Review of Essex and McKitrick's Taken by Storm

Christopher Barrington-Leigh

10 June 2006

1 Introduction

I have a background (PhD, postdoctoral research) in upper atmospheric and space physics, and am currently a PhD student in Economics. I am by no means a specialist in climate research, but believe I have a pretty good b.s. filter for both physical and economic arguments.

Recently I attended a workshop on Kyoto Protocol politics and was highly struck by the fact that in private conversations with both of the two other economists in attendance, the issue of questioning the science of climate change came up. Most of my friends are scientists, and I hardly know any other ``climate change skeptics''. One of these two fellow economists, a professor I respect, suggested I look at Christopher Essex and Ross McKitrick's Taken by Storm: The troubled science, policy and politics of global warming [2002] for a worthwhile perspective.

I did not get much beyond the 2nd chapter (other than skimming) in this book because every page I read compelled me to write to debunk the logic or interpretation. I suspect that given developments since this book was written, much of the thesis is indefensible now. However, even when it was written, this kind of selective picking of minutiae, exhaustive construction of strawman after strawman, and simplistic polarisation of facts and debates speaks simply of ideology, not skepticism, even when it is ideology against which it rails.

If it has a contribution to make in the ever-important task of keeping the scientific process open to self-criticism, then I congratulate the authors for that.However, I believe the authors of IPCC reports and concensus assessments are generally aware of the sketchy nature of their enormous task, and that the scientific process with all its warts is working in its ideal aim. Maybe some of the extreme care and caution with which scientists report to the press their results on such major issues as climate change can be credited to works such as this one.

Overall, the book comes across as a whiney rant from someone whose ideas were published in top journals but have not ``won'' the battle through the extensive scientific debate. It opens with a superlatively and openly glib demeanor which characterises some of McKitrick's work elsewhere, as well as that of his fellow ``anti-science'' profiteers such as S. Fred Singer (on which more, later).

2 First two chapters

The book begins with a deconstruction of science on the basis that things are very complex and that not all descriptions of the world are based directly on some unspecified level of theory which the authors call ``fundamental''. That they believe they have something to bring to these topics is unfortunate. A good introduction to the issues of symmetry breaking and multiple scales in science could be found in the classic paper "More is different" by (Nobel physicist) Phil Anderson in Science (1972).

The authors absurdly conclude with the understatement ``There is no comprehensive scientific theory for climate!'' Essentially everything said about climate models here could be said about daily weather forecasts. Yet it is good policy to use competing weather models for probabilistic predictions. Similarly, climate models are calibrated and tested on recent history and paleoclimate. By varying parameters or model choice, modelers in both cases attempt to report confidence bands as part of their predictions. The difficult science evolves.

The authors suggest that ``no engineer would sign off on a model that was not tested''. I find this an odd analogy, and lacking in humility when coming from an economist! Consider as a better analogy (and sharp contrast with economists, who still have no Hippocratic Oath) the behaviour of practitioners in medicine. What matters is not that there be no doubt, but the measure of a concept called risk. As an economist McKitrick is intimitely familiar with the concept of risk but has made it the overwhelming and remarkable omission in this book (throughout, apparently!?).

After first admitting that scientists in modern culture do in fact think independently, the authors go on to liken them to a set of coupled mechanical oscillators which all end up in phase. I have personal experience in science with competing, strongly rivalrous explanations of new phenomena. While it can be frustrating being in the camp which knows it has the data on its side and that its theory is likely to prevail (while evolving) in the end and yet has to spend time playing the battle fairly and patiently in the mean time, it is the very knowledge that the system works well enough to select the truth in the end that makes the ``frustration'' an acceptable part of the game. Indeed, the scientific community -- not just the press -- loves irreverance, revolution, skepticism etc, even while individual scientific communities naturally develop inertia and myopia. Look at the history of metal-catalyzed ``cold fusion'', for example. It was met with excitement, support, and skepticism initially, and on the long term suffered the rigours of the scientific process.

Indeed, some of the very journals which the authors falsely (and disingenuously, since they have published there) accuse of being closed to climate-skeptics are precisely the ones to go to with counter-culture theories. I once had a young colleague with fantastic (crazy, misguided) ideas about some fundamental physics concepts. The remarkable advice he received from my mentors was ``I think you should submit your ideas to Nature''.

Taken by Storm goes on to discuss the ``players'' in its strawman ``Doctrine of Certainty''. Here, a resentful, if playful, language and set of irreverant acronyms that characterize the authors' style comes across as petty and again reminds me of the snide manner of S. Fred Singer. Environmentalists are described as ``private politicians'' while industry is not a lobby and is described as entirely removed from the debate except that it ostensibly tends to fund the environmentalists' side! This is coming from a Senior Fellow of one of corporate America's major mouthpieces in Canada, the Fraser Institute.

On page 28, the text shows some declining measures of air pollutants (typically, such pollution is economists' only concept of ``environment'') in the late 20th Century and it is posed as a mystery that environmental awareness was growing in this time; this mystery is supposedly solved by the existence of mass hysteria. The authors claim that during this period the ``environment was getting better on its own''. The authors ought to know more about the possible directions of causality than this. Environmental improvements through legislation, and every piece of land conservation throughout the last century, have occurred as a result of hard work by people typically working without, and against, the kind of corporate funding and support which is available to the authors of this book. Meanwhile, Earth increasingly appears to be in the midst of the largest mass extinction event in the last two hundred million years. Can it really be a sincere belief that the rise of environmentalism, or the reduction of certain gases and aerosol concentrations in the USA are the result of independent self-propagating phenomena? These authors boast in their Preface that ``We have no idea when Earth Day is, nor do we care, as long as the malls stay open'', which suggests to me that scientific and economic claims made in the book may be just so much more tongue in cheek.

The authors quote a cogent editorial from Nature which rails against people just like Essex and McKitrick, ``many of whom are not even atmospheric scientists'' who have used ``specious scientific findings'' to muddy the issues. Essex and McKitrick fear that Nature's even carrying this kind of editorial deters real results which don't ``fit'' with the main thrust of research. Ironically, the comment in Nature is about efforts like Essex and McKitrick's, not that of scientists with contributions to make. Indeed, both sides of conflicting data such as that of the ground and satellite measurements debate of the late 1990's were carried in top journals. When writing in a scientific capacity, the authors themselves have published their own ``dissenting'' interpretations in G.R.L., Nature, and so on. Their ideas simply haven't held up.

Next, the book rails against the idea that 0.1 degree C could be a significant or measurable deviation in ocean temperature, based on the limited precision of a home consumer thermometer. This appears to be an appeal to the reader to now have better scientific knowledge than the peer-reviewed primary literature.

The authors claim that all official bias has been pro-warming, i.e. fueling and responding to a global warming hysteria. This seems fantastic. The USA government has led the world in dismissing and muddying the science of climate change, and has harassed its own scientists, replaced key advisors with non-scientists with a counter-science and pro-status-quo view, actively censored NASA scientists, changed the conclusions of reports, etc, all in favour of a Doctrine of Optimism.

The remaining text of the section continues with hyperbole and polarisation in nearly every sentence. There is no monolithic view anywhere in the scientific community on climate. There is debate at all the levels listed - science, media, and public/political discourse. The system is naturally imperfect in many of the qualitative ways they describe, yet their claims that it is completely broken, or collectively deluded on climate change are not in the least bit convincing.

There is an alternate possibility. Science may be working reasonably well, overall. The lack of peer-reviewed articles in good -- no, any -- specialist journals in recent years which could be said to disagree with the cautiously-worded, inclusive, and concensus-oriented conclusions of IPCC might, in fact, be a success story for science. This remarkable convergence of conclusions from countless different scientists, methods, and instruments contrasts, of course, with the even split of the ``two sides'' in the media, and the distortions towards those two extremes (not just one of them) in political discourse.

Let me make a quick comment on the authors' associate, S. Fred Singer, a once highly respected magnetospheric physicist who in his retirement has taken up the cause of fighting tobacco regulations by refuting the health effects of smoking, the cause of fighting the Montreal Protocol by refuting the role of CFCs in destroying stratospheric ozone, and the cause of promoting the benefits of climate change, disputing the existence of climate change, and denying the role of humanity in contributing to possible climate change. Two or three of these causes now appear ridiculous in retrospect, and thankfully sense prevailed amongst the majority.

I have discussed Fred Singer's views on climate with him on two occasions during his visits to Stanford. This is a man who shares the odd, gleeful, almost reckless, contemptuous language and attitude for mainstream concensus on these scientific issues. While claiming conspiracies of delusion and ``doctrines of certainty'', he quite openly believes that it is healthy to have preconceived notions like he himself does that one way or another we should not be taking costly measures against climate change. On page 55 of Taken by Storm, the authors describe Singer's message as focused on the discrepancy between ground, air, and space temperature measurements (there is no longer any discrepancy; the scientific process and open debate has led to a strong concensus). This is not correct. His message has consistently (in my experience) been on all three fronts mentioned above -- climate change is good for us, it isn't happening, and if it did it would be natural. This is an odd collection unless you are the oil companies which have funded Singer's organisation. That David Anderson declined to attend Singer's talk, as described in this book, saved one busy person from listening to what in my estimation is a decidedly unscientific (unrepresentative) rant.

The book goes on to harp on things like the fact that the popular notion of the ``greenhouse effect'' describes the role of greenhouse gases correctly (though crudely) but is not a good description of real greenhouses. This is true, but the politics is not about greenhouses.

I only skimmed beyond Chapter 2, but saw only more of the same.

3 Conclusion

With Singer I always got the impression that he did not care too much what people think of his views, maybe because he knew that his reward for the work was coming in another, more concrete form than scientific respect. I detect a similar smugness and willingness to ignore the big picture, or 90% of the details, in the authors of Taken by Storm.

About this document ...

Christopher Barrington-Leigh 2006-06-16