Saturday, November 10, 2007

That Geoclimatic Studies hoax - and what it was about

Are there only opinions about reality, that we can only trade insults about, or is it possible to refer to independent, or 'objective' correlations for those opinions, which can be what they're based on, and be tested?

The debate on whether modern climate change is caused by human behaviour or due to natural cycles is for some highly emotive, because a great deal of vested interest and money depends on the outcome*.

The sceptics can be divided into two camps: those who base their arguments on a good and transparent understanding of the science and economics; and those who don't, instead attacking the proponents on personal grounds. And they do get extremely vituperative.

I recently collaborated in an elaborate hoax - called "a spoof that puts the fun back into lying about science" by desmogblog - that was intended to smoke out the latter sort. It was so successful it was syndicated across 600 radio stations in the US.

A client wrote a fake paper, purporting to 'prove' that rather than fossil fuel burning it was the previously undetected emissions from undersea bacteria which were responsible for the last 140 years' increase in atmospheric concentrations.

We said it was from a fake 'Journal of Geoclimatic Studies', based at a fake Institute of Geoclimatic Studies at Okinawa University, in Japan. We had a fake Editorial Board, back issues, editorial and other papers.

The 4000 word paper itself, Carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria: the death of manmade global warming theory? contained graphs and numerous references, and was launched on its own website late afternoon on 7 November. (It has since been taken down.)

Within a few hours, the blogosphere was ablaze with the news, and a number of bloggers fell for the scam. However, we had deliberately made it fairly transparent, and easy to see that it was not a genuine paper. After all, a simple 'whois' look-up revealed my name as the domain owner, and Googling the contributors or the institution drew a blank.

I took several calls from Science magazine, Nature, and Reuters news agency. These were genuinely interested in the process and I passed on their contact details to the writer.

Well-known sceptic Benny Peiser posted the paper to his discussion group, but an hour later (to his credit) sent a second message saying that it appears he was duped. Neil Craig at 'A Place to Stand' said "this paper could not be more damaging to manmade global warming theory".

'Reason Magazine' posted the story and then tore it down, as did quite a few others.

More interesting were the personal emails we got, ranging from the congratulatory to the insulting, including this one from journalist and environmental health campaigner Theo Richel: "Usually we skeptics are accused of deliberately causing confusion, now we catch you doing it. Bit like what Michael Crichton predicted in his Climate of Fear, environmentalists would do. Great visionary skeptic that man. So I’ll gladly keep you as an example of the journalists who need fiction to prove their point. And then fail."

I happen to think Theo is a reasonable man. He, like me, believes, that we need sound scientific evidence on which to base policy. He, like me, is sceptical of some of the claims of the environmental movement, who do often exaggerate and scare. I have personal experience of this having been at the heart of the MMR vaccine debate, where I presented the balanced viewpoint on the Department of health's immunisation website as its editor. He, like me, thinks that policy should be made on the basis of proper risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis (return on investment), if we are to deal with real-world economic choices.

We'll have to agree to differ on our attitude to Michael Crichton.

But I'm a satirist, and a fiction writer by trade as well as a journalist. (And, yes, I can tell the difference.) Sometimes fiction and satire can reach places facts alone can't - in the right context. Whether we can be said to have failed depends on what we set out to achieve.

For me, the point is that entrenched opinions lead to trading insults and a lack of self-critical rigour when it comes to examining the facts - the basis of the argument.

What the hoax showed is that there are many people willing to jump on anything that supports their argument, whether it's true or not.

What we wanted to emphasise is that it's necessary to achieve scientific validity using the peer-review model. Proper climate science makes every attempt to do this, and is a constantly evolving and self-refining process, as all science is.

So, when commentator posted on my blog - sarcastically - "....And we do all have to go with the "scientific consensus" don't we?" - I can only say, if we haven't got the scientific consensus then what have we got?


*However I am always surprised why this is the case. Regardless of what is the cause of global warming, most agree that it is occurring. So whether human beings caused it or not, it still needs to be minimised and adapted to.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this.

Much appreciated and much enjoyed.

For my take, prior to knowing of this post/your role, see:

PattyP said...

That was a really excellent hoax, sir. I tip my hat to you!

Anonymous said...

You, sir, are brilliant. And I'm not even going to check to make sure you really are. You got Rush Limbaugh to look like an ass. That is all the facts I need.

Need your car washed, your laundry done, your shoes polished?

Just ask. I'm at your service.

Calvin Jones said...

David this is absoloutely awesome! Very creative work. Only one point, you should have left it up...there are quite a few links going there and i`d have loved to see it.

weblackey said...

Get them with humor! It works because they have none.

Kudos galore to you, sir. You blinded them with science ;-)

Joseph said...

Hmmmm... I suppose it wouldn’t be that difficult to produce a nonsensical report that appealed to left-wing prejudices.

Wait a moment... I thought Sokal did that already.

Dividendum said...

DT: you say "I can only say, if we haven't got the scientific consensus then what have we got?"

There is no such thing as scientific consensus. Scientific theories is all about non-consensus. Claims of AGW is only a theory as good as.

You grenies are unbelievable on this topic. There's only politicans and their left-wing journalists who talk about this consensus-among scientists-crap.

**Peer review can easily be confused with peer pressure.**

//Greetings from ass-cold Sweden.

DavidKThorpe said...

Calvin: we couldn't leave it up, the hosting company was getting too much grief.

Joseph: You're quite right - I'm not partisan - what makes you think I'm left wing?

NDLundkvist: if there is no such thing as scientific consensus how do you think we arrived at the very technology which you use to send your blog messages, the medicines that make you better, and the processed food you eat? I agree that within the scientific community there are frauds, there is peer pressure, there is distortion, the same as there are in all other spheres of human activity.

But the ability to set up models, make predictions, and test and refine them, to duplicate experiments and see if the same results occur, and to monitor the environment with increasing accuracy, AND make the results publicly and transparently available for criticism, is what the scientific method is intended to do.

You don't find this with the commercial or political pressure groups.

I think your cynicism arises because you see certain groups misuse or selectively use results for their own ends. Of course this needs to be exposed, but with rigour and with examples. I'm as cynical as you, but at the same time, I try to be as critical of my own prejudices as I am of anyone else's. I'm not perfect at doing this of course. That's why I'm open to this kind of dialogue where my opinions and assumptions can be tested.

Or perhaps you're cynical because you see your lifestyle threatened. Damn right it's threatened.

bigcitylib said...

You are my new hero.

Anonymous said...

For NDlundkvist:
"You grenies are unbelievable on this topic. There's only politicans and their left-wing journalists who talk about this consensus-among scientists-crap."

Are the following left-wingers?

John McCain (R-AZ)?
George H. W. Bush?
(that was in 1989, before AGW got politicized by the same people who defended tobacco, with similar tactics...)

Here's a nice list on consensus:

I note that it includes:
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the entity that awards Nobel prizes.

The 2007 IPCC Report had at least 6 Swedish authors and 4 reviewers. They're easy enough to find: maybe they give seminars at nearby universities, of which you have some good ones.

Greg Tallent said...

This is exactly why we need a body like the IPCC to maintain an accurate record of scientist's observations on global warming. The hoax shows that sceptics grab whatever argument they can to make a case against global warming. Greg

neil craig said...

David it appears you are falling for part of your own hoax.

You quote me, Neil Craig at 'A Place to Stand' said "this paper could not be more damaging to manmade global warming theory" - now this comes from various newspaper articles which, in turn, are rewrites of the Reuters report in it which does indeed quote me as saying this. However a more careful reading of my post would have shown that I was not claiming this as my view but was instead taking it as a quote from your own article. You are therefore quoting the quote of the quote of myself republishing your quote, which you apparently didn't recognise.

I note you have said that "we" arranged this hoax & since it is indeed well constructed in the style of a genuine paper perhaps the other alarmist conspirators involved might like to take a public bow.

DavidKThorpe said...

Apologies - I was quoting verbatim from 'desmogblog'. Nevertheless, you did apparently fall for it. The writer of the 'paper' did an interview published on Nature, reproduced in part here:

Anonymous said...

"What the hoax showed is that there are many people willing to jump on anything that supports their argument, whether it's true or not."

Are you talking about the great global warming swindle?

DavidKThorpe said...

I wish that people would spend less time playing conspiracy theories and more time trying to look at the evidence.

Anonymous said...

This is only one example. We know the blogosphere can propagate unchecked non-facts at the speed of light and there are plenty of examples. The recent Monckton / Schulte / Ferguson vs Oreskes affair is a good example, in which a lot of people were really keen to believe that an endocrinologist had proved there was non consensus on AGW. IT lasted a lot longer, since the actual paper was not published.

Anonymous said...

"I can only say, if we haven't got the scientific consensus then what have we got?"

How 'bout facts? Truth? If only we could ask Copernicus about this deep question of yours.

DavidKThorpe said...

Science doesn't accept the existence of facts, only theories which have not yet been falsified. Check your Karl Popper.

Science builds models, theories, equations, based on observations. These are then tested, or predictions made on the basis of the theories are tested. If they are proved to be untrue the theory is refined or thrown away.

But a 'fact'? Well, we can say water boils at 100 degrees Celsius - but only under certain conditions. So it's a contingent fact, just as Copernicus' observations have ben surpassed, and the theories based on these observations developed.

The IPCC tries to build models of the climate based on observations. What we have now is the best available evidence, for the best available theory. Like all scientific theories it will evolve.

Many thousands of people are working constantly to improve the the theories as fast as possible. They all, ideally, use the Popperian model of scientific advancement.