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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On Roy Spencer's unscientific methods

Seeing both currents of denialism converge and gain strength under a single party’s political banner over the last few years has been like watching half of the US turn away from reason itself because it didn’t align with their preferred set of sound bite-driven platitudes. It didn’t have to be this way. The reason Stephen Colbert can quip about reality’s “well-known liberal bias” is because in important issues the political right is moving further away from reality. The political climate has made accepting well-vetted scientific findings in certain areas a complete anathema to electability.
I learned a lot about science itself when I was exposed to the manufactroversy over evolution and Creationism. Years of absorbing knowledge and watching exchanges between scientists and anti-evolutionists was tremendously fascinating and educational for me. Familiarizing myself with real science and the anti-science tactics used by evolution deniers has stood me in good stead when it came to evaluating the merits of mainstream climate science and the rhetoric of denialists. That there is much overlap between the two denialist sets has been sadly unsurprising, as they often require the same kinds of fallacies to be accepted.
As an example of the overlapping requirements for climate and evolution denialism, I offer not a politician, but in fact a real live climate scientist. Roy Spencer is one of the two principal researchers behind the development of the University of Alabama Huntsville lower troposphere temperature record, gleaned from a network of satellites that interpret the signals of radiant energy coming through the atmosphere and out into space. For years he’s been a very capable scientist and has many peer-reviewed publications under his belt. But lately he’s been diverging away from the climate science mainstream by suggesting that some key forcings have been misunderstood widely by his colleagues, mostly related to clouds. He firmly believes that they have the relationship between cloud cover and climate trends backwards. He believes that climate sensitivity to increasing greenhouse gases is extraordinarily low, and so anthropogenic GHG emissions can’t be driving the current warming trend anywhere near the extent it’s commonly accepted to by his peers, and that warming won’t be a problem for the future. Well, that’s all well and good, right? Disagreements are a fact of life even (especially!) in the sciences.
But rather than work through the issue in the peer-reviewed literature, the bulk of his efforts have been spent in convincing the public of his side through his blog and books, largely not engaging the rest of the climate scientists. It’s not that he hasn’t tried period, but sometimes his papers are rejected; he’s convinced that this is due to a real conspiracy against him by a small cabal of “alarmists,” to keep his work out of the literature and keep dissenting opinions from circulating. Not unlike attempts by anti-evolutionists to smear the scientific establishment and accuse them of being censorious gatekeepers, rejecting any paper that criticizes evolution. For the last few years he has intentionally avoided submitting his work to rigorously peer-reviewed outlets in favor of a faster-turnaround, refereed Letters-type journal, because of his imagined conspiracy. We see a similar retreat from peer-review when researchers adopt an anti-evolution mindset.
Other troubling signs of losing his grip on scientific methods include a diminishing willingness to criticize his own ideas. He apparently ranks his own expertise very highly, to the point that the introduction to his popular book included musings that either he is smarter than all of the rest of his peers, or they must be dishonestly avoiding the conclusions he has reached (he favors the latter). He did not mention that he could simply be mistaken. He’s been fond of criticizing climate models because he believes them to be largely exercised as curve-fitting without real physical merit, but that didn’t stop him from attempting to create a simple model which turned out to be an exercise in curve-fitting without real physical merit. Despite several deep criticisms of his approach, he continued to develop the model in all the wrong ways. (When a paper based on an earlier model was held up in review, and then not given much attention immediately afterwards, he took it as evidence that his message was being censored and suppressed instead of any kind of issue over the paper’s validity). How many times have Dembski, Sewell, Behe, and so on. pushed papers that they claimed demonstrated evolution as impossible and Design a superior explanation by using a bogus model of information, complex systems, 2LoT, etc.? Even after being called out over the fatal flaws, they either dismiss the criticisms or attempt to “fix” the model by changing something other than what was criticized?
When anti-evolutionists want to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed venue, they often choose journals with weak reviews, friendly editors, or even inappropriate expertise. Sewell’s papers about evolution and 2LoT were arguably such subversion of peer-review. Spencer’s last peer-reviewed paper (Spencer and Braswell 2011) was published in the small, young journal Remote Sensing. Immediately after it came out, Spencer penned a press release that lied about what the paper contained and this misleading picture was quickly picked up by certain politically-aligned elements of the media with wildly misleading headlines and coverage. This prompted the Editor-in-Chief of the journal to investigate the matter and what he found was such flagrant abuse of the review system that he resigned almost immediately, leaving a damning account of the peer-review failure (prompting Spencer to claim that he was really forced out by IPCC conspirators). The paper has since been disemboweled with a peer-reviewed response (PDF) and by heavy scrutiny on scientist-run blogs. The whole thing was disaster; the paper’s arguments were not strong, didn’t support the claims Spencer had made to the press, it was revealed that data used in the study contradicted their findings, and so on. The whole thing was different from peer-review subversion by anti-evolutionists only in the amount of public attention it received. Spencer still maintains that the EiC was ‘Expelled’ as it were, and that there is no problem with the paper.
Where the overlap becomes most obvious in Spencer is that he has become an outspoken endorser of Creationism over evolution. He’s lent his reputation as a scientist to the claim that a Special Creation account is more scientific than evolution. Granted, it’s not uncommon for a scientist in one field to be deeply wrong about the state of a totally different field, however most don’t pin their credibility as practitioners of science to such opinions as blatantly as Spencer has. Taking this even further into the realm of anti-science, Spencer is a member of the Cornwall Alliance, a religious organization that holds as its central belief the idea that God wouldn’t create a world so fragile that humans could seriously muck it up. He has signed their Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming which outlines the faith-based nature of their conviction that recent warming is not us, and is nothing to worry about. This is tantamount to admitting that his stance on anthropogenic global warming is now a matter of religious faith, not a properly scientific view with all the tentativeness and provisional nature that implies.
So in Spencer we have the following: A) belief in a conspiracy to suppress his dissenting opinion and censor the literature to align with their agenda, B) distancing his work from peer-review, C) an overriding uncritical belief in his own abilities such that him being correct and everyone else being wrong doesn’t raise a warning flag, D) an inability to distinguish between legitimate science and pseudoscience despite claiming to have looked into the matter dutifully and using his expertise as a practicing scientist, E) a religious Statement of Faith revealing that he has abandoned proper scientific skepticism. The overlap between AGW denialism and evolution denialism has never been so well embodied. The same kinds of misconceptions and shortcomings that are needed for one to accept the cdesign proponentsists’ narrative now seem to be compromising Spencer’s performance in his own area of expertise. This is clear evidence that anti-evolutionism is anti-science, period. One doesn’t need a political platform to draw these denialist currents together, but as we can see it certainly does help.
Sorry for the length and links, but I believe in being thorough when making this kind of case against a person.

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