Poor Argumentation at The Nation


Steven points out in his recent post that Alexander Cockburn has written an article of full-throated global warming skepticism. It is pretty amusing to see this, and minds over at The Nation will surely be more open to being opened by this article than by any Planet-dweller.


Unfortunately, it’s full of the worst kind of crackpot arguments of the “those dimwit scientists can’t manage to see the forest for the trees the way that a genius such as I can” type.


This is typical:


“…imagine two lines on a piece of graph paper. The first rises to a crest, then slopes sharply down, levels off and rises slowly once more. The other has no undulations. It rises in a smooth, slow arc. The first, wavy line is the worldwide CO2 tonnage produced by humans burning coal, oil and natural gas. It starts in 1928, at 1.1 gigatons (i.e., 1.1 billion metric tons), and peaks in 1929 at 1.17 gigatons. The world, led by its mightiest power, plummets into the Great Depression and by 1932 human CO2 production has fallen to 0.88 gigatons a year, a 30 percent drop. Then, in 1933, the line climbs slowly again, up to 0.9 gigatons.

And the other line, the one ascending so evenly? That’s the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, parts per million (ppm) by volume, moving in 1928 from just under 306, hitting 306 in 1929, 307 in 1932 and on up. Boom and bust, the line heads up steadily. These days it’s at 380. The two lines on that graph proclaim that a whopping 30 percent cut in man-made CO2 emissions didn’t even cause a 1 ppm drop in the atmosphere’s CO2. It is thus impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from people burning fossil fuels.”

Amazingly, scientists have been aware of this data since approximately the date that they collected it.

As an analogy, consider a chart that I put together from FBI and Census statistics. Let me see if I can describe and analyze this in Cockburnian terms. One line, Unwed Birthrate, rises rapidly from 1950 through about 1990 whereupon it plateaus. The other, Homicide Rate, increases rapidly from 1950 until about 1990 whereupon it rapidly decreases. It is thus impossible to assert that the increase in homicide rate stems from people having children out of wedlock.

Well, everyone has surely seen multiple fallacies in this argument. The social environment is complex, and many causal factors interact all the time. For example, there was a change in policing practices in the 1990s which may have accounted for the reduction in murder rate. The illegitimacy rate is one factor that drives crime, but there are others, there are probably significant lags between changes in birthrates and subsequent impacts on crime and so forth.

Analysis of climate is very much like this. It is extraordinarily difficult to isolate factors, because the system is so complex and interrelated and there is no mirror Earth to act as an experimental control (see my post on this topic).

This Cockburn argument is the kind of ‘gotcha’ that upon inspection always turns out to be an indication of inadequate research on the part of the author. I’ve never looked to Alexander Cockburn for guidance in other matters, and when you actually read his article, you can see that his tin-foil hat is still firmly in place.


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