WunderBlog Archive » Category 6™

Category 6 has moved! See the latest from Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson here.

Correcting the South Dakota legislature's remarkable ignorance of science

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 4:29 PM GMT on March 29, 2010

Climate change science has come under ferocious attack in recent months. But while it is good to objectively question the science of climate change, much of what is being said in these attacks greatly distorts or makes false statements about what the science says, much to the confusion of the public and policy makers. A resolution passed last month by the South Dakota House is an iconic example of the ignorant falsehoods and distortions common in so many of these recent attacks. By a 36-30 vote, the South Dakota legislature last month passed House Concurrent Resolution 1009, "Calling for balanced teaching of global warming in the public schools of South Dakota." Thirty-four Republicans and two Democrats voted for the resolution, which, remarkably, includes a reference to astrology as being central to the behavior of the weather. Here are the resolutions, put in italics, followed by my comments:

The South Dakota Legislature urges that instruction in the public schools relating to global warming include the following:

(1) That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact;

This language is identical to what creationists used in their attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution, and is a standard trick used to attack the validity of any established scientific body of evidence. Here's how science works: Scientists collect data about the natural world. Using the aid of such tools as mathematics, scientists then construct theories to explain the observations. These theories must successfully pass review by several experts on the subject before they can be published in a scientific journal. Such "peer reviewed" science is a necessary but not sufficient condition for general acceptance of a theory; alternative theories compete, and the old theory must withstand the test of new theories. The old theory must also be validated by follow-up research by other scientists, who can duplicate the original findings. Gravity is one such theory that is well-supported by the available observations, and has withstood challenges over time. The theory of human-caused climate change is not as mature as the theory of gravity, but it is another theory that is well-supported by the available observations. While a number of alternative theories offering alternative explanations for the recent warming of the planet have been advanced, none of these have come remotely close to gaining widespread acceptance among the scientists publishing peer-reviewed papers on the subject. This is what teachers should be emphasizing to their students, not that "global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact."

(2) That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative;

This is a wildly incorrect statement. "Astrological" refers to the superstitious belief that the movements of the stars and planets can affect the weather. We don't use horoscopes to forecast the weather! "Thermology" is the analysis of detailed infrared images of the human body, and has no relevance to weather. Finally, the laws governing the behavior of the atmosphere are not "largely speculative." Our understanding of these laws has enabled scientists to make computer forecast models that successfully tell us many days in advance what the weather is likely to be. Similar models have been built to study the climate, and these models have been very successful at simulating many aspects of the climate, such as the amount of cooling major volcanic eruptions cause. I would characterize these models as "limited," but they are getting better rapidly, and are not "largely speculative." A few English errors: "interrelativity" isn't a word, and the word "affect" instead of "effect" should have been used in the sentence.

(3) That the debate on global warming has subsumed political and philosophical viewpoints which have complicated and prejudiced the scientific investigation of global warming phenomena;

It's highly ironic that these politicians are complaining about political viewpoints complicating the issue, yet here they are asserting their own political views, laden with awful science, to further complicate things. I agree that the political debate on global warming has complicated its scientific investigation, since climate scientists must now spend time away from their research to defend their work against absurd attacks like this one. Allegations that the debate has "prejudiced" scientific investigation have not been proven, and unproven allegations have no place in an official resolution by lawmakers.

Now, here is the evidence the South Dakota Legislature uses to support their resolutions:

WHEREAS, the earth has been cooling for the last eight years despite small increases in anthropogenic carbon dioxide;

The global temperature trend between 2002 - 2009 was -0.04°C, using the NASA GISS global temperature data set. This trend is not considered mathematically (statistically) significant, meaning that the trend is so close to zero that you can't say the Earth has been cooling. Note that if one picks almost any other period of averaging over the past 40 years, a positive (warming) trend results. For example, the Earth warmed 0.14°C between 2008 and 2009 (though this is also not mathematically significant, since we're only looking at two data points). One needs a lot more data points to get a mathematically significant result, and when one is talking about the climate, it is best to look at 30+ years. The Earth has warmed by about 0.16°C per decade over the past 30 years--a mathematically significant warming trend.

WHEREAS, there is no evidence of atmospheric warming in the troposphere where the majority of warming would be taking place;

Over the 31 years that we have satellite measurements, the lower troposphere has warmed by between 0.13° - 0.15°C per decade. Thus, this statement by the South Dakota legislature is undeniably false. In fact, two of the past four months have seen the warmest temperatures ever measured in the lower atmosphere, according to the University of Alabama, Huntsville. As I've discussed before, the argument made here was in vogue among climate change contrarians prior to 2004, and was the primary method of attack on the validity of global warming theory. However, a series of papers published in 2004 and 2005 showed that global warming theory was correct, and the satellite measurements showing a lack of tropospheric warming were wrong. To continue using a skeptic argument that was discredited five years ago and is no longer used by modern-day contrarians shows a remarkable lack of political savvy on the part of the South Dakota Legislature. They should have taken a lesson from the Utah State Legislature and used the contents of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia--that is the modern preferred way to attack climate change science. As I've pointed out before, though, these attacks are also bogus.

WHEREAS, historical climatological data shows without question the earth has gone through trends where the climate was much warmer than in our present age. The Climatic Optimum and Little Climatic Optimum are two examples. During the Little Climatic Optimum, Erik the Red settled Greenland where they farmed and raised dairy cattle. Today, ninety percent of Greenland is covered by massive ice sheets, in many places more than two miles thick;

The resolution says "without question" the Earth has gone through warmer climates, then gives one example as the "Little Climatic Optimum," which is the period from around 900 - 1200 A.D. Current climate science, as summarized in the 2007 IPCC report, rates the Little Climatic Optimum as being cooler than the present-day climate, so it is false to say the Little Climatic Optimum was "without question" warmer. Even if it was warmer, that doesn't prove that the modern warming cannot be human-caused (one can use the analogy that different diseases can produce the same symptoms, and a good doctor will perform a scientific examination to determine what is causing the symptoms.) The discussion of the Greenland Ice Sheet makes it sound as if it appeared in the past 1,000 years. That is not the case. The ice coverage of Greenland is similar today to what it was during the time of Erik the Red. Grammar errors: "Earth" should be capitalized. "Erik the Red settled Greenland where they farmed" is grammatically incorrect.

WHEREAS, the polar ice cap is subject to shifting warm water currents and the break-up of ice by high wind events. Many oceanographers believe this to be the major cause of melting polar ice, not atmospheric warming;

While natural wind patterns in the early 1990s are thought to be an important factor that contributed to the decline of the polar ice cap in recent years, I haven't seen any peer-reviewed scientific paper stating that this was the major cause of arctic sea ice loss. Natural wind patterns, warmer atmospheric temperatures, warmer ocean temperatures, and the warming influence of black soot on the ice are all important factors, and there is no consensus on which of these factors is the dominant cause of the melting.

WHEREAS, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life on earth.

Webster's dictionary defines a pollutant as "man-made waste that contaminates an environment." Webster's defines "contaminate" as "to make inferior or impure." CO2 is man-made waste, and there is scientific evidence that added CO2 can make our atmosphere "inferior" to its present state. As just one example, when CO2 is dissolved in the oceans, the water grows more acidic. Corals and other creatures that build shells out of calcium carbonate cannot form their shells if the acidity passes a critical level--their shells will dissolve. Thus, for these organisms, CO2 is definitely a pollutant. Several shell-building planktonic organisms, such as coccolithophorids, pteropods, and foraminifera, form an important basis of the food chain in cold ocean waters, and the continued increase in CO2 emissions have many scientists very concerned about a collapse of the oceanic food chain in these regions in coming decades. Presumably, the South Dakota lawmakers are taking the very narrow view that a pollutant is something that harms human health when breathed. One other note: they should have said "essential" instead of "highly beneficial" when describing the relationship between CO2 and plant life.

Many scientists refer to carbon dioxide as "the gas of life";

As I discussed at the time, the reference to CO2 being the "gas of life" comes from a fossil-fuel industry-funded ad campaign from 2006, not from the scientific literature.

WHEREAS, more than 31,000 American scientists collectively signed a petition to President Obama stating: "There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, or methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the earth's atmosphere and disruption of the earth's climate.

This a reference to the notorious "Oregon Petition," a product of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM). According to the Institute's web site and the book Climate Cover-up, the Institute is a farm shed situated a couple of miles outside of Cave Junction, OR (population 17,000). The Institute lists seven faculty members, two of whom are dead, and has no ongoing research and no students. It publishes creationist-friendly home-school curricula books on surviving nuclear war. The petition they created in 1999 was sent to scientists and was accompanied by a 12-page "scientific" review of climate change science filled with scientific distortions and falsehoods, printed in exactly the same style used for the prestigious journal, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." A letter from Dr. Frederick Seitz, who was prominently identified as a former National Academy of Sciences president, accompanied the petition and review (at the time, Seitz was working for the fossil fuel industry-funded George C. Marshall Institute, a pro-industry think tank he helped found.) No doubt, many recipients of the petition took this to be an official National Academy of Sciences communication, and signed the petition as a result. The National Academy of Sciences issued a statement in April 2008, clarifying that it had not issued the petition, and that its position on global warming was the opposite. The petition contains no contact information for the signers, making it impossible to verify. While the petition does carry the names of legitimate scientists who do disagree with the IPCC consensus on the reality and dangers of human-caused climate change, the fraudulent way the petition was presented and the impossibility of verifying the signatures make its relevance highly questionable. An excellent post at skepticalscience.com explores the Oregon Petition's claim of 31,000 signatures in greater detail. It turns out that anyone can sign the petition and claim they are a scientist; there is no verification. The requirements for being a scientist include anyone with a Bachelor's degree in any of the following fields:

* Atmosphere, Earth, and Environment fields: atmospheric science, climatology, meteorology, astronomy, astrophysics, earth science, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, geoscience, hydrology, environmental engineering, environmental science, forestry, oceanography
* Computers and Math: computer science, mathematics, statistics
* Physics and Aerospace: physics, nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering
* Chemistry: chemistry, chemical engineering
* Biochemistry, Biology, and Agriculture: biochemistry, biophysics, biology, ecology, entomology, zoology, animal science, agricultural science, agricultural engineering, plant science, food science
* Medicine: medical science, medicine
* General Engineering and General Science: engineering, electrical engineering, metallurgy, general science

The skepticalscience.com post argues, "if we remove all the engineers, medical professionals, computer scientists, and mathematicians, then the 31,478 "scientists" turn into 13,245 actual scientists, as opposed to scientists according to the OISM's expansive definition." This represents 0.1% of the estimated 10.6 million scientists in the U.S. Now, let's consider specialists in climate change. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has over 55,000 members, of which over 7,200 claim that atmospheric sciences is their primary field. The OISM claims 152 atmospheric scientists. Compared to the atmospheric scientist membership in the AGU, the OISM signatories are only 2.1%, and this estimate is high given the fact that the AGU does not claim all atmospheric scientists as members.

Counterbalancing the fraudulently obtained and inflated "consensus" of the Oregon Petition are the official climate change position statements of the following scientific organizations, which all agree with the consensus that "most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities:"

American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Physics
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
Australian Coral Reef Society
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
British Antarctic Survey
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
European Physical Society
Federation of American Scientists
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
Geological Society of America
Geological Society of Australia
International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA)
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Royal Meteorological Society
Royal Society of the UK

The Academies of Science from 19 different countries all endorse the consensus. Eleven countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position:
Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Brazil)
Royal Society of Canada
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Academie des Sciences (France)
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
Indian National Science Academy
Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
Science Council of Japan
Russian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society (United Kingdom)
National Academy of Sciences (USA) (12 Mar 2009 news release)

A letter from 18 major scientific organisations to the U.S. Congress in October 2009 states:
"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science."

The consensus is also endorsed by a Joint statement by the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the Polish Academy of Sciences.

One can read much more on the topic at the excellent skepticalscience.com blog where I took this information from.

Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide will produce many beneficial effects on the natural plant and animal environments of the earth."

This is true, but of course neglects to mention the many harmful effects warmer temperatures will bring.

On to the Senate
The South Dakota Senate passed by a vote of 18-17 an amended version of the resolution which eliminated most of the scientific falsehoods and distortions and corrected most of the English errors (except for the use of the non-word "interrelativity.") However, the resolution still asserts that the global warming debate has prejudiced the scientific investigation of global climatic change phenomena. The amended version now returns to the House for approval.

The fundamental scientific ignorance displayed by the South Dakota legislature clearly makes them unqualified to recommend how science should be taught in schools. While the proposed resolution by the South Dakota legislature does not have the force of law, the debate on climate change is too important to be based on falsehoods and distortions made up by politicians or by the "Manufactured Doubt Industry." Politicians should stay out of micro-managing education, and leave the teaching to the teachers.

For further reading
Our Climate Change blogger, Dr. Ricky Rood, has an excellent post discussing politics and global warming, titled, If Lady Chatterley's Lover, then...

The New York Times has an interesting article, Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets, that discusses how several states have introduced or approved measures mandating that opposing views on human-caused climate change and evolution should be taught in the classroom.

Jeff Masters

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.