Scientists 0, bullshitters 1

I was watching some people argue on TV about global warming, and I was struck at how rhetorically incompetent a lot of scientists are. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise: scientists are trained in science, not rhetoric. In politics, “rhetoric” is a polite word for “bullshit”, which is what you normally hire a trained bullshit expert for.

Of course, you know what a bullshit expert is. You see them on TV all the time. Political pundits, paid consultants, lobbyists, politicians, lawyers, Madison Avenue advertising men, and a host of other bullshit experts dominate the way we think about the world, right down to your average used-car salesman. What’s more, they’re very, very good at it.

In the political arena, scientists are simply outgunned. The anti-global warming guy threw out a bunch of vague claims about temperature going up and down in certain parts of the world, the pro global warming person replied by making equally vague claims about how scientists look at long-term trends rather than short ones. Unfortunately, to a casual observer, both sides appear to be making equally valid points, and in a sense they are, because neither one is really backed up with anything. The problem is that the supporting data is much too complicated to explain in 30 seconds on a TV show, so the scientist expects that you will actually investigate further on your own. After all, that’s how scientists behave when they see competing claims in science journals. But that is not what the public does: the public responds to such an exchange by assuming that both sides are equally unreasonable.

I find this situation unbelievably frustrating. Almost 100% of the debate about global warming focuses on temperature trends, and it’s easy to confuse people about temperature trends. After all, temperatures go up here, they go down there, it doesn’t seem to add up to anything convincing, right? Scientists have done an absolutely lousy job of explaining why they’re so confident in the warming trend. Part of it is because science is complicated and hard to explain to people, and part of it is the fact that they’re just not that good at this marketing stuff.

I’m no marketing expert either, but let me see if I can give it a crack. There are three things you need to understand about global warming:

  1. Temperature is a sign of warming or cooling, but it is not actually the same thing as warming or cooling. It is very superficial, in the same way that the Dow Jones industrial average is a rather superficial indicator of the economy. It is also much more volatile than the underlying warming or cooling trends, again just like the Dow Jones. Heating and cooling are actually a function of energy, not temperature.
  2. To understand the difference between energy and temperature in a climate, consider the analogy of energy and weight in your body. If you’re taking in more calories than you burn every day, then you’ll gain weight. Does this mean you’ll necessarily gain weight tomorrow? No, your weight might fluctuate due to other factors. You might be heavier tomorrow, but you might be lighter. You’ll get some confusing data if you check your weight every 10 minutes, but if you’re eating the same diet you ate years ago but your physical activity level has plummeted, then you know what will happen.
  3. So how do scientists know that the Earth is getting fat on energy? Simple: they’ve conducted experiments on CO2 which prove that increased CO2 levels in the upper atmosphere will block some of the infrared radiation emitted by the Earth. In other words, the Earth isn’t shedding as many calories every day as it used to. It’s like an athlete who’s become a couch potato. He may not eat precisely the same thing every day, so his weight might fluctuate from day to day, but over the long term, you know he’ll gain weight. Similarly, there might be fluctuations in non CO2-related environmental factors, but given the fact that CO2 reduces the amount of calories we shed every day, the conclusion is inescapable: high CO2 levels will make the Earth warmer than it would otherwise have been. Even if we hit a cooling period, it would have been more of a cooling period if there were less CO2 in the atmosphere, and when we switch back to a warming period, the CO2 will make it worse than it would otherwise have been.

Of course, I don’t really expect global warming deniers to give the matter any serious thought, but if you’re one of those fence-sitters who doesn’t understand why scientists are totally unfazed by confusing temperature data or the existence of alternate warming/cooling mechanisms, maybe that will help. Yes, the Earth does have a lot of warming and cooling mechanisms, but the increased CO2 level means that we’re not shedding as many calories every day as we otherwise would, so whatever happens with those other mechanisms, the CO2 will make it warmer than it would otherwise have been.

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11 Responses to Scientists 0, bullshitters 1

  1. Guardsman Bass says:

    Of course, you know what a bullshit expert is. You see them on TV all the time. Political pundits, paid consultants, lobbyists, politicians, lawyers, Madison Avenue advertising men, and a host of other bullshit experts dominate the way we think about the world, right down to your average used-car salesman. What’s more, they’re very, very good at it.

    It’s not shocking coming from conservatives and Republicans. They’re the recipients of two long traditions of learning how to sell bullshit really well on television: televangelism as part of a longer trend of market competition among churches for adherents, and of course the corporate world (which has fifty years of selling shit over television in terms of marketing).

  2. Eric Shear says:

    What about higher CO2 levels causing plants to grow faster? Wouldn’t that lock down the extra carbon dioxide?

  3. Michael Wong says:

    Well that’s how the plants flourished on the Earth in the first place, billions of years ago. The problem is that we’re actively competing against the plants for land space right now, and we’re winning.

  4. I’m unfamiliar with the carbon-dioxide aspect of global warming. So, I’m still uncertain over that portion of the issue. I know that after 9/11 a scientist did some research on the effect that contrails had on the atmosphere. Because the aircraft were grounded on that thankfully rare occasion, he was able to compare data. His conclusion, explained in a program on Nova, showed that the contrails actually cause sunlight to be reflected before entering the earth’s atmoshpere. You’re probably already familiar with the Global Dimming effect.

    Science and Engineering are hobbies of mine. I don’t know them very well and don’t have a great deal of aptitude for them, but I’m not letting a little thing like that keep me from enjoying the subjects.

    Anyway, I was thinking one day about how the earth had stored stored a tremendous amount of energy over a very long period of time and how it is being released in a comparative instant. Then it hit me: That’s the definition of an explosion. We are living through an explosion and even if we are not aware of it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t occurring.

    (Same argument could be made about God, but that’s another topic. I don’t have any stock in the religion business, but I find the different takes on the concept interesting. I loved Rebecca’s excellent essay! I must say though that the thought of having to sing hymns throughout eternity at gunpoint is far more frightening to me than dying simply becoming unconscious, something I do every night. Unconsciousness I’m used to, eternal life without any means of escape, I’m not.)

  5. Michael Wong says:

    I find it curious that if you don’t understand the carbon dioxide concept, you refuse to simply defer to all of the scientific associations, and instead choose to believe in the manufactured doubt promoted by FOXNews and various right-wing websites.

    As for contrails, how could they reflect a significant fraction of sunlight before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, when contrails themselves are deep inside the Earth’s atmosphere, represent an insignificant surface area relative to the planet, and typically disappear in minutes? Global dimming is typically attributed to air pollution, which would make more sense.

    Regarding the energy storage bit, I presume you’re talking about how we’re burning up millions of years of fossil-fuel accumulation so rapidly now? That doesn’t actually fit the definition of an explosion, but I suppose it works as a metaphor.

    I’ll pass on your compliments to Rebecca.

  6. What’s with all the anger, Dude. And what makes you think I watch Fox News? That’s quite the insult. While I’m at it, I think I detect more than a great deal of envy toward Bono, my favorite person on earth. Bono is where he is because he worked his ass off to get there. Rolling Stone considers U2 the best overall band in the history of Rock music. If a guy can parlay his fame into doing even more good, it’s better than what most people do with their spare time. Even famous people are just people. Also, I’m not refusing anything. Gee, I came from Ebert’s site to your site because I was impressed by your writing skills. Moreover, I don’t know what is curious about not being a carbon dioxide expert. And no, I did not intend the “explosion” as a metaphor. If you compare a hundred million years to little over one hundred years, you are approaching instantaneous.

    Really Rebecca’s essay is so well written and heartfelt! She could easily be an accomplished and known writer, if she was interested in it.

  7. Oh forgot to restate that you can find the program I am refering to on Nova. They spent fifty five minutes explaining it, and they did it well. It has to do with ice particles and reflection, but you’d need to watch the program to really get where they are coming from.

  8. Michael Wong says:

    I never said you actually watch FOXNews. I said that you are lending too much credibility to the doubt that they manufactured. A lot of their memes filter out into general society because they are mindlessly repeated by so many people. It’s like that “Vietnam veterans returning home and being attacked by mobs at the airport” mythology: it’s been repeated so many times that it’s become part of “general knowledge”, even though no one can find a single original news source reporting it as it happened. People can be affected by widespread mythologies like this without intending to, or without even realizing that they’re buying into a manufactured right-wing talking point.

    Saying that you can’t come to a conclusion about CO2 is like saying that you can’t come to a conclusion about whether the Sun runs on nuclear fusion. When something is beyond your knowledge level, you normally defer to the scientific consensus. The reason you’re not certain is because you’ve heard too many people buying into the industry spin: these are people you respect, and therefore you are reluctant to dismiss it as crackpot behaviour. It happens to all of us. Why does the idea of God seem less silly than the idea of Thor, the Norse God of Thunder? Same reason.

    As for the “explosion” bit, it’s still more of a metaphor than a literal description. Part of the definition of explosion is high pressure and rapid expansion of the entire mass. When we burn coal in a coal-fired generating station, it burns so hot that the coolant is actually hotter than the coolant in a nuclear power plant, yet we still call it “burning” not “exploding”. Of course, this is the engineer in me talking: we are very picky about technical terms. For example, an engineer views the words “tough”, “strong”, and “powerful” as three very different concepts, whereas the average person uses them interchangeably.

    As for Bono, there are plenty of rich people in the entertainment business. Why do you assume that I’m picking on him in particular because I’m envious of his money and fame? Shouldn’t I be envious of all of those people?

  9. Pingback: Poltical bullshitters | Infomcgconsult

  10. Chris says:

    Hi Mike,

    This is more a comment on the general tone that your blog posts and subsequent comment replies take than on this article in particular. It’s the only avenue I see for it, so I apologise in advance if it seems irrelevant – consider it an open letter.

    I’ll start by saying that I take no issue with anything you’ve said in this article – that global warming is still being debated at all befuddles me, though it is the prerogative of anyone who thinks differently to make their views heard.

    My problem with you boils down to respect (or lack thereof). That people are taking time out of their day to read and digest your thoughts on various matters should be considered a privilege; that some go further and take the time to articulate their thoughts on your words through a comment is an even greater one. Rather than acknowledge that, you belittle them for having the cheek to disagree with you. I’d take no issue if all you did was use logic to counteract their arguments, but it seems that disagreement with you is extremely likely to result in a personal attack. My personal experience is that vitriol is detrimental to a sound argument, but perhaps you feel differently.

    Basically, this is a much more verbose statement of Donald’s earlier comment: “What’s with all the anger, Dude.” Obviously I don’t know you, but it seems as though you have every reason to be a friendly person – by your own admission, you are happy – and I’m having trouble understanding why you feel the need to so harshly put down anyone that sees the world through a different lens to you. If all you wish to do is state your own views without disagreement, then disable comments. Simple. Otherwise, please be a little more courteous to your readers. We all arrive at our own conclusions from our education and life experience (not the best way of putting it, I don’t mean to make the two sound mutually exclusive), and to assume that one is more valid than another to the extent that it deserves condescension is a disservice.



    • Michael Wong says:

      Why do you assume that someone who expresses contempt for ignorance must be “unhappy” or “angry?”

      Your final paragraph is the worst sort of false equivocation: you’re basically saying that just because some peoples’ life experiences lead them to grow up ignorant of science, I have no right to declare that science is more valid than their anti-scientific views.

      You need to understand that what made science succeed was the very negativity that people like you dislike: in order to get anywhere, you need a systematic methodology for declaring that certain ideas are not valid. And yes, this means occasionally telling someone he’s just flat wrong. You can’t run around thinking that all ideas are equally valid; if we did that, there would be no such thing as science. It would all be New Age Deepak Chopra bullshit.

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