Saturday, April 09, 2011

Noted for the record: another instance of Republican denialism

The full House voted a few days ago on an amendment to a Republican-drafted bill whose main purpose was to prohibit the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. The amendment, proposed by Henry Waxman (D-CA), asked that we should at least acknowledge the problem exists. It read as follows:

Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate changes is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.

The amendment was defeated, nays beating ayes 240-184. The totals from the roll call for the House Republicans: Aye: 1, Nay: 237.

(h/t: Whiskey Fire | x-posted)


TC said...

It sounds bad when you frame it like that, but it's also true the only 3 democrats out of 187 voted against the party line also. It's kind of ridiculous that a scientific question to which there is some degree of doubt becomes a party line vote. I think pretty much everyone agrees that climate change is happening. The real issue is whether it is "largely" human caused. Isn't it surprising that 99+% of republicans have no doubt it's not human caused and 99+ % of democrats have no doubt that it is human caused. What does "largely" mean -- 51% ? Myself I think it's certainly caused to some extent by human activity, but I'm not sure I'd vote for a bill saying that 51% is caused by human activity if that's what's meant by largely. If the evidence were that rock solid there wouldn't be any debate. but then the polar caps are melting on Mars as well, so I'm not sure that we can be that certain.

The thing is it's definitely happening from some cause or other and humans shouldn't be adding to it and it should definitely be monitored and the human contribution minimized. Congress passing declarations one way or the other about the cause is kind of pointless. But if you're going to pass a resolution saying human activity is the cause, then it follows logically that it should be regulated. So it makes sense that if you don't want to regulate it you wouldn't want to vote for something like that and you come around to partisan politics on a scientific question again.

bjkeefe said...

Actually, the real shame is that there were three Democrats who voted against the amendment. We note, though, with little surprise, that one of them is from Oklahoma, and another is from West Virginia. (No idea to whom the third is beholden, since he's from Minnesota.)

I'm sorry, TC, but I really must disagree with you in the strongest possible terms here. Just because the Republicans will march in lockstep right off the fucking cliff, it does not mean the Democrats are being Just Like™ them on The Other Side™ and Truth™ must lie Somewhere In The Middle™. There is no other developed nation on this planet where an entire political party disputes the reality of anthropogenic global warming. Only the Republicans, only in America.

That humans have significantly contributed and continue to contribute to global warming is settled science. Full stop.

Don't fall for the bullshit put out by the well-funded denialists or the attention-seeking Mavericks™, and don't let your skepticism about other fields, such as medical science, make you a knee-jerk skeptic about this.

What is still open for debate are predictions about the future -- how bad it could get, and how fast it will happen -- and discussion about the best strategies for mitigation. But there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of just about every last person qualified to opine that AGW is real and significant. (I believe the last skeptic of any credibility has finally accepted the conclusions of everyone else's analysis of the data.)

I encourage you to read the IPCC reports, or at least to skim the most recent executive summaries. And to bear in mind that this is very conservative consensus view -- they pretty much don't say anything in those report that's not unanmimously agreed upon.

And I really can't believe you said this:

If the evidence were that rock solid there wouldn't be any debate.

I invite you to consider the effort it took to overcome the tobacco lobby's efforts to suppress the health risks associated with smoking, or similar unbelievably long battles on everything from PCBs to lead in paint and gasoline. Consider that bills promoting the teaching of creationism ("skepticism about evolution") are in the process of being passed in something like sixteen states. Think about Birthers, Moon Hoaxers, and 9/11 Truthers. Think about anyone who takes some holy book literally. There are some people that no amount of evidence will persuade, especially when their faith, their group identity, or their income depends on their maintaining this refusal to accept.

TC said...

OK point taken. I tried to read your links to the ipcc and the executive study, but they just seem to be indexes to other reports. So I looked ipcc reports on the internet. The strongest one said this:

Human Responsibility for Climate Change
The report finds that it is “very likely” that emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have caused “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century.” Evidence that human activities are the major cause of recent climate change is even stronger than in prior assessments.[3]

If you are a non-believer (which I'm not) saying something like : "very likely that most..." gives them a little wriggle room. "Proven beyond any doubt" or "Absolutely certain" would be harder to get around. As far as Richard Muller goes ( the last skeptic of any credibility) from the link you provided he seems to be giving in on climate change but at least in that quote not necessarily to human causation. Maybe he does in the full account.

My point was that whether it's caused mainly by human activity or not, there certainly is some human component in it and therefore it should be monitored and regulated even if it isn't the main cause. Congress passing resolutions to agree or disagree with the science is kind of beside the point, although it would have been nice to get them to agree to accept the "very likely" conclusion. Isn't it amazing that only one republican could accept that very likely conclusion.

bjkeefe said...

You will never get a consensus view of scientists that is any stronger than "very likely." It's hammered into scientists' head from day one that nothing can truly be proven by experiment or empirical means.

This is related to the scientific use of the word theory, which means something very strong, but which the illiterate seize upon as "only a theory."

I don't agree that passing a resolution is "kind of beside the point." I grant it's not much compared to actual regulation, but resolutions can carry weight. Which, of course, is why the Republicans all voted against this one.

TC said...

Well, I don't know about "never". I don't think there are any scientists who think the sun orbits the earth. Or for a more recent example that there are techtonic plates moving land masses and colliding. Ot doubting the science behind the atomic bomb. But I accept your point that it's not easy to get consensus and "very likely" is very strong evidence. It convinces me. As you've pointed out, within our lifetimes scientists told us that it was very likely we had another ice age coming. I actually don't remember if they used the words very likely but they seemed pretty convinced of it until they all or mostly all got on the global warming side. I don't recall that at the time they tried to get congress to accept the scientific thought that an ice age was coming, but if they had what good would it have done?

bjkeefe said...

There are, in fact, scientists who will observe that it is just a matter of notational convenience to say the Earth orbits the Sun, and that it is perfectly valid to choose a frame of reference with the Earth at the origin and the Sun orbiting it, and all the same physics will apply, albeit with a lot more messy and tedious arithmetic. And there are others (general relativists) who will say it's a mistake to speak in terms of orbits at all, that the Earth is traveling along a line of potential in space-time (or something like that -- I never did get past Einstein's special relativity). But that's a quibble.

There are also scientists who will tell you, if they want to be pedantic, that we don't actually know for sure what's going on when an atomic bomb explodes, because it's way too small to see, and that rather, what we have is a theoretical model that makes very good predictions. Another quibble, but it's a lot like the "very likely" statement.

I'll also point out that it took quite a while for scientists to accept that the crust of the Earth is not fixed, and that there were holy wars (which I still don't completely understand) when the phenomena were gathered under the new heading plate tectonics and continental drift was declared obsolete. This is less of a quibble -- the idea that the Earth's crust is not fixed does illustrate how it takes time for allthe best qualified people in a scientific field to accept a new theory.

One thing I do want to dispute, rather heatedly, is this:

As you've pointed out, within our lifetimes scientists told us that it was very likely we had another ice age coming.

No. I have never said that (save, perhaps, in a joke). The AGW denialists have been harping on this one for decades. It's part of their "these scientists can't tell us anything!!!1!" tactics. I have rebutted that claim numerous times. What in fact happened was one brief bit of speculation -- crucially, that got a lot of MSM attention -- that was rather quickly disputed by those who actually study such things. The dispute, of course, got practically no coverage. There never was a consensus, and there certainly never was near-unanimity saying anything remotely close to "very likely."

If you'd like a quick review, start with the three links in the third paragraph of this post. Also, a debunking of a variation on this myth is here.

TC said...

You've inadvertently helped make my point. The state of knowledge in science is an ever evolving entity. To take the state of knowledge today and write it into a law is futile, because for all we know it's going to change tomorrow as we learn more. For decades science thought electricity flowed in one direction. Then we discovered that it actually flows in the opposite direction. But since it would be a big job to change all the textbooks and reverse everyone's thinking, they decided to leave it as it's written in the textbooks since it's works even though incorrect. Had we passed a law 50 years ago declaring that it flows in the direction everyone believed at the time, we'd have misinformation chiseled in granite so to speak. Why do you need a law? Passing a law about the state of knowledge in science is just political maneuvering.

As far as the earth orbiting the sun if you look at in some unusual way and define it in some peculiar terms. While that may be possible, that's the scientific version of the theologists arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Sure you can always find one lone ranger out there with some bizarre idea, but that hardly means scientists disagree on the basic premise. However you want to define it or thinks of it there's no real disagreement on what's happening. I think you're trying too hard and really reaching to prove that scientists never agree.

And sure, we don't know exactly what happens in a nuclear explosion because our knowledge is always growing and changing and that's exactly why it doesn't make any sense for Congress to pass a law saying that our current understanding is correct and must be accepted by everyone. I'm not a physicist so I don't know if there are competing ideas about how nuclear explosions take place -- the Manhattan Project boys were working long ago after all. But if there are competing theories how futile it would be for us to get Congress to declare that what they thought at the time is actually the truth.

We've slogged this one pretty good if not beaten it to death, Brendan. I give up. You've gotten in some good licks I admit. I've enjoyed the give and take but I'm done. I give you the last word.

bjkeefe said...

You've inadvertently helped make my point. The state of knowledge in science is an ever evolving entity. To take the state of knowledge today and write it into a law is futile, because for all we know it's going to change tomorrow as we learn more.

I think that is not quite right. Yes, there are times, and there have been plenty in the past, where the applecart has been completely upset by a new discovery or a breakthrough theoretical construct. However, it is increasingly looking like we've got the basics pretty well nailed, especially as far as the physics of radiative transfer goes, not to mention applied techniques like signal processing. (Extracting the change in temperature from the noisy background data of Earth's weather and other-cause climatic fluctuations is, essentially, signal processing.) The way you put it suggests we'll forever be in a state of not really knowing better today than yesterday, that things could always come along to make us think, "Okay, well, we were completely wrong about that."

But it's really not likely. And even looking back at the paradigm shifts of the past, where we did feel like a completely new discovery or insight had been made, it very often turned out that the effect of the new idea was, for all practical purposes, merely a better approximation; i.e., a method that would let us make more accurate and/or more precise predictions. Thus, in some senses, Einstein completely upset the Newtonian view of the universe; on the other hand, the Newtonian view will still get a spaceship pretty damned close to where you want it. Or, to take another example, quantum mechanics in some senses completely upset the realm of the very small, with its wave-particle duality, its uncertainty principle, its assertion that ultimately, we'd never be able to do better than a statistical understanding. Nonetheless, pretty much everything we knew about chemistry, which depends on an understanding all the way down to the atomic level, still applied.

Thus, in many cases, I think it's better to think of scientific understanding as converging, not just "evolving" and not forever subject to being completely overturned. Could it happen? Yes, in principle. But it's not looking likely, and in any case, we have no better option than to go with our best guess.

I believe that our best guess concerning the effects humans have had on the Earth's atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is a very educated one indeed. I also believe we can extrapolate with high confidence into the near future, and with some confidence, extend that to decades, maybe a couple of centuries. And given the consequences if we're more or less right, it seems like the better bet to err on that side. The worst thing that happens if it turns out our predictions were off in the way-too-dire direction is that we've done some things that would be good anyway; e.g., burned less fossil fuel, dumped less crap into the air, developed clean and renewable energy sources, etc.

In closing, I am going to repeat a distinction I tried to make earlier: there is a difference between (a) how confident we can be about our extrapolations and (b) how sure we can be about our analysis of existing data. We have the latter nailed -- we know (as well as we can know anything) that the Earth is warming, that there are increased concentrations of greenhouses gases in our atmosphere, and that human activity has significantly contributed to this. Even if the Republicans in Congress are not prepared to act at this moment, they should at least take the first step of admitting the problem exists.