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On Thinking Part Two

August 6, 2012 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet, Uncategorized 2 Comments

“It is paradoxical that the most successful mammalian species, Homo sapiens, should be the one harboring the vast majority of false beliefs.” Wallace Mattson, 2012 [1]

I have one very good friend who reads my drafts and gives me feedback: inevitably good advice though I don’t always heed it. One of his recent suggestions was the observation that if I wanted to influence global warming deniers I might refrain from calling them deniers and instead refer to them as skeptics as they prefer to be called. He has a point. It is easier to attract flies with honey than vinegar, though they also are attracted to feces and stools. My objection to this advice, as good as it may be, is twofold. First, we’ve been referring to deniers as skeptics for the last thirty years to no obvious beneficial effect. Reality continues to spiral out of control and they continue to deny. Second, it is dishonest. While it may on occasion be justified to adopt a dishonest policy if we think it might work, dishonesty can never be a good idea when it is clearly ineffective. Why has calling deniers “skeptics” failed?

The principle reason is that denial is not evidence-based. We cannot expect to engage a denier, whether the object of their denial is the holocaust or human-caused global warming, with facts, data, analysis or hard evidence. Flattery and patience have not been having the intended impact. Another important consideration is that belief-based thinking is easily co-opted by wealthy and powerful interests, specifically in this case the fossil fuels industry but also all large multinational corporations including Microsoft and AT&T; the latter because the only solution to global warming involves regulation, which the wealthy and powerful vigorously and greedily oppose. If corporations are people as Romney believes, they are people with no moral judgment. A third reason is that referring to charlatans and cranks as skeptics only serves to legitimize them while they, not bound by evidence, are at liberty to lie. When we call deniers “skeptics” we effectively become complicit in their dishonesty. Since human-caused global warming is something that needed action 30 years ago, we need to stop letting liars dictate the debate. We need to go on the offensive. It is past time to start ridiculing the ridiculous.

In my last article, I discussed two modes of thinking. The scientific method embraces evidence-based thinking while all ideologies embrace faith-based thinking. This is true even recognizing that some ideologies may endorse some or most (or even all) of scientific knowledge as true. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for co-founding the behavioral school of economics, identifies what I’m calling evidence-based thinking or analytic thinking as “slow” or as “system 2” [2]. The philosopher Wallace Matson labels the result of this type of thinking, what I’m calling knowledge as “low beliefs” [1]. Knowledge is flexible, testable, tested, probabilistic, evolvable and true. Knowledge can be used to make projections or predictions about the outcome of experiments. This system of thinking has been formalized by humans as the scientific method. Matson considers the sixth century BC Greek naturalist Thales of Miletus to be the first scientist but the scientific method itself was not formalized until the era of Galileo and Newton. As I’ve written previously, discovery of the scientific method is the source of all of human progress and knowledge.

What I’m calling faith-based thinking, Kahneman refers to as “fast” or “system 1” thinking. Mattson refers to the output of such thinking, what I’m calling simply beliefs or ideologies, as “high beliefs”. These are absolute, unyielding, untested and even often untestable and inevitably false. High beliefs generally cannot make successful predictions. We have evolved, for better or worse, with the capability to think both ways and indeed we integrate the two all the time. It is only the scientific method or discipline that culls the weeds. Every scientist I know believes things. Every ideologue accepts some knowledge, at least the convenient stuff. Even evolution deniers and global warming deniers use smart phones and high definition TV.

The following statement is an example of evidence-based knowledge or observation from the peer-reviewed scientific literature, from Barnosky et al [3]: “current extinction rates are higher than those that caused Big Five extinctions in geological time; they could be severe enough to carry extinction magnitudes to the Big Five benchmark in as little as three centuries. It also highlights areas for much-needed future research.” Reading the article one notes that this conclusion is based on a rigorous analysis of available evidence. Its forecast is probabilistic in both timing and outcome. It is testable and indeed the future research indicated in the article is included for just that purpose. There is no doubt that the authors are willing to be wrong. On the other hand, their results are existential. The five big extinction events in Earth’s history, at least during the Phanerozoic Eon, include the End Ordovician, the End Devonian, the End Permian, the End Triassic and the End Cretaceous. At least 75 percent of all species of plants and animals went extinct during each of these events. The conclusion of Barnosky’s paper is that Homo sapiens may be causing the sixth great extinction event, or the extirpation of at least 75 percent of all current extant species. We cannot assume there is much likelihood that our species can survive such an extinction event. This is important knowledge. If it is true even with very low probability, we need to be rapidly and radically modifying our behavior proactively. Yet it is possible that less than 10% of Americans are even vaguely aware of this knowledge. One needs to have the concept of deep time, some geology, paleontology and appreciate that Homo sapiens are dependent on the biosphere from which we’ve evolved and one needs moral judgment (one must value the future of humanity). One cannot be mentally handicapped by a plethora of obviously false high beliefs such as the Inhofe defense: “Only God can change the climate.” As an aside, to show how profoundly immoral Inhofe’s defense is I predict that soon it will be used by indicted murderers: “All I did was load the gun, aim and shoot. God caused the victim to drop dead. Only God can take a life.”

The next statement is an example of a faith-based high belief which was penned by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom published in 1962 [4]: “the great advances of civilization, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.” This was written five years after centrally planned Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957 ushering in one of the most remarkable advances of human civilization: the space age. Friedman also overlooked the nuclear age arriving on the coattails of centralized government research and funding in two very different economies, the United States and the Soviet Union. And the King of Spain funded Columbus’ discovery of the New World, also a game changer. Friedman’s statement is absolute, unforgiving, breaches no compromise, welcomes no discussion and is false. It fails the simplest of tests in that it cannot even predict the past. Unfortunately, this belief is accepted as true by most Americans.

It is interesting that America’s failure to be aware of the real evidence-based possibility of human self extinction (or other dire outcome) while blindly accepting Friedman’s faith-based falsehood (and many others) increases the likelihood of our self-extinction.

It would have been more honest and more reflective of the truth had Friedman written instead: “I don’t know where the great advances have come from but this would be an important area of further research.” He might have learned that our great advances had more to do with evidence-based thinking evolving into the scientific method in a positive feedback loop with the increasing exploitation of the low entropy of fossil fuels. They did not come from belief-based thinking of the kind exhibited by Friedman himself. This latter observation makes the testable prediction that if we can encourage evidence-based thinking and acquire low entropy sources we can increase knowledge. Friedman’s statement makes the testable prediction that if we abandon centralized government altogether we can develop knowledge like quantum mechanics, nuclear power, the internet, space exploration, global positioning satellite service, computers, discover the Higgs’ Boson, global warming, acid rain, the dangers of leaded gasoline, and the ozone hole, fund the Lewis and Clarke expedition and put a man on the moon. Friedman may be right that only the private sector could have created credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations and civilization may have missed out on these “advances” if our congress had not eliminated the government regulatory oversight of the Glass-Steagall Act.

Though the private sector has indeed made positive contributions one might ask, given the funding of global warming denial and the ongoing destruction of America’s experiment with democracy, whether on balance private capital has not contributed more harm than good. This is certainly true of the large multinational corporations. Corporations that are too big to fail may be too big to exist.

With this background, A person who acknowledges the reality of anthropogenic global warming (a climate hawk) can readily cite the four IPCC reports and the fact that every single scientific organization in the world including notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science (founded by Thomas Edison), the American Geophysical Union, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society all endorse the IPCC conclusions. Such a person does not have to read the reports or really have detailed knowledge of climate science only moral judgment. The IPCC reports are robust, solid sources. This is evidence-based thinking.

A denier must in the end produce sources of credible evidence and there simply are none. Of all deniers, Richard Lindzen of MIT, had the most credibility. He accepts that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that human emissions will warm the planet. But, he tries to prove that the climate sensitivity to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is small by discovering a large negative feedback, so far unsuccessfully. His last paper submission was rejected by the National Academy of Sciences for publication in their journal [5]. Of the four peer reviewers, he handpicked two of them. His score card:

Role: Reviewer #1
Suitable-Quality: No
Conclusions Justified: No

Role: Reviewer #2
Suitable-Quality: No
Conclusions Justified: No

Role: Reviewer #3
Suitable-Quality: No
Conclusions Justified: No

Role: Reviewer #4
Suitable-Quality: No
Conclusions Justified: No

A denier canard is that deniers cannot get their papers published in the scientific literature because of bias. This complaint has never been true. Deniers get junk published as often as they have anything to contribute. In any event, Lindzen would have selected two reviewers who had no such presumed bias but even these two agreed with the other two referees picked by the Academy. If Lindzen can no longer find any evidence to justify his conclusions, you can be sure there are no other deniers who can.

Long time denier, particle physicist and right wing ideologue, Richard Muller, recently converted to “skepticism”. This left him with the obligation to discover evidence for his opinions. As I have already reported [6]: “[Muller’s team concluded] that the Earth has warmed 0.911 +/- 0.042 degrees C on land during the last four decades, is currently warming at the rate of 2.76 degrees C (5 degrees F) per century, the warming is accelerating, and did not stop in 1998.” I pointed out that this rate of climate change is faster than anything nature seems to have been able to do in the geologically recent past (the last 250 million years) so it also confirms that the warming is human caused. Muller initially stopped short of making this observation himself. However, recently he wrote in a New York Times Op/Ed piece [7]:

“Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Muller is no hero. His real conversion was from denial to skepticism. He did not prove that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate and he did not prove that humans are the cause. Credible scientists had already done that. What Muller should have admitted if he wanted to be completely truthful is that he and his conservative mates at the George Marshall Institute have been lying all these years about their lack of expertice to understand climate physics. He had never “identified problems in previous climate studies.” That was always a disingenuous claim. What Muller proved is that a very smart person can be fooled by his own faith-based ideologies. But give credit where it is due; human-caused global warming has serious consequences and another set of eyes analyzing the data and reinforcing the IPCC report conclusions, the consensus, is very helpful. Only don’t expect deniers to be rushing for the exits of their dung-filled, fly-infested circus tents.

Another very relevant conclusion of Muller’s study is the estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity. This is the amount that the earth is expected to warm if atmospheric CO2 is doubled considering only short term feedbacks. Muller estimates this value is 3.1 degrees C and this is actually slightly higher than the mean estimate of the IPCC report. This result kicks more sand in Lindzen’s face.

What Lindzen’s failures and Muller’s conversion mean for the rest of us is exactly what I‘ve been writing about since the inception of this column that there is no scientific support for global warming denial. And thus we can return to my friend’s advice. Frankly, there are no global warming skeptics because like Muller once they become skeptical they cannot escape the shallowness of their own canards. If deniers want to be considered skeptical, then they have to prove it by exposing their own arguments to analytic thinking. Once they do that, like Muller, they will discover for themselves they’ve been wrong. And then maybe we can get on with the business of addressing the myriad problems our misbehavior is causing ourselves and future generations of Homo sapiens.

Late addition
From Jeff Masters http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=2171

“The only heat wave in Oklahoma history that compares to this week’s occurred in the great Dust Bowl summer of 1936, the hottest summer in U.S. history. Oklahoma City experienced three days at 110° that summer, and a record streak of 22 straight days with a temperature of 100° or hotter. Those numbers are comparable to 2012’s: three days at 110° or hotter, and a string of 17 consecutive days with temperatures of 100° or hotter. It’s worth noting that Oklahoma City has experienced only 11 days since 1890 with a high of 110° or greater. Three of those days were in 2011, three were in 2012, and three were in the great Dust Bowl summer of 1936. Clouds moved in over Tulsa, Oklahoma yesterday, holding down the high temperature to just 107°, ending that city’s 3-day streak of 110°+ days. The only longer streak was five consecutive days on August 9 – 13, 1936. “

The question is not whether Senator Inhofe is a skeptic or a denier but whether or not he is a fool or a liar.

Figure 1. Most of Oklahoma has experienced eight consecutive days with highs of 100° or more, and many regions, including Oklahoma City, have had a streak of 17 such days. Image credit: http://www.mesonet.org/index.php.

[1] Wallace Matson, Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

[3] Anthony D. Barnosky, Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U.Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, Jenny L. McGuire, Emily L. Lindsey, Kaitlin C. Maguire, Ben Mersey and Elizabeth A. Ferrer, Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?, Nature, Vol. 471, 3 March 2011.

[4] Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt, 2010. See also my previous article: http://brleader.com/?p=2471

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/01/science/earth/clouds-effect-on-climate-change-is-last-bastion-for-dissenters.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&seid=auto&smid=tw-nytenvironment The PNAS rejection can be found here: http://www.masterresource.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Attach3.pdf

[6] http://brleader.com/?p=8276

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/opinion/the-conversion-of-a-climate-change-skeptic.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all. See also http://climatedenial.org/2012/07/31/the-irresistible-story-of-richard-muller/.


  1. aboc zed says:


    Good post. I got here from your comment on QuestionEverything by George Mobus

    I suggest you read material at http://www.condition.org – you may find it very useful account for evolutionary origins of ‘human condition’ and what we can expect over immediate futurre (horizon of 2 -3 generations) and deep time (beyond that).

    I trust you have time and curiosity to read the material and see if its language works for you.


    • Tony Noerpel says:

      Hi ZA

      Thank you for your comments and for reading my article. I did check out your reference and here is the problem I have with it. I have no idea who the person is. There is no “about me” link for example. I’m not a fan of anonymity. My second complaint is that there are no references. And this point is exactly why I fault Gregory Mankiw and George Will. Even if one might agree with some of what they write, everybody has to agree that it is unverifiable, and therefore quite useless. Gregory Mankiw’s very thick economics text book has NO references. It is just Mankiw’s rather shaky opinion.

      As to your reference, I’ve no opinion on the content. But we are inundated with reading material and there is only so much time in a day. We all have to exercise a little discernment. My first rule is that there must be clear unambiguous references otherwise the work is unverifiable. Secondly, I want to know who the writer is so that I can email follow up questions if I wish. Otherwise, I find something else to read.

      All right, I’ll concede that what Mankiw and Will write is not totally useless because it is instructive by example how not to think. And these two have considerable influence and are thus fair game for richly deserved ridicule. And they are big boys.

      George Mobus, on the other hand, richly attributes his information. We also all know who he is and how to contact him. I recommend his blog unhesitatingly.

      Best regards


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