Perspective by William M. Briggs
Exclusive to The MacIver Institute
A work of politics, not science
***Editor’s Note: We welcome you to MacIver’s newest columnist, William Briggs. Briggs has a Ph.D. in Mathematical Statistics and an MS in Atmospheric Physics. Briggs describes himself as a “Data Philosopher, Epistemologist, Probability Puzzler, Unmasker of Over-Certainty”, and statistician to the stars. As you will see, Briggs has a healthy skepticism of the supposedly ironclad findings that modern science purports to find seemingly every week. We are very excited to add Briggs to the MacIver lineup, and we hope you find his work as informative and refreshing as we do.***
One of the reasons for broken science is nonsense being passed off as science. Today’s example, and a prominent example, too, comes from the peer-reviewed journal BioScience. From the paper “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” by William Ripple and others.
Now the word emergency isn’t undefined or unfamiliar: we know the difference between an emergency and a matter of concern, or even a problem. Further, we know the word so well that we know the weather we experience is not any kind of emergency, even if it might, possibly, someday, perhaps, who knows, maybe be a problem. Which it now is not; a problem, that is, let alone an emergency. The weather is not acting in any extraordinary way.
Even though we know the word, it doesn’t have a scientific meaning. Emergency, as a word, has no place in scientific discourse. And neither does code red, a term used in the article’s opening sentences: “We are now at ‘code red’ on planet Earth. Humanity is unequivocally facing a climate emergency.”
What—what precisely—is a code red? Is it different from a code orange or code puce? What—what precisely—differentiates code red from code indigo? How many codes are there, and how do we measure or categorize them without ambiguity about their characteristics?
Obviously, we cannot answer any of those questions; they aren’t even meant to be asked. Which means the term is not part of science. It is instead hyperbolic and editorial. It is scientific nonsense.
The paper, therefore, is off to a bad start. It has already signaled it is a work of politics and not science. Yet even though the work cannot function at all well as science, it might have value politically. Let’s see the very next sentences:
The scale of untold human suffering, already immense, is rapidly growing with the escalating number of climate-related disasters. Therefore, we urge scientists, citizens, and world leaders to read this Special Report and quickly take the necessary actions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The scale of human suffering due to poor or inclement weather is not “already immense”. The suffering is not “rapidly growing”, either. This we know from the work of men like Bjorn Lomberg. One citation will do, though there are many:
Greta Thunberg believes that climate change means "people are dying", but the fact is that the number of deaths due to weather-related disasters has decreased 95% over the past century.https://t.co/ttRtwVefGu
— Bjorn Lomborg (@BjornLomborg) September 27, 2019
Lomberg is careful to make that graph scientific (links here), by defining just what he means by “climate deaths”. Naturally, the definition can be disputed, or changed, and the numbers would change, too. It is true, also, that measuring these things is subject to at least substantial uncertainty, so that the blue line should have something like a plus or minus around it.
Those are scientific criticisms because they speak to the measurements and the certainty we have in them. But, given this picture, and the work of others, it is clear that something like that picture is true; I mean the decrease in deaths. And that, therefore, Ripple’s “rapidly growing” is false.
Which doesn’t make his statement valueless. Since we are dealing, as we have learned, with a political paper, and not a scientific one, and in politics, anything goes, Ripple will likely get away with his falsehood.
Which is why he goes from the political strength of “rapidly growing” to (in the next paragraph) “The consequences of global heating are becoming increasingly extreme, and outcomes such as global societal collapse are plausible and dangerously underexplored”.
Global societal collapse! I suppose we could criticize that term, too, since it, being undefined, means only what horrors are held in the mind of individual readers, but we see where we are now.
It’s not that this paper doesn’t have aspects that look like science. It does. For instance, there’s a table that claims “April 2022: Climate change likely contributed to extreme rainfall in Eastern South Africa, which triggered flooding and landslides that killed at least 435 people and affected more than 40,000 people.”
What makes this advocacy and not science is that Ripple makes no attempt to give alternate, and even more likely, explanations for the rain. There are also many critiques proving these attributions are, at absolute best, vastly over-certain and most likely just plain wrong.
To make this paper science, and not advocacy, those legitimate and strong critiques must be at least mentioned, even if they are dismissed. Not just for this instance, but in each claim made about the causes of weather supposedly running amok.
Science is about discovering the causes of observables. If all possible likely causes are not given or investigated, then the work can be no better than bad science. Or no science at all, as we have here.
But this paper will be taken as science, especially by those rulers who have “solutions” to sell. Especially since its original 2020 version attracted “14,700 signatories from 158 countries”. If you are in the majority who take science to be a vote, then this number of signers is irresistible.
Matthew Briggs is a “wholly independent vagabond writer, statistician, scientist, and consultant. Previously a Professor at the Cornell Medical School, a Statistician at DoubleClick in its infancy, a Meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and a sort of Cryptologist with the US Air Force.”
See more of his writings and analysis here.