I attended the formal launch of Professor Ian Plimer’s new book Heaven and Earth (held in the historic balcony room of South Australia’s Parliament House). Ian had kindly sent me an invitation and I thought it a good opportunity to get a summary of his recent opinion, straight from the horse’s mouth. The book went on sale a few days before and having been lent a copy, I’d read through it on-and-off over the last few days. Here is what the blurb suggests the book achieves:

The Earth is an evolving dynamic system. Current changes in climate, sea level and ice are within variability. Atmospheric CO is the lowest for 500 million years. Climate has always been driven by the Sun, the Earth’s orbit and plate tectonics and the oceans, atmosphere and life respond.

Humans have made their mark on the planet, thrived in warm times and struggled in cool times. The hypothesis that humans can actually change climate is unsupported by evidence from geology, archaeology, history and astronomy. The hypothesis is rejected. A new ignorance fills the yawning spiritual gap in Western society.

Climate change politics is religious fundamentalism masquerading as science. Its triumph is computer models unrelated to observations in nature. There has been no critical due diligence of the science of climate change, dogma dominates, sceptics are pilloried and 17th Century thinking promotes prophets of doom, guilt and penance.

When plate tectonics ceases and the world runs out of new rocks, there will be a tipping point and irreversible climate change. Don’t wait up.

I’ve been critical of Ian’s views before (see here and here). In short, my view was that Ian’s assertions about man’s role in climate change were naive, reflected a poor understanding of climate science, and relied on recycled and distorted arguments that had been repeatedly refuted. Ian and I have regularlydebated” on this issue, so I’m probably more familiar than most with his lines of argument. (I actually think it’s rather silly to debate the science, because this the role of the scientific community as a whole, and in doing so they’ve reached a view that this is a serious problem — but that is what the media demands.) Anyway, after reading the 500+ page tome that is H+E, I find that nothing has fundamentally changed.

Plimer tackles literally hundreds of lines of argument in his book. He claims that mainstream science — including the “experts” in each area (those that focus on particular focused questions within narrow discipline areas) are ALL wrong — every argument, every one of those scientists. I quote (from a recent Adelaide Advertiser article on the book):

Professor Plimer said his book would “knock out every single argument we hear about climate change”, to prove that global warming is a cycle of the Earth.

“It’s got nothing to do with the atmosphere, it’s about what happens in the galaxy. You’ve got to look at the whole solar system and, most importantly, we look back in time”.

There are a lot of uncertainties in science, and it is indeed likely that the current consensus on some points of climate science is wrong, or at least sufficiently uncertain that we don’t know anything much useful about processes or drivers. But EVERYTHING? Or even most things? Take 100 lines of evidence, discard 5 of them, and you’re still left with 95 and large risk management problem. It’s an unscientific and disingenuous claim. As is his oft repeated assertion that a single apparently contradictory piece of information axiomatically overturns all other lines of evidence. Plimer apparently thinks Popperian falsification is the dominant deductive modus operandi in the natural sciences. I’ve got other news for him (I’m happy to email people my full article from BioScience if they email me a request).

Ian Plimer’s book is a case study in how not to be objective. Decide on your position from the outset, and then seek out all the facts that apparently support your case, and discard or ignore all of those that contravene it. He quotes a couple of thousand peer-reviewed scientific papers when mounting specific arguments. What Ian doesn’t say is that the vast majority of these authors have considered the totality of evidence on the topic of human-induced global warming and conclude that it is real and a problem.

Some researchers have show that the Earth has been hotter before, and that more CO2 has been present in the atmosphere in past ages. Yes, quite — this is an entirely uncontroversial viewpoint. What is relevant now is the rate of climate change, the specific causes, and its impact on modern civilisation that is dependent, for agricultural and societal security, a relatively stable climate. Ian pushes mainstream science far out of context, again and again.

Ian also claims that a huge body of scientific evidence — indeed, whole disciplines such as geology and astronomy — have been ignored. This is an extraordinary proposition and quite at odds with the published literature, as reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I wonder if Ian has ever read their reports to find out what they actually do say. Terms like “solar” and “volcano” get frequent mentions, and there is a whole chapter on “paleoclimate”. Ian’s stated view of climate science is that a vast number of extremely well respected scientists and a whole range of specialist disciplines have fallen prey to delusional self interest and become nothing more than unthinking ideologues. Plausible to conspiracy theorists, perhaps, but hardly a sane world view — and insulting to all those genuinely committed to real science.

There is another important general point about the book. In the final chapter (pg 473), Ian quotes Charles Babbage; this quote is relevant to the thrust of his book, and underscores to me why it is so distorted. Babbage outlined three criteria for detecting non-science: trimming, cooking and forgery. Here is a useful description of what Babbage said:

Trimming “consists of clipping off little bits here and there from those observations which differ most in excess from the mean, and in sticking them on to those which are too small.” Babbage believed trimming was not a serious threat to the search for truth because it merely reinforced the average results and eliminated some odd outlying data. In contemporary clinical research, however, rare adverse effects can be literally a matter of life and death. Thus, clinical investigators today are not so complacent on this point.

Cooking is the selective reporting of a group of results, picking out the data from among several measurements that most supports the desired conclusion. Babbage had in mind the actions of a single investigator, but selective reporting might also draw concern as a cause of publication bias. Is an investigator who does not report the results of a study with a negative finding committing fraud? This is a question that has not yet been answered by the research community.

Blatant forgery, as in reporting measurements on imaginary patients, was for Babbage the most nefarious type of fraud. Yet as medical research and its relationship to the pharmaceutical industry and to consumers has grown more complex, it has become more difficult to clearly define investigator fraud. Medical professor and ethicist Robert Levine defines “fraud” as “the deliberate reporting in the scientific literature or at scientific meetings of ‘facts’ that the reporter knows are unsubstantiated.” But the scientific community, Levine says, has not yet agreed on how to distinguish between “felonies and misdemeanours” in the context of research misconduct.

Trimming might include surreptitiously deleting outliers that do not fit with models or theory. Cooking is good old cherry-picking, a la the “1998 was the hottest year on record and so the Earth has cooled since” meme. Forgery is typified by Fig 3 in the Introduction of Plimer’s book. Guess where that came from?

Here (first edition of the Great Global Warming Swindle). This is the original version of his Fig 3:

The above figure contains fabricated data, as can be seen in this comparison (Ian used the purple version):

I wonder what happened to the last 20-odd years of warming in Ian’s plot, and where did all that smoothing and flattening come from? There are numerous other examples of Babbage’s misdemeanours in the book. (A bunch more are listed below).

Ian says that creationists use all three tricks — I’d agree. But he then says that the IPCC uses at least two of them, and rants on for a few pages as to why. But of course herein is the great irony of Plimer’s position: a rogue accuses others of what he is most guilty. The pseudo-sceptics of climate science, like the tobacco lobby, liberally undertake all three malpractices to convince their audience of their position. Their twisted logic goes something like this: We know we do it, so surely the ‘other side’ (climate scientists, IPCC etc.) must do it too! Of course, the other side deny that they do it, so we must deny as well. And so it goes on.

The irony of the distortion of Babbage seems to be lost on Ian. Or perhaps it’s all part of the illusionist’s box of magic.

Ian’s book contains over 2,000 references to the scientific literature, although the most cited journal by far is Energy and Environment. What the unsuspecting reader might not realise, however, is that a large number of the scientists he cites in footnotes would agree with the mainstream consensus — just a casual look turns up names like Broeker, Alley, Barnosky, Rampino, Lambeck, Royer, Berner, etc. (even Brook, heh, heh). It’s all about the context, and Ian is not averse to implicit extrapolation…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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