Hotties vs Frosties?

Guest post by John Brookes

There is much heat in the blogosphere debates between those who believe that we are warming the planet, and those who are highly skeptical of such claims. I will put my cards on the table right now, and say that I think we are warming the planet. There is a lot of mistrust between the warring factions. People like me are referred to as AGW alarmists, while people on the other side are regularly derided as deniers. So to start with, I'd like to take some heat out of the debate by giving nicknames to the combatants. Those on my side will be referred to as "hotties", while the other side will be referred to as "frosties".

What are hotties like? Hotties are latte sipping, bicycle riding, quasi-intellectual, communist, greeny idealogues who hate the modern world and want to drive us back to the dark ages. Most Hotties have been hidden away in their ivory towers for so long suckling off the taxpayers teat that they know almost nothing about the real world, the world they are trying to destroy. They want to impose more and more rules limiting what you can do. Hotties have been brainwashed by an elite who are using the threat of climate change for their own ends. The elite consists of politicians are intent on creating a world government, and tame but dishonest scientists who are rewarded financially for fudging data and saying what the politicians want to hear. Hotties try and drown out all dissenting opinions. Philip Adams is their hero. Hotties should wash more often.

How about the frosties? Frosties are chainsaw wielding, grumpy, overweight, middle-aged men who drive older model 4WDs. They have Galileo complexes and opinions on everything, are outraged by most things, rail against the youth of today, and are suckers for conspiracy theories. They cherry pick data, and use tired and discredited arguments as though they are brand new. They would argue that black was white, if they thought that admitting black was black would weaken their position. They intimidate and harass real climate scientists, while their own Plimer, Monckton, Nova, Archibald, etc are in the pay of industry and have less credibility than John Worsfold talking about the Eagles next premiership. They don't have heroes. Rugged individuals who are single-handedly supporting the whole of western civilisation have no need for heroes. Some do have a bit of a crush on Jo Nova though.

So I've spent some time on both hotty and frosty blogs, and this is not what I see. For example on Jo Nova's blog, I have found many well meaning frosties who are only too happy to help expand my limited understanding of the science of climate change. At one time I put up a post which said that most hotties and frosties did not understand what was going on, but were simply barracking for their side. Rather than wishing me good riddance, Eddy, a regular there, encouraged me to aim higher. Thanks to Eddy, I've decided to work a bit harder to understand what is going on. Many of the frosties are doing exactly the same thing, trying to work out what is going on. They think that attempts to reshape our world without fossil fuels spells disaster, and think it is their duty to fight against it. Sure there are some frosties who are over the top and abusive, but the same can be said of some hotties. Of course there are also frosties who uncritically lap up any new argument which supports their case, while demanding much higher standards of the hotties. There are also probably a few who are paid directly or indirectly by big coal.

A similar judgement can be made about most hotties. They genuinely believe that climate change is a serious problem which needs to be tackled, not because of their ideological beliefs, but because of its predicted effects. Most of the climate scientists are actually committed to finding the truth, even if it puts them out of a job. Scientists are like that, they are driven by a desire to understand, and their reputation in the scientific community, should they be found to have any other motive, would be mud. Just like the frosties, most hotties are trying to improve their understanding of climate change. Of course there are some hotties who will believe any old rubbish which says that humans are bad and the world is about to end because of it (and I blame the catholic church for this ;-)). There are also probably a few scientists who are so wedded to the idea of climate change that it gets in the way of their objectivity.

I don't think there is any hope for the lunatic fringe on either side. If your starting point is that the people on the other side are evil incarnate, then you won't move from that. But for the rest of us, maybe there is some common ground. Can we find the points on which we agree? Much more importantly, can we pinpoint the exact places where we disagree?

Say you are marking a short answer question in a students physics test, and their answer is wrong (no post modernism here). Unless the student has absolutely no idea what they are talking about you will usually be able to find the exact place they went wrong. For example, they assumed that a cube had 8 faces, rather than 6. After this mistake, even if they use the correct method, their answer will be wrong. If they want to get the right answer, they must return to the mistake and correct that.

Of course the real world isn't so clean cut. It’s not normally a simple problem where you know all the facts exactly and just have to join them together appropriately to get "the answer". Imagine our student having to tackle their problem, but with no knowledge (and no way of finding out) just how many faces a cube has. They may look at systems they understand reasonably well, and work backwards until they conclude that a cube has about 5.3 +/- 1 faces. So they'll use this range of values, and it will give them a range of values for the answer. If this range is not too large, it may be useful. Of course if they botch things up and conclude that a cube has 17.3 +/- 0.2 faces, any results based on this will be useless. It is often the case with problems that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and someone else may find a way of tackling the problem without needing to know the number of faces a cube has. If their results don't agree with the cubist ones, then there will be a bun fight until most people agree with one or other side. What if one or two people refuse to agree? Well, you just carry on without them. You are doomed to get nowhere if you need everyone to agree with you.

It follows that for many real world problems, you won't be able to "prove" anything. You will over time simply build up a weight of evidence to help you make decisions. This is particularly so for climate science, where you can't say, "Here is a world I prepared earlier".

Of course the fervent hotties will say, "But we've already done all the necessary work, and the weight of evidence is overwhelming." And the fervent frosties will say, "They haven't proved anything. They have failed to address this and this and this. Their results are meaningless". And there is validity to both of these points of view.

Let us take just one point, “Global temperatures over the last 15 years don’t show any signs of warming”. Most frosties are smiling now, while most hotties are like “WTF?” If both sides are looking at the same data, then how can they disagree? Surely one side must be dishonest or deluded. Well, no actually. Here is a graph of some data.

Up or down?

Is it increasing, decreasing or staying the same? Have a good look - take all the time you like. Don't scroll down yet. Can you draw any conclusion?

You can apply all the statistical tests you like, and draw trend lines, or trend curves or do whatever you like, and I will have no faith in any statement other than, “You can’t tell”. But that is not what I say. I say it is definitely increasing. I’m absolutely sure of it. Why? Because I know where the data came from, and I have a model in my head of what I expect that data to do, and when I look at that data, it only confirms the model.

The data is the daily maximum temperature for Perth for September 2009. Here in Perth, we get warmer during September (that is the extremely simple model I have in my head), and with this in mind, when I look at the data, that is exactly what I see – a steadily increasing trend with some unusually warm days at the start of the month, and one unusually cold one at the end.

This is why frosties and hotties can look at the same data and see different things. The frosties look at the data without any underlying model, and see no trend. The hotties look at the data in the light of their models, and see something different. The point of difference is not that they see different things, it is the presence or absence of an underlying model of what they see.

So lets sort out our common ground, and work out where our differences really come from. At least then we can have a debate which is better than, "You are a moron", "No, you are a moron".

Posted by John Brookes on Friday, 9 July, 2010

Creative Commons License The Skeptical Science website by Skeptical Science is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.