November 18, 2007 | Graham

IPCC AR4 – collective confirmation bias

In case you don’t already know what’s in it you can download the IPPC AR4 report from here. You should know what’s in it, because the summary for policy makers was released early this year in a “cart before the horse” exercise.
I can’t help thinking that the IPCC reports are the biggest exercise in collective confirmation bias since the invention of religion. Now I’m on the record as being religious, and also believing that CO2 contributes to warming of the globe, so please don’t send me any mail saying that I’m a “denier”. But I do believe that we should test everything, and only hold fast to that which is true. And on that basis the IPCC reports fall far short of the standards set by the empirical enlightenment tradition of which I’m also a disciple.
The IPCC reports seem to me to grab onto any bit of evidence that supports their thesis – that global warming will be catastrophic – while ignoring any contrary evidence. This then extends to categorising any meteorological occurence that is relatively rare as being a product of global warming. Worst drought in Australia in 100 years – must be global warming.
This is very similar to the primitive religious view of the world in that not only is confirmation bias at work, but it centralises the world around mankind. So for example if the moon disappears in an eclipse, for a primitive it must be our fault, and we need to make some sacrifice to change it. A more sophisticated scientific and religious view of the world disentangles cause and effect. Maybe god caused the eclipse, but if he did, it is as a consequence of the way he created the universe, not of anything we ourselves have done, and I say “maybe” because you can take the concept of god out of this altogether, and it still holds as a logical proposition.
So, scientists start to act more like priests than scientists. For example, the report says that it is 90% likely that the scenarios outlined in it will come to occur. This is not a statistical statement, or even a core promise. This is the equivalent of saying that interest rates will always be lower under the Liberals, or that God exists. In fact, I’d give you better odds on the first than the second, but in each case less than 90 percent, but this will just be a personal opinion, not a scientific one, because there is no way to statistically calculate the probability. To do that you have to have an event which recurs.
To be scientific you also need to be able to construct an experiment to test your theory, but in the case of climate change you can’t verify the results until after the event, and even then, in the case of climate change, even if it did get very much warmer, disentangling cause from effect would probably still be impossible. So my odds would be an expression of a personal, not a scientific, view.
Which is one of the problems that I have with the IPCC. The scientists writing the report should be as aware as I am of the limits of “probability” in this sort of exercise, so why do they attempt to pass faith off as science?

Posted by Graham at 10:24 pm | Comments (11) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. we must change over to renewable energy simply because fossil fuels are finite, and the bottom of the barrel is coming into view. pascal’s wager suggests that sooner the better is the sensible timing.
    so why not do what we must do, and do it while the remaining resources can be used for non-energy purposes? the prospect of influencing global warming is almost extraneous, if it weren’t for the very long-shot possibility of catastrophic climate change.

    Comment by al loomis — November 19, 2007 @ 7:48 am

  2. “Why do they pass faith off as science?”Why?;because we are tribal beings who put allegience of the group above all else.The cause has become more important than the reality.The anti-carbon zealots are now a tribe and thus religious.Nothing will short of a miracle will deter them from their course.The black carbon devil must be exorcied and destroyed at all costs.You cannot consider any other variables such as sun spot activity,climate cycles,influence of oceans etc.The scientific god has decended from Mt Sinai and issued his edict.Repent from your lustful material ways and live in poverty of both body and mind.
    Much of this fear mongering is about power.Yes we are probably adding to Global warming,but in the time of the Dinosaurs co2 was 12 times that of the present and global temperatures were 10 deg c hotter.
    Planetary life did not end.

    Comment by Arjay — November 19, 2007 @ 8:28 pm

  3. Insightful post. Thanks.
    And BTW if you type, “ambit gambit graham young” into google this is a first link:

    Comment by Jennifer — November 19, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  4. Climate change is becoming the next haven for zealots.
    We all want to enjoy our climate of choice!
    I see nothing wrong with having clean air, and so support efforts made to achieve it, if it need be called “climate change” so be it.
    What I would ask is the cost to society to have clean air?
    Slowing of industrial pollution at the cost of “progress” is to me an acceptable trade off.

    Comment by frank luff — November 20, 2007 @ 9:18 am

  5. Frank, the global warming debate has nothing to do with keeping air clean. Carbon dioxide doesn’t make air dirty. Even if it was dirty, rather than just as essential to life as water, at parts per million it’s not a significant, in terms of cleanliness, part of the atmosphere.
    At those levels it provides some additional insulation, but nothing else.
    And in fact, water, which I mentioned earlier, provides much more of the insulation than CO2.

    Comment by Graham Young — November 20, 2007 @ 9:31 pm

  6. “you also need to be able to construct an experiment to test your theory, but in the case of climate change you can’t verify the results until after the event”
    so we do nothing until after the event because our metrics won’t be in order?
    wow. impressive sang-froid. yes, you’re right. even in the worst case we will survive. our top leadership will either pop into underground hydroponic bunkers, or into orbital habitats. at 10 women to every man we can restart the human race. its tough work, but someone’s got to do it.

    Comment by Jez — November 23, 2007 @ 7:53 pm

  7. Arjay. “Planetary life did not end”?
    that’s all you’ll settle for? most species larger than a shrew being wiped out and that’s tolerable colateral damage?
    i hope you never get to play with nuclear weapons.

    Comment by Jez — November 23, 2007 @ 7:58 pm

  8. Jez,the end of the Dinosaurs was not due to the slow build up of C02 gases.Scientists think it was due to a cataclysmic event like a large meteorite which produced an ice age.The Jurassic period had an ice age in the midst of the highest C02 concentrtaions in our geological history.By comparision we have no even doubled the amount of C02,yet we have the likes of Al Gore making billions out of selling carbon credits.
    The greatest threat to our survival is still nuclear weapons and over population of the planet.The left however ignore the reality and use populism and guilt to subdue the masses.

    Comment by Arjay — November 23, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  9. bloody masses, always being led around by the nose. arjay warming is occurring at a faster rate over a shorter period than at any recorded time geologically. species are already disappearing rapidly. food, medicine, tensile materials, you name it every time we lose a species we lose compounds that could be invaluable to us. cash and man-made stuff we can always come up with. losing a species is losing millions of years of evolutionary capital from the surface of the planet. and the rate of loss in increasing rapidly.

    Comment by Jez — November 23, 2007 @ 10:55 pm

  10. Indigo Jones rest in peace, as the snake oil salesmen fleece the lost, as they search for a new faith in looking at the symptom and not the cause.

    Comment by Dallas — November 24, 2007 @ 1:00 am

  11. Jez, your comments are pretty typical of what passes for debate on this, and just about as uniformly incorrect. We basically know what is going to happen with higher CO2 levels, because the earth has been here before. So it’s not a case of taking insurance out against a catastrophic probability, but taking out insurance against something that won’t happen, because higher temperatures within the realm of what greenhouse will produce don’t represent a challenge to human life.
    We’ve also had much faster climate change in the past than we have at the moment because of other mechanisms, so there is nothing out of the ordinary occurring in terms of magnitude or direction.
    There is no evidence of wide-spread species decline.
    Unforunately the debate is based around people positing the most alarmist scenario they think they can get away with, and then demanding that the rest of the world change to deal with it on the basis that it might happen.
    That anyone takes this seriously is evidence of collective psychosis.

    Comment by Graham Young — November 24, 2007 @ 8:30 am

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