Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Blowing Smoke About Clouds

by Pericles
Originally posted to Pericles on Tue Sep 06, 2011 at 07:51 AM PDT.
Also republished by Science Matters, SciTech, and Community Spotlight. 

Cloud formation over Amon Basin, Kennewick, Washington
Last week an International Business Times headline brought me up short: "Alarmists Got it Wrong, Humans Not Responsible for Climate Change: CERN".
"Wow," I thought. "CERN. Not some Exxon-funded stooge. CERN, where the real scientists are. There's the CERN logo right in the article. I'd better read this and rethink my opinion on climate change."
I read the article and I learned a lot. But not about science, about propaganda. Hijacking the well-deserved prestige of a scientific organization like CERN is easier than I thought.
Occasionally you need to know some science to spot the BS in a newspaper science article, but most of the time you just need some common sense. Start with: Does the content of the article justify the headline?
Not this time. The article discusses new research about cloud formation that CERN scientists recently published in Nature (another one of the biggest names in science). But nobody at CERN is quoted saying, "Humans aren't responsible for climate change."
In fact, the article doesn't quote anybody from CERN (or Nature). Who, then? Lawrence Solomon, David Whitehouse, and Nigel Calder. If you're just skimming, you might assume at least one of them represents CERN, but they don't.
Who are they? In the Age of Google, that's an easy question.
  • Solomon is the author of The Deniers: The World Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution, and Fraud; And those who are too fearful to do so.
  • Whitehouse is from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, described by SourceWatch as "a United Kingdom group opposing action to mitigate climate change". Funded by ... they won't say.
  • Calder (according to Wikipedia) is "a long-standing skeptic of global warming" who "participated in the polemic film The Great Global Warming Swindle."
So a more accurate headline would be: "Global-Warming Skeptics Claim New CERN Research Vindicates Them".
Well, of course they claim that. But then any real journalist would have to ask: Does it?
Journalism -- even journalism about rocket science -- is not rocket science: Punch "CERN cloud experiment results" into Google, and in seconds you'll be looking at the CERN press release and its supporting press briefing. Spend a few minutes chasing links, and you'll see the lead author of the Nature article (Jasper Kirkby) quoted in Scientific Computing, Live Science, and -- oh, look at this! -- Nature News, which is put out by the same people who publish Nature.
So it isn't hard to find sources closer to the action than Solomon, Whitehouse, and Calder. Do any of them say "Humans are not responsible for climate change"? No. So what is this experiment and what does it really show?
CERN made a cloud chamber that simulates Earth's atmosphere, and tried to figure out where atmospheric aerosols -- tiny particles that cloud droplets form around -- come from. They discovered that previous theories only accounted for a small fraction of the aerosols observed in the atmosphere. They could account for more when they added cosmic rays to their simulation, but they still couldn't form a complete theory.
The CERN press release quotes Kirkby:
“It was a big surprise to find that aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere isn’t due to sulphuric acid, water and ammonia alone. Now it’s vitally important to discover which additional vapors are involved, whether they are largely natural or of human origin, and how they influence clouds.”
The press briefing concludes:
“This result leaves open the possibility that cosmic rays could also influence climate. However,  it is premature to conclude that cosmic rays have a significant influence on climate until the additional nucleating vapours have been identified, their ion enhancement measured, and the ultimate effects on clouds have been confirmed.”
Nothing in the press release quantifies this possibility. Kirkby told Nature News: "At the moment, [our research] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it's a very important first step."
Live Science also talked to Kirkby:
“The research doesn't call into question the basic science of greenhouse gas warming, Kirkby emphasized, but rather refines one facet of the research. ... "It's part of the jigsaw puzzle, and you could say it adds to the understanding of the big picture," he said. "But it in no way disproves the other pieces."
None of that stops Solomon from claiming (in the Financial Post -- again published with no comment from the actual researchers) that, “The science is now all-but-settled on global warming, convincing new evidence demonstrates, but Al Gore, the IPCC and other global warming doomsayers won’t be celebrating. The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun — not human activities — as the dominant controller of climate on Earth.”
Discover's Bad Astronomy blog responds:
“There’s only one problem: that’s completely wrong. In reality the study shows nothing of the sort.”
BA goes on to explain why you shouldn't expect any future research to support Solomon either:
“The problem here is two fold: there doesn’t appear to be a large variation in Earth’s temperatures with solar activity, and also that temperatures are rising extremely rapidly in the past 100 years, when solar activity has been relatively normal.”
So, who do you think the conservative media outlets go with: science publications that have done the legwork and talked to the CERN researchers, or a long-time global-warming denier who makes unsupported claims in an opinion piece in a financial newspaper?
Do you have to ask?
Fox Business Channel's Tobin Smith:
“We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world's largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it's the sun's rays, not human activity, which controls the earth's climate. Now, that, of course, is horrible news for the greenies who've used, you know, for years questionable science to justify more and more regulations against fossil fuels like coal and oil, all the while arguing for more and more for the renewable energy sources they just love so dearly. So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?”
Media Matters collects similar statements from CBN, the Washington Times, and Investor's Business Daily -- all clearly repeating Solomon's interpretation rather than CERN's.
So this is what you need to hijack the well-deserved prestige of a research organization like CERN and a journal like Nature:
  • three zero-credibility cranks to "interpret" the research by making stuff up,
  • two newspapers willing to ignore anybody connected to the research, and instead source their articles to the cranks,
  • an echo chamber of news outlets willing to accept the first two papers as reliable sources, do no independent checking, and instead let false claims grow in the telling,
  • opinion leaders in the echo chamber who shift the onus away from the cranks onto their opponents: What's wrong with those greenies, that they still hold out now that they've been proven wrong?
Result? Rank-and-file conservatives hear the same message from multiple directions. When they confidently tell their friends and  co-workers that CERN has proved Al Gore wrong, people who get their news from the New York Times know nothing about it -- because an accurate assessment of these tentative results was not deemed sufficiently newsworthy. And the conservative nods knowingly: It's that liberal media, constantly suppressing anything that doesn't fit its biased worldview.


Richard Badalamente said...

I had an acquaintance tell me that the whole climate change issue was a socialist hoax aimed at one world government under the United Nations. Really?

If you've read the book, "Merchants of Doubt," you know that this sort of misinformation campaign has been going on a long time, covering everything from climate change to smoking.

The people who do this are BAD people; in a real sense they are criminals. Those who fall for it are either ignorant, or desperate for someone to tell them what they want to hear, i.e., that they can just go on doing whatever they want and there will be no consequences.

If you're a conservative these days -- a Republican, a Tea Partier, or a Libertarian -- you want someone to reinforce your view that regulations are killing jobs, when in fact, jobs are killing people; jobs in coal mines, asbestos mining and industries using asbestos (e.g., auto repair and building construction), iron and steel workers, hazardous waste workers, shipyard workers, maritime workers, and many others.

Our workers are protected by the rules and regulations promulgated by OSHA. Since the agency was established in 1971, workplace fatalities have been cut by 62 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have declined 40 percent. At the same time, US employment has nearly doubled from 56 million workers at 3.5 million worksites to 115 million workers at nearly 7 million sites.

I was studying for my MSIE before OSHA was established and was appalled by the lack of concern for worker safety exhibited by much of American industry. Unions tried to negotiate safer conditions, but didn't have the science to back up their demands. OSHA filled that gap. But for conservatives, OSHA regulations are job killers, and unions are profit killers.

The other way that jobs kill people is by employers who provide the jobs spewing noxious crap into the air we breathe and the water we drink. You all know this, and you know that without government intercession, corporate America would go on killing us. In the United States, traffic fatalities total just over 40,000 per year (they are down due to safer cars and safer roads), while air pollution claims 70,000 lives annually. US air pollution deaths are equal to deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. But according to Republicans, EPA air and water quality standards are killing jobs. Their solution? Kill people, not jobs.

And finally, what Republicans want to do is kill future generations; people who have no say in our continuing disregard for the way in which we are altering the climate; warming the planet to the point where droughts, like that plaguing Texas today will dry up crop land, and fertile costal plains planted to feed billions of people around the world will be poisoned by the incursion of salt water from rising oceans.

So if a Republican calls you a socialist because you don't agree with his/her job killing horse shit, tell the idiot that if it takes a socialist to set the record straight, then damned right, I'll be a socialist for you.

Richard Badalamente said...

See: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/08/the-cerncloud-results-are-surprisingly-interesting/

for a scientific discussion on the CERN paper