On Being Disagreeable

“The ignorance starts at the top, with President Trump. It starts with untruths and alternative facts…. Ignorance trickles down from the president to members of his administration, eventually filtering into the public’s consciousness.” – climate scientist Ben Santer [1]

At the Board meeting on June 22, Supervisor Chair Phyllis Randall commented on the difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable. Her comments were inspirational. I couldn’t agree more and was one of those guilty of spontaneous applause. It felt good.

While we all know what it means to disagree, what does it mean to be disagreeable? I suspect humans have found as many ways to be disagreeable as there are humans, or at least that is suggested by observing congress. So, I can only speak to behavior I find disagreeable. I submit that disagreement becomes disagreeable when the parties are not willing to be wrong and not willing to acknowledge and be guided by evidence and therefore not willing to compromise. The reasons for the success of science, as evidenced by our smart phones and the discovery of Higgs’ Boson, are that scientists are willing to be wrong and accept all evidence, even that which goes against pet theories. These principles also apply to super-forecasting [2] and skepticism.

In fact, anyone skeptical of climate science, has long since relented as every denier argument has been falsified by evidence. What was in the 1980s reasonable disagreement over the accuracy of the surface temperature records or the influence of the sun, had morphed into disagreeableness by the start of the new millennium and into dangerous and irrational behavior during the last decade.

Another disagreeable characteristic is associated with how we present our arguments. Garrett Hardin describes many of our statements as conversation stoppers; arguments that are so ridiculous they kill any possibility of a reasonable discussion. Some examples include “global warming is a hoax” and “only God can change the climate”. Given the existential nature of the problem such arguments are extremely disagreeable and foolish. They remind us of what Mark Twain once wrote “if you argue with a fool, onlookers will not be able to tell the difference.” The second argument is particularly amusing since it is uttered by those who claim to believe in personal responsibility at least when applied to the less fortunate. One who is caught with his hands in the cookie jar cannot claim “but only God can steal a cookie.” I call it the Inhofe alibi.

The physicist Richard Muller was a skeptic of human-caused climate change claiming that the temperature record compiled by science was wrong [3]. His major objection was in the statistical methodology used by Michael Mann and others to construct the flat part of the hockey stick curve during the last few millennia. The hockey stick has been verified by multiple different studies using different proxies and different analysis, more recently by Jonathan L. Baker, Matthew S. Lachniet, Olga Chervyatsova, Yemane Asmerom and Victor J. Polyak using carbon and oxygen isotope measurements of stalagmites in the Ural Mountains as a proxy for temperature [4]. They show that while the summer months had been getting cooler in the northern hemisphere during the Holocene up until the industrial era the winter months had been getting warmer which is in agreement with model simulations. I think Muller’s view now is that Mann’s methodology might have been a bit dodgy but he got the right answer. We might say that while Muller and Mann disagree on some finer detail of Mann’s analysis they completely agree on the overwhelming evidence now in Mann’s favor.

With respect to the rapid warming over the last century, the hockey stick blade, Muller decided to look at the instrument data himself founding Berkeley Earth (BEST) and applying independent analysis [5]. Many deniers such as Anthony Watts “up with that” assumed Muller, an erstwhile denier, would discover that the earth surface was not warming and initially agreed to accept whatever Muller discovered. When Muller instead famously confirmed both that the earth was warming, which he published in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on October 2011 and that it was caused by human activities on July 28, 2012, something science already knew, deniers like Watts simply added Muller’s results to the long list of evidence they were denying. Figure 1 shows Muller’s results alongside those of NASA-GISS as published by the statistician Grant Foster. Figure 2 compares BEST temperature anomaly with several other data sets [6]. Reference 6 applies statistical tests to the claim that global warming experienced a slowdown or hiatus and shows that no such slowdown occurred. As shown in Figure 3, which compiles results from ten different peer-reviewed studies, human activities are not just contributing to the warming of the surface but are the entire cause in agreement with Muller’s observations. We can contrast the behavior between a skeptic like Muller and a denier like Watts. A consummate scientist, Muller allowed himself to be convinced by the evidence. A strident denier, Watts remains dangerously and disagreeably unconvinced by evidence to this day. They shared a testable objection to the IPCC report, namely that the surface temperature record might be inaccurate. However, Muller tested it and admitted he was wrong. Watts refuses to accept that he is wrong.

Since its founding, Muller’s institute has made important contributions to the measurement of surface temperature. In fact, in 2015 NOAA updated the methodology they used to estimate sea surface temperature fixing a known problem with the existing data. While [6] shows that the hiatus never happened even with the older data set, the corrected NOAA data set eliminates even the appearance of a temperature slow-down or hiatus [7]. Formerly, sea surface temperatures had been measured at the intake of a ship’s engine room. Since 2000, the oceans have been seeded with about 4000 ARGO buoys [8] which more accurately measure the sea surface temperature. You can imagine that a ship’s engine room is hot and might add a warming bias to the intake measurements. The adjustment to the data, i.e., increasing the reliance on the more accurate buoy measurements, showed that the earth surface was warming somewhat faster than older methods had shown. Recently, BEST published independent results confirming the accuracy of NASA’s new methodology [9]. The reaction of our congresspersons was not to try to understand the science and its impact on the biosphere but to obfuscate, deny, lie and otherwise grandstand. Ted Cruz and Lamar Smith reacted by demanding NASA emails. I don’t think disagreeable accurately describes their response. This is serious intimidation.

For “evidence”, Cruz and Smith called on fossil fuels industry consultants John Christy and Pat Michaels, who both presented Christy’s unpublished lower troposphere temperature measurements. Figure 4 shows the progression of published temperature estimates made by Christy since 1995, when he first reported that the troposphere was actually cooling. He has been forced to update his results as errors were continually being found in his science. two new papers by Carl Mears and colleagues from remote Systems Sensing (RSS) continue to find and correct errors in this data set [10-11]. These new results show that the troposphere may actually be warming faster than the surface at a rate of 0.174 degrees C per decade between 1979 to 2016. I calculate the NASA-GISS surface temperature is warming at a rate of 0.171 degrees C per decade over the same period. That is remarkably good agreement given that the data sets and methodology are completely different.

Having been proved wrong yet again, we can predict that deniers will still not admit they have been wrong and they will continue to invent still more justifications and excuses. In fact, I am curious to see where they go. With the Trump administration, we’ve seen an increase in conversation stoppers and foolishness. I suspect the attacks and vitriol towards scientists who disagree with them will increase and become more insidious and deplorable. I’m also curious whether John Christy having outlived his credibility has also outlived his usefulness. Is Christy’s career as a fossil fuels industry consultant finally over?

Climate scientist Ben Santer’s article in the Outlook section of the Washington Post on Sunday is relevant to this discussion and recommended to readers. Scientists like Santer are doing exceptionally good and honest work for the benefit of all of us and all future generations while irresponsible and disagreeable media pundits, elected officials, lobbyists, and economists are simply making stuff up which is rather disagreeable.

Figure 1. Comparison of Muller’s BEST temperature anomaly (red) with NASA-GISS temperature anomaly (black). Data Source: Grant Foster

Figure 2. Trends in global temperature according to changepoint analysis. Included data sets are NASA GIStemp, NOAA, HadCRUT4, Cowtan and Way, and Berkeley Earth. Source [6]

Figure 3. The studies are Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange), Wigley and Santer 2012 (WG12, dark green), Jones et al. 2013 (J13, pink), IPCC AR5 (IPCC, light green), and Ribes et al. 2016 (R16, light purple). The numbers in this summary are best estimates from each study; uncertainty ranges can be found in the original research. Source: https://skepticalscience.com/graphics.php?g=57

Figure 4. History of error corrections in John Christy’s published papers. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/may/11/more-errors-identified-in-contrarian-climate-scientists-temperature-estimates

[1] Ben Santer, Washington Post Outlook section, July 9, 2017

[2] Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardiner, Superforecasting

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_A._Muller

[4] Jonathan L. Baker, Matthew S. Lachniet, Olga Chervyatsova, Yemane Asmerom, and Victor J. Polyak, Holocene warming in western continental Eurasia driven by glacial retreat and greenhouse forcing, Nature Geoscience, 22 May 2017, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2953

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkeley_Earth

[6] Stefan Rahmstorf, Grant Foster and Niamh Cahill, Global temperature evolution: recent trends and some pitfalls, Environmental Research Letters ,25 April 2017 https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6825

[7] T. R. Karl, A. Arguez, B. Huang, J. H. Lawrimore, J. R. McMahon, M. J. Menne, T. C. Peterson,
R. S. Vose, H.-M. Zhang, Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface
warming hiatus. Science 348, 1469–1472 (2015).

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argo_(oceanography)

[9] Zeke Hausfather, Kevin Cowtan, David C. Clarke, Peter Jacobs, Mark Richardson, Robert Rohde, Assessing recent warming using instrumentally homogeneous sea surface temperature records, Sci. Adv. 2017;3: e1601207 4 January 2017

[10] Mears, C., and F. Wentz, 2017: A satellite-derived lower tropospheric atmospheric temperature dataset using an optimized adjustment for diurnal effects. J. Climate. doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-16-0768.1, in press.

[11] Benjamin D. Santer, John C. Fyfe, Giuliana Pallotta, Gregory M. Flato, Gerald A. Meehl, Matthew H. England, Ed Hawkins, Michael E. Mann, Jerey F. Painter, Céline Bonfils, Ivana Cvijanovic, Carl Mears, Frank J.Wentz, Stephen Po-Chedley, Qiang Fu and Cheng-Zhi Zou, Causes of dierences in model and satellite tropospheric warming rates, Nature Geoscience, 19 June 2017, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2973

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