Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Global cooling

As expected, Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” received an Oscar the other night for best documentary. A second, and in my view, more appropriate award went to the film for best original song. A few weeks ago there was much publicity regarding the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which the media hailed as conclusive proof that global warming is real and that it is caused by human agency—the anthropogenic thesis (AGW).

In fact, the earth has been cooling since 1998. This is a fact that the AGW crowd-—the supporters of anthropogenic global warming—-do not want you to know. In this field groupthink has taken over entirely.

Is the effect since 1998 temporary? Of course it is. All climate situations are temporary; just look out the window. Over the last 106 years there have been two periods of warming and three periods of cooling. We are in a period of cooling now.

Then what about those glaciers we keep hearing about? Glaciers, by their nature, are always melting off into valleys or bodies of water. Only about one-third of glaciers are being tracked. Of these, some are getting smaller, others are getting bigger.

To be sure the peninsula projecting north from Antarctica is getting warmer. But Antarctica as a whole is getting colder. AGW enthusiasts cherry pick the data, and the results of their culling are what get into the news reports that are all that most people have to go on. The current IPCC Report, like the others, was not written by scientists, but by publicists using the cherry-picking principle. Nonetheless, careful reading reveals “holes in the ozone layer”-—the cloud of misinformation spread by the AGW group.

One observer has trenchantly put the matter as follows:

“[I]f climate change is caused by the use of fossil
fuels, then it is within our power to change it, even if it is at
great cost and pain.

“But if climate change is just one of those things, like continental
drift and the solar cycle and earthquakes, completely out of our
hands, something which we can't change and must endure, well,
that's even scarier. It is a well-recognized phenomenon that many
people have a deep psychological need to believe that they have
control over factors which are in reality out of their control.
That's usually called ‘superstition.”

Another correspondent, George P, has coined a new term for the tendency: apocalyptophilia. An early example was Paul Ehrlich’s 1966 prediction of a “population bomb.” It never occurred.

Why is so much credulity on display about this matter? For one thing, reports of disasters, even hypothetical ones, get more attention. Once the meme develops, it spreads by groupthink. Another motivation is the desire of the “small is beautiful” people to impose their lifestyle on others. If someone wishes to move to a cabin in Maine with no indoor plumbing and only a wood-burning stove, let them do it. But they must not be allowed to impose their lifestyle on others who do not elect it.

In the meantime I wish to pass on one of several remarkable summaries I have read about the matter. I trust that Eric Baum will pardon me for plagiarizing his brilliant account, which I reproduce below with just a few cuts and tiny editorial alterations.

The United Nations just upgraded confidence in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) from 66% (in 2001) to 90% today, but their summary doesn't give any grounds for this increase in confidence. I [EB] am eager to know why increased confidence is justified. . .

It would seem that the principal events of the last five years pertaining to confidence in AGW are the following:

(1) Antarctica hasn't warmed significantly in 40 years. The penguins are starting their march later in the spring. The southern hemisphere hasn't warmed much in twenty-five years. The northern hemisphere warmed fast enough in the 1980's and the 90's to compensate so that the world average was consistent with GHG model projections, but only the Arctic seems to be measurably warming since 2001.

(2) Since 2001, figures from the US National Climate Data Center show the world has warmed by 0.03 degrees, within the range of measurement error and thus consistent with no warming at all. Also since 2003 the oceans have cooled. Since 2001 atmospheric methane has mysteriously declined.

(3) A recalibration has brought the satellite data into better agreement with warming than it was in 2001. This is the only event, it seems, that might lead to increased confidence. However, even after the recalibration, it remains true that "none of the satellite data sets show warming in the tropical troposphere, and only one [of three] shows warming higher above the tropics." The tropics are not of fringe importance--they account for half the world's atmosphere, and "GHG models predict strong warming in the upper troposphere over the tropics." Also, according to Lord Monckton, the agreement that does exist is dependent on treating as part of the trend a single potentially outlying event, the '98 El Nino.

(4) The hockey stick graph, which was the flagship argument for AGW, featured in the 2001 summary, has been debunked, most recently by the USNAS. Today, if one were to draw a best guess graph going back far enough to give some perspective, it would look like the graph featured in UN reports in the 1990s, with a Medieval Optimum and a Maunder Minimum, in which the current run of warming doesn't seem remarkable. That a published paper on which one had relied so centrally was in error might seem cause for increased humility, as might discovering one's instruments were not correctly calibrated.

(5) There is a new appreciation of the importance of aerosols, which are believed to exert a cooling influence. Even direct effects are poorly understood, and indirect effects (such as influences on cloud formation!) are simply omitted from most of the models relied on by the IPCC. IPCC estimates that the Direct Radiative Effect of natural and anthropogenic aerosols is 3 times the estimated radiative forcing of anthropogenic CO2, with anthropogenic aerosols estimated to cancel 1/3 of anthropogenic GHG forcing. But different models of the effect of aerosols differ by an order of magnitude, and it doesn't seem to be ruled out either by theory or experiment that overall anthropogenic contribution (aerosols + GHGs) may be cooling.

(6) Since 2001, peer reviewed alternative theories of climate change have advanced strongly. In particular, evidence has been provided that fluctuations in cosmic ray background explain climate moves over earth's history much better than atmospheric CO2 concentration (which seems to have been a trailing indicator over paleohistory). Recent lab experiments provide a mechanism by demonstrating that increased cosmic rays can cause increased clouds. These authors claim to naturally explain the recent lack of Antarctic warming (since snow, like clouds, is white), and argue this hypothesis already better explains the data than GHG theories. Cosmic ray theories predict the temperature will start to cool in coming decades.

(7) "The third assessment report reported that solar activity was exceptionally high in the 20th century in the context of the last 400 years. Since then, new reconstructions have indicated it may be exceptionally high compared to the last 8,000 years." Direct measurements of solar activity (done since 1978) show it increasing steadily, although this may be due to calibration problems. Solar activity was low at the Maunder minimum. The IPCC believes solar activity is not important, yet indirect effects, "for which new evidence has emerged," are ignored. Other peer reviewed publications differ. Recent publications project that solar activity is likely to decline over the next several decades, and some peer reviewed articles predict advancing ice sheets within the 21st century. (I'm not endorsing this!)

(8) Over the last few years, Mars's icecaps have been melting, and observations also indicate global warming on Triton, Pluto, and Jupiter.

(9) "The IPCC assumes temperature data are not contaminated by upward biases, ... many studies have shown that changes in land use and land cover can have large regional effects on the climate that are comparable in magnitude to temperature and precipitation changes observed over the last several decades ... the IPCC uses trend estimation techniques that likely overstate the statistical significance of observed changes, and the results of trend analysis often depend on the statistical model used."

Quotations above are from the Fraser Institute's Independent Summary for Policy Makers of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report which reviews the draft fourth assessment report chapter by chapter and reproduces many graphs and data. This doesn't however mention cosmic rays or the warming of other planets/planetoids, which leads me to speculate these events aren't covered in the draft fourth report. (So far as I'm aware [EB], the draft fourth report itself is not publicly available.[a very significant absence—WRD]) Lord Monckton (former advisor to Thatcher) more briefly reviewed the draft fourth assessment report, and comments "In the final draft report of the new report there is a change in tone. Though carbon dioxide in the air is increasing, global temperature is not."

That isn't the impression one gets from the official summary for policymakers. If there is valid reason why confidence in AGW has increased from 66% to 90% over the last fourth years, I would be very interested in learning of it. If there are any errors in the above, or if data is merely presented above in a misleading way, I would be very interested in hearing of them. If there are not, if in fact evidence and events are going the other direction, it would be good if policymakers and the public were so informed.

Eric Baum

Monday, February 19, 2007

Things fundamentalists miss in the Bible

Since the rise of the historical criticism of the Bible in the nineteenth century, various types of allegorical interpretation have gone out of fashion. Yet some of these techniques show a surprising hardiness. Among the methods for extracting hidden riches from scripture is the principle of the sensus plenior. Exegesis according to the sensus plenior assumes that the deity insightfully arranged for certain events to occur (and the recording of same), embedding within them meanings which would only become evident at a later date. For example, in Numbers 21:9 we learn of the episode of the Brazen Serpent. Later Jesus was to suggest that this curious story foreshadowed the Crucifixion. Thus the complete meaning of this event in the life of Moses became evident in "the fullness of time." The sensus had indeed become plenior.

Since God has knowledge of all things to come, he was aware of the fact that translations of the scriptures would be needed. As these began to appear, he made certain that certain phrases would take on their full meaning only with further semantic evolution of the language in question.

Let us take for purposes of illustration the King James Bible, still regarded by many as the Authorized Version. Right on page one (Genesis 1:11) we enounter the commmandment "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed." The deity knew in advance that this passage would achieve a fuller meaning in the twentieth century, when pot smoking, and the terminology pertaining to it, would become widespread. It is therefore sacrilegious, to say the least, that the committee responsible for the New Revised Standard Version has vandalized this text, seeing fit to replace the word "grass" with an inelegant paraphrase; "vegetation plants."

Are you doubtful? This reading is confirmed by II Corinthians 11:25, where we find, "Once I was stoned."

Moreover, few would question the applicability, in appropriate cases, of the admonition from Psalms 50:9: "I will accept no bull from your house."

This principle of the sensus plenior is not limited to the Bible, but extends to sacred texts of all kinds. Many years ago a publisher asked me to vet a translation of the Diary of Pope John XXII, compiled when he was a seminarian. Therein I came across some curious confessions. One read, "What a disastrous week. Only two ejaculations." A few weeks later he wrote, "Much better. Eight ejaculations!"

When I discussed this admirable frankness with the publisher they reacted as you might expect. Once more there was a dismal act of vandalism, as "ejaculations" yielded to "ejaculatory prayers."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My curiosity satisfied

For years I have been searching for the origin of the following anecdote. A young scholar timidly lays before a venerable expert in his field a large manuscript, the product of much labor. Two weeks later the neophyte anxiously returns for the verdict. "Well, my boy," says the old gentleman, "You have written much that is new and much that is true. However, that which is new is not true, and that which is true is not new."

A friend of mine claimed that the story stems from Gioachino Rossini. However, Rossini's two areas of expertise were music and cooking. These are exemplary activities, but in neither can success be measured by the truth criterion.

Yesterday, in leafing through the new Yale Book of Quotations, I found the answer. The source of the motif is the German poet and translator Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826). In the original the senior scholar's response goes as follows: "Dein redseliges Buch lehrt mancherlei Neues und Wahres. Waere das Wahre nur neu, waere das Neue nur wahr!" "Your garrulous book teaches many things new and true. If only the true were new, if only the new were true!"

Another meme that has long interested me is the following. In the reception of an unwelcome piece of information, there are three stages. 1) It couln't possibly be true; 2) It's true, but unimportant; 3) Oh, everyone has known about that for a long time. A good example is the response to the anthropologist Derek Freeman's discovery that Margaret Mead fabricated much of what she claimed to have found about Samoa. At first, the anthropological Establishment reacted in horror. No such aspersions can possibly be laid at the door of that Icon of American anthropology! Then came, well it's true, but the claim doesn't effect the core of Mead's work, which remains as solid as ever. Now we have reached the third stage: who cares about that now; we've known that for a long time.

Another example is John Boswell's fabrications regarding homosexuality and the Christian church. First it was said that Boswell was an impeccable scholar and nothing possibly could be wrong about his findings. Then it was conceded that there were serious flaws, but the whole still stands. Now, there is tacit agreement that his claims simply do not hold up. It has taken over 25 years to reach that point.

This three-sequence template seems to go back to the Swiss-American scientist Louis Agassiz (1807-1863). His formulation has been summarized as follows: "Agassiz says that when a new doctrine is presented, it must go through three stages. First, people say that it isn't true, then that it is against religion, and, in the third stage, that it has long been known."

I don't know where Agassiz stated this; the summary comes from the German scientist K. E. von Baer, reported in turn by Stephen Jay Gould. The second principle (which did not escape modification in the standard version) has the authentic feel of 19th-century disputes about evolution. True, these have never gone away, but for most reasonable persons the argument that "it's against my religion" does not seem conclusive.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A reminiscence and a reflection

This reminiscence stems from a half-century ago, when I was in my last semester in high school. In those days it was the custom to pass around one’s yearbook so that others might write brief comments. We were going out into the world, and wanted something to remember our fellow students by.

For reasons he himself does not understand, one of my friends, Charles M., scribbled an anti-Semitic comment in the yearbook. The word went around and, for understandable reasons, a group of well-built Jewish students lay in wait for the scribbler as he left the school. Charles was not hurt, as he managed to avoid his opponents. Perhaps they never intended to injure him. Although I refrained from rubbing the point in, I considered the response of the offended students to be well merited.

Charles, for his part, never repeated the occurrence. In adult life, as a respected professor of philosophy, he became, if anything, philo-Semitic. All in all, the response of the offended students was proportionate. It may even have helped my friend to rethink his views.

The incident I am now going to describe does not seem proportionate. Lord Richard Rogers is a distinguished British architect, with many outstanding buildings to his credit. On the strength of his reputation he secured several major New York contracts, including the redesign of the Javits Center and another large project in Queens. Last February Lord Rogers lent premises in his London office to a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. The participants discussed the feasibility of boycotting architects and construction firms building Israel’s separation fence and West Bank settlements, saying in a statement that they were “complicit in social, political, and economic oppression.” When these statements became known to several important New York politicians, who happened to be Jewish, they went ballistic. The projects were threatened with cancellation.

Naturally Lord Rogers, with billions of dollars’ worth of projects at stake, was distressed. He pointed out that he had not even been present at the meeting. His wife is Jewish and his grandparents were Jewish. He had done building in Israel.

After Rogers had provided these evidences of contrition, his opponents relented. Some, though, continued to grumble, doubting the sincerity of the star architect. Yet their point had been made. A chilling lesson had been administered. Beware of even a perceived slight to the state of Israel. It can be dangerous to your wealth.

In all this controversy (which I summarize from a New Yorker article by Ken Auletta), no one seems to have questioned the oddity of fighting one boycott by imposing another.

Parenthetically, I should note that I hold no brief for the Palestinians. They have shown an amazing talent for sabotaging their own interests. In addition to the human suffering involved, the suicide bombers have set an appalling example. Then there is the matter of the homophobia that is rampant among the Palestinians. When all is said and done, they are the authors of their own troubles.

For these reasons I would not support a boycott to support the Palestinians. But the response of powerful New Yorkers in this matter was disproportionate. Lord Rogers came within a hair’s breadth of losing the jobs. I don’t think that decisions regarding the construction of major buildings in the United States should be based on the perceived interests of the state of Israel, a country where I, like most Americans, am not a citizen.

The contretemps is emblematic of the role that pro-Israel forces have in our daily lives. These interventions are multiple. Currently, there is much agitation in Israel favoring an attack on Iran. Despite denials by Bush, plans to this effect are well advanced, doubtless enjoying the support of those who think that this must be done on Israel’s behalf. Such an attack would not be in our national interest.

Barack Obama is reported as having said the following. “It seems as if the game is fixed, and only works for the rich and powerful.” Very true. The only thing I would change in this statement is the word “seems.” The game is fixed.

Today, most Americans and I find ourselves reduced to the role of spectators in our own country. Special interests, whose interventions are lubricated with enormous sums of money, make the decisions for us behind closed doors. Occasionally, as in the Rogers affair, the curtain lifts. But for the most part this activity goes on surreptitiously. Yet it is pervasive and it is effective. I wish that Senator Obama and others with good intentions could change the system, but realistically I know that they cannot.

Can I be faulted for concluding that democracy is dead in this country?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Learning from annoying people

Over the years I have accumulated a disconcertingly large menagerie of betes noires. One must try, somehow, to put limits on this common temptation. Accordingly, I will discuss only two such individuals here: Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky.

A half century ago Vidal had the courage to publish a pioneering novel about homosexuality, The City and the Pillar. In subsequent years, however, he has not been candid about his own sexuality. As far as the available evidence goes, he would appear to be a Kinsy 6 or 5--that is, one whose sexual experience is exclusively or almost wholly with his own gender. Yet Vidal has mocked those of us who are working for gay rights as "homosexualists."

His numerous gaffes serve the useful function of lancing Vidal's otherwise insuffereable arrogance. These pratfalls range from his harmless, but ridiculous belief that the word macho is pronounced "makko" (in defiance of the rules of Hispanic orthography) to his pathetic dalliance with the convicted terrorist Timothy McVey.

In my experience Vidal's historical novels are unreadable, the product of many tedious hours of self-imposed forced labor. This is, strictly speaking, hack work, as he produces these clinkers to support himself in the lifestyle he feels he deserves.

Then there are his political views, which lean to poorly-sourced conspiracy views.

In recent years Vidal has taken to pronouncing the expression "American Empire" (or simply "the Empire") compulsively. At first, like many others, I resisted this label. Yet I have come to see that it is just. What else can one say of a country that has troops stationed in some thirty foreign countries--a nation that asserts, though its commander-in-chief, the right to interfere in other nations when and wherever it pleases. The views of foreigners about this manhandling are by definition of no account.

The MIT professor Noam Chomsky is another veteran writer--though in an entirely different field. His early interventions in the realm of linguistics effectively ended the tyranny of behaviorism in the social sciences. Over the years though his own contributions to his field have dwindled, while at the same time his theories have come to seem increasingly problematic, and indeed irrelevant.

But no matter. Decades ago, during the Vietnam War, Chomsky hugely turned himself to the analysis of current affairs. In his view, his incomparable logical powers raise him far above the modest level of pundit to a throne of Pontifical Absolutism.

When all is said and done, Chomsky's views verge on kneejerk anti-Americanism. In common with much Third World opinion, he holds that the United States is responsible for most of the evils in the world. This prejudice is repellent not just to American patriots, but to anyone who cares for a nuanced view of world politics.

Still, I believe that there is a kernel of truth in what Chomsky is saying. For a long time, our leaders were restrained by the Vietnam Syndrome, together with the counterweight represented by the Soviet Union. Now American power is untrammeled, or so it still appears from vantage point of the Pentagon.

Is this such a bad thing, though? After all, despite its egregious faults the United States is vastly better than any Third World dictatorship. Yes, but that fact doesn't give us the right to march in and devastate their political and economic structures. This is especially true when we have noting better to put in their place, as in Iraq.

There is another problem, for we are not masters in our own house. Despite much denial, the power of the pro-Israel Lobby is real. It is aided not just by naive Christian Fundamentists, but also from the commanding heights of American public opinion, powerful individuals who are prepared to sanction any who stray from the path. Just look at what is happening to President Carter. As General Clark has pointed out, the "big money people in New York City" have decreed to the Democrats that they may not end the Iraq War after all, even though that is what they were put in office to accomplish. Now the Senate, under Democratic control, cannot even agree to debate a toothless resolution. The only way to end the war is to end the funding.

I see no hope of dislodging the constellation of exogenic forces that has taken control of our foreign policy. Ideally, that dislodgement would be desirable, for we should cease to be the enforcer of the interests of a country not our own. Yet there is no realistic chance of this happening. The dominant forces are too entrenched. The only remedy is a lasting setback for American adventurism abroad. If we cannot get control of our foreign policy, one can only hope that its malignancy will be disabled by force majeure.

Should I not be more supportive of my country? Indeed, but is it still my country?

Sunday, February 04, 2007


For several years now, the Bush administration has sought to blunt criticism of its appalling conduct in Iraq by the claim that "if we don't fight them there, we will have to fight them on our own shores." Those of us who remember similar scare tactics with regard to the Vietnamese a generation ago have not been impressed. Yet many were take in by this mendacity.

Moreover, the Bushbots have claimed that they must abridge civil liberties, both here and abroad, in order to save the Republic. Again, these are scare tactics that must be resisted.

Nativists (who are not joined by the Bush administration) have sought to raise the alarm about immigration. "The ethnic character of our country, including our Anglo-Saxon heritage, is in danger," they proclaim. Surely it is possible, though, to control our borders without resorting to such racist appeals.

With regard to another major issue of the day, though, fear-mongering is considered perfectly appropriate. This is the matter of global warming. We are told the following. "We must act now. Disaster is just around the corner."

First, it doesn't much matter what the United States does in its own bounds, as Long as China and India continue to increase their emissions. Two billion people aspire to a first-world lifestyle, and they see pollution as a necessary price to pay in order to attain this goal. Since we now enjoy a first-world lifestyle and we reached this status by pollution, among other evils, who are we to say that they must not follow this path to prosperity? Whatever the case, the plees are falling on deaf ears in Asia.

Moreover, to judge by the Paris Report and the opinions of other experts, global warming and the rise of sea levels will continue for decades. This would be so even if the world were to cease carbon emissions immediately. This development is inevitable. Of course the process is happening gradually, not suddenly. In this context we must take steps to manage the effects of global warming, for they cannot be rolled back.

Yet some advocates of policy change with regard to global warming seek to manipulate the public by generating fear. Rhetorical extremism and even untruths are deemed justifiable in order to convey the urgency of this matter.

Fear-mongering never offers a good basis for rational policy decisions. That was true after 9/11. It is true now with global warming.