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Bizarre Science gets it right

November 25th, 2002

Bizarre Science notes an Op-Ed piece by Sallie Baliunas and others, criticising the Kyoto protocol on a number of grounds and claiming that global warming is a natural phenomenon. As BS points out, Googling Baliunas (try Baliunas + Institute) reveals that she is a Harvard-based astrophysicist, and also that she is affiliated with a wide range of anti-Kyoto thinktanks including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the George Marshall Institute, the Fraser Institute and so on.

So Baliunas is both an astrophysicist and a political activist. Although this is not a particularly common combination, there’s nothing wrong with it. Most of the time, one would expect astrophysics would not have political implications, nor that discoveries in astrophysics would be particularly likely to suit the political proclivities of those making them.

When such a coincidence does occur, as in the case of Baliunas’ theory that fluctuations in solar irradiance are the main cause of global warming, a conflict of interest arises. Such conflicts are part of life, and there are straightforward ways of dealing with them. In most cases, all that is required is a frank declaration of one’s position.

Provided Baliunas declares her affiliation with anti-Kyoto thinktanks, there is no problem with her putting forward her theories regarding the causes of global warming. Sadly, scrolling to the bottom of her Op-Ed page, we find ‘Dr. Sallie Baliunas is deputy director at Mount Wilson Observatory and an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.’ Her other affiliations are not mentioned, although, in a piece that is not primarily about astrophysics, they are at least as relevant and arguably more so.

This is a straightforward test of Baliunas’ good faith, and she flunks it. As BS observes “We obviously cannot trust anything she writes, can we?”
Update(Sigh) For irony-challenged readers, I should note that Aaron Oakley of BS really thinks we should trust Baliunas and is speaking ironically, and that I am doing the same in taking his words literally. Ken Parish is perhaps even more subtly ironical in his response, where he suggests I am trying to deceive unwary readers into thinking that BS is a pro-Kyoto site.
On the general point of ad hominem attacks, I’d be happy at any time to drop this kind of argument and accept the verdict of the great majority of scientists who’ve studied this topic, as represented by the IPCC, the US National Academy of Sciences, CSIRO etc. Kyoto sceptics routinely claim that the great majority of atmospheric scientists are lying in order to boost their research grants. Having raised the issue of potentially dishonest motives for scientists as a group, they complain when the same test is applied to the handful of individual scientists on whom they rely.

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