Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bad Analogy Theater: Global warming edition

One of the most reliable tropes for the global warming denialist crowd is the notion that belief in climate change is a kind of religion. Michael Barone recently provided a particularly piquant example of the genre:

Events have failed to fulfill the prophecy. Preachers have suddenly been struck dumb by uncertainty. Believers are understandably nervous and some, under their breath, are abandoning the dogma. 
These sentences could have been written at the end of the day on October 22, 1844, about the Millerites, a religious sect started in upstate New York. Preachers had told their followers that Jesus would return to earth that day. He failed to show. 
But the subject here is not Millerism, but another kind of religious faith: the faith of the global-warming alarmists.

Temperature data is noisy. Pauses or dips
lasting decades can occur in the context
of an overall upward trend. 
Barone goes on to quote a Wall Street Journal column by science writer Matt Ridley, in which Ridley makes much of a recent “pause” in surface temperature increases, as detailed in the latest International Panel on Climate Change report. Though the pause is real, Ridley’s inferences are just plain wrong. But his word is gospel for Barone, who argues glibly that global warming activists’ concerns are exaggerated and that their beliefs represent a form of cult thinking:

The religious analogy is appropriate because belief in global warming has taken on the trappings of traditional religion. Alarmists like to say the science is settled — which is nonsense, since science is a series of theories that can be tested by observations.
When Einstein presented his theory of relativity, he showed how it could be tested during astronomical events in the next decade. The theory passed. Saying the science is settled is like demanding what religions demand — that you have faith.
Religion has ritual. Global-warming alarmism has recycling and Earth Day celebrations. Some religions persecute heretics. Some global-warming alarmists identify “denialists” and liken them to Holocaust deniers. Religions build grand places of worship. Global-warming alarmists promote the construction of windmills and solar farms that uneconomically produce intermittent electricity. Global-warming alarmism even has indulgences like the ones Martin Luther protested. You can buy carbon offsets to gain forgiveness for travel on carbon-emitting private jet aircraft.

Let’s take this point by point.

“The science is settled”: You know what? A lot of the science is settled. The greenhouse effect has been understood for more than 100 years. Climate modeling is good and its predictions are proving accurate. Measurements are getting better. There’s a reason the IPCC’s confidence in anthropogenic warming has risen to 95 percent.  

Moreover, the IPCC is handling the surface temperature "pause" in exactly the scientific manner for which Barone lauds Einstein. Climate scientists aren’t running away from the data; rather, they are revising their theories in light of it. Keep in mind, surface temperatures are just one data set of many; there’s also atmospheric warming, ocean warming and so on. It looks as though a lot of the “missing” heat may be getting absorbed by the Earth’s oceans; read this Economist blog post for the details.

It’s not the scientists who are unscientifically fitting cherry-picked data to their preconceptions. That would be Barone and his ilk.

Comparing warming denialists to Holocaust deniers: Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things explores the intellectual bad habits required to take creationism or Holocaust revisionism seriously. They’re pretty much the same ones required to tune out climate scientists. And given that far more than 6 million lives (the standard Holocaust death tally) are at risk from future warming-induced floods, droughts and hurricanes, I’d say the analogy isn’t the most far-fetched ever proffered. Want a really insulting and inapt analogy? Compare climate scientists to Millerites.

Building solar farms, carbon offsets, and so on: According to Barone’s way of thinking, a farmer who builds a dike to guard against floods is just the same as one who knocks on wood, or builds a small shrine, or sacrifices a goat. Um, no, practical responses to real threats are rational. The responses may be inadequate – I agree solar farms aren’t ready for prime time, and solar offsets seem more feel-good than anything else – but surely that implies we should redouble our efforts, not call them off.

The strangest thing about Barone’s column is that he concedes game, set and match to the climate scientists halfway through:

Ridley admits that the change is small. And he does not deny that increased carbon emissions could increase global temperatures by some significant amount. They would certainly do so if carbon emissions were the only thing affecting climate.

Talk about your straw men! No one believes carbon emissions are the only thing affecting climate. No one. And just the lowball amount of warming that Ridley "does not deny" might occur would have massively damaging effects

Which means Barone’s column basically amounts to, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, climate scientists are just like God-addled cultists,* and we shouldn’t listen to them, even though I don’t have a good criticism of them, and I admit they’re basically right.” 

Sadly, for a lot of people that will count as a watertight display of logic.

*Which reminds me, aren’t conservatives supposed to approve of religious enthusiasm? Aren’t they always bemoaning secularism, and exhorting us to heed religion when it comes to marriage and abortion and social issues? Yet Barone seems to think the Millerites were quite … misguided. Curious, that. 

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