Island Map


An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
(A review)

The Doubter's Companion:
by John Ralston Saul (Excerpts)

Skeptic Magazine:

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:

A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Place Where We Are Right

The Meaning of
  the Island of

More Doubtful Blogs
Carl Zimmer
Chris C. Mooney
Chet Raymo
SciAm Perspectives
Other Worthy Blogs
Rob Cottingham
John Gushue
Derek Raymaker
Author's site:


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2005 Archives

May 3:
  Climate of Bias

May 10:
  Repent or Resign

May 17:

May 24:
  Vector of a Weird
May 31:
  Museum Piece

June 7:
  History Will
  Teach Us Nothing

June 16:
  Castration of
  Public B'casting

June 21:
  Alarum of the Deep
June 28:
  Up Against the Wall
July 5:
  Fusion Confusion
July 12:
  Confidence vs. Faith
July 19:
  Because I Said So

Random Douglas Adams quote

By doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
--- Peter Abelard

Undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance.
-- Richard Dawkins

July 26, 2005

What's worse: the ignorant ramblings of a third-tier oil executive or the uncritical coverage of those ramblings by a major news outlet? If the subject is by most standards the single biggest challenge facing civilization, the question assumes some degree of import.

Last week the Globe and Mail's Patricia Best saw fit to report, without qualification or context, a short excerpt from a speech by James Buckee, CEO of Talisman Energy, a minor player in the business of sucking fossil fuels from exotic pieces of the Earth's crust, like Scotland and Sudan. The occasion was the awarding of an honorary doctorate in business administration to Buckee by his alma mater, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

Not normally the most newsworthy of events, but in the best tradition of gossip journalism, Best decided that what Buckee said warranted attention. What the former astrophysicist said to an audience of tomorrow's Scottish business leaders largely concerned astute, but not particularly remarkable, observations on the declining supplies of petroleum products. Then he turned to climate change.

Here is the single paragraph Best devoted to Buckee's musings on the topic:

He attacked fears about the greenhouse gas effect. "Climate changes. It is estimated that the modern warm period is not as warm as the medieval warm period or the Roman warm period. Between these eras there were colder periods, including the Dark Ages and the Little Ice Age from around 1400 to 1850," the astrophysicist said. "Weather is chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, rational and scientifically aware critical appraisal of these and similar issues is in dire need." (July 21, 2005)

In other words, stop worrying about global warming, it's just a bunch of paranoid, ill-informed twaddle.

I have two questions for Best. First, which news values did she use to conclude that a speech by an oil tycoon criticizing the scientific consensus on climate change was worth covering? Second, even if it is news, would not such a statement require a least a cursory mention of the fact that Buckee doesn't have a clue what he's talking about?

My first question is admittedly pure rhetoric. But the second warrants explanation, for which I turn to the journal Science, specifically, the issue of 17 October 2003 (Vol. 302, Issue 5644, pages 404-405). There Raymond S. Bradley, Malcolm K. Hughes amd Henry F. Diaz (who are not astrophysicists, but actual climatologists) decisively bury the notion of a "medieval warm period." But not, it would appear, deep enough for the likes of Buckee.

For Bradley et al., the notion of a medieval warm period has been particularly troublesome because non-experts keep raising it as evidence that would destroy the consensus that humans are to blame for climate change:

Climate in medieval time is often said to have been as warm as, or warmer than, it is "today." Such a statement might seem innocuous. But for those opposed to action on global warming, it has become a cause célèbre: If it was warmer in medieval time than it is today, it could not have been due to fossil fuel consumption. This (so the argument goes) would demonstrate that warming in the 20th century may have been just another natural fluctuation that does not warrant political action to curb fossil fuel use.
The authors go on to point out that this theory can be traced to a 30-year-old paper by one H.H. Lamb, who "based his argument almost exclusively on historical anecdotes and paleoclimatic data from western Europe." He also used an anomalously cool period from the 20th century to compare against the medieval period. In other words, his data say nothing about the world's climate, and his conclusions about western Europe are almost certainly wrong.

As for Buckee's reference to the Roman warm period, it's just plain bizarre. I could find no references in the scientific literature to support the idea. I did find mention in a syllabus for a University of Washington course offered by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, but that description of the weather during Roman times is hardly a smoking gun. If anything, it seems to undermine Buckee's argument.

In northern Europe, temperatures were characterized as being cool to mild... North America - temperatures during this time period reached their peak in about 1 AD. These temperatures were preceded by cooler and wetter conditions, which began to change at around 200 BC. Between 200 BC and 300 AD, summers were particularly warm. After 300 AD, cooler and wetter temperatures continued ...

Why is all this important? Because Buckee and his collaborators in the media are not the only misinformed vectors of these pernicious ideas. Other climate change dissidents are busy using them to undermine confidence in the widely used "hockey stick" graph that shows thousands of years of stable temperatures followed by a sharp upward trend coinciding with the industrial revolution.

Just this past month, U.S. Representative Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, launched a McCarthyesque campaign against mainstream climatologists, demanding that they produce enormous amounts of information justifying the validity of the "hockey stick."

(Excellent analyses of this underreported story, and the backlash in the scientific community, can be found at Real Climate and Chris Mooney's blog.)

Even in countries that have supposedly signed on to the global effort to do something about climate change, resolve is weakening. In Canada, the same week that Buckee's comments found their way into a national newspaper, came the news that "almost half the members of a team working on a national emissions trading system quit rather than transfer to Environment Canada from the Department of Natural Resources, officials at the two departments say" (Canadian Press, July 20, 2005).

Meanwhile, last month was the second warmest June on record, and one of Greenland's glaciers is bidding a hasty retreat....

James Hrynyshyn

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