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Why climate change contrarians owe us a (scientific) explanation

Posted on 11 October 2013 by gpwayne

For a while now, I’ve considered climate change denial to be akin to superstition, which the Oxford Dictionaries site defines as “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences.” I mention this because when challenged, contrarians often claim that the climate changes we are witnessing are not man-made, but products of ‘natural variability’.  In this context, I find that ‘natural variability’ appears to be a synonym for ‘supernatural influence’.

Why? Because they can’t explain it. Not just that: many seem to believe they are not obliged to do so, which is suspiciously convenient, and all too reminiscent of those who would claim they don’t need to ‘explain’ God. In this, they share a view once expressed in a Guardian forum which, to this day, remains one of my favourite denialist non-sequiturs. When challenged, a poster calling himself Hamlet 4 insisted “I don’t need to prove climate change is caused by natural variability. It just is.”


Recently in the Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli wrote an interesting article entitled Magical climate contrarian thinking debunked by real science. The first sentence creates the context:

“One of the most important concepts to understand when trying to grasp how the Earth’s climate works, is that every climate change must have a physical cause”.

He follows that up with the premise on which his argument is based:

“It’s not sufficient to say global warming is the result of “a natural cycle” – which cycle is causing the change? For example, is it due to the Earth’s orbital cycles around the Sun, which operate very slowly over periods of thousands of years? Is it changes in solar activity, which has on average remained flat and even declined slightly over the past 60 years? Is it ocean cycles, which shift heat between the oceans and air, and don’t cause the Earth to accumulate more heat?”

Dana is taking issue with a specific paper, authored by Syun-Ichi Akasofu, a retired geophysicist and former director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks:

“[Akasofu] claimed that the current global warming is merely a result of the planet “recovering” from the Little Ice Age – a cool period (the cooling mostly isolated in Europe) that lasted between the years of about 1550 and 1850. Problem – Akasofu didn’t identify any physical cause for this supposed ‘recovery.’”

I’ve often remarked that climate change contrarians have no science. A common retort is that since we ‘warmists’ are making the claims, it is us that need to produce the evidence to support it. On the face of it, this seems fair enough – and indeed we have produced the evidence, not that contrarians are prepared to acknowledge any of it. (No surprise there). However, as with calls for probity, accuracy and transparency, one might imagine that such virtues, attributes or burdens of proof would be applicable to us all, not just scientists, advocates or journalists. Evidently, one would be wrong.

Clearly, the pseudo-sceptics do not care to understand that when they make claims, the same rules ought to apply. Describing the changes we have already witnessed as ‘natural variability’ without explaining the forcing or its origin is exactly the superstitious ‘magical thinking’ that Dana discusses, which explains absolutely nothing and has as much credibility in scientific terms as claiming that God did it.


Since theological explanations are no longer popular, contrarians need some kind of new, unknowable force to conveniently explain climate change; the new superstition of ’natural variability’. They don’t seem to understand that, in the scientific context in which these claims are usually made, this is yet another hypothesis, and requires exactly the same standard of scientific examination they demand of existing climate science.

Natural variability is not an explanation of cause, but the observation of a pattern of effect. It is not a mechanism, nor is it a description or function. Natural variability is an attribution, a generalisation, a vague but convenient catch-all. All phenomena are 'natural' and they vary a lot. Citing 'natural variation' as an explanation, explains nothing. The missing component in this 'explanation' is how and why ‘natural variability’ takes place at all - and to discover this, we must turn to science.

To bring about a ‘natural’ change still requires an energy input or output. Climate change contrarians cannot produce any science that attests to energy changes that might cause this recent ’natural variability’ any more than creationists can produce science (or evidence) to support their claim that 'it was God what done it'. This should not be surprising, because climate change denial is a belief system, founded not on science and evidence, but something akin to a religion, or superstition.

The problem with the claim that all the climate changes we are already witnessing are within the bounds of natural variability is that those making the claim cannot identify the forcing – the change in energy levels – required to increase the global temperatures rapidly over three decades, to melt glaciers, to warm oceans, to change seasonal periodicity, to expand deserts, to cause extreme weather, change precipitation patterns, to decrease Arctic ice volume or increase Antarctic sea ice extent.

All these and many more changes in our environment require energy, and what climate change contrarians cannot produce is even a convincing alternative hypothesis to explain where this energy is coming from, let alone produce empirical evidence for it. Yet this is their ‘theory’, their alleged explanation for what is happening to the climate. I think they owe us more than some vague, hand-waving generalisation. They owe us a scientific explanation of what drives this ‘natural variability’, because without it, they are asking us to dismiss a cohesive, consistent, consilient scientific theory in favour of nothing but untestable, unprovable, unfalsifiable superstition. They might as well be asking us to dump science in favour of magic – and then again, perhaps that’s exactly what they are doing.


When it comes to credibility, a source of information should surely maintain some kind of balance. That isn’t to say that an editorial policy can’t be applied – the Guardian is still (barely) a left-wing media outlet but that doesn’t mean its output is mere propaganda, even though its detractors might conveniently characterise it as such.

This point is particularly salient when considering the main contrarian websites. These sites cannot possibly be considered sceptical, for a simple reason; they find fault in all climate science, not just some of it.

Think about it: thousands of papers published over the last 50 years. I just wrote about the Charney report – a remarkably prescient bit of work dating from 1979 – but the audit trail goes a long way further back than that, all the way back to Fourier, Tyndall, and Arrhenius with his greenhouse theory, published in 1896. (Arrhenius received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903 by the way, and in 1905 became Director of the Nobel Institute, where he remained until his death).

Surely I can’t be alone in thinking that a site calling itself ‘sceptical’ would find some papers to be accurate, some to be debatable, and some to be in error. That would be the logical assumption in regard of any statistical breakdown of technical materials, particularly when the material originates from scientists so geographically and culturally diverse.

The probability that all climate science is wrong (or right, for that matter) is, statistically speaking, zero. Indeed, Skeptical Science, while lauding many papers for their insight, had no compunction in finding fault with a recent paper about an alleged methane bubble. (A fine demonstration of true scepticism, the lack of an agenda – and the pernicious corruption of proper spelling by the colonies. Have they no respect?).

The unfortunate result of finding fault in everything is that one can no longer be seen to persuade, but to hector and harass, to denigrate and deny. Without a counter-argument, all that’s left is propaganda. Persuasion requires a counter-position at least as credible as the one argued against; propaganda requires only a credulous audience willing to believe something that confirms a view they already hold. When the subject is climate science, it isn’t a valid argument to dismiss one theory without being able to propose an alternative. As I’ve said before, to knock down an edifice, all that’s required is brute strength and a sledgehammer. Constructing a new edifice out of the rubble requires more; intelligence, architecture, planning, skills and crafts, design and construction. Contrarians certainly know how to wield the hammer, but there’s not much evidence of anything constructive in their position.

Why do I claim that criticism without a counter-theory is invalid? For the same reason Dana eschews ‘magical thinking’. At the heart of the climate change debate there is a question being asked, and to answer it requires science. (The Oxford Dictionary on-line defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”).

We study the physical and natural world for many reasons, but chief among them must surely be the desire to understand changes in the world around us that may affect us for better or worse. So we find ourselves contemplating an important question; the climate is changing – why is that?

If contrarians want to argue their case, it is not sufficient to be dismissive of climate science, any more than it is appropriate to pitch opinion against theory. There is no material explanation for climate change proposed by deniers, except the magical thinking of ‘natural variation’. The only valid way to improve science is through better science, and better science is not achieved by taking a sledgehammer to the existing canon, any more than it could be improved by burning books.

We have a really important question to answer: why is the climate changing? This question cannot be answered through rhetoric or debate. It is the stuff of science, and until those who take issue with anthropogenic climate change can produce an alternative theory of equal merit, they must rely entirely on hyperbole, demagoguery, personal attacks, misrepresentation, and bad science to promote their invidious case.

I’m open to persuasion, but only by one means; science. ‘Natural variation’ doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question, which cannot be put back in the Pandora’s box it came from. We need an answer, and ‘natural variability’ isn’t it. What contrarians cannot do is persuade us that such a pressing question does not require an urgent answer.

All physical change involves changes in energy states. Until climate change contrarians can come up with a plausible, testable alternative explanation as to where this energy is coming from and why it is changing in distribution and quantity, they cannot present an argument that will persuade by force of logic. Appealing to pseudo-superstitions like ‘natural variation’ is an appeal to a mob mentality. It depends on predisposition, a certain ignorance, a credulous audience and a lack of sceptical enquiry. What it will never do is stop the ice melting, nor explain why it is.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 131:

  1. Excellent article. I "face-off" against the deniers online all the time. To back up my claims, I'll post links to peer reviewed studies, to this website, and others like it. I am always respectful, and though I do admit to being a tad condescending at times, I never resort to name calling or ad hominem. The deniers on the other hand, almost every one of them, do use ad hominems, are insulting when proved wrong, and when they finally do cite their sources of information, said sources are almost always denier blogs which are supported by energy industry, or conservative think tanks, sometimes both. Of course on occasion they might post a study by a legitimate scientist that denies global warming, but I take thse with a grain of salt, knowing that the vast majority of studies prove GW/CC is happening, and caused by human actions. Last night I even had a denier use your website to support their argument. He linked to your websites trend calculator in an attempt to explain the current plateau, which caused a good laugh on my end. He even attempted to use  Schmidt/Ridgwell's study to refute ocean acidification, when a simple reading of the abstract states that CO2 is causing the acidification. LOL, sometimes I wonder why I even bother debating them, but on the plus side, I am learning more on the subject simply by doing the research to debunk their claims. 

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  2. So when it comes to the philosophy of all this.  The burden of proof indeed lies with the claimant.  If the pro-AGW side says recent warming is caused by C02, they have to show a robust model which justifies their claim.  If the anti-AGW maks *ANY* claim, they have to provide justification of that claim.  The nutral position is 'we don't know', not 'natural variablity'.  

    Moreover, we expect justification to be sufficiently robust.  When someone asks, "What explains the formation of the solar system?"  It is not enough to say, "physics".   Similarly, it is not enough to say "nautral variability".  Either side will take the sum of the evidence provided (along with their own biases) and come to a conclusion if the evidence justifies the claim.  Most will say it doesn't. But as has been pointed out in this article, the anti-AGW side provides very little evidence to show that the current warming is due to 'natural variability'.  On the other side, the pro-AGW have gone out of their way to show it most certainly *is not* natural variability.  Could it be the sun? No. Could it be volcanos? No.  Could it be the oceans? No.  Could it be the clouds? No. etc. etc. etc.   Could it be any combonation of those? (First: how would you know?  Need a model!) No.  The other side has no model which justifies their belief.  This type of raw belief can be described as many things (e.g. a base axiom or faith) but it's not clear any of these are ever applied to the types of claims we are dealing with.

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  3. (-snip-).

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    [DB] No new participation on other threads until you finish your interaction on this one here.

  4. This post isn't criticizing attribution of global warming to specific natural phenomena. It's criticizing attribution to "natural variability" or "natural cycles" or whatever, because these claims are so vague as to be untestable therefore unscientific. The number of natural variables we would have to test to disprove this "hypothesis" are virtually limitless: clouds, volcanoes, planets, stars, pirates, and on and on.

    Your claim, for instance, that part of 1975-2000's warming can be attributed to ENSO is specific and testable. This post takes no issue with a well-stated hypothesis like that.

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  5. One aspect of natural variation deniers tend to ignore/deny is natural variations of CO2 are vitally important to past climate change. In many respects AGW is nothing more than a variation on an explanation by natural variation. Naturally, more CO2 warms the planet. The fact the CO2 is rising due to us is really the only anthropogenic aspect of the CO2 explanation.

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  6. This post portrays deniers as some kind of "irrational people" and tries to compare their rationale to religious superstition. Comparison may sound accurate but it is not fully adequate IMO. The reason is: the religious institutions around the world do accept AGW. Take an example of Vatican. Pope John Paul II said as early as in 1990, that global climate change is real, caused by humans, and that we should take action to slow and stop it. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed it. Lately, the populist Pope Francis has strengthen and clarified it, by saying: "All nations must focus on a rapid transition to renewable energy sources and other strategies to reduce CO2 emissions". I cannot comment about other religious leaders because I don't follow them, but I certainly see no correlation between anyone's religious beliefs and their climate denial. So, comparing denialism to some kind of religion does not do justice to geniunely religious poeple who understand the science and their supernatural world of God starts were science ends, which is perfectly reasonable to me. In such context, I would rather call the deniers "irrational heretics", esp. when Pope Francis' techings are in stark contrast with thier claims.

    There is another term/explanation, which you did not mention & to which Ben Ka@1 hinted, which better characterises/explain climate denialism - special interest group bias, namely fossil fuel industry lobbists, or so called "conservative" think tanks. The bias is so large that it skews the rationale as much as we've seen. Some heavily vested lobbists and so called "public relation specialists" are the top figures behind those "natural variability" theories. They don't believe in those theories - they are just "selling the flies of doubt" as Germans would say. Such people can only be described as professional liars. The crowd that follows and repeats the lies as "alternative theories" on WUWT or such blogs, are poeple who for some reasons are unable or too lazy to verify the "skeptic claims". As I said, they are "heretics" following the heresy inseminated by special interest groups. God does not need to be involved here.

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  7. Joanne Nova attributes the warming to "Something other than CO2", but she's just not sure what.

    Then when I explained that she had not presented any science to rebut the attribution studies, nor had she provided any evidence to show something else was to blame, I was placed into permanent moderation.

    This seems to be a pattern on Nova's forum.

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  8. Akin to the magical natural cycle is the magical negative feedback argument, which I heard recently: "if the last decade didn't warm as much as before, there must be a negative feedback lurking somewhere".

    Unfortunately for everyone, there's no evidence of neither, and plenty of evidence of the ever-worsened greenhouse effect.

    BTW, the magical negative feedback seems to be the holy grail of the last contrarian real scientists, like Spencer or Lindzen. Good luck for them. I just wish they wouldn't be so loud before they found it.

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  9. It's not always necessary to have a physical explanation for a correlation to find meaningful explanatory power.  The correlation between the tides and lunar position was known long before the physical mechanism, for example.  Likewise, there is a (counterfactual) situation in which "natural variation" with no additional explanation could be a meaningful argument.  If one could show that there have been century-long variations in the distant past that are equal in magnitude and frequency content to what we have seen over the last century, but that these variations were washed out in the reconstructions done so far, then one could argue, even in the absence of a physical theory, that what we're seeing now could be due to the same effect (whatever it is).  

    Of course there is no evidence of any such variations, so that is a purely hypothetical situation.  And even then, what it would mean is the answer is "we don't know", not "aha, see, it's just natural!".

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  10. Brendon at 19:35 PM on 11 October, 2013

    Anything But Carbon (ABC) became a cliché among contrarians.

    As an attorney, I would never want to b in their position: "I have no idea who it was, but in spite of all the evidence, I just want to say that my client didn't do it!".

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  11. Contrarians aren't intrested in getting a scientific or factual result.

    They are interested in the argument, winning or neutralising it.

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  12. Dare I jump into the shark tank here, one premise I find alarming is that there appears to be agreement that there is no body of primary research that discusses natural variability, solar influences, temperature reconstructions that do not jibe with man induced global warming hypothesis and other topics.  I am not making any ad hominem attacks, not insulting anyone, just listing primary research from per reviewed journals.  I list 10 papers here but there are hundreds of primary research works that present interesting evidence to consider. 


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  13. "Deus ex Machina" is the crucial plot element in the climate science denier's version of the climate story; just when it looks like they might have to eat their words some new element will emerge that fixes it all and they can say "told you so". It may be God loving us so much we will be let off from having to live with the real world consequences of our actions, even though we've known about the big one since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Or it may be bioengineered trees that suck CO2 out of the air and sequester it so well we can burn as much coal and gas and oil as we like. Or all the smart and worthy people will colonise Mars, where global warming really is "good" and there are no natural ecosystems for greenies to obsess over; those that have to stay behind can serve a useful role in paying for their migration to a better world.

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  14. Beautifully written gpwayne.I pulled 5 quotes from the article that should go down in climate science history. Thank you

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  15. joeygoze - I see you've been reading the denial site notrickszone, as those appear to be the first 10 links from one of Gosselin's posts. 

    However, the actual content in those papers really doesn't match Gosselin's rhetoric, does not contradict the general view of AGW. As but one exemplar: the second link, Stephen Po-Chedley and Qiang Fu 2012, is a discussion of errors detected in the satellite temperature record. If those errors are real, and are properly accounted for, the satellite data is in far better agreement with surface temperatures - and provides additional support for anthropogenic warming. In fact, if they are correct about the errors in the satellite record, arguments from the 'skeptic' producers of some of that data (Spencer and Christy) is considerably weakened. Clearly that paper wasn't actually read or understood when compiling the list...

    Many (most?) of Gosselin's links are from PopTech's list - a cherry-picked list of papers (and op-eds) that he (mis)interprets as possibly (in PopTech's opinion) contradicting AGW, despite in several cases objections from the authors of said works. They do include some works that directly disagree with AGW - including several from Scafetta (curve-fitting), from W. Soon (over the top misrepresentation), etc. And many of those have been refuted/debunked

    Link-bombing (as in Gossilen's post) only works if you don't actually read the links, or don't consider that even with a few cherry-picked articles, the vast majority of the work in the field finds those views to be unsupported outliers. If you feel that there are significant objections, I suggest you discuss them directly, rather than posting bare links.

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  16. joeygoze...  What you fail to recognize is that, for each one of the papers you list, there are close to 100 others that do make such connections.  

    On natural variation, the very point to multiproxy reconstructions of the past 1000+ years is to look at natural variation relative to the trend of the past 100 years.  There are a dozen or so of these studies and everyone of them shows that the warming of the past century is unprecedented.  

    Now, I frequently ask people such as yourself:  Where is a multiproxy reconstruction that contradicts these conclusions?  The fact is, there are none.

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  17. "In a time of Universal Deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. - George Orwell"  The truth will set us free The way to control the massed is to control knowledge so all we get is propaganda Here's a bit of history that may through some light on why we are in this hole of confussion

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  18. OTOH, with new science happening all of the time:

    perhaps natural variation is a reasonable explaination.

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  19. JRT256, a "reasonable explanation" for what?

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  20. Recovery from the Little Ice Age is probably one of the causes of Global Warming.  To say that this is magical is possibly nonsense.  Clearly if there was a cause of the LIA, then the cesation of this cause will result in recovery.

    One of the hypotheses of the cause of the LIA is the Maunder Minimum in the Sunspot cycle.  This would also mean that the cooling did not effect only Europe (an idea that appears to be the Lamp Post theory).  I note that Wikipedia lists some global evidence with citations.

    The same could also be said of other causes.  The point is not what the cause was but rather that if there was a globe wide cause of the LIA, only the cesation of this cause is all that is necessary for the recovery and a return to nominal temperatures.

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  21. Aye yai yai, JRT256.  Take it to the appropriate thread:

    We're coming out of the LIA.

    It's the Sun.

    On a new Maunder minimum.

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  22. DSL: Re #19 I thought that was obvious.

    Well, the natural variation discussed in the paper is occuring but we had no idea of the causation.  If this explaination is correct, we now understand the causation.  Before we understood the causation, it was unexplained natural variation.  But, it was still natural variation that existed, not magic.

    With new science happening all of the time, doesn't this also apply to other unexplained natural variation as well?

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  23. DSL: Re #21 Did you bother to read the article that you are commenting on?

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  24. JRT256 the article you referred to in 18 is an attempt to describe 'natural variation'. It is for the Northern Hemisphere only and it does not propose any real physical mechanism for its affects. Just some vague hand waving of so called multi temporal and spatial interactions. It does not account for the linear increase in temperature due to anthropogenic CO2. It does not disprove AGW due to the increase in atmospheric CO2. For the analysis to work at all the linear AGW signal has to be subtracted from the data.

    What is does do is show that AGW is not due to 'natural variation'! The opposite of what deniers are claiming. Bert

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  25. JRT256...  What would also be required here is an explanation as to why CO2 doesn't operate as we expect, and observe, to explain current warming.  

    In other words, you can't just dismiss the well understood radiative physics of greenhouse gases.  You also have to take into account a whole host of things that are predicted results.  Cooling stratosphere with a warming troposphere.  Arctic amplification.  Etc.

    And again, for natural variation to be a rational explanation, you'd also have to show that global temperature has varied at least as much and as rapidly over the past 1000-2000 years.  That, so far, has been shown not to be the case.

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  26. JRT256, there's nothing in the article or in the comment stream that provides an overwhelmingly obvious antecedent for the target of your use of "explanation."  I certainly would not have expected you to assume the reader would identify 'global warming over the last fifty years' as the target.  Rob and Bert explain why.  I also have a hard time accepting this quasi-periodic wave is independent of rapid and deep changes in the climate system.  The physical mechanisms through which the wave is propagated are changing.  To imagine that this wave persists through that change in such a way as to be used to reliably project a future hiatus in surface temp requires too great a suspension of disbelief.  Ironically, Curry works on a project that seems ideal fodder for her uncertainty monster. 

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  27. DSL it all reminds me of epicycles and the problems of turbulent fluid flow. Throw in enough epicycles or non sense variables and one can model anything we do not understand.

    I find it absolutely amazing that people will rubbish computer models that are based on known physics and yet grasp at any 'magic' models that are based on short term curve fitting.

    These same ignorant people will then accuse scientists of the very same fallacy they are committing all far outside the error bars that they cannot even begin to evaluate or contemplate. Bert

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  28. JRT256 @20:

    "Recovery from the Little Ice Age is probably one of the causes of Global Warming. To say that this is magical is possibly nonsense. Clearly if there was a cause of the LIA, then the cesation of this cause will result in recovery."

    This sort of spurious reasoning is what gives "magical thinking" plausibility.  Essential to JRT256's reasoning is an assumption that the "cause of the LIA" has in fact ceased to operate.  But if he has not identified that cause, he cannot know that it has ceased, continued as before, or even redoubled in strength.  For all he knows, climate sensitivity is far stronger than he imagines, but a redoubled strength of the "cause of the LIA" has slowed the anthropogenic global warming.

    The only way around this quandary is to actually identify the cause of the LIA; and to then identify what it is currently doing,ie, to go beyond vague formulations in terms of "recovery from the LIA".  Failure to do this, ie, simply assuming that the "cause of the LIA" is behaving in the way that best suites your intellectual prejudices amounts to magical thinking.

     Curiously, when the actual causes of the LIA are looked into, it is found that the primary cause of the LIA was a period of greater than usual volcanism creating an aerosol veil sheltering us from the sun; which indeed did cease in the early twentieth century and the cessation of which did contribute to the early twentieth century rise in temperatures.  Of course, volcanism has been renewed since then, and the rise in temperatures in the late twentieth century is opposite in trend to that which would be expected from natural (solar and volcanic) causes.

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  29. I think if climate sience looked at reality and not debated theories and computer generated models we could all live in a better world. Do all climate change researchers get provided with the time frames when this is taking place ?LINK


    And here in Australia I'd like to know if Atlant was running when Queensland got flooded? John Cook should be able to let us know


    So as I said these links are not promoting a theory they are real and going on as we speak.  


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  30. jmorpuss @29.

    You present an interesting example of denial. Does the ionosphere actually dictate the climate? Are the elusive results of the ATLANT experiments elusive because they are being covered up? This, jmorpuss, is the stuff of the "reality" you speak of.

    So to you, AGW is not a problem. All the climate scientists in the world are so dumb or corrupt that not one of them can see what you, a humble citizen of this planet, can see as plain as day in front of you.

    Congratulations, jmorpuss. You are in denial. Any evidence of human science is irrelevant and rendered false if it supports AGW, because you know AGW is false. You are not alone. Prof. Richard Lindzen takes the same position as you do, and he is a proper climatologist, abet a rather elderly one. Lindzen ignores all the unhelpful evidence because he believes some vital ingredient is missing from the theories, some mechanism of climate that will make the problems of AGW disappear. (I'm not sure how it would make the unhelpful evidence disappear for him, but hey-ho, what do I know.)

    Of course, because neither you nor Richard Lindzen are being scientific about AGW to a greater or lesser extent (you jmorpuss the greater, he Lindzen the lesser), you would neither agree with each other. Indeed Lindzen would consider you views ridiculous and insane. And he would not be alone in this opinion.

    Such is the stuff of denial. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  31. "Recovery from the LIA" would then be a cause, which itself does not have a cause? Makes sense...

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  32. >Hamlet 4 insisted “I don’t need to prove climate change is caused by natural variability. It just is.”

    I don’t need to prove climate change is caused by natural variability humans. It just is.

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  33. Interestingly Nassim Taleb believes there is an even greater burden of evidence on skeptics

    Implication 1 (Burden of Evidence). The burden of evidence is not on nature but on humans disrupting anything top-down to prove their errors don’t spread and don’t carry consequences. Absence of evidence is vastly more nonlinear than evidence of absence. So if someone asks “do you have evidence that I am harming the planet?”, ignore him: he should be the one producing evidence, not you. It is shocking how people can put the burden of evidence the wrong way.

    Implication 2 (Via Negativa). If we can’t predict the effects of a positive action (adding something new), we can predict the effect of removing a substance that has not been historically part of the system (removal of smoking, carbon pollution, carbs from diets).

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  34. You are preaching to the choir, aren't you?

    First of all, in the US the scientists are on the same side of the fence, politically, as very uneducated people who are using tax money for subsistance programs.  These followers may not even have a high school education, may be hardened criminals and likely to be using up tax dollars for multiple abortions.  I know it is true, because I worked for a large social welfare program.

    You can preach all day about the uneducated who are following climate skeptics, but the truth is, it is the same for your side.  You have massive amounts of uneducated people who really may say they care about climate but it is far from important to them.  It isn't even on their radar. 

    And the truth is, you would feel far more comfortable sitting at the same dining table with the skeptics who are millionaires, than these poor folks who might steal your wallets.

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  35. I recently made the mistake of responding to an article on a denialist website by trying to rebut some really poor arguments claiming that the debate wasn't over. I gave what I thought was a quite well reasoned response, but subsequently got back several replies that were equally trite in their arguments as the original article. I have decided that 'public discussions' on any of the multitude of denialist websites is entirely a waste of time. I'm better off finishing my rather lengthy presentation designed for the lay public and taking it to meetings etc. where I can actually lay out what we know, and why we know it, and see if I can help mobilise the small segment of the population where I live (Vancouver Island, Canada) that they cannot simply sit back and let business as usual happen.  Of course, I'll continue to refer to this and a number of other 'quality' sites for information; in particular, I found the article on this thread to be very helpful.

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  36. I am curious about the thread title - Why climate change contrarians owe us a (scientific) explanation. 

    When you say 'us' - to whom are you referring? Skeptical Science, the IPCC scientists, the politicians, the world as a whole?

    As for scientific explanation - you seem to be laying down the gauntlet for people to refute with scientific evidence something that is currently theory. The threat of man-made climate change is a theory that currently the IPCC have a 95 percent certainty in (previously 90 percent). It's all semantics. 100 percent, 90, 50. It is immaterial. We could all quote our 'out of 10' view on any given subject. It does not add weight to the argument.

    If you wish to talk about facts of course then I could refer you to this planets temperature and carbon dioxide relationship. With absolute certainty I can tell you that currently we are rather cool; in fact pretty chilly. Furthermore I should also add that we are currently carbon dioxide starved. I say we; I meant to say 'the planet.' Carbon dioxide is a warming gas; for me to say otherwise would make me a denialist. I am not. However, it is my belief, and it is a belief, that the effect of the Co2 that we as humans churn out is minimal compared to the amount produced through natural variation. This is supported by the fact that in our absence on this planet (the last hundred's of millions of years) not only the temperature, but also the levels of Co2 were both equally capable of being random. One common trend however is that the mean global temperature 'is' 22 degrees C and the ppm of Co2 has been in the thousands; all without our influence.

    Alternative discussion about climate change is healthy. To ask a person or persons to refute 'evidence' with 'science' is ludicrous in the same way that it would have been to ask people to challenge that the world was once deemed to be flat.

    Humans are a brief visitor to this planet. They will come and go. And I can assure you that our brief incursion here will have no effect on the long term future. The reason we have coal to burn is because at one time it was in the atmosphere feeding the plethora of plant life and vegetation. Are we complaining that we are returning it to the air after it had once been sequested?  Are we complaining about sea levels when we know full well that this is a natural event that occurs post Ice Epoch? Is it the planets fault that we as humans choose to build houses in coastal areas that will as history tells us become inundated again with water?

    Take a good look; there is enough history there to tell you what has been and what will be again. Do you really wish to throw all your eggs in one basket for the sake of a global threat that isn't really a threat at all?

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    Moderator Response:

    [PW] Elephant, in addition to your not-so sly tone-trolling, you've made numerous unsupported-by-credible-science assertions: either back them up and support them or risk any further comments of yours being moderated, *severely.* This is your first and last warning.

    Addition: All caps is a violation of comment policy and have been changed to bold.

  37. Elephant- What you wrote only makes sense if you are given a free pass for leaving things out and having no responsibility for the details.  It is an example of magical thinking, not scientific thinking.  Every word you write is aimed at exactly one outcome: stop thinking, stop investigating, stop testing, stop learning.  

    You've said (in paraphrase) "the earth has warmed and cooled before, CO2 levels have gone up and down", and we can stop right there with that.  That's all there is too it, and the entire scientific enterprise aimed at this (despite it being that same scientific enterprise that produced the paleoclimate data you make mistakes about), is a waste of time.  

    The question is, is this your philosophy of life or something you wish to deceive other people into adopting?  

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  38. Lei: "And the truth is, you would feel far more comfortable sitting at the same dining table with the skeptics who are millionaires, than these poor folks who might steal your wallets."

    Chuckle.  So all poor people are thieves, and no millionaires are thieves.  How medieval of you.  

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  39. ...the change in energy levels – required to increase the global temperatures rapidly over three decades, to melt glaciers, to warm oceans...

    Referring to this diagram:

    Global heat content

    Glacier melting did and does not use much of the assumed change in energy levels.  The warming oceans are supposed to account for most of the recent lull in the atmospheric temperature rise, but is the heat transfer to the oceans adequately modeled?  This paper suggests it is not.  As they say in their conclusion, the mixing described in the paper is a major uncertainty in the parameterization of mixing (in climate models).  The bottom line is we don't really know how much "missing" atmospheric heat has wound up in the oceans.

    Here's a climate model that won't satisfy rader5:

    Lindzen E&E 2007 figure 2

    The key point in the diagram (which is from Lindzen 2007 Energy&Environment) is that the angle of the arrows representing latitudinal heat transfer is a function of parameters, not physics, in all climate models.  But AFAIK, Lindzen has not provided an alternative GCM with his own cherry-picked parameters to make that point.

    Matt Fitzpatrick leaves out of his list (ending with "pirates") the "weather", specifically weather that increases or decreases latitudinal heat transfer.  He probably leaves it out in the belief that it affects the short run and can't explain decades of change.  But I don't think that is completely correct.  I would suggest to Alexandre that a potential "magical negative feedback" is weather insofar as the increased in meridional flow and consequential increased in storminess (neither are true IMO) are supposed to be from Arctic Amplification.  But wouldn't that increase latitudinal heat transfer and slow global warming?

    But Alexandre is correct that we ought not believe "magical negative feedback" until we see some evidence for it.  I believe that long term increases and decreases in meridional flow and latitudinal heat transfer come from long term natural factors, mostly solar. 

    Here's a quantification of meridional heat flux (Carl Wunsch: The Total Meridional Heat Flux and Its Oceanic and Atmospheric Partition, 2005) of about 5 PW atmospheric.  Dana's diagram at the top of my post shows about 1022 Joules of increase per year.  5 PW equals about 1023 Joules per year.  Obviously only a small part of the 5 PW is going to be lost to space as Lindzen's simple climate model implies.  But the 5PW and fluctuations in that amount are clearly a factor in earth's energy balance.

    Here's an old paper showing showing how variations in solar UV could influence climate by changing planetary waves through photochemical changes in the stratosphere.  The lower stratosphere has stopped cooling in the last 15-20 years:

    TLS graph from

    (Note: the middle stratosphere is still cooling substantially).  I believe these variations in the lower stratosphere are part of the explanation in the lull.  If I am correct we should see substantial warming in that TLS graph in the coming solar minimum as the high frequency solar UV decreases causing an overall ozone increase causing TLS warming.  The TLS warming is not a direct factor in the meridional heat flux, but it represents strong variations in stratospheric temperature which lead to greater meridional heat flux.

    Here's  a possible explanation of high sensitivity of early 2000's climate models: (Hu: Interannual and Decadal Variations of Planetary Wave Activity, Stratospheric Cooling, and Northern Hemisphere Annular Mode) which notes the stratospheric cooling to that point (paper is from 2001) potentially caused by GHG increases (plus ozone depletion) and asks whether the stratospheric cooling causes or is caused by an increase in NAM (Arctic Oscillation).  (Note that AO has been trending negative since the mid 2000's after this paper was written).

    Essentially high sensitivity in the models up to the early 2000's comes from a stronger polar jet which comes from a cooling stratosphere.   This decreases meridional flow and meridional heat flux and thus enhances global warming.  In more recent models the polar jet is weaker and consequently sensitivity is lower.  Whether Arctic Amplification plays a role in the strength of the polar jet (e.g. as explained by Jennifer Francis and others) is still undetermined.  My preferred theory is that external solar factors control it although the real answer is undoubtedly a mixture of external, internal natural and anthropogenic factors.

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  40. Please excuse the crudity but you are peeing agains the wind.  Most contrarians wouldn't know a scientific thought if it bit them on the behind.

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  41. There are some wonderful examples of denial on this comment thread. Elephant In The Room @36 certainly provides such an example.

    The main thrust of his argument is that natural variation is very large when considered over tens of millions of years. Thus an 8ºC increase in global temperature would do nothing but return the planet to the average temperature for such a time period. And over such timescales CO2 has been measured in parts per thousand rather than the present parts per million so the level of CO2 doubling or quadrupling through the burning of fossil fuels is nothing we should 'complain' about.
    "Humans are a brief visitor to this planet," he boldly tells us (I think he means "inhabitor" rather than "visitor", but whatever.) which presents a very fatalistic view of humanities future but these are large sweeping timescales being discussed. Let's be fatalistic.
    These ideas are presented by Elephant In The Room as "fact" which he tells us cannot be overturned by any "scientific explanation." I am sure many would agree with such argument within its proper place.
    So where is it that Elephant In The Room places this argument?

    It is used to objection to mitigation measures to combat AGW. This is particularly odd as AGW is a phenomenon that will act over decades and centuries, a miniscule timescale compared with the prior items of discussion.
    But that doesn't matter because AGW "is a global threat that isn't really a threat." It seems precipitating an 8ºC global temperature rise that could bring mankind's terestrial "visit" to an end is not "really a threat at all."
    The end of all human existence is not really a threat to humanity? I think Elephant In The Room is suffering denial and sorely needs a reality check.

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  42. @JRT256 #18 You can do a 1st-order approximation to gain some credibility re "temperature rebound". I'm hoping to find time off work for it myself this Christmas/Festivus. Simply estimate linear trends over a few thousand years of the temperature last 18,000 years, then integrate temperature anomalies using stated ocean heat increases and whatever you can find re ocean current rates & quantities to get this 1st-order approximation of changes in ocean heat content the last 18,000 years. Demonstrate that the last few decades of ocean heat content increase are simply a re-balancing from the few hundred prior years. Good luck.

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  43. Why climate alarmists owe us a (scientific) explanation

    For a while now, I’ve considered AGW to be akin to superstition, which the Oxford Dictionaries site defines as “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences.” I mention this because when challenged, alarmists often claim that the climate changes we are witnessing are not due to natural variability, but products of humanity. In this context, I find that 'humanity' appears to be a synonym for ‘supernatural influence’.

    Why? Because they can’t explain it. Not just that: many seem to believe they are not obliged to do so, which is suspiciously convenient, and all too reminiscent of those who would claim they don’t need to ‘explain’ God. In this, they share a view once expressed in a Daily Mail forum which, to this day, remains one of my favourite alarmist non-sequiturs. When challenged, a poster calling himself Romeo 4 insisted “I don’t need to prove climate change is caused by humanity. It just is.”


    The above could easily be the start of a blog post on WUWT or some other denial blog.  The point I am making here is that to someone who has not read extensively through the science with objectivity, it is very difficult to tell the difference and therefore it is very easy for confirmation bias to occur.

    The only difference would be that in a denial site there are fewer papers from which to choose, and more of the references would have to be to non-peer reviewed literature, because there isn't as much genuine science to which to refer.  That issue is easily dismissed by asserting that consensus science is not science at all - you can imagine a scientific consensus building up where in fact the truth lay in the minority view.

    As long as both sides of the debate look the same it will be difficult for the changes in attitude needed to cope with climate change to happen.

    What is needed is a "third way" - a way to avoid the constant to and fro wrangling; to find a different direction that takes everyone with it, rather than entrenching views.

    Could that be business realising that it is better to mitigate than adapt?  Could it be demonstrating the benefits of change rather than the reason for those changes?  Could it be discussion and quantification of risk?  Or could it be something else completely?

    Unfortunately I don't know - and I'll stop there to avoid getting off-topic.

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  44. I'm going to slip in a plug for the moderation hereabout, though it may be "offtopic".

    Whomever is doing it, it is outstanding.  To keep up with all the arcane "facts", their sources, tone, effect, and intent:  and the personas behind the sometimes sniping egos whose argumentation is occassionally specious..

    and provide a net effect of lucid edification for those who seek education..

    constitutes a great service.


    Sometimes when I encounter a self righteous "denier", I send them here to hoist their petard, and get it trimmed.



    WTHell:  what if it was "natural fluctuation" ( which it ain't):

    if the biosphere is dying, we are all that CAN respond to support  it.


    We WILL get around to "direct air capture" eventually.



    Anywya, Good Work" moderator(s)!


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  45.  ANYWAY,   i meant

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    Moderator Response:

    [PW] Extraneous characters trimmed off.

    Thanks for the kind words: As many have stated, moderation is a arduous and thankless job, and the commission of good, focused moderation is the hallmark of an excellent website. DB, JH, Ari, and JC himself, just to mention a  few, do yeoman work in making the place consistently good.

  46. Eric, your citation of Schmitt (2005) puzzles me.  First, the paper makes the case that mixing was faster than anticipated.  

    The significant vertical dispersion of tracer observed in this thermohaline staircase supports the idea that salt fingers significantly enhance mixing in certain parts of the main thermocline. Our derived salt diffusivity of 0.8j0.9 10j4 m2/s is an order of magnitude larger than that predicted for typical internal wave breaking within the mid-latitude thermocline. Indeed, for this low-latitude region, parameterization of mixing supported by the background internal wave field (32, 33) indicates that a diffusivity of only È0.02  10j4 m2/s should be expected. The tracer derived
    diffusivity is also larger than that implied by microstructure measurements previously
    made in this staircase (16, 25, 34). However, it is in agreement with the salt finger
    model applied to those dissipation data (35), as well as to our new observations. Notably, the diapycnal tracer mixing rate observed in the western tropical Atlantic is 5 times that observed in the eastern subtropical Atlantic during NATRE, because of the presence of the thermohaline staircase. The staircase appears to transform the T-S structure of the thermocline waters entering the Caribbean, increasing the salinity and density of Antarctic Intermediate Water (36) and preconditioning it for sinking at higher latitudes.  The efficient vertical transport within this strong tropical thermocline must be taken into account in oceanic and climate models, where the parameterization of diapycnal mixing continues to be a major uncertainty in assessing the ocean's ability tosequester heat, pollutants, and carbon dioxide.

    In otherwords, I don't think the paper can be read the way you're claiming.  Beyond that, this paper is 8 years old.  Did you do any work to check citations.  If this were a class paper, I'd certainly demand evidence that you'd followed the scholarly trail and were presenting an opinion grounded on more than one paper.  What work has been done since.

    Then there's this question.  There's instrumental data from the Argo floats.  You've made no mention of this, only models.  Why not?  If you don't like the data, wouldn't your exposition be sounder if you brought this up and disposed of it?

    If you want to create a synthesis, you need to do the work.  Especially here, where the aggregate of people do follow the literature, check citations, and routinely attempt sound scholarly syntheses.  Unless of course, you think picking a few papers is "good enough for a 'C'", in which case you'll not convince anyone here.

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  47. Jubble this 'third way' you speak of used to be peer reviewed science. That is evidence based knowledge from experts in their field to influence the policy makers such as our political institutions and business leaders. This has been paralysed by very dark forces that continually throw doubt on the peer reviewed scientific evidence. This is in a time where the peanut gallery is a worldwide phenomena due to the web. This peanut gallery is louder than the worlds experts. They do not have to win arguments with any logic or evidence. Just put up a constant noise to drown out the message that they disagree with.

    I am sure that that these dark forces are somehow also exploiting a form of Poe's Law where the pseudo scientific sites on Global Warming are indistinguishable from the real scientific sites to the average layman. Bert

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  48. Dave123, thanks for the critique.  The core of my alternative explanation follows after I comment on the ocean-has-missing-heat theory.  Obviously my critique of Levitus deserves a more thorough explanation which is here

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  49. Jubble @43.

    I would strongly disagree with your statement that "there isn't as much genuine science to refer to" within the theorising on a contrarian site. I would suggest that on such sites there is actually no genuine science to refer to whatsoever.
    It is of course possible to point to scientific papers that appear to fit the bill. As an example of these, Wyatt's "Stadium Wave" hypothesis was referred to @18. But will this "Stadium Wave" hypothesis stand up to proper scrutiny? As I am a little familiar with the profiles of PDO & AMO before they have been converted into pretty harmonic waves, and also the post-2000 data, my answer is a definite "No it will not!"
    Because absolutely none of the hypotheses or analyses paraded on contrarian sites stand up to proper scrutiny, with such an asymmetry, how can this be a debate with two sides? It is not. It is better characterised as 'one side' refusing to accept the evidence presented by the other but unable to provide a reasonable argument for such a refusal.

    It would be good if there were a "third way" to address this impass but tackling AGW is not a straightforward task. (If it were, we would just tackle it, like we did CFCs.) Tackling AGW is going to require changes that many will not immediately consider desirable. So if you don't see AGW is a problem, you will resist such change rather than support it. And a large section of the public, of the media, of our politicians are still unable to see AGW as a problem. (An example of such change and resistance, local to me, planting 175 sq km of sea with wind turbines 20 km off shore has turned the county into a hot-bed of NIMBYs. To them cutting carbon emissions by 750KtC, equal to half the county's total carbon footprint, that counts for nothing.)

    This post argues that contrarians owe the world a genuine scientific explanation. To date they have presented no "genuine science" but instead make fools of the world by continually presenting forgeries.
    If you cannot make good a debt you owe, you can be declared bankrupt. I think the time is long overdue that contrarians are declared bankrupt. And that is why I brand them deniers.

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  50. @dave 123 (#37)

    Responsibility for details. I don't need to duplicate countless graphs on here to demonstrate our previous relationship with Co2. Now, if you want to tell me that the average global temperature isn't 22 degrees or that the current level of Co2 isn't the lowest it has been for 1 of 3 periods over the last 650 million years then I suppose I should go and find a graph for it. Do you really want me to do that?

    This thread is asking 'contrarians' to provide scientific evidence that something doesn't exist when there isn't irrefutible evidence that it does. There is more credibility in referring to (if that's not sufficient) our previous temperature record.

    We as humans are destroying this planet and everything else that lives on it. We cannot feed ourselves as it is. 10 percent of children in the UK for example live in poverty. We also cannot provide our current energy needs. Carbon dioxide emmissions follow from that because we currently need to and have to burn fossil fuels. There is no escaping it. I would rather Co2 wasn't coughed up into the atmosphere but that isn't going to happen. Furthermore I don't believe the net effect is as great as is being suggested. I am entitled to that opinion and that is what I say.

    It is easy for everyone on here to talk about 'scientific evidence' when your view is the evidence of an army of climate scientists. Given that there is a distinct absence of investigation into the merits or not of climate science it will always be a one sided debate. If by association that makes you right and me wrong then it is very sad state of affairs indeed as let's be honest the view of the IPCC has just upped its belief to 95 percent from 90 percent. While there is still that uncertainty people shall continue to question the a science.

    I am posting on a website that clearly supports the view that man made climate change is occurring. In the same way, if I had argued for man made climate change on a site that refutes man made climate change I would expect the same reaction. And here lies the problem. This is why there will never been any agreement.

    Can the moderators just clarify the posting rules. Is it a rule that you must provide a graph every time you want to question a given subject? It seems that I am receiving quite a bit of back lash for sharing my opinion on a subject matter?

    Also, would calling someone a tone troll also be an example of an ad hominen remark?

    Not a very friendly welcome I have to say. I wasn't rude to anyone was I? Or does offering alternative views automatically make you a troll. (-snip-)


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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] "Is it a rule that you must provide a graph every time you want to question a given subject? It seems that I am receiving quite a bit of back lash for sharing my opinion on a subject matter?"

    This venue is based in the scienctific method and discusses the science of climate change, from the standpoint of what the primary literature has to say about it.  Every article here at SkS references the primary literature via hyperlinked text.  Discussion in the comment threads is based on increasing the level of understanding of that science, hence the participation of subject matter experts and other talented individuals.

    You will find that opinions are welcome here, but opinions that differ from the primary literature not themselves based on peer-reviewed articles themselves appearing in the primary literature are essentially caterwauling.  And will then be treated as such.  Repetitious behavior in this regard contravenes the "No Sloganeering" portion of the Comments Policy; which, based on your subsequent comment you have indeed read. 

    Future comments by you will be held to adherence to that policy with increasing rigor.

    "would calling someone a tone troll also be an example of an ad hominen remark"

    That would depend upon the context used.  If used verbatim as delineated by you, likely so.  Please provide a link to the specific instance you denote.  Generally, ad hominem refers to "to the man" instead of to the argumentation used by the person.  To call someone's behavior and comments an example of tone trolling might be unhelpful in improving the dialogue, but is not ad hominem.

    Tone trolling snipped.

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