How to weed out junk science when discussing climate change.

March 23, 2009 | By | 13 Replies More

George Will’s recent journalistic malpractice has inspired much discussion by many people concerned about climate change.  It’s a critically important issue given that 41% of Americans currently think that the threat of global warming is being exaggerated by the media.

The intellectual energy runs even deeper than criticism of George Will, though, leading us to the fundamental issue of how journalists and readers can distinguish legitimate science from sham (or politicized) science.  The Washington Post recently agreed to publish a precisely-worded response to Will by Christopher Mooney.  Here’s Mooney’s opener:

Arctic Ice comparison image by NOAA/GFDL

Arctic Ice comparison image by NOAA/GFDL

A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?

Mooney methodically takes Will to task on point after point.  For instance, weather is not the same thing as the climate.   The state of the art in 1970s climate science has been superseded by 2007 climate science.  You can’t determine long-term trends in Arctic ice by comparing ice thickness only on two strategically picked days.

The bottom line is not surprising.   If you want to do science well you have to do it with precision, measuring repeatedly,  crunching the numbers every which way and then drawing your conclusions self-critically.   What is not allowed is cherry picking.

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists — following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It’s also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be — now more than ever.

Mooney has given considerable thought to these topics.   His byline indicates that he is the author of “The Republican War on Science” and co-author of the forthcoming “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”

Image by GFDL/NOAA

Image by GFDL/NOAA

I would supplement Mooney’s well-written points, borrowing from our federal courts. They have long been faced with the struggle to determine what is real science and what is junk science, and they have settled on what is now called the “Daubert” test, (named after the case first applying the test, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993)). The Daubert analysis is applied many times every day in all federal courts (and many state courts) all across America.

The problem facing judges is that the parties to law suits often produce experts who express scientific theories and explanations that are never heard outside of courtrooms. This justifiably makes judges suspicious. Is the witness doing “real” science or his he/she doing sham science to further the interests of the party paying his/her bills? The Daubert test asks the judge to serve as gatekeeper, to make sure that only legitimate science sees the light of day in courtrooms. Here are the relevant factors:

  • Does the method involve empirical testing (is the theory or technique falsifiable, refutable, and testable)?
  • Has the method been subjected to peer review and publication?
  • Do we know the error rate of the method and the existence and maintenance of standards concerning its operation?
  • Is the theory and technique generally accepted by a relevant scientific community?

Positive answers to each of these factors suggests that the witness is doing real science. Astrology would fail this test miserably.

Applied to climate science, the Daubert test would require that we listen carefully to what the scientists talk about with each other, in person and in their peer-reviewed journals.  Daubert would require that we know enough about the techniques of climate science to know how it makes its measurements and conclusions.   Daubert would certainly require that we know the difference between the weather and the climate.

Applying Daubert is not simply a matter of listening to the scientists.  Quite often, the scientists are bought and paid for (e.g., scientists working for tobacco companies and corrupt pharmaceutical companies).  Applying Daubert requires taking the time to understand how the science works to solve real-world questions and problems and then taking the time to see that its methodology is being used with rigor in this application.   There are no shortcuts, expecially for outsider non-scientists.

No shortcuts.   No cherry-picking.


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Category: Education, Environment, global warming, ignorance, Law, Media, Science, scientific method, snake oil, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    In the mid-1980's I worked for a material forensics company. We figured out how things failed. When an issue went to court, there were two opposing "scientists". Our side tried to explain to the jury what happened using piles of intricate, precise, and accurate measurements. We hopefully produced simple charts to try to explain how we knew what we'd figured out.

    The other side simply showed clear and concise common sense arguments for the opposing view in sciency language. "Fair and balanced."

    The actual science batted about .500 in terms of jury decisions.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It must be noted that science is not infallible, simply because it is the product of research carried on by scientists. Scientists are people and as such may have preconceptions that favor one hypothesis over another that tends to color their interpretations of the data.

    A lot of these preconceived notions fall under the heading of "operant bias". This occurs when a scientist is highly specialized in a field, to the point of only recognizing the data patterns that are familiar with his training, while ignoring inconsistencies as being the result on measurement errors or insignificant external influences. Simlpy put, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. This argues the case for scientists to be multidisciplinary too some extent.

    Most climatologists do not dispute the clobal climate change. There is a large contingent of qualified climatologists that do not subscribe to the belief in antropogenic carbon dioxide as the cause, but as a minor contributing factor.

    Is it my understanding that the current research on climate change is carried out by using computer modeling to forecast near future trends. However, what info I have been able to find on the models indicates that the parameters continually being adjusted to keep the results within acceptable error margins. This would indicate that either the model is inaccurate, that reality is inaccurate, or that the problem needs more definition.

    If the model is inaccurate, then more data should be included and the model must be refined.

    If the real world observatations don't seem to support the model, there may be a tendency to futz the data or the model to make things fit, this should be avoided at all costs, because it violates the integrity of the science to do so. (and it appears that some data has been futz'ed in promoting political agendas on both sides of the issues)

    There is a growing minority among scientist supporting the idea of more serious study on the subject.

    • Karl says:


      Your statment, "It must be noted that science is not infallible, simply because it is the product of research carried on by scientists. Scientists are people and as such may have preconceptions that favor one hypothesis over another that tends to color their interpretations of the data." is clearly one you mean as applied to this topic.

      I agree with much of your perspective here. The political and manmade crisis issues are frankly not ones that a scientific perspective cannot test, observe or falsify. These types of issues are where social science and political science tries to leverage natural science into their pocket. A very deceptive misuse of the validity of most measurements done by natural scientists.

      When other avenues or fields of knowledge including the "non-natural sciences" comes to the natural sciences for support of their presuppositions, its no wonder there is acrimony over just what the measured observations really mean.

      Karl Kunker

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Anthropogenic global warming is a theory that has been in the popular media since the 1980's. It was quietly discussed in scientific circles for decades before that.

    People have been trying to disprove it for about 35 years. The more evidence climatologists (meteorologists, geologists, astronomers, biologists, etc) collect, the more confirmation the theory gathers. Much like evolution.

    It probably is not the only cause, and may not be the primary cause. But it is certainly a significant contributing factor to the current acceleration in warming. More significant, it is the simplest factor over which we could have some control.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I've read the original thesis on the anthropogenic CO2 and I think it's available online somewhere. Increasing the concentration of CO2 in a contained atmospheric sample was shown to increase the sample's ability to retain heat.

    The abstract , which was three or four pages, concluded that while CO2 is not a significant greenhouse gas, it is one that could possibilly be influenced by people.

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      Niklaus, that CO<sub>2</sub> is a greenhouse gas was known in the early 1900's. That humans have significantly increased atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub> was proven in the 1970's. That the world average temperature is currently rising faster than earlier comprehensive climate models predicted, and faster than has ever been measured, is well established.

      Wiki provides a couple of hundred citations and References about global warming, but I didn't see anything earlier than Y2K in a quick perusal of their list.

      Please try to find this "Original Thesis" and give us a link.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Dan, As a teen, I would spend study time in the library reading science journals and magazines. I'll see if I can find it, but it may not be on the internet.

    Yes CO2 in a greenhouse gas. It is not a significant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and the increase in atmospheric CO2 is considerably less that the carbon footprint calculations indicate it should be.

    The major and most significant greenhouse gas is water vapor, because there is much more of it in the atmosphere, and because it can exist as solid, liquid and gas within tempurature range on the earth, has a much greater influence on average global temperature, as it stores and releases much more heat through phase changes the CO2 does by molecular mass.

    The details are beside the point. What is important is that politics has a tendency to disrupt and corrupt science. Consider these answers to the test when applied to the current anthropogenic CO2 theory:

    Q: Does the method involve empirical testing (is the theory or technique falsifiable, refutable, and testable)?

    A: Current testing of the theory uses computer modeling in an attempt to predict the changes in atmospherice CO2 concentration and the resulting effect of the concentrations on the climate as measured in the atmosphere as opposed to ground level measurement.

    Q: Has the method been subjected to peer review and publication?

    A: This depends on the definition of peer. The sensible definition of peers would be restricted to experienced climatologists with a thorough understanding of climatology, the methods of measurement and the interpretation of the measurements.

    Many of the scientists comprising the consensesus are not climatologists and have not studied the raw data. (BTW, some of the ice core data is available fro free download at the NOAA website)

    Q: Do we know the error rate of the method and the existence and maintenance of standards concerning its operation?

    A: At this time the error rate varies due to adjustments to the model.

    Q: Is the theory and technique generally accepted by a relevant scientific community?

    A: This is difficult to answer. It is still controversial and a large part of scientific community voicing an opinion lacks the specialized knowledge to be considered considered relevent. The politicization of the issue has lead to a great deal of questionalble science on both sides of the issue.

    • Tony Coyle says:


      You address only the heat transfer intrinsic to CO2 as a factor in modeling. But CO2 has a much greater effect on temperature, since it (like your average greenhouse) allows transmission of short-wavelength infrared (solar influx), but absorbs heavily in the longer wavelength infrared (typically emitted by the heated surface).

      The net effect is an increase in temperature, since the radiation coming in is trapped by the CO2 blanket. More CO2 means much more trapped heat!

      The pure molecular heat transfer (due to phase change) that you mention would only be negligible if the system dynamics (influx/outflux) were identical (or at least similar). That is 'transparently' not the case for CO2.

    • Tony Coyle says:

      Niklaus, another point.

      I do agree with you (as do the majority of climatologists) that water vapor is the primary greenhouse gas.

      However, the additional heat due to CO2 translates into a much higher vapor pressure of H2O (on average) thus amplifying the effect of the CO2 in our atmosphere.

      Additional CO2 changes the dynamic equilibrium of this system, and due to the non-linear response of CO2 to solar -v- earth-emitted infrared, the point of equilibrium appears to be several degrees warmer than we, as a species, would like, and significantly warmer than present.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Climatologist Stephen Schneider on skepticism versus denial (from May/June 2009 issue of Skeptical Inquirer):

    [A] skeptic questions everything but accepts what the preponderance of evidence is, and a denier falsely claims that until all aspects are resolved we know nothing and should do nothing–often motivated by the latter. If you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier."

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    The Union of Concerned Scientists has assembled detailed information about climate change ("global warming"), including an up-to-date explanatory list of "global warming contrarians."

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