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    Bias and Global Warming

    My apologies to Robert Frost, but I just rewrote his poem:

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I know of human fads,
    I think the experts are all mad.
    Especially those who hold with fire,
    Because their email shows they’re liars.

    Is global warming real or is it a religion? If you believe, it is very real and something must be done. The solution requires that we all make sacrifices, not just true believers. So if your beliefs are wrong, the results could be evil, or at least expensive.

    This is the second of three articles on fanaticism and morality. In Conservation and Conservatism, I argued that art can distort our view of reality, causing “religious” beliefs that allow good people to harm others. Here, I’ll explain why we are prone to irrational beliefs and why “Global Warming” might be more religion than reality.

    Media Bias

    I am belatedly reading Bias, a book where Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS News reporter, makes a case that liberal bias exists in network news and elsewhere.

    Goldberg argues that the majority of journalists are strongly liberal, which is not really the problem. The problem is that they bias the news, mostly unconsciously and mostly because they sincerely believe themselves to be moderates. Reformers are drawn to professions like journalism and law, where almost everyone they know holds similar views.

    Goldberg, a self-confessed liberal (at least in the past), says a similar but opposite bias would result if network news was anchored in Omaha instead of New York and populated with conservatives. I personally doubt conservatives would bend the truth quite as much as our liberal media elite and will explain why in my next article.

    For now, I’m just arguing that much of our news is slanted in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. Indeed, it is almost impossible to tell a story without bias. The best we can do is offer conflicting opinions to provide balance. Without such balance, what is reported as news is really editorial. Biased news fails, not so much because the journalist is biased, but because he or she omits or belittles conflicting interpretations.

    Goldberg also argues that self-righteous news often has a “license to overkill”. When people think a wrong has been committed, like racial prejudice and segregation, they often believe that makes it okay to commit another wrong in reverse, like affirmative action, which after all is just another kind of racial prejudice and segregation. (The example is mine, not Goldberg’s.)

    The Narrative Fallacy

    In addition to simple prejudice, I think there is another reason for any sort of bias, liberal or conservative. Bias creates a better story, a compact summary that still seems to explain reality. The problem is that reality is usually more complex than we want to believe.

    The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that investments are not usually as profitable as we believe. Taleb’s thesis is that we have a natural tendency to overlook the cataclysmic changes that happen infrequently. Human thinking tends to simplify our world by remembering regularities and disregarding irregularities. He claims the result is that the world is much more random than we believe, especially in the long run. I ran across his thought provoking ideas last summer, since the recent financial crisis made this 2007 book look prophetic and people were talking about it.

    Taleb devotes a chapter to what he calls the “narrative fallacy”. As he says, “We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters. … The [narrative] fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to over interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths.”

    I see Taleb’s concept as a good way to explain bias in network news. Which probably makes my understanding another narrative fallacy, but hopefully one that adds some balance to the controversy. News of any sort is a summary of reality. Television news is necessarily a very brief summary. News simplifies our world to make it understandable. The danger lies when a facile understanding produces bad predictions and destructive actions.

    Global Warming

    I think global warming is another good example of a narrative fallacy. We naturally assume that suffering polar bears are victims of warming and discount other less narrative possibilities. We hear about global warming and naturally assume it is the problem when the weather does not suit us. A hurricane decimates New Orleans? Must be global warming! Not much snow a few winters ago? Must be global warming! Too much snow this winter? Must be a weird effect of complex global warming changes. Because global warming makes such a great story, we forget that weather is always highly random and that bad weather has always been a problem. We literally forget what the weather was last week, let alone decades ago because it is much simpler to summarize with some simple story like global warming.

    Earth’s weather is extremely complex. Indeed, the world’s first digital computer was originally planned mostly as a tool for weather simulations. If you are as old as I am, you may have noticed that weather forecasts are more reliable for much longer periods these days. That is mostly because available computing power has increased by many orders of magnitude over several decades. I am sure that the data and calculations must be incredibly complex when storms are predicted five days in advance.

    Global warming predictions are for decades not days and must encompass even more factors, including the interaction between carbon dioxide and both sunlight and water vapor. Predicting global warming the way we predict this week’s weather would be immensely more complex. So scientists must make simplifying assumptions to make the model tractable. That would be fine if it were easy to test those assumptions, but it is not since the test would be to actually try to create runaway warming and see what happens. Therefore global warming models are suspect.

    In addition, we now have evidence of significant scientific bias in favor of the warming hypothesis. It is possible you have not heard, since liberal media bias has downplayed the story. But emails from one of the world’s foremost climate change advocates were recently published on the web. These University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit messages recorded conversations between some of the world’s leading climate scientists. They showed numerous attempts to silence those who argued against global warming and to hide data that might contradict the warming hypothesis.

    This email evidence of scientific fraud has prompted some other scientists to step forward with new criticisms of global warming theories. (Which reminds me of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” tale, so my view of the situation may be colored by yet another narrative fallacy.)

    An editorial by MIT’s Richard Lindzen says that predictions of significant warming depend on more than carbon dioxide, which itself has only a minor greenhouse effect. Instead, warming models assume that increased CO2 will set up a positive feedback loop with water vapor, a much stronger greenhouse agent. Lindzen argues the relationship between CO2 and atmospheric water is highly questionable and that there is reason to believe that increased CO2 might lead to more cloud cover (because clouds are water vapor after all) which blocks the sun. So global cooling might be the real problem. In addition, it appears that global temperatures have not risen at all for the last twelve years, something global warming partisans have been attempting to hide and possibly why East Anglia apparently destroyed raw data.

    Indeed global cooling was the problem in the 1970’s. I’m not the first to point it out, but the global warming hysteria followed hard on the heels of a global cooling hysteria. The theory then was that industrial pollutants and possibly thermonuclear war would soon block enough sunlight to drastically cool our environment.

    I think both global cooling and global warming partisans overestimate the power of the human race. We talk about mother nature and the environment, but deep down we strongly believe in the story of human technological advance and domination. The world is not as small as we imagine and we don’t cast quite the shadow we assume. I think the story of human domination over nature is yet another good example of Taleb’s Literary Fallacy.

    Maybe the global warming theocracy has overlooked that the Earth is in the midst of a long series of ice ages. It appears that modern humans evolved during the last wave of ice that ended maybe eleven thousand years ago. Our older ancestors came out of Africa, but races more suited to freezing environments (including my own) learned to survive around glaciers. So in a way, it seems likely that a little global warming might not be such a bad thing for much of humanity, just not northern European races. Maybe the anti-carbon movement is more racially parochial than they think.

    But it seems likely that the current warmth is just one of a long series of interglacial breaks scattered between longer waves of cold over the last million years. As I just read in Wikipedia, the typical interglacial period lasts about 12,000 years. Given that the last glaciers receded about 11,000 years ago, we could see another such ice age any time now. The same article also mentions that recent theories push back the next expected cooling period by 50,000 years, but that may again be global warming partisans bending scientific theory to match their belief system.

    I’ve heard that glacial periods seem to start quickly, within a few decades or less, as if nature has thrown a switch. Certainly the graphs showing ice volume and temperatures over time have quite steep changes at the beginning of the last seven glacial periods.

    Separately, I understand that the Gulf Stream, that river of warm water flowing past my New Hampshire home toward northern Europe, may be an anomaly. It may sometimes stop, as indeed it did for ten days in 2004. I remember a theory that the Gulf Stream could sometimes stop for much longer periods, as if a switch can be thrown between two stable extremes.

    This is an alarming possibility because the Gulf Stream is largely responsible for making much of northern Europe inhabitable. It also apparently warms the New England seaboard, though not as much because it’s often pretty cold here compared to similar latitudes in Europe. Take a look at a world map and you may be surprised to see that England and Scandinavia are much further north than you thought. London is north of Newfoundland. My cold New Hampshire home, where lots of snow is falling outside my window as I write, is on the same latitude as balmy Spain. It seems to me that if the Gulf Stream were to switch off, that might easily trigger dramatic climate changes leading to global cooling and another ice age.

    I once read yet another alarming theory, that warming polar regions might trigger ice ages. Shrinking ice caps could free water vapor to fall as snow a little further south in North America and Asia. The increased snow could begin to accumulate as glaciers that advance south. So even if global warming theories are correct, the real end result might be global cooling.

    Powerful forces of nature embrace humanity. As much as we like to believe otherwise, we are probably still at the mercy of nature rather than the other way around. Rather than warming, my guess is that nature may have global cooling in mind. If I am wrong and human technology is more powerful than I assume, then just maybe our carbon dioxide will succeed in moderating the next ice age.

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    Reader Comments (1)

    For me, there are initially two problems with drawing the conclusion that there exists a liberal bias in the media and that it is a problem.

    One, the liberal/conservative dichotomy has been "cartoon-ified" in that issues are no longer assessed on their own merits; they're tossed into one of two bins with each party ridiculing whatever is in the other's bin. So, when even simple, human, popular-with-our-forefathers-type ideas are presented, such as, all men are created equal or we should be good stewards of the land-and it's pro-environment or has the stink of human kindness on it, it's presented as a liberal idea for which there must be an equal and opposite point of view. The true problem is that facts get the same he said/she said treatment. Easy and fun to do for pundits, not so beneficial to the discourse.

    Two, if liberal bias exists and is a problem, there should be signs of it. I submit that even if liberal "elites" (who are apparently reporters with beards making less than Roger Ailes' shoe-shine guy) were doing a half-assed job of inserting it (again, as facts), poll after poll would not have shown that 71% two years after and 47% a full 6 years later still believed that Saddam had something to do with the 911 attacks. In a free, open, democratic society without news departments driven to make profits and inconvenient truths presented as liberal opinion, that figure should have never been over 5%.

    Ditto for global warming.

    Ditto for universal healthcare.

    Does it make logical sense that of all the nations with economists, physicians, statisticians, geologists and meteorologists (typically trained in our country, BTW) advising their governments to take global heating seriously and universal healthcare as the self-evident way to go that we, alone, have the lock on the real truth and that all those other countries are stupid saps for making the decisions they've almost universally made?

    January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeller Highwater

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