Why, Knock Me Down With a Feather: Megan McArdle is Still Always Wrong, Climate Science Edition
Warning: This post is way too long. I mean, really. You have been warned.
I’ve been off the McArdle beat for a while. I find I need to take breaks if I’m to have any hope of (a) retaining sanity in the face of unanswerable questions implicit in our current media ecosystem, and (b) getting work that actually matters to me done that would otherwise be derailed by overloaded outrage circuits tripped by reading McArdle’s…musings are, I guess, the kindest way to describe them.
But a BJ commenter (name now lost to a hyperactive “delete” finger on my email…sorry) pointed me to this bit on climate science from a week or two ago, and it’s been sticking in my craw ever since. In it, she quotes at length from a post at the Volokh Conspiracy by Jonathan Adler, an environmental law specialist with a libertarian and wingnut-thinktank background.
The post McArdle endorses is Adler’s defense of Chris Christie against charges of being soft on global warming. Adler denounces the GOP fundamentalism that damns to the 9th circle those Republicans with the temerity to hold such views. His fear, he writes, is that such orthodoxy will lock that party into “anti-science know-nothingism” (his phrase). To which I would reply, “ya think?” — or rather, “that train long since left the station, pilgrim.”
There’s plenty to argue with in Adler’s formulation of Christie’s alleged connection to the reality based community — but this post is about McArdle’s follies, not any intellectual sins Adler may have committed.
And follies there are in plenty when McArdle decides to amplify Adler’s plaint about pre-Copernicans in the GOP. Why don’t we take a look?
McArdle begins her gloss in classic form:
I don’t think that science denialism is the exclusive province of the GOP, but it’s extremely disappointing whenever either side does it.
Both sides do it! Who could have predicted such a claim? And who could have anticipated that McArdle would offer no examples of denialism by any mainstream Democrat?
Did I miss the part where President Obama asserted that the Apollo missions were faked, Tranquility Base rather existing only on a Hollywood backlot? While I was off the grid for a couple of weeks in August, did Chuck Schumer suddenly announce that Democrats must all sign a pledge asserting that π = 3?
Come on, oh Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic: inquiring minds want to know what Democrats’ sins you think compare to a near-unanimous denial of the reality of climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection by the current slate of candidates for the GOP nomination to serve as President of the United States? Anything?
As longtime readers known, I have been extremely critical of the attitude that some climate scientists seem to have developed towards dissent, and what you might call the PR aspect of their work.
I beg your pardon. It is not the climate science crowd that has been out using state power in an attempt to crush all opposition. Rather, climate scientists have faced real and consequential assaults, from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunting to the real damage done by all those who piled on to the Breitbart/O’Keefe-style selective quoting from stolen emails in what was called the “Climategate” non-scandal. Did anyone notice that every inquiry into this false controversy has come up with…nothing?
All of which is to say that there are indeed views that are being shouted down by a contemptuous opposition incapable of accepting anything that contradicts their cherished worldview — and those authoritarian assaults on reasoned debate come from the so called “skeptic” crowd.
The still deeper problem, of course, is that those ideologically committed to the view that global warming is a hoax have themselves mastered modern PR, so that, with the connivance of an incompetent or malicious media (to which faction does McArdle belong…or could this this a case of a nonexcluded middle?–ed.), junk routinely reaches the public as fact.* [much more detail at the footnote]
But to the matter at hand, McArdle’s engaged in classic misdirection. The researcher’s job is to do the best science that he or she can. A real journalist would then attempt to understand and explain to a broad audience what the results from such work now suggest. Here’s McArdle’s attempt:
Nonetheless, I am quite convinced that the planet is warming,
Why thank you, Ms. McArdle. Your judgment is just what’s been needed to set all this to rest.
and fairly convinced that human beings play a role in this.
Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?
In fact, this one sentence captures much of why McArdle is (or ought to be) such an embarrassment to her employer. Bluntly, McArdle lacks the capacity to have an opinion on this matter.
That’s the core issue, really, at least for me, in my guise as a science writer and teacher of the skill. The study of climate and climate change involves a large number of disciplines and sub-disciplines: physics, chemistry, oceanograpy, atmospheric studies, statistics, computer science and much, much more. It turns on detailed and complex investigations of the interaction between domains each of which are demanding enough to reward a life’s study: just think about what needs to be worked out about the connections between the biosphere, the atmosphere, the liquid ocean and that part of the global water supply trapped in ice, and so on through most of the modern science curriculum.
Every single specialty involved takes the better part of a decade of specialized training to master to the point where you can run your own lab. Working the interdisciplinary trick takes groups of people working for quite a while just to be sure they understand each other. Climate science in its modern form dates really only back to the late seventies or early eighties, when the scientific community began to recognize the vital importance of making sense of what people were finding out across what had been quite distinct fields — or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this turning point came when both the knowledge and the instruments needed to make key observations reached a critical point.
That is: you can say with a lot of truth that modern climate science dates from the moment when sufficiently powerful computers emerged to run the first plausible three-d models, and when satellites that could do fine-grained remote sensing first started delivering data. That would be, as it happens, somewhere around the late seventies to the mid 1980s. (You can read a bit more about this in my first book Ice Time [terrible title!], now long out of print, but available for sums reaching as low as … one cent, and glossed very nicely here by Eric Roston, who examines that now 20+ year old book from a perspective informed by what we’ve learned since.)
So it’s a young science, and a difficult one, demanding a lot of time and training and strong collaborations to produce useful work. That means there really are some opinions that are much better than others, and even within science, some opinions that are genuinely worthless, as they are come from folks who literally don’t know what they are talking about. These folks are dangerous for reporters, because naive (or bad-faith) journalists will see a real scientific qualification attached to some name, and hear lots of cool sounding difficult words that sound very much like technical stuff, and can then conclude whatever he or she wants to, believing him or herself to be informed by Science!
So what’s a responsible journalist to do? Well — take the time. Go to meetings. Talk to lots of scientists. Read constantly. Check what you write with people who are actually doing the kind of work that bears on the question. Pay attention to those who make a lot of what look like mistakes; if the same kinds of errors get repeated after correction, then you have found someone not playing straight. (The argument from negative authority is much more robust than its reciprocal.)
Then take more time.
There is a reason that the really good journalists covering this story are people like Andy Revkin, who published his first book on climate change months before my mine came out in 1989. Or folks like Mike Lemonick, who has covered this area for Time magazine and others for almost as long. Or Elizabeth Kolbert, who spent years turning herself into a competent — and better! — interrogator of this field after an earlier career spent on other beats; or Eric Roston, mentioned above, who spent three years working through a biography of carbon to present a from-the-ground-up account of (among much else) why virtually everyone capable of holding an informed view recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming; or any of the many honorable others who actually have devoted themselves to mastering this beat. This kind of science coverage takes sustained effort, which is why you could have counted me among this group twenty years ago, but not now: I’ve shifted my focus several times since those years in the ’80s when I was consumed by the real excitement of what this new science could do.
All that to say that Megan McArdle literally doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know. She lacks any of the apparatus to make a meaningful statement on this subject. A good journalist recognizes when they’re out of their depth, and they shut up, or get help. McArdle does neither — or rather, when she seeks validation for her pre-digested thoughts (“I’m…fairly convinced!” — by all that the FSM deems holy!) — she does so from precisely the kind of folks who reveal just what McArdle herself is really on about:
(When you’ve got Reason’s Ron Bailey, Cato’s Patrick Michaels, and Jonathan Adler, you’ve convinced me).
These are pundits who — to be fair — have spent a fair bit effort on this issue. They are thus not as uninformed as McArdle herself — but they are advocates for a particular view of human agency and autonomy, and not actual experts on the detailed progress of climate science. They may get as far as the IPCC reports, and plenty of the toilet paper produced by the skeptic propaganda machine, (see, as always, Oreskes and Conway’s vital Merchants of Doubt for the gory details). But even the environmental law expertise that Adler may bring to bear is not the same thing as engagement with the beat, nor any substitute for actual technical competence.
Even were one to grant to these three the standing that McArdle does, she still fails of her basic responsibility as a journalist. It’s not just that spinners aren’t even secondary sources. McArdle is utterly unqualified to have an opinion of her own because, by her own admission she has outsourced her brain on this issue and that she hasn’t and won’t do the actual work needed to have even a beginner’s grasp of this story. Caveat lector
And still — by Blackbeard’s ghost! — there’s more:
I reserve the right to be skeptical about particular claims about effect…
McArdle can, of course, be skeptical about anything at all. The question is whether anyone with intelligence to outrank a ficus should give any credence to such concerns. Remember: she’s already told you that she has no personal competence in this field
…(particularly when those claims come via people who implausibly insist that every major effect will be negative)
Ah yes. Al Gore is fat. Except, of course, climate science as a field does not so insist.
Take, for example, the extensive discussion of climate feedbacks in what amounts to a manifesto for what real climate researchers should do (and are now doing), the 2003 National Academy of Sciences report Understanding Climate Change Feedbacks. There the nation’s top scientific institution lays out a meticulous account of the major feedbacks and the necessary research program needed to understand what impact, positive or negative, each such process may have. Or you could look to the most recent IPCC analysis, the nearest thing that exists to a consensus document reviewing the current state of knowledge about climate change — exactly the people whose willingness to entertain contrary results McArdle here disdains. In the FAQ [largish PDF] that accompanies the main report, you will find, among much else, this statement:
Additional important feedback mechanisms involve clouds. Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. A change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, cloud altitude, particle size and shape, or lifetimes, affects the degree to which clouds warm or cool the Earth. Some changes amplify warming while others diminish it. [Italics added] Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming, and how these changes affect climate through various feedback mechanisms.
Of course, McArdle is not trying to engage in principled argument here. She may not know or perhaps she simply does not care about the actual practice of climate scientists. But the truth is there to be found, easily recovered with minimal effort, that the global climate change research community has a record extending back decades of trying to figure out the interlocking positive and negative feedback mechanisms that shape climate change.
Ah — but I’m missing McArdle’s point here. Really, we should read this as a tell, the reveal of the con she’s been running all this long while. She’s already shown her intellectual generosity by grandly conceding that anthropogenic climate change is real. Now, she gets to go all “even-the-liberal-New Republic” on us and tell us why that concession doesn’t matter. See, e.g., her very next line:
and, of course, of ludicrous worries that global warming will cause aliens to destroy us.
Nothing to see here, move along.
Nothing, that is except for an almost textbook example of dishonest writing. These ludicrous worries that do not exist serve nicely to suggest that those concerned about the actual consequences of global warming are keeping company with folks whose fillings serve as antennae tuned to Alpha Centauri. This is one way to fight a political action when the facts are against you: ridicule your opponents for stuff they never said.
But generally, I think global warming is happening, and even that we should probably do something about that, though I’m flexible on “something.”
I.e. we should do nothing.
See above — once you’ve said that those who worry about severe consequences of global warming are delusional, you’ve kind of undercut any call to action. And, just to add a stray thought: given my corollary to DeLong’s law, that McArdle is always wrong, and when you think she’s right, refer to statement one, I might start to question the reality of global warming myself, were it not for the fact that the rest of this piece so clearly demonstrates that she does not accept the actual meaning of that view.
However. Even if you disagree, it is reprehensible to have a litmus test around empirical matters of fact. (I’m not a fan of litmus tests in general, but I suppose it’s fair enough to say “If you want marginal tax rates of 70% on the wealthy, you don’t belong in today’s GOP”).
Gotta move on sometime, so I won’t whale on this, except to note the implied litmus test to which McArdle submitted herself above: climate change only becomes real to her when ideological soul-mates say it is so. Heaven forfend she take the word of someone who actually knows something about the subject. Nope. It had to wait for some pundit with whom she already agreed before she could make the concession.
What these Republicans are doing to people like Chris Christie is no better than what Harvard did to Larry Summers when he suggested that it was possible that women had a different IQ distribution than men.
Oh, this zombie lie.
Not to beat a truly dead horse, but for those of us who actually have some proximity to Harvard, and, as it happens, who know some of the women on its faculty, it’s important to note that Summers survived that flap by about a year, during which a number of other incidents occurred that cast doubt on his competence.
For example, his disastrous management of Harvard’s finances would only become obvious in 2008-9, but in the year between his statements about women and IQ and his resignation, he lost significant support among the actual decision makers at Harvard (i.e., not its Arts and Sciences faculty) over the handling of the Andrei Shleifer case. Shleifer, an economist on Harvard’s faculty and was found to have committed insider trading while working on a Harvard-led project aiding the privatization of Russia’s post-Soviet economy. The settlement of the Shleifer case cost the university $26.5 million — and while Summers had recused himself from anything to do with the case, its outcome represented a major blow to his standing at Harvard.
There were in fact a number of other contributing factors that led the only folks with a vote (again, not the faculty) to ease Summers out. Just a hint — if you look at how Harvard is actually run, it becomes notable that the deans of Harvard’s various schools did not leap to Summers’ defense in his time of need. All of which is to say that the assertion that Harvard tossed out its president just because he said something ill-informed about women fails on even the most cursory inquiry. But even such minimal curiosity is what McArdle, as I’ve come to expect, will not pursue, if there’s a risk she might find out something that contradicts a cherished fable.
And still there’s more!
Facts are not good or bad; they are correct or incorrect.
Snicker. (And not in a PoMo way.)
And a policy based on hysterical refusal to consider all possible facts is neither good, nor correct.
In that case, someone with the initials MM has a lot of ‘splainin to do about just about every claim current GOP candidates are making about the role lower taxes on the wealthy have on economic growth. Just sayin’.
If someone is wrong about the facts, you should explain to them, calmly and concisely, why they are wrong. If it’s really that obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to convince them.
Uh. I just can’t. The snark writes itself — and I’ll let everyone here enjoy their individual takes on what one should say here. That’s why the good FSM created comment threads.
When people start trying to expel heretics because of disagreements over facts, it suggests that they suspect–even know–that the facts are not on their side. Which is, frankly, what I tend to think is happening here. If open argument is going to force your ideology to confront uncomfortable facts, you create a closed circle that the facts can’t penetrate.
Still can’t stop giggling. Have at it.
If the circle is big enough, the geocentric universe gets a few hundred more years before the defensive perimeter cracks.
Message to McArdle: the Catholic Church has indeed survived that anti-science episode.** But the geocentric universe lasted exactly…well I guess not zero years, but pretty nearly so after the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. Geocentrism and the broader disassembling of classical astronomy had, of course, already largely been undone by the early 1600s, at least among the community of the learned. The conventional sequence — from Copernicus, with his still artificially circular orbits, to Kepler’s fitting of the correct elliptical shapes to the paths traced by the planets (and the mathematical advances captured in his three descriptive laws, to Galileo’s observations of the Jovian system, with its moons orbiting a central body in a strikingly clear model of a the kind of heavenly motion Copernicus advanced, published in 1610 — created a broad basr on which to support the fundamental claim of heliocentrism. By the 1630s, the Inquisition could condemn, but minds living in those expanding parts of Europe no longer subject to Rome’s authority could and did ignore any assertion of pontifical judgment about scientific fact — a development that did precisely the kind of damage to the cause of religion that Galileo himself had anticipated in his letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in 1615.
Or to put all this another way: the current closed GOP circle is as unlikely as the Vatican’s was ever to be big enough. The U.S. may suffer — greatly — if we ignore basic facts. We may, likely will, do great harm to others. But those nations and cultures that don’t listen to the McArdles of the world, and all their kin? Well, like Isaac Newton’s England, I expect they’ll do fine, even if we languish under President Perry in predicaments of our own making.
Why so long on what was obviously a rhetorical grace(less) note? Because it is a microcosm of the McArdle approach to her life’s work. This invocation of Galileo’s trial is ignorant of basic facts, false in its implication, historically obtuse and hell, just plain stupid (not to mention kind of meaningless). I guess it sounded kind of clever to McArdle, which meant, on the evidence, that she didn’t pause to ask if the example made sense. It didn’t, and it doesn’t, and should be taken as the warning it is: you can’t take any claim McArdle makes as valid until thrice checked.
Of course, that also means a few hundred years invested in building an institution that cannot survive in a heliocentric solar system.
Uh. Last I looked Pope Benedict still held sway within Vatican City, honored by Catholics the world round. Even the ramifications of a transnational conspiracy to cover up acts of sexual violence against children seems set to do more than temporary damage to the institution. That fact may or may not fill you with pleasure/relief/loathing…but the notion that somehow the contemporary Catholic Church is paying the price for Galileo’s fate is simply phaffing on McArdle’s part — beneath notice except as a further instance of a seemingly incurable lack of rigor in her work.
Maybe the skeptics are right and AGW is minor, or not happening at all. But on the off chance that they’re wrong,
Uh…”off chance…” Not going to rehearse all that’s gone before, but just to say, one more time: virtually every scientist with actual knowledge of the data, the underlying methods, and the theory of climate science have been saying for some time that AGW is real and consequential. McArdle may not like that conclusion; she nonetheless has no standing to dismiss it.
the GOP needs to be the sort of pluralistic body that can survive and thrive on a steady diet of accurate data–no matter what those data say.
I agree. I also think that this is where the whole post reveals itself as a smoke screen to confuse others in the media into the view that a fictional GOP that could thrive on data actually exists.
If enough GOP-identified pundits say a few nice things about positions they simultaneously dismiss (a standard trick within David Brooks’ playbook, of course, and much of McArdle’s raison d’etre) then the useful idiots they count as colleagues can write that once in power a Republican president and congress might not be entirely batshit crazy. That we have plenty of evidence that this view is false (2001-2009; GOP governors/legislators/the Boehner-Cantor led house since 2010) can be ignored, as long as the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic reassures her friends that there really are some Republicans with whom you could have a chat and a drink.
That, as I read it, is really the point of a post like this…
…Enough. Almost five thousand words on a tossed off bit of nonsense by someone whose work is, frankly, trivial, no matter how much influence it may have within a couple of corners of the Village.
I guess I explode into these periodic rants not so much because anything McArdle actually writes is so much more egregious than hundreds of effusions spurting daily from those carbuncles on the body politic that make up the right-blogosphere. Rather, it’s that she does so under the cloak of, and at an institution venerable within a craft I hold dear, that of serious, reasoned, public journalism. This post really is bizarrely too long, so I’m not going to expand on a point I’ve made before. But the particular form of intellectual dishonesty with which McArdle plies her trade does damage to the country — and less consequentially, but probably more severely to all those directly associated with her work at The Atlantic.
*Case in point: over the couple of weeks I’ve been picking away at this post, this story has bubbled up. I believe John linked to it — but the gist is that a journal editor resigned when it became clear that some climate denialist “scientists” snuck a junk paper past the peer review process of the journal Remote Sensing. That paper repeated previously debunked claims that satellite data contradict model results, fail to account for the impact of clouds on the radiative balance of the earth, and thus overstate the risk of warming. The editor resigned because it became very clear on reflection that this paper should have been flagged by what was clearly a flawed peer review. On the level of basic craft, the paper failed to meet the most elementary requirements of a scientific claim: “no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. As to the content — the core claims of the paper are simply wrong, and they are so in elementary ways, rendered meaningless by errors of both method and an actual grasp of the range of observational data:
Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right. However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between the model and data proves nothing.
I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is obviously wrong. In fact, if [University of Alabama at Huntsville’s Roy] Spencer were right, then clouds would be a major cause of El Niño cycles—which we know is not correct. Talk to any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.
Why would someone nominally a science commit such serial and serious errors? Spencer himself tells us. He is the author of a number of interesting works — including one flawed study withdrawn for plagiarism, among other sins, and this latest fiasco — but the actual content of his stuff doesn’t matter. Rather, it is crucial only that Spencer can call himself a scientist, and can be termed as such by the echo chamber right-wing media that takes fatally flawed “research” and retails it to a public as the real deal. Which is exactly what Spencer says he wants to achieve:
“I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”
Well, fine, if you are lobbyist, an advocate, or a
Know-Nothing GOP candidate for president. But if you call yourself a scientist and purport to take part in the common enterprise that is the advance of human knowledge…with that statement you’ve just declared yourself an enemy of whole endeavor. You can’t serve two masters, both your ideological commitment and nature. You have to choose — and Spencer clearly has, opting to put out propaganda contradicted by the testimony of nature in order to defend views that comfort the comfortable.
This is just one example — but it’s why climate scientists don’t have a lot of sympathy for “dissenters” who are in fact propaganda hacks –self admitted in this case. Rather, they have to work overtime in never-really-successful attempts to counter the real damage done by pieces like this both to science and to any kind of real deliberation on the proper policy to adopt in the face of AGW. We surely need a better media.
**Yes, I’m aware that McArdle would probably claim that she was merely saying the Catholic Church itself retained its geocentric views for centuries– but that’s both not exactly true (plenty of folks within the church understood and accepted the advance of knowledge on this question, whatever dogma decreed) and not on point to the suggestion she then tries to make, that such myopia produced an institution that is having trouble surviving now.
Images: William Blake, The Ancient of Days (God the Geometer),1794
Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558 (Engraved by Philipp Galle)
John Barnard Whittaker, Comedy and Tragedy, c. 1883.
Pieter de Bloot, Tavern Interior, 1630s.