Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A lesson in denial: Rick Cantor videos, global warming deniers, and how to say something without saying anything

Check out this video from House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA):

To counter President Obama’s statement that health care reform will not “require” anyone to change the insurance they have, the video points to sections of the bill that contradict Obama’s statement repeats the word “require” over and over again:

But for legislation that lets you “keep what you have,” one word seems to stand out: Require. 84 times. The Democrats’ health care bill “requires” a lot from Americans who have been promised they can “keep what they have.”

Note that nowhere in the video does anyone actually refute what President Obama says. Cantor never explicitly says that health care reform will require you to leave your private insurance plan and sign up for a government option. But he does insinuate it by asking questions. Nevermind that George W. Bush’s $1.2 trillion Medicare Prescription Drug and Modernization Act of 2003 (which Cantor voted for) uses a variant of the word “require” 533 times.

This is a time-honored strategy of political rhetoric. Ask questions, make insinuations, repeat the same falsehoods over and over, without ever saying anything of substance – it creates doubt in the public’s mind, while still allowing you to deny charges of “lying.” If someone points out that nowhere does the health care reform bill “require” you to drop your current insurance plan, Cantor can plausibly maintain, “I never said that it would,” while still convincing a sizeable portion of the public otherwise.

This is the preferred tactic not just of health insurance industry shills (like Cantor), but also of global warming deniers (like Cantor).

Case in point: the past week’s “blog science” war over tree rings. For most of you, this will be an introduction to the global warming “denialsphere” and a lesson in political deception. For some, it’s a layman’s explanation of old news.

Here’s the story. Several studies have produced hockey stick-shaped graphs showing relatively steady global temperatures for 2,000 years, followed by a sharp uptick since the Industrial Revolution. Then, along came a non-scientist named Stephen McIntyre, whose discovery of a supposed flaw in one of these studies has led global warming deniers to use it as a straw man for discrediting all the others. The flaw was corrected, the shape of the graph didn’t fundamentally change, but that didn’t stop deniers from repeating their claims. For people who can only think in binaries, there’s no difference between “minor error” and “completely wrong.”

Now, McIntyre is back at the hockey stick, claiming that the tree ring proxies its authors used to estimate past temperatures were flawed. What do I mean by “proxy?” Well, for the past 150 or so years, we’ve been able to directly measure global temperatures with thermometers and other instruments, so we know what temperatures were. But further back than that, we don’t have reliable instrumental records, so we need to use “proxies” such as ice cores or tree rings to estimate what temperatures were. (A tree’s growth rings are thicker in warmer years and thinner during cooler years.)

One of these tree ring studies was by a scientist named Briffa, based on a series of trees from the remote Yamal Peninsula in Russia. McIntyre, a former executive in the oil and gas industry, decided to examine the Yamal tree ring record to see if he could spot any flaws. To seriously undermine the credibility of the hockey stick, McIntyre would logically have to show three things: #1, that the original dataset of tree rings does not accurately reflect past temperatures; #2, that an alternative dataset shows temperatures today to be not significantly different from past conditions; and #3, that the alternative dataset is, in fact, superior to the original. Could he do it?

On point #1, McIntyre offers little substance. He notes the “implausibly low” sample size, and then proceeds to ask a series of questions:

What was the basis for including the Avam site with Taimyr and not other sites in the area? What was the basis for including the Schweingruber Balschaya Kamenka with the Taimyr site and why wasn't its inclusion mentioned in Briffa et al 2008? Why was Balschaya Kamenka included, but not Schweingruber's Aykali River, Novaja Rieja, or Kotuyka River? Why was Balschaya Kamenka included with Taimyr, while Schweingruber's Khadyta River, Yamal wasn't included with Yamal? And what effect did all these changes have on the resulting chronologies?

What he doesn’t do is offer any evidence of flaws in the actual data. What he does do is ask a bunch of questions to create the impression that we should doubt Briffa’s tree rings, without ever actually stating that there’s anything wrong with them. Like Eric Cantor, McIntyre is not a scientist. Like Cantor, he is good at the questioning technique. And like Cantor, he doesn’t actually say anything.

What about alternative datasets? If McIntyre can’t directly prove the hockey stick data wrong, maybe he can find a different set of tree rings that show different temperatures (point #2). And if he does, maybe he can explain why that dataset is superior (point #3). McIntyre does indeed find another set of tree rings, and when he substitutes them for Briffa’s, they do indeed produce a different result. McIntyre claims victory, insinuating that Briffa (who was ill with kidney disease at the time of the post) had intentionally and “disquietingly” cherry-picked tree rings to support his pre-existing conclusions. Here’s McIntyre’s graph:

Now I’m not a scientist (neither is McIntyre), but I do understand basic logic, and there’s an obvious problem with McIntyre’s graph. Notice that McIntyre’s data (the black line) is consistent with the original hockey stick (the red line), only diverging from the mid-20th Century on – precisely the years for which we have actual instrumental temperature records, and therefore don’t need to use proxies to estimate temperatures (check here for a zoomed-in look at the graph). Since the tree rings McIntyre used don’t match the actual temperatures recorded by thermometers, the appropriate conclusion is not that the hockey stick is wrong, but rather that McIntyre’s tree rings are not good proxies for temperatures. Logically, for a set of tree rings to prove the hockey stick wrong, they have to show higher temperatures in the past, not lower ones in the present, because the latter cannot, by definition, be used as temperature proxies. Poor Steve will just have to keep looking.

So we’re back where we started: McIntyre can show nothing wrong with the original data, and we know we can’t use his alternative dataset. Far from undermining the hockey stick, McIntyre’s claim actually reinforces it by proving that Briffa chose the most accurate set of tree rings. Even if McIntyre were right, there are countless other studies which show a hockey stick-shaped rise in temperatures; proving one wrong has no impact on global warming science.

What’s clear is that McIntyre and his ilk aren’t interested in actual debate over evidence, or even in proving global warming false – the strategy is simply to sow doubt. Tactic #1 is to set up straw men and tear them down, and claim that all climate science is similarly flawed; when even their attacks on straw men are proven false, continue to repeat them. Tactic #2 is to ask vague questions to create an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion; when those questions are in fact answered, continue to assert that the questions were never answered to make it look like scientists are hiding something. And when people get tired of repeatedly answering debunked claims, cry foul and proclaim your views are being suppressed.

And the media, the bastion of “fair and balanced” reporting, is all too happy to give McIntyre and his ilk a forum for voicing their delusions. A Daily Telegraph blog asserts that the “global warming industry is based on one MASSIVE lie.” (There’s a global warming “industry?”) Even the New York Times airs McIntyre’s grievances. Journalists, after all, are typically trained in journalism, not the underlying disciplines which they cover; the mechanism that should filter the trash from the truth doesn’t have the training to do so. And our democratic ideals of free speech and tolerance create an atmosphere where being “reasonable” requires giving all sides, no matter how demonstrably false, a fair share of the air.

The problem is, being reasonable is not the same as being right. Everyone has the right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. At some point, we don’t need to give geo-centrists a counterpoint page. At some point, once the Truth is clear, stubborn skeptics should stop talking.


(I’ll be including these in future global warming posts to summarize what can otherwise be a complicated and mathematical debate)

  1. McIntyre never showed anything explicitly wrong with tree ring data that supports the “hockey stick.” He used a deceptive “questioning technique” to create the illusion of malfeasance, but offered no actual evidence.

  1. The tree ring dataset McIntyre uses to create his critique of the hockey stick is bad data, since it can’t reproduce actual temperature measurements of the last 150 years.

  1. Arguments against the “hockey stick” are straw men. There are several independent hockey stick graphs, so pointing out minor flaws in one doesn’t negate the others.


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  1. WAG,
    I think the divergence is really only in the late 20th century, except that that's hard to see with a millennium of data compressed like that. In the latest version of my post on tree-rings, I show McIntyre's chart and compare it to Delayed Oscillator's "zoom in".

    I'd put in the links, but cut-and-paste appears to be disabled. Is that a default on blogspot?

    Also, McIntyre is usually described as a "mining consultant" or "penny stock promoter". Apparently, he was also listed as "strategic adviser" in CGX Energy annual reports from 2000-2003. CGX Energy is an oil and gas exploration company focused in Surinam (according toSourceWatch.org).

  2. One last thing: the term "cherrypicking" implies intention. So there is no such thing as "unintentional" cherrypicking. In the context of a scientific study, an accusation of cherrypicking is tantamount to one of scientific misconduct. McIntyre doesn't seem to understand that he crossed the line from implicit to explict accusations of malfeasance. But he did.

  3. Deep Climate -

    Thanks for the help, I appreciate you taking time to write that up. I've updated the post to reflect the point about the 20th century. I'm new to blogging, so I'll see what I can do about cut-and-paste for links.

    Also, I agree on your cherry picking point.

  4. Yeah, he's usually pretty good about keeping his regular accusations of scientific misconduct implicit. Not sure how he slipped up with this one!