Nov 22, 2009

Is Corporate E-mail Private E-Mail?

In my view, it's still too early to say much about the vast amount of information that has become public over the past few days in what is being called ClimateGate or CRUgate. The significance of these documents will, one hopes, become clearer with time. [see & search them here]

But there is one point about which we should not be confused. Contrary to the opening line of this news story, these are NOT private e-mails. E-mail messages sent at the place of one's employment, pertaining to one's on-the-job responsibilities, belong to one's employer.

Dr. Kevin Trenberth tells this reporter, "I personally feel violated."

Tough luck. As an employee of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research - which is funded by public dollars and is, one would expect, subject to Freedom of Information legislation - what Prof. Trenberth does in the course of his employment is NOT his own private business.

Full Disclaimer:
So far, no one - on any side of this issue - has declared any of these documents to be fake. But since forgeries aren't unknown, it's appropriate to tread carefully. Fictional e-mails could be mixed in with real messages.

We should also take note of the significant chronological gaps in these documents. This isn't the entire record of e-mail sent and received by certain people, but a partial one. According to what criteria was this selection made? By whom? What agenda might be motivating this person(s)? If we could access the entire record, would the picture that is currently emerging differ significantly? How?


Nov 17, 2009

Scientific Organizations - Should We Trust Them?

Frequently, when one expresses skepticism regarding global warming theory, knowledgeable folk respond with a version of the following:
Numerous scientific bodies from around the world believe global warming is a real and present danger. Who are you to second-guess such esteemed organizations - to substitute your judgment for theirs?
This question is entirely and absolutely appropriate. When I began researching the global warming debate back in April, I was deeply troubled by the fact that I had no clue how to respond.

My journalistic instincts told me this issue smelled. It reeked of hype and fear-mongering. How could responsible scientific organizations be mixed up in this?

I'm now far closer to formulating a detailed outline of what seems to have happened to the culture of science in recent decades. That explanation will ultimately comprise one or two chapters in the book on which I'm working. For the moment, let me draw attention to two pieces of a larger puzzle.

First, I’ve been reading the 1976 third report to the Club of Rome titled RIO: Reshaping the International Order. This book's overall premise is that humanity must adopt a system of world government in order to solve problems associated with nuclear weapons, Third World poverty, and environmental degradation.

The book's proposed solutions include a laughable number of new international bodies to plan, regulate, and tax just about everything. In other words, bureaucracy and taxes will save us!

In Chapter 7, Section 5 (p. 133 of my Signet paperback edition) one finds the following quote:

“In the past, specialists [this term is used interchangeably with scientists] have often been reluctant to engage in political debate or to share their knowledge and fears with the general public. Given social dilemmas, they have often preferred to adopt neutral rather than value positions, to tacitly advise rather than openly advocate. This generalization no longer holds true. In many branches of science there are radical movements. Increasingly, both in the rich and poor worlds, scientists are involved in active advocacy which they see as an intellectual and ethical duty.” [bold added by me]

In other words, back in 1976 it was being admitted that “many branches of science” had become politicized by radical elements. It was acknowledged openly - by people who approved of this development - that some scientists were abandoning the dispassionate stance we expect of them in favor of overt activism.

The are many reasons to be troubled by this. Roger Pielke Jr's book, The Honest Broker (which I discuss here) examines a number of them.

I also recommend this article, available free online, titled The Double Standard in Environmental Science. Its author, a soil erosion expert, argues that research findings that suggest humanity is making environmental progress get rejected by prestigious science journals, even though they're based on decades of real-world measurements. Yet papers that reach alarming conclusions get published, even when their authors have little expertise and scant data. His experience suggests this bias has been operating since the early 1980s.

My second point comes from a 2008 paper (also free online) authored by Richard S. Lindzen, of MIT, titled Climate Science: Is it Currently Designed to Answer Questions? Anyone who thinks scientists dwell in an ivory tower dreamily insulated from crass political considerations will find it difficult to hold such opinions after reading this text in its entirety.

I'm going to focus on one aspect in particular. At the top of page 5, Lindzen observes that science organizations:

"are hierarchical structures where positions and policies are determined by small executive councils or even single individuals. This greatly facilitates any conscious effort to politicize science via influence in such bodies where a handful of individuals (often not even scientists) speak on behalf of organizations that include thousands of scientists and even enforce specific scientiific positions and agendas."
On page 7, Lindzen discusses the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS):
"The academy is divided into many disciplinary sections whose primary task is the nomination of candidates for membership in the Academy. Typically, support by more than 85% of the membership of any section is needed for nomination. However, once a candidate is elected, the candidate is free to affiliate with any section. The vetting process is generally rigorous, but for over 20 years, there was a Temporary Nominating Group for the Global Environment to provide a back door for the election of candidates who were environmental activists, bypassing the conventional vetting procedure. Members, so elected, proceeded to join existing sections where they hold a veto power over the election of any scientists unsympathetic to their positions. Moreover, they are almost immediately appointed to positions on the executive council, and other influential bodies within the Academy. One of the members elected via the Temporary Nominating Group, Ralph Cicerone, is now president of the Academy. Prior to that, he was on the nominating committee for the presidency...Others elected to the NAS via this route include [well known activists] Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, Steven Schneider, John Holdren..." [bold added by me]
This gives one pause, doesn't it?

I don't mean to suggest that no statements issued by any scientific body can be trusted. That would be foolish. But there are serious and compelling reasons to be cautious of activist-scientists in the environmental/global warming arena.

Life would be far simpler if we didn't have to wonder if what we're hearing is pure, unadulterated scientific evidence - or whether we're being fed someone's political agenda.

This mixing of politics, activism, and science is also evident in the genetically modified food debate. See my blog post Do As I Say, Not As I Do.


Nov 13, 2009

Bullies Need Not Apply

Environmental advocates - who now include media commentators and high-ranking politicians - frequently suffer from an unpleasant malady whenever they get talking about global warming. They're rude. They're intolerant. They're mean-spirited.

In short, they behave like bullies. If you don't already agree with them, you're morally defective and need to get a brain for the good of the planet. A recent speech by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provides an astonishing example of this headspace.

Martin Luther King Jr., we should remember, applied his considerable rhetorical skill to persuading those who saw the world differently to change their minds. He appealed to their better natures, to their moral reasoning. He got respect because he treated others with respect.

Mr. Rudd doesn't view his opponents as equals who have a right to civility. He considers them errant children whom he intends to publicly scold until they start thinking correctly. Australian climate skeptic Joanne Nova's spirited reply to Mr. Rudd is well worth reading.

In a similar vein, the bloggers at address advocates of global warming theory such as UK newspaper columnist George Monbiot. They observe that it's now standard practice for such people to diminish both the moral character and the intelligence of those with whom they disagree.

It seems the world is overrun with true-believers who inevitably (if perhaps unconsciously) adopt the following positions as described by

  • What’s the point of having an argument, when you already know you’re right?
  • What’s the point of debate, if all it is going to mean is that the wrong ideas get an airing?
Environmentalists like to talk about democracy. Yet they clearly consider the masses too gullible to sort wheat from chaff.

They say "the debate is over" when, in fact, few people have witnessed an actual debate between someone who believes in an impending global warming catastrophe and someone who is skeptical.

They discourage people from reading Michael Crichton's global-warming-questioning novel, State of Fear - rather than encouraging them to become acquainted with the broad brushstrokes of the larger discussion.

Rather than demonstrating a quiet confidence in the strength of their own arguments, they want their neighbours and co-workers shielded from competing ideas.

Rather than persuading, they condemn. They name-call. They accuse.

Well I have a message for these folks: If you live in a sandbox where you're bigger, stronger, and nastier than everyone else maybe such behavior will get you somewhere.

But in the grown-up world, if you want people to join your team and share your views, you need to begin by showing them some respect.


>> Our hyperactive planet (regarding Michael Crichton's State of Fear)
>> We have heard this rhetoric before (ditto)

Nov 12, 2009

Climate Confusion

Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians, and Misguided Policies That Hurt the Poor by Roy W. Spencer (2008, Encounter Books)

Spencer is one of those bogeymen you may have heard about: a bona fide climate scientist who is skeptical of global warming theory. This book's dust jacket tells us he holds a PhD in meteorology, has been a Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA, and is co-developer of "the original satellite method for precise monitoring of global temperatures from Earth-orbiting satellites."

Currently a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he also "serves as the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS...flying on NASA's Aqua satellite." In other words, Spencer possesses credentials most of us can only dream about.

This does not make him infallible. But it does mean that, unlike many people who pontificate about global warming (Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sheryl Crow), he has authentic, firsthand knowledge of the scientific issues under discussion.

I saw Spencer deliver a presentation in quiet, scientifically-appropriate tones this past June and have seen clips of interviews with him. "Animated" is not the first descriptor that jumps to mind. Thus, the caustic tongue and wry wit in this volume was a fun surprise. (From page 48: "We'll use the following simplified illustration, which is appropriate for either middle school students or congressional testimony.")

Occasionally his judgments seem harsh and a tad too dismissive of ideas with which he disagrees. Elsewhere, he casts people in an unflattering light but provides the reader with so few details that independent corroboration of nasty allegations is impossible. Unsubstantiated allegations aren't helpful in an arena as emotionally and politically charged as the global warming debate. That Spencer includes not one footnote in the entire volume is a source of immense frustration to folks like me, who are reading his work as part of a larger research endeavor and feel obliged to independently verify everything anyone says.

Then there's the fact that one of the few external sources Spencer does overtly cite (in passing while discussing the scientific significance of the word "tendency") is a book titled Darwinian Fairytales. Introducing the evolution/creationism/intelligent design controversy, however obliquely, into an already politicized discussion seems unnecessarily provocative.

Much later in the book Spencer appears to clarify his position on these matters when he writes: "I have nothing against people's religious beliefs - only their labeling them as 'science.'" Still, in an era in which international environmental groups and public relations firms run entire websites devoted to smearing people - especially scientists - who fail to toe the global warming party line, it seems regrettable that Spencer chose to go there at all.

That being said, it's worth remembering that Al Gore is a practicing Baptist who aggressively talks about the "spiritual" and "moral" implications of his environmental crusade.

We should also take note of Bill McKibben, who wrote what is considered to be the
first mainstream book on global warming back in 1989, titled The End of Nature.

These days McKibben is known as the founder of "an international climate campaign". As the bio on his official website observes, he "is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent."

Indeed. Although he frequently cites scientists and their research in
The End of Nature, an uncharitable reader might characterize this as an attempt to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to what is essentially a philosophical/spiritual/overtly emotional tract.

McKibben talks incessantly about his feelings of "sadness." In one paragraph in particular, he uses the word four times (see pages 60, 68, 72, 73,
74, 160, 162). He also tells us a great deal about his other emotional responses to environmental questions:
  • grief (p.73)
  • loneliness (76, 144)
  • fretfulness (86)
  • fear, panic and nervousness (89, 175)
  • revulsion (147)
  • depression (182)
  • [Page numbers refer to the 2006 US paperback edition]
McKibbin says he locates "God in nature" (61, 68) and quotes a naturalist observing that "We now use the word Nature very much as our fathers used the word God" (61). He describes the Old Testament's Book of Job as "one of the most far-reaching defenses ever written of wilderness, of nature free from the hand of man" (64).

Moreover, throughout
The End of Nature, McKibben's language frequently echoes fire-and-brimstone moralism. He declares that "most of the Western world has gone along its prideful way" (65). He says humanity has the capacity to "destroy all that is good and worthwhile" (72) and speaks of "shame" and "self-loathing" (74).

He decries humanity's "turbocharged and jet-propelled arrogance" (87) and warns that "[s]ooner or later our loans will be called in" (39). He exhorts that we must "
choose to remain God's creatures" (182) and choose "between that old clarity or new darkness" (183). He says God may well be watching "to see if we...bow down and humble ourselves, or if we compound original sin with terminal sin" (184).

McKibben insists that "sacrifices" are "demanded" (12) and that refusing to follow his advice "will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature" (124). Elsewhere, he exhorts, brandishing his finger at us, that "a few more decades of ungoverned fossil-fuel use and we burn up, to put it bluntly" (128).
(Recall, dear reader, that his book appeared in 1989. Two decades have come and gone, but we aren't soot and smoke yet.)

Perhaps most telling of all, McKibben describes pre-revolutionary America as a "paradise" (42), insists that we need to "rise out of the wreckage we have made of the world" (147), and longs openly for a lost Eden - the "sweet and wild garden" that humanity has replaced with "a greenhouse" (78).

But wait, there's more. On the book's very first page, McKibben sympathizes with the creationist point-of-view: "Muddled though they are scientifically," he writes, "the creationists, believing in the sudden appearance of the earth some seven thousand years ago, may intuitively understand more about the progress of time than the rest of us."

Critics of Spencer's global warming skepticism take note: If your reason for dismissing him involves religion or creationism, the influential McKibben (whose
End of Nature "has been printed in more than 20 languages") is arguably far more tainted.

But I digress. To get back to Climate Confusion, this book made me giggle and guffaw. Chapters three and four, titled "How Weather Works" and "How Global Warming (Allegedly) Works" were a bit of a slog for this non-scientist. The rest, however, were entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

When each of us is making up our minds about how much of the global warming hype to take seriously, Spencer's perspective is a helpful one. Here's a taste from the preface:
Not long ago we were told humanity had fifty years to solve the global warming problem. Then, we heard we have only ten years to change our polluting ways. Now, some are claiming we have only five years left. Soon, we'll be talking about sending a Terminator back through time to fix the problem for us. Maybe the Governor of California can help us with that.
Spencer is a member of a vulnerable and demonized community - climate researchers whose opinions diverge from the dire, catastrophic global warming predictions that now emanate from government, pop culture, and mass media. It's imperative that voices such as his get heard.

This blog post was intended to be a list of rough-and-ready quotes, compiled for my own research purposes, from Spencer's book. Instead, my creative genius (in the manner that Elizabeth Gilbert uses this term) put in an appearance and the post metamorphosed into something else. When that list is complete I'll link to it below. Cheers!


Nov 9, 2009

Canada's Tar Sands & Cancer Rates

From this morning's paper: Report casts doubt on MD's claims about Alberta reserve's cancer rates

To some, Dr. John O'Connor is a whistleblower in the finest tradition - calling attention to environmental impacts others would prefer not to think about. To others, he's an activist who has permitted his political zeal to cloud his medical judgment.

It would be interesting to read this report in full. For now, there are two points worth highlighting:

The first, which isn't even hinted at in this news article, is that many of the reservations on which Canada's Native Indian/aboriginal/First Nations (choose your descriptor) folks live are tiny, desolate, and remote. The small size of these communities precludes the development of a vibrant, sustainable economy. This in turn almost always results in high unemployment and is associated with myriad other social ills: high rates of family violence, alcoholism, diabetes, youth suicide and so forth.

The fact that these communities are so remote means that it's virtually impossible to pursue the lifestyle choices associated not only with cancer prevention, but with positive health outcomes overall. Fresh fruit and vegetables are simply not on the menu for large parts of the year. In other words, there are lots of reasons - both nutritional and social - why cancer rates might be higher in these communities.

The second point worth noting is that, when medical officials from two levels of government attempted to verify Dr. O'Connor's allegations of higher-than-expected cancer rates, the doctor declined to cooperate. Reads the news article:
....he “obstructed” efforts by the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada to investigate his claims by defying the law and ignoring repeated requests to turn over his clinical evidence in a “timely manner."
This is not the way someone in possession of iron-clad proof of a serious medical problem would be expected to behave. And then there's this:
According to the report, when Dr. O'Connor finally co-operated with public health officials after stalling for close to two years, many of his numbers didn't match up with what he had been saying publicly...
To anti-tar-sands activists, Dr. O'Connor is the hero of a documentary film, a respected spokesperson in a David-and-Goliath struggle against Big Oil, and the victim of a financially motivated witch hunt.

The authors of this report take a different view. They found many of Dr. O'Connors statements to be "inaccurate" and "untruthful".

If I'm reading the news article correctly, it appears that although everyone else in this matter has given permission for the report to be publicly released and publicly discussed by the body that authored it, Dr. O'Connor has withheld his (necessary) permission.

The report concludes that punishing Dr. O'Connor would not serve the public interest. But it does, in careful, muted language suggest that its authors are not impressed by the way he has conducted himself:
The message that Dr. O'Connor and others may take from this review is the need for advocacy to be fair, truthful, balanced and respectful.