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The Missing Link, Creationism and Climate Change

Posted on 17 July 2010 by gpwayne

Guest post by Graham Wayne

I’ve always thought it rather specious to demand conclusive causative evidence that anthropogenic CO2 causes climate change. Skeptical Science has frequently demonstrated how good a case science can make for anthropogenic climate change (ACC), including a round-up of multiple lines of empirical evidence.

Yet the evidence does not impinge on some arguments. In desperation, I’ve also tried logic – don’t laugh – and it’s hard to know quite how the wheels can come off so fast, except to observe that logic depends on conventions that both sides of a debate must consistently observe. The glorious advantage of the ‘missing link’ argument is, as creationists already know, it presents a perfect, self-reinforcing paradigm of scientific failure, built on the straw foundations of mathematical proofs applied to linear systems; predictable – if not inviolable, processes. The inferential science of observation and rationalisation is demeaned and denied, even though a control Earth to play with is a patently absurd idea. So many arguments depend on the exclusive precepts of classical science; rule and regulation, set in stone (or so they appear to the unwary). Too bad the ecosystem doesn’t work like that.

* * *

William of Ockham’s razor often gets wielded in a dangerous manner. When you apply it properly, you have a fairly standard reductionist chain of inference that leads to anthropogenic climate change, because no other contender is left standing. This isn’t a popular line of reasoning in the climate debate, however, because it lends itself to easily to rebuttals that focus on what you might call a negative proof e.g. ‘it’s what is left’. In fact, science works through many hypotheses in this way, starting with as many ideas as can be generated, before testing them with the ubiquitous razor – truly the cut and thrust of science: last theory standing.

Personally, I don’t have any problem with this rationalisation, although I have read enough science to know that the evidence is very coherent. I was won over by the sheer weight of it; overpowered, actually. Only the cautionary note of scepticism remained: it was theoretically possible that some exotic, as yet undiscovered, causative mechanism was at work, heating up the planet. Theoretically. The weight I assign to this probability is measured by the time we’ve had to postulate, let alone find, such a mechanism. For all the hot air, the denial industry has failed spectacularly to suggest anything that fits all the criteria.

All the criteria. There it is; the catalyst for this article. I’ve been looking for a better way to explain how climate science adds up, and when I read Naomi Oreskes reference to "multiple, independent lines of evidence converging on a single coherent account", I found what I was looking for.

Climate science is a Pandora’s box, out of which come primary questions. These questions, which are fundamental, cannot be un-asked; we asked what would happen to the climate if we artificially increased the proportions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the answer is important. Science cannot get bored with the question, turn to something more interesting. Nor can it be halted by threat, by intimidation or censure, by propaganda or popular opinion. We are compelled now, as ever, to answer the primary questions that science is asking. And when we consider the sheer scope of potential and observed climate changes and the multi-disciplinary range of investigation, it becomes evident how powerful a paradigm anthropogenic climate change really is, for it is the ‘single coherent account’ that Oreskes identifies so well.

Anthropogenic climate change is not where science starts, thinking to fit the theory to as many phenomena as it can. ACC is where you end up following any single line of enquiry. Only when you reach this destination do you look around, to discover that everyone else has arrived at the same terminus. This is the consensus of climate change: the end point of all journeys for those studying sea level rises, the Arctic, the Antarctic, the glaciers and the ice caps, the changes in precipitation, seasonal periodicity, changes in ocean pH, weather events, droughts and famines, resource management, agriculture – and every effect being studied is occurring simultaneously. (I cannot stress how important I believe this last point to be: nearly all phenomena associated with climate change have occurred in the past – and this is a common argument of course. What rarely gets asked is this: at what point in the history of the earth did all these things happen at the same time, and at the same speed?)

Every discipline that finds itself affected or threatened by climate change reaches the same broad conclusion, the ‘single coherent account’ that is anthropogenic climate change. It is time we stopped pretending there is likely to be another theory, another causative agent, that could be changing the planet’s ecosystem, and owned up. So far, we look rather more like children crying ‘I didn’t touch fell all on its own’, than adults accepting responsibility for what we do. We have a coherent account; let’s match it with actions that are equally coherent, and let’s do it while we can, because we are surely running out of time.

You can catch more of Graham's musings at

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Comments 101 to 115 out of 115:

  1. The similarities with creationism is something I've thought about before, but the point which struck me here was about the converging lines of evidence, and how it is the totality of what is presented which makes the case for AGW so compelling rather than any individual "killer fact". This is in stark contrast to the self - appointed auditors who essentially make the case that disproving, or even showing errors in any single observation falsify the entire case; a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method, which often seems willful, but may be more in error or ignorance. What can we do about it? Well, it strikes me that rather than just continue to attempt to show the error of these misplaced analyses or audits, we should tell stories to match the power of the story of conspiratorial big government. A story of a future free from energy dependence on malign dictatorships, where humans co-exist rather than fight against our environment and where we can all live fundamentally more fulfilled lives freed from the tyranny of every increasing competition for resources. A future we will be proud to hand on to our children rather than ashamed of. Wishful thinking, I know, but I've tried the rational way (together with Graham and others on the Guardian CiF site), and seen the futility of logic on human reactions.
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  2. Tragic news, but hardly off topic. Here is what Schneider had to say in 1989. "Unfortunately, if society chooses to wait another decade or more for certain proof, then this behavior raises the risk that we will have to adapt to a larger amount of climate change than if actions to slow down the buildup of greenhouse gases were pursued more vigorously today." Still rings true. He was concerned that CO2 had passed 350 ppm. Of course, gasoline was under a $1 per US gallon. Those were the good old days.
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  3. CBW @ 97: I'm happy to stand corrected when it comes to physics. However, CBW @ 97 & Michael Sweet @ 98: Funny Tuvalu should come up (pun intended). I hope this is specific enough for you. I even went behind the paywall to get this :-) From New Scientist 02 June 2010: 'AGAINST all the odds, a number of shape-shifting islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are standing up to the effects of climate change. For years, people have warned that the smallest nations on the planet - island states that barely rise out of the ocean - face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Now the first analysis of the data broadly suggests the opposite: most have remained stable over the last 60 years, while some have even grown. Paul Kench at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Arthur Webb at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission in Fiji used historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images to study changes in the land surface of 27 Pacific islands over the last 60 years. During that time, local sea levels have risen by 120 millimetres, or 2 millimetres per year on average. Despite this, Kench and Webb found that just four islands have diminished in size since the 1950s. The area of the remaining 23 has either stayed the same or grown (Global and Planetary Change, DOI: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.05.003).' In fairness to all sides, the article concludes: 'Good news, but the warnings stand At its highest point, Tuvalu stands just 4.5 metres out of the Pacific. It is widely predicted to be one of the first islands to drown in the rising seas caused by global warming. Yet Arthur Webb and Paul Kench found that seven islands in one of its nine atolls have spread by more than 3 per cent on average since the 1950s. One island, Funamanu, gained 0.44 hectares, or nearly 30 per cent of its previous area. Similar trends were observed in the neighbouring Republic of Kiribati. The three major urbanised islands in the republic - Betio, Bairiki and Nanikai - increased by 30 per cent (36 hectares), 16.3 per cent (5.8 hectares) and 12.5 per cent (0.8 hectares), respectively.' Yet warnings about rising sea levels must still be taken seriously. Earlier this year, people living on the low-lying Carteret Islands, part of Papua New Guinea, had to relocate. Kench says anecdotal reports that the islands have been submerged are "incorrect", saying that instead erosion has changed the shape of the islands, forcing people to move.'
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  4. scaddenp @ 94 'True to a degree, but I'd say more regard for truth than average because learning a science discipline requires learning how not to fool yourself.' Alas, neither a science nor a medical degree confer morality, capacity for honest introspection on personal motives, or freedom from greed, narcissism, and allied character flaws. However, those with degrees in science or medicine usually are sufficiently intelligent to get away with it.
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  5. Actually, chriscanaris - in science and medicine your peers are usually "...sufficiently intelligent..." to catch immoral, greedy, and narcissistic work. That's one of the great benefits of peer review and lots of work being done in the field - junk gets caught.
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  6. KR @ 113 Always assuming that your peers are moral, disinterested, and not easily blinded by bells and whistles. Overall, however, I sincerely hope you're largely right.
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  7. chriscanaris - funny thing is, your peers don't have to be moral giants. They just need to be competitive. Bad arguments tend to be easy to take down! I think that's one of the best internal editors for science - if you publish junk, it will be noted and treated as such. It's a great incentive to do decent work.
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  8. chriscanaris @ 109: To what do they attribute the increase/lack of decrease in the size of the islands they studied?
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  9. Chriscanaris: While I did mention Tuvalu, my catastrophy was Miami with current projections of sea level rise. What do you think about Florida having to evacuate to North Dakota? Is this OK with you or do you think this is a problem? What do you think the dollar value of all the development in south Florida is? What should we do with their nuclear power plants? Or is it too far in the future for you to worry about?
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  10. Chrisancaris: I read the newspaper reports of the New Scientist article. -->New Scientist is not a peer reviewed journal. I note that the most populated island in Tuvalu was not measured, while seven small, unimportant islands in the atoll were. Why measure the small islands and not the important ones? It is common knowledge that the small islands on atolls constantly change size. Funafuti atoll, the capitol of Tuvalu, has 33 islets in the atoll. It would be easy to pick seven that have increased in size. They report Funamanu gained .44 hecatres, 30% of its previous size. This is one of the smallest islands in the atoll and is not occupied by people. I am concerned about cherry picking of data. Can you find me a reviewed journal article that makes the same claim? When I visited Funafuti in 1990 they were already concerned about rising water levels and flooding in the village was common.
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  11. 69 muoncounter "Exxon's policy changed (at least publicly) in 2007." Alas === RSVP: "Taking a red hot iron plug inside an "ideal" insulator such as a glass thermos with reflective surfaces. Does it radiate?" If you don't think so, why do you posit reflective walls? You know that the iron radiates. You must have been thinking of net radiation, or something like that. ==== 77 Berényi Péter "...attempt to arrive at some overview of what is presently known...." This does not mean "Put the conclusion first."
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  12. Michael swet @ 123: I think Miami and Florida will cope better than we fear. CBW @ 116: To what do they attribute the increase/lack of decrease in the size of the islands they studied? Erosion if my memory serves me well. Michael Sweet @ 130: I believe the New Scientist article cites a peer reviewed reference (included in my post). Feel free to look it up and I'm happy to stand corrected if there's been any cherry picking or other misinterpretation. New Scientist may be a popular science magazine but it tends to follow conventional thinking by and large and tries to be genuinely representative and quotes peer reviewed literature.
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  13. KR @ 115: Bad arguments tend to be easy to take down! I think that's one of the best internal editors for science - if you publish junk, it will be noted and treated as such. It's a great incentive to do decent work. And a very good incentive to cover your tracks :-)
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  14. Odd that nobody commented on the quoted anecdote about Ohm. Quote Wikipedia: "When Ohm first published his work [...]; critics reacted to his treatment of the subject with hostility. [...] The prevailing scientific philosophy in Germany at the time, led by Hegel, asserted that experiments need not be performed to develop an understanding of nature because nature is so well ordered, and that scientific truths may be deduced through reasoning alone. " IOW: Not "It's too simple" but "We don't need no stinking empirical evidence, reasoning dictates it's getting warmer because the sun did it." Anybody surprised?
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  15. Chris: Not all scientists as as sanguine about coral reefs as you To quote the summary: Reports of a recent study showing that 43% of 27 central-Pacific Atoll islands have grown in net area over recent decades, with only 14% of these studied islands decreasing in net land area, have led to claims that risks to these islands from projected sea level rise due to global warming have been overstated. The comments of the authors of the paper cited by the press, often out of context, have contributed to this false impression. Indeed the authors warn “while the islands are coping for now, any acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise could overtake the sediment build up”. This has not yet been peer reviewed, but clearly Tuvalu has reasons to worry. I am glad you feel Florida will have no problem with 1-2 meters more water. There is no reason to be concerned just because experts say the sea level will rise.
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