Friday, March 30, 2007

Global Warming Denialist George Gilder

I'm not a smart man, but I can tell the difference between a bull and a heifer at ten paces with the best of 'em.

Or put another way, I'm a cranky, skeptical old bastard and my friends like sending me nonsense and foolishness to get me all worked up at the idiocy a perverse humanity seems determined to foist on us.

As an example, I offer the following message from something called "The Gilder Technology Report" sent to me by a colleague, who wondered what I thought of it. Nothing like a rousing game of "Skeptic Bating" to get the blood going in the morning, and being an obliging fellow I dove on in.

First, the actual post from Gilder:

Friday Feature / Politically Correct Science

Gilder Technology Report Subscriber (3/9/07): George, please weigh in on Gore and global warming.

George Gilder (3/10/07): The disabling flaw of the Al Gore movie is that nearly all the details ( Kilamanjaro, the Chad lake, the spread of diseases and on and on) dissolve as soon as you investigate them.
(It s been colder than usual on Kil; the lake is a few feet deep and disappears cyclically; the diseases are unrelated to GW.)

The key to his scientific argument is the famous Academy Award extrapolation of CO2 increases to the skies, as dramatized by his elevator lift scene.

But far from an exponential, CO2 does not even have anywhere near a linear impact on temperatures. If he compared the increase in CO2 not to existing CO2 but to the gyrations of other greenhouse gasses, particularly water vapor, which is 130 times more voluminous, he would have had to crawl along the bottom of the chart with a magnifying glass.

The idea that CO2, which is absorbed by plants and sustains them (to the extent of a 28% increase in foliage in recent years), is a pollutant of any kind will be regarded by future scientists as the looniest notion of our increasingly innumerate media culture. Nick Tredennick did a great short essay on this.

As Richard Feynman pointed out about adjectival "sciences," environmental science probably isn't. It's science for rich upper class dummies like Bobby Kennedy and Sharon Rockefeller who think they should be able to push around current wealth creators because their own wealth is "well seasoned" by time and refined by Ivy "liberal arts." They themselves are intellectual pigmies compared to their forbears in business whom they depend on for their trust fund support and disdain in politically correct fatuities.


A few red flags go up at once upon reading this. Any time someone says something like "nearly all the details ... dissolve as soon as you investigate them", you should be wary. Yes, it's certainly possible that hundreds or thousands of researchers from across the globe are all wrong -- it's happened before -- but if "nearly all the details" really did "dissolve as soon as you investigate them", don't you think that someone else would have noticed it first? Like, maybe, all of those rival teams of researchers out there who are all looking to make their mark, or a jealous colleague who wants to get published first?

You see this kind of claim all the time, whether it's people denying the Holocaust happened, or that Einstein's theory of relativity was wrong, or that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and evolution is a sham -- "All of these so-called experts are wrong in every way and even I, a layman, can easily show you how!" If it sounds like the guy could be on a late-night infomercial hawking spray-on hair, then the odds are good that he's a crackpot.

As I said, though, sometimes it does happen that the one lone voice in the wilderness is right, and The Establishment is wrong. That's why although this kind of over-the-top rhetoric should make you cautious, you still have to pay attention to the actual claims being made. Which is where George Gilder really falls flat.

For instance, he claims that global warming is wrong because it's advanced by liberal, old-money rich people:

It's science for rich upper class dummies like Bobby Kennedy and Sharon Rockefeller who think they should be able to push around current wealth creators because their own wealth is "well seasoned" by time and refined by Ivy "liberal arts." They themselves are intellectual pigmies compared to their forbears in business whom they depend on for their trust fund support and disdain in politically correct fatuities.


Well what the heck does that have to do with anything? Either the data are right or the data are wrong. If increased carbon in the atmosphere causes temperatures to rise, it does so regardless of the motives of those who point it out. If the scientist has skewed the results out of some kind of political or personal agenda, then that will be evident to other scientists who try to recreate the data. Gilder's making an ad hominem attack here, saying that the data is wrong not because the data is wrong, but because he doesn't like the people who published it. And that's not just a formal logical fallacy, it's incredibly stupid. It's like saying "You are wrong that it is raining, and I know this because you're ugly."

Finally there was his statement that:

The idea that CO2, which is absorbed by plants and sustains them (to the extent of a 28% increase in foliage in recent years), is a pollutant of any kind will be regarded by future scientists as the looniest notion of our increasingly innumerate media culture.


Besides the unnecessarily histrionic language, the basic idea he's advancing is foolish. There are all kinds of things that "sustain" us and are necessary for life, but which can become deadly in the wrong concentration. Here, let's try it with another important chemical:

The idea that H2O, which is absorbed by humans and sustains them (to the extent of a 28% increase in global population in recent years), is a pollutant of any kind will be regarded by future scientists as the looniest notion of our increasingly innumerate media culture.


That will be a great comfort to the thousands of drowning victims across the globe, or to people who die of excessive water consumption (it's called hyponatremia). Too much of almost anything can be bad. We need nitrogen in the atmosphere to breathe, too, but too much nitrogen would eliminate all life on Earth. We need and ingest all sorts of trace minerals that sustain us, like iodine and iron, but eating too much of either of those will kill us too. It's just a silly argument. Amounts matter, relative quantities matter, time and location matter. Making a blanket statement like "CO2 helps plants grow so it can't ever do anything harmful!" is silly.

After I wrote all of this as an initial reply to my friend, I decided to do some Googling to find out who this George Gilder guy was. Unsurprisingly, he's not just a crank, but his idiotic takes on technology caused thousands of subscribers to his newsletter to lose their entire fortunes. Even worse (at least in my book), he's one of the co-founders of the terminally misguided and pathologically dishonest Discovery Institute, an organization whose stated goal is to do away with methodological naturalism (i.e. science as we know it).

Now look, I don't know enough about climatology to know one way or another if global warming is real, and if so whether or not it's caused by human activity. But when I look at the people who say that this is correct on both counts, they're scientists and agencies from many different nations, many different cultures, and many different disciplines. They cross the ideological spectrum, and they have hard data and computer models to back up their claims.

On the other side are people like Gilder and Exxon/Mobile, who make idiotic arguments like "But CO2 is a friend to plants!!!1!". "By their friends shall ye know them" isn't the best way to make either science or policy decisions, but I do think it's enough (especially combined with an absolutely dreadful polemical style and logically ridiculous arguments) to show that Mr. Gilder, at least on this issue, is completely untrustworthy.

4 comments:

Thomas said...

Quite a few holes in Gilder's argument, yes. I find it telling that, even on his site, he cites none of the sources for the figures he spouts.

I lack the knowledge to say whether global warming is actually happening, either. However, I do believe it's in our best interest to act as though it is. For all the blustery language Gilder uses, "responsibility" still seems too large a word for his vocabulary.

--Tom.

P. S.--The Hobbit look is quite fitting. Good luck on HeroMachine 3.0!

Anonymous said...

I too am cofused as to "if the dat is right' or wrong. The earth, I think any reasonable person and any freshman college student would agree that the earth does , to a degree, have checks and balances and does appear to self regulate itself (Please, I am not promoting the Gaea religion-- mother earth thing, just keeping to basic science). All debate will, I think, revolve around the "threshold limit', ie, when is too much 'too much". My input is to use a bit of common sense and prudence. Isn't it reasonable to assume that when your visibility is limited in Los Angeles, mexico City, etc, and that asthmatics are warned to stay indoors on certain days, and we all can see AND SMELL that the culprit is smog.. THIS CANNOT BE GOOD! My basic business instinct in making business decisions is 'What is my downside, and what is the upside?" cleaning up our enviornment has only upsides, as I will make a radical prediction that making the earth "greener" will be a money maker in the end for the nations leading the way.
Jimmy

Jeff Hebert said...

I agree Jimmy, I think it's a mistake to put the issue as "We might kill th earth". The earth's going to be fine, and even life on earth will be fine. It's survived volcanoes, asteroid strikes, ice ages, and worse in its history, another deep freeze would hardly spin it off its axis.

No, the life forms who are going to have a bad time with global warming and who should be the focus of environmentalism is us. It's our coastal cities and our food production that's at risk. To me it's not a huggy-feely issue of saving endangered species or threatened habitats (although I do think those are good goals, too), but rather simply an issue of our own survival and our own economies.

I'm in the camp of "If the costs aren't too bad, then why not take prudent steps to prevent global warming now, if we think it's possible?" If it turns out we were wrong and the climate somehow rights itself, well, the cost wasn't THAT high, so it's no real harm done. Especially if it's things like reducing carbon emissions and moving to a renewable energy economy, ideas which have merit in their own right.

Anyway, the point I'd emphasize if I were speaking out on the issue would be that this isn't so much an environmental or global issue as it is a human economic issue.

Anonymous said...

Well when you consider Paul Ehrlich scared the crap out of everyone in the 60's with his worthless book "The Population Bomb", the "experts" scared everyone with Global cooling in the 70's, then the nitwits freaked everyone out with "Acid Rain" in the 80's (which was proven false with the 1990 NAPAP study), I can see why many many people are skeptical of the "experts" and Global Warming. It's not like many of them have a great track record.

As one scientist pointed out, they can barely model the atmosphere in a closed chamber for creating micro chips let alone an open system as massive as the Earth's atmosphere. I think I'll continue being skeptical.