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A Review of "The Deniers"

I recently read The Deniers by Lawrence Solomon. The "deniers" in the title of Solomon's book are scientists who question anthropogenic (or human-caused) global warming. The term is usually used in a pejorative sense by AGW believers, with the implication of a similarity to holocaust deniers. The most famous use was in Scott Pelley's explanation of why he didn't interview global warming skeptics: "If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel, am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust Denier?".

Solomon's deniers include Edward Wegman, a statistician who debunked the hockey stick, Christopher Landsea, a meteorologist who questions the links between hurricanes and global warming, Syun-ichi Akasofu, a geophysicist who demonstrated a poor correlation between CO2 levels and arctic temperatures, several Danish scientists who have explored the possible influence of solar activity on climate, and many others.

Solomon does an admirable job of walking the tightrope between scientific rigor and accessibility. One thing that helps with this is that he spends some time talking about broader principles in scientific debate. Early in the book, he addresses the issue of appeal to authority. Many global warming skeptics use the textbook response that appeal to authority is a well-known fallacy, but Solomon is more nuanced than that. He correctly points out that since we can't always learn everything, sometimes appeal to authority is necessary.

But he doesn't stop there. He points out that sometimes authorities disagree, and a decision must be made as to which authority should be given more weight. The chapter on the hockey stick is a good illustration of this. The hockey stick is the graph of the temperatures over time that indicates that they have risen very dramatically in recent times (thus creating a graph that looks like a hockey stick.) He points out that Micheal Mann (no not that one), the creator of the hockey stick had a background in meteorology but not in statistics. Because past information is necessarily incomplete, statistical methods must be used to fill in the gap. Mann had no background statistics, but Edward Wegman did, and found severe flaws in Mann's ideology.

Solomon addresses the much talked about issue of "consensus". He points out that many of the deniers are "affirmers in general, deniers in particular." Wegman, for instance, "did not dispute that man-made global warming was ocurring" but "merely stated that in the one narrow area in which his expertise was applied...the use of statistics to support claims of global warming-- the claims were unsupportable".
Of Christopher Landsea, he says that he "has issued no sweeping denials of catastrophic global warming...He merely says that in the one area he knows something about--hurricane activity--there is absolutely no reason to think that global warming is of any significance at all".

He addresses the issue of what effect scientific research should have on policy. He includes an excerpt from an article by Freeman Dyson which urges caution to anyone interpreting science as a policy guide in which he points out that since "in science, you are not supposed to believe the numbers until you have examined the evidence carefully" and that politics "have to vote yes or no, and they generally do not have the luxury of suspending judgement" we should remember that "Belief for a politician is not the same thing as belief for a scientist".

He cautions about the limits of modeling. He quotes at length from the work of Hendrik Tennekes , who wrote an article called "No Forecast Is Complete Without A Forecast Of Forecast Skill." Tennekes is concerned that modeling can sometimes violate Karl Popper's contention that scientific theories should be falsifiable. This happens when predictions fail and scientists "blame the poor accuracy of the observations, the lack of computer power, and the inadequate parameterization in the numerical models, rather than their own lack of skill in computing the accuracy that can be obtained with present resources." In other words, poor data gathering often gets blame that properly belongs to the model. Thus the premises behind the model are never falsified.

Solomon doesn't dismiss all attempts at modeling. He cites an instance where one of the deniers he mentions , David Bromwich, developed a model that allowed a man in need of medical care to be rescued from Antarctica. Bromwich's model helped predict the best times for planes to go in and rescue the man. This model is different from many GW models because it was very narrow in scope. It was tailored to the Antarctic region, and made predictions over a few days instead of many years, as is the case with global warming models..

There are stories of the travails of scientists challenging the anthropogenic CO2 driven global warming theory. The Scandinavian advocates of a solar theory came in for particular grief. When Eigil Friis-Christensen approached the IPCC (the UN body that investigates climate change) about his work, they "refused to consider the Sun's influence on Earth's climate as a topic worthy of investigation." When Jasper Kirkby remarked to journalists that cosmic ray flux might "account for somewhere between a half and the whole of the increase in the Earth's temperature that we have seen in the last century", he lost funding from CERN.

The most damning story was about Fred Singer, who co-authored an article that cautioning against radical policy changes based on current climate change research. Al Gore called Ted Koppel and asked him to investigate Singer's sources of funding. Koppel's response was as follows "There is some irony in the fact that Vice President Gore--one of the most scientifically literate men to sit in the White House in this century--[is] resorting to political means to achieve what should ultimately be resolved on a purely scientific basis".

Koppel nails the biggest stumbling block to global warming. Political rather than scientific means are used to arrive at conclusions on the subject. Solomon cautions against those on either side of the debate doing this. Although his primary intent is to defend the skeptics, he doesn't always give them a pass. For instance, he complains that the film The Great Global Warming Swindle overinterprets the findings of the Scandinavian scientists who studied solar effects on global warming.

The overall tone of the book is a charitable one. He has "respect for scientists on both sides of the IPCC [global warming] divide". His reasoning is that the matter is so complex that it's difficult to say that anyone has the last word. One gets the feeling from reading the book that he would be content for you to read the book carefully and consider his arguments even if you ultimately reject them. The books friendly, accessible tone, along with the wealth of facts and figures (many of which I did not include in this review) make it a book worth reading and, for me at least, worth owning.