Monday, April 13, 2009

Paul Sheehan, Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, and is it safe?

(Above: Larry Olivier wondering if it's safe).

It just wouldn't be Monday without a dose of Paul Sheehan, and it wouldn't be Paul Sheehan if there wasn't some kind of loonacy afoot, and so it is in Beware the climate of conformity.

The bulk of the column is a celebration of the imminent publication of a new book by climate change denier Ian Plimer called Heaven and Earth.

Many of the things in Sheehan's column are standard to the climate change debate and the deniers - you can read them on a regularly, almost daily basis in Australian media in the rantings of Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair, though it seems Sheehan is now destined to join the cause, even if he thinks he's come late to the truth.

Amongst the alarums is earth scientist Plimer's view that the debate is currently being led by atmospheric scientists, who have the wrong sort of time line compared to geologists aware of the age of the earth, and that models deployed using supercomputers are hideously wrong compared to old fashioned observations on the ground.

All goes swimmingly in the read, until we get to the penultimate paragraph:

Ian Plimer is not some isolated gadfly. He is a prize-winning scientist and professor. The back cover of Heaven And Earth carries a glowing endorsement from the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, who now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Numerous rigorous scientists have joined Plimer in dissenting from the prevailing orthodoxy.

But hang on, Klaus is a well known loon. He's a notorious Euro sceptic, who only came to the European Union presidency because of its enforced rotation amongst member countries, and not for any avid support of this "failed and bankrupt entity." Well okay he doesn't like the European Union, putting himself alongside a lot of pious British folk still yearning for the Empire, but why then do we always read, as in this case when he's wheeled in to support the unorthodox, that he's president of the European Union.

It carries as much credibility as if the Papacy were rotational amongst citizens of the earth, and someone had appointed Christopher Hitchens as pope for a year. First of all you'd wonder why Hitchens had accepted - since that would make him an arrant hypocrite - and second you'd have to wonder why Hitchens and his supporters would suddenly start banging on about the significance and value of the papacy.

But then consistency and coherence aren't things you expect from Klaus, apart from his pro-Putin, fiercely Friedmanite, anti-gay partnership, confrontational, aggressive desire to revert to Thatcherism.

At that point, just after citing a prize Czech loon, Sheehan also choses to argue that Heaven and Earth is an evidence-based attack on conformity and orthodoxy, "including my own, and a reminder to respect informed dissent and beware of ideology subverting evidence."

But hang on, what conformity and orthodoxy are we talking about? Surely not Sheehan's, since he's always been a gadfly, absurdly willing to take up bizarre propositions like the healing powers of magic water.

That's when you begin to re-read what Sheehan has to say, and to wonder:

Plimer's book has 500 pages, 230,000 words, and 2,311 footnotes, and is the result of 40 years of research.  Well that gives Sheehan the first of an impressive set of factoids. The second: 

An understanding of climate requires an amalgamation of astronomy, solar physics, geology, geochronology, geochemistry, sedimentology, tectonics, palaeontology, palaeoecology, glaciology, climatology, meteorology, oceanography, ecology, archaeology and history.

What, and not gossipology, confrontography, hagiography and methodology?

You see, Sheehan goes to say that the most important point to remember about Plimer is that he's Australia's most eminent geologist. Well maybe, but he's also a long standing controversialist, and now he seems to have shifted away from regular attacks on creationists to regular attacks on climate change enthusiasts.

He also convincingly criticizes the UN, the IPCC, UK and US politicians as well as “Hollywood show business celebrities”. He strictly distinguishes science and environmental activism, politics and opportunism. The book I wrote two years ago “Blue Planet in Green Shackles” comes to very similar conclusions but I have to say that if I’d had a chance to read Professor Plimer’s book, my book would have been better. (Václav Klaus.)

Part of the dispute is about computer modelling, but part also it seems is a turf war, since Plimer asserts that most of the assumptions and projections being made about the current causes of changes to the climate are being made by atmospheric scientists who have a different perspective on time.

Really? Does being an atmospheric scientist somehow mystically disqualify you from a broad view of history? Does it somehow disqualify you from commenting on Plimer's contention that the cold times in earth's history are the bad times, the warm times are the good times, and that earth is currently in an ice age.

That's right, bring on some more of that ever loving carbon, to produce useful, blossoming warm times. But hang on, by any conventional accounting, earth is currently in an interglacial or Holocene period. I don't recollect ice sheets covering North America, or even nice old glaciers wending their way down into the sea at Hallett Cove in South Australia (though you can see some elegant glacial striations from previous cold times).

Then you begin to wonder at the capacity of Sheehan to summarise issues like whether we're actually in an ice age at the moment (which would of course mean that getting rid of all the ice would be great, and dinosaurs could once more roam the earth), and we come to the nub of the scientific arguments presented:

What follows is an intense compression of the book's 500 pages and all their provocative arguments and conclusions:

Is dangerous warming occurring? No.

Is the temperature range observed in the 20th century outside the range of normal variability? No.

Well it's bald, I'll give you that. A number one cut with the clippers thanks, back and sides and top. And don't you worry good sir about complexities, nuances, or insights requiring more than a simple yes or no. Now there's straight shooting scientific talk for you.

It seems everything is actually due to the sun, and primitive computer models don't understand the sun.

Over time, the history of CO2 content in the atmosphere has been far higher than at present for most of time. Atmospheric CO2 follows temperature rise. It does not create a temperature rise. CO2 is not a pollutant. Global warming and a high CO2 content bring prosperity and longer life.

The hypothesis that human activity can create global warming is extraordinary because it is contrary to validated knowledge from solar physics, astronomy, history, archaeology and geology.

But hang on, it was only a little while ago that we were all getting our knickers in a knot because freon had been let loose in the atmosphere, and as a result, there was some anxiety about us no longer having an ozone layer. That's right, all those pesky chlorofluorocarbons and bromofluorocarbons acting like those pesky free radicals back on earth, generating holes in the ozone layer and giving us all the chance of a nice tan. So we stopped using the stuff, and things seemed to get better, or at least to stabilize.

So it seems that humans can have an impact on the environment, and we do generate a lot more carbon these days - even my weak science tells me that - and maybe the increase in CO2 is starting to have an impact on the sea, in the form of a weak carbonic acid, making it less friendly to shell fish. One thing's for sure - experience a bad day of pollution in Beijing and you won't have any trouble believing a sizeable chunk of humanity can influence a sizeable micro-climate. 

But who knows, because the main grievance next presented by Sheehan is that the fix is in:

But evidence no longer matters. And any contrary work published in peer-reviewed journals is just ignored. We are told that the science on human-induced global warming is settled. Yet the claim by some scientists that the threat of human-induced global warming is 90 per cent certain (or even 99 per cent) is a figure of speech. It has no mathematical or evidential basis.

This starts to sound like a conspiracy theory, a lonely voice speaking out about loonacy, using unreliable computer models, headed by a band of high priest loons, clustered under the UN and given concrete form in the IPCC. We've heard it all before, it's Galileo versus the Pope, only this time the Papacy consists of UN approved scientists:

The IPCC process is related to environmental activism, politics and opportunism. It is unrelated to science. Current zeal around human-induced climate change is comparable to the certainty professed by Creationists or religious fundamentalists.

That's right, Al Gore is a creationist. Plimer has found his new heresy, a new flock of religious fundamentalists to drive into the wilderness.

But actually I see a lot of uncertainty where Plimer sees fundamentalist certainty. Sure there are the loons on either side, full of passionate intensity, and prone to activism, politics and opportunism - I can think of no better example than Vaclav Klaus.

But as John Ford once noted in Liberty Valance, when legend becomes fact, print the legend, and from that you might extrapolate, when controversy becomes fact, print the controversy. That's how you end up teaching creationism alongside Darwin in high school and college.

There's an awful lot of assertions in Sheehan's column, and much muttering about incompetence and conspiracy, but very little in the way of evidence-based arguments. Perhaps that's his job as a column-writing journalist - celebrate the magic water, and don't you worry too much about the science -and perhaps that's what's in Plimer's book for us to read.

But as presented by the convert Sheehan it sounds so much the other way - that we might want even warmer times, an end to the current "ice age", so that life can blossom and economies boom - that I feel like I'm in a strange echo chamber with a variant Al Gore type shouting from the other end of the megaphone.

Is it all safe? As we zoom from six billion plus to nine billion human beings on the planet, with the future of oil decidedly dodgy, with just ordinary pollution (never mind the climate change) always on the rise, with life in Beijing like living in a notorious London acid smog during the bad years, with Indonesia burning down its forests, with the Brazilian rain forest under threat, with humans like cockroaches looting and pillaging the environment without any thought for the future ...

I do wonder, in a risk management, actuarial kind of way, which has nothing to do with geology or theology, is it safe? Will there be satisfying advances for humanity down the track, or will apocalyptic forces come into play - and we do so love our apocalyptic forces, as the twentieth century showed with a couple of devastatingly destructive world wars.

Shouldn't we try to box a little more clever, rather than being caught up in what sounds more like a religious war at times than a scientific debate?

And at that point I wonder if Plimer, or Sheehan (or rival and contrarian fundamentalists) rather miss the point about the virtues of restraint, as opposed to offering up promises of new boom times in a warming, happily ice-free paradisical age. Or promising apocalypses in a biblical way, since that will always get up the nose of cynics, me and Christopher Hitchens.

Remarkably at the point that the arguments and the discussion might get truly interesting and relevant - Australia's current debate about water usage - Sheehan rules the argument out of the ring, as some kind of low blow, not up for discussion. Weird. At the same time as he allows Plimer's assertion that we're in an ice age, hanging out for the warm times to go through to the keeper. I say old sport that's the kind of cricket played by Tim Blair, who's never afraid to bowl underarm if it means scoring a point.

My own suggestion for a text for the day? How about that wonderful exchange in Marathon Man, as dentist Larry Olivier decides to give Dustin Hoffman a drilling to discover the truth:

Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: You're talking to me?
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Is what safe?
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: I don't know what you mean. I can't tell you something's safe or not, unless I know specifically what you're talking about.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Tell me what the "it" refers to.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Yes, it's safe, it's very safe, it's so safe you wouldn't believe it.
Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: No. It's not safe, it's... very dangerous, be careful.


daddy dave said...

For someone who has not read the book (Heaven and Earth), you have an awful lot to say about it.

Your arguments against it amount to
1) "playing the man" ("But hang on, Klaus is a well known loon")

2) Trying to analyse and refute Sheehan's arguments when he's merely reporting the book's conclusions (note: he's not making or presenting any arguments. he's reviewing a book)

3) assertion that lack of adherence to your particular belief system is "ranting" and "lunacy."

If this is what amounts to reasoned argument on your site, then it's pitiful. Here's a challenge: read the book yourself and tell us why it's wrong. That shouldn't be hard.
After all, you are so very, very certain that Plimer is wrong.

dorothy parker said...

Eek, it's a Tim Blair loon, with 1321 posts to date on Tim's wonderful blog. Say no more.

Anonymous said...

I agree with daddy dave - Why don't you read the book before offering your comments on it! You are just spouting out the usual conformist banter that AGW alarmists use - believe in AGW or you are a loon!
Maybe you should avoid future writing on science subjects - you certainly have a very one eyed, non-scientific grasp on climate change.

dorothy parker said...

I gather you won't be joining News Corp and dear leader Rupert in their fearless crusade against carbon? Despite our very best endeavors to draw attention to News Corps extreme activism? Guess Rupert and the corporate gang's just spouting the usual conformist banter right? Why even Jack Bauer's carbon neutral these days ...

Oh and speaking of scientific grasp, I've got some great magic water for sale at a knock down price ...

daddy dave said...

"Eek, it's a Tim Blair loon, with 1321 posts to date on Tim's wonderful blog. Say no more."

see my original points 1 (playing the man as a substitute for debate) and 3 (namecalling, such as "loon" as a substitute for debate).

"Oh and speaking of scientific grasp, I've got some great magic water for sale at a knock down price"

Yes, it's called an ETS.

Eduardo Ferreyra said...

What a fanstastic article, Mr. Duffy! I've hardly seen a written piece where one can find so many strawmen, invalid assertions, marvelous spinning, and taking for fact wild inventions and presumtions!

Congratulations. I would suggest you to find another name instead of "deniers" for "sceptics" or "climate realists", because WARMAHOLICS are now the overwhelming MAJORITY in the denier field!

BTW. Have you taken a look outside the window? Is still there some stubborn snow in your garden? So late in spring?

dorothy parker said...

I always love readers who can't read. The post was by Dorothy Parker, not by Mr. Duffy.

Another Loon said...

You state, “The bulk of the column is a celebration of the imminent publication of a new book by climate change denier Ian Plimer called Heaven and Earth.”

I need not read a sentence more.

Despite your ascription of Dr. Plimer as a “denier” of climate change being false (Mr. Sheehan states in his article that, “Plimer does not dispute the dramatic flux of climate change...”), it reveals something quite significant about you.

Any appreciation of either 1) the massive complexity of the climate of the Earth, or 2) the fact that people who have spent their entire careers attempting to understand it continue to honestly disagree with one another, or 3) the fact that the current totality of their knowledge will, 50 years from now, be primitive should, to you as a second-hand dealer in generalities of very tiny pieces of that knowledge, be quite humbling.

But by deeming Dr. Plimer -- a man whose knowledge and understanding of the topic, no doubt, far exceed yours -- a “denier,” you reveal in yourself both arrogance and an intellectual intolerance that results from the fervent, mind-closing belief that you have found the truth; a truth that will save humanity; a truth that will forever give you both a cause to pursue and that wonderful feeling of indignation toward the morally inferior “loons” who deny it.

Ms. Parker, to you the danger lies in human-induced climate warming. To me, however, the danger lies in too many people thinking like you.

Another Loon

Anonymous said...

In case your readers miss the link below, they might like to go to for a thoughtful piece which undercuts the hysteria and considers the merits of the Sheehan column in some detail.

dag said...

The GreenExtreme had us all going with the AGW threat campaign but as time goes on the Green has become hollow and the Extreme more obvious. Those of us who see Global Warming as the work of Nature or GWN are encouraged to see the AGW can only be defended with personal abuse and predictions of doom and gloom. GWN on the other hand produces a learned book with over 2,000 scientific references. I recommend that you take a risk, read the book, and you will learn.

Anonymous said...

Seems there's another global warming book headed our way in a week or two:

talbyv said...

Michael Duffy, I see from your comentators that you haven't read the book. I must confess I haven't read your blog item. A few paragraphs in I saw you refer to

• climate change denier Ian Plimer.

If you read the book, you would have found that Professor Plimer does not dispute that their is climate change. As a geologist, he would be aware of climate over the history of the earth and the fact that climate is ever changing.

If you can't get your description of the author right,
what hope is there for the remainder of your blogpost?

Anonymous said...

People may find the page on Plimer's book at wikipedia an interesting read: Heaven and Earth -- Ian Plimer