Chris Mooney, hurricanes, and warming the globe

By Phil Plait | July 27, 2007 9:25 am

Speaking of talks, I also went to a talk by author and blogger Chris Mooney. Chris wrote The Republican War on Science — the title pretty much explains it all — and just published his new book Storm World. This new book is a neat juxtaposition of how scientists are researching and arguing over the effects of global warming on hurricanes together with how this is all being done in a political arena as well. I am well into the book right now (my reading life is a bit slow these days with all the writing I have to do) and it’s really an excellent story. The history of hurricane research all by itself makes this a fun book, and I know the global warming aspects will be interesting indeed.

I know Chris a bit from having met him once a couple of years ago, as well as having some correspondence with him through his blog at Science Blogs (where he gives me a shoutout too).

So I was looking forward to the talk very much. The venue was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, not too far from my new digs. The audience was almost entirely scientists, and even though I knew not a soul there, I was right at home. These were scientists, and they looked like scientists. I could tell they weren’t astronomers but still, they were kin (Mrs. BA and I call the ability to spot a scientist in a crowd "nerdar").

Also, I knew this talk would have a different thrust than a public talk, and Chris delivered: he didn’t need to discuss the science, and instead talked about how he approached the book, and how scientists need to deal with the media when talking about such contentious issues. Chris is a good speaker, and the talk was interesting and fun.

Moreover, two scientists figuring prominently in his book attended; one is a scientist who is very much in the global warming camp, and another, a contrarian named Bill Gray, who thinks global warming is so much hooey. The interplay between them was fascinating to watch. There are similar feuds in astronomy, of course, but this time I could watch without any real investment in my own emotions. There wasn’t much interplay, but what there was was interesting: the GW advocate introduced Chris and made some good-natured jabs at Gray, and Gray was able to ask a question and get in his own statements.

Interestingly, at the Q&A after the talk, Gray said that a problem in science right now is that scientists are unwilling to speak out against the standard paradigm for fear of losing grant money. Chris countered that when a scientist does speak out, and is shown to be correct, their career is made.

Chris was right (he discusses it briefly in his own blog entry), but I think Gray’s question was ill-posed. What he says is only true if the scientific paradigm aligns with the government’s. I think Gray was arguing the wrong case.

The scientific consensus is that global warming is real and that humans are the root cause (no matter what the media — or, I imagine, several of the commenters on this post — would have you believe). But very clearly the current Administration admits warming might be real only with extreme reticence, and have fun getting them to admit it might just possibly be anthropogenic. So government sponsored scientists investigating human-caused global warming are fighting within their own paradigm, but against the government’s! So practically everyone in that room — and practically every atmospheric scientist in the country — shows that Gray’s fundamental premise was wrong. Arguing against global warming is fighting the scientific paradigm, but not the governmental one, so their funding (and ability to speak out) is probably not at stake… at least no more than usual in this current antiscience Administration.

Now, I might be wrong– I don’t know how funding is divvied out at NCAR, NOAA, or NASA’s Earth Sciences, so I can’t be sure that speaking out about anthropogenic GW is bucking the paradigm one way or the other. But I do know that this Administration has done what they can to suppress such dissent, and I know they will continue to do it. Both of Chris’s books deal with this topic, and that’s why I suggest you read them. Plus– they’re just really good books.

Chris signed my copy of the book afterwards, which was neat (that’s one of the most dreaded parts of a book tour) and it will sit on my shelf next to his other book, in the honored space reserved for debunking bad science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking

Comments (29)

  1. Dunc

    Gray’s opinion on funding also assumes that there isn’t a constellation of well-funded think-tanks actively looking to fund “research” that calls AGW into doubt. I mean, does he honestly believe that the Fred Singers of this world are struggling along in filthy garrets, living from hand to mouth, and begging for change on the street to continue their work?

  2. CS

    Thanks Phil, sounds like a great book, I will order it.
    By the way, this came out today:
    Heathrow puts up legal barricades to keep away protesters
    If you’re a member of the National Trust, the RSPB, the Woodland Trust or Friends of the Earth, then you could be banned from Britain’s biggest airport. And the Piccadilly line. And parts of Paddington station. And sections of the M4. All because the authorities want to halt a protest against climate change…
    http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article2809171.ece

  3. Grand Lunar

    You get all the fun stuff, don’t you Phil? :)

    A number of people I meet online don’t believe that the scientific consensus is that GW is real and that humans are the cause. Know how I can educate them otherwise?

  4. Gary Ansorge

    Anthropogenic global warming may be a contentious debate, but the solution is even more debatable. Nuclear power could solve the problem, IF the primary energy source is solar(fusion), or possibly the Bussard IEC fusion reactor. If Bussards next generation(WB7 and WB8) are ever built and meet Bussards projections, then we’ll know where to go. Having said that, I note, there is a contributory fund set up in New Mexico that can go directly to the EMC2 Corp.(Bussards research facility) at this link:

    http://www.nmcf.org/?page_id=135

    I just sent them $ 100.00 myself. Gotta put my money where my heart is,,,besides, what’s a lousy $ 100.00 in todays economy? Now, if only 100,000 other people feel as I do, then we may find the truth.

    Gary 7

  5. Edward Cohen

    This is a little off the subject. But a related topic
    would be science bashing. I have noted in many
    horror movies involving mutated monsters, there
    is always one scientist who does not want the
    monster destroyed because of the scientific knowledge that could be learned.
    This is in spite that the monstser has killed half of the
    cast. The scientist does get his just rewards in the end.

  6. Gary Ansorge

    Anyone who has knowledge beyond the generally accepted norms has power and we are oriented toward suspicion of such. Respect for those who have busted their arses to acquire such knowledge is generally lacking in the US of A. For the general population, thinking, especially critical thinking, is really hard work and is often avoided.I have literally had people to whom I was trying to explain evolutionary mechanisms say,”Stop! You’re making my head hurt,,,”.
    ,,,which is, I suppose, why religion is so omni present,,,it removes the necessity to think.

    Thus we have the Frankenstein complex, where the one seeking knowledge is presumed to be encroaching on some deities territory and must receive their comeuppance for such indiscretion.
    This MAY decline when humans expand into a new environment that selects for those mutants in the gene pool for whom such intellectual competence is a survival trait, such as a hard vacuum/radiation environment.

    GAry 7

  7. Steve

    I am not a researcher, so I wouldn’t know how funding works, but could you not just get the funding each researcher receives via a government open-records request then tie it to a pro-GW / con-GW viewpoint? Then by showing the cumulative $$$ spent per year over the past 20 years correlate how the money has varied based on the administration’s viewpoint?

  8. Hm. Pretty well anyone who can express a detailed view on a scientific or technical issue gets their living by their knowledge about it. The days of the gentleman scientist with an independent income are long over. So, by Gray’s argument, you really can’t trust *anyone* who is able to speak competently about a topic.

    The *right* people to believe, therefore, are those who have made their opinion up without reference to the facts. Oh, and advertisers, who are merely experts in communication and clearly have no axe to grind about the content of their message.

  9. tacitus

    Phil, I am curious to know why you say that book signing is “one of the most dreaded parts of a book tour”.

  10. Kullat Nunu

    Re: The title, I don’t understand the fuzz about the possible global warning/hurricane link. Increase in the number and/or intensity of hurricanes is a minor nuisance compared to the more subtle and much more deadly effects like changes in rain patterns.

    PS. For those who still don’t think the Decider and his administration are not genuinely anti-science, read this. Mr. Bush threatens to veto NASA’s science budged increases.

  11. Kullat Nunu

    Sigh, apparently links are not allowed. There really should be a preview option.

    New try: http://www.nasawatch.com/archives/2007/07/white_house_opp.html

  12. Brian

    Grand Lunar,
    You can’t convince someone if he is unwilling to change his opinion. There is an old saying: A man convinced agasinst his will is of the same opinion still. Some people have decided upon their conclusion first and present evidence merely to justify or rationalize that conclusion. They fashion their case as a lawyer would. Such people are fighters for a cause and will never, as they would see it, give up. But many people base their opinions about AGW, at least to some extent, on the available evidence, which over time grows in both quality and quantity.

    If someone is open, he might start with the article on pp. 64-73 in the current (August) issue if Scientific American. It outlines the conclusions of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and includes an ample supply of graphs and charts acompanied by error bars.

  13. Here is an example of some of the “hate” that AGW skeptics have to endure.

    Link: http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20070727/NATION02/107270089

  14. Brian

    The Scientific American article cited in my last post refers the reader to two websites:
    All IPCC reports and summaries are available at http://www.ipcc.ch
    and more information from the authors is available at
    http://www.SciAm.com/ontheweb

  15. Brant D

    Bill Gray is an interesting character. On the one hand, he claims that global climate computer models are not “meteorology”, and that experienced meteorologists can make better predictions based on their intuitive knowledge. On the other hand, his hurricane forecast technique uses statistical relationships between meteorological variables from all over the globe. Given the rather notable lack of direct measurements from places like Africa, Siberia, and most of the ocean, guess where he gets the numbers for his hurricane forecasts?

    Well, at least he is entertaining at the daily hurricane briefings…

  16. NOYB

    The difference is Dr. Gray has a proven track record when it comes to hurricanes. The global climate models do not.

    Dr. Gray does not use statistical relationships, but formuals based on cause and effect. He has shown that there is a relationship between hurricane incidence and El Nino, as was witnessed in 2006. The problem is that El Nino is hard to predict.

    The question remains; why do people put faith in flawed mathematical models when they can not predict the weather a few days in advance, let alone 50 years in advance.

  17. Grand Lunar

    I am aware, Brian, of those that don’t wish to change their view.

    I’m asking for those that are undecided, the ones that ask questions, and do not have preconcieved notions. Those are the one’s I’d like to be able to answer with a definitive response, and not one influenced by politics, but only derived from science.

  18. Sergeant Zim

    From the link by The German:

    “It is my intention to destroy your career as a liar,” Mr. Eckhart wrote.

    Doesn’t that sound a great deal like what Dr. BA does on this blog? Any Scientist who supports FACTS is OK, but when someone has a ‘career as a liar’, then they are fair game.

    Aside – in reading the blog, and looking at the picture of Mr. Mooney signing, I noticed he is left-handed, proving once again, that the lefties are the ones in our right minds…

  19. Brant D

    NOYB: “The difference is Dr. Gray has a proven track record when it comes to hurricanes. The global climate models do not.”

    Bill Gray pioneered hurricane forecasting, and his early forecasts were great for their time, but he is currently not significantly more accurate than other forecasting techniques, including those using models. He indeed using statistical relationships, called “teleconnection” in meteorological jargon. It’s basically a bunch of correlations between hurricanes and practically all regions of the globe.

    By the way, it’s interesting that you mention “cause and effect” as a basis for forecasting, which is exactly what computer models do. They take observational data and compute a forecast based on the fundamental equations of atmospheric physics: cause and effect.

    Global climate models can be and are tested against the past 20th century to validate their abilities to model global climate. Their track records are good in this regard. And before you say “they are coded to reproduce the 20th century”, know that the models are also put through a series of control experiments to make sure that there are no major biases or “fudge factors” occurring within the models. In the literature, there is as much written about model control procedures as there is about model forecasts and hindcasts.

  20. NOYB

    Rubbish.

    GCMs do not model clouds very well. The carbon cycle is not understood.
    The initial data is inherently flawed. The code is very complex and has flaws.

    Garbage in; garbage out.

  21. StevoR

    # NOYB said on 27 Jul 2007 at 9:01 pm

    “Garbage in; garbage out.”

    & that’s garbage on the net from posters like you! :-P

    Take your head out of the sand NOyB & listen towhat tehmajority of properly trained and accredited climatologists have been saying for decades. They do know what they’re talking about.

    Look at NASA data on the rapid melting of Greenland’s ice cap, the disappearance of the snows of kilamanjaro & Everest, the rapid retreat in tyhe Andean and other glaciers, the submergance of several Pacific atolls (Tuvulau & Pelau have notable examples), the heatwave(s) in Europe, floods in Engand, that lil’ hurricane called Katrina that came visiting New Orleans & .. ad nauseam ..

    It is happening. We are at very least partly responsible, wedo need todo something about it.

    I’d suggest starting with impeaching the current President and his anti-science, anti-reality regieme & never voting Republican again …

    BTW. My most honoured shelf of books – above even those I’ve wriitten (well have shortstories in) -my two shelves of Isaac Asimov. :-D

  22. StevoR

    The more things here change the more I still can’t edit … (Sigh)

    I meant to write : “It [the Anthropogenic Greenhouse Warming] is happening. We are at very least partly responsible, we do need to do something about it.

    I’d suggest starting with impeaching the current President and his anti-science, anti-reality regieme & never voting Republican again … ”

    There is a very strong, very unfortunate strand of anti-intellectualism, anti-science prejudice in American culture.

    Its always been there (from the old frontier mentality, from being founded by neurotic puritans ejected from Europe for being the past equivalent of door-knocking mormons, combination of those & the work of too many televangelists and too few erudite folks?) but in the years post – George Bush the Second (aka “Bush the mad”, “Dubya”, “Shrubya” & that Expletive Deleted!) it seems to have gotten considerably worse. About ten or even fifty times actually and so far despite the BA’s efforts it isn’t improving too quickly ..

    There’s a lot I don’t understand about Americans but top of that list is why Bush II has yet to be impeached following lying his nation’s way into a 21st century Veitnam and (arguably? self-evidently more like!) comitting war crimes and crimes against humanity on numerous occassions (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, spying on his citizens, invading Iraq, terrorising the rest of the planet etc ..) while a far better President, Bill Clinton, was impeached for lying about a domestic affair that hurt only a few people’s feelings …

    I mean come on people! Wheres your sense of perspective? Where’s the outrage and resistence you’d expect from the Democrats? Why is it that a half-sec part-breast flash by Jane Jackson gets you frothing at the mouth but the needless destruction of a whole nation and the deaths of thousands of your troops and even more hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi’s is shrugged off so casually … ???

    How can you go so far backwards with your mad semi-King George II after chucking out the mad King George III to begin your then promising existence? Incidentally what is it with the Bush clan’s lack of imagination when it comes to first names? ;-)

    The nation that gave us Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, Woodrow Wilson, John Steinbeck, Carl sagan and Isaac Asimov is capable of so much better thinking and so much better behaviour. To see the nation that achieved the furthest exploration ever – the first Moon landing, probes to almost every planet (yes I still count Pluto – & Eris & Ceres as planets too!) – faklling intro medieval style religious fundamentalism and political intolerance is just so incredibly tragic and such a waste.

  23. StevoR

    The more things here change the more I still can’t edit … (Sigh)

    I meant to write : “It [the Anthropogenic Greenhouse Warming] is happening. We are at very least partly responsible, we do need to do something about it.

    I’d suggest starting with impeaching the current President and his anti-science, anti-reality regieme & never voting Republican again … ”

    There is a very strong, very unfortunate strand of anti-intellectualism, anti-science prejudice in American culture.

    Its always been there (from the old frontier mentality, from being founded by neurotic puritans ejected from Europe for being the past equivalent of door-knocking mormons, combination of those & the work of too many televangelists and too few erudite folks?) but in the years post – George Bush the Second (aka “Bush the mad”, “Dubya”, “Shrubya” & that Expletive Deleted!) it seems to have gotten considerably worse. About ten or even fifty times actually and so far despite the BA’s efforts it isn’t improving too quickly ..

    There’s a lot I don’t understand about Americans but top of that list is why Bush II has yet to be impeached following lying his nation’s way into a 21st century Veitnam and (arguably? self-evidently more like!) comitting war crimes and crimes against humanity on numerous occassions (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, spying on his citizens, invading Iraq, terrorising the rest of the planet etc ..) while a far better President, Bill Clinton, was impeached for lying about a domestic affair that hurt only a few people’s feelings …

    I mean come on people! Wheres your sense of perspective? Where’s the outrage and resistence you’d expect from the Democrats? Why is it that a half-sec part-breast flash by Jane Jackson gets you frothing at the mouth but the needless destruction of a whole nation and the deaths of thousands of your troops and even more hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi’s is shrugged off so casually … ???

    How can you go so far backwards with your mad semi-King George II after chucking out the mad King George III to begin your then promising existence? Incidentally what is it with the Bush clan’s lack of imagination when it comes to first names? ;-)

    The nation that gave us Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King, Woodrow Wilson, John Steinbeck, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov is capable of so much better thinking and so much better behaviour. To see the nation that achieved the furthest exploration ever – the first Moon landing, probes to almost every planet (yes I still count Pluto – & Eris & Ceres as planets too!) – falling into medieval style religious fundamentalism and political intolerance is just so incredibly tragic and such a waste.

  24. StevoR

    Sorry folks its doen it again with the double posting .. Sigh.

    Sorry Jane Jackson too – I meant Janet Jackson – and incidentally as I saw it that wasnt even her fault but her male partners!

    Really people – priorities :

    A split second glimpse of pretty obscured breast (Shock Horror kiddies women have mamary glands! )

    A consual sexual affair between consenting adults (albeit one’s a married president)

    Or illegally invading a nation that posed you no real threat, occupying a nation that posed you no real threat, authorising torture, setting up secret jails and flying political prisoners there to be tortured, changing laws to remove the rights of .. well everybody ultimately …

    Hmm .. I know which one I’d see as the real problem. I know which one I’d see as worthy of impeachment -and, incidentally, arrest and trial.

  25. Brian

    NOLB – GCMs do not model clouds very well.
    I do not know enough about the models to know how well they do or do not model clouds, but uncertainties should be accounted for in the size of the error bars. I do not have the SciAm article in front of me, but I do think I remember that the largest error bars do appear arround some of the cloud-related forcings. The conlcusions have taken those uncertainties into account.

    Thus, it is not so much a case of “gabage in, garbage out” as “larger uncertainties in, larger error bars out.” One nice thing about the climate models is that we can improve and refine them as we learn more.

  26. Brant D

    Brian got it right. There is considerable uncertainty about changes in cloud cover caused by global warming. So modelers run their models using multiple cloud cover schemes in order to get a handle on how much of an effect clouds can have. And while it is true that they have a significant effect on the amount of warming in the near future, there is no reason to believe that clouds have the power to simply eliminate global warming. That is wishful thinking.

    Besides, remember that uncertainty bites both ways. The uncertainty in cloud cover has just as much of a chance to make reality worse than the the predictions as it does to make it better.

    Also, “initial data” is not a significant problem for global climate models. Predicting climate is a boundary-value problem. Initialization is more an issue for weather prediction models, as weather prediction is mostly an initial-value problem.

  27. The good thing is that if one is called Bill Gray, one is called a “contrarian”, whilst all other skeptics are usually labelled denialists, dim-witted, liars or worse…

    Has that anything to do with Chris Mooney’s humility and open-mindedness?

    He must be the first author of a book on climate capable of hosting a good-natured debate between people of differing opinions.

    If we all could learn from him, there would be far fewer heated discussions on AGW…and no BA blogs trying to argue that the Sun had little to do with recent climate variability

  28. Brian

    Maurizio Morabito -…whilst all other skeptics are usually labelled denialists, dim-witted, liars….

    Naturally, I cannot speak for BA, but I was under the impression that one of the objectives of his blog was to debunk bad science (hence, the name “Bad Astronomy”). That is not to say that there are no intelligent, sincere people who might hold a particular postion (there might or might not be), just that the views of such people would not, typically, be prime examples of bad science, and so the BA would not choose to write a “bad science” blog about them.

    For example, a blog devoted exclusively to discussing baseball players would not be accused of implying that every human being was a baseball player. Similarly, the fact that BA tends to write blogs about liars, the dim-witted, and those in denial does not imply that everyone belongs to one of those categories.

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