First, recent publications have shown that there are, indeed, many scientists who do not support Dessler’s viewpoint that the IPCC is the only “gold standard” scientific body on the planet concerned with climate change, and is therefore infallible. As the predictions of the activists, such as James Hansen with his “tipping point”, become increasingly shrill, there are growing numbers of scientists that distance themselves from the hysteria.

Second, the “child” has been pronounced by this elitist group, based on questionable computer simulations, as more likely than not to become ill during the 21st century unless draconian and very costly political measures are taken immediately to stop this. No scientific evidence or diagnosis is provided for the imminent illness, just computer model studies.

Third, Dessler’s argument falls back into the employment of “ad hominem” attacks on individuals, by questioning either the competency or the “hidden agenda” of the dissenting scientist (in the pay of Exxon-Mobil, etc.).

Fourth, as the author points out, the purported overwhelming scientific credentials of the IPCC writers is hollow; sure, there are some climate experts, like Dr. Dessler, in the crowd, but there are also many “fellow travelers”. We are not talking about “thousands of world experts on climate”.

Fifth, the “numbers game” is irrelevant in any case; the author shows that the scientific process, unlike political processes, is not based on consensus, but on constant challenge and verification by experimentation, so Dessler’s “consensus theory” has no place in true science.

Finally, the argument implies that only highly specialized scientists are qualified to have a relevant opinion on something as basic as what needs to be done today to (maybe) avert a possible, computer-generated problem in the distant future; this is obviously not how things work in a democratic society.

Bravo for this excellent rebuttal to Andrew Dessler’s elitist argumentation.

Max

Source:
Blog post: http://www.climate-resistance.org/2007/12/physician-heal-thyself.html