On Peer Review, Polar Bears, and Ad Hominem
Climate Change Weekly #270
A recent paper in Bioscience concerning the effects of climate change on polar bears—or more accurately, concerning why more people don’t fear human greenhouse gas emissions are having a deadly impact on polar bears—exposes how weak the peer review system for science journals is today with regards to alarming climate claims. Noted climate scientist Judith Curry tweeted, “This is absolutely the stupidest paper I have ever seen published.” I couldn’t agree more. It never should have been published in a legitimate peer-reviewed journal.
Science is supposed to proceed from theory or hypothesis to testing. Real-world data either disconfirm or lend credence to the theory. This paper skips both steps. It presents no theory, but rather vaguely suggests humans are causing dangerous climate change and that said change will likely harm polar bears, Then it presents no evidence to back either claim.
This paper is supposed to address the “dangerous gap between facts (emphasis mine) on climate change and opinion.” The main problem is the paper presents a lot of opinion and few actual facts—the authors hoist themselves on their own petard. For a paper purportedly about polar bears, amazingly it provides no actual data concerning polar bear populations or population trends. But who needs numbers—this is an exercise in sophistry, not science. How the peer reviewers missed this fact is amazing.
Instead of presenting data, the paper commits numerous logical fallacies any first-year philosophy student would catch. The majority of the paper attacks polar bear researcher Susan Crockford, Ph.D. When the authors aren’t simply lying about Crockford’s qualifications, research, and publications, they are calling her names, attacking her character, and implying her research is funded by disreputable people.
Let’s take each of these errors in turn:
Concerning Crockford’s qualifications and research, the authors state, “… Crockford has neither conducted any original research nor published any articles in the peer-reviewed literature on polar bears.” These claims are simply false. Crockford has a Ph.D. in zoology. Her dissertation addressed polar bear evolution. As an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, she has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and books on Arctic trends and polar bears, and her work has been cited by other polar bear researchers in peer-reviewed journals (including Bioscience itself —how did the journal miss this?). Crockford also runs a website called “Polar Bear Science,” aimed at educating the general public concerning the lives of polar bears, their habitat, their habits, and their nutritional needs. The website provides data on the populations and population trends of polar bears as a species and on specific subpopulations. While Crockford admits she has done no original on-the-ground research, her surveys of the literature all reference hard data on polar bear numbers. None of the numbers she cites on polar bear populations has ever been refuted in peer-reviewed literature, nor were they even addressed in the Bioscience paper. To do so would have meant admitting Crockford uses hard data and required the Bioscience authors either to show her numbers were wrong or provide alternate polar bear population estimates.
Whatever failings Crockford may have as a researcher, her qualifications and research methods—including providing data publicly available for outside analysis, comparison, testing, and confirmation or disconfirmation—are not among them. This is something that cannot be said for some of the authors of the Bioscience paper, who have withheld their data from colleagues for outside testing and have gone to court to continue doing so. Concerning qualifications, one of the authors involved works for an advocacy group; another, as far as I can determine, works in software quality assurance; a third works in the field of experimental psychology; and a couple are atmospheric physicists or chemists. I’d be interested to know what great contributions these authors have made to the field of polar bear research. What original research on polar bear biology or populations have they undertaken or published in the peer-reviewed literature before their names were attached to this Bioscience screed?
At the beginning of the paper, the authors commit the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority and the Fallacy of Appeal to Numbers or Argumentum Ad Populum, to back their assertion humans are causing dangerous climate change that could harmfully impact the Arctic and, by extension, polar bear populations. “Increasing surface temperatures, Arctic sea-ice loss, and other evidence of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are acknowledged by every major scientific organization in the world,” then they go on to reference “… a broad scientific consensus. ...” Evidence and proof are the hallmarks of science, and if one is going to claim humans are harming polar bears it behooves one to provide evidence as opposed to saying, “X, Y, Z, and others are experts on climate and they say humans are harming polar bears – so you should believe it when we tell you they are in danger and other people are lying about it.”
In their attack on Crockford and various climate blogs, the authors also commit the gross Fallacy of Ad Hominem, attacking the character of Crockford and the authors of the other climate blogs as opposed to their arguments. This fallacy is common enough, though still to be disparaged, in the political realm, but it is something rarely found in science outside of the field of climate science, where it has become all too common. The authors use the term “denier,” “science denier,” “climate change denier,” and “AGW-denier” interchangeably to disparage the blogs and researchers they are attacking, without defining what they mean by the terms. The idea is evidently to tar the researchers with whom they disagree with the same kind of opprobrium and scorn holocaust deniers rightfully suffer for their views.
The authors commit a second form of the Ad Hominem argument (appeal to motive) when they question the funding sources of Crockford and various other researchers and bloggers. As Bioscience should have recognized on this point the authors are in the position of the pot calling the kettle black. Climate researchers’ motives, including funding sources, from a logical perspective are irrelevant: Their arguments stand or fall on their merits. Whatever the source of Crockford’s and the bloggers’ funding, the amount of money they have received pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars that have poured into climate research – including research on polar bears – since scientists first began to raise the alarming prospect humans were causing dangerous climate change. Indeed, the field of climate research has almost certainly received more money in the past two decades than it received cumulatively throughout its history up to that point. If those pushing the anthropogenic warming disaster narrative are wrong, these resources have largely been wasted, and for them the research gravy train ends. If one must discuss motives, the reader can draw his or her own conclusions concerning which group of researchers – climate alarmists or climate skeptics – have more to lose funding- and reputation-wise if it turns out climate fears are overblown.
Based on the above arguments, Professor Crockford was right to call for Bioscience to retract this study. For the good of the journal’s own reputation, it should do so.
— H. Sterling Burnett
IN THIS ISSUE …
In recent months, President Donald Trump and his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have concluded that the threat of catastrophic climate change was grossly exaggerated by the Obama administration and announced the end of the “war on coal.” Instead of federal actions designed to destroy America’s coal industry and drive up Americans’ energy bills, the Trump administration instead is pursuing a strong pro-energy, pro-environment, and pro-jobs agenda. This includes dramatic steps to reverse some of the costly existing environmental policies imposed by previous administrations. (Check out the Energy Freedom Score Card for specific examples.)
One major remaining hurdle in the way of fixing America’s energy policies is the Obama-era “Endangerment Finding.” Issued by the EPA in 2009, it claimed that human emissions of carbon dioxide, as well as methane leaks from natural gas production and pipelines, cause dangerous global warming and pose an imminent danger to the health and wellbeing of Americans. Science proves none of these claims, which is why the Endangerment Finding warrants reconsideration by the EPA.
A task force at this week’s American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Summit debated a resolution, drafted by The Heartland Institute, calling for a review of the Endangerment Finding. Heartland’s discussions with state legislators, as well as a straw vote of elected officials and conservative think tanks, found a majority of them supported the effort. But after corporate ALEC members, led by ExxonMobil and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), stacked the meeting room with lobbyists and their well-funded allies in support of the Endangerment Finding, Rep. Piscopo (R-CT) and Heartland Research Fellow Bette Grande agreed to withdraw the resolution and resume consideration next year. (Read the resolution to review the Endangerment Finding, the coalition letter in favor of the resolution, and the letter withdrawing the resolution.)
“This result is disappointing, but not surprising,” said Heartland Institute President Dr. Tim Huelskamp, who served in the Kansas Senate for 14 years. “Big corporations like ExxonMobil and trade groups like EEI have long been members of the discredited and anti-energy global warming movement. They’ve put their profits and ‘green’ virtue signaling above sound science and the interests of their customers.” While the final decision on the Endangerment Finding will be made by Administrator Pruitt, the effort would benefit greatly from support by the states.
Grande recently reexamined the endangerment finding and concluded it is “flawed.” In a Heartland Policy Tip Sheet, Grande wrote EPA’s evidence is not backed by science and real-world observations. “Estimates of climate sensitivity to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide appearing in the scientific literature since 2009 have fallen steadily below the estimates used by EPA,” Grande wrote.
Grande says policymakers should urge EPA to “reopen and review” the endangerment finding, and Congress should “pass legislation banning the regulation and taxation of carbon dioxide,” which Grande says is “against the public good.” Grande’s conclusion are backed by earlier studies from The Cato Institute documenting that the EPA “refused to consider or ignored significant refereed science” and the The Heritage Foundation highlighting the excessive, massive cost borne by small businesses.
New research shows Antarctica and Greenland are defying climate model projections concerning the purported impact of climate change on these regions’ snow and icepack.
In Greenland, Vencore Weather notes the Greenland Summit Station “will experience high temperatures around -40°F which continues the very cold and well-below normal trend for the month of November.” In addition, since the fall of 2016 Greenland’s snow and ice accumulation has reached several seasonal record-high levels, and Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, which shrank precipitously at the start of the century, reaching a low point in July 2012, and has been adding ice since them.
At the Southern end of the globe, a paper in Climate of the Past found all Antarctic regions had experienced a significant, long-term cooling trend on average from 0 to 1900 CE, with the exception of the Wilkes Land coast and Weddell Sea coast. While some parts of Antarctica have warmed since 1900—particularly the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Dronning Maud Land coast, and Antarctic Peninsula—except for the warming in the Antarctic Peninsula, the warming in these areas is not unusual historically or outside the range of natural variability for the past 2,000 years as a whole. Temperature reconstructions for the continent as a whole show “within this long-term cooling trend from 0 to 1900 CE, … the warmest period occurs between 300 and 1000 CE, and the coldest interval occurs from 1200 to 1900 CE.”
The Atlantic recently published an amusing (to me) and honest article concerning the problems the Democratic Party has with pushing climate change as an issue. One problem is the vast majority of voters, including most Democrats, don’t rank climate change very high when compared to other policy issues before lawmakers. As the author writes, “… Democratic voters still don’t care about climate change very much. Like other Americans, most of the party’s electorate experience it as a ‘low-intensity’ issue … [with] very few people use[ing] climate policy to decide whom to vote for. Even Democrats say that a candidate’s proposed climate policy matters less when making a voting decision than his or her proposed policies about jobs, health care, the economy, education, income inequality, and terrorism.”
In addition, when Democrats have tried to impose climate-related restrictions on energy use, it cost them at the voting booth. In 2009, when Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress, they failed in efforts to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act (the Waxman-Markey bill). Even though Democrats failed to pass the bill, they were punished at the polls for the attempt. With the help of the tea party movement and groups including The Heartland Institute, voters were made aware the legislation would have cost many Americans their jobs and put U.S. companies at a disadvantage with companies in foreign countries, while doing nothing to prevent climate change. As a result, as the author notes, “Even in defeat, Waxman-Markey cost the party dearly. More than two dozen congressional Democrats who had supported the cap-and-trade bill lost in the 2010 midterm election.”
Third, the author writes he is unaware of any concerted effort within the Democratic Party or at left-leaning think tanks to deliver climate legislation going forward. To be fair, it’s hard to develop a policy to fight climate change when, in fact, humans have no ability to halt nature’s course. Any efforts to do so will be costly and in vain. Recently the United Nations had to admit the steep greenhouse gas restrictions imposed under the Paris climate agreement would, by their own calculations, fail to prevent dangerous warming. If the world’s nations assembled can’t control the weather, what hope does the Democratic Party have.
Democrats and the United Nations should take a lesson in humility from wise King Canute, who disabused his courtiers of the notion he could hold back the tide. In the apocryphal account, Canute had his retinue set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to cease rising. It didn’t, and the water rose, covering Canute’s feet and legs. As Canute knew, nature, not humans, control the climate. There is nothing Democrats or anyone else can do to change this, and polls show most of the general public, the voting public, recognizes this fact.
A new study in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Atmospheric Sciences confirms what dozens of other studies have shown: Earth’s temperature is warming significantly more slowly than climate models project, due likely to the fact Earth’s atmosphere is less sensitive to changing carbon dioxide levels than climate models assume.
To correct for errors made by some other studies and climate models, this study’s authors use only satellite data, the most comprehensive and accurate data available, and removed the impacts of volcanic eruptions and El Niño and La Niña oceanic shifts, both temporary but significant climate events. Once the effects of these natural events are removed, the researchers found Earth’s rate of warming was 0.096 degrees Celsius per decade.
Based on the average rate of warming assumed by climate models, the difference between the actual rise in temperatures since 1880, 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and the model projections of nearly 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit, is more than 2 degrees, well outside the margin of error and range of uncertainty for climate models. Climate model temperature projections are neither robust nor valid, and as such should not be used as a basis for making public policy.