Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The National Post's War on Science: Boogeymen!

The National Post's War on Science:

Boogeymen!


Note: I had intended this post to be completed around Hallowe'en; however other considerations (particularly my new baby) made this unfeasible. I will keep the general theme despite the much later scheduling.

December 1 Update: This post garnered Idiomatic Composition its first spam comment. I'd like to think that the blog is going somewhere if it's starting to attract spam.

ScienceBlogs' writer Tim Lambert generally blogs on the topic of climate science. One of his long-running categories of posts deals with an Australian newspaper called (wait for it...) The Australian. Per Mr Lambert, The Australian has undertaken a campaign of misinformation, misrepresentation, character attack, and FUD-spreading pertaining to climate science (and climate scientists) so egregious that he characterizes it as a war on science.

Shortly before Hallowe'en, I came across a copy of Canadian newspaper The National Post in which I found an opinion piece consisting of an excerpt from a book written by one Donna Laframboise. The book itself is The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken For The World's Top Climate Scientist; the opinion piece which I found was the second of two excerpts printed by the NP in its Financial Post sister publication (see online here).

As I hope to demonstrate, Laframboise's work as put on display by the Financial Post is of a piece with the sort of material printed by The Australian as criticized by Lambert and is a worthy candidate for inclusion in the annals of the 'War on Science'. I contend that there are three strains of criticism that can be levelled at the excerpt: it engages in guilt-by-association smears (which I perceive to be the core of the excerpt), it engages in conspiracy theory, and it engages in misrepresentation.



Boogeymen!


As noted above, the first line of criticism which I wish to level at the Laframboise excerpt is that it engages in unsubstantiated guilt-by-association, a form of ad hominem logical fallacy (the unsubstantiated part, as we shall see, is the important part).

The bulk of the excerpt attempts to smear contributors to the IPCC AR4 by linking them to organizations dedicated to environmental & conservation advocacy and activism: Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), as if these organizations were not populated by ordinary, well-meaning but occasionally mistaken or misled human beings, but rather by boogeymen.

Greenpeace - an organization dedicated to environmental advocacy, with the occasional penchant for cheap theatrics & the odd illegal action. Or is it...

- a BOOGEYMAN!!!

The WWF, an organization dedicated to conserving existing biodiversity. Unless it's...

- ANOTHER BOOGEYMAN!!!!

Laframboise attempts to "name and shame" a number of scientists, of whom I shall focus on three: Malte Meinshausen (crime: associated with Greenpeace), Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Greenpeace & WWF), and Michael Oppenheimer (EDF).

Malte Meinshausen
As we can see from his academic profile, Dr Meinshausen has just transferred to the University of Melbourne from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research. Most of his research focuses on national/international policy regarding emissions/warming targets and work on improving climate forecasts & modelling.

Dr Malte Meinshausen

Here is what Laframboise has to say about Dr Meinshausen:
In 2009 an activist think-tank observed that [IPCC contributor and (per Laframboise) Greenpeace boogeyman Bill] Hare and a person named Malte have “long been key members of the Greenpeace International climate team.” Malte’s surname is Meinshausen. In 2001 he and Hare co-authored an analysis of the Kyoto Protocol. During 2002 and 2003 he was a Greenpeace spokesperson.

But these facts didn’t prevent him from being recruited as a contributing author to not one, not two, but three chapters of the 2007 Climate Bible – including one that evaluated the reliability of climate models. Like Klein, Meinshausen’s participation demonstrates that many IPCC authors are hardly elder scholars. He only received his doctorate in 2005.

A number of passages in the 2007 Climate Bible
[more on this curious construct later] blandly cite research papers authored by Hare and Meinshausen as though it’s immaterial that they are Greenpeace personnel. Indeed, the IPCC goes so far as to reprint a graph that appears in a paper for which these two men are the sole authors.

Apparently, Laframboise expects "elder scholars" are the only scientists worthy contributing to IPCC reports. However, as you can see from his academic profile, he has been hard at work, with 27 published papers in the scientific literature (including publications in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) and Nature, hardly slouches in the world of science journals) and 5 papers currently submitted for review and/or publication.

I should here mention that Albert Einstein's annus mirabilis was 1905. During this year he was awarded his PhD and published his papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy. He was around 26 at the time. Let me be clear: I am not saying Dr Meinshausen can reasonably expect to be as influential as Albert Einstein. What I am saying, in what I trust is a dramatic fashion, is that Laframboise's objection to Dr Meinshausen's youth has no merit.

I shall have more to say on the actual attempt at guilt-by-association itself once I have brought up the other two scientists I should like to highlight.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
As we can see from his profile at the University of Queensland Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg has been around the block, having received his PhD in 1989 and with over 170 publications in the scientific literature stretching back to 1986. A cursory review of his research shows he has numerous publications dealing with the reaction of coral reef systems to various environmental stresses (including, obviously, warming oceans as a result of global warming and ocean acidification from CO2 uptake). Dr Hoegh-Guldberg also assisted the climate science website Skeptical Science by posting a series on the Great Barrier Reef and its expected responses to global warming.

Dr Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

Here's Laframboise on Dr Hoegh-Guldberg:
Nor does the Greenpeace connection end there. Australian marine biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is often described as a “world renowned reef expert.” Nine chapters of the 2007 Climate Bible base their conclusions partly on his work. He was a contributing author to that report’s “Australia and New Zealand” section and is currently in charge of the “Open Oceans” chapter.

The problem is that Hoegh-Guldberg has had close ties to activist organizations for the past 17 years. Between 1994 and 2000 he wrote four reports about coral reefs and climate change that were funded, vetted, and published by Greenpeace. Since then he has written two more for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Someone who has spent 17 years working closely with activist groups is thoroughly tainted. By no stretch of the imagination can he be considered a disinterested party who will carefully weigh the pros and cons and then write a scrupulously objective account of the situation.

The tactic of guilt-by-association is, I think, unambiguous here. As noted previously, I shall undertake my rebuttal of this form of argument shortly.

Michael Oppenheimer
Dr Michael Oppenheimer works at Princeton University as a professor in Geosciences and International Affairs (in other words, the conjunction of science and policy-making, in his case climate change science and climate policy). Based on his CV, he spent his early career working in physics departments before becoming a science advisor for the EDF, and has spent the last decade at Princeton.

Dr Michael Oppenheimer

Interestingly, Dr Oppenheimer has a very long list of committees, boards, and panels he has served on over his career, a number of which I note are for governmental agencies during Republican administrations (EPA & NASA during the Reagan & Bush I years, for example). He also has a bibliography of over ten pages of published articles in the scientific literature. Surveying the bibliography shows how his research focus has changed over time, from chemical and astro-chemical physics to atmospheric physics to atmospheric sulphur pollution and finally to climate change.

Also of interest, we see that he continued to contribute to the scientific literature while working for EDF, although at nowhere near the pace he maintained previously or subsequently.

Curiously, despite his long career and his importance to the IPCC assessment reports, he rates only a minor mention in the Laframboise excerpt:
The section of the IPCC report that explored assessment methods is in a category all its own. First, it was led by Roger Jones – a WWF-affiliated scientist. Second, Greenpeace-linked Meinshausen, discussed above, was a contributing author. Third, so was Michael Oppenheimer – who spent more than two decades in the employ of the wealthy, US-based lobby group known as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

I contend that these three scientists are satisfactorily representative of the sort of researchers Laframboise attempts to smear in the FP-printed excerpt.

Guilt-By-Association
So, let us now examine the meat of Laframboise's argument of guilt-by-association.

We have seen it hinted at or even baldly stated above, but I think this concluding paragraph pretty much sums it up:
But in the 1970s a new kind of scientist began to emerge – the activist scientist. Nowadays these people occupy impressive positions at universities and are employed by respectable government bodies. This disguises the fact that their activist worldviews can [Emphasis mine.] influence their scientific judgment.

Laframboise does not, of course, do us the courtesy of explicitly stating her logic. This is what it appears to be:
Premise #1: A number of scientists contributing to the IPCC report have affilitations to environmental and convservation advocacy organizations with which Laframboise has political and/or ideological disagreements.
Conclusion #1: These scientists' work and their contributions to the IPCC assessment reports (mainly AR4) are fatally compromised by these affiliations.
Conclusion #2: The IPCC assessment reports are fatally flawed.

Stated so baldly, I think that the logical fallacy involved is clear. Like the majority of ad hominem attacks, what we see here is an outright non sequitur: the conclusions do not follow from the premise. I suggest there is also a certain degree of presuming a conclusion (alias Begging the Question).

The problem for Laframboise is that little word: "can". Sure, the scientists' affilations "can" influence their work. Can Laframboise make the required step from "can" to "does"? She doesn't in the excerpt, and I'm not optimistic that she's up to the task in her book. What is missing are two additional premises which must be be added to the above argument to make it work:

Premise #2: The scientists Laframboise wishes to criticize can be shown to have clear flaws in their published work, either in their evidentiary support and their methodology.
Premise #3: These flaws can be shown to follow of necessity from their affilitiations to environmental & advocacy groups.

Sydney Harris' famous cartoon pretty much sums up what's wrong with Laframboise's argument.

Without these two additional premises, the guilt-by-association is simply an invalid argument. To see why this is so, consider a public figure you admire and a political or special interest organization that he or she is affiliated with. Using Laframboise's logic:
Premise: Your chosen public figure is affiliated with a political/special interest organization with which others have political and/or ideological disagreements.
Conclusion: Your chosen public figure's work and/or positions on any given controversial subject are compromised, even "tainted", by his or her affiliation.

If you would not accept this argument as valid (and why should you?), then I think you will see why Laframboise's argument is without merit.


Conspiracy!


The next line of criticism to be levelled against the Laframboise excerpt is that it includes a conspiracy theory.

Here is the meat of the alleged conspiracy:
Beginning in 2004 – around the time that work was beginning on what would become the 2007 edition of the Climate Bible – the WWF systematically began recruiting scientists to sit on its own, parallel panel. By late 2008 it says it had persuaded 130 “leading climate scientists mostly, but not exclusively, from” the IPCC to join its Climate Witness Scientific Advisory Panel.

[...]

An examination of the current members of the WWF’s panel reveals that it includes 23 IPCC coordinating lead authors – those the IPCC placed in charge of an entire chapter. It also includes Argentine meteorologist Osvaldo Canziani. Having served as co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group 2 for both the 2001 and 2007 reports, he is one of its most senior officials.

How thoroughly has the IPCC been infiltrated? Twenty-eight out of 44 chapters in the 2007 Climate Bible (two thirds) contained at least one member who currently belongs to the WWF’s panel. Fully one third of the 44 chapters were led by WWF-affiliated scientists. In three instances, chapters were led by two WWF-affiliated coordinating lead authors.

Let me be blunt: this is less a useful criticism of the IPCC assessment reports and more a re-hash of: "The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." (Source)

The reason the allegation of conspiracy should fail to convince is fundamentally the same reason why the allegation of guilt-by-association should fail to convince: it's missing the part where Laframboise shows how the WWF's efforts actually compromise the science behind the IPCC reports.

In fact, as we have already seen, the IPCC projections on global warming end up being left behind by the real-world data. The problem isn't that the IPCC reports are alarmist or that WWF "infiltration" has "tainted" the conclusions. It's that the world is responding more strongly to warming than the IPCC AR4 suggested. So even if we grant the WWF wanted to "infiltrate" the IPCC like Communists in the US State Department, then its plan didn't work.

Between the sloppy inference, lack of evidence to support her conclusion, and the fact that the IPCC conclusions often turned out to be too conservative to begin with (particularly in the light of four years of intervening research since the AR4 was published), I find it reasonable to conclude that Laframboise's conspiracy-mongering is not so much a valid criticism of the IPCC as a political dogwhistle: an appeal to the basest urges of contrarians & pseudoskeptics.

It's hard to take a criticism of scientific summary documents seriously when it's appealing to this crowd. (Source)


Bibles, Weasels, and Robots!


The third (and for this post, final) line of criticism against the Laframboise excerpt is that it engages in serious misrepresentation of the IPCC Assessment Reports and the IPCC itself. There are two strains of misrepresentation involved: (1) the depiction of the IPCC AR4 as a "Climate Bible" and (2) Laframboise's fantastic (by which I mean existing in or constructed in fantasy rather than as a superlative) depiction of how scientists ought to behave.

The "Climate Bible"
As we have already seen in an excerpt, Laframboise has an irritating tendency to refer to the IPCC AR4 as a "Climate Bible". Laframboise's second paragraph describes it thusly:

[T]he Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations body responsible for preparing the “gold standard,” authoritative, influential report informally known as the Climate Bible. [She is referring to her conspiracy theory regarding environmental activists in the omitted opening of this paragraph, which is not pertinent to this part of this review.]

All in all, a search (thank you, CTRL-F!) finds 8 references to the AR4 as the "Climate Bible". Given the typical size of an opinion piece (400-600 words), that's fairly significant. However, the claim that the IPCC report is "informally known as the Climate Bible" did not pass my sniff test. It struck me as weasel wording. Informally known, perhaps... by whom, exactly? The excerpt does not say, nor, despite other claims being sourced (however they were twisted, as documented above), is there a link to anyone else calling the AR4 a 'Bible'.

Google, in the meantime, revealed the below top search results when I did a search for 'climate bible'. Out of the top eight search results visible in the screenshot (courtesy of my small laptop screen), five are attempts to link climate science and/or climate change to Biblical stories, and of the remaining three, two are direct links to Laframboise's own climate contrarian website, and the last is another climate contrarian website that, in using the term 'climate Bible', refers to Laframboise's own works.

Google search - top 8 hits on a search for 'climate bible' (YMMV).

Personally speaking, I would expect if environmentalist groups or actual climatologists made a habit of calling the AR4 a "Bible" the results would have come up before any link to Laframboise's website did (I am conjecturing that, say, Greenpeace's website gets more hits/visits).

To put things clearly and bluntly: based on what we have seen the whole "Climate Bible" nonsense is most likely made up by Laframboise to misrepresent the IPCC Assessment Reports rather than an accurate characterization of the reports. The AR4 was published in 2007. Reviewing websites such as Skeptical Science or Real Climate (or even better, having subscriptions to science journals such as Nature or climatology-specific journals) shows that climatology - like all sciences - has advanced over the last four years. That is the nature of the sciences. So an honest characterization of the Assessment Reports is that they are the best large-scale summary of the science to date, but like all scientific publications are subject to review & revision as more and better evidence comes in.

The reference to a Bible serves two useful purposes in creating a misrepresentation. First is the suggestion that defenders of the AR4 claim it to be infallible or inerrant, a "final word" on climate science. Then of course, in classic false-dichotomy fashion, if enough problems (or indeed, if revisions based on new evidence are required), then the whole enterprise can be called into question. Second is the allusion to the classic canard (usually espoused by creationists and alt-med cranks) that scientists are simply adherents of an alternative "religion", the conclusions of which are simply a matter of belief or opinion (instead of the results of the collection and analysis of a large aggregate of empirical evidence backed by experiment and physics theory).

RoboScientist
Throughout the excerpt, we are treated to Laframboise's assertions on how scientists ought to behave. I shall show three choice paragraphs of this kind of talk and add in editorial comments as I feel are warranted.
  • "Since activists bring their own agenda to the table, and since agendas and science don’t mix [Really? Why not?], environmentalists need to keep their distance from scientific endeavors. [Really? Why must environmentalists do so and not, say, pharmaceutical companies when they are trying to distort the literature or influence physician behaviour?] Scientific conclusions – especially those involving judgment calls – cannot be trusted if activists have been involved." [Good old guilt by association. No substantiation required.]
  • "When the public hears the term ‘scientist’ we think of someone who is above the fray – who’s disinterested and dispassionate and who goes wherever the scientific results happen to lead. [Actually, every scientist I've interacted with is incredibly interested and passionate in their work. About the only accurate characterization of scientists in this passage is that good scientists, however grudgingly, follow the evidence.] This implied neutrality is what gives scientists their authority." [Really? The more I've dug into writings by practicing scientists (such as Drs Steve Novella & David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine, Orac at Respectful Insolence, and others, the more I find that a scientist commands authority based on the evidence he or she can bring to bear to support or attack arguments & hypotheses, without regard to how partisan his or her defence (or attack) is.]
  • "We’ve been told [by whom? There's those weasel words again.] that the reason we should believe in human-caused climate change is because the IPCC has examined the matter carefully and determined that it’s a genuine threat. ["Believe". No. Since scientific argument is about evidence, the reason to accept that climate change is a serious problem is because that's what the evidence is telling us. Belief has nothing to do with it.] We’ve been told [again... by whom, exactly?] this organization is rigorous and objective – that its reports are produced by a meticulous, upstanding professional in business attire."

So it seems Laframboise has a bizarre conception as scientists as some sort of collection of robots who collect evidence, analyze it, and write boring articles about it in journals.

Hopefully Laframboise wasn't thinking of this robot scientist. (Source)

As I hope my inline comments suggested, there is simply no a priori reason to have this expectation of scientists. The most important component of any scientific discussion (especially if it is a disagreement) is the evidence that the parties involved can bring to bear, followed up by the robustness of their analysis of the evidence and the strength of the conclusions that they can infer.

If you have the goods viz. evidence, analysis & conclusions, it really doesn't matter if you're an uptight, surly introvert or, to borrow Laframboise's turn of phrase, a "delinquent teenager". Sooner or later you will prevail in a contest of science. If you don't have the goods viz. evidence, analysis or conclusions, it doesn't matter how gregarious or professional-seeming you are. You'll eventually be dismissed.

Put simply, Laframboise is tone trolling, suggesting that scientists' evidence, analysis & conclusions are less important than how (and in whose company) they are presented.



Animal Rights Activists Getting Eaten by Bears!

As we have seen, I tend to write too much for these blog posts. As we are about to see, I tend to run out of steam at conclusions.

So, dear reader, let me reiterate what this review of the National Post's excerpt from Donna Laframboise's book has determined:
  1. The bulk of the excerpt amounts to a classic guilt-by-association form of character assassination, a common logical fallacy.
  2. The excerpt alleges a conspiracy by the WWF to "infiltrate" the IPCC working groups.
  3. The excerpt undertakes a blatant, perhaps even mendacious misrepresentation of the Assessment Reports and the behaviour of scientists.
  4. Nowhere in the excerpt is satisfactory evidence given to show that the allegations of guilt by association or of conspiracy are of any concern, nor that the misrepresentations are in fact accurate - nor, given the limitations of space imposed by an opinion piece in a newspaper, is any suggestion given that adequate evidence will be supplied in the book.

Based on all this, I find it safe to conclude that buying The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken For The World's Top Climate Scientist would be a waste of your money (especially a print copy) and that this opinion piece ably demonstrates that the National Post is a willing participant in the sustained multimedia campaign against climate science that Deltoid calls "The War on Science".

4 comments:

  1. Thanks, a much-needed review. I heard about this book a while back and couldn't find out anything useful about it (although the deniers were falling over themselves about it, of course). But what's the story with the delinquent teenager?

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    1. My understanding is that the delinquent teenager of the book's title is a reference to a single contributor to the IPCC AR4. The Financial Post posted two excerpts; the one I did not review might shed some more light on the matter.

      Not having the book I don't know for sure who the title refers to, if it refers to any specific person (rather than a generalized smear against the IPCC as an organization).

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  2. What's with the choppy violin background?

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    Replies
    1. That would be the rather poor web design skills of myself at work.

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