Global Warming, Hurricanes, and the Anti-Science Right

The response to newspaper articles today demonstrates the anti-scientific mind set of the right wing, showing who is looking at climate change objectively, and who is choosing their “facts” based upon ideology. Several papers, including USA Today and Reuters, report on a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences which shows a correlation between global warming and increased incidence of hurricanes. Following is from the abstract:

We find that long-period variations tropical cyclone and hurricane frequency over the past century in the North Atlantic Ocean have occurred in the form of three, relatively stable regimes separated by sharp transitions. Each regime has seen 50% more cyclones and hurricanes than the previous regime and is associated with a distinct range of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Overall, there appears to have been a substantial 100-year trend leading to related increases of over 0.7 C in SST and over 100% in tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers. It is concluded that the overall trend in SSTs and tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers is substantially influenced by greenhouse warming. Superimposed on the evolving tropical cyclone and hurricane climatology is a completely independent oscillation manifested in the proportions tropical cyclones that become major and minor hurricanes. This characteristic has no distinguishable net trend and appears to be associated with concomitant variations in the proportion of equatorial and higher-latitude hurricane developments, perhaps arising from internal oscillations of the climate system. The period of enhanced major hurricane activity during 1945-1964 is consistent with a peak period in major hurricane proportions.

I’ve made note several times cases in the past where a newspaper carried a weak criticism of global warming, but the right wing blogosphere adopted it as the new gosple on the subject (including here and here). This article on hurricanes presents the reverse situation. As is often the case in science, there is controversy over this paper. Scientific issues are typically resolved in peer reviewed journals, as opposed to newspapers or blogs, and a more definitive theory can be developed after the issues are resolved. In the case of global warming, this culminated in a strong consensus among scientists regarding the influence of human action on climate change.

Search engines and Memeorandum reveal considerable buzz about this article in the conservative blogosphere. They generally grab onto the controversy and, despite the lack of any expertise in the field or even reviewing the actual journal article, are unanimous in declaring that the findings are bogus. A typical conservative response can be seen at Blue Crab Boulevard.

The liberal response is more objective. Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, summarizes the debate and concludes:

Let me be completely frank: I have no idea who’s right in the current argument between Holland/Webster and Landsea. Indeed, in some sense it’s probably unknowable–we’re talking about missed storms, after all, and now that they’ve been missed of course we don’t know how many of them there were.

From a policy perspective, though, we don’t have to remain completely agnostic regarding this debate. There are several important points to take away from this latest dustup, and in a follow-up post, I will tease out those implications. But for now, if I’ve left everyone scratching their heads about who to trust in the current argument, all I can say is, I’m scratching my head too….

While anti-science conservatives were ready to find reason to argue with the findings immediately upon seeing the headline, liberals who respect science take a completely different approach. Whether or not this particular study is valid has no bearing on the overall scientific consensus on global warming. Of course, while unlikely, it would be even better if we were to find out that global warming is not really a problem and actual evidence of this would be welcome. Unfortunately, unlike the right wing, we cannot ignore scientific evidence just because we do not like the results.

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11 Comments

  1. 1
    Rich Horton says:

    You would present a more compelling case if you presented a scientific rather than a political opinion as your instrument of refutation. The Blue Crab post noted the reservations of both Chris Landsea and James Elsner of Florida State University about the Holland/Webster paper. And actually, in content Holland/Webster does not address the substance of Landsea’s issues with treating the Best Track data as complete. It assumes that any difficulties in the data won’t affect the outcome they prefer. (Thus the qualms of Elsner who is sympathetic to their political aims but thinks their science dodgy.)

    And to be fair to the folks who first blogged about this topic. Stories appeared in the MSM before the article was even published. You cannot blame folks for blogging about a news story. If Reuters or USA Today put it our there it is fair game. (I believe the original study is not available to the non-subscribers anyway, although it will be next month, based on what the Royal Society’s website says.)

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    “You would present a more compelling case if you presented a scientific rather than a political opinion as your instrument of refutation”

    That makes no sense. I am not refuting anything. I’m writing about the political as opposed to scientific response to this article from political bloggers.

    “Stories appeared in the MSM before the article was even published. You cannot blame folks for blogging about a news story. ”

    No, but you could blame them for having a view of it based upon their prejudices about the topic.

  3. 3
    Rich Horton says:

    “That makes no sense. I am not refuting anything.”

    Then what are you saying by quoting Mooney and declaring him “objective” and everyone else as as not objective (or less so)?

    Declaring oneself “agnostic” in the face of contrary evidence is hardly a sign of objectivity.

    “No, but you could blame them for having a view of it based upon their prejudices about the topic.”

    As opposed to who exactly?

    Sure people will have their axes to grind, but their are still honest ways of looking at these scientific questions. And it isn’t by declaring everyone you disagree with to be non-scientific whatevers. If you want to look at the comment threads here and here, see if I (for example) tried to look at these questions in an honest manner drawing upon the scholarly literature and my own work in the Best Track data.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Noting Mooney’s objectivity is not a matter of refuting anything. Mooney outright states he doesn’t know who is right. That sure indicates more objectivity than the conservative bloggers who immediately took the side they would be predicted to take based upon prejudices which have been typical of conservative discussion whenever climate change is discussed.

    “As opposed to who exactly?”

    Objectivity as opposed to picking sides based upon thier prejudice. This is a scientific matter, not a matter of policitcal debate, but conservative blogs think that such matters of science are debatable based upon their iddeology.

    “And it isn’t by declaring everyone you disagree with to be non-scientific whatevers…”

    This has nothing to do with whether I agree or disagree with someone. It is about how scientific matters are approached. When matters of science, ranging from evolution to climate change, are regularly dismissed by conservative blogs when they conflict with their ideology, this certainly does represent an anti-science attitude.

    I’d be quicker to believe that conservative bloggers are looking at this in an objective manner if they didn’t always come to the same conclusion in accepting articles which support their beliefs and rejecting those which do not. That is especially true when their conclusions are contrary to the consensus of scientific belief.

  5. 5
    Rich Horton says:

    “Mooney outright states he doesn’t know who is right. That sure indicates more objectivity…”

    Logically it does nothing of the sort. Let’s say you have two people and one says the moon is made of cream cheese and the other says it isn’t, someone coming in and saying “I’m agnostic about this debate” doesn’t mean they are objective…particularly if they are known to support the cream cheese theory in other contexts.

    And this isn’t about evolution or any other changing the subject topic you’d rather discuss. It is about the claim that AGW (of just GW or CC) has increased North Atlantic hurricane frequency and/or hurricane intensity. Deciding that conservative bloggers MUST be wrong on this subject because you dont care for conservatives or don’t care for their opinions on other matters (or even related amtters) is very clearly a logical fallacy. If your concern is really for science and not your own political agenda then you are required to view all evidence openly, no matter how odious you find the people presenting said evidence. If you cannot do that then you are not engaged in science.

    Can you find hypocrites on this matter? Sure you can…and plenty of conservative ones for that matter. Does that really justify being lax about scientific principles in ANY context?

    “That is especially true when their conclusions are contrary to the consensus of scientific belief.”

    Good luck trying to find “consensus” of the question of GW and Hurricane formation. There isn’t any…and if you added up the preponderance of evidence it tilts strongly against the suggestion.

    Go read the Landsea piece on mid-atlantic storm undercounts and see if YOU think his argument can be assumed away.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    “Let’s say you have two people and one says the moon is made of cream cheese and the other says it isn’t.”

    Not an analogous situation at all. Taking a position against an obviously absurd idea (which also contradicts our physical evidence) is hardly the same as refraining from commenting on a journal article which you admit you have not read. Incidentally, not being available on line is no excuse. You cannot meaningfully comment on a journal article you have not read and to do so exposes a bias.

    “Deciding that conservative bloggers MUST be wrong on this subject because you dont care for conservatives or don’t care for their opinions on other matters (or even related amtters) is very clearly a logical fallacy.”

    That is not what I am arguing. I never said conservative bloggers are wrong. I’m saying they do not have the ability to make a scientific judgement on the article, and instead are commenting based upon their ideological beliefs. Besides, we both know that this is not about the limited issue of huricanes and global warming, but is motivated by the conservative bias to attack anything which might support global warming.

  7. 7
    Gaius says:

    That is not what I am arguing. I never said conservative bloggers are wrong. I’m saying they do not have the ability to make a scientific judgement on the article, and instead are commenting based upon their ideological beliefs.

    Ron, I have a degree in mathematics from the Rochester Institute of Technology – and not to try to sound like a jerk, but I graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have taken graduate level courses in statistics and probablility. I also have worked as an engineer in the energy field for a very long time. (And am not currently working for an energy company, so please do not accuse me of being a tool of that industry.)

    But I am not qualified to question nonsense conclusions from a spurious data set? It was all ideological? Please go look at the dataset Wizbang dug up – the data is meaningless to anyone not ideologically driven.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    Gaius,

    Don’t worry about sounding like a jerk–your credentials are relevant. One minor change I’d make in the post is using your post as a “typical conservative response.” Actually I linked to it as it was one of the better ones.

    You very well may be right about the quality of this paper. I remained concerned about the large number of conservative blogs commenting this morning, presumably based upon the newspaper accounts as opposed to the actual journal article, with all coming to the same conclusion. By 10 am when I did a search there were several conservative blogs which had declared their judgement on this article, and I doubt this was done with any meaningful statistical analysis by most.

    While there are limitations to the data set, this is addressed in the article and (again assuming you didn’t read the actual article) I find it premature to declare the data spurious and the conclusions as nonsense. That continues to suggest an ideological bias to me.

  9. 9
    Rich Horton says:

    “While there are limitations to the data set, this is addressed in the article”

    No it isn’t. This is what the paper says:

    We use the ‘best track’ tropical cyclone database from the National Hurricane Center (Jarvinan et al. 1984). The only changes to the dataset data have been to include
    the intensity corrections recommended by Landsea (1993).

    Then when they get to addressing Landsea’s contention about undercounting of Mid-Atlantic storms they say the following:

    Our conclusion is that the number of earlier missed storms most likely lies between 1 and 3 per year prior to 1900, less than 2 in the early nineteenth century and dropping off to essentially zero by 1960. The conclusion by Landsea (2007) of much higher numbers of missing storms is considered to be
    based on a false premise of an assumed constancy of landfalling storms ratio (Mann et al. submitted a,b; Holland in press).

    So they “refute” the contention by referring to non-published material (some of it written BY THEMSELVES) that no one can check in any way shape or form. (Although you will notice, even though they claim they accept some problems in the data set they do not alter it an iota. The undercounting is ignored by their data set even after they acknowledge it.)

    How is that acceptable? How did you find that convincing since you had no way of checking it at all?

    (Although I’m intrigued at what this new and hitherto never discovered mechanism that makes current hurricanes LESS likely to strike land compared to storms in the past will prove to be. I think they might start having an Ockham’s Razor problem soon.)

    BTW, the data in the Best Track data set is very rudimentary. Anyone who had graduate school training in social science stats can easily muck about in it. (As I do, MA, Political Science, University of Illinois.)

  10. 10
    Gaius says:

    I don’t think I am the one with blinders on here, Ron. As I pointed out in the original post, one of the strongest critics mentioned in the article is James Elsner. He believes AGW causes more hurricanes – but he is honest enough to throw the flag on the “science” in this study.

    “I agree with the message, but cannot recommend the science.”

    A skewed and incomplete dataset will always provide skewed conclusions, Ron. Elsner knows that and will not endorse the study. That should tell you a lot more than I can.

    And Rich is spot on in the criticism of the way the authors dismiss the data inconsistencies. This is exactly why Elsner threw the flag.

  11. 11
    Tarun K Juyal says:

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