Posted by & filed under Books, Personal, Science, March 18 2007.

My previous posting, ‘Is global warming really caused by human activity‘ caused some debate, notably on the Scran Scribble discussion forum. The television documentary that prompted my posting has also generated a lot of discussion, and the blog of the science journalist Ben Goldacre (who writes for the Guardian) contains a good sampling of the debate and gives one a flavour of the many issues surrounding this topic.

Yesterday the BBC reported that ‘two leading UK climate researchers say some of their peers are “overplaying” the global warming message and risk confusing the public about the threat‘. This seems to be a reaction against the more entrenched environmentalists and their doom-laden preaching and appears to be an attempt to inject some reason into the debate. Whether it will work or not is hard to predict.

My own view now is that the evidence that human activity is warming up the earth is just not strong enough for me to feel guilty when I fly to Canada this coming May, and it certainly doesn’t justify the UK government slapping a £40 post-purchase levy on my flight tickets in the name of curbing global warming.

A lot of what’s going on with this debate over the environment reminds me an awful lot of the content contained within the book The Golem: What You Should Know About Science‘ (which should really be on the reading list of all science undergraduates). I suspect that in a decade’s time, this book will need a new edition with a new chapter on the merits of correlating pollution created by humanity with changes in the earth’s global climate.

Science journalists come down on both sides of the issue as do research scientists and politicians. Nigel Calder (a former editor of the New Scientist) is sceptical about CO2 emissions causing global warming and his views and outlook are summed up neatly in this recent article published in the Times.

Ben Goldacre and Phil Plait in the US are excellent commentators on scientific issues who both campaign against sloppy thinking, bad science and conspiracy nutters. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy website is definitely one of those sources of information on the Internet that you can trust – but of course, don’t take my word for it! His book, (also entitled Bad Astronomy), is perhaps the best book about Astronomy on my shelves (despite the fact that I still don’t understand how tides work after reading his explanation of the cause). Both of these science journalists are firmly from the mainstream side of the debate.

The seminal book in this context is of course Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions‘ and if anything fits his idea of a ‘paradigm’ (in the proper sense of the word, not the one that has been appropriated by business-speak), then it’s the orthodoxy of global warming being caused by CO2 emissions from human industrial civilization. To conduct science outside of this orthodoxy can be very difficult, regardless of its value or adherence to scientific principles. The underlying point about paradigms is of course that they eventually get replaced with new ones.

One of the biggest names when to comes to promoting the scientific method is Carl Sagan, but after reading his book ‘The Demon-Haunted World‘ he now seems to me to have been as blinkered and as dogmatic about science as any evangelist is about religion. He really could have done with reading the Golem book.

I am also now a huge fan of the magazine Fortean Times, in which mainstream science regularly gets a kicking. Sometimes I like to think of myself as having partly a ‘fortean‘ philosophy – this has some things in common with the scientific method as it is commonly understood in that it seeks answers to the mysteries of the world in which we live, and emphasises the searching for and collection of evidence and data. Importantly however, it rejects dogma of any sort and especially deplores the habit that dogmatic ‘paradigm’-based science has of being closed-minded and ignoring or sweeping under the table ‘damned’ data that does not fit into the paradigm.

There are many different types of ‘fortean’ however, and I would consider myself more in the tradition of open but sceptical scientific enquiry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some forteans believe in the existence of things that are resolutely outside science, and are often labeled ‘paranormal’, e.g. ghosts, crop circles created by extraterrestrials, Uri Geller bending spoons with his mind and UFOs as extraterrestrial spaceships.

I try to remain open-minded about these things, but it is hard. The evidence against these things being true is overwhelming and not only intellectual reasoning but plain old common sense tells one that all these things are utter nonsense and that one should not waste time paying any attention to them. And yet, I don’t feel comfortable rejecting them completely. They are still mysteries, and even if their solution lies more in the realms of human sociology and pyschology, they are still interesting. The fact that they don’t fit into the current scientific orthodoxy doesn’t mean that they should be ignored.

I am also a fan of James Randi and the crusading work he does to expose fraud in all its forms, notably claims of paranormal abilities. Although an arch-sceptic, and definitely dogmatic in his self-belief, the world needs more people like him who are willing to spend time and energy taking on the charlatans and conmen, because it really is a full-time job requiring a disciplined mind but also one trained in all the tricks and illusions that the world can throw up.

Proof that a real nuts-and-bolts scientist can also be a fortean comes in the shape of Prof. Archie Roy (although I don’t know if he would use that term to describe himself). Although a lot of the things that he has been involved in I personally think are extremely dubious (e.g. ESP, mediums, UFOs), he nevertheless is a respected academic astronomer and co-author of the second-best book about astronomy on my shelves.

Some parts of science, such as evolution, which although contentious and inspire opposition and alternative theories, are strongly defendable with reasoning, experimentation and observation (and which Richard Dawkins has spent a lot of his career doing). But there are other mysteries that seem to exist in a very murky world where it is very difficult for a true fortean to hold a firm opinion – one of these is Cold Fusion, and I believe global warming caused by humanity is another.

Humanity-caused global warming is perhaps slightly different from these other issues in that the orthodox established argument for it being true has directly affected my life – it has certainly affected my bank balance (to the tune of £40 so far and possibly more taxation to come in the future). And there are other ramifications.

One of the main influences on governmental thinking on this matter is the IPCC report, of which this comment was made:

“We have some concerns about the objectivity of the IPCC process, with some of its emissions scenarios and summary documentation apparently influenced by political considerations. There are significant doubts about some aspects of the IPCC’s emissions scenario exercise, in particular, the high emissions scenarios.”
From the UK House of Lords Science and Economic Analysis and Report on IPCC for the G-8 Summit, July 2005. Full report here.

If someone had said this about the ‘dodgy dossier’ document which covered the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons capabilities and which fulfilled a similar role to the IPCC report, i.e. translating detailed information from ‘experts’ into something that Tony Blair can understand, then maybe he wouldn’t have done what he did. A recent BBC report from John Simpson covers this.

It’s strange that that Iraq weapons document, which is of course now viewed by everyone on the planet (except perhaps Tony Blair) as being total garbage, was not challenged at the time (except by a scientist who was subsequently found dead, and by the BBC, which subsequently suffered forced resignations), but the IPCC report, which has been significantly challenged by opponents who aren’t being silenced, is being acted upon by the British government (although of course not the US government) with as much zeal as invading Iraq.

In both arguments about Iraq and climate change there seems to have been a lamentable failure by politicians and ‘experts’ to do two things that are equated with reason and with everything I’ve covered in this (very long) blog posting: asking difficult questions and admitting ignorance.

In fact, I think the only defendable position that one can have when presented with divisive issues like this that are really only understood by specialists with years of training, but that nevertheless affect all our lives, is this:

I don’t know for sure – but neither does anyone else, it seems.

3 Responses to “The global warming debate, the scientific method, fortean philosophy and the paranormal, and the Iraq war”

  1. Eddie

    Just finished reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science. It’s a very interesting but quite depressing book about health & nutrition debates in the UK, covering a lot of the same ground as the late John Diamond’s Snake Oil.

    It’s not a very well-titled book, it’s got a narrower focus than general ‘science’ and takes a perspective from the fields of medicine and journalism. For science controversies in general there are better books such as the ‘Golem’ book I mention in my blog posting.

    There’s nothing in this book about the science and journalism behind climate change, and I’m still looking for an unbiased, informed book about this along the lines of Ben Goldacre’s book – the nearest thing I’ve encountered to my ideal of an informed and balanced critique of this issue is the recent BBC 3-part documentary Climate Wars presented by the ubiquitous and TV-friendly Plymouth University geologist Dr Iain Stewart – but even this had some things in it that made no sense to me or appeared to be glaring contradictions.

  2. Eddie

    Just also finished reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It has a lot to say about the limits of knowledge, and the pitfalls inherent in models of prediction. The author doesn’t have anything to say about the current climate change debate though – he uses his experience of the financial world, and what he has to say about that is startlingly prescient given the current global financial environment, even more so when it is realised that the book was written before the proverbial hit the fan (a black swan if ever there was one).

    I think that if he looked at what is going on in climate prediction science, he’d see a lot of the same issues.

    It’s quite a broad-ranging book and is relevant to at least a couple of issues that I’ve blogged about here but had thought were pretty unrelated. Chris Anderson who wrote The Long Tail (see my blog posting ‘Two important books about the power of the Internet‘) gets namechecked in the book a couple of times, and the Pareto Principle (see my blog posting ‘The 80:20 and POGE software engineering rules‘) is discussed in this context.


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