First let us me run through the usual disclaimers. We are producing lots of greenhouse gases, and they tend to warm up the Earth. The last ten years have been warmer than any other ten years in our recent history. In the arctic, we have never had as little ice during the summer in our recent history. These are scientific facts.

So global warming, as a scientific theory, is pretty solid. It sounds very improbable at this point that the next 50 years will be colder. In all likelihood it will get warmer. Anyone who has read the papers and looked at the evidence would agree.

So far so good?

I have no problem with the science of global warming. But I hold many things against global warming activists. The first being their use of the term “denier” to describe anyone who does not share their point of view. I realize that this allusion to holocaust deniers is just a consequence of Godwin’s law. Nevertheless, I hold that anyone who needs to invoke Nazi Germany to support his arguments has lost moral grounding.

The second thing that annoys me about global warming activists is their pseudo-science. As I clearly stated, global warming is supported by (good) science. But to make their points stronger, for reasons that escape me, activists feel the need to pile up more “science”.

Right now, in North America, we have a terrible cold wave complete with cryoseisms. So the activists have jumped on this as evidence of global warming while their opponents have argued that it disproves global warming.

But not only does the cold spell not disprove climate change, it may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. even more likely. (TIME)

Our freezing weather is the result of global warming. This polar vortex descended on us because arctic warming combines with increasing amounts of water in the atmosphere to produce instabilities in the jet streams that normally keep arctic weather up north. We should expect such vortexes more frequently in the future as arctic temperatures continue to rise faster than elsewhere and more water gets absorbed into the hotter atmosphere. (Huffington Post)

This is just crazy. You have a few days of bad weather and it supports (or invalidates?) a theory that has to do with how the climate evolves over decades?

But let us play this game. Let us assume that we can assess a theory based on the current weather. Then you cannot cherry pick. Every event has to be looked at and used to either increase or lower your confidence.

So if extreme weather supports global warming, then non-extreme weather should contribute to invalidate it. If a cold winter proves (or disproves?) global warming, then warm winters run contrary to it (or support it). So while we are having a very cold winter in North America (supports or invalidates global warming?), people in New Zealand have had the warmest winter on record (invalidates or validates global warming?). Oh! And the US has had a record low number of tornadoes this year (invalidates global warming?).

Picking data in a subjective manner is pseudo-science. That is not how science is done. Data has to be systematically processed and you have to acknowledge all of the evidence, not just what agrees with your theory, or what is reported by the media, or what is noticeable to you.

There are fewer tornadoes in the US, but that, in itself, tells me very little about the validity of the global warming theory. A few days of cold weather tell me even less.

You have to realize that once you fall prey to pseudo-science, you justify your opponents’ pseudo-science as well. If a few cold days during the winter are evidence for (or against) global warming, then a few warm days are evidence against (or for) it. You end up in a stupid shouting match.

Global warming activists have convinced the public that “extreme” weather is caused by global warming. When a storm hits, it is “caused” by global warming. Are there more storms today than there were 50 years ago? Who cares! If the winter is unusually cold, it is because of global warming. Does it feel like a warm winter? Again, global warming. Did a tornado destroy your house? Blame global warming.

Opponents play the same game. A cold winter? Proof that there is no global warming.

Let us stop.

27 Comments

  1. Do you have any evidence that the term “denier” in this context is specifically meant to evoke the Holocaust? It seems to me, as someone who’s heard the term for decades, that it simply means “one who denies”. I’ve heard it used to describe people who have denied all sorts of things, from the risk of credit default, to the truth of Jesus Christ, and all things in between. I do not think that “denier” is one of those words that has become loaded due to its historical usage. I certainly describe the people I work with as “collaborators” without a second thought, don’t you? It is also plausible that the term “denier” was self-applied by people who deny climate change themselves, there’s certainly a few publications that seem to support this notion.

    So I’d encourage you to maybe question whether that interpretation of the term reflects your own inclination, rather than reflecting the intentions of another person. It is very easy, in this world, to inadvertently play the “PC police” by perceiving offense where none is intended.

    Comment by Ryan Williams — 8/1/2014 @ 15:56

  2. > So if extreme weather supports global warming, then non-extreme weather should contribute to invalidate it. If cold weather proves global warming, then warm winters run contrary to it surely. So while we are having a very cold winter in North America (supports or invalidates global warming?), people in New Zealand have had the warmest winter on record (invalidates or validates global warming?). Oh! And the US has had a record low number of tornadoes this year (invalidates global warming).

    This is an odd post. What I’d always heard was that the models predicted increases in variance ie. more extreme events. So yes, an above-average number of extremely cold winters and extremely hot summers are going to be evidence for their claims (and conversely, the absence of extreme weather events on each day is slight evidence against, but obviously the extreme events are each worth many normal days in terms of weight).

    > There are fewer tornadoes in the US, but that, in itself, tells me very little about the validity of the global warming theory. A few days of cold weather tell me even less.

    Do a few lottery winners tell you anything about the lottery odds?

    Comment by gwern — 8/1/2014 @ 16:28

  3. @Ryan Williams

    “Do you have any evidence that the term “denier” in this context is specifically meant to evoke the Holocaust?”

    Yes.

    I only have a few minutes, so here is a sample:

    Actor Pete Postlethwaite yesterday denounced climate change deniers as a “negative force” with their “heads in the sand”. Ahead of Sunday’s premiere of The Age of Stupid, an environmental doomsday docudrama, he compared those who do not accept that human-induced global warming is occurring with Holocaust deniers, and said the evidence for global change is now beyond doubt. (Guardian)

    Instead of dishonouring the deaths of six million in the past, climate deniers risk the lives of hundreds of millions in the future. Holocaust deniers are not responsible for the Holocaust, but climate deniers, if they were to succeed, would share responsibility for the enormous suffering caused by global warming… So the answer to the question of whether climate denialism is morally worse than Holocaust denialism is no, at least, not yet. (Herald Sun)

    Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is comparing climate change skeptics to those who disregarded the Nazi threat to America in the 1930s, adding a strident rhetorical shot to the already volatile debate over climate change.

    “It reminds me in some ways of the debate taking place in this country and around the world in the late 1930s,” said Sanders, perhaps the most liberal member of the Senate, during a Senate hearing Tuesday. “During that period of Nazism and fascism’s growth — a real danger to the United States and democratic countries around the world — there were people in this country and in the British parliament who said ‘don’t worry! Hitler’s not real! It’ll disappear!” (politico)

    Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne said governments must redouble efforts to find a successor to the United Nations Kyoto Protocol on emissions, although it was unlikely that a breakthrough would be made at a conference later this year in Durban in South Africa. (…) In a speech urging countries to keep pressing for a climate deal, Huhne evoked the memory of British wartime leader Winston Churchill and the fight against Nazi Germany led by Hitler. (Reuters)

    In 1933, very few people believed that Hitler would seriously try to accomplish what he preached and almost no one could imagine the consequences of his deadly reign. Although there was evidence available — Hitler was clear about what he wanted to do in Mein Kampf — why did people not pay attention? These “deniers” might as well have been called skeptics in their day. (Tomkiewicz)

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 16:31

  4. All events picked by you (very cold weather in the US, warmest winter in New Zealand, and record low number of tornadoes) are extreme cases. And, just as you stated, extreme weather supports global warming.

    Your statement “If cold weather proves global warming, then warm winters run contrary to it surely.” does not stand. All extreme cases, whether cold or warm, tornadoes or rains, are effects of the same problem — global warming.

    I do agree that subjectively picking data to support one’s point of view is not science.

    Comment by Adrian — 8/1/2014 @ 16:32

  5. @Ryan

    Moreover, in no other case do scientists disagreeing with each other call the skeptics “deniers”. For example, Judith Curry is a “denier”.

    Give me another example where, in science, an established scientist like Curry doing top level science would be called a “denier”? It is not even clear what Curry “denies”. That is, when people call her a denier, they don’t make refer to something identifiable that gets denied…

    It is clearly an insult.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 16:40

  6. I think, based on the what the sun has been doing, we will likely see a lot more cooling over time. I wasn’t particularly surprised at the low temperatures, but I also wasn’t jumping up and down saying this proves anything. I’ll probably have to wait another ten years for the mainstream idiots to get off the warming train, and even then they’ll probably still say global warming caused global cooling because, apparently, they can’t be sufficiently humble and realize such things as ice ages are not something they can easily affect.

    Comment by August — 8/1/2014 @ 17:22

  7. Perhaps this tendency towards credulity, even among those who accept global warming, is attributable in part to the state of science education in the general public.

    Comment by Ben Babcock — 8/1/2014 @ 17:34

  8. @gwern

    So the record-setting warm winter in the southern hemisphere this year diminished your confidence in global warming?

    What I’d always heard was that the models predicted increases in variance ie. more extreme events. So yes, an above-average number of extremely cold winters and extremely hot summers are going to be evidence for their claims

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 17:55

  9. @Adrian

    Another extreme case is the record low number of tornadoes in the US. Does this also increase your confidence in global warming?

    Is there any weather event that they could report in the press that would diminish your confidence in global warming?

    All events picked by you (very cold weather in the US, warmest winter in New Zealand, and record low number of tornadoes) are extreme cases. And, just as you stated, extreme weather supports global warming.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 17:58

  10. > So the record-setting warm winter in the southern hemisphere this year diminished your confidence in global warming?

    Was it far from the mean for winters? Then no, because it would be evidence for global warming.

    (Are you sure you understand the idea of averages and variance? I don’t mean to be condescending or anything, but given the OP and the way you keep asking these odd questions in the comments is really making me start to wonder.)

    > Is there any weather event that they could report in the press that would diminish your confidence in global warming?

    The press, almost by definition, reports rare events, and very rarely reports on the *absence* of events, and it’s the absence of events which is doing the work of reducing confidence in global warming. Hence, the press is not a complete nutritious information diet – which when I put it that way, sounds almost too obvious to point out.

    Comment by gwern — 8/1/2014 @ 18:04

  11. @gwern

    Are you sure you understand the idea of averages and variance? I don’t mean to be condescending or anything, but given the OP and the way you keep asking these odd questions in the comments is really making me start to wonder.

    I understand averages and variance, I just want to know what you believe.

    So, let us say that from now on, the winters become harsher and harsher with new record low temperature every year. As you stated this would support global warming?

    Both increasingly cold, and increasing warm winters would be consistent with global warming?

    What about the case where you get little change in mean temperatures many years in sequence? Does it lower your confidence in global warming?

    What about the number of tornadoes? Having fewer tornadoes every year also supports global warming?

    Does both an increase in the number of tornadoes, or a decrease in the number of tornadoes support global warming?

    If the number of tornadoes remain unchanged from year to year, does it decrease your confidence in global warming?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 18:32

  12. > So, let us say that from now on, the winters become harsher and harsher with new record low temperature every year. As you stated this would support global warming?

    I’m not sure.

    > What about the case where you get little change in mean temperatures many years in sequence? Does it lower your confidence in global warming?

    It would, but the mean temperature is irrelevant to the variance prediction. The decrease in that scenario would be because global warming also, in addition to the variance claim, makes an additional prediction of a long-term average increase, and that’s what’s affected by the stability of the average.

    > Both increasingly cold, and increasing warm winters would be consistent with global warming?

    What do you mean by ‘increasingly cold’? Please state this in terms of averages and variance and note that that is not an exhaustive disjunction.

    > Does both an increase in the number of tornadoes, or a decrease in the number of tornadoes support global warming?

    Again, you need to put this in terms of averages and variance to be relevant. The number of tornadoes on average can remain identical, even if variance increases massively. (Consider the average and variance of the two pairs of numbers (0,0) and (-1000,+1000).)

    > If the number of tornadoes remain unchanged from year to year, does it decrease your confidence in global warming?

    Ditto.

    Comment by gwern — 8/1/2014 @ 18:40

  13. @gwern

    Again, you need to put this in terms of averages and variance to be relevant.

    What if the number of tornadoes N is given as function of the year t as

    N(t) = K exp(-t)

    for some constant K.

    Does this support or invalidate global warming?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 18:50

  14. I’m sure you can find many examples of climate change deniers being compared to Nazis directly. You can find lots of people comparing each other to Nazis on any conceivable topic on the internet, so it’s not really evidence for anything at all.

    As for science-related denier-calling, of course there’s plenty of it. Evolution deniers, vaccine deniers, HIV/AIDS deniers (also called denialists, for variety, I suppose), flat earth deniers, young earth deniers. I suppose you could quibble about whether those are actually “top level science”, but that’s the rub, isn’t it? The sheer variety, nonetheless, makes it evident that the term is used largely for its face value definition and not for the allusion.

    I think the “you just indirectly called me a Nazi, therefore you invoke Godwin and therefore you lose” conversational gambit is just as tired as Godwin’s law in the first place. The problem is the same: by one party making an inappropriate hyperbolic comparison, real conversation is impeded.

    I think your claim is that “global-warming scientists” as a group use the term as an insult. It’s a pretty extreme claim on its face, that thousands of professionals are continually choosing to insult others in the public sphere, situations where the credibility of the speaker is under historically high scrutiny. It seems much more likely to me that you, an individual, simply are seeking meaning where none is intended. Perhaps the real trigger for you are what seems to be an unusual number of direct Nazi comparisons. In which case, yeah, people should avoid inappropriate comparisons with the Nazi regime. (As a side note, appropriate comparisons are not disallowed by Godwin’s Law, so if the speaker is referring to a possible mass death of human beings, it might actually be an appropriate comparison! But usually not.)

    I don’t really understand why you say that you think that the science is solid but then silently take the devil’s advocate position. Are you trying to contribute to human knowledge through adversarial questioning, or are you running “an experiment” where you cover up your true beliefs to see how people react? I think it’s safe to say that none of us really understand climate science based on what we’ve read in the media, even the great gwern. I’m sure that to a climate scientist, the quality of the information in this thread is like a Yahoo Answers thread about “will the LHC really create a black hole?” So the discussion we have here is hardly going to be indicative of anything except for the state of popular science knowledge (which, I think we can agree in advance, is terrible).

    Comment by Ryan Williams — 8/1/2014 @ 19:30

  15. Every event is an instance of a trend, and hence, contributes to the confirmation of that trend. The problem lies in determining which of many trends is most relevantly confirmed. So while it is technically correct to point to, say, extreme cold weather, as confirming a prediction of extreme weather, it is as you suggest not relevant to do so in isolation, as magazines are wont to do.

    Of course, this points to a general failing in magazines, not critics of climate change sceptics.

    Comment by Stephen Downes — 8/1/2014 @ 19:40

  16. @Ryan

    You can find lots of people comparing each other to Nazis on any conceivable topic on the internet, so it’s not really evidence for anything at all.

    This wasn’t random Internet chat. My examples include high standing politicians like American senators. I quote major newspapers. It also includes scientists (e.g., Mann see http://www.livescience.com/39957-climate-change-deniers-must-stop-distorting-the-evidence.html )

    I think your claim is that “global-warming scientists” as a group use the term as an insult.

    Denier is an insult. Let me quote Mann:

    The lesson here, perhaps, is that no misrepresentation or smear is too egregious for professional climate-change deniers. No doubt, we will continue to see misdirection, cherry-picking, half truths and outright falsehoods from them in the months ahead as the various IPCC working groups report their conclusions.

    It’s a pretty extreme claim on its face, that thousands of professionals are continually choosing to insult others in the public sphere, situations where the credibility of the speaker is under historically high scrutiny.

    The term “denier” is used by activists. I would not describe them as “professionals”. Real scientists don’t use such terms.

    Of course, some scientists become activists.

    I don’t really understand why you say that you think that the science is solid but then silently take the devil’s advocate position.

    I’m not silent.

    My point is that a few cold days, or even a cold winter, does not prove anything.

    How is that being a “devil’s advocate”?

    Are you trying to contribute to human knowledge through adversarial questioning, or are you running “an experiment” where you cover up your true beliefs to see how people react?

    My beliefs are laid bare online. I have repeated them ad nauseam over many years.

    So the discussion we have here is hardly going to be indicative of anything except for the state of popular science knowledge (which, I think we can agree in advance, is terrible).

    That’s not reason enough to watch pseudo-science making the headlines without speaking up.

    The last few days of cold weather tell us absolutely nothing about the climate.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 20:11

  17. @Downes

    Of course, this points to a general failing in magazines, not critics of climate change sceptics.

    Thanks for using the term “sceptics” which is much more appropriate than “denier”.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 20:15

  18. I’m really not convinced by your bare assertion that “denier” is an insult. None of the usual authorities back this up, and no matter who says them or in what context, quotes aren’t evidence of a word’s meaning.
    A work written by someone who would be described by the term uses it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deniers
    There’s a bit in there about how the title is “adopting their enemies’ terminology”. I can see how this would be undesirable: you don’t hear people describe themselves as anti-choice or anti-life, despite the fact that neither term is an insult! They reject the term because they don’t believe it describes them and that the term allows the opposition to dictate the terms of the debate. But they don’t say that it’s because they think it makes them sound like Nazis!

    Wikipedia provides a completely innocuous definition: “Denialism, the rejection of propositions on which a scientific or scholarly consensus exists”. Would you say that “denier” is insulting but “denialist” is acceptable?

    As for the devil’s advocate business, I apologize for misreading the thread. I have followed your blog for years, but don’t have a good sense for your opinions on these topics at all! I am mercifully unexposed to most popular media, so I missed the context of pseudo science being in the headlines. We are completely agreed that local weather phenomena don’t reflect on worldwide trends and that we should speak up against pseudo science whenever we encounter it. We should be careful that the way we do so avoids accidentally adding more pseudo science if possible.

    Comment by Ryan Williams — 8/1/2014 @ 21:00

  19. I should amend that to say that there are contexts where a quote *can* define a word. Like, when an authority says “this word has this meaning.” Duh! Forgive my sloppy editing.

    Comment by Ryan Williams — 8/1/2014 @ 21:02

  20. > N(t) = K exp(-t)

    What on earth is the variance of a precisely defined curve with no stochastic or error term…? Instead of spitting out random equations with no connection to anything, you could try answering my questions, or maybe – and I know this is a crazy suggestion, but it’s worth a try – actually looking up what precisely the claims about increased variance are.

    Comment by gwern — 8/1/2014 @ 21:12

  21. Daniel, I’m sorry to say that there’s probably little point in us continuing this discussion. I’m obviously not convincing you and we’re probably hitting into the “backfire effect” (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney).
    When I encountered your blog post today, your assertion about the word “denier” seemed completely out of left field and extreme to me. It seemed so insane and fresh that something had to be said (as you say, pseudo science ought to be rebutted).

    What I discovered after researching my previous comment is that it’s actually an old trope. I found echoes of our very discussion today, penned by people both more ignorant and more learned than us. Can’t believe I missed it before. The entire thing, assertion, counter-argument, historical record, it’s been done, and we’re unlikely to contribute anything new. And of course it’s unsettled. You and I would always have something else to pull out that would keep things going, so there’s no real point in going through the motions.

    It’s become so well-worn that it is now simply about signaling. If you call someone a “denier”, it is because you are against their position, and if you call them “skeptics” it lends them support. I’m sure at this very moment expert grammarians are fighting over which camp “contrarian” supports. That’s all it is in the end. It’s exactly analogous to pro-life/pro-choice in that regard.

    I’m bummed that this pedestrian discussion has distracted both of us so much, but at least we’ll be inoculated against it in the future. Thanks for a lively discussion!

    Comment by Ryan Williams — 8/1/2014 @ 21:38

  22. @gwern

    What on earth is the variance of a precisely defined curve with no stochastic or error term…?

    When they count the number of tornadoes per year in the US, we can assume that there is very little error. You get one number and it is the correct answer.

    It is not an average.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 22:09

  23. > You get one number and it is the correct answer.

    ??? Just because there’s no measurement error (and yes, there’s measurement error, tornadoes come in all sizes and may or may not be observed and officially recorded) doesn’t mean there are no averages to compare to!

    I’m going to have to echo Ryan here and sign off because you’re not even trying to understand here; not only did you not bother to understand your opponents and why they might think that extreme cold and heat both support their models (which should have been a prerequisite for writing this post), you’re not engaging with our comments.

    Comment by gwern — 8/1/2014 @ 22:37

  24. @Ryan

    As someone who is “pro-choice”, I would consider “anti-life” an insult.

    you don’t hear people describe themselves as anti-choice or anti-life, despite the fact that neither term is an insult!

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/1/2014 @ 23:01

  25. “So if extreme weather supports global warming, then non-extreme weather should contribute to invalidate it. If cold weather proves global warming, then warm winters run contrary to it surely.”
    Nope. This is just not what paleoclimatolgy tells us. It just so happens that what warming brings are abrupt climate changes taking from 10 to 25 years before a new ice age. We have been living in a world which climate is abnormally relatively stable (it has been the case for the last 15000 years). Any increase of temperature represents a greater risk of a global icing, so to speak. See, for intance:
    POTTS, Richard, Humanity’s Descent. The Consequences of Ecological Instability, New York : Avon Books, 1996, 325 p.
    POTTS, Richard, « Evolution and Climate Variability », Science, Vol 273, (August 16, 1996), pp. 922-923.
    deMenocal, Peter B., « Plio-Pleistocene African Climate », Science, Vol. 270 (October 6, 1995), pp. 53-59.

    Comment by Jean Robillard — 9/1/2014 @ 16:19

  26. Daniel,

    Like all hot button issues, it’s hard to break through the fervent opinions of some, but I think the dialog about Global Warming is a great one to have…

    Agree with him or no, Bjorn Lomborg does raise some interesting debate…(He admits things humans are doing are changing the environment, and takes a rational stance on what we might be able to do about it)

    I really enjoyed the documentary “Cool It”, but also find the behavior of SOME of the climate change “activists” to be more “Self serving” (I’m right you are wrong) and defeatist, rather than helpful and rational.

    http://youtu.be/eZR3gsY98VU

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1694015/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bj%C3%B8rn_Lomborg

    its on Netflix BTW.

    Comment by M. Eric DeFazio — 10/1/2014 @ 8:50

  27. Not sure I understand the amount of comments here claiming that “deniers” is not an insult. A bit scary. How in the world could anyone think it’s not an insult? The use of deniers seeks to marginalize any debate over scientific ideas. It’s a cheap and dangerous public relations tool in order to make it appear to the uniformed that there is not any legitimate descent to a theory. If you think the use of the word is not calculated and used for a certain purpose you are beyond naive.

    Comment by S Richter — 20/1/2014 @ 12:11

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