16
Aug
09

Cooling on Plimer

So the Plimer/Monbiot ‘wrestle’ is off to bumpy start.

Before jumping in, just a brief word about George Monbiot, since I had an explore of Ian Plimer in a previous post. Monbiot is a journalist, not a scientist, and quick to say so. He is lower on the credibility spectrum than Plimer (who himself is among the science community, but not a specialist in climate study). So you don’t trust what he says on his own authority. Nor is that his aim – he says he aims to clearly communicate what he comes across from climate experts. Nothing wrong with that – it is how cultural communication takes place. But he does come from a particular political persuasion – he has always been connected with protest movements, even having been involved with the Respect party in the UK. He has a worldview that comes to the fore in what he writes. As with Plimer, we should see the worldview behind the arguments, but still judge the arguments for their truth and coherence.

Pre-fight

Plimer writes a book, critiquing climate science findings.

Monbiot reports criticism of the book and adds his own summary.

Plimer challenges Monbiot to debate the science. (I can’t find a primary source for that from Plimer, but Monbiot’s one-sided account is here.)

Monbiot originally turned down the challenge, but then accepted it, with a condition: that as well as a live debate there would also be a written, on-line debate, so that references could be checked and arguments could be parsed more slowly, point by point.

Plimer originally turned down that challenge, but then accepted it.

Round 1

Monbiot posed 11 questions.

Round… 1a

Plimer responded with 13 questions.

On the surface it sounds fair, although it would have been good to see Plimer’s answers at the same time as he raised questions. But let’s have a look at the kind of questions, and the kind of answers they are looking for. To do that, I’ll drop out the detail of the questions and look at their form.

Monbiot’s questions

  1. You make a claim of temperature dropping based on data from HadCRUT (measuring the world climate). But the data says otherwise. What gives? How did you calculate a different outcome?
  2. There is an important graph in your book with no source. What is the source? Who’s figures are they?
  3. You make this important claim without a reference. What is your source?
  4. You seem to make a claim about global temperature based on data for the USA alone. What gives? Did you mean to?
  5. You make a claim without a reference. What is your source? Your claim seems to contradict evidence. What gives?
  6. You make a claim without a reference. What is your source?
  7. Your claim about water vapour is without a reference, and seems to lead to nonsense results. What gives, and what’s your source?
  8. You seem to have misrepresented a scientific paper, getting opposite implications. What gives?
  9. You provide no reference for a claim that seems to stand against what a body says about its own work. What gives? What is your reference?
  10. You make a claim without a reference. What is your source?
  11. You make a claim without a reference. What is your source?

You can see the pattern. Generally, something you have written which is not referenced. Please provide the reference so that it can be tested. More strongly, without the reference, the claim is just an assertion with little value as a claim to truth.

Now, Plimer’s questions. Well, I was about to start, but they aren’t really questions. They are tasks. Plimer has set a series of tasks.

  1. Use several data sources to propose past earth temperatures. Show all calculations and justify your assumptions.
  2. Calculate gas results from a large group of volcanic sources… Reference and justify all assumptions.
  3. From first principles, calculate… Justify all assumptions.
  4. Calculate the changes in… Justify all assumptions.
  5. Calculate forcings of temperature … Justify all assumptions and show all calculations.
  6. From a large range of data, demonstrate numerically that…

Look, I’m not going to continue. You can see the pattern.

The two sets of questions (and you really should go and take a look at Plimer’s!) have very different qualities. Plimer wins the prize for ‘sciencey’ sounding questions. But that misses the point. Monbiot’s were sharp and focussed. Most could be answered in a line or two, some would need a couple of paragraphs. Plimers are 13 research projects. I’m trying to be fair and open to debate, but that is just silly. It makes Plimer seem like a self-important prat. Maybe he isn’t.

Monbiot says that he is simply not the person to address the questions. Fair enough, he is a journalist. Interestingly, there is a group of scientists who have set up a project to respond to the Plimer questions. Maybe that is a good thing, as at least it could get the debate going. I hope that Plimer gets his team together to answer the simple reference questions. Then we will be getting somewhere!

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