Thinking about things
When I was an undergraduate I was not excitedly exploring the life of the mind. Far from it. I was studying in order to become a high-school teacher, like my parents. I was doing the subjects that would equip me in time to become a subject master, and I did whatever my teachers required me to do. It was not until my honours year (and I was lucky to get into it) that I began seriously to ask questions about life, nature and the rest. My History teachers had equipped me for such work: I was always to go to the original source, and question it. How valid are you, the source, anyway? Who says so, and how do they know, and so on? Before long I was a doctoral student, and these approaches were part-and-parcel of my intellectual life. I was creating new data, to some degree, and my work had to be as good as I could make it. Postdoctoral work, especially in the USA, intensified that priority. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ I first heard in 1965, in Ann Arbor. Thereafter that was the way I tried to approach all issues in thought.
Perhaps that style of work brought me to the attention of elders and betters in other areas. By the time I was forty I was being asked to do things for which I had little prior experience, and each new task filled out my knowledge base, and seemed to intensify my way of doing things. In the middle 1980s I was a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, the Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee, the Chairman of the Board of the ANU’s Institute for Advanced Studies, and involved in a number of other activities that spun off, as it were, from these responsibilities. All of them led me into new fields of inquiry, and that was exciting, because I kept on learning.
The point of the work was advice, to the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Vice-Chancellor. I soon learned that whatever I was doing, and whatever the advice we were putting forward, these were only one or two of the sources of work and advice coming to the boss. That led to another discovery — our country and our university seemed to run on committees. I was always on several, it seemed, and their advice merged into other sources of advice and ultimately to a decision, or sometimes a decision not to make a decision. One of my Ministers once said that to me, more or less as a piece of friendly advice: ‘Don’t make a decision you don’t have to make,’ and its brother, which was not to make a decision today if you could leave it till tomorrow. Who knew what might happen in the next twenty-four hours?
And all the above now merges into a short thought-piece about ‘climate change’, among other things about the ways in which organisations, especially scientific ones, have felt the need to have a position on it. The number that do so grew from none to a lot once governments started pumping money into the issue of how to deal with the twin scares of increasing global gas emissions and the change to climate thought to be resulting from the increase (always a negative effect, in this case). I know of no case where the entire fellowship of any learned body was asked to express its view. If there is one case, then someone will tell me. Very often, as in the case of the Australian Academy, a small panel was asked to write the position paper, and the panel seemed to consist only of those of the alarmist persuasion, or, if that is too strong (because there was one sceptic, if I recall it properly, who had a lot of trouble with the procedure), not to be balanced by the inclusion of an appropriate number of well-known sceptics. ‘We’ll look bad if don’t follow their [the Academy’s] example!’ was a cry voiced in another Australian scientific body, according to one of its sceptical fellows, who told me what had happened in his outfit.
Well, the Geological Society of London is having a turn about all this. A year ago, 33 Fellows of the Royal Society wrote in protest to their President about the tone of the Royal’s comments on ‘climate change’, which they saw as lacking in rigour. That protest was followed by a comparable number of Fellows of the GSL agreeing to write to their own President in similar vein. Why it has taken so long to reach agreement among the dissentients I do not know, and what follows comes from some email exchange that I have been able to read. To begin, one critical Fellow quotes two small parts of the official position, as follows:
‘the only plausible explanation for the rate and extent of temperature increase since 1900 is the exponential rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution’ and ‘this temperature decline sharply reversed since about 1900 without any corresponding change in insolation. The scientific community can find no plausible explanation for the rate and extent of this reversal in the second half of the 20thcentury, other than the increasing rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases that began slowly with the Industrial Revolution.’
The repeated phrase ‘no plausible explanation’, he says, is absolute rubbish. Because ‘no plausible explanation’ has been voiced again and again by alarmists (on this website, as well), I was interested in his rebuttal. (I’ve done a little textual editing, above and below.)
‘There are numerous potential reasons explaining the rise at the end of the 20th century:
2. The Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation
3. The reduction in cooling pollutants like SO2
4. False instrumentation warming
5. Blatant fraud (as shown by NASA’s changing of the 1970s cooling into what is now alleged to be warming).
Indeed, if we look at the best proxy for long-term climate-change — the Central England Temperature record — we see that the end of the 20th century is very far from unusual with several periods of similar scale change, and the 1690-1730 change being far, far bigger in scale. So, we KNOW that natural variation is more than enough to explain the temperature variation seen in the 20th century.
There is no problem finding very plausible alternatives to CO2 to explain the 20th century record. The problem is that they [the alarmists] just point blank deny them.’
There was a lot more than this, and perhaps the scathing tone of the text might help explain why it has taken a year to get the dissentients to this point. But I share some of the feeling in the letter. That at the moment there is not, according to someone, a plausible counter hypothesis to the CO2 as the villain (if villainy indeed is what we are talking about), does not mean that we are forced to accept that it is the villain, especially when there are so many weaknesses in the CO2 hypothesis.
Indeed, though it is easy enough to find examples of his ‘potential reasons’, that is not really the writer’s job. Those who say that there is no plausible explanations other than CO2 need to show that they have explored these alternatives thoroughly, and when they do they come up with a blank each time. Take solar, for example. The normal account from the IPCC and its supporters is that the change in TSI (Total Solar Irradiance, a measure of solar power over all wavelengths) is too small to have had any effect, and this is by and large correct, according to the data. But there are other possible forces, and they are referred to in peer-reviewed publications (see here for example). There is solar wind, cosmic ray ionisation (cloud formation), UV ozone, and others. These factors need the same kind of attention and funding that CO2 and methane have received before one can say that they are of no consequence.
This sort of cop-out is one of the fundamental weaknesses in the IPCC position, which starts with a finding and does its best to support that finding, rather than look at the importance of greenhouse gas emissions in the context of the natural variation in our weather and climate. It’s not the way I was brought up to think.
Oh well, another day, another vexing issue…