Home > Boneheaded stupidity, Science > Catalyst teaches the controversy

Catalyst teaches the controversy

December 31st, 2014

I was at the gym just now and they had a rerun of a Catalyst story from October on the alleged climate change pause, presented by Anja Taylor. It was appalling. It started off correctly attributing the 1998 peak in warming to El Nino (with a shot of Richard Morecroft).

Next there was an unnamed speaker, suggesting that this presaged a permanent El Nino . This obvious straw man (it’s called the Southern Oscillation because it’s cyclical) was presented as if it represented the view of mainstream science, but the transcript attributes it to “reporter”. Clearly, Taylor was unable to get any vision of an actual scientist making this claim.

Next, four denialists (Monckton, Paltridge, Newman and Curry) and an editorial intervention from Taylor asserting the “pause” as a reality, with some super-shoddy graphs. Then a flashback to Climategate.

After this setup, things got gradually better. Some real scientists were brought on, and we eventually reached the conclusion “All things considered, there’s been no global warming pause”. But anyone watching the program would conclude that the sceptics had a pretty strong case.

The problem is that this kind of “teach the controversy” approach is utterly inappropriate for a TV science program. In this case, the problem is (as the program admits) that the majority of the time is given to a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, so few that Taylor had to give air time to two non-scientists and one who has gone emeritus. But even on a topic where scientists are actually divided, a 15-minute TV segment isn’t going to help clarify the issues.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is typical of Catalyst nowadays. I used to think it was just Maryanne Demasi, but obviously the producers want to present “he said, she said” controversy. It’s time for the ABC to pull the plug.

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  1. Hermit
    December 31st, 2014 at 15:16 | #1

    The only useful thing I’ve learned from Catalyst in the last decade is that Indian Tonic Water glows blue under UV light. Useful in the sense you can actually try it. To be fair they’ve had plenty of stories on coral bleaching and the like so the general vibe is consistent with AGW.

  2. Hermit
    December 31st, 2014 at 16:21 | #2

    And another glaring incongruity was a report that said we must have higher density living to cope with future ecological pressures. However the reporter (who may or may not be the same as the El Nino episode) drove a hydrocarbon fuelled car from the far flung but leafy outer suburbs at the crack of dawn to get into the city CBD before rush hour. The inner city being where we’re all supposed to live enabling us to walk, transit or commute by bicycle. There’s a term for when people feel absolved from practicing what they preach

  3. kevin1
    December 31st, 2014 at 17:07 | #3

    “Pull the plug” suggests close the thing down – the last thing we want. Technical education suggests scientific governance.
    What’s the model form? Something like an academic board? What’s the difference between scientific American and Popular Science? This is the apex of public interest journalism.

  4. jungney
    December 31st, 2014 at 18:21 | #4

    Catalyst most often presents scientism. It i not reliable source of information about science because it constantly dumbs down what scientist do in order to produce the Julius Sumner Miller ‘who woulda thought of that?’ response from its audience which is presumed to be basically ignorant of science if not actually stupid. Its sideshow alley approach to science needs a major rethink. As it is, it does more harm than good in the project of promoting science amongst the young. We have for generations heard from freaks who advocate studying science with little discernible effect in attracting new students in either secondary or tertiary studies; one of the reasons for this is that we have been inundated by facile boosters rather than hearing from older, mature scientists who can present a philosophically considered point of view on the value and the limitations of science.

  5. Ikonoclast
    December 31st, 2014 at 19:20 | #5

    Basic explanation. The media is run by media types. They are interested in image, sound and emotional effects: colour and movement, bells and whistles. They are not interested in science. The closest they get is pop-science manipulated for emotional and controversial effect. Waste of time. Pull the show.

  6. kevin1
    December 31st, 2014 at 19:38 | #6

    @Ikonoclast . “Waste of tI’m right” -e. Pull the show.”

    Are you more interested in self validation – “of course I’m right” – rather than strategies for change? Isn’t this just vanity publishing?

  7. zoot
    December 31st, 2014 at 20:13 | #7

    The ABC does know how to do science reporting.
    Exhibit A = Robyn Williams; Exhibit B = The Science Show.
    Pull the plug on Catalyst and commission Mr Williams to provide a replacement.

  8. Ernestine Gross
    January 1st, 2015 at 00:17 | #8

    Happy New Year to everybody, even including climate change comedians like Monckton, Christopher, Lord, and Maurice L. Newman (I’ve never heard of the other two).

  9. Donald Oats
    January 1st, 2015 at 00:57 | #9

    The unfortunate use of the term “pause/hiatus” has seeped over into the general climate scientist population now: this has had the effect of inadvertently framing discussions over the global temperature data as being about explaining the so-called pause, even though the very notion isn’t statistically supported. See Stefan Ramstorf’s blog post at Real Climate for more on this.

    Asking a question about the long-term behaviour of climate data is reasonable: picking the hottest year on record (1998 was hottest up to 1998) as the start date from which to demand every succeeding year to be even hotter, that’s a very bad example of pinning. Even if global temperatures are rising fast, the noise in the signal all but guarantees some succeeding years to be substantially cooler than the previous hottest year on record. As it turns out, virtually all of the record-breaking years occur after 1998; all but one of the top ten hottest years to date (i.e. to 2014) occur after 1998, and in fact, they occur from 2002 onwards. 1998 is the only year from the previous century, i.e. the 20th century, still in the top ten hottest years list. If we are having a pause since 1998, it is hard to conceive how 9 out of 10 hottest years all pop up after 1998. Anyway, in a few more hours, 2014 will be declared the new hottest year on record.

  10. Megan
    January 1st, 2015 at 02:23 | #10

    Is “Cattle-Ticks” still on?

    Replace it with re-runs of “The Curiosity Show” (incidentally, a channel 9 show).

    It was educational, the presenters were real scientists and they didn’t play the “2 sides” format.

    “So, Deane, this ‘gravity’ theory is controversial isn’t it?”

    “Yes, Rob. That’s why this week we’ve got a panel of gravity denialists from News Ltd, their ABC and the tobacco and coal institute on the show to explain how controversial this gravity theory is. I’ll just go and kill myself now.”

    “Wow, Deane. It must be pretty controversial.”

  11. rog
    January 1st, 2015 at 06:40 | #11

    I thought Trenberth did a fair job in presenting his case but was ultimately overwhelmed by twaddle. Catalyst is a “look at moi” type of media stunt – they pretend to stimulate discussion by presenting both sides of the argument.

    On the issue of models vs reality they fell down by talking to other media types not scientists like the CSIRO

  12. Ikonoclast
    January 1st, 2015 at 08:09 | #12


    No, this is Vanity Blogging, Vanity Publishing is down the hall. By your own standards, where are your “strategies for change”?

  13. Julia Perry
    January 1st, 2015 at 10:35 | #13

    I think Science broadcasting is essential. Catalyst has become too superficial. Maybe it should do one story properly rather than 3 stories.
    The Murdoch/Abbott /shockjock pressure on the ABC to be more right wing (back Team Australia) is extremely concerning.
    They would see as left wing a story on climate change that did not give equal time to the science and to the tiny minority of self-interested lunatic denialists.

  14. jungney
    January 1st, 2015 at 11:23 | #14

    @Julia Perry
    It is true that the ABC has capitulated in this false ‘balance’ structure. That means that a whole cast of journalists and producers are on good money for producing bullshit. The only way those people have now of establishing that they do hve ethics would be to quit rather than co-operate.

  15. jungney
    January 1st, 2015 at 11:25 | #15

    Ooops, I’ve provoked Das Automod so herewith what I wrote without the offending reference to bovine fa*ces:

    It is true that the ABC has capitulated in this false ‘balance’ structure. That means that a whole cast of journalists and producers are on good money for producing bs. The only way those people have now of establishing that they do hve ethics would be to quit rather than co-operate.

  16. Ikonoclast
    January 1st, 2015 at 11:38 | #16

    Capitalism via the oligarchs is in total control of the world economy and in total control of the ideas admitted into serious public discourse. Almost every other man-made ill flows from that. While this situation obtains, no worthwhile changes will ever occur. The sytem is both un-reformable and impossible to revolt against. Its control is complete. Its momentum is unstoppable. It is environmental collapse which will collapse the system.

  17. Chris O’Neill
    January 1st, 2015 at 12:47 | #17

    It was appalling.

    That fact is now of academic interest only. There most likely won’t be any significant emissions reducing legislation passed by the Senate until at least July 2020.

    The denialists have won.

  18. jungney
    January 1st, 2015 at 13:07 | #18

    Sadly, I think you are correct about the ecological crisis being the final crisis of capitalism. Many foresaw this over the course of industrialism in the service of private interests. Of course, actually existing socialism was at least as overblown in its hubristic attitude to non-human nature, with pretty much the same consequences for nature. These days the greatest hope is for a global economic crisis that slows growth even at the cost of social suffering. It might give us a chance to reorganise in the light of harsher ecological realities than many had anticipated.

    There have been immense changes over the last fifty years in the way that people relate to non-human nature but there have not been the corresponding changes in corporations or sufficient reflection of these changes in democratic governments.

    The oligarchs, by their actions, have constituted themselves into a criminal class which is the enemy of all of humanity. They have chosen their course which, to enforce it, will require a formalised structure of global fascism and the militarisation of civil life; in the near future parliaments will become even more irrelevant than they are currently.

    There will be many opportunities for intervention in the next decade or two; intervention will prove critical in creating communities of resistance based on local affinity in defending ecosystems. This is already happening very well in Australia where many groups are fighting to preserve ground water integrity and local living conditions against both coal and CSG. Actions like these actually recreate a new community as resistance builds. Those communities are also an essential space for raising critical viewpoints, one never even mentioned in the msm.

    Other than that there will just be the experience of enjoying one’s schadenfreude served up in shovels.

  19. Ikonoclast
    January 1st, 2015 at 13:29 | #19


    Yes, sadly I have to agree. I intend to re-read Orwell’s “1984” which I have not read since I read it once as a teenager and once in my early twenties. It is now clear to me at 60, and having seen where late stage corporate capitalism is headed, I will find many more levels of meaning and accurate prediction in “1984” than I ever noticed previously. The prediciton of the devolution of the world into 3 corporate-fascist blocs seems to be remarkably prescient as do the predictions about endless cruelty, murder and torture and the whole issue of double-think.

    “War is peace.
    Freedom is slavery.
    Ignorance is strength.”

    What is that but the current doctrine of the USA?

    “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

    “Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”

    For our modern elites this is where they are at now. They know exactly what they are and what they are doing.

    “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

    Quotes from “1984” by Orwell.

  20. Donald Oats
    January 1st, 2015 at 13:56 | #20

    I think one of the more problematic aspects of “sciency” stories, such as the particular Catalyst episode under discussion here, is that they simply don’t draw back the curtain on how scientists know something to be true, on how scientists assess the likelihood of something being true, and on how they go about finding out if something is true (or not). If a show makes little or no inroads into those questions, there is not much left to report on—beyond the superficial he said, she said, debates which are always there to be ignited.

    For example, if the climate science is taken as a given, that leaves most of the Catalyst show for discussing (with actual climate scientists) the how and why of what they think is true. Wouldn’t that be more interesting than getting people—who are quite frankly in denial and in the minority—to argue against scientists about whether the greenhouse gas effect is even true?

    It is always possible to find specific issues in science where the majority of scientists have got it wrong, or had strong opinions, e.g. plate tectonics, continental drift, N-rays, the aether, phlogiston; that is no excuse for automatically elevating dissenting opinion to the level of well examined scientific evidence. Dissension is not enough; without accompanying scientific evidence, dissension is just stirring the pot for the hell of it.

    Unfortunately, some dissenters are professionals at producing a smoke screen of sciency sounding bafflegab instead of an actual scientific argument based on the data. These people shouldn’t be the go-to people just because they are contrarian.

  21. Megan
    January 1st, 2015 at 14:20 | #21

    @Donald Oats

    All true.

    How has this come about (the present example of the ABC doing this on a purportedly “Science” show, and more generally across the spectrum of their material)?

    To my mind there are two broad possibilities: 1. They are misguided, or 2. They are corrupt.

    I believe the ABC is “corrupt”. Not the ‘taking bribes’ kind of corrupt, the more general definition of the term encompassing: guilty of dishonest practices…; lacking integrity; crooked;
    debased in character; depraved; perverted; wicked; evil; made inferior by errors or alterations, as a text. infected; tainted. decayed; putrid. etc…

    It didn’t get that way by accident or neglect but by very deliberate design. The pretense that it isn’t annoys me more than the corruption itself.

  22. kevin1
    January 1st, 2015 at 14:26 | #22


    According to Nicky Phillips – “What’s in Store for Science Journalism?” – CNN and US, UK newspapers wound back their science sections strongly in 2009: presumably a contributor to today’s anti-science environment. Do we want to see that here? There is a view that science journalism is not immune from its social context eg. from a technology “booster” phase to a watchdog phase. Although politics is everywhere, there still seems a useful role for technical governance of science journalism in boosting the science factor against the marketing factor. Given the vacuity of our political leadership and climate events being the news that won’t go away, I think there’s a chance that the pendulum will swing back, and respect for expertise will win out.

    I agree that we are blogging not publishing, the latter has an external audience to influence. The fact of a multi-platform ABC allows a space for people not driven by “science journalist” imperatives eg. Greg Jericho’s “Wasting energy on climate change sceptics” article on The Drum in early 2014.

  23. NathanA
    January 1st, 2015 at 15:19 | #23

    It’s interesting to contrast Catalyst with Mythbusters. For mine, Mythbusters is an exceptional program for science education. This is because the primary concern of Mythbusters is to demonstrate the power of the scientific method. There is a hypothesis, they try to prove it wrong through experimentation and observation.

    Catalyst is a very different type of program. It is a program that is most interested with how the audience interacts with science. What foods should you eat, should you vaccinate your children, what will happen to the Great Barrier Reef etc etc. For that program to be most effective it first and foremost requires an honest presentation of the consensus views of scientists within that field and the evidence that underlies that consensus. Qualifying statements should be presented, as they are almost always part of a consensus view and critics and dissenters can be introduced within that context.

    The trouble is when people who are producing Catalyst think that they need to be Mythbusters. They are not following the scientific method, and shouldn’t think their role is to change the mind of the public. They also misunderstand the role of consensus in science. Consensus does not tell us if something is likely to be true or false, but is the means with which certain forms of scientific knowledge are best transformed into a public benefit. Consensus is built on the cumulative use of the scientific method to determine whether something is true or false.

  24. Ikonoclast
    January 1st, 2015 at 15:33 | #24


    Mythbusters is largely limited to things that go bang, crash and smash.

  25. Pete Moran
    January 1st, 2015 at 17:01 | #25

    The fact the ABC is ‘proud’ of the constant surveys that suggest it isn’t biased should tell you something about the editorial policies at work internally.

    For example, I heard the new Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg telling a generalist ABC ‘journalist’ that the Abbott Govt inherited ~$600b in debt without challenge on air. A strong editorial policy would not allow an available minister to be interviewed by a generalist, but instead, if the Assistant Treasurer is made available, then a finance journo should be brought in to do the job.

    You can find endless examples of this sort of thing, which is why a well researched Sarah Ferguson made such a mark on ABC 730 while Sales was on leave, and howls of bias from the audience.

    I think the ABC needs reinventing or fight-for-the-facts ‘bias’.

  26. jungney
    January 1st, 2015 at 17:12 | #26

    Strewth. Bloody Orwell to ruin yer day 🙂 But, whose boot and whose face? Will the oppression of man by man be replaced by its opposite in that promised land? Yeah. You bet. We’re only moments away.

  27. Donald Oats
    January 1st, 2015 at 22:02 | #27

    Corrupt is a bit strong, although I do appreciate the sense in which you mean: corrupted. I think there are at least two factors which lead to sciency stories rather than educational science stories. The first factor is the ever shrinking budget for investigative journalism, of which solid science journalism was once a proud example; the technology now available for the post-production part of a story, i.e. the spectacular CGI, the set-piece simulations, great dissolves, etc actually reduces program time for telling the story itself; of course, sometimes the computer graphics are directly relevant and are a very positive contribution—sometimes. The second factor is the rise of the blogosphere as a cheap commercial alternative to having experienced fulltime staff on the payroll: simply ask around for would-be journos to do a contracted piece, and they come running for bitcoins or even just to see their name in lights. With no shortage of such desperate people (some of whom are very capable), stories have shrunk in content and in depth of content. The great outsourcing epoch of journalism is at odds with intelligently researched news, and science stories are collateral damage. The bite-size factbit is the measure of an article now; meet the quota and get paid. If the factbits make for good clickbait, the journo has done their (new) job.

    Honestly, I don’t particularly blame the journos at Catalyst for this sad state of affairs, for they are as caught up in the king tide as the rest of us are. Their paymasters use the outsourcing model of journalism, and it infects everything with the lowest common denominator effect. Still, Catalyst story producers really could benefit from sticking to working academics for 95% of the interviews; there are plenty of academics with good interviewee skills, and if asked nicely, I’m sure they can assist with the more difficult bits. Monckton? I shakes me head in utter disbelief…

  28. Megan
    January 2nd, 2015 at 00:21 | #28

    I couldn’t be f*cked stuffing around with eternal moderation anymore, especially since I see a troll-bot has sailed through moderation on the “Sandy Hook” thread with ease.

    So I won’t bother trying to include a link in this comment.

    But speaking of journalism and climate change, there is a decent documentary about NZ’s thwarted “efforts” to do something. The film is called “Hot Air” and is available to watch for free online at “moaritelevision.com”.

    You’ll have to add the obvious prefix to the following text:

  29. Megan
    January 2nd, 2015 at 00:28 | #29

    @Donald Oats

    If you have 2:02 minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching “Charlie Brooker’s How to Report the News”.

    If you can’t see the similarity between his parody and the joke that the ABC has become then we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  30. J-D
    January 2nd, 2015 at 05:54 | #30


    It interests me that pretence annoys you more than corruption.

    ‘If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.’ Thomas de Quincey, Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, an Essay

  31. rog
    January 2nd, 2015 at 08:06 | #31

    Catalyst seems to confirm that the majority of us prefer to be entertained rather than informed. Perhaps pandering to the majority could be defined as “corrupt”?

    The ABC needs to be more careful and not mix entertainment and information in the same program.

  32. Paul Norton
    January 2nd, 2015 at 09:12 | #32

    In 2010 Possum Comitatus wrote of:

    that growing group of feeble minded cowards at the ABC [who] appear to have lost any capacity for intellectual autonomy when it comes to independently assessing the dynamics of Australian politics.

    The feeble-mindedness, cowardice and lack of intellectual autonomy now extends to science.

  33. sunshine
    January 2nd, 2015 at 09:51 | #33

    This wouldnt be the first time putting short term returns ahead of sustainability has ended an empire. For example- soil erosion and depletion has almost always been a major (and sometimes the main) contributor to collapse . Today our empire uses up topsoil in weaker countries to get commodities out as fast as possible via massive corporate farming operations. Soil degradation usually happens slowly so carrying on as normal may only require a few changes per farmers lifetime ,until another stress or two is added to the empire and collapse occurs .Ever noticed how barren the ‘cradle of Western civilisation’ usually looks on tv ?

  34. Megan
    January 2nd, 2015 at 10:47 | #34

    I didn’t say pretense annoys me more than corruption.

    That is an incorrect generalization from a specific case. The use of the definite article is the key. I was clearly referring to the corruption of the ABC and the pretense that it isn’t corrupt.

    A true pedant would understand the difference.

  35. David Allen
    January 2nd, 2015 at 11:07 | #35


    I watched “Hot Air”. Notice the business community threatening to “go Galt” on NZ’s arse. If the enterprise is vital to a country they shouldn’t be allowed to blackmail it. Nationalise them.

  36. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 11:13 | #36


    J-D is rarely interested in the substantive issue being debated. Rather, J-D pounces on an inconsequential error (a secondary inconsistency) in the formulation of a thought (a common enough occurrence on rapidly written blogs) and elevates that to the main point of contention. Other people sensibly pass over such minor inconsistencies in favour of understanding the writer’s main point.

  37. Donald Oats
    January 2nd, 2015 at 13:36 | #37

    That is brilliant, evocative of Oscar Wilde.

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have a look soon.

    And Happy New Year!

  38. J-D
    January 2nd, 2015 at 18:17 | #38


    Okay, then, it interests me that in this particular case you are more offended by what you find to be a pretence than by what you find to be corrupted.

  39. J-D
    January 2nd, 2015 at 18:21 | #39

    @Donald Oats

    Glad you like it: I think I had probably read it somewhere before, but I’d forgotten it until I rediscovered it browsing the page at TVTropes titled ‘Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking’.

  40. Ron E Joggles
    January 2nd, 2015 at 18:47 | #40

    Crikey! “at the gym just now and they had a rerun of a Catalyst story” – my gym just has AC/DC blasting relentlessly, great for pumping iron….

    Sad to see the ABC cravenly surrendering to the post-modern notion that all opinions are equally worthy.

  41. Ikonoclast
    January 2nd, 2015 at 20:25 | #41

    If we worked properly for our living at a healthy variety of tasks we would not need gyms. Excess specialisation carries its own costs. (For example specialising into brain workers and manual workers). Specialisation helps the system, meaning in essence the big owners at the top of the system. It has some undeniable broader benefits as well but also imposes broader costs (across many individuals) that rarely if ever are investigated and measured.

  42. January 2nd, 2015 at 23:17 | #42


    A stretch too far, I think Ikon. Specialisation is essential to modern society.

    As for the “pause”, it can be straightforwardly shown that there is no statistically significant change in the rate of warming. Tamino’s blog has a compelling post.

    I will be a little kinder to the ABC than some. If the ABC had, many years ago, done a show about new developments in stomach ulcer treatment featuring the new ideas of one Barry Marshall, they could have got a host of genuine experts who would have said he was wrong. It should be noted that the “experts” did not themselves use the scientific method in deciding on the causes and treatments of stomach ulcers. Should the ABC of the day have gone out on a limb?

    Similarly the story of how it was discovered that mosquitoes carried yellow fever is one where the opinions of educated people of the time delayed effective action by 20 years or so.

    A counterpoint is Einstein’s theory of relativity. In a close parallel to global warming, people actually toured giving talks explaining why Einstein was wrong. Should the ABC of the time have given these cranks any publicity? (It should be noted that sensible people can still have doubts about relativity, but the arguments of the touring cranks were not sensible)

    The problem for me is that the average person doesn’t understand how global warming works. I’m not 100% sure myself, and I’ve been interested in it for ages. So there is an element of trust involved. The self-styled “skeptics” have consistently shown themselves to be dishonest and deceptive, so it is easy to dismiss them and trust the scientists instead.

  43. chrisl
    January 3rd, 2015 at 08:04 | #43

    John Brookes
    Following on from your first few paragraphs you could have just as easily written “Science has been up a few blind alleys so why would climate science be any different?”

  44. Stephen Due
    January 3rd, 2015 at 09:06 | #44

    It seems to me there is a lot of labelling of people (for example “deniers”) going on here that encourages an “us” and “them” mentality. This is then amplified in the comments (for example people are described as “dishonest” and “deceptive”). In my experience all scientists have limited intelligence (rather like me) and are liable to error (rather like me). As a long-time reader of the magazine “New Scientist” I am painfully aware of the failures of logic and evidence to which popular science is prone. How you can categorise Judith Curry, for example, as (by implication in your piece) not a “real” or “actual” scientist escapes me. I suspect, from what I see on the Internet of the range of views in the scientific community, that the “consensus” of which you speak is an artefact of your own mental universe. However when speaking of “consensus” it is wise to remember that science is not a democracy where truth is determined by a majority. Rather, in a world where new research and new evidence leads to changed opinions, the majority is most likely to be wrong in the long term.

  45. J-D
    January 3rd, 2015 at 09:51 | #45


    It interests me that when I wrote about how Megan’s comment interested me, you interpreted that as an allegation by me of error on Megan’s part — and also that you apparently think there was an error on Megan’s part (although perhaps I’ve misunderstood that part of your comment).

  46. Hermit
    January 3rd, 2015 at 10:42 | #46

    @Stephen Due
    I find this rather elliptic. From your last sentence any day now we can expect the theory of gravity to be proved wrong.

    It’s very easy to be fence sitter like Judith Curry. Like watching a runaway train we can speculate whether it will crash or stop of its own accord. The odds get more serious when you’re on the train. I do agree with a view seemingly endorsed by Curry (or maybe not) that man-made emissions will peak before 2050. If that pans out we can ignore some of the IPCC scenarios that have us extravagantly burning fossil fuels many decades from now.

  47. kevin1
    January 3rd, 2015 at 10:53 | #47

    Some good points made here about how Catalyst could change towards ‘good’ science journalism, but the challenge of science instructing rather than entertaining to a mass audience on a public network still needs models – any suggestions? I see from Wikipedia that New Scientist has its own controversies about “dumbing down”.

    The “false balance” of he said/she said ABC journalism is a wider problem, and many here say there is no hope and “they” should “pull the program”. Yet the same “they” actually did pull the 2 episodes on statins. The influence of a large group of public interest stakeholders – Friends of ABC, journalist trainers, the ABC charter, journos’ ethics code – must count for something.

    If the ABC is the unreformable lost cause described by many here, then there’s no objection to cuts to its budget and reduced editorial independence? Getting 1 mill. viewers for science, if not scientific method, is still a valuable thing, with an attention-seeking “hook” the price to be paid.

  48. J-D
    January 3rd, 2015 at 12:04 | #48

    @Stephen Due

    To suppose that a view held by a minority is more likely to be correct than a conflicting view held by a majority, on the basis of no other information other than the numbers holding each view, is irrational. Majorities do often turn out to be mistaken, but minorities turn out to be mistaken even more often.

    Sometimes people are dishonest and deceitful; it is not always wrong to describe people as dishonest and deceitful.

  49. J-D
    January 3rd, 2015 at 12:18 | #49

    @John Brookes

    I mention the following information because you write that you don’t understand how global warming works. I apologise if I’m telling you things you already know (the information is not hard to discover), but in that case what is it that you don’t understand?

    If the Earth loses energy at about the same rate that it absorbs energy, its temperature remains approximately stable. If the rate at which the Earth loses energy slows down, its temperature will tend to increase. (This is true for any object.)

    The Earth loses energy to outer space in the form of infrared radiation. The gases that make up the Earth’s atmosphere are mostly transparent to infrared radiation just as they are to visible light, but some of them (including carbon dioxide) are not. The label ‘greenhouse gases’ has been applied to these gases (the ones that are not transparent to infrared radiation). ‘Greenhouse gases’, not being transparent to infrared radiation, absorb it as well as emitting it. In the Earth’s atmosphere, they reduce the rate at which the planet as a whole loses energy to outer space through infrared radiation, and an increase in the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere will intensify this effect.

    Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The more fossil fuel people burn, the greater the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere becomes, and this reduces the rate at which the Earth loses energy to outer space and so tends to increase the planet’s temperature.

  50. John Quiggin
    January 3rd, 2015 at 13:20 | #50

    Stephen Due :
    How you can categorise Judith Curry, for example, as (by implication in your piece) not a “real” or “actual” scientist escapes me.

    Reread the article, and you’ll see that I didn’t. Monckton and Newman are non-scientists and Paltridge is a scientist who has gone emeritus, literally and metaphorically. IOW, Taylor could only find one active climate researcher for the anti-science side of the story and had to bulk it up with these three.

  51. Chris O’Neill
    January 3rd, 2015 at 13:58 | #51

    for example people are described as “dishonest” and “deceptive”

    Anyone who asserts “there has been NO global warming in X years” where X is their favorite number is dishonest. Amplification has nothing to do with it.

  52. Ikonoclast
    January 3rd, 2015 at 15:05 | #52


    Very succinct and correct as far I understand it. And I do understand enough for science for this level. It really shouldn’t be too hard for anyone with a basic science education, certainly with grade 12 physics and chemistry and maybe even with grade 10 physics and chemistry, to understand this.

    I guess problems arise for two basic reasons.

    1. A lot of people don’t have even this basic scientific literacy or need a refresher course.

    2. As soon as you raise these basic empirical points, the denialists will go to phase 2 of their operation. This is to bring up alternative points which sound plausible as hypotheses and then have to be falsified by a new round of tests or rather now by a new round of science knowledge education for the undecided or the still “swayable” since the tests have been done.

    An example of phase two “reasonable doubt” objections are that water vapour is a greenhouse gas. TRUE. Water vapour is much more prevalent than CO2 in the atmosphere. TRUE (I think, but see I am not even totally sure). Therefore as CO2 is a minuscule amount by comparsion and water vaopor (humidty) goes up and down a lot then CO2 is irrelevant and any current percent increase of it is irrelevant. (FALSE – But I would have to reread the IPCC explanation myself before I could explain to anyone else why this is false.)

    Other examples are claims about solar luminesece cycles, precession, orbital inconsistencies, long cycles around the sun (Milankovitch cycles) and so on. All these are dealt with and excluded with high degrees of certainty by IPCC as full explanations of current warming, leaving CO2 emissions as the main smoking gun. But again these objections can bamboozle people and dishonestly obscure the fact that these hypotheses have been considered and rejected as explanations for current warming.

    And so it goes. The thing is that in a sense a physical truth or law is often unitary and exclusive (well obviously not quantum mechanics, probabilistic theory etc.) whereas falsehood is multifareous. The active “moral entrepreneur” deniers can keep making up falsehoods based on half truths and truths taken out of context to their hearts’ content. Energy has to be expended and information continually issued and expanded to deal with this ongoing manufacture of deceit.

  53. Donald Oats
    January 3rd, 2015 at 17:44 | #53

    Water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas: its residency time in the atmosphere is quite short though, having a tendency to condense and to rain out. CO2 is also a strong greenhouse gas: its residency time is a couple of orders of magnitude longer than water vapour. The increased surface temperature, due to increasing concentration of CO2, increases the rate and intensity with which water is evaporated, thus enhancing the overall greenhouse effect. Changes to the temperature of the surface air has an extraordinary effect upon evaporation.

    While what I have described is a bit simplistic, it gives the gist of why the CO2 emissions are significant: not only is CO2 a greenhouse gas, but its effect causes other significant changes to take place, such as increased uptake of water vapour into the atmosphere. As noted above, once in the air, water vapour soon rains out—somewhere.

    Slow changes to the orbit of Earth around the sun (Milankovitch cycles) do cause climate change—over thousands of years. The climate change of most concern to humanity is that which we are causing through our own actions, climate change that is happening one or two orders of magnitude more rapidly than natural cycles cause. This is why it is so disingenuous of the PM Abbott to say “climate changes all the time,” because that is not the issue at hand.

    The energy output of the sun is another favourite. On extremely long timescales of hundreds of millions of years, the output of the sun has changed significantly; this is of no urgent concern on human timescales. On relatively short timescales, days to weeks to decades, the sun also fluctuates in its energy output (per unit time); these fluctuations, apart from the well-known eleven year solar cycle, have no consistent effect upon climate—they are simply too small and too random. Unfortunately, it takes some pretty clever statistical analysis to determine the strength of any short term effects upon climate, which means that most of us have to rely on experts, rather than doing the analyses ourselves. Anyway, this type of analysis of solar output’s effects has been done by quite a number of scientific organisations, and more than once, i.e. the data is updated periodically.

    I find it ludicrous that Australian tax payers are forced to expend huge resources and time on catching a miniscule number of actual terrorists, putting our entire population under surveillance in the hope of catching a handful of terrorist plots and foiling them; contrast that to the political undermining and then active destruction of our attempts at a rational climate change risk management strategy, simply to win short term political gain. Noone wants to see a terrorist attack, but which risk has the potentially greater impact across our population?

  54. Ikonoclast
    January 3rd, 2015 at 18:52 | #54

    @Donald Oats

    Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. I roughly remembered the water vapour part of the process but not enough to feel authoritative in re-telling it to someone. I would, as I said, have had to go back to IPCC overviews on the basic mechanism to brush up. But you’ve saved me the trouble.

    Of course, the whole water vapor part of the story is very complex: rapid uptake, rapid throughput, rapid precipitation in relative time-frame terms. Then there’s humidity averages, gradients, regional effects, cloud albedo, heat circulation in the atmosphere, winds, storms, updrafts, downdrafts, you name it. It’s a complicated field no doubt. But then there are large teams of very smart Cli Sci PhDs with super computers and some pretty dang fine climate models already tested in various ways. Then there’s the fact that the data series to date basically validates the CO2 emissions – warming hypthesis. Empirical confirmation! That clinches it for me.

  55. January 4th, 2015 at 00:26 | #55

    Thanks for the explanations. I guess I understand it pretty well, but ultimately have to trust the scientists who work in the area.

    Of course that is what the “skeptics” rely on. Their target audience is people who don’t understand it, but think that it can’t be that hard. They try and “baffle them with bullshit”, which works pretty well some of the time.

    But I reckon that we’ve actually reached the time when people have stopped listening to the “skeptics” (except of course for some members of our esteemed government).

  56. Donald Oats
    January 4th, 2015 at 13:59 | #56

    This article by Brian Kahn really highlights the manifest idiocy of talking about a “pause” or “hiatus” in global temperature increases:

    Consider that the 15 hottest years on record have all come since 1997. Or that this will be the third straight decade to break the mark for global temps. And that it’s been 358 months since the planet had a cooler-than-average month, and more than 100 years since we last had a record-cold month.

    If there were a pause, or if temperatures weren’t increasing, we certainly wouldn’t expect the hottest X years on record to be crowded up one end of the time period (typically 1880 to present): we would expect some cooler years mixed in with the hotter ones at the very least. Even with autocorrelation. Even with some growth in global temperatures. What we are seeing is so extreme it makes my eyes water to look at it. Trouble is, show this to a politician with the stripes of PM Tony Abbott, and all he’ll think is that scientists have rigged the data. I used to think that it was just the paid-up deniers whispering in the ears of politicians which kept the politicians confused; in the case of our PM though, I’m now more inclined to think it is that our politicians (of that stripe) project their own behaviour onto scientists, and therefore conclude that the scientists are acting in their own self interest, i.e. lying.

  57. J-D
    January 4th, 2015 at 16:40 | #57

    @John Brookes

    As a child I read a book called What Makes A Car Go? I trust that the account given in the book was accurate and as a result I can say that I understand how a car works. Similarly, I trust that what I have read about the greenhouse effect is accurate and as a result I can say that I understand how it works.

    Sometimes when people explain things to me, I don’t understand the explanation. Sometimes I understand the explanation but am not confident it’s accurate. These are two different experiences. Not accepting an account of how the greenhouse effect works is not the same thing as not understanding it.

  58. January 5th, 2015 at 13:20 | #58


    Yes, I understand how a car works. But with that knowledge only, I could not tell you how much power a car engine could make, how many cylinders are optimum, what type of fuel to use, how much cooling is needed, etc etc etc. When this comes to global warming, I understand how it works (sort of), but not how big the effect is. Is it 0.01 C or 10 C? That is when I turn to the scientists and simply trust the process to produce good results.

  59. J-D
    January 5th, 2015 at 18:21 | #59

    @John Brookes

    If you had said in the first place that you don’t understand how a specific estimate is made of the extent of global warming to be expected from a specified increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, I would not have tried to offer an explanation, because I don’t understand that either.

    But I do have experience of people who make a lot of fuss about the alleged unreliability of science on this subject but who, when confronted with a basic explanation of how the greenhouse effect works, will neither acknowledge it nor deny it. This is why I think it’s worth being clear on the point.

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