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Climate change logic lost in translation

Quick, consider the following: all polar bears are animals. Some animals are white. Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not? There is a 75% chance you might endorse…

Are polar bears brown or white? Don’t let muddy logic confuse you. Flickr/Ferdi's world

Quick, consider the following: all polar bears are animals. Some animals are white.

Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not?

There is a 75% chance you might endorse this conclusion despite it being logically false.

This instantly becomes apparent if you replace “white” in the foregoing with “brown”.

You just witnessed a fundamental aspect of human cognition. Our logical reasoning is often compromised by irrelevant features such as the familiarity of white (but not brown) polar bears.

This frailty is routinely exploited by those who are trying to confuse the public about the well-established scientific fact that the Earth is warming due to human CO₂ emissions.

There is an upside to this frailty, however: whether due to mere ignorance or ideologically-driven mendacity, denier illogic can be revealed for the nonsense it is by translating it into an everyday equivalent.

Consider the famous denialist two-step, often uttered in the same breath: “it’s not warming… but it’s natural variation.”

This is logically equivalent to the claim: “decaying teeth don’t exist… but they fall out naturally.”

No one would place much faith in that dental opinion and no one should place any trust into equivalent illogic when it comes to climate.

In other instances, compromised reasoning can be more subtle, especially when couched in calm and civil terms, as in a recent article in these pages.

At first glance, Emeritus Professor Paltridge makes very reasonable points, for example by noting that some skeptics just like being a nuisance and that some of their scientific arguments are “hairy”.

Alas, the pernicious illogic lurking beneath this veneer can be revealed in its stark menace by translating the argument made about climate change into the context of HIV/AIDS.

In translation, the principal premises of the article are as follows:

(1) The medical community is polarised about whether or not HIV causes AIDS.

(2) On the one hand there is the establishment that endorses this link, on the other hand there are some sceptical but reputable scientists, and the scientists in the middle say little.

(3) Some vocal medical researchers insist true science can only be found in peer-reviewed medical journals.

(4) A situation has developed reminiscent of religion in the Middle Ages, in which only establishment theologians can do medical science.

(5) The establishment should be expected to bridge the divide between the two sides, because it must be remembered:

(6) most new ideas in research come from the outside.

(7) The first step is for establishment medical scientists to acknowledge the material emerging on reputable homeopathic blogs, which after all,

(8) have access to a store of enthusiastic labour.

(9) Medical researchers need to be positive and helpful when identifying errors in some of the more extreme homeopathic ideas.

This chillingly surreal narrative is far from hypothetical.

Precisely this form of AIDS denial — for denial is what it is — was embraced by the former government of President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa.

Although the U.S. National Academy of Sciences expressed the consensus in 1988, saying “the evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive,” Mbeki’s government rejected that consensus, called Western medicine “racist”, and instead treated AIDS with garlic and beetroot, not anti-retroviral drugs.

A recent peer-reviewed Harvard study estimated this denialism caused more than 330,000 deaths from AIDS.

For that, Mbeki and his ilk are now held in richly deserved contempt around the world.

Let us return to climate change.

In 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences expressed the scientific consensus on climate change by calling it a “settled fact”.

It is not surprising, therefore, that 97% of domain experts accept that fact, which is supported by an almost unimaginably overwhelming body of evidence in the peer-reviewed literature.

In light of those facts, Professor Paltridge’s view of a “polarization” in the scientific community, in which there are scientists in the “middle” who “say little” and skeptics outside the “establishment” who are “reputable” appears misguided.

Worse — it is tantamount to celebrating the few seemingly-credentialed individuals in the medical community who abused their academic privileges by feeding AIDS denial through bizarre publications or by side-stepping peer review altogether as heroes.

No, the handful of AIDS denialists within the medical community are not heroes.

On the contrary, they have blood on their hands. In light of current WHO estimates of 150,000 annual deaths from climate change, any appeal to those chimerical “reputable” skeptics runs a similarly grave moral risk.

Posterity is likely to judge that stance at least as harshly as AIDS denial.

Finally, what about those “reputable” skeptic blogs, such as WattsUpWithThat, recommended by Professor Paltridge? What about their enthusiastic followers?

The plethora of content provided by WattsUpWithThat defies summary in a few words, although it is nicely illustrated by the considerable effort this blog expended on a photograph of Professor Ray Bradley taken in a hallway at the University of Massachusetts.

The backdrop to this picture happened to be a large graph of ice-core data affixed to the building’s wall.

The “reputable” blog thereupon spent several frantic days on the alleged shortcoming of this incidental backdrop to a photo.

In the end, enthusiastic followers sought to strip Professor Bradley of all scientific credibility based on the presumed graphical impropriety of… a wall in a university building.

It is difficult to see any merit in such verbiage other than to reveal the obsessions of the originator.

And this may explain why pre-emeritus scientists do not see fit to devote part of their 80-hour work weeks to patiently defending their university’s hallways against assault by a crowd that almost defies parody.

Sometimes, building bridges in times of conflict is a valiant and commendable endeavour.

But there are other times, readily evoked by the name Neville Chamberlain, where the attempt to seek reconciliation is inadvisable because it misjudges the situation.

Peer-review and blog frenzy over irrelevant photographic backdrops cannot be bridged or reconciled.

This realization must now be dawning on the proprietor of WattsUpWithThat, who has just published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal in collaboration with various academics.

It will come as no surprise that this paper has largely reaffirmed the work of NASA, NOAA, and countless scientists by concluding there is a robust warming trend in the U.S. temperature record.

This conclusion is the precise opposite of the many years of incessant caterwauling by WattsUpWithThat, which built its enthusiastic audience — but no scientific reputation — on claims that warming is merely an artifact of bad thermometers.

So where do we go from here?

The answer is simple.

In South Africa, a new President was elected in 2008.

On her first day in office, the new Health Minister, Barbara Hogan, expressed shame at her predecessor’s denial of science and declared, “The era of denialism is over completely.”

On that day, health officials in South Africa jettisoned the garlic and beetroot and the denialist blogs.

On that day, South Africans embraced the Western medical “establishment” and its life-saving antiretroviral drugs developed by research subjected to peer review rather than to the noise of the blogosphere.

All we have to do now is catch up with South Africa.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. David Collett

    Sales at

    Quick, consider the following:
    Here is a graph of temperature going up and down over 800,000 years. The graph of CO2 concentrations appears to be in sync with temperature. Therefore, CO2 has been driving temperature changes throughout history.

    Is this conclusion valid?

    Well, when a politician employing his full oratory power uses a similar graph as above what hope does the general public have of being able to reject…

    Read more
    1. Justin Wood

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Collett

      "Why is there no discussion of the mathematical relationship between temperature and CO2 concentrations?"

      Umm, sorry? No discussion where; in this one article here? Or do you mean the entire field of climate science? Have you ever looked at a single paper on the subject, let alone — where to even begin — any of the plethora of assessment reports, such as those of the IPCC? That 'mathematical relationship' is called climate sensitivity, and enormous volumes of effort has been and continues to be expended on understanding and quantifying it.

      You might be surprised to discover that CO2 'driving' temperature is neither a simple nor unidirectional relationship (hint: the difference between forcing and feedback is rather critical).

    2. David Collett

      Sales at

      In reply to Justin Wood

      True..the question was too general.

      “Presenting graphs of temperature changes and CO2 changes over time helps to imply a relationship between the two to non-scientists. For example in the inconvenient truth and at the recent Ipswich Climate Change community forum (if my memory serves me correctly). Why do we not use basic statistics to show the relationship between the two? If we cannot use statistics to show the relationship between the two, say because the relationship is non-linear, then isn’t it misleading to imply there is a direct relationship between the two because of presenting the graphs together?”

    3. Justin Wood

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andrew Montford

      I'm sorry but that's simply laughable. Have you not heard of the carbon cycle? Feedback mechanisms? In fact the solar forcing of the Milankovitch cycle — the cause of the coming and going of ice ages — could not be modelled under such a (ludicrous) relation, because in that context CO2 rises as a _feedback_ mechanism. Hence the denier favourite factoid of CO2-lagging-temperature in the paleoclimatic record.

      And here we see another denier nonsense regarding 20th century temperature reproduction — conveniently omitting (or indeed, simply not understanding) the significant cooling offset of anthropogenic aerosols.

      The climate system is a deeply complex entity and these inane reductionisms are meaningless.

    4. Andrew Montford


      In reply to Justin Wood

      I'm not sure you have read what I linked properly. The point of the article is in complete agreement with your final sentence.

    5. Justin Wood

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Collett

      No it's not misleading because CO2 is indeed a principal driving factor; many climate scientists refer to it as the 'principal control knob' or words to that effect. Increasing CO2 will, through complex processes, increase the mean global surface temperature to restore planetary energy balance.

      In the context of the geologic record, CO2 usually rises in response to complex changes in the carbon cycle induced by changes in received solar radiation. In that sense CO2 'lags' the initial slow, small…

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    6. Justin Wood

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andrew Montford

      Having now had the distinct displeasure to actually read that post... oh my. Demolished by a statistician:

      "Bottom line: if you put in enough parameters, and fake the data because otherwise your model isn’t very good, you can get an excellent fit to the GISS modelE output. But it’s nothing but curve-fitting; the work of Willis Eschenbach and Paul_K is an outstanding example of mathturbation.

      There’s no justification for them to fake the forcing, physical or mathematical. There’s no investigation of “effective forcing” to see how different forcings might actually have a different impact (in part because of feedbacks). That’s an effort which has been pioneered by James Hansen and colleagues. To contribute meaningfully, you’d have to do some actual science other than make an ad hoc change to the forcing data so you can impugn the results of somebody’s climate model."

    7. David Collett

      Sales at

      In reply to Justin Wood

      So we cannot use the geological record to show that CO2 is going to have any affect on temperature over time scales of less than 100 years.

      And over time scales of less than a hundred years:
      "A doubling of atmospheric CO2 would result in a climate sensitivity in the range of 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C (IPCC, 2007)." From:

      If that is the case then shouldn't we be able to use temperature & CO2 concentration graphs over such time scales that the above is true and show that the relationship is correct? i.e. show that since CO2 has been rising in the past 100 years or so the above relationship has been occurring?

    8. Justin Wood

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Collett

      I struggle to see how you've come to that conclusion; it's a large non-sequitur.

      The relationship has been occurring, but more to the point hasn't FINISHED occurring. And there are large counteracting influences from aerosols, and on small time scales, from volcanoes (both decreasing the quantity of sunlight received at the surface).

      Doubling CO2 and climate sensitivity refer to the final equilibrium, which takes many centuries to achieve due to the enormous heat capacity of the oceans (which…

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    9. David Collett

      Sales at

      In reply to Justin Wood

      another word should have read "over time scales of greater than 100 years".

  2. Andrew Montford


    'Consider the famous denialist two-step, often uttered in the same breath: “it’s not warming… but it’s natural variation.”'

    Can you provide some examples?

    1. Daniel Baird

      Development Manager

      In reply to Andrew Montford

      Why not just go see your mates at the 'Global Warming Policy Foundation'
      it’s not warming… but it’s natural variation is a pretty good summary of Lawsons book.