When I was in Antarctica last month I heard that the famed author and filmmaker, Michael Crichton, had come out in the press saying global warming was a myth.

That sounded quite odd to me, as I was at the geographic center of global warming studies. To most Antarcticans, global warming is a theory invented by people in the real world. Down on the ice, everyone knows it's getting hotter every year. Gallager's and the coffee house buzz with talk about icebergs the size of Hawaii and the nearly complete disintegration of the Larsen Ice shelf. I'd just come in from the dry valleys where the weather was so warm I spent most of my time outdoors in shirtsleeves and spent the night on top of my sleeping bag because the temperature inside my tent often hovered around 50F degrees. In a matter of a month the atmosphere had gone from the dry polar blast I'd come to know and love, to something akin to Boston in late April.

It was warm as the fringes of hell at McMurdo by the end of November. The continent around us was coming apart and we had the photos and chunks of floating ice the size of Mount Everest to prove it.

So when I heard that Michael Crichton himself had decided to publicly announce that global warming didn't exist I figured the man had finally succumbed to the Hollywood life. One too many spoons up the nose, one too many actress wannabee's lips below the belt--makes a man feel he's immortal and consequently irrefutable. In Silicon Valley we call this "believing your own bullshit". It's a trait akin to observing the world through the eyes of a bratty ten-year old.

Most of the glaciologists I know have taken a stand on global warming, and until now that stand was that we definitely knew nothing about it. The history of the earth, as far back as we can figure, is dominated by a cycle of warming and ice ages, the most recent of which lasted about 60,000 years and ended some 11,000 years ago when the wooly mammoths went the way of the Bering Strait land bridge.

Historically speaking, over the past 750,000 years the earth has gone into an ice age roughly every 100,000 years. Between the ice ages is a period of warming during which the ice caps melt at the poles and the ocean rises. If all the ice in Antarctica and Greenland was to melt, the oceans would rise 215 feet above its current levels, and there is evidence that it has been that way in the past.

During the ice ages, the oceans recede as the water is locked up in polar ice. Since the end of the last ice age, the oceans have risen some 300 feet above the ice age minimum.

There have always been variations in global temperature. The period between 1400A.D. to about 1860A.D. has been termed the "Little Ice Age" when average global temps were between 0.5C and 1.0C lower than they are now. That followed a much warmer period between 1000A.D and 1350A.D. when the Vikings colonized Greenland. Remember--they named it Greenland because it was green.

These are minor variations in the more significant swings that mark the advance of glaciers as far south as New York alternating with the submersion of the state of Florida. And one would be mockingly senseless if the question "why?" didn't pop into mind. Why indeed?

There could be lots of reasons. The global warming/ice age cycle seems to follow the sunspot cycle to some degree. There are also second and third order orbital perturbations between the earth and the sun that also correlate significantly. And of course, there have been periods of atmospheric disturbance during significant volcanic events.

The mechanism for the triggering of the ice ages may also be known. The so-called Greenland Conveyer describes the flows that occur because of the differences in density between fresh water and salty water. This flow is responsible for the gulf stream, which is a major mover of heat from the equator to the northern polar regions, and there is a similar mechanism in the south. It's hypothesized that an injection of fresh water from melting polar ice can disturb this stream, and when the heat distribution between the equator and the poles is interrupted, it gets much colder at the poles and the ice begins to advance.

What triggers the melting poles in the first place is clearly an increase in temperature--but what causes the temperature to increase? For that answer, we go to more hypothesis.

As a species we can't do anything about the orbital dynamics of the earth and the sun. We can look for answers there--about how the ellipse of the earth's orbit may move a focus imperceptibly closer to the sun in intervals of roughly 100,000 years. We can theorize how the sun itself, pulled by the gravitational forces of the solar system can warp slightly. And we can wonder if the fusion-driven convection and radiation inside the sun doesn't somehow oscillate to create periods of greater and lesser output.

Physicists worry about these things, and all we can do is wait for an answer from them.

The thing we may be able to influence is the air content parameter. It seems that during the brief periods of global warming that precede the ice ages, the content of carbon dioxide in the air increases. Increased CO2 is felt to cause a greenhouse effect, reflecting thermal energy from the earth's surface back downward toward the earth instead of allowing it to escape into space, forming a sort of "blanket" that further warms the earth.

Granted, the "greenhouse effect" is just a theory, along with all the other theories explaining the increase in the earth's surface temperature. There are those who believe the CO2 parameter is the primary driver of the warming cycle, even though the historic mechanism for introduction of CO2 into the atmosphere is not understood. Possibly because it's one that humans may directly influence it gets a lot of attention. There is no doubt in my mind that it's why CO2 emission is the political issue, rather than changes in the earth's orbit.

Two years ago, when I spoke with the glaciologists and atmospheric scientists in Antarctica, not one of them would go on record as saying there was a human-influenced cause to the warming effect we were all observing. Let's be clear about that--no matter how much denial we would like to toss into the equation, things are getting warmer, at least as measured by scientists in Antarctica. But the why of it was still unknown back in 2002. Nobody wanted to take up the cause of reducing human carbon emission. Why? Because back then, everyone understood that human contribution to the total carbon content of the atmosphere was a small fraction--anywhere from less than 1% to 10%, depending on to whom you were speaking.

I remember sitting with NOAA Glaciologist Ted Scambos in Gallager's Pub and asking him what was causing the warm up. It was 2002 and he'd just seen most of the Larsen Ice shelf fracture and disappear in a way no one believed could happen.

"We don't know," is what he said.

Ted's credentials are solid. Google him and see for yourself. He's the one the networks calls every time something happens to the ice in Antarctica or at the north pole. He's the one other scientists listen to. Professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. Works at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. He's been interviewed by every major news organization in the United States, and some overseas. Recognized as the voice of what is happening with melting ice and he said, "I don't know," when I asked him what was warming up the world.

"But it's warming up," I said.

"Undeniably. But it could be normal."

Dr. Ted Scambos at NSIDC confirmed that the disintegration events listed on the map were unusual given our current understanding of the mechanics of ice shelves. Very large icebergs calving off other Antarctic ice shelves (e.g., Ross) were not included because they are considered to be part of the normal calving process.
- www.climatehotmap.org -


The Larsen A ice shelf suddenly collapsed in 1995. The Wilkins Ice Shelf is shrinking. In 2002, the 3400-square kilometer Larsen B shelf — at least 12,000 years old and up to 70 stories thick — disintegrated into the Weddell Sea in the space of a few months (satellites images of the collapse are available at http://nsidc.org/iceshelves/larsenb2002/animation.html).
. . .
The calving of monster icebergs is now common. Ted Scambos, an expert from the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Centre, found that after Larsen B's collapse, nearby glaciers began entering the sea up to eight times faster than previously.
- www.worldpress.org -

I rooted around and found these quotes from Ted. In the latter reference, there are positions like these reflected:

Weather scientist Charles Keeling, who began measuring atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in 1958, told the Guardian that "it is possible that this is merely a reflection of natural events like previous peaks in the rate, but it is also possible that it is the beginning of a natural process unprecedented in the record ...

Which in of itself doesn't seem like an alarmist opinion. After all, according to Ted, nobody can say for certain a CO2-driven greenhouse effect is the cause for concern. But then this is added from Keeling's excerpted speech:

{The rise} could be a weakening of the Earth's carbon sinks, associated with world warming, as part of a climate change feedback mechanism. It is cause for concern.

In fact the rest of that website and many others you find are imbued with news magazine style, "The Day After Tomorrow" evoking imagery that things are changing faster than anyone could have anticipated. Carbon levels must be reduced now. Most advocate the Kyoto accord which seeks to limit world-wide production of greenhouse gasses.

And yet, according to Ted in 2002, there was absolutely no scientific evidence linking production of CO2 to either global warming or the subsequent ice age. We know CO2 levels do increase in times of cyclic global warming, as they appear to be now. But we are not sure if that is the cause, or a side effect of some other trigger process.

In fact, I scanned through numerous websites and could not find one in which Ted was quoted as saying anything he was observing had to do with increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Ted is very careful about what he says in public, generally. When talking about the giant iceberg called B15 that calved from the Ross Ice Shelf in 2002:

“I don’t think the calving (breaking off) of this iceberg is any indication of global warming,” says Ted Scambos, a scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
- USA Today, May 12, 2002 -



Things are warming up in Antarctica. They're probably warming up all over the world. There are lots of theories. No one knows for sure why the earth warms periodically, but it does. When it does we note, from taking samples of air trapped in ice cores, that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increases. A classic rise during a warming cycle would be to see CO2 levels go to 240 parts per million.

But no one can say if this is what causes the warming, or if it's a consequence of the warming. Up until now, all the additional CO2 has come from natural sources, the largest of which is the ocean itself, out gassing through biological processes. Other contributors are volcanic activity and land-based biological processes. And of course, man-made pollutants contribute as well. But how much? And would it even matter.

According to Ted in 2002, nobody really knew. What we did know was that ice shelves the size of Texas were disintegrating leaving tiny icebergs in their place, and allowing the glaciers that fed them to now drain directly into the sea.

What the hell is happening -- please be like Ted and don't answer if you don't know.

This is what Michael Crichton was trying to get across in his speech to a Caltech audience in January of 2004. He said,

My topic today sounds humorous but unfortunately I am serious. I am going to argue that extraterrestrials lie behind global warming. Or to speak more precisely, I will argue that a belief in extraterrestrials has paved the way, in a progression of steps, to a belief in global warming.

To Crichton, the world of scientists was brimming with qualified researchers who were willing to provide answers in absence of data or any other logical evidence. Start with the so-called Drake equation for guessing at the number of inhabited planets in the known universe. Number of planets with intelligent life that can communicate to us is equal to



"N*fp*ne*fl*fi*fc*fL"
"Where N is the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; fp is the fraction with planets; ne is the number of planets per star capable of supporting life; fl is the fraction of planets where life evolves; fi is the fraction where intelligent life evolves; and fc is the fraction that communicates; and fL is the fraction of the planet's life during which the communicating civilizations live. "

There is not one parameter in that equation which can be known for certain. Therefore the number of worlds upon which there could be a culture that could communicate with us by the Drake equation could be as Carl Sagan said, "Billions and Billions," or zero. There is no reason why any number is more valid than any other using that logic.

Of course, many of us want the Drake equation to have a non-zero result. But what we want to believe and what is science are two different things. The Drake equation is not science.

In 1975 many scientists went on the record with a theory they called "Nuclear Winter". That there would occur the artificial creation of an ice age due to all the pollutants thrown into the atmosphere by the atomic explosions and subsequent fires of an all-out nuclear cataclysm.

Carl Sagan put the weight of his public persona behind the theory. He and his coworkers theorized a world-wide drop in temperature of 35-degrees centigrade after a 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange. Yet, the worlds greatest volcanic eruptions with forces approximating that changed the world temperature by only 0.5 to 1.0 degree centigrade, and during the ice ages, world temperatures dropped only 10 degrees.

Crichton goes on to point out that at a conference in Washington attended by Paul Ehrlich, Carl Sagan's co-spokesman, Ehrlich was reminded that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki experts claimed nothing would grow in those cities for 75 years. But in fact, the inhabitants were growing melons the very next year. His response, to quote Crichton:

Ehrlich answered by saying "I think they are extremely robust. Scientists may have made statements like that, although I cannot imagine what their basis would have been, even with the state of science at that time, but scientists are always making absurd statements, individually, in various places. What we are doing here, however, is presenting a consensus of a very large group of scientists…"


And there, my friends, is the issue Michael Crichton rails against. "Consensus science" There is simply no such thing. Science is not the act of a group of smart guys coming together and agreeing on what reality is. Reality is reality. Science is science. You can agree all you want on whether you "believe" the earth was created in 6000BC by the hand of God in seven days, if you can't prove it irrefutably with untainted evidence, in a way someone on the other side of the earth who does not share your language or beliefs can also prove to himself, it simply isn't science.

Crichton says: "Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had."

And he goes on to give examples of where "consensus science" has cost lives. Prior to the 21st century, the greatest killer of women giving birth was fever. In 1795, Gordon of Aberdeen suggested there was an infectious process at work. The consensus was that it wasn't. Nothing was done to investigate the possibility of unsanitary conditions killing women in childbirth. In 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes provided evidence that puerperal fever was contagious and because the consensus was that it wasn't, his work was ignored. In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management but because he was a Jew he was dismissed. In fact nothing happened for 125 years despite the ongoing deaths of thousands of women, because the consensus of scientists was that there was no infectious agent at work.

He goes on. In the 1920s thousands of people, mostly poor, were dying of a disease called "pellagra". The consensus was there was an infectious agent at work and that an antibiotic had to be found. A physician named Joseph Goldberger discovered the disease was due to malnutrition, and couldn't convince anyone until he injected himself with the blood of an individual with the disease and failed to contract it. And why would 20th century scientists ignore him? Because to cure the disease social reform would be necessary in the deep south.

Because nobody wanted to address that problem, the "science" was that pellagra was caused by a "germ". But no amount of unwillingness to accept the problem could make it true.

In 1921 Alfred Wegner proposed the theory of continental drift. Crichton says, "Any schoolchild could see that Africa and South America 'fit together', but it was denied by the greatest minds in geology until 1961 when it began to seem the sea floor was spreading. The result of consensus: it took fifty years to acknowledge what any schoolchild sees."

History proves time and time again that consensus science is bad science at best, and mostly not science at all. But the perennial problem is as it always has been: who wants to be the one to stand up and shout the king has no clothes?

Who wanted to stand up and say nuclear winter was a farce--stand up to some of the popular scientists of the 70's and 80's and say-- "Nuclear war will not cause an ice age." Why not? Because the public thinks in sound bites, and that would make one seem like an advocate of nuclear war. What people would hear is, "Professor XYZ believes we should bomb innocent women and children with nuclear weapons--they're not all that precise, you know?" when actually all that was being said was that Carl Sagan hadn't done his homework.

Ditto with lots of other sacred cows.

In 1993 the EPA announced that second-hand smoke was responsible for 3,000 deaths per year. The American Cancer Society blamed second-hand smoke on as many as 53,000 deaths per year.

But one year later, in 1994, they assigned a risk-factor to second hand smoke of 1.19. (A risk factor of 3.0 is necessary for the EPA to initiate an investigation or for the New England Journal of Medicine to accept a paper on the topic.) Back to Crichton:

Furthermore, since there was no statistical association at the 95% confidence limits, the EPA lowered the limit to 90%. They then classified second hand smoke as a Group A Carcinogen. This was openly fraudulent science..."

But now the problem--who wants to come out and call them on it? Smoking causes cancer. Second-hand smoke is a major nuisance for non-smokers. Who wants to tell the EPA they're full of it, and wind up looking like they're supporting R.J. Reynolds pushing cigarettes to kids--all in the name of science?

Nobody.

One last thing from Crichton's speech before I return to the subject of global warming and that is of the idea that science must protect itself. He gives the example of a Danish statistician named Bjorn Lomborg who wrote a book called "The Skeptical Environmentalist". Crichton never states what the content of the book is, but the example is given in context of science becoming overwhelmed by what I will term, a righteous cause--in this case, the environment, and the idea that some environmentalists may practice "consensus science" in the name of advancing one idea or another.

Lomborg was widely disparaged. Scientific American published their review of his book under the title, "Science Defends Itself Against the Skeptical Environmentalist."

And therein lies the inherent evil in the willingness to believe anything because its easy or convenient or because a group of people have convinced themselves without data. Science does not have to be defended. The speed of light needs no defense. F=MA needs no defense. The distance between the earth and the sun needs to be defended no more than the curvature of the earth or the temperature of a swimming pool.

Science simply is. It is to be argued violently and it is to be proven, but at the end of it, nature either is or isn't, and no amount of coming to consensus or postulating belief will change the speed with which a mass falls through the gravitational field of the earth. Any person, regardless of race, age, or religious affiliation, will fall from the International Space Station at the same speed.

The idea of defending science against skepticism, against creationism, against anthropomorphism --is simply preposterous according to Crichton. If the earth was created in one swell foop by the hand of God on October 12, 6200BC as has been postulated by some well-meaning folks in the heartland, then we will all come to that conclusion after analyzing the geological evidence whether or not we're Evangelical Christian or Buddhist or Zoroastrian or atheists. It won't matter where we are located in the entire universe. If it's true, we will find it--every last one of us. It will not require a leap of faith. It will require no faith at all. It will simply be proven the way the speed of light can be measured by anyone with a laser pointer and a bunch of lenses.

So what Crichton said, when he attacked the theory of global warming, was not that it didn't exist, but that the rationale behind the current world-wide effort to reduce carbon emissions was based on something that was not science--but rather--consensus. And we see where that got us through history.

That the earth is warming cannot be denied. It's science. Take a thermometer, go outside for a couple decades, take measurements come back and say what you've found. The Larsen ice shelf has disappeared. More ice is melting in Antarctica at a prodigious rate than we have ever measured before and it's happening not because it's getting colder, but because it's getting warmer. The level of the oceans has risen as a result, and we know it will keep rising if this trend continues. And let's not ignore the north. There are open lanes of water at the north pole in the summer, and that's also something that hasn't been seen in the decades since we've been able to monitor it.

The why of it is still under debate because nobody actually knows. And attacking CO2 emissions because it's the "consensus" may lead us to a future of false security while we refuse to fund efforts to find the true cause or causes -- which may be entirely natural and beyond our ability to control.

Crichton indicts the computer models being used to predict the warming trends. Consider them "future weather patterns". The accuracy of the models is improving, there is no doubt. But how certain are any of us of the accuracy of the weather reports we hear on the nightly news? The modelers who are forecasting catastrophic global warming are trying to predict the outcome of what may be a fundamentally chaotic process--a hundred or more years into the future.

And we take the weather report for tomorrow with many grains of salt.

What is clear, however, is that on this issue, science and policy have become inextricably mixed to the point where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out. It is possible for an outside observer to ask serious questions about the conduct of investigations into global warming, such as whether we are taking appropriate steps to improve the quality of our observational data records, whether we are systematically obtaining the information that will clarify existing uncertainties, whether we have any organized disinterested mechanism to direct research in this contentious area.

The answer to all these questions is no. We don't.
-- Michael Crichton --

Now, on to 2004.

A few weeks ago I had dinner with Ted Scambos at Lulu’s in San Francisco. Ted was in town to present a couple papers at the American Geophysical Union conference, but the subject on his mind was the breakup of ice shelves and a research proposal he was making for the next International Polar Year.

Ted showed me a lot of data, some of which I understood, and some I didn't. The key points I remember are these:

  • Ice core analysis has brought us atmospheric data from as far back as 400,000 years.
  • The highest concentration of CO2 in those samples is 240parts per million
  • There are new, deeper ice core samples that date back to 800,000 years
  • Ted is expecting the max CO2 in those samples not to exceed 240ppm
  • The largest sources of CO2 in the atmosphere is the ocean itself, and then biological and geological processes on land
  • The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 375ppm
  • The difference between the ambient CO2 and 375 is man-made, mostly from electric power generation plants - this is a huge percentage compared to that reported at www.clearlight.com
  • None of our computer models comprehends CO2 levels like that
  • The environment is changing faster than our existing models predict
  • Ted believes he has data to prove this excess CO2 is to blame - that would be the first true scientific evidence linking man-made CO2 emission and global warming. this IPY project would be a step in the direction of proving that, scientifically
  • Nobody knows what's going to happen



Me: "Is there any possibility the models are screwed up?"

Ted: "They don't have the range to account for 375. But we're already seeing some of the effects they predicted, a lot sooner than the models predict."

Me: "So, what's the problem?"

Ted: "The problem with this stuff is that nobody will listen. And by the time they do, it will be too late."

Me: "But two years ago..."

Ted: "I didn't know then what I know now. And this IPY project will help. We believe we know the mechanism for the ice shelf disintegration. We saw it on the IceSat photos, and I think we can predict it."

Ted is not going to say something he can't prove. He's not going to crash through the doors of the Senate demanding the U.S. sign the Kyoto accord. He knows the dividing line between science and policy. For what it's worth, in the three years I've known him, although he can be a fiery character, I've never heard Ted adopt a position on his science that came from a basis of emotion or consensus opinion. His work is based on technical fact alone, and all of his conclusions stand on those data. Consequently, you're not going to find him stumping for political candidates, allowing his name to be used in presentation of data intending to frighten the public into action.

He will tell you what he thinks if you ask him, but mostly, he'll tell you what he knows, and that's always going to be verifiable science.

I think if Michael Crichton were to meet Ted Scambos, he'd find someone from whom he could get the straight, scientific viewpoint on global warming. What we know and what's conjecture. Where the truth might be hiding in the data, and what's man's contribution to the problem.

He would also learn that Ted writes screenplays, and wrote the original screenplay for the movie "The Red Planet" before it was stolen by the guy who eventually produced that really awful version of the script. I'm positive Crichton would find a kindred spirit in Ted.



"If anyone was waiting to find out whether Antarctica would respond quickly to climate warming, I think the answer is yes," said Dr. Ted Scambos, a National Snow and Ice Data Center glaciologist and lead author of the second study. "We've seen 150 miles of coastline change drastically in just 15 years." He used data from IceSat, a NASA laser altimetry mission launched in 2003, and Landsat 7, jointly run by NASA and the U. S. Geological Survey.
. . .
Scambos and colleagues used five Landsat 7 images of the Antarctic Peninsula from before and after the Larsen B breakup. The images revealed crevasses on the surfaces of glaciers. By tracking the movement of crevasses in sequence from one image to the next, the researchers were able to calculate velocities of the glaciers.
. . .
The surfaces of glaciers dropped rapidly as the flow sped up, according to IceSat measurements. "The thinning of these glaciers was so dramatic that it was easily detected with IceSat, which can measure elevation changes to within an inch or two," said Dr. Christopher Shuman, a Goddard Space Flight Center researcher and a co-author on the Scambos paper.
. . .
The studies provide clear evidence ice shelves restrain glaciers, and indicate present climate is more closely linked to sea level rise than once thought, Scambos added.

-- U.S. Department of State, International Information Program, September 23, 2004

References:


http://www.clearlight.com/~mhieb/WVFossils/greenhouse_data.html
http://culter.colorado.edu/~saelias/glacier.html
http://www.rmpbs.org/learn/frontier/career/glaciologist.html
http://www.climatehotmap.org/fingerprints.html
http://www.worldpress.org
http://www.usatoday.com
http://usinfo.state.gov/gi/Archive/2004/Sep/23-952365.html
http://www.crichton-official.com/speeches/speeches_quote04.html
http://www.ig.utexas.edu/research/projects/agasea/
private conversations with Ted Scambos

Iceowl implicitly points toward the essential issue of science and its impact on the future of humanity: namely, is the scientific method-- by definition the most powerful of human constructs-- robust enough, nimble enough, ingenious enough to prevent destroying itself by destroying us? The quick 'n dirty, but, I suspect, ultimately scientific answer is almost certainly "no."

No matter how reverently Iceowl handles the man that gave us The Andromeda Strain and ER*, it's Ted Scambos, not Crichton who's the hero of the above essay, and yet he's a tragic one, like a Catholic priest prevented from revealing a murderer's confession, this eminently good scientist is gagged by his own stringent ethics until it's probably too late to do anything about the results. We've seen this sort of thing before of course. The great myth of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his crew is how conflicted they were about supplying the bomb to the U. S. war machine; but as I have pointed out in both my plays Louis Slotin Sonata and The Sequence, Oppenheimer was a whole lot less conflicted about building the bomb than he'd like history to believe, and a whole lot more conflicted about not being conflicted in the first place, when it mattered. Geneticists of this subsequent century seem to be making a very similar mistake. As Slate's William Saletan reported from a recent genetic engineering conference, the tendency to mock those who admonish researchers to go slow is rife:

Gregory Stock, a biotech apostle from UCLA, predicts that within 10 to 20 years, human eggs will be screened for personality traits. Beyond that, he looks forward to artificial chromosomes. Stuart Newman, a biotech critic, worries that the current practice of screening embryos to produce a sibling tissue donor for a sick child will soon give way to a more efficient technique: cloning the child and mining the duplicate for tissue. Andrew Imparato, an advocate for the disabled, worries that the so-called smart people in the room may repeat the eugenics of a century ago. "Sometimes intellect doesn't equate to wisdom," he cautions.

The most piercing indictment comes from Barbara Katz Rothman, a sociologist with a defiant red-dyed streak in her hair. She dissociates herself from abortion opponents and "fundamentalists" but says she doesn't like where this technology is going. When Stock dismisses her complaint as religious, she replies angrily that many scientists in the room have laughed at frightened laypeople. People understand more than you think, she tells them. Challenged by Stock as the others look on, she casts her eyes down. "I heard a lot of laughter here," she repeats in the hushed voice of a child who has seen another mistreated. "I heard laughter at people's fears." For a moment, the room goes quiet.

But only for a moment. Rightly or wrongly, scientists don't trust normal people. We're not smart enough to truly understand their work. We tend towards "faith-based" decisions. We reject funding for their super-cool superconductors. We throw babies out with bath water. We're . . . well, human. And yet, ironically, the blind faith that many scientists have in science represents an eminently human foible. One tends to be undone by that which works for one, like an army fighting a guerilla insurgency with Cold War weapons.

Jared Diamond, author of the compelling best-seller Guns, Germs, and Steel, makes this argument in his new Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (At $29.95 I'm forced to put myself in line on the library's interminable waiting list; for now I'm reduced to Malcolm Gladwell's review in this week's New Yorker.) Contrary to the consensually accepted myth, says Diamond, the Norse that originally colonized Greenland didn't go extinct because of the mini-Ice Age. After all, the indigenous Inuits came through the prolonged cold snap just fine. No, the Norse went bust because they trusted in their Norse-ness. They raised cattle on delicate pasture incapable of bearing the stress, they used precious wood for non-necessities like imposing doors for their imposing wooden cross-beamed houses, the interiors of which adorned with imposing wooden furniture and ceremonial crosses made, of course, of wood. Cut down all the trees in Greenland, there goes the topsoil, there goes the pasture, there goes your cattle. Of course, you can always eat fish. But no you can't: you're Norse, and have a strong cultural taboo against such a measly diet, no matter how nutritious and abundant. One of the most stunning facts Diamond reports is that of the 35,000 bones analyzed from debris sites of colonial Greenland, only three were from fish.

And, when archeologists looked at the animal bones left in the debris, they found the bones of new born calves, meaning that the Norse, in that final winter, had given up on the future. They found toe bones from cows equal to the number of cow spaces in the barn, meaning that the Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.

So shall it be with scientists? I refer you to Iceowl's excellent essay above. All the data seems to point to "yes."


*I'm confident in my hope that Iceowl isn't assuming that Crichton is all-together innocent of his own ulterior agendas. Certainly there's a smug safety in going along with the consensus, such as agreeing that second-hand smoke is terribly dangerous, even when the evidence shows no such thing; but there's also a pay-off in going against the grain when, say, you have a book to sell. As Icey tacitly suggests, Crichton would be well and brave to accept the new evidence discovered by Scambos, but knowing as I do a little bit about how buzz gets generated and books get sold, even if he could be confronted with this evidence, Crichton would duck or deny it. He's got books to sell, screenplay rights to negotiate, money to make, not a world to save. You don't get to be Michael Crichton by saving the world.

Having read, re-read and re-read again the writeup by Iceowl that opens this node, I must confess that this response is written with some degree of trepidation. With no offense intended towards a longtime E2 author, his writeup here, while prettily written as always, is of surprisingly low factual quality. I am surprised to see that it has found not only traction here, but acclaim, and felt that due to this, the misinformation in it needed to be addressed, lest some passing reader leave this node with a severely distorted view of the current state of climate science.

In this critical response, I seek to present three rebuttals to the original writeup in this node. The first rebuttal is that the arguments posited in the original node are based on invalid assumptions, misunderstandings and fallacy. The second rebuttal is that the content of Iceowl's submission, looked at in a charitable light, shows an unfortunate misunderstanding of science. Looked at in a more harshly critical light, it demonstrates a conclusive and verifiable ignorance of even its most basic terminology. The third rebuttal is that many of Iceowl's supporting 'facts' are, at best, incorrect, and at worst, outright misrepresentations and fabrications.

The myriad problems with Iceowl's writeup begin in the very first complete paragraph, but this rebuttal will begin a bit further down. Iceowl's writeup does not take long to begin using the well-known rhetoric of claiming that the observed changes in climate are simply a natural cycle, and not the result of human activities. In his writeup, he says:

"There have always been variations in global temperature. The period between 1400A.D. to about 1860A.D. has been termed the "Little Ice Age" when average global temps were between 0.5C and 1.0C lower than they are now. That followed a much warmer period between 1000A.D and 1350A.D. when the Vikings colonized Greenland. Remember--they named it Greenland because it was green."

It is true that there have always been variations in global temperature. However, it does not follow simply from the fact that climate has naturally changed before that this is the cause of the changes we are currently seeing. It's also worth noting that Iceowl does not provide an alternative model here where the 35% increase in greenhouse gases that we have measured would not have an effect on the temperature. This argument is simply a "Well, it happened naturally before!", followed by a handwaving away of all the data, and a conclusion of "So it must be natural now!" Simply noting that it has happened naturally before does not logically suggest, in any way, shape or form, that it is not human-caused today, any more than noting that fires have occurred naturally in the past would rule out the existence of arson.

And to correct Iceowl's supporting fact about Greenland here, Greenland was not green in 1000 AD, although some small parts of it were, and still are in the summer months. Legend has it that it was named Greenland because Erik the Red was exiled there, and wanted to attract settlers with a good name. Whether this is actually true or not, a quick glance at reality shows that the Greenland ice sheet is hundreds of thousands of years old and covers over 80% of the island - the majority of land not under the ice is rock and permafrost in the far north. Even though the very southern tip of Greenland is actually green during the summer months, the Vikings who settled there lived a harsh, meager existence, and many starved due to trying to live a European lifestyle in an arctic environment. Referring to a country covered by a sheet of ice 1,755,637 square kilometers in area and two kilometers thick as 'green' is a bit of an exaggeration.

Moreover, even if Iceowl's point about Greenland were based on anything other than misinformation, it is part of a single region and cannot be held to be representative of a global trend.

Iceowl continues:

"To most Antarcticans, global warming is a theory invented by people in the real world..."

"Granted, the "greenhouse effect" is just a theory, along with all the other theories explaining the increase in the earth's surface temperature. {...} Possibly because it's one that humans may directly influence it gets a lot of attention."

It becomes clear at this point that some definitions of basic terms must be agreed upon before it's possible to continue this discussion - terms for which the definitions should already have been known.

To explain, I will turn to the Florida high school education benchmarks - the facts that one has to learn in order to pass high school level courses in that state.

  • Benchmark SC.3.N.3.1: Recognize that words in science can have different or more specific meanings than their use in everyday language; for example, energy, cell, heat/cold, and evidence.
  • Benchmark SC.6.N.3.1: Recognize and explain that a scientific theory is a well-supported and widely accepted explanation of nature and is not simply a claim posed by an individual. Thus, the use of the term theory in science is very different than how it is used in everyday life.
  • Benchmark SC.912.N.3.1: Explain that a scientific theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence concerning a substantial range of phenomena; thus, a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer.

Iceowl does not appear to understand these concepts, and therefore, does not understand the definitions or meaning of the most basic of scientific terminology. Just how seriously an essay on 'battling scientific stupidity' should be taken when it has been written by an author lacking a functional understanding of fundamental and basic scientific language is left as an exercise for the reader.

The obvious answer to why greenhouse gases receive the most attention is this: because the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of it being the cause of global climate change.

"Increased CO2 is felt to cause a greenhouse effect, reflecting thermal energy from the earth's surface back downward toward the earth instead of allowing it to escape into space, forming a sort of "blanket" that further warms the earth."

Felt? Felt? Again, we're at an impasse where the author of the original writeup is either failing outright to understand the basics of the scientific method, or is simply ignoring it because its results are not to his liking.

The greenhouse effect was first observed by Joseph Fourier in 1824. It has since then been studied, experimented upon, refined, used to make further predictions, and served as a basis for other predictive scientific theories and models, ranging from space travel to astronomy to cosmology to climatology, and drawing upon the work of scientists such as Samuel P. Langley, Svante Arrhenius, George Simpson, Edward O. Hulburt, G.S. Callendar, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Gilbert N. Plass, and many, many more. Models based on the greenhouse effect successfully predict climates in conditions as diverse as Mars to Venus to Earth to the moons of Jupiter. The first predictions of anthropogenic global warming were published in 1896! This is not some newfangled idea. Iceowl suggests that we dismiss all this as mere conjecture simply because he is confused by the fact that it's called a 'theory.'

Let's also not forget the fact that if it were not for the greenhouse effect, the laws of physics predict that our planet would be a frozen ball of ice. Is an alternative model provided in this writeup that explains why it is not? No. One is not. Instead, nearly two centuries of scientific experimentation, for which there exists mountains of direct observational data by hundreds (if not thousands) of individual scientists, is simply handwaved away as something that is 'felt'.

Iceowl continues:

"No matter how much denial we would like to toss into the equation, things are getting warmer, at least as measured by scientists in Antarctica. But the why of it was still unknown back in 2002."

In 2004, Naomi Oreskes analyzed 928 published, peer-reviewed scientific papers on global climate change between 1993 and 2003. She divided these into six categories -

  1. explicit endorsement of the consensus position
  2. evaluation of impacts
  3. mitigation proposals
  4. methods
  5. paleoclimate analysis
  6. rejection of the consensus position

Of these 928 papers, 75% fell into the first three categories. None fell into the last. Unless we want to characterize a unanimous scientific consensus spanning 696 published papers over the course of a decade as 'still unknown', we're forced to conclude that this writeup is once again only passingly acquainted with reality.

"And yet {...} there was absolutely no scientific evidence linking production of CO2 to either global warming or the subsequent ice age.

Except for those two centuries of experiments and supporting evidence mentioned earlier. The saddest thing, though, is that it doesn't end there.

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body created to assess the current state of scientific data, literature and opinion on global climate change and its causes, released its Third Assessment Report. In this report, they state the following:

  • Emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols due to human activities continue to alter the atmosphere in ways that are expected to affect the climate
  • There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activities
  • Human influences will continue to change atmospheric composition throughout the 21st century
  • Global average temperature and sea level are projected to rise under all IPCC SRES scenarios

A joint statement released by the Australian Academy of Sciences, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Sciences, German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, Indian National Science Academy, Indonesian Academy of Sciences, Royal Irish Academy, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Royal Society said:

The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognise IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus. Despite increasing consensus on the science underpinning predictions of global climate change, doubts have been expressed recently about the need to mitigate the risks posed by global climate change. We do not consider such doubts justified.

Added on top of that, this position was also explicitly endorsed by the National Research Council, European Science Foundation, Federation of American Scientists, and Federal Climate Change Science Program. All prior to 2002.

Iceowl simply handwaves all this away as 'no evidence.'

In his essay, Iceowl (ironically) continues to paint scientists as a group of people eager to make things up from thin air for us to believe. He says:

"Start with the so-called Drake equation for guessing at the number of inhabited planets in the known universe. {...} There is not one parameter in that equation which can be known for certain."

Right. That's why the scientists called the Drake Equation 'guessing.' The Drake Equation was specifically designed to highlight what we didn't know, so that these things could be further studied to refine our knowledge. That's what science is. There is not a single scientist on the face of the planet who claims to know the number of inhabited planets in the universe based on the Drake equation.

"Therefore the number of worlds upon which there could be a culture that could communicate with us by the Drake equation could be as Carl Sagan said, "Billions and Billions", or zero."

Let's get one thing straight. The only time Carl Sagan ever used the phrase "Billions and Billions" at all was in reference to the fact that he was constantly misquoted as having said it. In his own words:

"I never said it. Honest. Oh, I said there are maybe 100 billion galaxies and 10 billion trillion stars. It's hard to talk about the Cosmos without using big numbers. I said 'billion' many times on the Cosmos television series, which was seen by a great many people. But I never said 'billions and billions.' For one thing, it's imprecise. How many billions are 'billions and billions'? A few billion? Twenty billion? A hundred billion? 'Billions and billions' is pretty vague... For a while, out of childish pique, I wouldn't utter the phrase, even when asked to. But I've gotten over that. So, for the record, here it goes: 'Billions and billions.'" --Carl Sagan

He never said it, and he sure as hell didn't say it in reference to an answer to the Drake Equation. This is an outright fabrication.

This is the point where I begin to ask myself - has this writeup been fact-checked at all? Or was it simply invented from whole cloth and posted as a factual essay?

"In 1975 many scientists went on the record with a theory they called "Nuclear Winter". That there would occur the artificial creation of an ice age due to all the pollutants thrown into the atmosphere by the atomic explosions and subsequent fires of an all-out nuclear cataclysm.

Carl Sagan put the weight of his public persona behind the theory. He and his coworkers theorized a world-wide drop in temperature of 35-degrees centigrade after a 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange. Yet, the worlds greatest volcanic eruptions with forces approximating that changed the world temperature by only 0.5 to 1.0 degree centigrade, and during the ice ages, world temperatures dropped only 10 degrees."

Once again, Iceowl's essay manages to fall short on the facts. Carl Sagan never claimed a long-term drop in temperature of 35 degrees after a 5,000 megaton exchange, and he never claimed it would artificially create an ice age. What he did say, again in his own words, was this:

"Even much smaller temperature declines are known to have serious consequences. The explosion of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815 was the probable cause of an average global temperature decline of less than 1°C, due to the obscuration of sunlight by the fine dust propelled into the stratosphere. The hard freezes the following year were so severe that 1816 has been known in Europe and America as, respectively, "the year without a summer," and "eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death." A 1°C cooling would nearly eliminate wheat growing in Canada. Small global changes tend to be associated with considerably larger regional changes. In the last thousand years, the maximum global or Northern Hemisphere temperature deviations have been around 1°C. In an Ice Age, a typical long-term global temperature decline from preexisting conditions is about 10°C. Even the most modest of the cases illustrated in Figure 2 give temporary temperature declines of this order. The baseline case is much more adverse. Unlike the situation in an Ice Age, however, the global temperatures after nuclear war would plunge rapidly and probably take only months to a few years to recover, rather than thousands of years. No new Ice Age is likely to be induced by the nuclear winter, at least according to our preliminary analysis." --Carl Sagan, 1983

Let us be very clear about the factual accuracy of this - Iceowl claims here that Sagan endorsed something that he explicitly denied. This claim is outright wrong, and I have trouble believing that it wasn't simply made up on the spot.

If Carl Sagan was actually so prone to sensationalistic fearmongering, as Iceowl seems to be implying, wouldn't it be unnecessary to invent a completely fictional instance of him doing so? Wouldn't there be an example that actually happened that could have been used in this writeup instead? Sagan himself even helpfully provides a few examples of times his hypotheses have been wrong in his book The Demon-Haunted World. It would have been simple enough to use one of those.

"And there, my friends, is the issue Michael Crichton rails against. "Consensus science" There is simply no such thing. Science is not the act of a group of smart guys coming together and agreeing on what reality is. Reality is reality. Science is science. {...} Crichton says: "Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had." {...} History proves time and time again that consensus science is bad science at best, and mostly not science at all."

I must drop pretense at this point, and address this directly to the author.

What on earth are you talking about?

Just to give a few other examples of 'consensus science' - theories which enjoy near-unanimous support from the scientific community - let's talk about Maxwell's Theory of Electromagnetism or Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The Germ Theory of Disease. The Theory of Evolution. Let's talk about Atomic Theory, or the Big Bang Theory, or the Theory of Natural Selection. Let's talk about Heliocentric theory, superconductivity theory, the theory of convection, cell theory, circuit theory, signal theory or the kinetic theory of gases.

Perhaps you can give us all an explanation on why it is that these consensuses are good, but a consensus on anthropogenic global climate change suddenly means that the evil socialist scientists are scheming for your wallet. Perhaps you can explain to us all how it is that this conspiracy has managed to span every single major academy of science in every single industrialized country. Perhaps you can explain to us how it's managed to gain the endorsement of every national-level scientific organization on the face of the planet.

And perhaps, lastly, you can explain to us why it is that scientists achieving a unequivocally compelling understanding of nature only becomes a bad thing once it becomes germane to partisan American politics, but not in the cases of the thirteen other theories listed here (and dozens more elsewhere) which enjoy unanimous scientific support. That's the explanation I'm most interested in hearing, because I don't think you have one.

"According to Ted in 2002, there was absolutely no scientific evidence linking production of CO2 to either global warming or the subsequent ice age."

{...}

"According to Ted in 2002, nobody really knew."

{...}

"After all, according to Ted, nobody can say for certain a CO2-driven greenhouse effect is the cause for concern."

{...}

"Ted's credentials are solid. Google him and see for yourself. He's the one the networks calls every time something happens to the ice in Antarctica or at the north pole. He's the one other scientists listen to. Professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. Works at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. He's been interviewed by every major news organization in the United States, and some overseas. Recognized as the voice of what is happening with melting ice and he said, "I don't know," when I asked him what was warming up the world."

I followed Iceowl's advice and Googled Ted's credentials. They are, indeed, as solid as claimed here. I was not convinced solely by this, however, so I took it a step further.

I emailed Ted Scambos, and questioned him directly.

Iceowl said of him that "He will tell you what he thinks if you ask him, but mostly, he'll tell you what he knows, and that's always going to be verifiable science." And this is completely true - Ted was more than happy to explain his positions, and even included references to the relevant papers so that I could read further into what he was discussing. Like many scientists, it only takes a slight nudge to get him talking about what's happening in his field of study. My initial impression of him is much in the same light as Iceowl's - he's a rational, level-headed scientist whose word can be trusted as couched in the best of facts, and a man from whom we can get the "straight, scientific viewpoint on global warming."

In my email, I pointed him in the direction of this node, and asked him if he felt that it was accurate. His response:

"I absolutely do not stand behind the statements in this essay." --Ted Scambos

His following explanation is quite enlightening - in it, he says:

"In 2002, I was reluctant to attribute the disintegration of the Larsen B ice shelf, or the previous events of the Larsen A and Wilkins, directly to {greenhouse gases} and global warming. {...} I did not doubt that GHGs were influencing our planet, not even in 2002. Ice core studies from the early and mid 1990s convinced me that the atmosphere was far different from its pre-industrial range; isotopes in the trapped gases reveal that the source has a fossil-fuel-like signature; and the general physics of heat trapping by GHGs is unassailable. So I knew that GHGs *must* be affecting climate at some level; and I knew that the past 4 (now 7 or more) major climate cycles of earth had been augmented considerably by GHGs."

In short, Ted readily agrees with the consensus position on anthropogenic global climate change. He never called this into question - the only thing under discussion here is if it is the cause of the ice shelf collapses. Not if it exists, but only if it is the cause of these events. At that time, he did not know the answer to this question.

However, this was in 2004. Ted continues:

"Now, however, a better picture is emerging that does link GHG increases in the atmosphere, coupled with effects of ozone reduction, to both the warming trends we see in the Peninsula, and the general steady-to-cooling trends we see over the Antarctic mainland. Fundamentally, the changes in the atmosphere have triggered a slight increase in wind speed in the circumpolar vortex surrounding Antarctica.

The net effect of this is to tend (these are all noisy, hard-to-quantify, statistical trends at this point, but the trends are replicated in models) to isolate the Antarctic mainland from the more temperate climate to the north, and to 'expose' the Peninsula to more frequent north or north-west -sourced weather. To paraphrase: Cooler on the continent, because that's where the cold is, and it is more isolated; warmer on the Peninsula, because it's not feeling the southern cold as often."

Not only are the warming effects from man-made greenhouse gases real, clear and dangerous...they are also, in fact, very likely to be the reason that the Larsen ice shelfs collapsed.

Ted ended his email to me by saying "Please don't treat that essay as a factual representation of what I said."

In the end, the fact that this node characterizes itself as a part of a battle against scientific stupidity is as ironic as it comes - while there is much scientific stupidity to be had here, none of it is on the part of the scientists themselves. All of it is on the part of those who would trivialize their findings because it is convenient for them to do so.

Special thanks goes to Ted Scambos for his assistance in this essay.


Ted adds "I did not write the script for 'Red Planet', and have it stolen; however I suspect that one scene in Red Planet was influenced by an earlier script on Mars that I wrote and sent to the Director's brother."

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.