Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Another victim of climate change: science reporting

Jerry Stratton, October 6, 2015

The latest Science News has another example of how climate change is killing science reporting. I don’t mean to pick on Science News. It’s the science magazine I subscribe to and so they’re the one I’m familiar with. As far as I can tell, they’re the best general science magazine available; that’s why I chose to subscribe to them.

In the Notebook section of their September 19, 2015 issue, they report on a Weather, Climate and Society article that says U.S. agriculture could save $2.2 billion “Estimated annual savings to U.S. agriculture by 2100 from aggressive carbon emissions.”

… economist Brent Boehlert of MIT and colleagues estimate that large-scale climate action would save farmers about $980 million annually by 2050. More modest cuts would net savings of around $390 million annually.

The notebook entry is missing one very important piece of information: a comparison to give that number meaning. There is an entire branch of science devoted to giving measurements meaning; I learned that in a previous issue, which reported that scientists are attempting to create a more precise means for measuring mass.

Now, at most of the levels that matter for a general science magazine, mass will always be more precise than economics. But the notebook entry just above the climate change entry is on virus infection, an area just as bound by statistics as economics. That article reports on research into how vomiting helps noroviruses spread.

… Depending on pump pressure and the virus concentration in the throw-up, as few as 36 and as many as over 13,000 virus particles were released by the mechanical spewing.

Those numbers are just as meaningless as the millions and billions in the climate change article. How many viruses does it take to cause an infection? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Without that information, the “36 and as many as over 13,000” numbers are worthless. To provide context, author Sarah Schwartz adds:

Just 20 norovirus particles can cause infection, so vomiting can probably spread norovirus to more unfortunate victims.

Certainly one could quibble with the comparison provided and the lack of specificity to it—what does “can cause infection” really mean, and how often do 20 particles cause infection? But this is a notebook entry, not a full-page or multipage article. It needs some context, not complete context, and the magazine provides it. Twenty particles can cause infection, and vomiting puts over thirty in the air.

The carbon cuts entry does not provide that context, making their numbers completely meaningless. Further, in the sidebar where they should provide that context, they provide a completely unrelated number. The entry is about how much will be saved by carbon cuts; the sidebar that should be used for context provides an unrelated number designed solely to scare, the “current total damages from droughts in the United States each year on average, an amount greater than from flooding or hurricanes.”

But droughts happen even without any man-made climate change, and the entry itself makes clear that those larger numbers have no relation to the savings. What should have gone there are the costs of those cuts. Savings are meaningless without including the costs of those savings. You can save $200 on a new car and still not be able to afford the $20,000 the car costs.

Salesmen always emphasize what you will save if you buy their product. They hide what you’re going to have to spend until you’ve already made the decision and are writing the check.

For example, I recall that the money given to Solyndra in 2009 was itself over half a billion dollars.1 That was only one tiny part of the cost of climate cuts, we are spending that kind of money every year, and it alone almost reaches the 2050 savings in one year.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, direct incentives alone, merely to alternative energy production, were over ten billion dollars in 2013. Other costs include the people who could have been fed instead of diverting vegetable crops to fuel.

That puts a few hundred million in perspective. But if author Thomas Sumner had provided a comparative figure of costs that included that ten billion dollars as well as everything else we are spending in the climate change industry, the article would either not have been used, or would have been edited to remove it, because climate change is no longer science; it is religion, and figures that reflect badly on it must be excised.

I’m not saying that Sumner is a climate change zealot2. It may be that he provided the information and it was edited out. Or it may be that Sumner knew that including it would mean his article wouldn’t be used, and he wouldn’t be published, so he voluntarily removed it. It may be that Science News would have preferred to include comparative figures, but left them out because they knew how strong the backlash would be if they reported figures that reflect badly on the climate change religion. I don’t know. But I do know that in science, no figures reflect badly on science. They provide context that helps direct further research to where it is most likely to be effective. We are creating an atmosphere in climate change “studies” where science doesn’t matter; only furthering the religion matters. If that spreads to other fields of science, there will be no science.

It is impossible to emphasize enough that real science is about disproving theories. You can never really prove a theory; you can only fail to disprove it often enough that it is likely true. For an example of that, read the antimatter and relativity note in the same issue. The language is completely different; it is the language of science:

After failing to find fissures in the standard model, the researchers turned their sights to the general theory of relativity but also came up empty.

They are not trying to prove relativity or the standard model. They are explicitly trying to disprove it. This is how science advances. It is this critical change in how we think about science that has given us our amazing strides and made the modern world modern. We are slowly re-entering the realm of pre-scientific thought where trying to disprove the theories of the anointed is a heresy.

In response to I believe in Global Warming (and other conversion stories): Conversion stories aren’t meant to convert skeptics; they’re a bonding tale for the converted, a sign of a religion; science needs theories that make predictions about what happens when they’re right and how to falsify them if they’re wrong. Proof for human-caused global warming is always whatever happened last month or last year, never tomorrow. No application of the scientific method can ever disprove it because hindsight is 20/20.

  1. The actual figure was 536 million, if my research is correct.

  2. Although, as it turns out, the previous article that left out very important information was also Sumner’s.

  1. <- Climate compromises
  2. Climate cargo cult ->