Thursday, 04 April 2013

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How science becomes "fact" in conservative circles On March 30th, The Economist published “Climate science: A sensitive matter,” in which James Hansen, formerly of NASA, noted that “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.” The article then outlines the many ways in which the scientific community is attempting to account for the fact that the mean global temperature is “already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models.” Different models are consulted, other mechanisms suggested, alternate sensitivities proposed, i.e. science happens. Or, as Rich Lowry wrote at the National Review on April 2nd, “[i]n other words, the scientific ‘consensus’ [has] been proven wrong.” Granted, he actually writes that the consensus “will have been proven wrong” if the mean global temperature remains flat “for a few more years,” but that’s a difference without distinction. First, because he declares himself arbiter of a scientific consensus he doesn’t understand; second, because he chooses the scientifically precise date of “a few more years” before the consensus he doesn’t understand will be invalidated; and third, because he’s drawing the conclusion that “the ‘sensitivity’ of the global climate to carbon emissions has been overestimated” despite the fact that his own article contains a paragraph about factors that might be mitigating warming. He tacitly admits that carbon emissions may still have a warming effect, it’s just that, for example, “new coal-fired plants in China and India, releasing so-called aerosols into the atmosphere that act to suppress warming, may be partly responsible for the stasis in temperatures.” Which is only to repeat myself: he’s writing about a science he doesn’t understand; moreover, he’s doing so from a position of ignorance so profound he doesn’t even realize his arguments might be entirely compatible. In the same way that I can be both an athlete and a writer, so too can carbon emissions be pushing temperatures up while aerosols drive them down. Arguing that X doesn’t do Y because A does B isn’t much of an argument. Unfortunately, he’s sharing his misunderstanding of logic and science in the influential pages of the National Review, which means that despite the fact that he misrepresents processes he doesn’t understand, his conclusion will shortly acquire the status of received wisdom as it’s repeated, in ever more ignorant forms, by other writers in the pages of the National Review. For example, today Victor Davis Hanson wrote “[t]he global warming hysteria—with no measurable planet warming in the last 15 years despite sizable increases in carbon emissions—is abating[.]” His evidence? He doesn’t need to cite evidence. Lowry already established this new conclusion as a fact. Which means I can propose my own new theory: based on the evidence above, conservatives require six days to transform science into stupid and stupid into ideology. I less-than-eagerly await the inevitable proof of my error.

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