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Author: Briggs

January 12, 2008 | 6 Comments

Climatologists are nice people

Most warm weekends, you can find me in Central Park by the Tavern on the Green playing the beautiful game of petanque. This is the French version of bocci, only unlike the Italian game, which uses effeminate wooden balls, we use manly balls of steel.

The game goes like this: each team takes turns throwing 800g balls six to ten meters towards a small colored ball, called the cochonette. The goal is to get as close to the cochonette as possible. When each team has thrown their six balls, we walk up to the cochonette and try to see which team’s balls is closer. Often, of course, it’s a narrow call whether my ball or my opponent’s ball is nearest.

Now, I have stood over the cochonette literally thousands of times—it helps to understand that I have perfect vision and have never needed glasses—and in a large fraction of those times I would have sworn, on my soul, that my ball was the closer of the two. Sometimes, of course, it is, but if you know me as a player, you know that is a rarity. Usually, my ball is the furthest, but it is often manifest, I pledge on my honor, that mine is best! Not only does my ball appear closer, but it is so obviously closer, that I cannot for the life of me see why there is an argument from my opponent.

But there is invariably a dispute, so out comes the stick, usually a telescoping radio antenna stripped from its base. Somebody bends down and measures the distance between all the balls and the cochonette. Once the objective results are in, there are usually groans from one side and calls of “It was obvious” from the other.

Psychologists are well familiar with this phenomena; in science it is called the experimenter effect. It describes what happens when an honest scientist carries out an experiment in the absolutely fairest way possible, looks at the results, and sees exactly what he expected to see, only to find that, later, other scientists have shown his result to be a statistical artifact or due to a forgotten, unaccounted variable. This is why, for example, double-blind trials in medicine are required, else the doctors would always find that the “active” pill beats the placebo.

You must understand that our scientist is a nice person, is kind to small animals, pays his taxes, and votes the proper way. He, with the best, and most honest, intentions carries out his experiments in the most meticulous manner he knows how. He is unbiased and exceptionally bright and in no way delusional or politically motivated. Only, it turns out, he is far too confident in his results. This is no dig against our scientist: most people in most things are overconfident; this is another thing that psychologists well understand.

It is true that greater than 99% of all climatologists are like our scientist, forthright, incredibly bright, and diligent. Too many “climate skeptics” have accused climate researchers as being driven by politics or by money (in the form of grants), and so seek to disregard results from these scientists on that account. But this is no different than the “green activist” denigrating findings from scientists whose research was funded by private companies. All results have to be analyzed on their own merit.

Climatologists are, I believe, too confident in their results: if there is any political temptation here, it is towards the tendency to make public statements that convey more certainty than research warrants; but there is no attempt to mislead. Without question, “activists” are annoyingly precise in their pronouncements, and since theirs is a political life, there is no temptation to which they will not give in. But many skeptics, too, could use a dose of humility. To say, for example, that “global warming is a hoax” is carrying constructive criticism too far.

I appreciate those folks who pay me the compliment of including my entire posts on their web sites, but please ask permission before you do so.
January 11, 2008 | No comments

Reality overtakes satire once more: a legal joke goes by the board

You’ve heard the joke about the boy on trial for killing his parents using the argument that the judge should be lenient because he was, after all, an orphan?

Well, that’s another joke no longer available to us. Because Joshua Nowtang of the Bronx chopped up his wife and fed her to the trout in a stream behind his house. He’s asking the judge for leniency because, quote, “I miss my wife, and I am going through the same pain and suffering” as her family. Full story: New York Daily News.

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The Lancet’s poorly choosen statistics

The Wall Street Journal opinion page has an article about a “study” appearing in the prestigious journal Lancet that purports to estimate the number of deaths in the Iraqi war. It turns out that the statistics were “funded by anti-Bush partisans and conducted by antiwar activists posing as objective researchers” and that the paper’s estimated “death toll was more than 10 times what had been estimated by the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and even by human rights groups.”

The Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton, rushed the paper into print, and was quoted as saying, “This axis of Anglo-American imperialism extends its influence through war and conflict, gathering power and wealth as it goes, so millions of people are left to die in poverty and disease.” The study’s authors have also “failed to follow the customary scientific practice of making [their] data available for inspection by other researchers.”

Peer-reviewed research that is subservient to political ideology? Is it even possible?

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Greenpeace is shocked–shocked–to discover lobbying going on

There is a belief among certain paranormal researchers—these are the guys who study mind reading, clairvoyance, etc.—that is used to explain why psychic experiments haven’t seen positive results. It is called the sheep-goat theory.

Those gifted with psychic powers, such as the ability to bend kitchen cutlery without using muscles, are sheep. Those who disbelieve in these powers are goats. It seems that, via a mysterious mechanism, the goats are able to emit evil, anti-psychic rays that interfere with the sheep’s positive-psychic vibrations, and so cause negative results, i.e. findings of no effect (more about this here). The goats do this both intentionally and unconsciously. If it weren’t for the goats, the belief goes, psychics would be manifesting multiple miracles and the world would be a better, more enlightened place.

Greenpeace, and other “activist” groups, believe something like the same thing is happening among Washington lobbyists. Activists are, of course, the sheep. Oil company-funded lobbyists are the goats, and it is these goats who have thus far prevented politicians from implementing a host of laws to modify our behavior, have stopped a large segment of the world’s population from deeply caring, and, worst of all, have corrupted and forced some scientists to publish research contradictory to the consensus.

The editors at Climate Resistance have written an interesting article about the “Well funded ‘Well-funded-Denial-Machine’ Denial Machine”, which details Greenpeace’s chagrin on finding that other organizations are lobbying as vigorously as they are, and that these counter-lobbyists actually have funding! For example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank “advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government”, got, Greenpeace claims, about 2 million dollars from Exxon Mobil from 1998 to 2005. The CEI has used some of this money to argue that punitive greenhouse laws aren’t needed. Greenpeace sees this oil money as ill-gotten and say that it taints all that touch it. But Greenpeace fails to point out that, over the same period, they got about 2 billion dollars! (Was any of that from Exxon, Greenpeace?)

So even though Greenpeace got 1000 times more than the CEI got, it helped CEI to effectively stop enlightenment and “was enough to stall worldwide action on climate change.” These “goats” have power!

Greenpeace’s caterwauling is just silly, of course. What is pernicious, and what gets my goat, are comments like those of James Wang of Environmental Defense, who says that scientists who publish results against the consensus are “mostly in the pocket of oil companies”; and those of the, yes, United Kingdom’s Royal Society that say that there “are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC” (bottom of p. 3).

Forget that it is often pointed out that it is a logical fallacy that, just because a group funds a study, it follows that the results from that study are false; forget, too, the implication that oil companies are evil because they are oil companies, and instead concentrate on the psychology behind these statements. There is a desire that lies beneath them to believe that the results from non-consensus studies must be false, and so must have been produced by nefarious means. Therefore, these studies can be ignored and dispersions can be heaped upon their authors.

My friends, academic science cannot be conducted toward a pre-defined conclusion. We have already lost many of our humanities departments to this philosophy. Do not let it also happen to the quantitative sciences, and try to keep an open mind. The best test for an open mind is this question, which I always ask of my acquaintances who follow the paranormal, “What evidence would convince you that what you believe is false?” If you find you have no answer, your mind is closed.
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