Sunday, February 23, 2014

Charles Krauthammer and settled science

An op-ed in my local paper caught my eye yesterday.  By Charles Krauthammer, it's largely a fact-free repetition of talking points trying to dispute whether or not climate change is settled science.  While my hometown paper has the editorial paywalled, it's available at the Washington Post.  Some of his points are utterly unrelated, some are badly outdated, and some are out-right lies.

"I repeat: I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier. I’ve long believed that it cannot be good for humanity to be spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
It's never a good sign when you have to state that you're not a denier.  By the end of the column, Krauthammer attempts to deny the link between carbon dioxide and global temperature, which rather belies his claim that he's not be a denier....

"Now we learn from a massive randomized study — 90,000 women followed for 25 years — that mammograms may have no effect on breast cancer deaths."
Krauthammer ignores that that conclusion only applies to countries with advanced cancer treatment options and only to mammography as a pre-cancer screening tool, not to the actual diagnosis of suspected cancers.  Krauthammer also suffers from single-study syndrome, hanging his argument entirely on the back of one study rather than the entire body of evidence.  As the neutrino study at CERN and the fraudulent vaccines-cause-autism Wakefield study have demonstrated, it's wisest not to hang everything on the results of one study, no matter how well done.

"And climate is less well understood than breast cancer. If climate science is settled, why do its predictions keep changing?"
I note that Krauthammer didn't specify which predictions keep changing.  He also didn't note in which direction those predictions keep changing.  Here's a hint for Krauthammer: The predictions have largely underestimated the speed of the climate response to global warming.  Arctic ice is melting twice as fast as models predicted (Pistone et al. 2014), sea level rise is occurring faster than the models predicted (Rahmstorf et al. 2012), and disruptions to weather patterns are becoming obvious even to people like Krauthammer.  Furthermore, he's lying when he claims that climate is less well understood than breast cancer.  Radiative physics is a well-understood field.  He may not understand it but his ignorance doesn't mean that everyone is similarly ignorant.

"And how is it that the great physicist Freeman Dyson, who did some climate research in the late 1970s, thinks today’s climate-change Cassandras are hopelessly mistaken"
Dyson last did research on climate change in 1979.  Things have changed considerably in the field since then—and Dyson himself has admitted that he doesn't know much about the technical details of climate science and has avoided pointed questions about his stance.  His writings on the matter have been debunked on a point-by-point basis, all of which Krauthammer blithely ignored.

"Not surprisingly, these models have been “consistently and spectacularly wrong” in their predictions, write atmospheric scientists Richard McNider and John Christy"
Christy and McNider's op-ed is riddled with basic errors and rests on a graph that is shady at best.  From artificially shifting the data to visually exaggerate any discrepancy with model predictions to improperly averaging RSS and UAH data, despite knowing that RSS shows false cooling since 2000, that graph is a prime example of trying to lie using statistics.

"Settled? Even Britain’s national weather service concedes there’s been no change — delicately called a “pause” — in global temperature in 15 years.  If even the raw data is recalcitrant, let alone the assumptions and underlying models, how settled is the science?"
Perhaps Krauthammer should consult his calendar.  Fifteen years ago was 1999—and the trend since January 1999 is statistically significant.
UAH: +0.015075ºC per year, p = 0.0436
GISS: +0.008998ºC per year, p = 0.0341

The raw data isn't quite a recalcitrant as Krauthammer has deluded himself into believing.  Beyond the basics of the calendar, Krauthammer ignores the work done by Cowtan and Way (2013), who showed that much of the supposed "pause" since 1998 in HadCRUT4 data is the artifact of poor coverage of the polar regions, the "pause" in GISS is an artifact of a uncalibrated change in how sea surface temperatures are measured, and the "pause" in NOAA data is a combination of both (detailed here).  And as readers of this blog already know, the rest of the "pause" is due to ENSO, aerosols, and a drop in solar output.  Even without correcting for any biases in the observational data, there's no statistical evidence that the trend since 1998 is different from the trend before 1998.

"But even worse than the pretense of settledness is the cynical attribution of any politically convenient natural disaster to climate change, a clever term that allows you to attribute anything — warming and cooling, drought and flood — to man’s sinful carbon burning.... Here even the New York Times gagged, pointing out that far from being supported by the evidence, “the most recent computer projections suggest that as the world warms, California should get wetter, not drier, in the winter.”"
Krauthammer might want to familiarize himself with the research on the polar jet stream before he spouts off on how a temporary cooling of one region somehow disproves climate change.  He might also want to read some of the papers showing that in general, dry areas get even drier whereas wet regions get wetter under climate change (i.e. Durack et al. 2012).  As for California, it's interesting that Krauthammer ignored a later paragraph in the very New York Times article he selectively quoted: "What may be different about this drought is that, whatever the cause, the effects appear to have been made worse by climatic warming. And in making that case last week, scientists said, the administration was on solid ground."  Oops.  Busted, Krauthammer.

"Sounds like California. Except that today there’s a new god, the Earth Mother. And a new set of sins — burning coal and driving a fully equipped F-150."
Ah, yes, the sounds of an bloviator who ignores facts while trying to dispute that a) we've known that Earth has a greenhouse effect since the 1820s, b) we've known that CO2 is a component of the greenhouse effect since 1861, and c) we've known that changing greenhouse gas levels would change Earth's surface temperature since 1896.  Come on, Krauthammer.  Quit trying to dispute basic physics that have been known since the 1800s.  In case he slept through that part of physics, here's a couple primers I wrote that explain things:

 How we know climate change is being caused by CO2: Part 1, Part 2
How we know the extra CO2 comes from human technology

Yes, there are some things of climate change that are not settled science (the effect on tornadoes is a good example).  But it's mostly the effects of warming—how bad will it get, how soon, expected changes in weather, etc..  There are other areas that are settled and you might as well try to debate the heliocentric model of the solar system.  You're not going to get very far trying to debate whether or not adding CO2 to the atmosphere will trigger warming, as your argument must violate the laws of thermodynamics if you claim the answer is "No."  Trying to claim that not knowing the exact effects in every circumstance or the exact timing somehow casts doubt on the basic physics showing the cause is simply a blatant, bald-faced lie.  Not that Krauthammer cares about the distinction between which areas of climate change are settled and which areas are unsettled.  After all, admitting just to the settled scientific facts might put him out of a job.

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