Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Hoax of the Century

I read an article by Pat Buchanan entitled “Hoax of the Century.”

Buchanan starts out by describing Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man as the hoaxes of the last century.

Yes Piltdown man was a hoax but Nebraska Man was simply a mistake. A mistake I might point out corrected relatively quickly by normal scientific processes and peer review. Buchanan then has the audacity to quote Creationist Duane Gish about Nebraska Man and then refers to Eugene Windchy's book, “The End of Darwinism,” as the source for the stories. Well, two screw-ups amid thousands of pieces of evidence don’t mean much. One has to consider the total inventory of evidence not an aberration here or there.

The overall significance to the biological sciences of the Piltdown Man hoax and the Nebraska Man mistake is ZERO. When stacked against the total inventory of evidence for evolution they're utterly meaningless other than as interesting historical footnotes.

So Buchanan is already in a weak position when he begins to address his main topic which is Global Warming.

Remember I said the East Anglia “Climategate” fiasco was about to displace Nebraska Man as “evidence” that science can’t be trusted? While Buchanan managed to get both of them in the same article.

Along with the questionable processes at East Anglia Buchanan quotes a number of errors in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and a number of dire predictions that haven’t panned out. But his big money points are that, unlike the Arctic, Antarctic ice is actually increasing and the 2009 hurricane season was quite mild and the winter quite harsh, precisely the opposite of the recent mild winters and harsh hurricane seasons which were touted as evidence for Global Warming.

He also makes the point that temperatures have not risen since the late 1990s and that there was a similar period of global warmth between 900 CE and 1300 CE which, not only wasn’t catastrophic, but was of some benefit to the population of the time.

Buchanan then concludes, based upon these points, that Global Warming is the Hoax of the 21st Century.

Certainly these are valid questions but are they adequate to reach such a definitive conclusion?

Well, not really, and here’s why.

Let’s start with the IPCC errors and East Anglia. Do such things weaken the Global Warming argument? Absolutely, but like the evolution aberrations they have to be considered in the context of the totality of the evidence.

As for temperatures not rising since the late 1990s, a little more accurate would be to say since the warmest year on record in 1998 they have not risen. Once 1998 falls off the rolling average things appear to flatten out, however that has happened in the past over the short term.

As a matter of fact between 1940 and 1950 the average global temperature steadily decreased for 10 straight years before reversing and beginning to rise again.

You cannot use short term data for long term analysis. While the trend is encouraging, more data is required. The decade from 2001 – 2009 was warmer than 1991 – 2000 so the jury is still out until the data for 2010 is in.

Buchanan makes it sound like the expanding Antarctic ice was a big secret but it isn’t. The ice shelf is expanding in east Antarctica even as it’s contracting in west Antarctica but overall, the continent is gaining more ice than its losing.

Again, in a vacuum this is a strong argument against Global Warming but it can’t be viewed in a vacuum. The ice in the Arctic is definitely contracting so why the difference? Well, Antarctica is a totally different environment than the Arctic, more surrounded by water which reacts differently than land to rising temperatures and it’s also home to the hole in the ozone layer.

The ozone layer hole appears to be repairing itself and affecting the weather patterns in the Antarctic. Some scientists believe that this is why things are different in the Antarctic for the moment. However the prediction is that this is a temporary respite. Again, I’d wait here until all the evidence is in.

By the way, remember when the Right Wing was telling us what a hoax the ozone layer hole was or how we couldn’t do anything about it? Sound familiar?

The mild winters and severe hurricane seasons of the recent years have been touted as evidence of Global Warming, so why isn’t the harsh winter and mild hurricane season of 2009 evidence against Global Warming? Well, I guess it is, but it’s rather weak evidence.

The mild hurricane season of 2009 is due to the presence of the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) which was in effect in the Pacific. The earth’s weather isn’t composed of isolated segments, it’s all interconnected. The ENSO occurs quasi-periodically on a 3 to 7 year schedule and one of its general effects is the breaking up of storms in the Atlantic before they can get too strong.

As for the harsher winter, well, no one ever promised consistency in the weather. I wouldn’t read too much into one season especially against the backdrop of the overall trend.

Now let’s talk about the warm period between 900 CE and 1300 CE. Since there weren’t any meteorological stations measuring global temperatures back then I would say that this is anecdotal evidence. Even so, I don’t see any reason to doubt, based upon historical evidence such as the colonization of Greenland, that it occurred. I’m just not all that sure what this means other than warming cycles are natural and we could just be in the middle of another one so it’s no big deal. Perhaps this is the case, but then again, perhaps it isn’t.

Notice that Buchanan is inconsistent. On the one hand he is arguing that Global Warming isn’t occurring, and on the other hand he’s arguing that it’s occurring, but its natural and no big deal.

This is the Christian Apologists trick. He throws out multiple, often contradictory, possibilities and then claims his case is made. You can’t have it both ways Pat. Which is it? It isn’t happening or its happening but it’s no big deal?

I’m not discarding this evidence, and Buchanan’s questions and observations are clearly evidence, I’m simply saying that when placed in context it’s not nearly as strong as Buchanan implies in his article and it doesn’t strike me as anywhere near strong enough to warrant his conclusion.

I’m on the fence about Global Warming. Clearly something is happening but what it is and what, if anything, we can or should do about it is unclear to me. That being said, I don’t see any harm with playing it safe especially if playing it safe can lead to a healthier environment and economic prosperity through the emergence and development of new technology.

Of course new technology always presents something of a problem for those making money with the old technology doesn’t it?

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