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February 1, 2008 | 8 Comments

Zombies no joke: global warming can cause anything

A day ago my number two son and I sat over a bottle of wine and he suggested that if global warming caused temperatures to increase, then we would see an escalation in the number of zombie attacks because, obviously, there would be less cold weather, which everybody knows slows attacks from the undead. I wrote this up in the approved New York Times format, and, to my astonishment, some people thought I was joking.

I was not. The post was in earnest and was an attempt to put into perspective the hundreds, if not thousands, of “studies” that purport to show the ills that will befall us when global warming finally strikes. There are three problems with these studies.

The first is their ridiculous variety, nowhere better cataloged than at NumberWatch’sWarm List“. That page contains links, mostly to news reports to studies that ask us to believe that, for example, lizards will undergo sex changes, there will be “waves of rape“, a rash of camel deaths will occur, the Earth will spin faster (hold on!), and, worst and most frightening of all, there will be an increase in lawyers (to handle all the “who’s fault is it?” litigation, you see).

I listed only five of the hundreds on that page, which no doubt represents an undercount of the true number of worrying research reports. New ones appear daily. If you wanted to adopt a cynical attitude, you might think there is an unstated competition among researchers to see who can get the most of these or the most shocking of these things to press.

Can these studies all be true? Yes, it logically is possible, only it is absurd to think so. The probability of each and every one of these calamities coming to pass is as close to zero as you like. But that’s not the real problem. It is that each of these studies is usually taken as further proof, albeit indirect, that significant man-made temperature change (AGW) is true. “Why else, if AGW was not true, would these respectable scientists publish these studies?” people ask themselves. Only, it’s the wrong question.

Each of these studies claim to show a danger that might come to pass given that AGW is true. That is exactly backwards to answering the question of whether AGW is true, however. If instead these studies showed that these maladies already occurred then it might provide some evidence, however weak, to support AGW. But then again, it might also support the theory that the observed climate change is natural and expected. Few or none of these studies show what results to expect given that AGW is false (and climate change natural etc.). To be useful research both scenarios must be analyzed, else we are right to suspect the researcher has been sloppy and perhaps not a little biased toward a specific conclusion.

To be specific: because a study appears showing the harm that AGW might cause it is not, and cannot logically be, proof that AGW is true.

The second problem with these studies is their wearying specificity and confidence, which we alluded to by stating that our zombie researchers “calculated a 32.782412% increase in” attacks. Just joking? At the site Skeptical Science, hosted by an honest man, we find that, given AGW is true, there will be “Increased deaths to heatwaves (5.74% increase to heatwaves compared to 1.59% to cold snaps)”. Really? 5.74% and not 5.73%? Are they sure? Can they even be so confident to say 5.7% and not, for example, 5 or 6%? As a statistician, I can assure you, your model and sample have to be incredibly accurate for you to make verifiable statements to that many decimal places.

These studies almost never give any indication of their uncertainty about their results or assumptions. Instead, the “findings”, or results, are taken to be a given; they are just obviously true. Stating results of a study in this fashion has its intended affect: it increases worry. But it does so to an extent that is almost never warranted. To do risk analysis of a study’s results, accurate estimates of the uncertainty and range of possible effects, including positive ones, must be present, else the study is worthless. Reports without uncertainty and estimates of range of effects again bring up the question of the author’s possible biases.

To be specific again: a research report that does not include measures of uncertainty of its results, and an explicit list of the assumptions and the uncertainty in them, is of almost no use.

The last problem with this research is what you do not see. Again at the site Skeptical Science, the author compiles a list of bad things that will happen if AGW is true, and compares it to a list of good things that will occur. Good things? Yes, of course: because it is impossible that climate change can only be bad. Since about four billion years ago or so, the climate on earth has never been static, nor is it ever expected to be, so to claim, like many do, that any change in climate must be bad is just silly. Responsible scientists of course know this.

But many of them still suspect that any changes will be mostly bad. This is evident scanning the Skeptical Science list. Many items in the “good things” column are unfortunately facetious, for example “Record profits for pharmaceutical companies”, and a “thriving” trade in Mammoth fossils (truly, global warming can cause anything).

There is, naturally, an official psychological name for this sort of behavior, but we don’t need that label to see that if thousands of researchers rush to find the worst that can happen and none (except for corporate “shills”) try and find the best, that there will be an enormous bias in the published literature towards the worst. Add to that the search only for evidence that backs up theories of the worst, and you have the situation we are in now. Which is not quite panic, but extreme distress in some quarters; cries of “Something must be done!” are regularly heard, and any that dare question this necessity are raked over the coals.

It also causes some skeptics of the AGW hypothesis to perhaps lean too far the other way and make statements that they will probably regret later. But these skeptics feel forced to speak out to balance the overly-heated and anxious rhetoric that is generated because these studies get so much press.

To be specific once more: it is irresponsible and harmful not to seek the full range, both good and evil, of what will happen given the climate changes.

My prescription is for restraint among scientists who publish these studies: slow down and do a better job, include estimates of uncertainty, better emphasize limitations, and honestly describe what good might arise whether AGW is true or whether climate change is natural and expected. I predict, however, like the majority of medicinal regimes directed by doctors, that my patients will not be adherent.



“The most vehement attack on the wartime press came not from Richard Nixon, but from William Tecumseh Sherman. ‘If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world,’ he sighed, ‘but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell before breakfast.'”

Outstanding article (originally linked at the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily) by who else but Victor David Hanson. This article essential reading for all those who expect wars to proceed with Hollywood timing and flawless precision.

January 31, 2008 | 54 Comments

Zombie attacks might increase due to global warming, study shows

A new study by scientists has suggested that zombie attacks might increase if the current projections of global warming are realized. “If the earth gets warmer, it means longer springs, summers, and falls, and shorter winters,” said John Carpenter-Romero, Ph.D., a zombie-ologist who co-authored the study. “And shorter winters means more time for the undead to prey on the populace.”

Dr. Harrister, the other co-author, and head of Zombie Robotics at Wayward Robot, Inc., explained that cold winters typically stalled the walking dead. “It is well known that zombies can’t operate in cold weather. It freezes their brains.”

The pair calculated a 32.782412% increase in zombie attacks if CO2 increased to twice its pre-industrial rate. “Clearly, this is a very troubling result,” said Dr. Harrister, “If we don’t do something soon, the streets will be filled with blood.”

Update: be sure to read the follow-up post: Zombies no joke, global warming can cause anything.


You’re no climatologist! Or, who is allowed to criticize?

There is a distressing commonality when discussing climate science lately: many people skip past the data and arguments offered by a skeptic and ask the question, “Are you a climatologist?” The implication, sometimes flatly stated, is that, if you are not, then you have no business offering a negative opinion on the state of “the” science.

It is distressing because I repeatedly have to point out that it is a logical fallacy that because a person is not a climatologist their skeptical argument is therefore false. If you like labels, this fallacious retort is called the Appeal to Authority. Each argument must be assessed on its merits and cannot be dismissed because the person offered it does not meet a certain credentialing standard. Climate theory arguments from non-experts cannot be banned or forbidden tout court.

Being open to arguments from non-specialists in other fields has meant that honest scientists have had to deal with the ravings of cranks and bizarre, pointless, and irrelevant theories. But tough luck. Every physicist gets a steady stream of letters and emails from people claiming to have finally solved zero point energy, every mathematician has to read missives that have uncovered the secret proof for squaring the circle. The progress of physics and math have not been appreciably slowed by this nonsense. And every now and then, rarely, comes a paper from a nobody in a patent office or a hand-written theorem from some unknown Indian kid whose hobby is playing with numbers, and entirely new avenues of thought are opened.

But climate science is in a different state than much of theoretical physics and mathematics: it is demarcated because much of its theories about future changes have not been verified. They are, at some level, speculation. Climatology borrows heavily from other branches of science: chemists are needed to analyze temperature proxy samples, computer programmers code and validate the enormous models. Its borders are fuzzy: where does climatology end and glaciology begin?

But if critics are going to insist that, in order to offer evidence for or against significant man-made warming, that the person giving evidence must have a Ph.D. in climatology (not meteorology, or atmospheric physics, or any other field) granted from a restricted list of superior universities, then so be it. We cannot just compile the list of people working on the IPCC, however, because that august body contains people who are no better than mathematicians, statisticians, meteorologists, computer programmers, engineers, glaciologists, and, God help us, even economists and politicians. The final approved list must actually be very small. However, I invite critics to create and publish such a list so that we can all know who our betters are.

Understand, though, that the public-comment restriction must, by logic, go both ways. If you are not allowed to offer negative commentary because you are not a climatologist, then you are not allowed to offer positive reviews either.

This is the odd thing: you never hear or read of somebody asking a mere journalist who has just breathlessly reported on a paper that purports to show how birds will suffer under global warming, why he, the journalist, should have written his article because he is obviously not a climatologist or ornithologist. You will not hear cries of “What temerity!” or “How dare he!”

Anybody, apparently, is allowed to offer positive thoughts, or glowing, unrestrained praise, on the theory that mankind significantly alters global temperatures, and they never have their credentials questioned. Even more, scores of internet commentors will read the journalist’s article and add their insights (“When will people realize that the problems we are facing are real!”), and nobody will ask them what gives them the right or ability to do so.

The current state of debate says much about the desires of those who praise positive comments but denigrate the people who offer negative comments.

Since this is the case, I propose a cessation of all internet commentary, one way or the other, until the Approved List of true climatologists has been compiled.