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Should the public trust climatologists in the global warming debate?

melian          30 October 2015 06:52 AM


In complex questions deferring to the opinion of experts is often the only sensible course of action. However, in the case of the global warming controversy, a couple of factors make trusting the climatologists problematic:

I) Climatologists who work for government agencies (that is, nearly all of them) face a strong pressure to conform to the consensus opinion. In addition to the public opprobrium, expressing contrarian positions can put at risk their job, research funding and academic reputation. By contrast, there are almost no negative consequences for exaggerating the case for global warming. Unlike, for example, doctors who risk prosecution for misdiagnosing their patients, there were no penalties for climatologists whose models turned out to grossly overestimate the expected rise in temperatures.

II) So far, there is no evidence that climate models can predict weather changes over long term periods.

The opinions of dissident climatologists who do not work for the government are similarly unreliable (since they also need to make a living, most simply end up working for organizations with the opposite agenda).

So what is the correct way for a non-climatologist to form an opinion on the GW issue?



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Alice 30 October 2015 06:47 PM
74%

I can totally imagine a scenario where there is much more incentive to publish papers supporting the theory, and whoever does not support it gets ostracized by the academic community. We have seen many examples of this kind of thing happen, for example in medicine (when for many years the accepted hypothesis was that it is fat that contributes to obesity, and people who suggested it could be simple carbs where ridiculed and their research was shunned). There are many other examples. Various medical guidances tend to completely change every once in awhile. So this kind of phenomenon definitely exists in some sciences.

That said, common sense tells me that pollution is bad regardless of whether or not it causes global warming, and I'd like to see it taken under control.


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melian 31 October 2015 05:42 AM
75%

That said, common sense tells me that pollution is bad regardless of whether or not it causes global warming, and I'd like to see it taken under control.

This is generally correct but CO2 emission may conceivably be an exception. Increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere is supposed to stimulate growth of vegetation and assuming there are no other significant effects (such as GW), moderate increases in CO2 levels might be a plus.


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is4junk 31 October 2015 05:19 PM
66%

I too have the same question as melian. Would CO2 be considered pollution if it doesn't cause global warming? Would visible light pollution be in the same category - ('common sense tells me that pollution is bad')? How about radio spectrum pollution?

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Alice 1 November 2015 11:13 AM
76%

I have no idea. I would be apprehensive about major changes to the Earth's atmosphere over relatively short time period, because sometimes we only find out things are harmful much later, after harm has been done (I remember that Marie Curie has been carrying radioactive material around in her pockets, for example). I think we don't really know the answers to these questions. I'd rather err on the side of caution.

I would prefer to see real research into this though, where opinions and evidence from all sides is taken seriously.

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wolverine 30 October 2015 11:05 PM
68%

Another factor creating bias: the more it is believed that global warming is a dire threat, climatologists acheive greater importance.

Generally, I will still defer to the consensus expert opinion, but be aware that the biases all seem to push in the direction of overstating the threat.


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melian 31 October 2015 05:52 AM
75%

Suppose that based on climatologists’ advice, a politician proposes to spend X billion dollars of public money on the anti-GW policy. How would you decide whether this expense is justified?

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yaacov 31 October 2015 12:34 PM
68%

Climate models are pretty sketchy. That said, we know as a fact that the fastest temperature increases on record are correlated with human production of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, and that alone should motivate action.


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melian 1 November 2015 06:54 AM
77%

What if the cost of action exceeds the likely damage from the GW?


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VoiceOfRa 1 November 2015 07:45 AM
62%


That said, we know as a fact that the fastest temperature increases on record are correlated with human production of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide,


So what you're saying is that there was a ton of human produced carbon dioxide during the early middle ages coinciding with the start of the medieval warm period?


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is4junk 31 October 2015 05:46 PM
66%


So what is the correct way for a non-climatologist to form an opinion on the GW issue?

I'd recommend considering that it is not science. In the same sense that you wouldn't think of political science as science.
For example, if polysci professors were convinced that a 0.5% increase in say "democratic anarchists" would increase say "income inequality" by 3% over the next few decades - you probably wouldn't take them too seriously. How could the model be so refined? Do they really have enough examples to model something with so many parameters?

Note: democratic anarchist and income inequality were selected just for the example. I don't think there is any connection.


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DanielLC 2 November 2015 02:12 PM
63%

How about economics? I'd consider that in the same boat, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see someone throwing around precise numbers like that.

I guess it's just a result of having precise models. As long as you have the numbers, you might as well throw them around, regardless of how approximate and misleading they are.

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is4junk 2 November 2015 05:25 PM
69%

Economics hasn't made a good name for itself either. It has been called the "dismal science" and there is the famous analogy question - astrology is to astronomy as economics is to blank?

Seriously, the question being asked is more important when trying to determine if it is actually science. Do they have enough examples to make a model with X number of parameters. If the question was: assuming the sun became a red giant would the earth experience significant warming - I'd accept answers with zero examples but I'd also expect that the model had only a few relevant parameters.

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FrameBenignly 30 October 2015 01:29 PM
62%

Without objective evidence of positive or negative bias being stronger one way or the other, you should expect these biases to cancel each other out except for increased sensitivity. That is to say you will need to read more sources to get a clear picture than you would if everyone was being objective, but you should still expect the average source to be accurate adjusting for source quality. But I wouldn't worry about it. Take a look at the policymakers summary from IPCC; specifically page 19. They're estimating only weak impacts to the economy currently unless you live in a mostly coastal country.

IPCC AR5 summary


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melian 30 October 2015 01:54 PM
70%

The opposite biases might cancel each other if they were affecting the same group of people. However, if you have two groups with the opposite biases and neither group has much to lose from distorting the facts, then there is no reason to expect that the average source would be accurate.

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yaacov 31 October 2015 12:38 PM
65%

Weak impacts for an increase of ~2 degrees Celsius. But there's a significant risk that, without government action, it'll end up being much hotter than that.

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