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How Bad Science Becomes Common Knowledge: Two Case Studies (solar and climate change)

“When we hear of vast numbers of scientists endorsing Michael Mann’s famous ‘hockey stick’ graph… What we don’t hear is that the vast, vast majority of them never sought access to the specific data and algorithms claimed to support it (much of which was actively withheld from the scientific community at large). They did not independently evaluate either Mann’s claims or the specific, technical objections raised against them by a few critics who were able to wrest those data and algorithms from Mann’s clenched fist over a period of years. Neither had the scientific media performed any independent, critical review when reporting on such issues for over a decade, most of them simply not being equipped to do so.”
To read the popular media’s account of climate science, it is a certainty that burning fossil fuels is causing an unprecedented and catastrophic warming of the planet. The volume of such claims is so vast that those skeptical of catastrophic warming are often viewed as conspiracy theorists, believing that scientists and the media have formed a secret cabal to foist falsehoods on the public.
 
But the case for being skeptical of catastrophic warming–and, more broadly, many popular scientific assertions–has nothing to do with conspiracy theories. It is based on knowledge of the mechanism by which new scientific ideas are evaluated and spread by non-experts, who are prone to choose winners and losers on the basis of congenial political ideology rather than scientific merit.
 
Case 1: Aidan Dwyer as Solar Genius
 
A recent episode in the science and tech media illustrates this mechanism.Popular ScienceSlashdotThe Atlantic Wire, and Gizmodo all recently lauded a new “breakthrough” at the hands of a 13 year-old “genius,” Aidan Dwyer, first recognized by the American Museum of Natural History with its Young Naturalist Award.
 
His insight? A “super-efficient solar array” differing from standard arrays in one respect: the arrangement of individual solar cells at various random-looking angles according to a specific mathematical pattern (the Fibonacci sequence) that characterizes the leaves and branches of certain trees.
 
By all accounts, Aidan Dwyer is a bright, well-meaning boy. But this proposal makes no sense, and he has ultimately been ill-served by the adults lauding it. For good reason, the normal configuration of solar panels has each cell oriented at the angle yielding optimal total exposure to the sun’s day-long path in the sky. Each cell is either oriented at that one optimal angle or at a sub-optimal angle producing less output power—and mimicking a tree is far from optimal.

But notice that the narrative is optimal to two generations of media members steeped in “green” ideology: an innocent prodigy, influenced by the beauty and wisdom of nature, imposes natural order on brute technology to prove the viability of green energy. And so those media members, lacking any particular expertise on solar panels, ran with it.

Aidan Dwyer would never have received the same acclaim had he, say, conducted an experiment in his family’s garage leading him to claim the discovery of a new chemical agent for fracking. Can anyone imagine that the most prominent natural history museum in the country would then give him an award and the media would trumpet the arrival of a budding genius in the field of energy research? Of course not.

This episode is important because it shows, in microcosm, how much of what passes for common knowledge comes to be. From the vast well of concrete events and ideas in science and technology, certain ones are picked up and amplified while others are discarded by the network of influencers and disseminators—from government bureaucrats awarding the grants that academic science lives on, to the mainstream media publishing what it regards as the most important findings.

The vast, vast majority of the network is by necessity non-expert on any given topic. In an advanced, division-of-labor society, there is a division of scientific expertise. That is a good thing, as it enables a staggering total of knowledge to be discovered and applied throughout society. But there is an ever-present hazard of loud or numerous non-experts promoting views as certainties because those views fit their political ideologies.

Case 2: Michael Mann’s ”Hockey Stick”

And that is exactly what has happened with global warming. For example, when we hear of vast numbers of scientists endorsing Michael Mann’s famous “hockey stick” graph—the rhetorical star of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”—what we don’t hear is that the vast, vast majority of them never sought access to the specific data and algorithms claimed to support it (much of these have been actively withheld from the scientific community at large).

They did not independently evaluate either Mann’s claims or the specific, technical objections raised against them by a few critics who were able to wrest those data and algorithms from Mann’s clenched fist over a period of years. Neither had the scientific media performed any independent, critical review when reporting on such issues for over a decade, most of them simply not being equipped to do so.

From the perspective of those among the green-leaning media who actually are equipped by this point to verify reports of serious flaws in Mann’s approach, why exert all that effort with the hope of merely confirming what is already an ideological pillar, when a positive result would be superfluous and a negative one would be, at best, ominously confusing? This attitude is in fact embraced by climatologists at the highest levels.

After a critic asked renowned climatologist Phil Jones to release the raw data from which he has generated one of the primary historical records of global temperature, Jones’s famous response was “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

It is now generally acknowledged that Michael Mann’s original claims about a precipitous acceleration in global warming around the advent of industrialization were founded on a broken methodology. As shown originally by two Canadian researchers, and verified by a U.S. Senate-appointed expert panel of independent statisticians, the technique indicates precipitous warming, whether fed with actual climate data or with simulated data designed to lack any underlying trend at all.

Yet it was not until five years after Mann’s original publication—and after the hockey stick graph was immortalized by the ostensible cream of international climate expertise at the IPCC—that the broken parts under its hood were first identified in a scientific journal. And this was accomplished not by any of Mann’s colleagues at Penn State, nor any of his many co-authors, peer-reviewers, or IPCC editors. It was accomplished by a mathematically savvy mining consultant, Steve McIntyre, and an economist, Ross McKitrick, who both took it up essentially as a hobby, receiving not one of the billions of dollars in government climatology funding funneled to academic researchers.

The same basic mechanism that made Aidan Dwyer a star has, on a different level, made Michael Mann a star. The primary difference is the level of technical sophistication—a level in the latter case just high enough to be dangerous in a realm where even expert statisticians (which climatologists are not) have to be on guard against inconspicuous but critical errors.

Enthralling your average climatologist requires something subtler than the mathematics of branch growth patterns, something more like Michael Mann’s novel statistical technique to extract imperceptible trends from a hodgepodge of tree ring and ice core measurements that seem to imply a dangerous acceleration in warming circa 1900 (the “hockey stick” graph), hence an ideologically convenient fatal flaw in industrial capitalism.

Note that this is especially dangerous in a field such as climatology, where there are zero experts who can accurately predict how various important but poorly understood factors will come together to drive the climate. This is a field ripe for ideological grant-givers to make superstars out of intellectually immodest mediocrities.

And just as Aidan Dwyer’s celebrity carries on despite clear technical refutation, so the global warming movement carries on despite the hockey stick having been split asunder by clear proof of the inherent hockey-stick bias in Mann’s statistical technique.

Disseminating Good Science

None of this implies any cognitive determinism for climatologists or pop-science consumers sharing a common world-view. Each one is free to think for himself, to gather new data perhaps through alternative networks, and to assess the totality of evidence available to him. But such tasks require an effort whose mark many want to display without going to the trouble of exerting it, as is demonstrably the case with the denizens of the global warming movement. So arises the wide-spread belief that we’re facing a climate crisis, that the “green” technology is out there to replace fossil fuels, and that it’s just a matter of getting the right set of bright young kids working in the right direction.

To some extent the intellectual division of labor will always mean that there is no guarantee against large-scale, ideologically driven mistakes gaining wide currency. However this is especially probable in the present, monolithic system of government-funded basic research, where bureaucrats carelessly appropriate money they didn’t earn on projects whose benefits they won’t receive, inspired by ideology-laden fads whose underlying accuracy they are not particularly concerned with.

The elimination of the profit-motive does not banish individuals’ pursuit of their own interests; it redirects that pursuit away from honest value creation and into a distorted, unspoken realm of indirect benefits and cynical power bartering among appropriators whose one common goal is the expansion of their appropriation stream.

What we need is to restore the profit-motive in a system of free individuals, pursuing their own goals openly with their own wealth. It is said that such a system will stifle visionary thinkers whose ideas are too long-range to make a quick buck. But this is just a smokescreen obscuring what profit-and-loss in a system of well-defined property rights—profits whose range is much longer than the next election—are uniquely capable of factoring into such investment decisions: the inescapable trade-off between the revolutionary power of basic research and the probability of concrete benefits flowing from it.

Large Stakes

What’s at stake is the lives of billions of people in the present and future. Their lives depend on access to industrial technology that scientifically illiterate politicians around the world are subjecting to the ransom of their regulations and controls. Ransom letters are delivered to us daily in the op-eds, the articles, the talking heads educating us about thousands of experts that have all verified the coming of an apocalypse against which our only savior, conveniently, is more climatology research funding and more concentrated political power.

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Eric Dennis, who hold a PhD in physics from UC Santa Barbara, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Industrial Progress. For related posts, see “Go Industrial, Not ‘Green’” by Alex Epstein (Parts 1 and 2).

24 comments

1 Mark Holton { 01.17.12 at 2:19 am }

“The elimination of the profit-motive does not banish individuals’ pursuit of their own interests; it redirects that pursuit away from honest value creation and into a distorted, unspoken realm of indirect benefits and cynical power bartering among appropriators whose one common goal is the expansion of their appropriation stream.”

I wonder if this can be condensed to something a little easier to read/digest; I think it’s an important point that comes up frequently.

2 David Bergeron { 01.17.12 at 3:02 am }

Thank for the article Eric. The young man you mentioned reminded me of a story in Richard Feynman’s “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman.” Feynman tried a few time to make a better potato peeler, but it didn’t work and, fortunately for him, his parents were frank about it. The ‘trama’ made him appreciate real inventions.

3 Colleen { 01.17.12 at 3:05 am }

Thanks for the glimmer of hope for a real change & surprised to see it’s from a UCSB local, Was sure all was lost here in SB County, :) I needed that!

4 Rolf Westgard { 01.17.12 at 6:25 am }

This is an extremely wordy rehash of the tired argument that most of the world’s climate scientists are distorting data to receive large amounts of government funding. The method by which gas molecules with three or more atoms resonate to the earth’s IR, and thus warm the atmosphere, is well understood science. We are putting up billions of tons of those molecules and causing a very slow warming, hockey stick or no. Whether we should adapt or turn the economy upside down as a result is a matter for honest debate. But this article doesn’t contribute any substance to that debate.

5 Lionell Griffith { 01.17.12 at 8:48 am }

Yet the whole scam could have been nipped in the bud by the identification of three simple facts:

1. The climate system of the earth has been around for the better part of four billion years without a catastrophic runaway warming event. Hence, it is overwhelmingly unlikely to occur within the next one hundred years.

2. CO2 is a trace gas in the atmosphere. Man adds a trace amount to that trace.

3. One CO2 molecule is for all practical matters is identical to any other CO2 molecule.

It is more that reasonable that man’s addition to the atmosphere will have at best a trace of a trace effect (ie. immeasurable). Any assertion otherwise will require extraordinary evidence to be accepted as a fact. Hence a extremely skeptical view of a pending global warming catastrophe is not only warranted but required.

This was my conclusion well over 20 years ago shortly after the global freezing scare of the 1970′s turned into the global warming scare. The information to draw that conclusion was available at the high school science level. All that was required was to look at the evidence and draw the logical conclusion.

Clearly, the global warming agenda was never science and knowledge of the truth. It was the stopping of the industrial revolution and the destruction of technological civilization. Any words to the contrary were simply a smoke screen to hide the truth.

6 Jon Boone { 01.17.12 at 10:27 am }

This is a lapidary article, sparkling with wisdom conveyed by experienced insight and wonderful writing. Thanks for posting it.

Young master Dwyer’s penchant for the golden ratio and Fibonacci numbers should be introduced to this reality about solar energy, as stated a few years ago by William Tucker:

“Solar radiation is the result of an E = mc2 transformation as the sun transforms hydrogen to helium. Unfortunately, the reaction takes place 90 million miles away. Radiation dissipates with the square of the distance, so by the time solar energy reaches the earth it is diluted by almost the same factor, 10-15. Thus, the amount of solar radiation falling on a one square meter is 400 watts, enough to power four 100-watt light bulbs.

‘“Thermal solar” – large arrays of mirrors heating a fluid – can convert 30 percent of this to electricity. Photovoltaic cells are slightly less efficient, converting only about 25 percent. As a result, the amount of electricity we can draw from the sun is enough to power one 100-watt light bulb per card table.”

The pursuit of knowledge is greatly enhanced via support for basic research and for providing nurture for good ideas to take shape (here I include mathematics). One way of mitigating the problems mentioned here about how nascent scientific propositions become entangled with political/religious/economic ideology would be to substantially reduce, perhaps to zero, public dollars for “development.” If these ideas show merit, let the private sector develop them.

We too casually refer to the need for R&D, when the real emphasis should be on the R. Today, just the opposite is true, for the bulk of public R&D monies go for D, particularly development of half baked propositions Which too often results in the trouble described so beautifully in this piece.

7 Terra { 01.17.12 at 10:51 am }

Thank you so much for writing this, it’s one of the best analysis of the motives and mechanisms behind the great green lies.

8 edennis { 01.17.12 at 11:28 am }

Rolf, It might be surprising to you, but despite the fact that the greenhouse effect itself is well known, green climatologists concede that the greenhouse effect itself—CO2 trapping IR radiation in the atmosphere—is just a small contributor to the total warming they project. The bulk of that warming is supposed to come from much more complicated feedback mechanisms in the climate, involving clouds, vegetation, the oceans, etc., which are, in aggregate, far from established science. The fact that you seem very certain in the conclusions broadcast by the global warming movement, but are not aware even of which climate processes are supposed to be responsible is the real issue addressed in the post.

9 Luboš Motl { 01.17.12 at 12:11 pm }

An excellent text! Both stories are insightful and I also agree with the intrinsic failure of those who say money-free systems have to exist to extract long-term thinkers: they don’t seem to appreciate that this really means to abandon standards and verification.

I’ve spent half a year in UCSB’s physics department! ;-)

10 Lionell Griffith { 01.17.12 at 1:19 pm }

edennis,

CO2 in the atmosphere is a freely mobile gas. As such, it cannot trap heat. It is not and cannot be a molecular thermos bottle. Within nanoseconds or less of the absorption of the IR, of the proper range of energy level, the absorbed energy is either thermalized (transformed into kinetic energy) or re-radiated. Within a few more nanoseconds of thermalization, the bulk of the energy is transferred to adjacent atmospheric molecules until the CO2 is once again in thermal equilibrium with its neighborhood. This is NOT a “special” trapping of IR by CO2. It is simply the way all materials can be heated by IR. The IR is either re radiated, transformed into heat energy, or simply passes through the CO2 as if it were not there.

Unfortunately, the above requires more knowledge of the physics and physical chemistry of radiation than one would get from a high school science education. The use of the term “trapping” is misleading and factually false. So also is the phrase “greenhouse effect”. There is no atmospheric green house. The heated atmosphere is free to convect up to and until it radiates its excess energy into space and thereby cool. Its behavior follows the real gas laws in every respect. There is no glass lid to restrict release of heat by convection as is the case in a real greenhouse.

Fundamentally, ones thinking is limited by the words one uses to describe things. The words “trapped” and “greenhouse effect” mislead, confuse, and distort both the understanding and communication of what is going on. I expect this from the alarmist crowd who’s intent is to mislead, confuse, and distort rather than search for and communicate truth. Actual science requires more clarity and precision in the use of language.

11 edennis { 01.17.12 at 2:15 pm }

Lionell,

I don’t disagree with your technical assertions, but I would suggest that when you’re looking for a detailed physical model to debunk, you not just wildly extrapolate one from my simple phrase “CO2 trapping IR radiation in the atmosphere.” Moreover, note that I did not say ‘CO2 trapping IR radiation in CO2′. If a fence traps a dog in a backyard, that doesn’t mean the molecules of the dog are literally held inside the porous wood of the fence posts. Also, it doesn’t mean that every single molecule of the dog is prevented from passing through the fence. And if this phenomenon were generally referred to as the “doghouse effect,” I wouldn’t see a point in focusing my ire on the name.

12 Rolf Westgard { 01.17.12 at 4:54 pm }

CO2 is just one of the 3+atom molecules that warm the atmosphere. H2O is the most important. I am not certain about the GW conclusions currently being broadcast. I point that out in the classes on GW that I teach for the U of MN College of Cont Education.

13 garret seinen { 01.17.12 at 8:03 pm }

The corruption of science is actually the absence of science. Richard Feynman in his ‘Cargo Cult speech’, given in the ’70s, spoke of the problem then already. He warned of the folly of not replicating the experiment and establishing proof on your own, of simply parroting the ‘facts’ of others. He warned that road would inevitably yield errors. We haven’t learned though.

14 Lionell Griffith { 01.17.12 at 8:39 pm }

edennis ,

Then we will simply have to agree to disagree. I believe that when you want to communicate an idea clearly and correctly, the words you use and the context in which you use them become very important. Relying on telepathy or lucky guessing to get your message through is sure to fail. At least it does with me. All I can do is take your words at face value in context.

15 Tom Moriarty { 01.18.12 at 11:58 am }

You can see the mathematical foundation of Mann’s hockey stick error here…

http://climatesanity.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/michael-mann-averaging-error-demo/

It is not that complicated to understand.

16 archaeopteryx { 01.18.12 at 2:54 pm }

I believe that bad science has become common knowledge because one single country has incorporated this “new” approach into its master plan, sometime around 1985. The country’s objective has not changed since WWI or WWII, it is called “lebensraum”, except this time it has planned a little more thoroughly, took advantage of Cold War insecurities, carefully cultivated old “leftist” now “liberal” channels, promoted “making money while doing good” and other sustainability gobbledigook, along Limits to Growth “made in Europe” arts and farts, carefully funded, and encouraged others to fund, “scholars” form English speaking countries, used the EU as a lever to promote Rio Fiestas and Durban shows, and if you look at Siemens’ brochures, you will find all the products stemming from such bad science, ready to solve all your problems, complete with a subscription of EU-traded CO2 indugences.

I know, it sounds preposterous that tiny Germany may be affecting the Americas, but this is not the first attempt.

Here are a couple of articles that may be relevant:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/secret-history-climate-alarmism

http://www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/43291

http://ecofascism.com/review26.html

I am in a soon to be bankrupt country, in which Green cynicism has included the following officially pronounced blakcmail: “If you want the next loan tranche, you have to purchase and install 10GW of pv panels”. We will have plenty of electricity from 10am to 4pm, 200 days per year, but won’t afford to buy it.

17 Craig { 01.19.12 at 11:55 am }

Any activity that adjusts observations to fit models projections is not science.

18 Paul Bonneau { 01.20.12 at 4:29 pm }

People seem to forget that scientists are not a separate species, but subject to the same foibles as the rest of the human race. And many of them are chasing government and corporate grants, not the best environment to inhabit, for objectivity to flourish.

19 Why do some take belief in Global Warming as a political issue? - Page 2 - US Message Board - Political Discussion Forum { 01.28.12 at 8:31 pm }

[...] [...]

20 The Global Warming Campaign Takes a Blow – Center for Industrial Progress { 05.29.12 at 8:33 am }

[...] justifying more funding and an expansion of the bureaucrats’ powers. My recent piece at MasterResource looks more closely at a social mechanism behind the widespread acceptance of bad science. Posted [...]

21 Eric Dennis on “How Bad Science Becomes Common Knowledge” – Center for Industrial Progress { 05.29.12 at 8:34 am }

[...] colleague Eric Dennis has written an eye-opening piece for MasterResource. It gives the best answer I’ve read yet to the question that everyone skeptical of [...]

22 Week in review 3/16/12 | Climate Etc. { 09.27.12 at 12:55 pm }

[...] will like this article at MasterResource entitled What the skeptics are skeptical of, which is a response to Nordhaus’ recent article in the NYT Review of Books.  An excerpt [...]

23 M.R. Gedge { 11.11.12 at 6:29 pm }

I applaud Eric Dennis for writing this article.
I also applaud Lionell Griffith’s criticism of the use of the phrase “greenhouse effect”. As he implies, the dominant action of a greenhouse is to confine convection. To compare the action of a greenhouse to the radiation-inhibiting action of CO2 is imprecise at best, and, in the global warming debate context, a smear.
The nature of this smear, in my opinion, is to falsely concretize in the public minds the magnitude of the effect of atmospheric CO2 by a comparison to the large temperature change experienced upon entering a greenhouse.

24 Zachariah Wiedeman { 04.18.13 at 8:39 am }

I actually wrote extensively about the Aidan Dwyer experiment previously in my article, “This is where bad science starts” and then followed it up with some commentary quite similar to your premise here in the article, “This is where bad science leads,” Check it out if you’re interested…

http://www.optimiskeptic.com/2011/08/21/this-is-where-bad-science-starts/

http://www.optimiskeptic.com/2011/08/25/this-is-where-bad-science-leads/

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