James Randi and the James Randi Educational Foundation do amazing work combating pseudo-science. I’ve followed the story of James Randi’s deteriorating health with great sympathy and I don’t look forward to losing such a bright candle fighting back the darkness.
That’s why it was so disappointing to see a recent post from James Randi embracing some truly anti-scientific global warming memes.
What’s equally disappointing is that the JREF’s blog deleted my very polite comment in response to Randi’s post. I didn’t take a screen grab because frankly I would never suspect the JREF of stifling polite, fact-based dissent.
Update: Jeff Wagg politely responds below and assures me it’s a software problem on their end, not human intervention. He says it’s a glitch in their software. My apologies to the JREF for jumping the gun and implying that someone deleted a comment.
Here’s a basic overview of what I find troubling with Randi’s post:
First, Randi equates the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says humans are causing dangerous global warming with the Petition Project, which is a petition signed by “scientists” that say they don’t think so.
Putting the two on equal footing is just wrong.
The IPCC is comprised of 2,500 scientists versed in climate science that rigorously peer-review all the scientific literature on climate change every 5 years. Their reports represent the gold standard, take it to the bank science on global warming.
The Petition Project, by contrast, is a collection of people whose qualifications for rendering an opinion on climate change are unclear and who have signed their names to a suspect document.
According to Brian Angliss of Scholars and Rogues, the project’s loose standards for who a “scientist” is would qualify nearly 10 million Americans. That means roughly one out of every 30 or so American is a “scientist.” That’s quite a loose definition.
Additionally, the original non-scientific petition was also packaged in a highly suspect way, according to Sourcewatch. The non-scientific information included with the petition was deceptively set in the same design as articles from the highly respected peer-reviewed journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Overall, scientific contrarians on climate change are just cherry-picking the scientific literature to try to undermine the consensus that humans are driving climate change. They don’t have any alternative explanations for why we see temperatures going up rapidly in the past several decades, why we wouldn’t expect excess CO2 to warm the Earth or why the atmosphere is warming in such a way that could only be explained by excess CO2 trapping heat. For an overview of this evidence that contrarians can’t explain away, see this excellent summary from the United States Global Change Research Project, a collaborative review of climate science from academics and federal scientists.
Randi also (sadly) repeats several other discredited arguments.
He says the Earth is cooling. It isn’t. The past ten years have been the hottest decade on record. Contrarians artificially start counting temps from 1998 to make their cooling argument work, a decidedly non-skeptical thing to do. Interestingly, the Associated Press presented temperature data to statisticians without telling them what it was and simply asked them if the data represented and upward trend. They all agreed it did.
Randi defends CO2 as natural. It sure it. But what’s unnatural is to dig up a bunch of carbon from the ground and burn it in power plants (coal) and cars (oil). We are overloading the atmosphere with carbon and have gone from a concentration of 270 parts per million in pre-industrial times to more than 390 parts per million today, a 44 percent increase. Frankly, we should be surprised if such an increase didn’t cause drastic changes in the climate.
Randi claims the oceans will absorb excess CO2 back into the oceans. Sure they will. But we’re saturating them badly and now they only absorb 55 percent of excess CO2, wheras they absorbed 60 percent decades ago.
Randi closes on a false dichotomy, saying we need to choose between tackling climate change and fighting poverty and diseases. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world can walk and chew gum at the same time and needs to. Unchecked climate change will spread tropical diseases to new areas, flood coastlines, hurt agriculture and more. People in poverty will have a harder time adapting to those changes than people in developed countries, too.
It’s disappointing to see Randi and other members of the skeptical community embrace shoddy anti-science arguments when it comes to global warming.
Unfortunately, the community has a very adverse reaction to what is popular as well as how science is used in politics. Global warming science certainly piques their interest. But this is the sort of knee-jerk skepticism that is an insult to the name “skeptic.” The evidence is clearly on the side of the IPCC, not the signers of the Petition Project.
Update: Vetern skeptic and NYU professor of philosophy Massimo Pigliucci shares my assessment of Randi’s confusing post.
It seems like Randi has updated his position on the science and shared with his readers some more critical information on the Petition Project. Horray for skeptics and their tight-knit community of self-criticism!
Randi focuses on the most vitrolic comments written in repsonse to his post. Plait focuses on some of them, too. I’ve found that often in these online back and forths, the fact that the most argent and pugilistic readers are the most likely to comment detracts from the quality of discussions. Blogging tools that allowed users to shift the worst comments to a seperate comment thread where partisans could duke it out would be useful.