Sunday, July 09, 2006

Richard Lindzen: incoherent buffoon

For an entire week I'm been flush with anger at the incoherent idiocy that global warming skeptic Richard Lindzen displayed in last Sunday's Wall Street Journal. It's really hard to know where to begin.

Lindzen's only substantive attempt to reject the existence of a scientific consensus, the citation of Benny Peiser's "debunking" of a study done on the subject, is worthless. Thinkprogress has the details.

More fundamentally, Lindzen has a bizarre obsession with attribution: the "problem" here, apparently, is that we cannot categorically say what portion of climate change is natural versus man-made.

Of course we can't! Heat is diffuse and untraceable: if we demand an absolute standard for proof of "attribution," we will never reach a conclusion. There's simply no statistically bulletproof measure. We can't run a controlled experiment with the atmosphere! Lindzen, who apparently will complain so long as attribution is not completely precise, will thus be complaining forever. He should save his lungs and shut up.

Why the aggressive language? As I've noted before, this kind of point doesn't just contradict the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists. It massacres common sense. Take Lindzen's own statement:

"Finally, there has been no question whatever that carbon dioxide is an infrared absorber (i.e., a greenhouse gas--albeit a minor one), and its increase should theoretically contribute to warming."

Precisely. Carbon dioxide, in the absence of some negative feedback mechanism that cancels its effects, will increase temperatures. So when Lindzen says that recent warming may be due to natural variation, it's important to realize what he's really saying:

1) Over the past several decades, increased cloud cover due to warming temperatures has completely cancelled any further effects of man-made global warming, even though consensus climate science has found that clouds' positive feedback (trapping heat) likely outweighs their negative feedback (blocking sunlight).

2) At the same time (and here's the kicker), we just happen to have experienced an unprecedentedly rapid onset of natural warming.

Point #1, in isolation, would be somewhat debatable. Lindzen has written a few papers on the "Iris Effect," the tendency of high cirrus clouds to reduce incoming solar energy. I should note that his claims in these papers are incredibly tentative, hardly jiving with his buffoonery in the public sphere. They don't come close to showing how this negative feedback would actually halt global warming (or even how it would outmatch positive feedback).

But regardless, points #1 and #2 in conjunction are absurdly improbable. Just look at them. It's ridiculous. I'm not a fervent fan of Occam's Razor, but this is an appropriate use if there ever was one.

Since I like analogies, I'll make an extended one here, just to illustrate how braindead this reasoning is. (can you tell I'm frustrated?)

Analogy: what if Lindzen was an economist?

Say that our nation suddenly increased all individual income taxes to 70%. In the absence of any additional feedback, basically anyone would tell you that this would hurt the economy: it decreases the marginal benefit from working. And say that then, lo and behold, our GDP contracted by 15% in the next five years. Wouldn't you conclude that the gargantuan tax increase - which you would expect to damage production - was probably the cause?

Lindzen, if he employed his current style of logic, would be the one guy to disagree. He'd say "we can't be certain whether the GDP decline was caused by the tax policy or by a normal cyclical downturn." This would neglect, of course, the fact that 1) this was much bigger than normal cyclical declines and 2) this is precisely what we would expect to happen.

Then he would publish research similar to his "Iris Effect" papers. It might show that increased money for education, policing and defense benefits the economy, thus increasing GDP. It would, however, make no rigorous attempt to compare this gain to the enormous drain caused by the tax increase - in fact, the overwhelming majority of economists would say that the bad effects considerably outweighed the good. Yet Lindzen would persist, incoherently screaming on the pages of American newspapers that there was no consensus, that most people disagreeing with him just didn't understand economics, etc., etc.

I think it's a pretty good analogy. Lindzen's logic really is that flimsy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. I've never been one to take a slam at another person *personally*, but as for your argument w/r not to Lindzen himself, but to his theory and fallacious logic, well... just, yes.
Ever talked to the guy? I'd be curious to see if he had anything to say to what you've written here!

~A fellow MIT-er