Wednesday, December 16, 2009

James Randi on Climate Change

Since the dawn of mankind the world has had it's great men - Norman Borlaug, Carl Sagan, Galileo Galilei and that dude that invented the wheel (his name was either Frank or Bob). These are the people who have changed not only the way we look at the world but also how we interact with it. The problem with this is that if they say one daft thing or hold one stray belief they can potentially damage the great respect that thousands of people have for them. We all grew up knowing that Albert Einstein was a revolutionary scientist who changed everything, we also realise that he could have done so much more if only he hadn't spent so much of his later life not understanding quantum theory and applying his great intellect to try and disprove it. 
 One of my heroes is the devilishly handsome James Randi, he has certainly changed the way I look at the world and I imagine many fine skeptics could say the same. His name is synonymous with the skeptical movement and his work with Peter Popov & Uri Geller is respected around the world. While both of these alleged charlatans seem to be unflushable and tend to come back around the u-bend every once in a while, they never have the same impact as before - for which Randi should be sincerely thanked.

Now onto my rant - James Randi has recently written an article on on his JREF site that reveals he is skeptical of man-made global warming. It seems ironic that the most prominent skeptic alive has fallen into some of the many logical fallacies he should have avoided with ease. I'll discuss some of the statements that really irk me, in my opinion he has misinterpreted the data available on this important subject;

"An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us, in that they are strongly influenced by the need to be accepted, to kowtow to peer opinion, and to "belong" in the scientific community."

I'm somewhat disappointed by this statement - isn't peer review meant to stop this kind of behaviour, a scientist from the same field should be able to correct any mistakes and point out the flaws from behind a shield of anonymity. From what I understand of the peer review process these chaps love to point out any cracks in the paper, Science is about obtaining and correcting knowledge. As far as my limited knowledge goes, the idea of global warming has pretty much become the scientific consensus from rigorous peer review.

"Meanwhile, some 32,000 scientists, 9,000 of them PhDs, have signed The Petition Project statement proclaiming that Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming, that the phenomenon may not exist at all, and that, in any case, warming would not be disastrous... I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid."

That's super, but the important question is just how many Climatologists signed this petition? I went to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine website and found this. It's interesting that the scientific disciplines furthest away from Global Warming have the most signatures - for instance 7,281 signers are engineers, while only 39 are climatologists. In my opinion the 32,000 signatures seem less impressive when you see the breakdown of signatures, and I find myself asking the question: 'why are these people allowed such a loud voice in something so far out of the subject?

I would suggest you read the article on the JREF and make your own mind up as to the validity of Randi's argument. I would like to think that he is simply ill-informed on the subject and has written this because he was asked to. I'm glad that he admits that he is not qualified to be the voice on the subject, but I think someone with such influence should be more careful with what they say. I'd like to believe that climate scientists are wrong and that global warming is not man made, but until the evidence supports this I will stay firmly in the camp of scientific consensus. I am most certainly not a ninja climatologist and neither is James Randi, we should both be heavily influenced by the collective agreement of the people who know and understand the subject much better than we can.

However, one possibly ill-informed idea is barely a drop compared with the vast ocean of sound thinking that Randi has given us. I'd like to leave you with a quote from one of the articles comments that I completely agree with;

"Shame on the guy above who suggested Randi has fallen for "scare-mongering". Does that sound like Randi to you? Maybe he is wrong, so what -  at worst Randi is ignorant. That can be fixed." - KingMerv00

James Randi is still one of my heroes, regardless.

Alex Dennerly

EDIT - The good chaps over at Quackometer have now posted expressing similar sentiments, I suggest you give them a look as well.


  1. Damn, I can't believe I didn't keep the word ninja in there, yet the Quackometer have the word ninja in their post as bold as pie. I feel like I've failed you.

  2. There, just added the word ninja. Let's hope no one notices the change....

  3. Good read (both this one and Randi's rant). Firstly, I'm no climate scientist either, however I have taken great interest in this important and confusing debate. Secondly, I think it's important to note that the terms "Climate change" and "Global warming" are not interchangeable - the first [by popular use] referring to "..a change in the statistical distribution of weather over periods of time that range from decades to millions of years.." based on the sciences of plate tectonics, solar variation, orbital variation, volcanism, ocean variability, dendrochronology, biology, [...] and human influences (commonly "Global Warming") whereas the latter term focuses specifically on the change of /average temperatures/ of near-surface air and oceans since the mid-20th century and its projections, in climate models influenced by a number of group variables. It's also important here to note that these climate models (a science in themselves) are /not/ only based on data related to CO2. With that out of the way, it is hard to deny the simple fact that, since we (as humans) finally have the power of disease-control, are now losing the power of population control. Only a few hundred years ago before the discovery of microbiology and, in later years the green revolution, the human population was naturally controlled by disease and famine. Having a ton of kids was to your "advantage" - odds were that most of them would not survive [like the superfluous amount of sperm]. Today this has significantly changed to a level which is almost uncomparable in scale. The human population has for tens of thousands of years been naturally regulated in this manner - an approximate world population of less than one million during the first 60,000 years - only showing evidence of increase for the past ten thousand years. We were at an estimated 310 million in the year 1000, now having increased to almost seven thousand million in 2008; the rate of increase is mindblowing. Somewhat obviously, each individual requires space, and each individual requires a huge amount of energy just for basic survival. Most people in the industrial countries naturally expect fresh drinking water, fresh food products (meat, vegetables, candy, you name it), however very few people realize how much energy goes into producing and delivering the most innocent of products. The problems I'm reflecting upon here do not rely on "Global warming" data at all - we can naturally deduce that we indeed /are/ affecting this planet, and whether or not the observed temperature change is real or not doesn't make a huge difference - we will be heavily affected by this [and actually already are starting to observe it]. If unsure about the /temperature/ debate, go and have a look at the /other/ changes. My point is that we indeed need to change our habits on a global scale, regardless of what data from global warming has to say. Now to the 32,000 scientists who signed the "Man is not necessarily the chief cause of warming"-petition. Firstly, the phrasing "..not necessarily.." gives this less substance - the petition isn't flatly denying data (which would be very non-skeptical indeed!) so I don't see a huge problem with it - but 32,000 isn't that high of a number either if you consider this being a world-wide petition. Playing along with the "more is better"-view, Compare it to the ridiculously long list of organizations and individuals who are in current agreement on the subject; the 9,000 PhD's are starting to look microscopic - and their petition only regards a miniscule part of the subject! Anyway, I need to get back to work now - this was my take on it. Have a look on wikipedia [and its sources!] if you're interested in this kind of thing - there is a lot of information regarding both "sides" of the subject. Please do inform me if I got something wrong or if you disagree [and have a nice argument lined up].