Washington Post: Opinions differ on shape of earth

In one sense, the blogosphere has reached a near-universal consensus on climate change. Everyone who follows the issue at all closely agrees that there is no real debate. Instead, it’s generally agreed, we have a situation where (1) a large body of people devoted to serious scientific research on one side is confronted by (2) pushers of silly Internet talking points who are ideologically motivated, financially driven or just plain delusional . The only disagreement is which group is which. Is group (1):

* The Australian Academy of Science, all other similar organisations and the vast majority of active climate scientists;

or is it

* The 650 “sceptical scientists” identified by Marc Morano (aide to US Senator Inhofe) including such Australian luminaries as David Evans, Louis Hissink, Warwick Hughes and Jennifer Marohasy (Morano’s list includes numerous genuine scientists whose views he has misreprented

My Summer of Love rip

but he’s right to include all those I’ve mentioned )

Broadly speaking, for anyone from politically left or centrist blogs the first answer is correct, and for anyone from the political right, the second answer is correct. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, Fox News, the Australian and some other outlets know where they stand.

But for establishment outlets like the Washington Post, the idea that either (nearly) all scientists or (nearly) all right-of-centre politicans and commentators are liars/hacks/self-deluded is rather hard to accept. So we get episodes like this one. (via Tim Lambert)

39 thoughts on “Washington Post: Opinions differ on shape of earth

  1. I know what’s happening. The earth is not flat, it’s slightly saucer shaped. Therefore the sea ice is not falling off the edge. This proves the AGW deniers are right. 😉

  2. Brad de Long has been following the pathetic degeneration of the WashPost into a complete POS over at his blog. This is just their regular standard of journalism. Which is why I rejoice every time I hear about the death of print newspapers. They deserve it in spades.

  3. If I sometimes give the impression of piling onto the Left on some issues, notably cultural identity, then its only because I think there is a fair and reasonable chance for progress. This could be taken as a compliment.

    The Right, cultural stuff aside, appears to be an almost complete intellectual write-off on a range of issues. This goes especially for areas where it used to pride itself on having a hard-headed edge eg national security and economic prosperity.

    In the matter of ecological sustainabiilty the Right’s intellectual approach is rapidly turning itself into a farce of the more unpleasant and irksome kind. Do they not realise that you do not argue numbers with people who crunch them by the billion?

    Whether this intellectual failure is because of its corruption by power or some deeper intellectual vice is best left for “a broader canvas and mightier brush” than mine. (apologies to Schumpeter)

  4. Awh come on Jack, don’t sell yourself short, give us the broad brush. We can take it.
    For me the intellectual vice of those recalcitrant right wingers who are deniers is just a corruption of the Socratic technique of conducting an argument. Try and trap your opponent – oh joy it’s the dreaded left – in a seemingly illogical point; magnify the contradiction, confound the opponent then claim to win the debate. AGW has just happened to be the dispute de jour for many of these cantankerous souls.
    Your turn Jack.

  5. David Evans is a self-described “rocket scientist”, on the basis of writing some accounting software for the Australian Greenhouse Office. He’s currently “free to pursue his own projects” and is regularly published by the Oz as an expert. Ray Evans, eminence grise of the Right, missed out on making Morano’s list for no obvious reason.

  6. *”for anyone from politically left or centrist blogs the first answer is correct, and for anyone from the political right, the second answer is correct.”

    If you put forward a hypothesis make sure the evidence backs it up, otherwise your *theory is proved crap.
    Turnbull (right) advocates a tougher greenhouse gas reduction target than Labor.(left)

    Similarly, the AGW doctrine you pagans worship, which is lacking in hard scientific evidence, blinds you to AGW’s conjecture.

  7. Tony, the fact that Turnbull is advocating a higher carbon reduction target is evidence of the leftward drift of politics generally.

    Increasingly in modern democracies so-called conservative parties are becoming pale imitations of social democrats.

    Australia had a ‘conservative’ prime minister in John Howard who: massively increased government handouts, brought in much tougher gun control, introduced a European-style VAT, promised to maintain taxpayer-funded abortions among other things.

    Who needs socialists when you have conservatives like that.

  8. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, Fox News, the Australian and some other outlets know where they stand.

    There’s some healthy denialism on CNBC as well, where global warming is considered a bit of a “joke”.

  9. re: #8 Paul Walter

    re: JM: actually, yes, she is/was.
    But it is well-known that a few scientists go off into non-science or even anti-science for a variety of reasons.

    Google Scholar is an invaluable, if somewhat imperfect, free tool for checking. One can see:

    a) Has someone published relevant articles in relevant (or even better “high-impact” peer-reviewed journals? [which for a nonspecialist is not always easy tell, although articles in Science, Nature for example, carry serious weight.]

    Websites or self-published white papers … carry rather less weight, like ~zero. Likewise, one must be careful about books, since almost anything can get published.

    b) Is their work cited by others? (other than to refute). I.e., is it important, and used as a building block by others? If something is really wrong, there will be a few cites to refute it, and then it disappears.

    c) And by looking at dates, one can assess whether or not they are current researchers. Also, occasionally a current researcher will publish decent papers, but give talks, write OpEds and popular-press articles that give very different impressions, which if were scientifically-supportable, would be prize-winners. Red Flag.

    d) Here’s a good exercise for using this tool:

    Google scholar j marohasy.

    For comparison, try another Australian:
    Google Scholar BW Brook.

    Can anyone draw any conclusions from what they see? (Obviously it helps to have a Googleable name. Hissink is also easy; Hughes and Evans aren’t.)

  10. John @ 11, a bit of an aside (an itch I can’t resist scratching from time to time) re your:

    Has someone published relevant articles in relevant (or even better “high-impact” peer-reviewed journals? … Is their work cited by others?

    A problem with this kind of exercise for most people is that they just don’t have access to the best tools (Web of Science, etc) for researching the credentials of putative public intellectuals.

    Paradoxically, electronic journal access has made the problem worse: hard copies used to be openly perusable in uni libraries, whereas their replacement online subscriptions aren’t generally available to the public.

    Even more irritating is the fact that we are all forced to pay these resources (via research & uni funding), but they are less available to us than the free but inferior tools provided by foreign corporations (ie. google).

  11. # Monkey’s Uncle @ 9 said;

    “the leftward drift of politics generally”

    That is one hypothesis, another is that the philosophy of left and right politics, like AGW theory is one that is manufactured and perpetuated by the elite political ruling classes to divide and conquer, thus maintaining their power base.

  12. re: #12 Crispin

    Well, this is the usual tradeoff:

    a) There are very high-quality electronic sites like WoS, but they are expensive, and the general public isn’t going to pay for something they might use a handful of times per year.

    b) For this sort of exercise, one need not necessarily have electronic access to the actual journal article to get some idea. Paid journals often provide free access to abstracts, and just knowing the journal can be helpful. I.e., Science means one thing, Energy and Environment means something else.

    c) Universities have varying hard-copy collections, which have varying degrees of accessibility to those outside the uni. Hard-copy is useful if you are physically handy, and have access … but even then, most people wouldn’t make a trip for a casual question.

    d) GoogleScholar generates a lot of noise, includes references to many non-refereed items, and sometimes splits references so that real citation counts are flakey. Hence, one needs some practice in using it, as it is indeed imperfect.

    e) I’d be happy to hear of better tools. In the meantime, I recommend Google Scholar as useful, adapting the great statistician John Tukey’s comment:

    “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.”

    Of course, it would be nicer to have a cheap, exact answer to the right question, but I don’t know how to get that right now. 🙂

  13. it remains odd that “right-wingers” reject climate change. But Andrew Norton is economically “right” (he may protest, he appears to only like his own labels), and harry evans is definitely rightwing, isn’t he? Two people who accept climate change, and are interested in the economic consequences of adjustment.

  14. John @14:
    Oh, I agree with you on Google Scholar. It’s a really useful tool (though perhaps at its best for quickly finding specific articles/books rather than for topic-level forays).

    But re

    the general public isn’t going to pay for something they might use a handful of times per year

    .. my point is that the public is already forced to pay for it, ultimately getting much of the bill for both the content (via research funding) and university library subscriptions (via uni funding), but then being denied access. This seems to me both unjust and poor public policy.

  15. I don’t see how the public are funding the uni libraries Crispin and not getting access. Public funding is only one component of uni funding and if the public want access they can go to uni and get it. My old uni (UQ) provides extensive access to electronic journals for the public if the public come to the library – much the same as in the old days for hardcopy.

  16. ‘In the matter of ecological sustainabiilty the Right’s intellectual approach is rapidly turning itself into a farce of the more unpleasant and irksome kind. Do they not realise that you do not argue numbers with people who crunch them by the billion?

    Whether this intellectual failure is because of its corruption by power or some deeper intellectual vice is best left for “a broader canvas and mightier brush” than mine. (apologies to Schumpeter)’

    Let me speculate about that broader canvas here Jack. Essentially with global warming the left have their ‘gotcha’ moment after taking a terrible beating with the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are all greens now, for the simple reason it allows them to play the fear card, a card which initially displayed itself way back with that Apollo moon mission and the notion of spaceship earth out of that porthole window. Subsequently our satellites would serve to broaden that canvas. Now to a certain extent that touches an obvious raw nerve or perhaps more succinctly presents a challenge to free markets and business as usual and the right hasn’t come to grips with that yet. Basically come with we quantity controllers because the other mob know the price of everything and the value of nothing folks. As well, just look at the mess prices are in right now if you don’t believe us. Now while Austrians can easily explain the latter, they have not addressed the former environmental challenge, AGW being its most visible standard bearer.

    Now while it’s easy to play the cataclysmic fear card to ride into power, once there, your ethos will immediately be put to the test. Price fans know instinctively that quantity controls won’t work, but with no satisfactory pricing regime (constitutional marketplace) of their own, they simply have to grimace and bear it as the inevitable happens, or for the less tolerant, attack the gotcha science. Who knows, time may debunk the causality between CO2 and GW, but the overall paucity of a constitutional marketplace based on sensible level playing field price, in order to address growing environmental concerns still eludes them. That is their perpetual achilles heel at present, creating that obvious tension in their ranks.

    If you play the cataclysmic fear card of AGW, then clearly you have to address that as a matter of urgency when in power and that’s where any shortcomings in ethos will quickly be exposed, as well as tensions in the ranks arise, should things not go as anticipated for the other spectrum of faithful. The quantity control road to address AGW faces some obvious hurdles. The most obvious is where to start and given their leftist leanings, don’t get the punters too bogged down in the ultimate end game of carbon credit cards for all, but sell the idea that it’s those nasty polluting multinationals and corporations that are to blame, as if they don’t belong to any of us. Cap and trade the bastards and that will fix things in a hurry and besides they sit outside the concerns of ordinary concerned citizens everywhere, who are so obviously doing the right thing changing light globes and shower heads, etc. The problem with this top down approach is it’s dishonest in two ways. Firstly there’s the jurisdictional problem of such a utopian grand plan and secondly the obvious that corporations are really our proxies in the production process. Cap locally not globally and they’ll quickly test that theory that these firms are not our proxies, even if our super funds don’t own them particularly. The proof of this pudding was in the eating of the CPRS, the moment the Rudd Govt sat down with business and the inevitable compromises had to begin in earnest.

    The grand plan of signing on to Kyoto and global CO2 caps was always a utopian pipedream, made even more starkly futile by the recent experience of derivatives creation and their subsequent trading meltdown. The very thought that quantity caps on business could be sternly and rigorously pursued by these contradictory bailout barons now, is plain for all to see. If it’s hard to see these new policemen turning off a coal fired power generator exceeding its CO2 limits, it’s equally hard to see them saying the same to a carmaker that at the whiff of trouble is thrown millions. Suddenly these multinationals all belong to us and our unions and if their banks are in trouble, we’ll bail them out too. We’re all in this together comrades is their catchcry, with the inevitable tensions. As for preening around in Govt funded hybrids and planting trees to offset their own carbon lifestyle, that is always fair game for ridicule from those who are paying the bills and doing it tougher with each administrative oncost being overlaid. If some within the left are having trouble with much of that, they are not the only ones by all accounts-
    The ethos has to be sound, practical and avoiding spin, or it will be a short honeymoon when you’re found out. Still, if your opponents haven’t got any better you can always stumble along listening to those polls and spinning it all as best you can.

  17. nanks @ 17:

    I realise unis are only partially publicly-funded, but you need to take into account also the funding for the research that published papers are based on. If the public pays for research, it should be able to read it.

    UQ does a pretty good job of providing access to the public, but there are still gaps aplenty. Our universities are perhaps not as aggressive in negotiating terms with Thomson Reuters et al on behalf of the public as they might be.

  18. Nanks @ 17, interesting to hear that UQ provides public access to those resources.

    My old university only ever provided access to electronic journals and the like to enrolled students.

  19. Tony @13, I agree to some extent that terms left and right often have the effect of manipulating and controlling debate. Once you introduce those terms, people tend to just go back to their respective corners.

    One example is that the term far-right is often used interchangeably to describe those who strongly favour free market, small government policies and those who support fascist or racialist policies. Even though these two positions normally have little in common.

    However, the terms still have some benefit at least as a form of short-hand to describe certain ideas or worldviews.

  20. Im more familiar with that as well Monkeys Uncle in Sydney unis. Its a complete pain in the neck for casual academics (who work every semester and can be studying as well…oh teaching contract end? No overlapping other contract – chop, no remote or other libary access – even though its been the same every semester for ten years) and of course the public unis get to charge the private colleges libary usage dont they, along with full student fees?. The only way they can distinguish to charge fees is enrolled, versus non enrolled and permanent versus casual (although they dont charge casual academics library fees for electronic access they just clean them off, no matter what studies they may be doing).

    Its all part of the increasing private $$$$ funding of unis.

    Ahh but they dont know the way casuals get around it….just borrow a few books on the very last day of semester and renew them once or twice over any break. (librarians can be so helpful..).

    No return the books yet? No cut off the system!

  21. Im actually inclined to agree with Tony G at 13. Much of the divisive right V left rants emerge from some notably well funded organisations.

  22. But as for AGW Tony – cant agree. You only have to drive an hour or so out of Sydney to notice the difference in sky colour (out from under the cloud of pollution).

  23. pablo Says: February 23rd, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Awh come on Jack, don’t sell yourself short, give us the broad brush. We can take it. Your turn Jack.

    The answer to the question “whats wrong with the Right”, at least in key areas of ecologic and economic science, lies in its frustration at not reaping the full spoils of victory in various Class, Culture and Cold Wars. The post-Cold War Right believes it can get a better grip on power by swapping rational policy for visceral politics. This has ended in tears.

    In the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR the ideological Right was born aloft by a massive thermal draft of vindictive triumphalism. Sometimes associated with Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, linked to the so-called “Washington Consensus”. The Right could point, with some justice, to the social success of its Class, Culture and Cold War policies.

    Asset markets soared as unions were tamed, crime rates plummeted as prisons filled and the Commies collapsed as they pulled out of the Arms Race. Then there was the tech-boom with its cult of CEO worship. So the Right’s policy success should translate into Right wing political power, no?

    It was not to be. Through the nineties, in the USA and USE, it was the parties and politicians of the Centre-Left that made gains or at least held off the Right wing juggernaut. M Thatcher was unceremoniously dumped and GH Bush was ignominiously defeated. Clinton rang rings around Gingrich.

    Rupert Murdoch found a market for doling out Right-wing Kool Aid to the gradually swelling ranks of feral Right-wingers in the super-heated atmosphere of frustration and recrimination that followed the REPs victories in the 1994 Congressionals. He helped to cant Right-wing drivel of sub-par intellectualoids spawned by think-tanks and shock-jocks into the empty vessel of Right-wing political operators.

    In fact 1994 was a momentous year in world political history, being the year that Gingrich and Yeltsin both came to power. Subsequently doing their best to permanently undermine the intellectual credibility of the Right.

    Compare the pre-Cold War Right to the post-Cold War Right. Reagan raised taxes, did Arms Control and quit the ME when it made sense to do so. Can you imagine Bush doing that?

    So the US Right, and its Anglosphere camp followers, is going to spend a long time in the poltiical wilderness before it learns the lesson that some form of policy rationalism is a condition for prolonged political power.

  24. re: #19 crispin

    The whole topic of research funding, publication funding, library funding, and who pays, and when, and how, is a whole topic unto itself, is seriously debated, and of course differs by location. Around here, to have 1-year library card at (public) UC Berkeley would cost me $100, and at (private) Stanford $200, as a member of the public with no official connections. If I needed that, I would personally not resent paying the cost of a few nice dinners for access to several of the world’s best research libraries, but reasonable people can disagree.

    In some sense, it’s a little like toll roads. Should I be able to go over the Golden Gate for free, since my gasoline taxes go into that, or is it reasonable that actual users of it pay more? Would people prefer to raise gasoline taxes enough to eliminate all tolls? Would people rather lower gasoline taxes and pay a toll on every road? [I make no argument for any particular position, just observe that policies in complex societies often find different balances.]

  25. Bit more complicated than the traditional right vs left. Many people with right wing attitudes have no problems with GW, though they may disagree about the best mechanisms to deal with it (market vs tax, et al).

    My gut feeling is that many climate ‘skeptics’ fall into the same camp as ‘peak oil’ deniers, anti-sustainability ideas, etc.

    The idea that the Earth is not infinite in resources or its capacity to absorb pollution is directly contradictory to long held beliefs (some religious).

    Thus it would shatter their worldview to accept such ideas. Faced with an unacceptable emotional impasse they fall into cognitive dissonence. Being such a large worldview change (comparible to the impact of Galileo) they can also become very shrill about the issue.

    Bit sad actually, just another obstacle getting in the way of fixing things up.

  26. Due respect, John Mashey, Jennifer Marohasy is not a scientist.
    She is a spin doctor; her purposes are antithetical to the true objectives and purposes of science.
    She has learned the methods and language of science without understanding, or worse still wilfully suppressing for venal and flagrantly anti scientific reasons an internalised guidance informed to the purposes of science. This involves actually, the suppression of underlying purpose of science relating to objective truth, as palpably demonstrated on her obfuscatory utterances concerning ecosciences.
    I don’t care how many letters she has after her name.
    She is not a “scientist” in any meaningful sense; her objectives are in fact antithetical to science as pursuit of objective truth. Any theoretical interest or knowledge is, in her case, subordinated to foremostly, truth’s perversion, misuse or misrepresentation through the employment its terminology, if need be as priority, on behalf of the vested interests sponsoring her.
    She is the academic equivalent of a street walker.

  27. 26# Paul – very true –

    From Wikipaedia

    Jennifer Marohasy (born 1963) is a senior fellow at the Australian think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, and is a director of the Australian Environment Foundation which she says was born out of frustration with the current direction of environment groups.[1]

    She does a lot of writing of anti science blurbs for the IPA and Quadrant with titles like “Why save the Murray”.

    She is in fact, one of the noisy minority who try to manipulate the majority. You dont have to dig too far behind the stream of media hits with titles like that above – before you find a CEO or two of mining or some other fossil fuel dependent business.

    Its a monumental CROC and its annoying because its deliberately misleading and dishonest and unscientific.

  28. Agreed Paul, Marohasy is a gun for hire to the lumpen AGW deniers. She may qualify as one of Jack Strocchi’s magnificent ‘intellectualoids’ of the sub-par variety. Somehow I can’t get Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew’s ‘pointy heads’ description out of my mind. But in that era they were the good guys.

  29. Monkey’s Uncle @21

    “However, the terms still have some benefit at least as a form of short-hand to describe certain ideas or worldviews.”

    Based on your example the term far-right would fit pretty well with Keating.

    Alanna @ 22

    “You only have to drive an hour or so out of Sydney to notice the difference in sky colour”

    I didn’t say that there is no carbon going into the air.

    There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that the amount of atmosphere that is carbon has gone from 0.0317% in 1960 to 0.0385% in 2008. Unfortunately that is where the evidence ends and the conjecture begins with AGW theory…. how can such a small fractional aberration cause such great cataclysmic changes to climate?…where are the actual global temperature readings? we only have interpolated ones…..where are the missing aeons of accurate records to benchmark from?…they conveniently disregard or ignore water vapours influence on climate….no controlled experiment that quantifies the contribution carbon makes to the Greenhouse effect ( or any other gas for that matter)

    The list of AGW conjecture just goes on and on. Sorry I can’t worship that kind of science.

  30. re: #28 paul

    Maybe I was being too subtle or ambiguous with “is/was”, and of course, I said nothing about degrees.

    Did you think I was defending her? 🙂

    “But it is well-known that a few scientists go off into non-science or even anti-science for a variety of reasons.”

    But rather than going to Wikipedia (which is useful but not authoritative), I offered a general procedure for evaluating the literature, and asked what conclusions people might draw from that.

    That seemed more helpful than merely offering my *own* opinion, especially since it can be useful in checking people where there isn’t an obvious thinktank connection.

    I could have said, my opinion is X, adding yet one more opinion to the plethora out there, but really, I’d rather point to some real data that anyone can see and ask “What conclusions do *you* draw?”

    Did you try the Google Scholar exercise? If you haven’t, please try it and post comments about what you see. Also, take a look at my reasons list and see if you think any fit. I’ll then happily post my analysis from doing that a while ago.

  31. Tony G, do you make up your own physics as well? If so, I have some great perpetual motion devices to sell you.

  32. Tony G

    Thanks for your data – surely even you would agree that this represents a continuing increase in CO2 concentrations around 26% every 68 years.

    So where does this lead?

    Are there any signs of modern climate or ice-sheet anomaly that you are aware of?

  33. More for #32, and connecting all this back to the original topic.

    In US politics (where minor parties are not big factors), some will always vote Democratic and others will always vote Republican. This leaves a fairly large group in the middle who are either Independents or centrists regardless of party affiliation.

    Hurling insults at the unloved side may feel good, but seems unlikely to change anyone’s mind. This is “playing to the base” and it sometimes works for elections. It can also really turn off the middle, even if the insults might be deserved. obviously there are fuzzy boundaries and reasonable people can disagree.

    Some websites are permeated with insults, where the actual information content of whole threads is ~0. But JQ tries to run a relatively courteous one, one of the reasons to visit.
    [I often suggest his Discussion Policy to other blog owners as a good starting model, i.e., spell out the limits to acceptable behavior.]]

    More important, when people post on a blog, they usually have no idea of the “lurker poster ratio” there. They normally only see the posters. There may be no lurkers, or there may be many, and some of the latter may well be uncommitted.

    Hence, it may be a good idea to write things *useful* to the uncommitted middle, because they are the ones most open to change.

  34. JQ has some “some great perpetual motion devices to sell”.

    I suppose if you believe the philosophies behind AGW and can sell that, you can sell anything.

    Chris Warren, 26% over 68 years

    I draw this analogy

    “crime rate goes up by 50%” At first glance it looks alarming, but after finding out the basis for the figures were, last year 1 milky bar was stolen from the corner store and this year 2, you just have to laugh at the modeller who is now extrapolating some cataclysmic crime wave.

    “Are there any signs of modern climate or ice-sheet anomaly that you are aware of?”

    I would have to say I do not know, except to say I am apathetic to AGW due to the exaggerations made by both sides.

  35. Tony G

    A negative trend inceasing at 50% is always of concern.

    The sample size determines the confidence level.

    One or two milky bars are not relevant as the sample size is to small and the population of corner stores and milky bars is far larger.

    There is a formula for sample size (assuming uniformity), so your example is not rigorous.

  36. The sample size determines the confidence level.

    IMHO a 0.007% change in the atmospheres composition over 50+ years of which the IPCC says 95% comes from natural causes, isn’t significant.

    We will agree to disagree.

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