Skeptical Science, or just plain old alarmism?

Fully un-Skeptical

As expected after Bob Carter’s article appeared in The Age on Monday, the editors have lined up responses to try and tear it down. First off was John Cook, author of the “Skeptical Science” website:

Cherry-picking the evidence to suit a pseudo-scientific argument misses the alarming reality.

A Yiddish proverb states ”a half truth is a whole lie”. By withholding vital information, it’s possible to lead you towards the opposite conclusion to the one you would get from considering the full picture. In Bob Carter’s opinion piece on this page yesterday, this technique of cherry-picking half-truths is on full display, with frequent examples of statements that distort climate science.

The partial truths are further bolstered by scientific statements that have almost no basis in fact. It is not surprising that people present such fallacies, since the blogosphere is full of climate pseudo-science, but it is surprising that newspapers are still reporting such statements. Opinion is one thing, but scientific fact is another. Every major science body in the world has effectively refuted the assertions made by Carter. (source)

So far, so boring. And today they pull out some journalistic non-entity to smear Carter some more:

The myth of Climate-gate has endured because of media failings.

GEOLOGIST and long-time climate change denialist Bob Carter materialised on this page on Monday, reprising a weary routine – tiptoeing through the scientific archive to find the morsels of data that might, with a twirl here and a shimmy there, contrive to support his theory that global warming is a big fat conspiracy.

Meanwhile, in real news, the journal Nature Geoscience published a paper by American and British scientists that found West Antarctica’s Pine Island glacier is now melting 50 per cent faster than in 1994. (source)

Yawn. So far, so boring, again. I assume Pravda on the Yarra will run another dozen or so of these articles, just to keep its urban-green readership happy. The excellent blog Bishop Hill in the UK picked up on John Cook’s article and I thought I would share with you something that I discovered in the comments.

When I first became interested in climate change a few years ago, I visited “Skeptical Science” thinking it was exactly that, sceptical of the consensus on man-made warming. To my surprise it was exactly the opposite, attempting to rubbish all the sceptical arguments and bolster the alarmist consensus. In fact, the site is “skeptical” of sceptics, which is an odd concept, but still. The site lists the usual “denialist half-truths” (as I am sure they are regarded by the author), and places a rebuttal next to them.

However, in the comments on Bishop Hill’s post, someone pointed me to an extensive response to these “rebuttals” by Luboš Motl, who writes the equally excellent blog “The Reference Frame“. Here are the first few, with the sceptical argument first, then Cook’s rebuttal (each of which is a link on the site to a longer rebuttal) and then Lubos’s response (since Luboš wrote the response, the numberings have changed, so there’s a little cross-referencing to be done):

1. “Climate’s changed before”: Climate reacts to whatever forces it to change at the time; humans are now the dominant forcing.

Cook says that the previous history of the climate shows that the climate is sensitive to imbalances. Indeed, it is and it has always been. And he says that the past history provides evidence for sensitivity to CO2. Well, it virtually doesn’t. CO2, much like other effects, adds imbalances and pushes the temperature around. But there exists no way to disentangle CO2 from many other effects or argue that it has become the most important driver. So the climate continues to change in the same way as it did in the past, by the typical changes per year, decade, and century, and Cook has offered no evidence whatsoever that something has changed about the very fact that the climate is changing.

2. “It’s the sun”: In the last 35 years of global warming, sun and climate have been going in opposite directions

I agree with Richard Lindzen that it’s silly to try to find “one reason behind all climate change”, because the climate is pretty complex and clearly has lots of drivers, and this applies to the opinion that “everything is in the Sun”, too. Cook shows that the solar irradiance is too small and largely uncorrelated to the observed changes of temperatures. I agree with that: a typical 0.1% change of the output is enough for a 0.025% change of the temperature in Kelvins which is less than 0.1 °C and unlikely to matter much. But I find it embarrassing for a student of solar physics such as himself to be so narrow-minded. The Sun influences the Earth’s atmosphere not only directly by the output but also indirectly, by its magnetic field and its impact on the cosmic rays (via solar wind etc.) and other things. He has completely ignored all these things. Of course, I am actually not certain that these effects are very important for the climate but the evidence – including peer-reviewed articles – is as diverse as the evidence supporting CO2 as an important driver.

3. “It’s not bad”: Negative impacts of global warming on agriculture, health & environment far outweigh any positives.

Cook claims that the negative impact on agriculture, health, economy, and environment outweighs any positives. In reality, the overall impact is positive in all four cases. The agriculture becomes more effective, is able to feed people more easily, the economy grows, the fees for heating go down (and they exceed the money paid for cooling today). Cook’s statement is preposterous: if there were warming, it would be beneficial for life on Earth and the human society, too. Even 5 °C of warming would be a net positive. Cook’s methodology to “prove” that the negatives win is completely absurd. He first decided how many “positives” and “negatives” he allows in each category (so that the negatives dominate), and then he randomly added a few papers supporting them. That’s a completely wrong methodology. If he actually calculated the effects on agriculture in dollars rather than in “talking points” (whose number was predetermined, anyway), he would see that the positives outweigh the negatives by an order of magnitude or more.

There are 101 more which Lubos responds to in equal detail – it is a superb tour de force, and, I suggest, essential reading.

Cook has now reached 160 plus of these arguments, but there is little reason to doubt that the extra 50 or so are as unreliable and skewed as the original 10o-odd.

There is no scepticism at all in Skeptical Science, in fact it attempts precisely the opposite – to shut down free thinking enquiry and any challenge to the consensus. So it’s as we thought – plain old alarmism.

Read it here.

Author’s Note: Personally I find the formatting of Luboš’ blog a little tiring on the eyes, so I have produced a PDF of his post for download here.


  1. As usual, Cook’s rebuttals are sweeping statements without actually addressing the facts.

    There’s enough irony in Cook’s assertions to sink a battle cruiser, particularly the ones about half-truths. Pointing out his own half-truths to him are dutifully ignored, which pretty much sums up how he should be treated.

  2. Cook claims that skeptics accidentally vindicate high climate sensitivity by suggesting climate has changed before. Yet he also blindly advocates the hockey stick, which represents a remarkably stable climate. If Carter is guilty of cherry-picking, then what would you call this? These are two unreconcilable points.

  3. Reading Lubos’ reply, I get the impression that Cook feels the need to defend every point. The fact that he attempts to suggest the models and an inconvenient truth are accurate suggests extreme bias. Why flog a dead horse?

  4. What would you rather be called? Skeptic & denier or fraudster & liar?
    Some basics for Cook & Clan to consider:
    – Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.
    – Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism,” Crichton observed. “Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists . . . a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.” “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability.”
    – The very existence of the Precautionary Principle shows that even though every one of us weighs risks against benefits in every decision we make on a daily basis, some people can still dream up totally illogical reasons why humanity should stop doing this or that.
    – Never in history have so many advocates with so little common sense held so much influence over so selfish a political class who were elected by so gullible a public for such irrelevant reasons.
    – Living is risky. Get over it.
    – Carbon dioxide lags warming by centuries – therefore man made C02 the last century is irrelevant. Regardless of C02 rising we are experiencing cooling.
    – Total C02 in the atmosphere is 0.038% (Wikipedia), of this 0.038%, 97% is natural (IPCC). Why spend billions to stop the 3%, plug the volcano’s!
    – Any of the alarmists (IPCC, Hansen, Flannery, to mention a few) predictions the last 20 years come true?.
    – Just examine a simple concept known as “significant digits.” Weather thermometers are only accurate to +-0.5 degrees C, and in many many cases not even that. Debating a temperature rise on the order of 0.1 degrees C is senseless, we simply do not know accurately enough what the temperature used to be to say with any degree of precision or accuracy that it is rising now.
    Before AGW became a media cause celebre, researchers all agreed on the Medieval Warm Period, the Roman Climate Optimum, and several other recent warmings. Now “climate scientists” fall all over themselves to make these inconvenient truths disappear.
    Humans are arrogant to think that we could control the climate.

  5. Baldrick says:

    Great article Simon. My two cents worth:

    Quote from Skeptical Science: “Skeptical Science removes the politics from the debate by concentrating solely on the science.”

    Hmmm … peer review literature direct from the unreliable IPCC (Greenpeace – WWF) Funded by the political organisation know as the United Nations.
    Hmmm … articles from the ABC (Australia’s public broadcaster well know for its politically left leaning bias)
    Hmmm … articles by Jeff Masters (Weather Underground) who also uses IPCC data
    Hmmm … articles by Mark Diesendorf a principal research scientist with the politically motivated and funded CSIRO

    Dig a little deeper and you’ll fund other links and articles from looney left websites such as Grist which brings to life such pearls of wisdom like … “Is your shampoo making you fat?” “Prepare for a world energy war.”

    The only thing Skeptical Science removes from the debate is common sense!

  6. I’m getting a 404 on the first ‘source’ link.

    You’re right to offer a PDF – looking at his site made my eyes water and it also made it very difficult to take seriously. Very difficult.

    You can see how it’s hard to take this kind of writing seriously. He’s not actually conducting his own research, he’s just interpreting the work of others with a negative confirmation bias – the same criticism he levels at the original author.

    For example, in Point 3 ‘It’s the sun’

    “Cook claims that the negative impact on agriculture, health, economy, and environment outweighs any positives. In reality, the overall impact is positive in all four cases. The agriculture becomes more effective, is able to feed people more easily, the economy grows, the fees for heating go down (and they exceed the money paid for cooling today)”

    Agriculture will not become more effective it will be different. The current conditions would shift geographical location, so for instance the wheat belt might move a few hundred kilometres from its present position. Which I believe will cause some issues, both good and bad. Mostly bad for farmers who will have to restructure their farms to change crops.
    The rollling brown outs in the US happen in summer when the peak load occurs. In Europe, the peak load is probably in winter.

    This kind if tit-for-tat cherry picking doesn’t help the debate. And those cute kitties!

    • Link fixed – thanks. True, the arguments go both ways, but as I have said, it isn’t the sceptics that are demanding our global economy be turned upside down and our standards of living trashed. The burden of proof is on those claiming we should take action.

  7. In relation to the supposed negative aspects of CO2 (point 3 above), I can only say that I distinctly recall hearing a piece on radio a few months ago about how it has been determined that there is some vague correlation between warm and cool periods and social development. Big, generally socially progressive events, occurred during “warmer” periods, and more wars and general discontent occurred during “cooler” periods of human history.

    I’m probably not telling anyone any more than they already know, but I thought it was an interesting theory.

    Assuming I linked it properly, here is 1 example.

    I also just realised that I could be interpreted as having fallen into to the trap of associating CO2 with climate change, but really, think of my comments as a tangent. I believe CO2 is the driving force behind climate change, about as much as I believe that I am the driving force behind what kalahari bushmen have for dinner each night…

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