William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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.


  1. The global warming loons will continue braying their hyped nonsense right through the coming cooling period which, according to some scientists has already begun. It is worthy to note that there has been NO increase in average global temperatures in about 8 years.


  2. Not only has there been no increase in average temperature, in many countries, this is the coldest, most snowy winter in 50 or more years. Global temperatures are CYCLICAL! Increasing CO2 from .34% to .38% isn’t a global catastrophe that requires massive taxes and socialist state control of everything.

  3. William, since you have said my comments at another blog brought up this subject, I think I might clarify what I mean. I don’t necessarily think non-specialists can’t criticize climatology, but I do think some kind of background is necessary to understand, much less criticize the scientific details of a climatology analysis. Since you are a statistician, it is clearly just peachy for you to criticize a statistical analysis of climate. In fact, I imagine a lot of scientists in a lot of fields would benefit from a better understanding of statistics. A mathematician or perhaps computer scientist could surely criticize the specifics of a computer model, should he be fortunate enough to actually see the code. A chemist could criticize the included chemistry in a climate prediction. But far too much “criticism” comes from ignorance, and that includes from engineers (especially) and scientists in other fields who have little or no knowledge of the science of climatology. It is they, actually, who appeal to authority when they cite their degrees in fields other than climatology, as if that qualified them to understand the complex science in a field about which they know nothing. Not to mention the layman, who probably understands little about science of any sort. Or the pure idiots who claim more than their share of air time.

    The fact that hundreds of climatologists have arrived at much the same conclusion does not make that conclusion right. But, as I have said, the safe bet is that they are onto something.

    In the meantime, I leave it to you to decide how constructive your criticisms are. I don’t know who your audience is for this blog, but I hope the two previous comments are not indicative.

  4. “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one!” Charles Mackay

  5. Note the numbers quoted by Malova. For the journalists out there…the CO2 concentration is 3/10 of 1 a%. If even a first year physics major looks at the absorption curve for CO2, one will find that there are only a very few narrow spectral areas in which energy is absorbed. CO2 ain’t driving anything folks. Further, the greatest absorber of heat energy in the atmosphere is called water. I could go on for pages, suffice to say that it appears that a good majority of the “climate scientists” were the C students in physics who couldn’t handle the math of Lie groups and string theory.

  6. Just found my own goof…methinks the true concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is three ONE HUNDREDTHS of one percent…not three tenths. Could be wrong…but methinks I’m correct. So those little molecules are doin’ a whole lotta absorbin’.

  7. Administrator

    January 31, 2008 at 8:44 am


    Thanks for coming over and commenting; I appreciate it. In fact, of course, I agree with you most of the way: far too much commentary from the “skeptic’s wing” is ill-informed—just as it is from the “activist” wing (or perhaps we can call it the “sympathetic quarter”).

    It is just that you never hear pro-IPCC climate scientists hushing the activist wing, though you do hear them, and hear them often, saying “be quiet” to the skeptics.

    Ill-informed commentary will arise from all quarters. If arguments from non-scientists are proven worthless, then they are also harmless and can be ignored. It just does not follow that because someone, activist or skeptic, has no background in any science, that the arguments they posit are wrong or misguided.

    It also should not be the case that scientists, such as yourself, should only say “keep quiet” only to skeptics. But if you are willing to also say “go read a book” or “Stop praising IPCC climatologists!” to sympathetic activists and journalists, then you will at least be consistent.


  8. As a person who is not a scientist or an engineer or a statistician, I agree that there are many fine points in the AGW debate that I do not understand and do not feel competant to assess. For example, the “hockey stick” debate and the criticisms of princple components analysis inovled therein is too complex for me to form a meaningful opinion.
    On the other hand, I think it is wrong to argue that well-informed layman cannot assess the basic issues and controversies in the AGW debate and form a reasonable opinion of the state of the science. For what it is worth, here is my layman’s take on the debate: 1) the earth is probably warming; 2) CO2 emissions are probably contributing to the warming trend; 3) how much of the warming can be attributed to CO2 and how much future climate will be effected by increased CO2 emissions remain questions that are subject to great uncertainty. This uncertainty arises because the answers depend currently on compter Global Climate Model’s that have not been adequately verified and that necessarily incorporate assumptions about many aspects of the climate system that are poorly understood.

  9. I recently published a paper in Energy & Environment that reconstructed past climates. Because some people did not like my answer, the blogosphere was full of accusations that I was a) incompetent and b) a shill for industry. This is pretty funny because I have more publications (108) than many or most of the accusers and because my employer has given me no instructions at all about what result they would like to see.

  10. “The final approved list must actually be very small.”

    The trouble with a small list is that leaves little room for independent verification.

    Mark P. People often lose sight of the basics. There is room for legitimate complaints from lay persons like myself. The media sugesting that 12,000 year old ice shoudl not be calving is misleading. Those who don’t understand that glaciers are ‘rivers of ice’ think that the 12,000 year ice should not be calving into the ocean. I think the journalists may have misunderstood the scientist in this matter and reported incorrectly. People like myself should be allowed to counteract such nonsense. When people like Mann tout tree ring data as being a valid temperature proxy, others should point out that he missed the affect of available water without which the trees would not grow.

    If the facts that lay people spew are wrong, then call them on it. If scientists or journalists similarly spew incorrect facts, they should be called on that as well.

    I find it intersting that you mentioned statistics, but you did not note that AGW articles do not include statistics. The journalists use words like may, or could without giving the associated probability.

    John M Reynolds

  11. A case in point.

    Today’s Irish Times. A prominant article written by an academic whose has a Chair in “Public Awareness of Science” . Presumably it is his job to communicate clearly scientific thought.

    Here are some excerts from his article today entitled:

    “Polar bear facing extinction due to warming waters of the Arctic”
    Some of the gems include “Polar bears are at high risk of extinction” and “climatologists and zoologists predict that polar bear populations will fall by two thirds by the middle of this century”.

    I protest that anyone (zoologist or climatogolist) would deny me the right to question such obviously overeaching statements.

  12. I find this quote by Freeman Dyson to be relevant to this discussion. Freeman Dyson states:
    “My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models. ”
    I think that it is important that climate scientists be able to explain their findings in a way that is convincing to disinterested experts in related fields who have the technical background to follow their arguments. Although Freeman Dyson is not a climate scientist, he certainly has the technical background to understand climate science and he says he has investigated its claims. To me, it is a red-flag when someone with the stature of Mr. Dyson expresses skepticism of this nature. The fact that he is an outsider in my view is good because he is less susceptible to the type of “group think” that can influence experts in a field. If the science is so settled and the evidence is so convincing, why can’t someone in the field pull Mr. Dyson aside and explain to him where he is off base.
    For what it is worth, as a layman Mr. Dyson’s comments ring true to me. I understand the theory of greenhouse gases should warm the climate and probably have. But unless I am missing something, it seems to me that the arguments for catastrophic global warming depend entirely on the computer global climate models. And from everything I read, including a careful reading IPCC reports, there is great uncertainty as to the reliability of these models.
    The aspects of the AGW theory that are settled do not necessarily lead one to any alarming conclusions. It is the unsettled science that one must rely upon to make alarmist claims.

  13. Administrator

    January 31, 2008 at 12:42 pm


    Craig Loehl has kindly provided a link to his paper on reconstructing temperatures. It can be found at:

    Craig also makes the valuable point that “when you submit a paper for publication the journals and reviewers do not ask for proof that you have the right expertise or even a Ph.D….which is as it should be. The value of your work lies in the work itself.”

    Actually, that’s true in most of the hard sciences. But my experience with medicine shows me they love a good Appeal to Authority.


  14. For those interested, there is extensive discussions of Craig Loehle’s paper over at Climateaudit.org. I thought the discussion there was very constructive and helpful for placing Mr. Loehle’s findings in perspective. There were positive comments, along with some rather sharp criticisms. Mr. Loehle has responded in a positive way to the criticisms and has provided additional analysis to address them.

  15. The fact that hundreds of climatologists have better job prospects and better access to grant money because they “agree to agree” on the GCM based CO2 hypothesis, should also tell you something.

    Some of them even won the Nobel Prize along with Al Gore.

    Whether catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is real or not, you cannot deny that IT WORKS!!!

    It brings home the bacon, unlike the heresy, which gets one equated to holocaust deniers, gets one fired from his job, eliminates the possibility of tenure and publication, and makes one feel all alone, watching from a distance, as the masses run off the cliff.

  16. To quote Bob Dylan. “It don’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

  17. Want to see the above essays premise in action? Check out RC latest blog piece and it’s comments. Depressing!

  18. Administrator

    January 31, 2008 at 6:38 pm


    Could you provide a link for us?



  19. Link to Real Climate


    I wrote them a “note”. They didn’t post it. It was a little caustic, but contained no foul language.

  20. 1. I have faced the “credential” argument in numerous internet debates about AGW. In my experience, the pro-AGW folks tend to trot it out when they are losing the debate on the merits. While the credentials behind an argument are interesting, they shouldn’t be the primary reason to accept or reject it.

    2. The pro-AGW crowd is attempting to influence public policy. So arguably, they’ve opened the door to lay opinions and arguments.

    3. In my humble opinion, non-scientists do have something to offer in this debate. Personally, I have worked as an attorney for many years. As part of my job, people lie to me all day long and I have a lot of experience dealing with BS. The catastrophic global warming theory has all the red flags of a scam.

  21. Robert Wilkinson

    February 1, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    OK, he’s by the body… holding the knife, covered in blood and he told everyone earlier “I’m a gonna to keelll eem”.
    Are you going to sit there and discuss who killed him and whether or not only a criminal forensic scientist is allowed an opinion?
    But here’s my tuppennys worth…
    AGW is a political and media myth. The best people who are qualified to speak on the subject are thus journalists! as science doesn’t come into it.

  22. “Not to mention the layman, who probably understands little about science of any sort.” Seems to sum up the article perfectly. It would be interesting to know when, in society, the word intelligence was replaced with the word education.

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