SciBlogs

Archive March 2012

Another lousy photo of the sun? Ken Perrott Mar 29

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As a photo of the sun this doesn’t look very impressive – until you realise it was taken using neutrinos!

And also that it was taken through the earth – when the sun was on the other side of the earth!

An exposure of 503 day was used and neutrinos detected using a 50 000-ton water pool located 1 km underground. Neutrinos have an extremely weak interaction with other matter. Most of them pass through the earth without interaction and the detection relies on Cherenkov radiation emitted during a rare interaction with an electron in the water.

Thanks to: The Sun seen through the Earth in ’neutrino light’

The Sand Creatures Ken Perrott Mar 28

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animaris gubernare – YouTube.

Just imagine coming across this at the beach. I can just see it meandering along at Waihi beach or the Mount.

It’s an example of a wind powered  Beach Animal constructed by the Dutch artist and kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen out of PVC pipe. Here’s a brief description of the artist and the construction of these Strandbeests – Sand creatures.

Beach creatures

These creatures almost seem alive. Something to think about. How much of what we think of a properties of life simply come from structure.

Reasonable truth? Ken Perrott Mar 25

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The Reason Rally in Washington DC over the weekend caused a bit of internet debate. A lot of it pretty silly – even hysterical. At times I wonder if dogmatic religionists are getting rattled. This rally was really all about the non-religious “coming out”, standing up, being counted and doing a bit of congressional lobbying in the side. Also there were great speakers and excellent entertainment. But it seems there are some people who wish the non-religious would STFU. Hide in fear.

Some militant Christian groups angrily claimed that these horrible atheists were acting as if they owned, or were capturing, even kidnapping,  the word “reason.” One group retaliated by cobbling together a selection of already published apologist articles entitled “True Reason.” Perhaps we should complain that they were claiming ownership of the word Truth!

Never mind. As Russell Blackford says about choice of words over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

“it’s silly and literal-minded – and sounds carping – to complain about this sort of thing. It’s like people who complain about book titles, which are of course chosen to be memorable and attractive, not to be accurate in a way that’s defensible to all people.”

Reminds me of the local theologian who painstakingly did  in-depth theological analyses of the local Atheist billboards. You know those with simple slogan like “Good Without God;” “In the Beginning Man Created God” and “We are all Atheists About Most Gods.” I suppose theology can be used to reach any desirable outcome, no matter how silly the starting material. And there are plenty of other billboards he could now use his theological skills on.

The philosophical issues

Putting aside the nice alliteration of the “Reason Rally” slogan the debate does raise the question of what we mean by words like “reason” and “truth.” These are questions that philosophers love to debate – but I often find some their discussions sterile. They seem divorced from reality. More interested in playing philosophical games related to definition than considering how things actually work out in practice.

The problem is some philosophers are happy to actually ignore reality, to be unconcerned with practice. Or perhaps this is really only true of philosophers of religion and theologians.

On the other hand scientists are far more concerned with reality and practice than with high faluting philosophic debates. I just wish those philosophers were more amenable to catching up with what science has discover about the process of human cognition. And the way that science approaches the question of knowledge. If for no other reason than science is well known to be incredibly successful in helping humanity to understand, and interact with, reality. Scientific knowledge is important.

Reason: Rationalising rather than rational

The scientific fact is that objective rational reasoning does not come easy to humans. We are in fact a rationalising species rather than a rational one. Reasoning involves emotional brain circuits as well as straightforward cognitive ones. Apparently people who have suffered damage to their emotional brain circuits find decision-making extremely difficult. Emotional influence of reasoning is inevitable. Whatever our ideology we are all tempted to, and usually guilty of, selecting evidence to support a dearly held belief rather than being objective.

I am not suggesting that we give up all hope of objective reasoning and throw the towel in. As individuals we can attempt to overcome emotional prejudices and preconceived ideas. Of course this works more successfully when we do this together with others, especially when a wide variety of opinions are present. And even better when we do this using empirical evidence

That is why scientists, who despite their inevitable preconceived ideas and emotional preferences, can still work to understand the world as it really is. They rely on evidence to formulate their hypotheses, and they test or validate them against reality, using empirical evidence. And they do this socially, under the sceptical interest of their colleagues and the inevitable harsh scrutiny of the findings and conclusions by their peers.

This objective testing and validation against reality is vital. Relying on other members of one’s peer groups alone can actually reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs rather than test them. We sometimes call this “group thinking.”

So no one owns “reason.” Neither does anyone own “rationalisation” or “confirmation bias.” We all do it. But some people are just better at reasoning objectively than are others. And it seems to me that the theologians and philosophers of religion whose articles are in the book “True Reason” may excel at the mental gymnastics and theological pretzel twisting required in their profession. But as they completely omit that important step of validating ideas against reality the “ownership” claim they make on reason is somewhat suspect. For example, at least one of the authors is well-known for his “reasoned” justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide! (And, no, I don’t think these are the only people who mistake their rationalisation for reason -  it’s a human problem).

Truth: relative knowledge vs unsupported conviction

Religions often act as if they have captured the sole ownership of “truth.” And not only any old truth but Truth with a capital T. So, I find it rather incongruous when these very same theologians and philosophers of religion rip into those horrible atheists, using philosophical arguments to “show” that their (the atheists) reasoning is incapable of finding truth. In the last week or so I have seen several blog posts and opinion pieces making the argument. Along the lines that one needs some epistemic criteria to judge  if the epistemic criteria you are using is producing the truth. This leaves one in a constant regression of different epistemic criteria or alternatively a circular argument using your favourite criteria. (See Defending Science: An Exchange, by Michael P. Lynch and Alan Sokal for contrasting views and How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology by Jerry Coyne for an insightful summary of that debate).

Stephen Law calls this philosophical sawing through the branch you are sitting on “Going Nuclear” (see Protecting yourself against bullshit). How can these people claim any access to truth for themselves when they deny its very possibility (for their discussion opponents)? Mixing metaphors, they think they have blown their ideological opponents out of the water, and then they realise that they themselves are sinking.

These people are caught on the own petard. They have a basic problem:

  1. On the one had they decline to use empirical knowledge, testing and validating against reality, to supplement their reasoning.
  2. Secondly they insist on “absolute truth” requiring a proof by deductive logic. They ignore the fact that we gain real knowledge by accepting something less than absolute.

But what about scientific knowledge? Isn’t that considered “truth?” And how does science justify this knowledge?

Scientists rarely talk about “truth,” more about knowledge. (Yes I know that sometimes words like “true” and “fact” may be used in book titles and newspaper articles – but here they are using the colloquially accepted language). And they never consider their knowledge absolute, complete. In a sense, scientific knowledge is always relative.  And as scientific knowledge is really the best knowledge we have I should think that we should see all knowledge as relative. Open to improvement, revision, or even outright replacement, as new information comes in.

“Other ways of knowing?”

OK, the militant theist may not think this is good enough – they claim that surely it would not be that hard to aim higher.” Strangely, of course, they never explain how they can get a more accurate form of knowledge. As Jerry Coyne says (see Stymied, Michael Ruse criticizes me for liking boots and cats) – when these theologians talk about “other ways of knowing” they really mean “other ways of making it up!”

We can understand that scientific knowledge, despite its relative and temporary nature, is generally accepted as the most reliable for of knowledge. And scientific method as they most effective way of understanding reality. The relative nature of scientific knowledge is one reason it is so effective. It is just silly to claim you have a higher or absolute form of knowledge by claiming it is somehow “revealed”, or “sacred”  and never allowing it to be tested against reality.

Why should we be so concerned with absolutes anyway? What do we need our knowledge for? To improve our lives, to solve problems we face, etc. So its understandable that in a sense we “get by” with our relative, incomplete, knowledge – we effectively have an “instrumentalist” approach. If it works – we use it and don’t worry too much about the complete reality behind it. And in this sense we break out of the epistemic circular and regressive  bind by adopting the great epistemic approach - “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

We shouldn’t separate our knowledge from the process of obtaining it, or from the reality we interact with. The very process of adopting an almost instrumentalist approach, of using our incomplete, relative knowledge in practice, leads to our becoming more aware of its incompleteness, of our need to review and improve our knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is really just an imperfect reflection of reality. But a constantly improving reflection.

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A fuzzy photo of the sun Ken Perrott Mar 22

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But a great one, when you realise who took it and from where.

It’s actually a shot of the transit of Mars’s moon Deimos, (the smallest and outermost one) across the face of the sun. Photographed from the surface of Mars by the rover, Opportunity, on March 4, 2004.

Deimos – photographed by he Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

 

Deimos is only about 12.4 km in diameter – pretty small. So it’s an amazing photo – especially when you realise that the rovers weren’t actually designed for this sort of thing.

And here’s an artist reconstruction of the rover Opportunity on Mars.

Artist’s reconstruction of Rover on Mars. Credit: Wikipedia

Thanks to An Astronomical Photo-Op – Brad BlogSpeed.

The ’public square’ myth Ken Perrott Mar 21

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Here’s a graphic I used in a recent presentation on “Accepting Pluralism in a Secular Society.” (Presented at the Recent Interfaith Forum, Hamilton). It shows data* which sort of demolishes the “public square” myth argued by militant Christians. This is the claim that Christians are somehow being denied their rights to take part in public debate. It comes up when there is an expansion of the human rights of everyone – these militant interpret it as a loss of rights for them. When usually it amounts to a loss of privilege – like their privilege to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality or religion.

Often this sort of whining comes from evangelical Christians – which makes this data all the more ironic – it’s data collected by UK evangelical Christians! And it shows that evangelical Christians are actually more likely to take part in the “public square” than are  other members of the general public. They are twice as likely to write letters to a newspaper and five times as likely to lobby or demonstrate.

So why the concern? Why the newspaper articles and academic papers** implying some sort of restriction to Christian participation in the “public square?” Why all that whining we have seen in the UK lately about militant and “aggressive” secularism trying to eliminate religion from public life?

Loss of privilege?

Well – look at the details and you begin to see what motivates this. The Bideford Town Council has been ordered not to include Christian prayers in the official business of its meetings. (See Defeat for imposed prayer and Privileged whinging?) The Whanganui District Council here voluntarily took the same action (see Whanganui District Council comes to senses). Note that no-ones’ right to religious observance has been denied – just their privilege of imposing it on others. (In both cases the alternative of those so-inclined praying before the meeting was offered).

The truth is there are no unreasonable restrictions limiting Christian access to the public square. Where some restrictions seem to exist (eg. harassment of co-workers on the job, wearing religious symbols where there are uniform rules, etc.) these apply to everyone – all religions and none. The public whining about those issues, and attempts to get religious exemptions, are just another example of demanding special privileges.

Mind you, I can understand that there may well be “perceived’ restrictions. This comment from Linda Woodhead, in her article Restoring religion to the public square, illustrates this. She describes “Being jeered by a lecture room full of academics” when commenting “after a lecture delivered by a notable and brilliant feminist scholar. “ She doesn’t detail her comment, only that it had something to do with explaining feminism’s global influence as due to religion.

“Restriction” self-imposed and tactical

This reminds me of the reaction of audiences in the old days when a certain dogmatic Maoist used to get up and lecture everyone during question time at political meetings. I can imagine his comrades trying to reign him in. Telling him to use language that was mere acceptable. And not to rely on dogmatic arguments which only his comrades accepted.

I can also imagine Linda’s brothers and sisters in her church telling her to try to use more secular language and to stop promoting arguments about region being responsible for everything, Christian Chauvinism, even though they all agreed that it was so. It’s a matter of communication.

In other words one should be tactical, recognise where the audience is at, when one attempts to communicate a message. But of course the dogmatists, whether they are Maoists or Christians, will see this as cowardice. That they have a moral and ideological responsibility to impose the stories and language they love on the listener – whatever their own beliefs.

It’s an old issue in political and ideological communication. But such a tactical issue is not a “restriction” on Christian participation in the public square. To see it that way is perverse. It is demanding the privilege that everyone else must accept the same stories, same language. Everyone else must think they way the Christian or Maoist prosletyser does.

They don’t – and they won’t. But in a democracy the Christians have the right to present their arguments. If they are able to use a language and stories that do not turn off their audience they will be successful If they insist on dogmatically assuming everyone will accept their own sectarian language and stories, and if they don’t they should, then so be it.

They won’t get their message across and they well be laughed at or even jeered.  But participation in the public square is a two-way street. The audience has the right to disagree, to object, to jeer or even ridicule. To demand that they don’t is not only demanding an unreasonable privilege for yourself. It’s restricting the rights of others to take part in the public square.

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*Data thanks to Christians active in the public square: survey – an article on The New Zealand Christian Network  -  which, ironically, actively campaigns against secularism.

** Religion in the “public square” does seem to get a lot of unwarranted attention from academic theologians and philosophers of religion.

Yes, please try this at home! Ken Perrott Mar 19

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It’s amazing the confusion that accompanies climate change questions. That’s partly because it is a complex subject. So it’s not surprising that people can make glaring mistakes.

Here’s one, though, that’s easy to get your head around by a simple experiment you can do at home. It relates to the question of melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. David Attenborough covered this in the last episode of “The Frozen Planet” screened here recently. His point – that global warming could cause loss of this land ice into the sea leading to dramatic increases in sea level.

Of course, this gets denied by the climate change deniers.  I came across one recently who suggested an experiment to prove Attenborough wrong:

” I can only suggest that every one do the following experiment. Take one half glass of water. Add two or three ice cubes. On the outside of the glass mark the level of the water. Leave for a few hours until the ice has melted entirely. Note the water level compared with the mark.”

Well, yes. Think about it – look at the image. Melting those ice cubes is not going to make much difference to the water level is it? Most of their volume is already under water and there already contributing to the water level.

This is why melting of floating icebergs due to global warming will have a relatively small effect.

But that’s not what Attenborough was talking about.

His comments related to movement of ice from the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica into the sea. Partly from melting. But also from sliding of the ice sheet in Greenland as the water melt lubricates the ice/rock junction. And in Antarctica the fear is that warmer sea temperatures will diminish the effect of pack ice restraining glacier ice from moving into the sea. In both cases the problem arises from addition of land ice to the sea.

So here’s the proper experiment:

Take one half glass of water. On the outside of the glass mark the level of the water. Now add your three ice cubes. Leave for a few hours until the ice has melted entirely. Note the water level compared with the mark.”

Or even quicker.

Note the water level immediately after addition of the ice cubes!

Think about it! Try it at home.


Footnote: Much of the research on mechanisms of movement of these land ice sheets into the sea is relatively new. many of the current findings were jsut not available during preparation of the 1987 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.  Consequently the concern is that the effects of climate warming may be greater than estimated by that review.

Cascading books Ken Perrott Mar 18

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Credit: http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/alicia-martin-biografias

This is the sort of public art installation I love. Years ago I spent a day in Hanover waiting for a train. The public art installations there impressed me. One that seemed to gather the largest audience was a simple bail of rubbish. People spent time just wandering around identifying the rubbish items in the bale.

I can see myself doing the same thing here – wandering around identifying the books. A bit like window-shopping in a bookshop – or wine store.

There are more photos of this installation at 5,000 Books Pour Out of a Building in Spain. Also some of the story behind it and the artist Alicia Martin and a video showing more detail (see below). The book pages even blow open in the wind!

Alicia Martin Biografias

Thanks to Adrienne Rewi (@AdrienneRewi).

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Beyond Religion Ken Perrott Mar 15

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I usually don’t recommend books written by religious leaders – but this is an exception: Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the title is a give-away – the book acknowledges that religion cannot solve the problems of the modern world. We must go beyond religion.

Personally I find the authors justification for this position rather weak. He argues that in today’s global world no one religion can speak for everyone. Hence we must go beyond – especially as religions themselves cannot provide a common ground. However, even in non-pluralist societies where specific religions had overwhelming dominance they were still incapable of offering real solutions to people’s problems. That is because of the epistemological problem inherent in religion -  its inability to understand the real world.

Clear and simple

So the Dalai Lama argues for a secular approach. Here I find his writing valuable. He dismisses the arguments of religious militants who see secularism as the enemy of religion. Who actually fight against secularism. The Dalai Lama presents the correct understanding of secularism as an inclusive social arrangement, and not an atheist ideology. Because it is inclusive it provides a guarantee of human rights to all, irrespective of religion and belief. It provides the only real platform enabling us to solve today’s problems.

The beauty of this book is the simplicity and clearness of the author’s language. There’s none of the theological mental gymnastics and pretzel twisting we have come to expect from religious leaders. I found myself, as an unrepentant atheist, nodding my head at his clear description of secularism. I am sure that we would disagree over specific minor details, but I would be happy to use this text as a description of, and argument for, secularism in today’s pluralist world. And I think that many religious people would too.

The clarity and simplicity of the author’s arguments are also characteristic of his description of ethics for the modern world. A secular ethics. Here I use the word “simplicity” positively – I am aware that the Dalai Lama has a detailed understanding of modern scientific understanding of emotions, morality and cognitive neuroscience. But the beauty of his writing is that he explains it all so simply and clearly.

So I heartedly recommend this relatively short book (130 pages in my electronic version) as a clear, easily approached, overview of secularism and secular ethics. And of their importance in today’s world.

Mediation – if you are interested

But there is an extra which many readers will appreciate. The Dalai Lama also communicates some of the thinking behind Tibetan Buddhist psychology. In particular he argues the case for attention to thinking and mood. Even for this to be part of education systems for children. He provides an overview of a number of approaches to meditation as part of this attention.

Perhaps the section on meditation is not for every reader. If you aren’t into meditation you will still find his description of secularism and secular ethics valuable. If you are into, or considering, meditation you will probably also get something out of that section of the book.

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’Good faith’ science — and its enemies Ken Perrott Mar 12

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Book review: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines by Michael E. Mann

Price: US$18.22; Kindle US$9.99; NZ$33.34
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (March 6, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 023115254X
ISBN-13: 978-0231152549

Most readers have watched nature programmes hosted by David Attenborough. So you are familiar with scenes where predators will work together to target a single animal in a herd. If they can isolate it they will usually make a kill. If not they will go hungry.

You have seen it with Arctic wolves attacking oxen and African lions attacking zebras. Over recent years we have also seen it with politicians attacking climate scientists.

Michael Mann calls this the “Serengeti strategy:”

It “is a tried-and-true tactic of the climate change denial campaign. The climate change deniers isolate individual scientists just as predators on the Serengeti Plain of Africa hunt their prey: picking off vulnerable individuals from the rest of the herd.”

Mann is an authority on this phenomena – he has seen it from the inside, as a victim, for over a decade. Now he has written up his experiences, and the lessons drawn from them, in this new book appropriately called “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.”

The “Hockey Stick”

In a sense Mann was a inadvertent victim of the climate denier campaign. His work had more to do with natural climate variation than human caused effects. As he puts it: “I felt that natural climate variability might be more important than some scientists thought. Indeed, it was that very assumption that motivated my Ph.D. research topic.” But in the process of researching the history of past climate changes, earth’s paleoclimate, he produced an “icon” of the climate change wars – the “Hockey Stick.” This research was included in the 2001 IPCC Report – and the “Hockey Stick” image, a record of the global and hemispheric temperature record over the last  600 years (in its original form), made it into the Summary for policy makers.

The personalisation of attacks on Mann over the “Hockey Stick” was also misplaced because he was not making any claim about human causes of global warming:

” I was always very careful not to claim that our work could firmly establish a human role in the warming. To draw such a conclusion based on our work alone would necessarily buy into the classic logical fallacy of ’correlation without causation.’ We had established correlation–the anomalous warming that we documented coincided with the human-caused ramp-up in greenhouse gas concentrations–but we hadn’t established causality.”

Mann’s record was based on proxy measurements (estimations of temperature from tree rings, ice cores, etc.), as well as, for more recent times, instrumental measurements. It did show changes attributable to natural events – which you would think would make the deniers happy. But it also showed very graphically, the global warming that has occurred over the last half century. This appeared to be quite anomalous over the last 1000 years. In fact, it was most likely to be greater than that which had occurred during the so-called “Medieval Warm Period.” The deniers could not forgive Mann for that finding – they had worked hard to convey the impression that global temperatures were actually higher then than they are today. (To some extent deniers have relied on regional temperature estimates – Mann’s estimate are for hemispherical and global temperatures). The iconic “Hockey Stick” threatened the climate denier’s icon – The Medieval Warm Period!

The McKittrick/McIntyre attack

The book describes controversy around The Hockey Stick – some of it based on genuine science, some derived from contrarian and denier attacks often financed by the fossil fuel industry.

One attack, much quoted by climate change deniers and contrarians, is that of  right-wing economist Ross McKittrick and Stephen McIntyre (a self described “semi-retired minerals consultant” with close ties to the energy industry). Published in a then controversial journal Energy and Environment it claimed Mann  had made fundamental mistakes in his statistical procedures. Their own analysis could not reproduce the “blade” of the hockey stick – that is no recent warming could be found in the data.

As Mann explained, this was a result of their own faulty analysis and their mistake was pointed out in subsequent published and refereed replies. Inevitably Mann’s description of the statistical analysis is technical and may be beyond some readers. But he has worked hard to make his description understandable and it is worth persisting because so much undeserved credit has been placed on McKintrick and MacIntyre’s paper. The scientific rejection of their work has of course not stopped the deniers who till this day claim that the M&M paper had discredited The Hockey Stick.

This work was used to denounce Mann’s work in the US House of Representatives. Republic Joe Barton, then head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, launched a specific investigation of Mann’s work. (Joe Barton became well known five years later for his infamous apology to British petroleum over the fact that the Obama administration was holding it accountable for the oils spill the the Gulf of Mexico).

 Mann describes the political manoeuvring that went on around this House investigation. Particularly useful is his description of the Wegman report, set up by Barton to vindicate the work of McKintrick and McIntyre. It is constantly quoted by climate change contrarians – despite the fact that this report, and other work by Wegman and his students, has been criticised for plagiarism.

However Barton got a lot of political flack for his anti-science manoeuvring and Sherwood Boehlert, Republican chair of the Science Committee, commissioned the US National Academy of science to review the science behind the Hockey Stick. Their authoritative report Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years largely vindicated Mann. Of course, have a read of climate denial books like Ian Wishart’s Air Con and you will find no mention of National Academy Report – only the Wegman’s report is used to perpetuate the lie that Man’s work was found  faulty (see my review of Wishart’s book - Alarmist con).

And, as Mann points out his work has been validated by over a dozen other independent reconstructions of the paleoclimate temperature record.

I have previously discussed the way climate change deniers have lied about the Hockey Stick in Climate change deniers’ tawdry manipulation of ’hockey sticks’.

“Climategate” emails

Several times in this book Mann outlines the scientific approach to understanding reality. He uses the term “good faith science” – I think it is rather descriptive in this situation. Scientists welcome good faith criticism – doubt and scepticism are central to the scientific process. But the “scepticism” and attacks on climate science by vested interests and contrarians is quite different. It is not a “good faith” criticism. It is motivated, distorted, cherry picked and very often dishonest criticism. The so-called “climategate scandal” typifies this approach. Stolen emails between climate scientists were cherry picked  in an attempt to discredit the science.

The climate denier frenzy, and the investigations which cleared the scientists involved of any wrong-doing are now history. But scientists in general were rather taken aback by all this. They started to pay attention to these and other anti-science campaigns and debated the need to be proactive in communicating their science and combating the distortions and attacks.

Cuccinelli witchhunt

I think the recent legal attempts by Virginia Attorney General, Kenneth Cuccinelli, to get correspondence and emails relating to Mann and his research are one of the worst acts of the climate denial movement. Because it smacks of McCarthyism. Cuccinelli was on a “fishing trip” – which required him to assert that Mann was guilty of fraud – without any evidence.  Like the McCarthy persecution this sort of mud sticks and its aim was obviously to intimidate scientists.

After a prolonged legal battle the Virginia Supreme Court has now ruled that Mann’s documents cannot be subpoenaed by Cuccinelli (see The chickens are hatching). But his attempted precipitated action from scientific bodies in  defence of Mann and other scientists victimised by such persecution.

A positive conclusion

This book concentrates on Mann’s story. His research and the resulting attacks and persecution by the climate change denial political machine. It has valuable information debunking the denier mythology created around the “Hockey Stick.” There are also interesting background details clarify things like the strange position taken by the Institute of Physics at the UK parliamentary investigation of the climategate email issue (see Institute of Physics in hot seat).

But don’t expect new information on the funding of the climate denial network and links with the fossil fuel industry and politicians. Mann relies on the excellent  research of others here – and references the books Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels and Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway.
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Apart from the valuable background history the book provides I think its main value is the positive spin it provides, particularly in the final chapters. These discuss the reaction of climate scientists, and scientists in general, to the attacks on the science and the profession. The final straw appears to have come with the McCarthyist political attacks on Mann and other climate scientists. As Mann describes it – the bear has awoken. Scientists are finally recognising they cannot continue to ignore these attacks,. They are starting to fight back.

“The attacks against climate scientists by politicians like Senator James Inhofe and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli were now being identified by prominent media outlets for the witch hunts they were. . . . I believe that the climategate attacks represented a turning point for my fellow climate scientist colleagues and how they viewed their role in the public debate. These latest attacks will fade from memory, and new ones will undoubtedly be launched to take their place. But I suspect that the change in heart among climate scientists regarding their role in the debate will be enduring.”

The book is also a good read. For anyone interested in the subject, with a bit of background knowledge, Mann’s reiteration of the public events, together with his knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, makes the book a real page turner.

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Climate change controversy in context Ken Perrott Mar 08

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I came across this interesting article in Physics Today – Science controversies past and present. Interesting because it puts in context the current public controversy over the science of climate change.

The author, Steve Sherwood, compares this current controversy with  earlier controversies about scientific ideas. Specifically the Copernican theory of heliocentricism and Einstein’s relativity theories. He presents an interesting graphic comparing the controversies for the time taken to get scientific consensus with that for public consensus (click to enlarge).

Timelines for heliocentricism, relativity, and greenhouse warming, aligned by their dates of introduction. Coloured bars indicate the estimated times to consensus among experts and the public. Lightning symbols denote organized opposition from contrarian, religious, or political groups. The sequence of events is similar in all three cases except that relativity attained consensus more rapidly, especially among the public; it had emerged essentially fully formed, whereas the other two underwent refinements for many decades (Source Physics Today – http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v64/i10/p39_s1?bypassSSO=1#f3).

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the current kerfuffle. Sherwood points out that “the progression of the global warming idea so far has been quite similar to that of Copernicanism.” But:

“As the evidence sinks in, we can expect a continued, if slow, drift to full acceptance. It took both Copernicanism and greenhouse warming roughly a century to go from initial proposal to broad acceptance by the relevant scientific communities. It remains to be seen how long it will take greenhouse warming to achieve a clear public consensus; one hopes it will not take another century.”

Psychological resistance to new ideas

And this sort of scenario is probably inevitable with ideas that break down existing ways of thinking. “That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.”

“It is jarring to ponder the scene of a colleague from the 17th century refusing to look into a telescope–a level of aversion to inconvenient facts, admittedly not common, that seems incredible. Yet modern counterparts can perhaps be found in those who vilify the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change without apparently ever having examined its reports, or who repeat claims–such as global warming having stopped in 1998–that can be trivially falsified by looking at the data. “

Sherwood thinks that perhaps we should take this lesson from history and not be so surprised when there is an anti-science backlash.

“A first step toward better public communication of science, and the reason we need it, may lie in recognizing why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge. “

Do we have time to procrastinate?

Maybe so. But I think the concern this time also derives from the possible consequences of global warming. Consequences that threaten the lives and property of many people throughout the world.  Consequences which can be largely averted if humanity has the political will to act now.

As Sherwood puts it:

“history tells us that in the end, science will probably come out fine. Whether the planet will is another matter.”

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