Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself

That’s the advice on scandal management from former Clinton spinmaster Lanny Davis, who’s since applied his expertise to defending some of the least appealing clients imaginable. Whatever you think of Davis, his advice is pretty good, and lots of people have come to grief by doing the opposite. That certainly seems to be the case with George Mason University. In March 2010, they received an official complaint of plagiarism regarding the notorious Wegman report produced (at the request of Republican Congressman Joe Barton) to criticise the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph of global temperatures. Amazingly, GMU Professor Edward Wegman had lifted substantial blocks of text, without acknowledgement, from one of his targets, Raymond Bradley. When this was pointed out by bloggers John Mashey and Deep Climate, Bradley complained and asked for the report to be retracted.

Ignoring (or ignorant of) Davis’ advice, GMU took its time, perhaps hoping the problem would go away. Unfortunately for them, the opposite happened. Further research produced at least two more instances of plagiarism, one in another section of the Wegman report dealing with social networks and another in an unrelated paper on color vision. As I a mentioned a little while ago, the social networks analysis produced an academic paper, accepted by a Wegman mate with no peer review, which has now been retracted.

And now, Nature, which published the original hockey stick paper in 1999, has weighed in with an editorial calling for GMU to hurry up, and making mention of the Office of Research Integrity as an alternative process. That could make it a criminal matter.

At this point, GMU has no appealing options.

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Lindzen, Davidson and statistical significance

Among the many anti-science talking points, a striking one is the widely repeated claim (originating with Richard Lindzen) that there has been no significant warming since 1995. In his original statement, Lindzen was careful to refer to “statistically significant” warming, but he must have known that most of his readers would understand “significant” in its ordinary sense, and in fact Lindzen fell into the same trap himself in this Quadrant article. Sinclair Davidson cites the BBC interview leading to the famous Daily Mail article that got this utterly wrong, but doesn’t point this out to his audience (most of whom wouldn’t know a t-statistic if it bit them, but nevertheless feel qualified to “make up their own “minds”” in accordance with their political prejudices.)

As I pointed out, all Lindzen’s claim means is that, given the noise in the data, you need more than the 14 annual observations from 1995 to 2008 (when he made the claim) to get statistical significance. Of course, we had the additional observations, namely those before 1995, so Lindzen’s statement was trivial. It was also safe to predict that, given a few years more data, the trend for the period since 1995 would be significant, and so it has proved.
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Phoning it in

Not long ago, I noted that Opposition Environment spokesman Greg Hunt was out by a factor of five in his estimate of the effects of a carbon price on the average household’s electricity bill. Now Tim Lambert at Deltoid catches him out by a factor of (at least) 100. And last week Lenore Taylor caught him circulating the latest delusionist talking point (about France dropping a carbon tax) in a press release, hastily correcting it an hour later when he realised that his “news” was a year old.

Three absurd errors in the space of a few weeks is starting to look like a pattern. What gives here? Hunt is one of the less silly members of the Opposition front bench, so I think the only explanation is that he is, as they say in the movie business, “phoning it in”.

If Hunt wants to stay in his job he has to oppose a policy he knows to be the right one, while advocating a nonsensical supposed alternative which exists only because Abbott can’t afford to say he will do (next to) nothing about climate change if he gets in, though of course that’s exactly what will happen.

And those on the Liberal side of politics who are paying any attention to this issue are mostly “sceptics”, that is, credulous fools who’ve already swallowed bucketloads of nonsense from Monckton, Carter, Plimer and others, despite ample and easily accessible refutations from scientists who know what they are talking about[1]. While they would scream blue murder about a misplaced comma in an IPCC document, or an out-of-context phrase lifted from an email, nothing as trivial as an error of a factor of five (or a hundred or a thousand) will worry them as long as it comes from their side of the fight (I was going to write “debate”, but this would imply that there was some element of rational argument).

So, from Hunt’s point of view, he might as well take it easy and churn out whatever nonsense comes to hand. As has been shown by the non-reaction to the absurdities I’ve listed, no one but a few bloggers will care.

fn1. Within this group, I guess I prefer those for whom “sceptic” means “I’ll believe whatever suits me politically” to those who, in the face of all this profess to be “still making up their minds” or “unable to judge”. Both are displaying absurd credulity regarding the nonsensical “evidence” put forward by the anti-science side and a massive over-estimation of their own reasoning powers regarding a mass of scientific literature they have never read and never intend to. But the first group are at least clearer about their motives.

The chain of scientific authority

Noted scientist Andrew Bolt assures us that exposure to radioactivity is beneficial. His source is creation scientist Ann Coulter, who in turn relies on all-round scientific expert Tom Bethell, whose Incorrect Guide to Science[1] rejects scientific correctness on radiation, evolution, climate change, DDT, AIDS and many other topics. As far as I know, none of these experts has ever studied any scientific subject at a level higher than high school, which guarantees that they haven’t been infected by the subversive influence of correctness in science (or, for that matter, any other topic).

(Hat tip, Tim Lambert, who points to one of those correct scientists, PZ Myers)

fn1. The full title says “Politically Incorrect”, but this is a bit redundant. No doubt politics are the reason for Bethells incorrectness on science, but that’s true of all his incorrect opinions.

Howled down in a pomo world

Deirdre Macken has a great piece on today’s Fin, riffing off Cardinal “I spend a lot of time studying this stuff” Pell to the general issue of the challenge to expertise in both productive (Wikipedia) and unproductive (climate science rejectionism) forms. Paywalled unfortunately, but here’s the link for anyone who can use it.

Macken, correctly I think, points to postmodernism as a contributor to the process. I’ve discussed this before (do a search) and I know it’s more complicated than that, but the vulgarised version of postmodernism as denying any special status to scientific knowledge as compared to other “knowledges” has certainly been embraced on the political right in a way that few of its original proponents could have anticipated.

Cardinal folly

In his demolition of Ian Plimer’s anti-science screed, presented at an estimates hearing in the Senate,the head of the BOM Dr Greg Ayers offered Cardinal Pell a gracious way out of his ill-advised endorsement of Plimer saying the cardinal ”may well become an ambassador for the quality of climate change science if he is exposed to the quality of the science that is done”.

Instead, Pell has doubled down, accusing Ayers of getting his facts wrong and saying

”I regret when a discussion of these things is not based on scientific fact … I spend a lot of time studying this stuff.”

Comment on the arrogant stupidity of such a claim is superfluous (but feel free to pile on anyway!)

Instead of a tiresome recitation of Ayers’ qualifications on the topic and Pell’s lack of same, I’ll look on the bright side. Each person who comes out with this kind of nonsense (Don Aitkin, David Bellamy, Clive James, Nick Minchin, the entire rightwing commentariat) is one less to whom we need to pay attention on any subject. Whatever their former claims to eminence (!), the combination of ignorance, bad judgement, hubris and plain dishonesty required to endorse nonsense like Plimer’s is enough to discredit them across the board.

The Bureau fights back

The idea that the Bureau of Meteorology is part of a global conspiracy to destroy Australia’s economy impose communist world government (or in some more prosaic versions, to increase its funding[1]) sounds like the basis of a bad comedy sketch. But, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, this claim is put forward, in apparent seriousness, by numerous anti-science advocates in Australia (Andrew Bolt, Jennifer Marohasy, and Warwick Hughes are leading examples) and implicily accepted by many others.

Now, as Graham Readfearn (h/t Tim Lambert) points out, the Bureau is fighting back.

Back in October last year, the Senate’s Environment and Communications Legislation Committee agreed to table a letter from Cardinal Pell which quoted heavily from Heaven and Earth to claim there were “good reasons for doubting that carbon dioxide causes warmer temperatures”.

The Director of the Bureau of Meteorology Dr Greg Ayers has now responded at an estimates hearing, demolishing Plimer’s bogus claims and pointing to numerous scathing reviews of his trashy and dishonest book. Ayers is great value, but the real fun in reading the Hansard transcript comes from the frantic attempts of Senators MacDonald and Boswell to stop him talking.

Update This post was critical of the Australian Academy of Science for what I’ve seen as a “missing in action” response to the attacks on climate science in Australia. In response, Martin Callinan of the Academy points me to this ABC Radio Interview with AAS President Kurt Lambeck, in which he gives a very critical review of Plimer’s book. I’ll also link to the AAS pamphlet, which is very good. That said, I don’t retract my main point which is that the Academy needs to take a much more vigorous line against the attacks on science and individual scientists which have become a pervasive feature of Australian political commentary.
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Adventures in agnotology

A fun list from Ranker, on the absurdities of Bill O’Reilly, some mockery of which is now going viral. And while we’re on the subject of lists, here’s Alternet with 10 historical facts only a rightwinger could believe.

Meanwhile, Brad Delong cites an attack on relativity theory by Tom Bethell of the American Spectator and Hoover Institution. Bethell’s source is the “Galilean electrodynamics of rightwing crank physicist Petr Beckman, commemorated in the Petr Beckman award, which has been accepted by a string of the scientific luminaries of the climate science denial movement such as Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon. As DeLong observes with respect to the publication of the Bethell piece

from that moment on, my working hypothesis was that the conservative wing[1] of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bulls**t detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now.

Of course, this applies in spades to the Australian importers and distributors of this stuff – Bolt, Devine, Windschuttle and the entire Murdoch press.

The left has its faults and follies, to be sure. But it must be excruciatingly embarrassing to be, for example, a (genuine) scientist or historian of conservative inclinations, aware that your political allies are at best utterly indifferent, and at worst actively hostile, to scientific and historical truth.

Update There’s a response at Catallaxy, with a lengthy (and typically Catallaxian) comments thread, largely focusing on my offhand reference to Bolt and others as Australian advocates of anti-science views imported from the US. I didn’t intend to suggest that the people I mentioned are opposed to relativity theory or, more generally, that they are consistently anti-science like Bethell and Conservapedia. Rather, they take something of a “cafeteria contra-science” view, happy to endorse mainstream science whenever its implications support their political views, or provides the basis for cool new technology, but equally ready to discover a massive global conspiracy any time the science comes out the “wrong” way (on smoking, DDT, global warming, CFCs etc).

fn1. DeLong is presumably speaking in the terms applicable to the early 1990s, when the Republican Party included numerous centrists and even some remnants of the once influential “liberal Republicans” epitomized by Eisenhower.

Sandpit 300

This is a sandpit for people who want to
(a) argue about the efficacy of specific road safety interventions
(b) record their status as believers (with or without qualification) in the libertarian/conservative orthodoxy that climate change is a hoax/fraud/unsupported hypothesis.

I’d request no responses to those in category (b). They are, in my view, beyond help, and there are plenty of sites pointing out their errors if they want to look.