No, peer-review isn’t tainted!

It seems that some climate “skeptics” are revelling in the publication of another hoax paper. In this case a paper called The conceptual penis as a social construct, which has now been withdrawn (an archived version is here). The authors have written about it in this blog post, and say

The publication of our hoax reveals two problems. One relates to the business model of pay-to-publish, open-access journals. The other lies at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.

Well, the first seems a reasonable inference, but suggesting that this somehow reveals a problem at the heart of academic fields like gender studies seems a bit of a stretch. It might indicate that there are some fields where complete nonsense can be made to sound scholarly, but that doesn’t mean that there is necessarily some fundamental problem at the heart of those academic fields (I will admit, though, that if sounding scholarly is valued more than clarity, then it might be worth rethinking what should be valued).

What is more, the paper was actually initially rejected and then published in a journal that they themselves acknowledged may have a slightly suspect business model. It would be highly unlikely that a single paper could ever reveal a problem at the heart of an academic field, but even less likely if it’s a paper that requires a bit of shopping around to get it published.

Anyway, why do some climate “skeptics” seem to like this story? Well, one reason is that the paper mentions climate, but another is that it allows some, like Matt Ridley, to argue that peer review of science is a deeply tainted system. Peer review is not perfect, but that some people – who try hard enough – can get a rubbish paper published in a second-rate journal doesn’t suddenly make it tainted. This isn’t to say that we couldn’t improve peer review, but (like democracy) peer review is probably the worst possible system, apart from all others.

However, what I found interesting in Matt Ridley’s article was a quote from one of the paper’s authors:

“The academy is overrun by left-wing zealots preaching dangerous nonsense,” says Boghossian. “They’ve taught students to turn off their rational minds and become moral crusaders.”

So, someone who has published a fake paper to try and highlight some kind of fundamental bias in the academy, can’t even hide their own bias. As Ketan Joshi says in this article

Shermer, Boghossian and Lindsay inject a strong current of mean-spiritdness into their hoax, far removed from any effort to shine a light on unethical practices in publishing. Issues around rape, identity and sexuality are weird targets for sneering derision, alongside climate change action.

They’ve perceived the shape of political and moral bias in an entire field, based on a single pixel of information.

As far as I can tell, the authors are not two independent observers, but are more two people who have a problem with some of what they see in some areas of academia and so have constructed the evidence that they’re then using to argue that there is a major problem. Hardly an unbiased way to illustrate the existence of a bias.

Posted in Climate change, Research, Science, The philosophy of science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , , , | 67 Comments

Emission pathways

Credit: Su et al. (2017)

I’m always a little concerned about writing about economics/policy, because I don’t have any specific expertise and find myself easily confused. However, I thought I would briefly discuss a figure that Glen Peters posted on Twitter (he also, kindly, clarified a few things via email). The figure (on the right) is from a paper called Emission pathways to achieve 2.0 and 1.5oC climate targets.

As I understand it (and I’m happy to have this clarified or correct if I’m wrong) the figure shows a number of different future carbon price pathways (top panel) and the corresponding percentage GDP loss (bottom panel). Green is a pathway that keeps warming below 1.5oC, blue keeps warming below 2oC, and orange is an optimal pathway, which leads to warming of about 2.5oC. The dashed and solid lines are two different forms of the model, one in which land use and non-CO2 GHGs are fixed (solid) and the other in which they are dynamically adjusted (dashed).

Here’s where I worry that I might be confused. As I understand it the GDP loss is relative to some kind of baseline in which GDP continues to grow. The GDP loss is simply the percentage reduction in GDP. In other words, if we follow a pathway that would keep warming below 1.5oC, in the middle of the century GDP would be 3-4% lower than the baseline case. Another way to think of this is that it produces a small change in GDP growth (for example, in one of the scenarios presented by the IPCC, GDP growth might drop from 2% per year, to 1.94% per year).

My first thought was, wow this seems pretty small, and I tend to think that it is. Of course, you can make it sound big if you want to; if GDP continues to grow, then a 3% reduction in GDP is a big number (a small percentage of a big number is still a big number). Also, the pathways that keep warming below 1.5oC and 2oC would (by around the middle of the century) have losses 2-3 times greater than the optimal pathway, which – again – sounds quite large.

Some additional comments. As I understand it, the baseline pathway is some idealised pathway in which GDP simply continues to grow, unaffected by climate change. It therefore, does not, and cannot, exist. The GDP losses are therefore (if I have this right) relative to a reality we can never actually occupy. The optimal pathway is (again, as I understand it) essentially the pathway over which the costs due to climate policy match the benefits of reduced damage due to climate change [Update: see end of post]. One might immediately argue that this is the pathway that we should then follow. However, I think there are some things to bear in mind.

As I understand it, the uncertainty in climate change damages is quite large. Therefore, it seems that the optimal pathway has a reasonable probability of being quite different to what is presented here. Similarly, I would expect the uncertainty in the policy costs to also be large. In some sense, it would seem unlikely that we can reliably estimate the optimal pathway decades into the future. However, what this analysis does seem to show is that we could introduce a carbon tax that could rise (over the next couple of decades) to more than a $100/tCO2 (2005 prices) that could potentially address climate change without causing massive disruption to the global economy. The key thing, in my view, is simply to get started, rather than arguing about precisely the pathway that we should aim to follow.

I suspect this is best summed up by the quote from Otto Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC WGIII working group, who said:

It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet.

As James Annan points out in this comment, the optimal pathway is not the pathway over which the costs match the benefits, but over which the marginal costs match the marginal benefits. What this means (which I hope I get right this time) is essentially that if you followed a pathway with a slightly higher carbon tax, then the increased costs (relative to the optimal pathway) would be greater than the increased benefits, and if you followed a pathway with a slightly lower carbon tax, the reduction in costs would be smaller than the reduction in benefits. This site explains it quite well.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, IPCC, Policy, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 123 Comments

Seems OMICS International will publish anything

A new paper in the Environment Pollution and Climate Change journal (published by OMICS International) claims to have provided a refutation of the climate greenhouse theory. It’s, of course, utter nonsense, so I’m not planning on saying much.

What is remarkable is that, according to the PDF, it was accepted less than a month after being received. I’ve been looking through some of my recent papers, and even mostly uncontroversial papers that receive quite positive reviews tend to have a couple of months between being received and being accepted. Here, however, is a paper that, if right (which it is not), would rewrite our understanding of one of the most important scientific topics of the current age, and it takes less than a month. You’d think it might undergo a bit more scrutiny. You’d also like to think that the $519 article processing charge didn’t play a role in the speediness of the decision making (you might, however, be wrong if you did think this).

I had a quick skim through the article and rather gave up when it started arguing (on page 5) that it’s incorrect to use the cross-sectional area of the Earth when determining the amount of energy we receive from the Sun, and also incorrect to use the surface area of the Earth when determining how much we – on average – radiate. This is just silly.

To give you a final flavour of the paper, I’ll quote from the conclusions:

In fact, it would be feasible to refute the climate greenhouse theory already by some simple arguments:

Okay, let’s see these simple arguments.

The fact, that the atmospheric carbon-dioxide has increased while the average global temperature has increased, too, does not at all reveal a causal relationship but solely an analogous one.

Indeed, but it’s extremely difficult to explain the rise in global surface temperature without including the influence of increasing atmospheric CO2. The reason that we think that increasing atmospheric CO2 is the main cause of the rise in global surface temperature is not only because it is consistent with our understanding of its influence, but also because it is extremely difficult to construct a physically plausible alternative.

Moreover, a greenhouse needs a solid transparent roof which is absent in the case of the atmosphere.

What? Really? This is one of the simple arguments? Referring to it as the greenhouse effect is simply an analogy, and an imperfect one at that. This isn’t a refutation of the theory, but an indication that the author hasn’t given this much thought at all.

And finally, it seems unlikely that the extremely low carbon-dioxide concentration of 0.04 percent is able to co-warm the entire atmosphere to a perceptible extent.

And an argument from incredulity to end. Brilliant! I suspect I don’t really need to say anything more. I’ve never published anything in an OMICS International journal (at least, I don’t think I have) and, after this, I certainly don’t have any intention of starting now.

Posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Comedy, Global warming, Greenhouse effect, Research, Science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , | 27 Comments

Climate and conflict

I watched a talk by Clionadh Raleigh on Climate Violence (see video at the end of the post). I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, but I certainly found it quite thought provoking. The bottom line was that there is very little evidence (if any) to suggest a link between climate change and conflict/violence. In fact, the speaker appears to have significant issues with the climate conflict debate. In particular, the idea that it’s deterministic. In other words, the suggestion that people in some regions might respond deterministically to changes in climate: it gets warmer and they become more violent, for example. This is clearly nonsense. Similarly, the military regarding it as a security issue, rather than a humanitarian issue, is also problematic.

However, it wasn’t clear to me that what some are suggesting is that it is indeed deterministic. My understanding (and I’m not that familiar with this, so may be wrong) is that there are indications that climate change may be exaccerbating factors that could enhance instability in regions that might be prone to instability. I’m not aware of examples where people have made claims of actual environmental determinism. Additionally, even if there is little evidence of a link now, continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere could produce changes that could impact these regions. In fact, the speaker seemed to acknowledge that environmental factors could be linked to conflict, but seemed rather dismissive of a link between these environmental factors and climate change.

However, there was an aspect of the talk that I thought I would comment on further. Part of what was presented seemed to be rather critical of natural/physical scientists and suggested that some of what they were supposedly doing was appalling and dangerous. Not only are these quite value-laden, but if someone thinks this rhetoric is appropriate, then they become open for it to be applied to them too. Someone in the audience pointed out that after reading the talk abstract, they’d assumed that the speaker was a science denier, which the speaker strongly denied (and their talk did make this pretty clear).

It was also pointed out that by dismissing a link between climate and conflict you run the risk of people assuming that mitigating climate change is pointless, especially given that we can’t dismiss such a link in future even if there is little evidence for such a link now. Given who seem to be promoting this talk (Global Warming Policy Foundation, cliscep, Paul Homewood) this would seem to be a valid concern. I think it’s perfectly fine to be clear about what the evidence suggests, but one has to be careful of making too strong statements (there is no link to climate) to rebut others who are also making statements that are too strong (there is a clear link to climate).

However, I did find the talk very thought provoking and would be interested in other people’s views. I do think we have to be careful of presenting results that suggest that there are people in some regions who will mindlessly respond to climatic changes, because this is clearly nonsense. On the other hand, we have the potential to emit enough GHGs that we could produce substantial changes in regions that are potentially prone to instability, and appearing to dismiss this (or being interpreted as dismissing this) can also be problematic.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, Research, Scientists, The philosophy of science | Tagged , , , , , , | 84 Comments

Freedom Fighters

I’ve been using the Freedom Fighter label for a while now. It’s more evocative than libertarian, less pejorative than market fundamentalist, and furthermore alliterative. In the following note, I am pleased to report some evidence that Freedom Fighters may become a sound meme.

Like many other ClimateBall episodes, it started at Judy’s. AndréF posted a video where the origins of political correctness (or PC) was discussed by Christine Brophy & Jordan Peterson, and then gloated a bit about Social Justice Warriors (SJWs):

One of the traits that characterises Leftists is so-called agreeableness (although its expression can turn out to be very disagreeable). Part of agreeableness is seeking consensus, which although nice-sounding, concludes by identifying those outside the consensus as a threat.

It took a few hours for a Denizen to appreciate the finding: Great stuff! PC authoritarians have a high incidence of personality disorders. Since I’m too impatient to watch a 15 mins video, I tried to find the paper presenting the results being discussed in it. I could not (and still can’t) but could find a review by Barry Kaufman, a researcher who works in the same field. I found this passage noteworthy:

While this study wasn’t specifically examining general political beliefs, they shed some light on overlapping policy issues. For one, the findings on PC-Authoritarianism highlight some similarities with right-wing authoritarianism. A common finding in the psychological literature is a positive association between conservative belief and sensitivity to disgust. In the current study, contamination disgust and the order and traditionalism dimension were all related, suggesting a greater similarity between PC-Authoritarians and Right-Wing authoritarians than either side would probably like to admit!

It made me conclude that the study revealed more about Freedom Fighters than about SJWs and underlined why we need to be thankful for contrarian concerns. AndréF contested that reading, claiming that the study was very specifically about SJWs, rather than freedom fighters (at least according to authors). SJWs being usually associated with the Left (see his first quote above), I quoted BarryK a bit more, under the heading “The 2 Shades of Political Correctness”:

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension “PC-Egalitarianism” and the second dimension “PC-Authoritarianism”. Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

The whole tactics of blaming the Left (and by extension SJWs) for political correctness thus falters.


While waiting for this ClimateBall episode to subside, I searched a bit more on Peterson’s work. You may have heard of his role in the controversy over gender-neutral pronouns. But what caught my eye was his message to millenials. In it, Peterson recalls a piece by Jonathan Haidt, in which there is this gem:

Marx is the patron saint of what I’ll call “Social Justice U,” which is oriented around changing the world in part by overthrowing power structures and privilege. It sees political diversity as an obstacle to action. Mill is the patron saint of what I’ll call “Truth U,” which sees truth as a process in which flawed individuals challenge each other’s biased and incomplete reasoning. In the process, all become smarter. Truth U dies when it becomes intellectually uniform or politically orthodox.

One obvious problem with that dichotomy is that it’s self-serving. Fancy this: our most important heterodox academic in the world does not always takes sides, but when he does, he sides with Truth. And of course Mill (whose conception of truth deserves due diligence) gets opposed to teh Karl himself.

Haidt’s caricature is pure and unadulterated crap, since the issue is orthogonal to left-right orientation. For instance, many Freedom Fighters that self-identify as “cultural libertarians” are leftists. It misrepresents the main area of contention that we can find in just about every online discussion, or at very least my own experience: the fight between individuality and community. A similar opposition is expressed between self-transcendence and self-enhancement (H/T Moshpit):

[P]eople with a higher self-transcendence value demonstrated an interest in reading articles about the environment, and people with a higher self-enhancement value showed an interest in reading articles about work.

A priori, those who value more self-transcendence should emphasize social justice, while those who value more self-enhancement should emphasize personal freedom. No one owns Truth, except perhaps Nature verself.

The opposition between Justice and Freedom just looks more coherent to me. Choosing between Justice and Freedom seems less obvious than between Justice and Truth. Moreover, the opposition between Justice and Freedom is mostly rhetorical. Philosophers usually connect the two one way or another. For instance, Sen argues that:

[A] theory of justice based on fairness must be deeply and directly concerned with the actual freedoms enjoyed by different persons -persons with possibly divergent objectives- to lead different lives that they can have reason to value.

Thus, Social Justice Warriors, meet Personal Freedom Fighters, or Freedom Fighters, or even shorter FFs.

Posted in ClimateBall, Freedom Fighters | Tagged , , , , , , , | 149 Comments

Out of the lab and into the field?

This is probably going to be another of those rather confused posts, which doesn’t really say much and in which I illustrate my own confusion, more than anything else. I’ve been reading (a few times, now) a Nature article by Dan Kahan and Katherine Carpenter called Out of the lab and into the field. Dan Kahan also highlights it in this blog post.

I’ll state upfront that I still don’t quite get the significance Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition ideas, even though it does seem to be given quite a lot of credence by people whose views I do largely respect. I get that some people are culturally pre-dispossed to reject certain ideas and that, therefore, convincing such people of a certain position can be extremely difficult. What I don’t quite get is what one is meant to do, given this information, especially when it comes to semi-formal science communication, rather than advocacy. Of course, knowing something of the audience can help to tailor what you might say, but you’re still constrained by the actual scientific evidence; there are quite strong limits – in my view – as to how much you can tailor your message to account for people who might be culturally pre-dispossed to reject it.

However, in Kahan & Carpenter’s Nature article they say

Decision scientists have identified remedies for various cognitive biases that distort climate-change risk perceptions. Researchers must now use the same empirical methods to identify strategies for reproducing — in the tumult of the real world — results forged in the tranquillity of their labs.

I must admit that I haven’t come across the term decision scientists before, and am not entirely sure what they are. Also, I’m still not clear what these strategies – that have been forged in the tranquility of the theirs labs – actually are and who they’re aimed at. Are they aimed at traditional science communicators (which I would regard as those, often scientists, who communicate scientific information to the public and to policy makers) or at what I would regard as something like scientific advocates (those who are using scientific information to try and convince the public, and policy makers, that there is something that we should be doing, given that information).

Again, maybe I’m confused, by my understanding behind getting out of the lab and into the field is to actively get involved in helping organisations/science communicators that are trying to, for example, convince people of the significance of anthropogenically-driven climate change. The article also gives an example of the Cultural Cognition lab working with such an organisation. This is where I get a little confused/uncomfortable; is the underlying Cultural Cognition idea simply a clever marketing strategy, a way of getting people who won’t typically accept your views, to ultimately do so?

Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this; those trying to adovate for something will want the most effective messaging strategy. But is this necessarily appropriate for what I would regard as science communication; people – often scientists – engaging in public discussions about science? It’s one thing to find effective ways to better communicate the information, but another to utilise strategies aimed at convincing people of your position. It seems, to me at least, that Cultural Cognition is focussed more on the latter, than the former. Again, nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it would nice if this were clearer.

I think I’m going to stop here (I told you it would be confused). I think I get the basics of the Cultural Cognition idea (some people are culturally pre-dispossed to reject certain scientific views) but I’ve never been quite sure what this implies with respect to how we should actually conduct scientific communication. It’s, of course, possible that I am confused about the fundamental idea, and that I’m missing something obvious about how this information can be utilised. If so, maybe someone can clarify things in the comments; it does seem that many people give quite a lot of credence to these ideas, so I would quite like to know what it is that I’m not getting.

Posted in Climate change, Global warming, Policy, Research, Science, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 232 Comments