The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Opposite of "skeptic"?

What is the word for us? Those of us who think the current situation and the trends are alarming? Those of us who aren't "skeptics"? Those who think the way the consensus is usually spelled out is understated and that the contemporary press is hopelessly skewed to understate our problems? "Alarmist" is pejorative, carrying a connotation of irrationality, where "skeptic" carries a connotation of rationality. "Activist" is too political and skews left, which I'd really like to avoid since science has no economic or social ideology. What is the word for someone who is more alarmed than others and is trying to raise awareness of an issue? Cassandrites?

I like the Woody Allen version of Cassandra: "I see disaster. I see catastrophe. Worse, I see lawyers."

Anyway this come to mind in reading Chris Colose's review of a fairly respectable presentation, about as repectable as I can imagine, of a skeptic's global warming lecture, summarized as follows. The skeptic in question, Dr Chris Walcek, leaves out the hyperbole and the ludicrous accusations, and summarizes as follows:

On Warming

Consensus– Yes it is

Skeptics– Yes, but trends very small compared to natural fluctuations

Causation

Consensus– Mostly anthropogenic (human-induced) factors in recent times

Skeptics– Possibly some anthropogenic, more solar variation, very low confidence for attribution

Is it bad ?

Consensus– Is bad

Skeptics– Maybe some bad, maybe some good

Can we slow it down?

Consensus– Can slow

Skeptics– Can’t stop global warming in any significant way
So what to say to these seemingly reasonable positions? Well, one thing is that it neatly invites us into the usual trap, presenting two sides to a story, when there are at least three. Another way of looking at it is that it asks the wrong questions. So herewith my attempt at a correction:

On Warming

Consensus– Yes it is

Skeptics– Yes, but trends very small compared to natural fluctuations

Cassandrites - An overvalued question. The past warming is of interest only as confirmation we know what we are talking about. Trends are now detectable against natural variation, soon will swamp them because forcing is cumulative.

Causation

Consensus– Mostly anthropogenic (human-induced) factors in recent times

Skeptics– Possibly some anthropogenic, more solar variation, very low confidence for attribution

Cassandrites - Same as consensus. Trends make anthropogenic component increasingly dominant. Skeptics do not understand the physics, perhaps willfully.

Is it bad ?

Consensus– Is bad

Skeptics– Maybe some bad, maybe some good

Cassandrites - You ain't seen nothin' yet, and you don't want to.

Can we slow it down?

Consensus– Can slow

Skeptics– Can’t stop global warming in any significant way

Cassandrites - The anthropocene has started. The fate of the world is solely the responsibility of humans.
I like much of what Chris C has to say, but he is allowing Chris W to frame the conversation.

The Cassandrite position is not in opposition to the consensus, for the most part. The main distinction with the consensus (except possibly about sea level rise) is about what scientists ought to do about it. Scientific tradition is to stay out of policy, and in a functioning democracy the information would have been passed on to the policy sector and acted upon.

At some point the social response may become so totally misaligned with the facts of the matter that it becomes necessary to step outside the role of scientific equanimity, and to act in some fashion on the understanding that the current social response is grossly negligent. The Cassandrite position is that this point has been passed.

Another Cassandrite position worthy of note is that no matter how polite, the skeptic position is manipulative and far less honest and openminded than it claims.

For instance, Walcek's focus on detection and attribution is a classic skeptics' sleight of hand. Every year the balance of evidence shifts more in favor of the consensus and the pile of cherry picked evidence against the consensus also gets a bit bigger. Detection and attribution has been a done deal for ten years now, and they are still talking about it. This is not because it is really an open question or one they can win. It is primarily because putting attention on the past and present takes attention away from the future, where the best estimates of our unmanaged trajectory are becoming truly disturbing.

18 comments:

Steven said...

"Activist" is too political and skews left, which I'd really like to avoid since science has no economic or social ideology.
----------

Really?

tidal said...

Steven, yes, really. E=m*c^2... marxist or libertarian?

Anna said...

Well, the term needs to encompass both a) being reality-based and b) strongly preferring a particular outcome (namely the survival of human civilization as we've come to know it)

The term "Activist" doesn't encompass the "reality-based" aspect.


But "reality-based activist" doesn't exactly trip off the tongue...

anna said...

2 issues with the term "Cassandrists" - first, the (both current and mythological) public perception of C. - that she was an alarmist - and second, the mythological outcome - that, although she was right, she wasn't heeded.

Is there anyone in mythology who was perceptive, who warned of catastrophe, and who was heeded?

The trouble with looking to mythological or otherwise fictional characters for an appropriate term is that intelligent group action makes for a less memorable plot line than its opposite.

Michael Tobis said...

Hmm, I myself have long felt a certain affinity with Cassandra, actually. I may be an outlier on this as on other things.

True, Cassandrite or Cassandrist is sort of a defeatist name. I think we need a name, though, so we can say to the press, hey, you need a "X-ist" on that article if you are going to quote a "skeptic".

Oddly, the right name is "conservative", I think. Unfortunately the name has been usurped by some non-conservative types.

If I advise calling on a climate conservative, I doubt Broecker or Hansen or Pierrehumbert would spring to the journalist's mind.

David B. Benson said...

Michael Tobis --- Actually, the term you want is 'climate reactionary', I think. A conservative would want to keep the current level of global warming (so-called greenhouse) gases.

I, at least, am a reactionary.

Chris Colose said...

Thank You for the follow up.

Overall, I thought the lecture was certainly intellectual respectable, and I was expecting much less given the "summary" (on the school website) of what was going to be said prior to the presentation. I liked the fact that there were very few claims that were completely indefensible (like the idea that no changes in sea level rise can be due to us because daily tides show more variation than the secular trend).

I believe Walcek is also a member of the Inhofe 400, which further lowered by expectations, but I beleive he is a respectable guy and a good scientist, but should probably not be discussing this issue to audiences.

On to this post, I liked what you had to say. Of interest to me is not so much the "in between" position, but rather what exactly a "Skeptic" is. The term seems to have received a bad name to it, especially in scientific topic that are connected to the laymen (AGW, evolution). But skepticism is necessary for science, and is in itself a requirement for its advancement. For the most part outside of the peer-reviewed literature, I think we're faced with "denialism" rather than "skepticism." I don't consider people like Inhofe or the participants in the global warming swindle to be "skeptics." Maybe I'll do a post on this soon.

Cheers,
C

EliRabett said...

Michael, you never were very good at this positioning thing. Denialist is strong because it is both negative and true. Let the denialists flail about don't help them. Of course, Eli prefers realists but YMMV

Michael Tobis said...

Point taken.

Fortunately, there is not as yet a "Denialist" magazine as far as I know.

There was a famous satirical beatnik rag called the "Realist" but I suppose we can tough it out and deny any connection.

Just the same "Realist" sounds good to me. Going once?

Chris Colose said...

Energy and Environment?

David B. Benson said...

I'll vote for 'Realist".

Steven said...

Tidal- you reveal exactly where the economic and social ideology become so apparent.

Scientists at best are qualified to say XYZ is happening. That's about 10% of the AGW talking points. The rest is "we should do ABC"

bi -- Intl. J. Inact. said...

Unfortunately, the term "climate realist" has already been co-opted by S. Fred Singer and his ilk to refer to their brand of climate surrealism.

Back to the drawing board, I guess.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

David B. Benson said...

Sigh. Then I'll have to go back to being a Climate Reactionary.

Which means explaining each time what I mean...

Steven said...

Having thought about this staring at the ceiling, something else occured to me. This is no argument point- I offer this nugget in a nuetral sense.

I would surely hope EVERYONE would come tot he climate issue at first *AS* a skeptic. Now, some will say that they have skeptically viewed the evidence and have become convinced.

I'm generally a skeptic, although that doesn't mean I don't believe in anything. Some things I have certainly been convinced of (in various topics) while others, "crysta healing", or invisible people who live in the sky for instance, I remain steadfastly skeptical.

I would be deeply concerned if anyone (scientists especially) came to this *believing* as their beginning state.

Ian said...

I tend to thomk of a spectrum of views, loosely linked to view on climate sensitivity.

0: Denialists
1: Minimalists (warming is small and benign -- eq Pat Michaels)
2-3: Conservatives (IPCC)
4-5: Precautionists -- those who worry about the upper quartile of a poorly defined distribution (e.g. Stern to some extent)
Over 6 or 7: alarmists.

Chris Winter said...

I'm not entirely convinced that having a label (e.g. "Cassandrite") is a good thing.

On the other hand, we are going to be labeled as "alarmists" or "warmists" or etc., so picking our own label at least gives us a counter to that.

In that spirit, I suggest "Hansenite." There are two reasons: First, because he's arguably the person who best understands climate science; second, because by nature he prefers to stay out of politics but will take on an advocate's role due to the urgency of the situation.

norcalguy101 said...

"Skeptics do not understand the physics, perhaps willfully."

You know what? I have never heard a "consensus" ever explain the physics involved in CO2 causing global warming.

Now I understand water vapor's ability to condense under ordinary atmospheric temperatures and pressures. It is condensation in the form of cloud cover that entrapps heat preventing solar radiation from escaping to higher altituds.

Now CO2? Just look at the phase diagrams for H2O and CO2 side by side.

The triple point for CO2, where solid, liquid, and gases states of CO2 meet, is at 5.22 atmospheres (five times that of air at sea level), and -56.4 degrees celsius.

The triple point for H2O is at 1 atmosphere of pressure and 0 degrees celsius.

Here are the phase diagrams:

http://www.science.uwaterloo.ca/~cchieh/cact/c123/phasesdgm.html

CO2 cannot, under ordinary atmospheric conditions, condense into a CO2 cloud formation.

Besides the temperature/pressure relationship of CO2, it's composision in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million constitutes only 0.035% of a given volume of air.

CO2 is virtually insignificant.

The true, factual cause of the now past warming trend was over 50 years of heightened solar sunspot activity.

The sun has been quiet for over three years:

http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/sunspots/

NASA predicted a slowdown in solar activity but was not expecting a significant shut-down of the sun until Solar Cycle 25:

http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2006/10may_longrange/

Solar Cycle 24 was expected to be peaking at this time with from about 150 to 180 maximum sunspots. At this time Solar Cycle 24 has yet to begin.

It is the lack of solar activity over the past three years that has led to progressively fiercer winter weather conditions.

We are now in a very serious downward trend of global temperatures and have been since 2007 due the geatest span of solar inactivity not witnessed in 300 years:

http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/sunspots/