Does Climate Change Threaten National Security?

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The U.S. White House’s proposed Presidential Committee on Climate Security (PCCS) is under attack – by the mainstream media, Democrats in Congress and military retirees, among others. The committee’s intended purpose is to conduct a genuine scientific assessment of climate change.

But the assailants’ claim that the PCCS is a politically motivated attempt to overthrow science has it backwards. The Presidential Committee will undertake a scientifically motivated review of climate change science, in the hope of eliminating the subversive politics that have taken over the scientific debate.

It’s those opposed to the committee who are playing politics and abusing science. The whole political narrative about greenhouse gases and dangerous anthropogenic (human-caused) warming, including the misguided Paris Agreement that the U.S. has withdrawn from, depends on faulty computer climate models that failed to predict the recent slowdown in global warming, among other shortcomings. The actual empirical evidence for a substantial human contribution to global warming is flimsy.

And the supposed 97% consensus among climate scientists that global warming is largely man-made is a gross exaggeration, mindlessly repeated by politicians and the media.

The 97% number comes primarily from a study of approximately 12,000 abstracts of research papers on climate science over a 20-year period. What is rarely revealed is that nearly 8,000 of the abstracts expressed no opinion at all on human-caused warming. When that and a subsidiary survey are taken into account, the climate scientist consensus percentage falls to between 33% and 63% only. So much for an overwhelming majority! 

Blatant exaggeration like this for political purposes is all too common in climate science. An example that permeates current news articles and official reports on climate change is the hysteria over extreme weather. Almost every hurricane, major flood, drought, wildfire or heat wave is ascribed to global warming.

But careful examination of the actual scientific data shows that if there’s a trend in any of these events, it’s downward rather than upward. Even the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found little to no evidence that global warming increases the occurrence of many types of extreme weather.

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Another over-hyped assertion about climate change is that the polar bear population at the North Pole is shrinking because of diminishing sea ice in the Arctic, and that the bears are facing extinction. Yet, despite numerous articles in the media and photos of apparently starving bears, current evidence shows that the polar bear population has actually been steady for the whole period that the ice has been decreasing and may even be growing, according to the native Inuit.

All these exaggerations falsely bolster the case for taking immediate action to combat climate change, supposedly by pulling back on fossil fuel use. But the mandate of the PCCS is to cut through the hype and assess just what the science actually says.  

A specific PCCS goal is to examine whether climate change impacts U.S. national security, a connection that the defense and national security agencies have strongly endorsed.

A recent letter of protest to the President from a group of former military and civilian national security professionals expresses their deep concern about “second-guessing the scientific sources used to assess the threat … posed by climate change.” The PCCS will re-evaluate the criteria employed by the national agencies to link national security to climate change.

The protest letter also claims that less than 0.2% of peer-reviewed climate science papers dispute that climate change is driven by humans. This is nonsense. In solar science alone during the first half of 2017, the number of peer-reviewed papers affirming a strong link between the sun and our climate, independent of human activity, represented approximately 4% of all climate science papers during that time – and there are many other fields of study apart from the sun.

Let’s hope that formation of the new committee will not be thwarted and that it will uncover other truths about climate science.

(This post was published previously on March 7, on The Post & Email blog.)

Next: Measles Rampant Again, Thanks to Anti-Vaccinationists

How the Scientific Consensus Can Be Wrong

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Consensus is a necessary step on the road from scientific hypothesis to theory. What many people don’t realize, however, is that a consensus isn’t necessarily the last word. A consensus, whether newly proposed or well-established, can be wrong. In fact, the mistaken consensus has been a recurring feature of science for many hundreds of years.

A recent example of a widespread consensus that nevertheless erred was the belief that peptic ulcers were caused by stress or spicy foods – a dogma that persisted in the medical community for much of the 20th century. The scientific explanation at the time was that stress or poor eating habits resulted in excess secretion of gastric acid, which could erode the digestive lining and create an ulcer.

But two Australian doctors discovered evidence that peptic ulcer disease was caused by a bacterial infection of the stomach, not stress, and could be treated easily with antibiotics. Yet overturning such a longstanding consensus to the contrary would not be simple. As one of the doctors, Barry Marshall, put it:

“…beliefs on gastritis were more akin to a religion than having any basis in scientific fact.”

To convince the medical establishment the pair were right, Marshall resorted in 1984 to the drastic measure of infecting himself with a potion containing the bacterium in question (known as Helicobacter pylori). Despite this bold and risky act, the medical world didn’t finally accept the new doctrine until 1994. In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery.    

Earlier last century, an individual fighting established authority had overthrown conventional scientific wisdom in the field of geology. Acceptance of Alfred Wegener’s revolutionary theory of continental drift, proposed in 1912, was delayed for many decades – even longer than resistance continued to the infection explanation for ulcers – because the theory was seen as a threat to the geological establishment.

Geologists of the day refused to take seriously Wegener’s circumstantial evidence of matchups across the ocean in continental coastlines, animal and plant fossils, mountain chains and glacial deposits, clinging instead to the consensus of a contracting earth to explain these disparate phenomena. The old consensus of fixed continents endured among geologists even as new, direct evidence for continental drift surfaced, including mysterious magnetic stripes on the seafloor. But only after the emergence in the 1960s of plate tectonics, which describes the slow sliding of thick slabs of the earth’s crust, did continental drift theory become the new consensus.

A much older but well-known example of a mistaken consensus is the geocentric (earth-centered) model of the solar system that held sway for 1,500 years. This model was originally developed by ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and later simplified by the astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Medieval Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei fought to overturn the geocentric consensus, advocating instead the rival heliocentric (sun-centered) model of Copernicus – the model which we accept today, and for which Galileo gathered evidence in the form of unprecedented telescopic observations of the sun, planets and planetary moons.    

Although Galileo was correct, his endorsement of the heliocentric model brought him into conflict with university academics and the Catholic Church, both of which adhered to Ptolemy’s geocentric model. A resolute Galileo insisted that:

 “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

But to no avail: Galileo was called before the Inquisition, forbidden to defend Copernican ideas, and finally sentenced to house arrest for publishing a book that did just that and also ridiculed the Pope.

These are far from the only cases in the history of science of a consensus that was wrong. Others include the widely held 19th-century religious belief in creationism that impeded acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the 20th-century paradigm linking saturated fat to heart disease.

Consensus is built only slowly, so belief in the consensus tends to become entrenched over time and is not easily abandoned by its devotees. This is certainly the case for the current consensus that climate change is largely a result of human activity – a consensus, as I’ve argued in a previous post, that is most likely mistaken.

Next: Nature vs Nurture: Does Epigenetics Challenge Evolution?

Consensus in Science: Is It Necessary?

An important but often misunderstood concept in science is the role of consensus. Some scientists argue that consensus has no place at all in science, that the scientific method alone with its emphasis on evidence and logic dictates whether a particular hypothesis stands or falls.  But the eventual elevation of a hypothesis to a widely accepted theory, such as the theory of evolution or the theory of plate tectonics, does depend on a consensus being reached among the scientific community.

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In politics, consensus democracy refers to a consensual decision-making process by the members of a legislature – in contrast to traditional majority rule, in which minority opinions can be ignored by the majority. In science, consensus has long been more like majority rule, but based on facts or empirical evidence rather than personal convictions. Although observational evidence is sometimes open to interpretation, it was the attempt to redefine scientific consensus in the mold of consensus democracy that triggered a reaction to using the term in science.

This reaction was eloquently summarized by medical doctor and Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, in a 2003 Caltech lecture titled “Aliens Cause GlobaL Warming”:

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. …

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.

In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. … There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus.”

What Crichton was talking about, I think, was the consensus democracy sense of the word – consensus forming the basis for legislation, for political action. But that’s not the same as scientific consensus, which can never be reached by taking a poll of scientists. Rather, a scientific consensus is built by the slow accumulation of unambiguous pieces of empirical evidence, until the collective evidence is strong enough to become a theory.

Indeed, the U.S. AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and NAS (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) both define a scientific theory in such terms. According to the NAS, for example,

 “The formal scientific definition of theory …  refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.”

Contrary to popular opinion, theories rank highest in the scientific hierarchy – above laws, hypotheses and facts or observations. 

Crichton’s reactionary view of consensus as out of place in the scientific world has been voiced in the political sphere as well. Twentieth-century UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher once made the comment, echoing Crichton’s words, that political consensus was “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.” Thatcher was a firm believer in majority rule.

A well-known scientist who shares Crichton’s opinion of scientific consensus is James Lovelock, ecologist and propounder of the Gaia hypothesis that the earth and its biosphere are a living organism. Lovelock has said of consensus:

“I know that such a word has no place in the lexicon of science; it is a good and useful word, but it belongs to the world of politics and the courtroom, where reaching a consensus is a way of solving human differences.”

But as discussed above, there is a role for consensus in science. The notion articulated by Crichton and Lovelock that consensus is irrelevant has arisen in response to the modern-day politicization of science. One element of their proclamations does apply, however. As pointed out by astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel, the existence of a scientific consensus doesn’t mean that the “science is settled.” Consensus is merely the starting point on the way to a full-fledged theory.

Next week: How Elizabeth Holmes Abused Science to Deceive Investors