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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/6/09

Conspiracy Thinking and Climate Change

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There is a report from last summer on thinning sea ice, evidence for continued global warming. Sea Ice At Lowest Level In 800 Years Near Greenland, Science Daily.See the Related Stories section at the site below for more. Example: Lasers From Space Show Thinning Of Greenland And Antarctic Ice Sheets(Sep. 24, 2009) The most comprehensive picture of the rapidly thinning glaciers along the coastline of both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets has been created using satellite lasers. The findings are an ...


Some people on the blogosphere read such reports and don't believe them, or they construct all sorts of reasons why they are incorrect or, worse, have been fudged to become creative fictions by a vast conspiracy of corrupt scientists with malevolent intentions. Or they believe that the scientists have been co-opted by a wealthy elite, a controlling plutocracy that has wrested the control of government away from the democracies of the world and are running things for their own selfish motives. The logical extension of this is the belief that there is a movement, so the argument goes, to create a world government run by the powerful and wealthy interests and treating ordinary people as mindless automatons going through the motions of life, mainly in the service of their (barely) hidden masters.

There is some evidence that giant corporations have taken control of the political process to such an extent that democracies have all but lost their abilities to work for the greater good of their constituents, so I don't deny evidence for some of the above sentiment. However, the beliefs in many cases go way beyond anything reasonable or even remotely believable. I expressed my concerns on this point to my son Kevin, who is nearing the completion of his Ph.D. in biology. He wrote this useful explanation:

For many folks who do not believe in global warming arguments about scientific evidence relating to climate change won't make much difference. Whenever they are presented with evidence supporting climate change, they won't believe it. They think there is a conspiracy and thus, whatever evidence you bring them is part of that conspiracy. At worst, they think you are part of the conspiracy. At best, if they think you are a good person, then they just think that you are being fooled by those that are running the scheme.

I wonder sometimes if these folks would believe the data if they had collected it themselves? These conspiracy arguments, in my mind, have some relation to supernatural theories. We can't truly test the theory of special creation because whatever evidence we may gather, this evidence could be explained by supernatural powers (e.g. the devil planting fossilsinappropriately). Thus, special creation is not really a scientifically testable theory.

What we really need is massive public education about the following basics:

1. There are different kinds of evidence. They are gathered in different ways and thus have different strengths and weaknesses. Circumstantial evidence is evidence from a single event oroccurrence which may depend on those circumstances. Observational evidence is a kind of circumstantial evidence.

Scientists often take careful observational evidence, repeatedly. Many factors may be causing those observations. They may use these observations in more rigorous ways, like examining correlations, to see if two factors are related. If two factors are found to be related from observational correlations, it does not mean that one causes the other. However, one may cause another, we just can't be sure based simply on observational correlations. Correlation does not necessarily mean there is causation, but it could, we just don't know without further testing. (There are lots of great examples that could be used here. In one classic example we might find a correlation between ice cream consumption and rates of violent crime in a large city. It seems silly to claim that ice cream causes violent crime. However we might also find correlations between maximum daily temperature and both ice cream consumption and violent crime. So, the correlation tells us two things are related, but it does not tell us if it is a direct relationship, or an indirect one.)

Sometimes scientists are able to combine many different observations on many different factors to gain some suggestion of which factors cause which other factors. If you measure every conceivable factor that might be causing some response, you can analyze these data with certain kinds of statistics and modeling (e.g. path analysis, structural equation modeling) that gives some ideas about which factors might be most important in causing the response. (Using our previous example, one might measure ice cream consumption, daily temperature, socioeconomics, social histories of people involved in the study, access to weapons, etc, etc, etc, and then see which factors seem to be most directly related to violent crime, taking into account any known relationships between these variables.)

Replicated, randomized, controlled, manipulative experiments provide some of the strongest evidence about whether or not certain factors cause a response. By controlling many factors one can try to isolate the relationship between a certain factor and a response. This way one knows that the factors being held constant cannot be responsible for the response observed. However, one can never be certain there isn't some unknown factor causing the response. But, one can minimize the effects of any unknown factors which vary uncontrollably by replicating and randomizing and using statistics. This way, if there is an unknown factor influencing our response, its effects will cancel out across replicates and thus only the variable we are testing can be responsible for the observed results. (Using our previous example, one could randomly assign people to eat more or less ice cream and then measure their rates of violent crime and repeat this in several geographic regions and times of year. This would provide strong evidence as to whether ice cream causes violent crime.)

2. When scientists publish research, it must go through a rigorous, anonymous peer-review system. This system is so rigorous that most scientific papers get rejected the first time they try to publish. Only after satisfying the reviewers and editor's criticisms may the research be published. A great deal of the training of graduate students in science is devoted to learning to be a very critical reviewer, so peer review of papers is very stringent.

Provocative research goes through additional reviews because other scientists will read the research and try to test the same ideas themselves... sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways. If many scientists test the same ideas in many different ways and get the same results, it adds support to the idea. If only a few studies find something different, it may be due to differences in the way they did their studies. A single study that does not find the same results does not mean that the original research should be completely tossed out. If many studies disagree with the original finding, there is probably something important happening causing those differences.

Really provocative or important research will go through additional reviews, by panels of prominent (very smart) scientists who will examine the ideas very critically.

If any of this data is fabricated, this process will likely reveal it, or at least any conclusions drawn will be relatively unaffected by it, because most scientists are not fabricating data, even if a few are. To most scientists, fabricating data is the worst thing anyone could possibly do in their lives.

3. Studies of climate change include simple correlational studies, which show relationships between certain gases (and other factors like the sun)and temperature. They also include additional correlational studies that involve measuring many factors and using statistics and modeling to try to better understand causes of temperature change. These studies suggest that the warming we see is matched fairly well by emissions of human related greenhouse gases, but is not explained well only by "natural" factors, such as variation in the intensity of the sun. Finally, there are also manipulative, replicated, randomized studies of climate change. These are only possible at small scales, not global, because we only have one planet, so we can't replicate and randomize planets. However, at smaller scales, greenhouse gases have been shown to cause temperature increases in laboratory experiments.

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For 30 years Dr. McCluney was principal research scientist at the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research institute of the University of Central Florida. He holds B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in physics and has published over 60 popular and (more...)
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