There are many tipping points

12 07 2007

After the rain 1 - by Tanakawho (creative commons)I normally enjoy visiting James’ place, and this day was no exception. However, this post of his had me scratching my chin. The post is from a while ago, and something about the snarky bored tone got me thinking.

I imagined him thinking to himself as he typed it up. “Why another film? Hasn’t Gore done the subject to death? Can we stop being sanctimonious already?”

But I think that misses the point. The movie isn’t for us, the people who care passionately about climate change and/or work in the field.

The movie is for ordinary people for whom “global warming” is either something to bravely deny (thus showing they ain’t no tree huggers, no siree) or bravely ignore (it’s the end of the Earth, I can’t change that, pass me the keys to the SUV).

I think about what happens when a new breakthrough occurs in science; you see a lot of activity in that same area, a lot of papers applying the new ideas with slightly different parameters. It’s pretty much the same in every academic endeavour. Knowledge proceeds in increments.

Why can’t we think of public awareness of climate change in the same way? The denialists (and the media, though unwittingly) have been complicit in this by reducing “global warming” into a meaningless catchphrase. It’s about time people saw what it really means, and if that means an explosion of docos all touting some different aspect of climate change, just so that ordinary people can see it’s a complex issue, then I’m all for that.

Photo: After the rain 1 by Tanakahwo (creative commons at


Why fighting the denialists matters

24 03 2007

It matters because of the kids. This science class in Colorado, asked students to put global warming on trial. Guess who won?

LONGMONT — Humans don’t cause global warming, a jury of sixth graders at Trail Ridge Middle School concluded Thursday after hearing opposing arguments from their peers.

“They’re pretty young for this kind of thinking. They did great,” paleontology teacher Ken Poppe said after the 40-minute “trial” in his classroom.

With Earth’s warming accepted as a tenet, pre-teen “lawyers” and “scientists” debated whether humans have caused it.

The students found all their arguments and “science” on the Internet (actually the article says “the school’s computer lab”, so I assume they were searching the Web. The alternative is even more appalling). There are sites that cater to climate warners and climate sceptics — but they apparently have not been taught the skills to evaluate the trustworthiness of these sites.

“The earth has warmed and cooled over many years. If it’s caused by CO2, why haven’t the charts shot up?” Poppe’s son and lead prosecutor Caleb argued during a rebuttal.

In a climax that sent half the class to its feet and forced the judge to call for order, opponent Monique Nem slapped a contradictory graph onto the prosecution’s table.

“We’ve proven you wrong! The CO2 levels have shot up,” she said.

In the end, it seems that the winning side did so purely on their superior debating skills.

Seven of 11 jurors decided humans are not to blame, but everyone agreed classroom debates make for fun learning.

“It was a hard decision, because both sides made good points,” said student Samantha Roberts.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong per se with students learning in this fashion. One thing that is sure is that motivation levels would have been very high among the class. However, that there was no effort on the part of the teacher to vet the information for scientific validity, that he did not point out that the consensus was overwhelmingly towards an acceptance that global warming is driven by human activity — that is unconscionable.

Makes you wonder about where the teacher stands, doesn’t it?

Ken Poppe said he let students choose which side of the debate to argue. Poppe personally believes global warming is cyclical and not affected by humans, while his Colorado State University student aide David Richards believes the opposite. Both, however, said they presented both sides equally to the students leading up to Thursday’s debate.

“What I think is not the issue. It’s what the students dig up and how they present the case,” Poppe said.

Only one parent questioned Poppe’s decision to hold a global warming debate. That mother expected him to present Al Gore’s global warming movie “An Inconvenient Truth” as indisputable facts, Poppe said. After he explained his neutrality in the classroom, the mom allowed her child to participate in the debate, he said.

“You don’t understand someone’s position until you can argue it to their satisfaction,” Poppe said, quoting a famous physicist. “I don’t believe in Darwinism either, but I can argue it as well as any Darwinist.”

That’s right. As well as denying anthropogenic global warming, he denies evolution.

May this cancer never reach New Zealand.

More from PZ Myers, a teacher who actually teaches well.

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Inhofe Gore’d

22 03 2007

Gore testifies

As my thesis is on climate change matters, I keep a weather eye (Hah! Get it?) on Al Gore, the highest profile spokesperson for the cause. Today, he gave testimony before Congress on matters related to climate change. According to David Roberts, he got off to a shaky start in his prepared opening statement, but perked up when he smelt fresh meat in the form of long-time climate denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-AK). Gore speared him.

Then — the hacktacular coup de grace — [Inhofe] asked Gore to sign a pledge to reduce his personal home energy use to that of an average American. As gimmicks go, this one would embarrass a high school student, but Inhofe’s band of knuckle-draggers seems quite pleased with themselves. I’m sure there were frat boy back slaps all around.

When Gore tried to respond that he’s purchasing green energy and offsets and trying to put solar panels on his house, Inhofe just rode right over him.

Ponder for a moment: What could any of that conceivably have to do with the business of the U.S. Senate? Even if you think Gore’s wrong, is trying to catch him in a clumsy gotcha the way to advance your case? What a small, sad man.

ThinkProgress has the video. More videos here.

I was interested in how marginalised people like Inhofe now have become, despite overt efforts on the part of Republicans to stack the committee with anti-Gore members on their side. This is a positive sign that deniers are slowly but surely becoming objects of derision.

This is by no means to say that the fight is over, especially when the “paper of note” can still produce front-page misleading broadsides against Gore like this one. And here in New Zealand, the main problem is a government that, hemmed in on all sides politically, seems afraid to take bold steps in addressing climate change. The Greens also appear to be the subject of a lot of hysteria from free-marketeer types. (These statements are provisional on my part at this point, as I have yet to really study the matter in-depth as I would like to.)

Anyway, though the fight is a long one — and I definitely need to take stock of my thoughts and make some wide-ranging strategic statements later on in the year — the day belongs to Al Gore. With the last word, Tom Watson draws a link between Inhofe’s humiliation at the Senate hearing with the wider slow-motion implosion of the Republican Party:

Inhofe’s staff tried one of those old-school “when did you stop beating your wife” tricks, attempting to trap Gore into admitting his own energy usage at his Nashville home. Swing, miss. But not to disgraced former law professor Glenn Instapundit:

A gimmick? Yes. A stunt? Yes. But it’s one that Gore has opened himself up to. That’s the problem with moralistic, messianic crusading — people expect you to live up to it.

Hee hee, that’s insta-panic right there – panic that Al Gore is bathing in incredible national and even worldwide popularity – that he accomplished more by losing the Presidency than George Bush did by winning it. Panic that Gore is about to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

And there was Al Gore, sitting in testimony as the grand winner of our political times – even as Republicans refused to testify under oath about their roles in the scandal over the political dumping of U.S. Attorneys. The great national nightmare for the shrinking right is just beginning.

Right-wing logic

19 03 2007

Snow FestivalIt’s amazing what passes for logic among the those in the right-wing world sometimes. Over at his virtual Bedlam and cranktastic soap box, Adolph Fiinkenstein teases the reader with a rant about antiwar marchers in Washington, but bless his heart, he can’t keep it up for long before he veers wildly off-topic onto what he really wants to talk about: Al Gore. (I swear, the man is like catnip to wingnuts.)

Now, one of the “gotcha” games conservatives love to play when it comes to climate change and global warming is to point out how cold some winter days can get. Goodness gracious! It’s brass monkey weather! But doesn’t global warming say winters are supposed to be tropical, starting tomorrow? Fiinkenstein is no exception and wastes little time before rushing for that oh-so-soothing Ctrl-B.

There was one moment of sheer hilarity in the report. Obviously Al Gore has been to Washington DC recently. The evangelicals should send him down for a visit to Hell – the place would immediately freeze over!

Organisers of the protest march said the turnout had been hurt by a winter snow storm on Friday that moved up the East Coast from Washington into New England, disrupting travel.

These same jerks and misfits who are protesting outside the White House would have you believe we are doomed because of global warming.

That’s right. It’s winter. It gets cold in winter. It was so cold on this day that fewer people than expected turned up to a march. Therefore there’s no such thing as global warming.

But wasn’t it pretty cold all over the States this winter? Weren’t there all those stories of record blizzards and stuff? Yes, there were, but get this: Across the planet, the December – February period was the warmest on record. As for those cold days in the US:

For the United States, meanwhile, the winter temperature was near average. The season got off to a late start and spring-like temperatures covered most of the eastern half of the country in January, but cold conditions set in in February, which was the third coldest on record.

Oops! Guess Adolph didn’t study statistics much.

Protected: Thesis: Facts vs message

17 03 2007

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The old codgers

16 03 2007

I found this interesting post at Andrew Dessler’s place about the prevalence of retired scientists among climate change sceptics linked from a more recent Gristmill piece. He evaluates the ability of all these professors emeritus to usefully contribute to the GW debate, and narrows it down to two options: either (a) they are better able to usefully contribute since they no longer depend on any form of university patronage, or (b) they haven’t kept up with the reading and therefore misunderstand current research.

He pins a wonderful anecdote about Bill Gray:

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where I ran into Bill Gray, a famous emeritus skeptic. He gave his standard stump speech in which he claims that the water vapor feedback is negative. I followed up on this with him and it became quite clear to me that he is unfamiliar with all of the peer-reviewed literature on this subject that has been published in the last five years. This makes sense. Reading the literature is a difficult and full-time job, and emeritus faculty simply don’t need to do that. Especially (in the case of Gray) when your time is occupied being interviewed and screaming at people. As a result, my sense is that the views of emeritus skeptics are often substantially out of date.

But the story goes on. After arguing with him for a few minutes, it became clear that Bill Gray has no scientific theory of his own *why* the water vapor feedback is negative, and no data to support his non-theory. He has no manuscript describing his non-theory and no plans to attempt to publish it. After I pointed out all of the evidence supporting a positive feedback, he looked confused and finally said, “OK, maybe the feedback isn’t negative, maybe it’s neutral. I’ll give you that.” I quickly concluded that he has no idea what he’s talking about. I wish everyone that considers him credible could have witnessed this exchange.

This glimpse inside the scientific community is exactly what non-scientist onlookers like myself absolutely relish.

Eli Rabett takes Dessler’s original post and widens it to a theory about why aged professors tend to be resistant to new paradigms in general. He points to the way atomic theory was resisted by the contemporary scientific fraternity.

These sort of things always repeat themselves. It is difficult for us to conceive, but the existence of atoms was not settled at the turn of the 20th century, and what evidence existed was indirect. Many scientists whose intuition was trained in the time when theories based on continua dominated physics found it impossible to accept atomicity. They preferred their intuition to their lying eyes.


For example, when I took general chemistry we were still using the old Mendeleev form of the periodic table which is based on the stoichiometry of the oxides and hydrides. Today. of course, we use the table based on the quantum solution of the Schroedinger Eq.

Now, I went straight from high school to university, where I studied chemistry, and I always thought it odd that I learned three different models of atomic theory: the old Mendeleevian theory, and then two orbital models.

At the time, I put this down to a sort of academic need to know model of learning. From the student’s point of view, there is still much in the field that seems more like alchemy than modern science, and having to learn serial models of the atom is not so much different from having to pass through several layers of initiation to enter the fold.

That this could be a motivating factor for a number of global warming sceptics makes a lot of sense to me. But it also shows that the global warming culture—the nature of the sociological relations between the two camps—is in fact the opposite of the way that critics like to portray themselves.

The critics are fond of comparing themselves favourably to Galileo and Copernicus. They are changing the paradigm, or so the script goes, and that is why they’re locked out of the big university funding. That’s why their enemies belittle them. They’re the underdogs.

But if you judge them by their allies (the retired professors), you begin to see a different picture emerging. It’s the cranky geezers who haven’t kept up with their reading and are railing at the way their field has passed them by. They’re fighting for a scientific cause on the basis of their reputation alone.

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