William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Shifting Baselines Syndrome

If you doubt any claim made about man-made global warming, Jennifer Jacquet thinks you are a “miscreant” and on par with those who deny that “smoking causes cancer.” She also draws the conclusion that since one “denialist” sports the same upper-lip fuzz as Snidely P. Whiplash, the rest of them are somewhere twirling their moustaches and up to now good.

Well, these kinds of childish insults are common by now. Sticks and stones, etc. What makes Jacquet’s edge-of-sanity ramblings interesting is her involvement in work called “Shifting Baselines.” Jacquet, and others at her web site, call “Shifting Baselines” a syndrome.

In case you weren’t paying attention, I said s-y-n-d-r-o-m-e. These are scary things and ordinarily require medical treatment, or even psychological counseling, so we are talking of serious things here. What are the signs of this dread malady? From Jacquet’s link to Wikipedia:

Shifting baseline (also known as sliding baseline) is a term used to describe the way significant changes to a system are measured against past baselines, which themselves may represent significant changes from the original state of the system.

For example (also on Wikipedia)

A cup of coffee may have only cost a $0.05 in the 1950’s, but in the 1980’s the cost shifted to $1.00 (ignoring inflation). The current (21st century) coffee prices are based on the 1980s model, rather than the 1950s model. The point of reference moved.

In other words, the term “shifting baselines” is based on the trivial observation that statements you make about the state of system will change depending on what you reference them to. Originally applied to fish stocks, an example might be that you could have said “Since 1950, fish species A stocks (in area B etc.) have decreased by 32%” or you could have said “Since 1930, fish stocks have decreased by 36%.” Both statements are true (we are supposing), because both have different baselines.

This wouldn’t be in the least interesting, except that people like Jacquet and her advisor Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia, are worried that some are not picking environmentally-approved baselines. They are suspicious that the non-Enlightened are picking incorrect baselines so that the can downplay the decline of, say, certain fish stocks.

And they might be right. But they have an easy rejoinder to any that pick a suspicious baseline: just pick a different one and justify it. Voila! If their opponents are trying to goose the statistics disingenuously by cherry picking a baseline, they can point that out too.

None of this behavior yet qualifies as a “syndrome”, however. What makes it one—in their minds—is the idea that there is one, fixed, Platonic, pre-human baseline where the stock of fish species A, and every other plant and animal, was pure and unadulterated. By refusing to recognize this undefiled baseline, we are refusing to admit the obvious: that the world is growing worse and worse through human behavior.

We can then say that the syndrome is “the tendency for each new generation to accept a degraded environment as normal/natural.”

It is a simple biological observation, however, that through all of Earth’s history the quantity of any species has never been fixed or static. There have been the genesis of new species and the extinction of others long before humans came on the scene. And there isn’t any species on this planet that isn’t food for some other species. Life is in constant flux. All this, I imagine, Jacquet and Pauly would admit.

The period of time they are aiming at, as their shifted baseline, is the one right before people got here, say a couple of hundred thousand years ago. But even Jacquet and Pauly must admit that humans have to have some influence on the number of each species alive. Jacquet, as I gather from the picture on her web site, certainly looks healthy and well fed, so I conclude she is eating some of the other species. I presume Pauly is, too.

Thus, since humans must have some influence, and Jacquet and Pauly and the rest of us are currently influencing the environment, it becomes only a question of how much. How much is too much? How much is enough? What is permissible? What is not? And so on.

In other words, the baseline to use as a reference is a moving—or shifting—target that can only be defined by reference to the whole range of human behavior. This means, of course, the best baseline to use in any situation is a political and scientific question. Disagreements about baselines would then appear to be normal human behavior.

But Jacquet and Pauly want to medicalize these disagreements. Any that disagree with “experts”—which I suppose are people so designated by them—are not just making a mistake, they are exhibiting abnormal behavior.

In one way, of course, labeling disagreements a “syndrome” is cheering because it implies that being in the state of disagreement is not the sufferer’s fault. Some thing or somebody is responsible for leading the patient astray. This implies there is a cure, which is simple: remove the thing or body responsible for causing the dissention.

We can count ourselves lucky that they have not yet called for re-education camps or for medicating those inflicted.


  1. The good news is, if her theory becomes accpted, no one will ever be guilty of murder (or any crime) again! Those who disagree with the law and its baseline will have grounds for an insanity defense. Which works out well for those people who think the world is overpopulated and advocate mass fratracide.

    Ahh, to live in a world where no one has (or apparently deserves) personal choice and responsibility. Everything is mankind’s fault, yet nothing is criminalizable due to it being a “syndrome”.

    I’d imagine Hansen will be against this, because you can’t prosecute Big Oil for crimes against humanity if they’re inflicted with this horrible debilitating syndrome!

  2. Doesn’t the concept of a baseline imply a pretty concrete understanding of what was what at that point in time? If the level of uncertaintly around the baseline is too large, doesn’t that detract from its essential function and value?

    On another but related topic, Roger Pielke, Sr has an interesting piece on the emergence of science based governance.

  3. Wade,

    Hansen sould be all for it since the Big Oil would be the one that cause the syndrome so they would become liable to be prosecuted

    I find it truly sad that some people don’t realize that there is disagreement on almost everything that touches human life. From sexual orientation, economics, medicine, politics, etc.

  4. I was going to make a point here, but I forgot what it was. Can we please start over?

  5. Mike @ #4

    ROFLMAO! You took the words right out of my mouth 🙂

  6. If you doubt any claim made about man-made global warming, Jennifer Jacquet thinks you are a ?miscreant? and on par with those who deny that ?smoking causes cancer.?

    The etiology of cancer has never been explained. The causal mechanism of cancer is unknown. You can’t prove causality with a statistical association. I guess stating the facts makes me a miscreant.

  7. Jennifer’s reasoning is horrible but she looks good in her glam shot. I predict big things for her future.

  8. My recollection is that the Soviet Union used to ?hospitalize? its dissidents (reactionaries deemed anti-proletarian). These dissidents weren?t ?bad?, just ?mad? for even thinking counter-revolutionary thoughts. But, then the ?party line? presumably was set in stone.

    Who takes the fall today when the ?correct? base-line in climate science begins to shift? Assumptions change or disappear from one paper to the next, data goes missing by faulty archives or claim of ?privilege?, projections are adjusted, trend periods change, originally narrow error bars widen ? apparently all to keep pace with changing observations.

    I say that Jacquet and Pauly should be made to account. Which ?Little Red Book? on AGW are they reading from ? chapter and verse? After they are given the rejoinders (perhaps, in some respects, by the later words of the authors of those chapters and verses), they should then be given some lessons in history.

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