Conspiracy theories

(Apologies to Planet KDE readers – this may well be irrelevant to you. But since most of my posts are KDE related and will remain so I haven’t seen any point in setting up a separate feed for the planet)

You may have heard about the cracking of the email system at a leading UK University and subsequent posting of excerpts on various climate science conspiracy theory websites as “proof” of a conspiracy among climate researchers to keep the alleged truth about climate (which is of course it’s all fine actually, there is no man-made climate change) a secret. I haven’t been that interested in it really, but finally got around to having a look.

I won’t go over everything in detail here, as there is already a nice concise rebuttal, but there are a few comments I can make as someone working in climate related science at an unrelated institute (my own comments, not in any way endorsed by my employers). For the record, I’m concerned with finding out about past (natural) climate events, not predicting the future.

A few things have been pulled out of the emails. One is the contempt that some of the scientists express for some of the better known climate conspiracy theorists. Really, this is not surprising. Have you ever had anyone publicly trash the quality of your work and accuse you of lying for personal gain without backing it up with any facts whatsoever? Would you perhaps say some unflattering things about them in private correspondence? A lot of the allegations that have been made are libelous, but have not been pursued because (a) scientists generally aren’t that much in to lawyers and (b) it would only give publicity to the malicious idiots making the comments in the first place.

The other thing is the alleged “tricks” referenced in some of the emails. The main one refers to the famous “hockey stick” plot of rising temperatures, in which an email referred to using a “trick” to prevent the divergence of data for recent years. Real Climate make some general comments about the use of “trick” which does, generally in science mean some clever way of dealing with an issue. I know I’ve said about some of my data, in an email, that “the trick is to average it over 1mm, then you can see the trend” (without the trick you have a mass of noise). The trick relating to the hockey stick graph is to use instrument data – you know, the stuff you actually measure to give you temperature readings. That graph makes use of instrument data, where we have it and scientifically inferred temperatures for older times for which we don’t have instrument data. The problem with the plot is that the inferred temperatures for recent years diverge from the instrument record, so obviously the method used there for inferring old temperatures is not perfect (this is widely acknowledged). You’ll note that the plot has big error bars on the old data.

Well, I could go on – but what’s the point? The climate issue seems to attract huge numbers of people who have great certainty that the body of scientific evidence is wrong or, actually, fabricated without reading any of it or producing their own research. But then, as the Daily Mail so eloquently put it (while simultaneously comparing scientists with the Nazis) we do have this unfortunate habit of “relying solely on empirical facts” – of course we should instead rely on enlightened conjecture. Damn those facts.

The thing with climate science is that it is hugely uncertain. It is unfortunate that politicians need to have things put to them in definite and certain terms – climate scientists as a whole have had to come to some slightly premature agreements about the danger that faces us, just to make people listen before it is (probably) too late. We know that gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere have a warming effect (it’s fairly basic physics and is to do with the radiation the earth emits which is particularly well absorbed and re-emitted by these gases) and we can even quantify that.

The uncertainties come in what happens next.

More greenhouse gas leads to warming which leads to ice melt which makes the planet’s surface darker which means that more of the sun’s energy is absorbed rather than being reflected which leads to more warming. However, more warming leads (in some places) to more plant growth which reduces carbon dioxide, although the plants themselves may absorb more of the sun’s heat. In other areas it leads to increased desertification which reflects more of the sun’s energy and cools us. It may lead to more clouds, which also reflect the sun’s energy. But then high temperatures cause more forest fires that release carbon dioxide. But the soot from burning also blocks heat from the sun. There are plenty more effects and counter effects like those. Then there are the oceans which have a huge role in regulating temperature everywhere, but which we understand ridiculously badly…

What we have at the moment is a hugely complex system we call earth that we don’t really understand at all but which, for a tiny part of its history, has been quite hospitable to us as a species. We’re changing it in ways that it hasn’t been changed for a long time. There have of course been past major climatic events as the conspiracy theorists love to point out – probably driven by natural events such as volcanic activity – but another inconvenient truth the conspiracy theorists tend not to mention is that these past warming events have generally been associated with mass species extinctions. We’re not sure how well the earth will be able to counteract the stuff we’ve been doing. Current best estimates suggest that we are quite capable of causing our own destruction in quite a big way, although you’ll see if you actually read the IPCC reports that they put a large margin of error on those estimates – even to the extent that we might all be more or less ok. It all depends on whether you think a 1 in 3 chance of not killing a few million people (perhaps more) counts as good odds. Even if you do, getting odds that far in our favour still require us to take some pretty serious action.

Skepticism is great – in the sense of requiring evidence before believing anything it is the very foundation of science. However, blind faith in far fetched conspiracy theories and a complete rejection of rational argument… well, it does get a little irritating.

Ok, rant over. Next post will be back to KDE, I promise 🙂

10 Responses to “Conspiracy theories”

  • mutlu says:

    Thank you for posting this, Stuart. I agree with you and hope that the instanity we are witnessing right now will lose its attractiveness rather sooner than later.

  • Stu says:

    I get a lot of spam here for Piano websites (no, really…) so have to approve everything manually. Therefore it might be a while before I approve any comments…

  • I’m glad you posted this too. Generally, I like us to keep Planet on KDE topic, but Free Software is one small way we can work towards reducing environmental damage, since it requires less economic activity (and therefore CO2) to produce and acquire than the proprietary alternatives, and is intrinsically recycleable. To me, as a green geek, working on FLOSS is something I can do to help save the comfortable, diverse ecosystem we enjoy.

  • Joe User says:

    I feel this is really inappropriate for Planet KDE.

  • tobami says:

    Thank you for this well-put post.

    The root of the problem lies with people (specially in the USA, but also elsewhere) not knowing what the scientific method is all about. They think that because a particular branch of science has uncertainties, or described laws that were later rebutted (physics and ether, for example), one is entitled to “doubt” their conclusions. They will believe what any charlatan has to say against climate science no matter if it is all lies, it only needs to sound “reasonable”. The “sceptics” industry often succeeds in making people believe there is debate among scientists. BIg news: debate is common and necessary in science, but there is also a wide consensus.

    Climate science has big uncertainties, but it is the best understanding we humans have about that matter. On another level (because you can prove things more often than in climate science), it is the same with physics or any other science. We may be deluding ourselves about relativity and quantum physics and the world is really resting on the back of a giant turtle. But is IS the best understanding we as a species have right now about the problem. So you better pay heed to it.

  • Stu says:

    I’m flogging an already dead horse, but this should probably have been the entirety of my post, since the guy there has actually taken a bit of time to go through things.