I have nothing but deepest respect for James Randi. His contributions to the debunking of pseudo-science and for spreading information and education are unmatched. It was a highlight of TAM London hearing and seeing him speak and answer with such immense passion and wit. He is amazing.
However, today, he published an article “AGW, revisited” in the JREF’s SWIFT blog that is an unfortunate mixture of false balance, and misinformed or plain-out wrong science.

Randi opens his article by the assertion that today, unfortunately, science was influenced by political issues, so the freedom that most widely known physicists like Einstein and Bohr had is gone. He writes:

Religious and other emotional convictions drive scientists, despite what they may think their motivations are.

I agree to mention that these factors exist; but I strongly dispute that they are the most important driving factors. Especially in an article on AGW consensus, I read this as an attack on the integrity of the scientists which should be supported by strong evidence. As the IPCC consensus has been reached by the usual scientific publishing process, only on a scale of 650 leading and contributing authors, but with peer review with allegedly 30000 reviewing comments to be answered for the 2007 report alone, there is but strong evidence that it has been gathered by the best practices active researchers adhere to.

They say that there is a consensus of scientists who believe we are headed for disaster if we do not stop burning fossil fuels, but a growing number of prominent scientists disagree. Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous.

The IPCC report, as can be seen from the synthesis (PDF), is a multi-faceted aggregation of the science. The last chapter of the synthesis collects robust findings and key uncertainties. Again, this adheres to highest scientific standards.
The Global Warming Petition Project, however, is merely a collection of signatures. It was formerly known as the Oregon Project and, as can be easily googled, has been thoroughly debunked, e.g. in the eSkeptic, the Huffington Post or at Greenfyre’s, which also has many more links. There is no way in which a list of signatures, most of which aren’t from climate scientists, can stand up against the IPCC report. This is – in the best of cases – an argument from authority.

Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work.

Happily, that’s what the IPCC seems to do.

And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.

Well, a story about a parapsychologist is hardly even anecdotal evidence about scientists.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

What’s the point of all these stories and assertions besides a hidden arguments that climate science is full of mislead cultists scientists?

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.

Here it comes…

Randi assures us that he has only an amateur impression of Earth science, but nevertheless bases his assertion of scientists on this impression.

It appears that the Earth is warming, and has continued to warm since the last Ice Age, which ended some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. But that has not been an even warming. Years of warming followed by years of cooling have left us just a bit warmer than before. This conclusion has been arrived at from data collected at some 1,200+ weather stations in the USA, though bear in mind that there are very few weather stations over the vast oceans that cover 70% of our planet, or on the continents Africa, South America, and especially Antarctica.

This is a very handwaving gloss over the science. Warming trends are analysed by a multitude of different techniques. Of course, we reconstruct the last millenia not from weather stations, which might go back a mere 50 years, but from reconstruction methods like ice cores. Today, we know much about the temperature from satellite measurements, so the 70% ocean argument is invalid. No single reconstruction like the hockey stick alone is evidence, but there are enough competing reconstructions to allow the conclusion that there is a increase in temperature. This increase may be precedented in Earth’s history, but not at this rapid rate. And most importantly we have the connection to CO2 from human contribution where we have both massive, never before possible input from humans (because there were no humans) as well as a valid scientific mechanism for warming from increasing CO2 which Randi disputes in the following.

Incidentally, we have a convenient phenomenon that contributes to our survival. Doubling the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere will not double the temperature rise, small though it is. (..) The limit of the influence of CO2 is dictated, not by the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but by the amount of solar radiation reflected back from the Earth. Once all the infrared rays have been “captured” by the greenhouse gases there is no additional increase in carbon dioxide.

I omitted the part summarising the greenhouse effect which seem fair enough. The other parts, however, are plain wrong. Yes, doubling the CO2 amount will not double the temperature increase, it’s not a linear relationship. However it is not correct that all the infrared rays are captured.
There is an excellent collection of arguments and refutes at Skeptical Science. Here is the entry about CO2 saturation. We have empirical prove from satellite measurements that there is enhanced absorption of infrared rays due to increase in CO2.

Yes, we produce CO2, by burning “fossil fuels” and by simply breathing. And every fossil fuel except hydrogen produces CO2. Some products produce more than others, varying with their chemical composition. Methane gas produces less CO2, wood produces more. But almost paradoxically, when wood burns it produces CO2, and when a tree dies and rots it produces yet more CO2. (…)

I think Randi is just mixed up here. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas, and as a gas itself does not produce CO2.
The main point is of course, that we take vast amounts of CO2 from fossil fuels, where they have been stored for millions of years, and add them to the atmosphere. Methane input has been stagnant for the last decades, which is good, because as a stronger greenhouse gas it would be much more devastating.

And as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

The effects and possible effects of global warming are much more faceted than simply heating. Also, I don’t know where anyone claims to put the complexity into a single equation. I believe the IPCC synthesis report shows the complexity and uncertainties as well as given prognosis of possible outcomes of warming. Even more, the effects of changing climate are an active research topic in a multitude of disciplines.

It’s easy enough to believe that drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes are signs of a coming catastrophe from global warming, but these are normal variations of any climate that we — and other forms of life — have survived. Earth has undergone many serious changes in climate, from the Ice Ages to periods of heavily increased plant growth from their high levels of CO2, yet the biosphere has survived. We’re adaptable, stubborn, and persistent — and we what other life forms don’t have: we can manipulate our environment. Show me an Inuit who can survive in his habitat without warm clothing… Humans will continue to infest Earth because we’re smart.

Excuse me, Mr. Randi, but this is rich American talk. I find it insufferable. Yes, humanity will survive, we don’t have to save the planet, but I don’t have it in my heart to see a few (hundred?) million fall off the wagon…

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

This is a false dichotomy. We, in fact, have to do both.

From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 A Scandal in Bohemia, I quote:

Watson: “This is indeed a mystery,” I remarked. “What do you imagine that it means”
Holmes: I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts…

The data is there, the conclusions have been drawn and are drawn, and are revised as necessary. I dispute the assertion that facts are distorted.

I do not suspect any malicious intent or “denial” from James Randi. But I strongly hold it against him that his article doesn’t live up to the standards his life’s work promotes.

Heute ausnahmsweise auf Englisch. Ich werde versuchen, das auch noch zu übersetzen, also wenigstens meine Kommentare

Kommentare (6)

  1. #1 Henning

    Wenn man Methan verbrennt, entsteht im Verhältnis zur erhaltenen Energie weniger CO2 als wenn man Holz verbrennt. Da hat er nix durcheinandergebracht. Wenn man Methan direkt in die Atmosphäre bringt, ist es natürlich ein Treibhausgas, aber in dem Absatz geht es ja ums Verbrennen von Treibstoffen.

    Ansonsten eine sehr gute Antwort auf einen sehr wirren Artikel.

  2. #2 Gunnar

    Die Antwort war nötig. Beim Methan stimme ich @Henning allerdings zu. Leider hat sich Randi mit dem Artikel keinen echten gefallen getan. Er zeigt allerdings, dass wir alle nur Menschen sind und damit zu Fehlern neigen.

  3. #3 MrBaracuda

    In my amateur opinion

    Eh, maybe Randi has just become older now, being sick and all, and wanted to have a seat and say surrounding the “climategate” panel’s table. 😛

    Jörg, zwei Sachen. Einmal ist dir bei reviewing ein e verrutscht (“allegedly 30000 reviweing comments”), und du hast prove statt proof geschrieben. Yeah, I’m pedantic, sue me. 😀

  4. #4 Jörg

    Update from Randi, not very convincing fact-wise but human-wise it’s strong


  5. #5 Daniel Elstner

    Dass Randi ausgerechnet Conan Doyle zitiert, hat mich echt umgehauen. Gerade an der Figur des Sherlock Holmes zeigt sich ja Doyle’s Neigung zur Esoterik überdeutlich. Die vorgebliche Rationalität Holmes’ hat eher den Charakter einer genialen Eingebung — Watson ist der Skeptiker!

    Wie dem auch sei — die zitierte Stelle ist wirklich bemerkenswert, da Holmes so ziemlich das exakte Gegenteil von Wissenschaft formuliert:

    “Holmes: I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts…”

    Es ist exakt andersherum. Der ganze Dreh- und Angelpunkt wissenschaftlichen Denkens ist doch, dass erst die Hypothese aufgestellt wird, die dann durch empirische Daten entweder widerlegt oder gestützt wird. Sich “Theorien” auszudenken, die auf eine bekannte Faktenlage passen, ist leicht.

    Ausgerechnet Doyle… *kopfschüttel*

  6. #6 Maria und Joseph

    Es ist exakt andersherum. Der ganze Dreh- und Angelpunkt wissenschaftlichen Denkens ist doch, dass erst die Hypothese aufgestellt wird, die dann durch empirische Daten entweder widerlegt oder gestützt wird.

    In Wirklichkeit ist es weder so noch anders, sondern beides. Die Wissenschaft ist kein Vorgang, der von einem Ausgangs- zu einem Zielzustand abläuft, sondern ein fortlaufender Prozess. Einzelne Prozessschritte wie die Hypothesenbildung und die Hypothesenprüfung laufen vielfach neben- und nacheinander ab. Über “richtige” und “falsche” Reihenfolgen zu nörgeln, ergibt in diesem Zusammenhang keinen Sinn.