With the failure of the Lieberman-Warner global-warming bill in the Senate last Friday, I am reminded of the long and grand tradition the scientific community has had in promoting “bad science.” (It is mere coincidence that the acronym for this term is “BS.”)
While the failure of the carbon cap-and-trade legislation was largely a result of economic concerns over what it would cost the country, its proponents will no doubt return next year with claims that no price is too great to save us from planetary destruction.
But I believe that the huge cost of “doing something” substantial about global warming will inevitably cause us to reexamine the science. Just how certain are we that recent warming really has been caused by SUVs spewing carbon dioxide and cows belching methane? After all, the greater the cost of the advertised fixes, the more certain we must be that the scientific consensus really is more than just a political statement.
And why should the science of global warming be so uncertain? Mostly because it is a whole lot easier to make scientific measurements than it is to figure out what those measurements are telling us about how the natural world works. The famous humorist and writer Mark Twain once said, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
I consider the theory that global warming is caused by mankind to be just one more example of the continuing tradition scientists have of extrapolating well beyond what they think they know. In his 1883 book Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain also expressed perfectly the proclivity of scientists for turning observations of the natural world into long range predictions which were clearly outlandish.
Twain humorously extrapolated an observed change in the length of the Mississippi River forward and back in time by millions of years to demonstrate the absurdity of the conclusions one can reach when one assumes something currently observed will continue to happen at the same rate, indefinitely.
Twain famously concluded, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture from such a trifling investment of fact.”
Possibly the most prolific purveyor of failed environmental predictions is the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Beginning in the 1960s, Dr. Ehrlich embarked on a series of premonitions that included dead oceans by 1979, hundreds of thousands of smog deaths in cities, pesticide-related cancers reducing average life expectancy to 42 years by 1980, and such an abuse of pesticides that would cause other countries to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. out of fear of global poisoning.
For some strange reason, the more dire the prediction, the better chance of receiving a prestigious award for scaring the rest of humanity with it — Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize comes to mind.
Now, I am assuming that your local newspaper has already kept you sufficiently warned concerning the many different ways that you will suffer a premature death, most of which are now ultimately the result of manmade global warming. But one you might not have heard about is the recent decline in Great Lakes water levels which is (of course) also due to global warming. For instance, Lake Superior water levels in 2007 reached near-record lows.
I say “near-record” because a similar decline was observed in the early 1920s which culminated in the record low lake level of 1926. From reading media reports of the 1926 event, one can see the continuing tradition of experts to predict events that non-experts (the public) recognize to be foolish. A Duluth Herald editorial at the time gave the common sense explanation for low lake levels:
The weather bureau has issued a report on low lake levels…the Great Lakes watershed is in a cycle of light precipitation…levels will come back when…the dry cycle is succeeded by a wet one. There have been dry cycles before….and for every dry cycle there has been a wet one to follow…
But the “experts” had a very different take on the issue, as reported in the May 27, 1926 issue of Daily Mining Journal:
Ultimate extinction of the American side of the falls at Niagara is mathematically certain unless water levels in the Great Lakes are raised.
I have a difficult time reading that statement without laughing. But I suspect it wasn’t meant to be a joke.
The silliness of such statements isn’t a failure of the scientific method, but a reflection of the fact that scientists are — believe it or not — human. I have personally heard scientists in leadership positions express the opinion that we need to stop producing carbon dioxide, no matter what the science says. These are the anointed ones who keep us informed on the “scientific consensus” on global warming, and who proclaim that “the debate is over.”
While the global-warming debate will probably slow down for some number of months, it will likely return with a vengeance sometime after the fall elections. This is, of course, unless our eight-year stretch of no warming continues. Since January of 2006 when Al Gore announced we have only ten years left to save ourselves, the globally averaged satellite measured temperature of the lower atmosphere has fallen by one degree Farenheit. Last month was the fifth-coolest month in the 30-year satellite record.
If global warming doesn’t get its act together pretty soon, there will be a lot of scientists (and more than a few politicians) who will look pretty foolish — but only to those who remember the foolish predictions. Since we still remember a few scientists in the 1970s who were announcing the arrival of a new ice age, I am hopeful that we will also be reminded of the catastrophic warming forecasts when they also fail.
But by then we will have moved on to new kinds of environmental catastrophes to predict and wring our hands over. After all, we scientists are human, too, and we must preserve our traditions.
– Dr. Roy W. Spencer is a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He is author of the new book, Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians, and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor.