Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Christopher Monckton, "Climategate," and moving beyond the God of the Gaps

The so-called "controversy" over climate change rolls on, with two major stories coming to the fore at the same time.

Lord Christopher Monckton is one of the leading lights amongst Climate Change sceptics. On October 14th 2009, he gave a talk at a climate sceptic event sponsored by the Minnesota Free Market Institute. The slides from the talk can be found here (PDF).

You get an idea of the ideological bent behind the talk from Monckton's use of the phrase "the left, the environmental left, the intolerant, communistic narrow minded faction that does not care how many children it kills." Nonetheless, because it presented a detailed, if erratic, critique of the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, it deserved a response.

John Abraham, a professor of Thermal Sciences at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, offered that response. In a 73 minute talk, Abraham challenged the arguments that Monckton made, his interpretations of cited sources, his honesty in citing sources, and his credentials as a scientific commentator.

Monckton's immediate response was to whine about "artful puerilities."

As Abraham noted soon after, Monckton's article "dealt with a small number of very peripheral issues" and "there remain very severe errors with your presentation that are yet unanswered."

But it seems that this was only an initial response, and the climate sceptic has now "issued an extensive and detailed critique and refutation of a widely circulated 83-minute personal attack on him." So says Monckton's employer, the Science and Public Policy Institute, whose website hosts the 99-page document (PDF).

Already, the document has its detractors.

In particular, Gareth of Hot Topic takes issue with Monckton's response to the assertion that he has no scientific background;
He claims his “heavily mathematical” paper on climate sensitivity was published in a “reviewed journal”. Interesting choice of words, Chris. The “paper” was published in a newsletter of the American Physical Society, not in any peer-reviewed journal, and was never subjected to the sort of review that would be routine for any scientific journal. Lucky, really, because Monckton makes so many errors his opus would never have made the grade in the mainstream literature.

The rational basis, therefore, for the assumption that Christopher Monckton, Viscount Brenchley, has no scientific background is that the evidence shows he hasn’t got one. The very best that can be said for him is that he has a facility for maths, a wonderful line in pompous prose and a bee in his bonnet.
He's not the only one to come to such a conclusion.

Rabbett Run has already dissected points 455 and 456, and a commenter over at The Blackboard has this delightful summation;
My favourites so far:

27 – You said I said the world is not warming, but you’re wrong because I said the world is cooling.

30 – You said I said that sea levels are not rising. But you’re wrong because I said sea levels are not rising.

These are also good …

1 Are you familiar with the convention in the academic world that if one wishes to rebut the work of another he should notify that other in good time, so as to avoid errors in the rebuttal and to afford the other a fair and contemporaneous opportunity to refute the rebuttal?

Did you contact Al Gore before issuing a criticism of ‘Inconvenient Truth’ or are you a hypocrite? Did you contact Professor Michael Mann before accusing him of genocide?

also 17 Please provide a full academic resume. Though you have described yourself as a “professor” (3, 62) more than once in this presentation, are you in fact an associate professor?

Though you have described yourself as a member of the House of Lords, is it not the case that you are not and never have been? That you stood for election and received zero votes?

Thus, Richard Littlemore concludes;
Here's the bottom line: Monckton is a risible hack who burries fact in a lather of language, and who cares for nothing so much as the promotion of his own dubious reputation. If you doubt it, take the 90 minutes to watch Monckton's rude, sophomoric and objectionable presentation and then take another 80 minutes to watch John Abraham's remarkably respectful response. Then, if you're really, really determined, check out Monckton's latest epistle.

After such an exercise, preferably followed by some strong drink and a good night sleep, I believe that most people will conclude that John Abraham is a careful scientist and that the Lord Monckton is a belligerent and unapologetic polemicist, pushing an ideological viewpoint that is - in a way that he has noticed himself - quite directly in opposition to the evidence at hand.
Meanwhile, there has been an independent review (PDF) of the so-called "climategate" emails. More than 1,000 emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia were leaked by hackers, with sceptics delighting that they supposedly unveiled a conspiracy to cover up evidence against climate change.

However, though "there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness," the inquiry found that "their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt." The scientists failed to comply with Freedom of Information requests and were too quick to dismiss critics, but they were "not in a position to withhold access to such data or tamper with it" and "any independent researcher can download station data directly from primary sources and undertake their own temperature trend analysis" if they so wish.

Of course, this will not sway the most resolute of sceptics, who - like creationists - will continue to pick at the edges and pray to the God of the Gaps.If you want to argue with such people, then you can find an extensive list of their arguments debunked here.

As long as we waste our time arguing with sceptics clutching at straws, we are ignoring the real debate on climate change: what on earth do we do about it?