Sunday, September 05, 2010

Response by KVMR's Al Stahler, host of Soundings

This is a followup to two NCFocus posts from last month:

Here is his reply:
( I've taken the liberty of adding a few links where he's referred to outside information, so you can read for yourself if you choose.)

Hi Anna –

Thank you for your comments about my program. Thank you, too, for respecting my decision to refrain from recommending policy; it's my task to explain the science.

I appreciate your sending links to blogs you feel I should read. Many fine blogs exist. Unfortunately, the ones you've recommended have not always been helpful. For example:

I gave you a book review that appeared recently in BioScience, published by the American Institute of Biological Science. The biologist/reviewer observed that many people writing about climate are tackling subjects that are out of their field.

In response, you sent me a link to a blog that severely criticized this biologist/reviewer's understanding of biology.
[ Botkin's severely-criticized WSJ op-ed is here(link) ]

The blog was written by a geochemist.

Don't get me wrong. I've conversed with this particular geochemist a number of times. I have great regard for his geochemical work. He's been a guest on my program, twice.

But he's a geochemist, not a biologist. Could you not find a single biologist to respond to this biologist/reviewer's point?

Virtually all of the links you've sent me have led me either to people writing about fields not their own, or to people talking around the question, rather than answering it. While many bloggers are doing fine work, a surprising number don't seem to understand the question being asked, or the reason someone would ask it in the first place. Merely asking a question seems to put one into the "enemies" camp.

Therein, I feel, lies the potential for me to make a contribution to the conversation.

I don't pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of climate science; as one scientist (one who designs instruments that probe the atmosphere from space) has pointed out, the atmosphere is almost biological in its complexity (my own training is in biology). Without pretending to a comprehensive understanding, I can translate what climate scientists are saying.

We need to find a wide variety of alternatives to fossil fuels, for a wide variety of reasons. Unfortunately, this has led to some rather questionable policy. We now face legislation and regulations that have

a) triggered a new land-rush in the American desert … to the detriment of its vibrant and unique ecosystems;

b) accelerated the clearing of tropical forests to make way for biofuel plantations; not only is habitat being destroyed, but carbon dioxide emissions from these landscapes have actually increased;

c) clogged car-pool lanes by allowing driver-only hybrids to use them … despite the fact that a Prius carrying only its driver gets worse per-passenger fuel mileage than a Boeing 747 with only 90% seat occupancy.

I don't pretend to be able to juggle all the variables that policymakers must deal with – but I do feel I can inform their debates.

I'm puzzled by your description of my radio broadcasts as being "light" on climate change. To help my audience (and myself) better understand climate and energy – and the world around us – I have:

  • hosted dozens of climate scientists, and described the work of many others;
  • called-in live from the top of the Whites (in the midst of an August snow storm), to describe GLORIA;
  • been on and within Yucca Mountain a half-dozen times;
  • been inside WIPP;
  • toured energy facilities, among them a conventional coal-fired plant, an IGCC plant, a nuclear power station, and a biomass-fired power plant;
  • looked at carbon-removal schemes;
  • been involved, hands-on, in two EV construction projects;
  • attended the annual Extreme Precipitation Symposia;
  • called-in live from American Geophysical Union meetings, and from Ecological Society of America meetings;
  • participated in field trips to look at evidence for climate change in the rocks, in the plants, in the critters (and one field trip to better understand climate change on Mars);
  • accompanied researchers into the field, to study how pika populations are responding to climate in the Great Basin;
  • seen how deep drilling and climate change have dried-up springs used by Native Americans from time immemorial;
  • spent time on Native American reservations to understand how they are affected by nearby power plants; coal mines; old and proposed uranium mines; and how they might be affected, should they decide to host "temporary" nuclear waste storage facilities;
  • My audience has heard me describe the experience of breathing into an infrared spectrometer, watching as my own carbon dioxide modulates the instrument's beam.
Please explain what it is about this work that you feel is "light on climate change"?

In describing these experiences (and many others) on KVMR, I've tried to explain where various workers believe we are at, where we are going; and how they've come to those beliefs. I've allowed them to express their concerns, their hopes, their fears. I've tried to make clear where they are working from data, and where they are working from assumptions.

Could your characterization of my work as "light on climate" result from my reluctance to follow the lead of a broadcaster (whom you've endorsed), repeating such claims as the assertion that there is a 50% chance that climate change will lead to the extinction of life – ALL LIFE – in the next century?

As I've said, I don't pretend to understand (anything near) all there is to know about climate. I would therefore never claim to know the sensitivity of climate to CO2 concentration. Though readers of your blog would not likely know it, that number is the subject of very active investigation. I've repeated what various workers have told me they believe the range might be (very, very few climate scientists claim to know this number with any precision). Yet you claim that I have stated such a number, or put limits on its range.

Kindly document these statements you’ve attributed to me, or retract them.

One last thing, Anna, which I find truly mystifying: Neither your blog, nor any of the blogs to which you've sent me links, acknowledges the service rendered by the hackers who brought Climategate into the open.

The release of these e-mails shed much-needed light on a process that – judging by the e-mails themselves – was coming perilously close to what's been described as "pathological science" – science practiced by a closed community, hostile to outside ideas, so confident that only they hold the truth that they can bend rules, hinder publication of opposing views, and hide data.

As for the future of my work on KVMR: I've experienced, in our small town, how politics polarizes an argument, how it leads to decisions based solely on politics, rather than data.

Until now, I've dutifully attended political rallies, marched in demonstrations, contributed to candidates' coffers. Though I've seen indications of this in the past (letters to the editor, calls to the station demanding my dismissal, occasional death threats), I'm now seriously concerned that "taking sides" – on all sorts of issues - has alienated segments of my audience – and thereby lowered my effectiveness as a translator.

I'm also concerned that adopting one particular viewpoint might color my interpretation. I admire your intelligence, Anna, and your passion, but I'm concerned that your passion sometimes overwhelms your critical facilities. It is not for nothing that the adjective most commonly associated with the noun "skepticism" is "healthy."

The world is at a number of critical junctures, one of which relates to climate and energy. I hope we can work together, Anna, and with people on all sides of the discussion, to see us through.

With all best wishes, and friendship,
Al Stahler

There's a lot in this response that I would take issue with. Not enough time, but a few here:
  • I don't endorse KVMR broadcasters, and certainly have reservations about the science creds of a show that covers morphic resonance as a real phenomenon - even when it gets the big picture(*) right. As for "50% chance that climate change will lead to the extinction of life...", I don't know, and I don't know how anyone could assign a probability to this; though to the extent that climate change is a national security threat multiplier, an ensuing nuclear war could perhaps achieve this. But I'm more concerned with the impact on human civilization.
  • See the New York Times editorial on the disaster (and non-scandal) that was "ClimateGate".
  • True skepticism is healthy; climate denialism is not.
  • Not taking sides, when the science only supports one side, destroys one's effectiveness as a translator on that issue, and diminishes one's credibility on others.
  • Let's distinguish between climate science and energy.
  • Soundings has aired on KVMR for over 20 years; what matters is how the show informs listeners now.
  • "[Re sensitivity] I've repeated what various workers have told me they believe the range might be" - you said 1 to 3 degrees C (which lowballs the range, which is more like 2-4.5 C) and you were quite firm that this (1-3C) was what the science and scientists said; but I never did find out *who* told you this, despite asking multiple times. You did cite a scientific review paper (Knutti & Hegerl 2008) as support, that turned out to actually go *against* the 1-3C claim. ("Various observations favour a climate sensitivity value of about 3 °C, with a likely range of about 2–4.5 °C. ").
    [Note/Update: in fairness to Alan, he *did* say that others thought the value could be even higher, though he didn't seem to think this position had firm scientific footing: "Some say even more [than 1-3C] / they're looking for evidence / we just don't know, and don't know how to find out".
    "Uncertainty==no significant knowledge" is a recurrent theme/implication.]

  • "led to rather questionable policy...I don't pretend to be able to juggle all the variables that policymakers must deal with – but I do feel I can inform their debates"., it sounds like while Soundings doesn't address policy, the show does - deliberately - provide pieces of information with the expectation that this information will influence people's policy views.
  • "...almost biological in its complexity" - yes. What does that mean? Often complexity at lower levels is irrelevant to the big picture - if you overheat some mice, they die; if you feed them, they make more mice.
  • "Could you not find a single biologist to respond to this biologist/reviewer's point?" - but Botkin's making a bigger point, he's trying to suggest that we shouldn't be thinking that climate change is such a big deal. That's the point I'm most concerned about, and a biologist isn't going to be the one to address it. Botkin does a sleight of hand, equating "effects on life" ("Global warming doesn't matter except to the extent that it will affect life -- ours and that of all living things on Earth.") with "extinction" (" And contrary to the latest news, the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin."); but it doesn't take human extinction to 'achieve' famines and even the collapse of civilization. "Nasty, brutish and short" isn't my idea of a fulfilling life.


Don Pelton said...

Thanks for this discussion. You both deserve credit for keeping it civil and mutually respectful.

Anna Haynes said...

On further thought though, I am disturbed by Alan's take on the stolen emails and ensuing media cacophany - so Alan, if you're out there, a couple of questions for you:

Do you recognize that there is an ongoing war against climate science?

Do you think the scientific enterprise and those who labor in it are well equipped to defend it & their community against attack on its & their credibility by intellectually dishonest opponents?
(such as people with the mindset of political operatives, and the enterprises they're involved with)

Do you know what a denial-of-service attack is, and how the term is relevant to the climate controversy?

And finally, re the death threats you've gotten, I'm curious - roughly when this happen, & were they reported to the police?

Anna Haynes said...

(answer to my Qs re the death threats: two widely separated instances, not reported to the police.)

Anna Haynes said...

Rosen's thoughts on climate journalism.

Anna Haynes said...

ClimateGate: A Briefer

Anna Haynes said...

More new readings in science journalism:
Ed Yong's Should science journalists take sides?
("if you do discuss minority views, then do so with care, do so with eyes wide open, and say where the consensus currently sits"; "the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’")
and Mooney's The Psychology of Science Politicization
("...a critically important role for the science journalist...")

Anna Haynes said...

> "c) clogged car-pool lanes by allowing driver-only hybrids to use them … despite a Prius..."

In process: checking whether the person who reportedly said this (but told me he doesn't recall having done so) actually did say it.

Anna Haynes said...

> "In process: checking whether the person who reportedly said [carpool lanes are clogged by Priuses] (but told me he doesn't recall having done so) actually did say it" - I'm waiting to get the recording from Al.

He did answer a couple of the Qs above - he thinks yes there's a war on science but it's from "both sides", and doesn't recognize the relevance of DoS attacks. (mea culpa on the last one, I should have explained it to him & still haven't done so)

Anna Haynes said...

Final fact-check update on Stahler's assertion that "We now face legislation and regulations that have...clogged car-pool lanes by allowing driver-only hybrids to use them..." - it's unsupported.

The only evidence provided for the "lanes being clogged" assertion was a claim that Henk Tennekes had said it; but Tennekes told me he did not recall saying it and would not have said it (link). And indeed, it turns out Tennekes didn't say it:

Stahler retrieved & listened to the interview's recording & reports that " response to what [Tennekes] had written in the book on fuel mileage, [Stahler] pointed out that allowing one-passenger Prius's in the diamond lanes might not be wise, as they get worse per-passenger fuel mileage than a cruising 747, 90% filled, and [Tennekes] agreed." (or perhaps made polite agreeable noises; I haven't listened to it.)

Seems to me there's a bug somewhere in the process here, that's yielding erroneous understanding as a result. Perhaps because someone ghostwrote Stahler's essay of response, I'd thought; but he assured me that no, it is his writing.

(and a p.s. - strike my mea culpa in the above comment, I have now explained relevance of DoS attacks)