Thursday, February 17, 2011

Misinforming About Global Warming

This morning, I was planning on posting a pleasant article describing Watson’s dominance on Jeopardy! (for those of you that missed it, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter had a two-day total of around $20,000 apiece, whereas Watson surpassed $77,000).  However, my mood is less than pleasant, and there is something I need to get off of my chest.  I don’t get angry very often, but yesterday morning I was fuming.

On February 16, 2011, a local radio morning show featured a con-artist posing as a scientist.  Larry Bell, a man with no expertise in climate science, was pedalling his book, which claims that global warming is a hoax.  It is not illegal to deliberately misinform the public, but if it were, Bell would be behind bars.

I firmly believe that those who mislead the public intentionally should be made accountable for their actions.  People like this Larry character move the world several steps backwards.  Scientists, rather than focusing on the science, must spend their time correcting the cranks, like damage control.  It is like when a teacher must focus his efforts disciplining a student rather than teaching content.  Bell is an adult, who should not need a parent to hold his hand.  At the very least, Bell should not be allowed to publish anything in the future.  I believe in free speech, but my disdain for propaganda trumps it.

As you can clearly see, I am less than pleased with Mr. Bell, a Professor at the University of Houston.  Yes, you read that correctly: this man teaches students – what could be more dangerous than a crook with an audience?  He wrote a book about global warming.  Does this make any sense, considering that the man is a Professor of Architecture?

The global warming issue is a complex one for an actual scientist to explain clearly, let alone someone with no appropriate science background.  I will not address the global warming issue at this time in detail.  Suffice it to say that man has managed to have a macroscopic effect on the Earth’s biosphere, and we must continue to assess our effects carefully, and seek a sustainable way forward responsibly.  If you want to read a science-based attack on Larry Bell’s false climate claims, this article on RealClimate will do the trick.

Let me instead focus on the more general problem with scientific quackery.  It is a common misconception that if something is printed or spoken, it is true.  Publishing companies, as well as media outlets, want to make money.  Dollars are more important to some content providers than accurate content.  Of course, if a provider of information pumped out false content on a regular basis, its educated readers would stop seeking content there.  These irresponsible providers are giddily aware, however, that many readers are not educated enough to notice the difference between truth and fiction.

The realm of science is filled with posers.  The question I want to address is: How can we spot the posers?

The first thing to check is the credentials of the author or speaker.  Should you trust a fortune teller to predict how a vibrating string will oscillate as a function of time?  I think a dynamics expert might be more suited.  Is the latest health fad being pedalled by a medical doctor or a chiropractor who read ABCs of the human body?  Those years of study at institutions are necessary not only for becoming an expert on a subject, but also for communicating that expertise effectively.  There are occasions when a reliable source has put in the research and work but has no academic background, though it is not typical.

Bell, the Architect, can tell you how to build a home that looks attractive and that will hopefully not fall down.  He should not be entrusted to predict the future of our planet.

Unfortunately, some posers have great credentials.  Some of the worst offenders of purposefully misleading of the public are very well educated individuals.  Often, they are swayed by money to support a certain product, and carefully bend the truth about it.  All of those years of study – they learned about science, but learned nothing about integrity.  The power of knowledge should be used responsibly by those who behold it, just as Spiderman’s powers should be used for good and not evil.

Sometimes, the truth is inconvenient.  I think the title for Al Gore’s documentary was well-chosen.  That being said, he should have left the stage to a leading climatologist to speak to America about the science of the climate.

Yesterday, after listening to Bell push false data over the radio waves onto unsuspecting citizens, I decided to use my knowledge of science to do something positive.  I called the radio talk show in question, and this is what I said:

“I am a scientist and engineer, and I can confidently say that the guest on this morning’s show is on a misinformation campaign.  For starters, Mr. Bell says that 80% of climate experts agree that the global warming issue is a non-issue.  I want to know exactly where this ludicrous stat comes from.”

Bell said he did not know where this particular stat had come from.  I will venture a guess that the stat came from the same place that I would like to stick a flaming torch.

This is yet another indication of a phony.  If you spew out facts and cannot produce the sources of them with confidence, you are acting irresponsibly.  Listeners to yesterday’s program would agree that Bell provided no support for any of his arguments.

I wanted to ask a follow-up question to Larry the Architect about the Chemistry of the biosphere, but there was no time on the show.  The host cut me off, as they needed to check the local traffic, which was in gridlock.  Do you see the irony?  Do not believe Larry Bell when he says that the chemical reactions in all of those idling internal combustion engines contribute no major chemical effects to our atmosphere.  He is a quack, and he has made me angry.

1 comment:

Stranger 2 said...

That old man is old enough to be retired!