Three Things Elizabeth Kolbert Doesn’t Know

A staff position at The New Yorker is the best journalistic job in the world. Elizabeth Kolbert, a very good writer and reporter, has one of them. In the current issue, criticizing Superfreakonomics, she writes:

To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction.

I cannot discuss engineering (“carbon-eating trees”, etc.) but I can discuss science (“climate models”). Here Kolbert shows the same limitation that practically every science journalist shows (the big exceptions are Gary Taubes and John Crewdson): They take the consensus view too seriously. In case after case — so many that it’s hard not to draw sweeping conclusions — the consensus view about difficult topics is more fragile than an outsider would ever guess. It’s not necessarily wrong, just less certain.

Kolbert places too much faith in those climate models. Here are three things Kolbert doesn’t know:

1. For years, as I’ve blogged, Leonard Syme, an epidemiology prof at Berkeley, taught his students to distrust one mainstream public-health conclusion after another. Maybe 12 examples in all. He showed them facts they didn’t know. All of a sudden the picture wasn’t so clear any more. That he could do this in so many cases, one case per week, is what’s telling.

2. If you believe mainstream ideas about weight control, the Shangri-La Diet is absurd. It can’t possibly work. Since it has actually worked in countless cases — more than half the time, as far as I can judge — the experts, it appears, got it utterly wrong. Long before me, Michel Cabanac, a professor of physiology at Laval University, was saying the same thing — that the consensus view about how to lose weight was wrong. No matter how many millions of times journalists repeated it. The Shangri-La Diet merely makes it vividly clear he was right.

3. Hal Pashler and I wrote a paper about how mental models based on fitting data were delusional. The data that supposedly supported them did not. To take seriously a model because it could fit data was a mistake, we pointed out; what matters is correct predictions. It isn’t easy to figure out the predictions of a model with many adjustable parameters; and the modelers in these cases never did. These models were accepted professionally for half a century; perhaps they still are.

It is possible that climate modelers have a different psychology than scientists in other areas — that the evidence for the consensus presented to outsiders is as strong as the scientists involved say it is — but it seems highly unlikely. For example, I doubt the climate models Kolbert places such faith in have been tested (their predictions, not just their fits, compared with reality).

There’s no doubt that carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature are correlated, but you may not know that carbon dioxide concentration lagged temperature for a long time. Because of this, I’m sure the temperature change caused the carbon-dioxide change. It isn’t mysterious; as water changes temperature, the amount of carbon dioxide it can dissolve changes. As water heats, carbon dioxide is released into the air.

This means that something powerful — not carbon dioxide — has been producing changes in global temperature so large they cause carbon dioxide to rise and fall in amounts as large as those we are now worried about. Until we know what this is there is no way to allow for it. To subtract it from observed carbon dioxide and temperature changes, see what remains, and try to draw conclusions from the residuals. And we don’t know what it is, no matter how closely this or that climate model fits data. (How closely they fit data depends on how many parameters they have, not merely how truthful they are. More adjustable parameters –> closer fit.) Until we know what it is, it is entirely possible that this force, not man-made emissions, is behind recent increases in global temperature and carbon dioxide. If man-made emissions are not causing the change in temperature, reducing them is unlikely to do much. (Sure, there are a hundred blog posts dismissing the inconvenient backward lag. I’ve been unable to find even one that addresses the point I’m making here.)

This is like what Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray failed to understand in The Bell Curve. They had a whole chapter on the Flynn Effect (the large increase in IQ over years) but they failed to grasp that until the Flynn Effect was correctly explained — until we knew what caused it — there was a big environmental contribution to IQ that they didn’t understand. Perhaps it was this powerful environmental factor that caused the between-race differences in IQ that they attributed to genes. They were unable to equate different races for this factor — to take its effect into account.

Herrnstein and Murray might have been smart enough to see the problem — but, in any case, they ignored it. Kolbert is smart enough to understand that the climate scientists she talks to have a vested interest in overstating their case — but, at least in her writing, she ignores this. If she stopped ignoring the vested-interest problem and tried to think for herself — to sort out for herself conflicting claims, to stop believing everything a mainstream thinker tells her — her job would be much harder. (It took Gary Taubes seven long years to write Good Calories Bad Calories.) Given Kolbert’s lack of scientific background (at The New Yorker she originally covered politics), perhaps her job would be impossible. Kolbert’s faith is not in science, as she pompously says, but in scientists.

32 Replies to “Three Things Elizabeth Kolbert Doesn’t Know”

  1. I imagine taking this position and stating it so vociferously in a public forum won’t win you many friends. I bet you have been (or will be) called a heretic.

    I appreciate your candor as well as the scientific rigor you want to apply to problems. Why do so few scientists do this anymore?

    Is it a case of perverse incentives? e.g. grant money

  2. Interesting analogy: Carbon in models of Climate Change is like Cholesterol in models of CAD. Trying to reduce your carbon footprint is like trying to lower your cholesterol. Both may be futile as they target the wrong agent. (Nod to Brent Pottenger).

  3. I think the idea that all countries around the world with different objectives and wealth levels are going to get together and cooperate toward a costly solution to the problem we face is more of a science fiction than anything else. Or maybe a fairy tale where someone solves the prisoner’s dilemma problem.

    On the other hand…

    Sorry Earth, you’re crazy. That will never work. Nice try, planet.

  4. The lag between carbon dioxide and temperature has been discussed at length in a number of places. In a natural historic context, weak orbital forcing of the climate leads to higher temperatures, which leads to increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane, which in turns leads to larger warming. The ‘lag’ is relatively small and does not in any way invalidate the fact that carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, or that they have increased dramatically since humans decided to liberate the carbon trapped in millions of years of fossils.

  5. “He showed them facts they didn’t know. All of a sudden the picture wasn’t so clear any more.”

    I find this in general. I think a position is absurd, then I actually start to look into it … and find it’s not so clear anymore. I now try to avoid calling anything “absurd”, unless I have looked into it a significant amount. Even then, even if I continue to think it’s wrong, typically I can see why people might think x and how it is somewhat reasonable.

    One role public science plays is like religion, in that it gives people (supposed) certainty.

  6. Except that carbon dioxide concentration in sea water has increased right along with atmospheric concentration, causing mass destruction of coral reefs and devastation of ocean ecosystems that depend on them, leading to devastation of fisheries, of the livelihoods of people who depend on the fisheries, and malnutrition in their former customers.

    Uncertainty about the cause of global warming is no friend to CO2 skeptics. The consequences of global warming and coral bleaching are each, individually, so disastrous that it is enough that CO2 might be the cause of the former, and certainly the latter, to motivate extreme measures to contain it.

    Sorry, Seth, you’re way, way out in right field on this one.

  7. Thanks for this – I read it and promptly bought SuperFreakonomics (Ms. Kolbert is selling quite a few copies). Personally, I read this blog for its contrarian and independent-thinking view, not for its ability to regurgitate mainstream soft-science. Keep it coming…

  8. @Seth

    This is your best post by far. One minor correction:

    “Kolbert’s faith is not in science, as she pompously says, but in scientists. ”

    Should read:

    “Kolbert’s faith is not in science, as she pompously says, but in high priests.”

  9. BTW you can see the sneer on her face when she writes:

    “Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind. It’s their contention that they don’t need it.”


    @Aaron Blaisdell

    Agreed 150%!

  10. I tried to make the same point about the potential that a scientific consensus can nevertheless be highly uncertain to some people around the time an Inconvenient Truth came out. I am an economist, and economists are good at constructing mathematical models that do precisely what you say – fit the data. Prediction? Not so much. They weren’t scientists, and they simply looked at me like I was insane. Said nothing. Very funny.

  11. @Nathan Myers

    If being skeptical of anthropogenic global warming makes me a loonie, then I wear your slur as a badge of honor.

    Another way to frame this debate:

    1) We don’t know if global warming is happening

    2) Let’s assume the worst, that it is happening, if it is, we still don’t know that it is anthropogenic in nature.

    3) Again, let’s assume the worst, that it is anthropogenic, we still don’t know if that is on a net basis, bad or good.

    4) Again, let’s assume the worst, that it is net bad, we still don’t know if we can reverse it.

    5) This time, let’s assume the best, it is reversible, if it is, we still don’t know if reversing is desirable after factoring costs/benefits.

    My only point: I don’t know if AGW is occuring or not – it may be – BUT we do know there is a lotta shit we don’t know, but we like to pretend we know on faith.

  12. Last thing, I sent this to Richard at who was kind enough to post it. It draws parallels between AGW and Taubes.

    Salute to Steve McIntyre

    In the days of the Royal Society, scientists were hobbyists, pursuing their own whims, pushed to Truth by group norms and the standards of their peers. There was plenty of nonsense then, too (Isaac Newton was an Alchemist) but a small group of individuals, with modest means, got a lot of Science done.

    Fast forward to 2009, where science is now big non-business. The nexus between Federal Agencies and science is tight, and scientists produce the results they are paid to produce. Both “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and this expose from Steve McIntyre fit exactly with my own experience in the most prestigeous laboratories on the planet. Don’t believe anything you read in the NYTimes.

    My favorite quote:

    In a novel this refusal would have been put down to a deep and deadly conspiracy. What it really concealed was the slipshod data handling, tiny samples, the loss of essential metadata and the careless merging of datasets on which the earlier conclusions were based.

    Yup, but they forgot to mention how politically, the wrong answer has become blasphemy. And we think we’ve moved on from Galileo Galilei’s day.”

  13. Look, I’m an economist and I loved Freakanomics, but writing a chapter about how “Global Warming isn’t a big deal, but even if it is, keep driving your Hummer because some day we’ll invent a global cooling machine; Everybody stop freaking out.” is a reckless misdirection of Dubner and Levitt’s talents. Questioning scientific consensus is brave, but what happens when that scientific consensus is correct? We’re pretending that Dubner and Levitt are like Galileo challenging the consensus of our planet’s place in the universe, when they are more akin to creationists challenging the consensus of evolution. Except unlike evolution, if global warming is real, a lot of people are going to die. 95% of the dreaded experts believe it is seriously fuckin’ real, and therefore we should make broad and difficult changes in our society. People trust D&L and with good reason, but to then use that credibility to write about fantasies of imminent rain dance technology is disappointing. And it blunts the momentum we need to make difficult changes. D & L are superwrong about this one.

  14. Let me offer a corollary: Are we 100% certain that the twin towers weren’t brought down by explosives? No. The consensus of experts is that there weren’t explosives in the twin towers, but some people disagree; probably some respectable engineer somewhere believes the consensus view is impossible. But most people accept the consensus view even though they aren’t scientists or haven’t studied the matter closely…

    Does that mean 9/11 “Truthers” are brave and responsable citizens for questioning people’s blind faith in the consensus that there weren’t explosives in the towers, and their views shouldn’t be ridiculed because scientists don’t understand heart disease? No. 9/11 Truthers are lunatic nutcases who are dead wrong.

    Being a sceptic is admirable – EXPERTS ARE OFTEN WRONG. But pick your allies wisely, before you find yourself at a Lyndon Larouche meeting.

  15. Let’s get more specific: Were we certain that clorofluorocarbons were causing the ozone hole? Of course not. All we had was a preponderance of circumstantial evidence, just as for anthropogenic climate change. Are we certain now? No. What we do know is that it was growing, and we banned CFCs, and now it’s shrinking.

    Me, I’m very, very glad we were able to ban CFCs. A key to quick action was that CFCs were produced in very few places. CO2 and methane are tougher nuts.

  16. @Socktopi,

    Are you familiar with Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth?

    If so, do you believe that the 961 architects and engineers (according to the site) who have signed a petition for Congress to authorize an independent investigation into the collapse of the 3 buildings are all “lunatic nutcases who are dead wrong”?

    Curious about your view on this.

  17. Seth,
    A very interesting and thought-provoking post. Since I don’t have the knowledge, not to mention the credentials, to comment on statistical modeling or climate science, I hesitate to comment. However, as a U.S. citizen, I still have small–too small–say in decision-making about policy decisions regarding climate change. Thus, I have to make a decision about what policies to advocate and support, and more importantly, elected officials from the President on down have to make decisions, so how do they sort it out?

    What I do have some experience about concerns burdens of proof in practical decision-making, as I’m a lawyer, and I try cases. As a lawyer, we never have to prove something absolutely in order to act–or at least the law doesn’t make such a requirement (juries, however, often have ideas of their own). On the subject of climate change, given the magnitude of the perceived risk, and the prejudice in favor of inaction (carbon-based industrial society does have its charms), it seems to me that the burden has shifted in favor of action. Inaction, if human activity is a significant driver of climate change (rarely is something THE cause), then we have reason to act. This is different from my changing my diet after reading Gary Taubes or Seth Roberts, as I’ve done. If both have valid points, I’m ahead; if not, well, no real harm done, and besides, I like meat and most fermented foods. (Beer counts, too, doesn’t it?). The magnitude of the investment and time to receive feedback in the dietary changes that you advocate are small, and I believe that the limited magnitude of time and risk provides the logic behind many of your ingenious personal experiments: small changes, low risk, quick feedback.

    However, it seems to me that with climate change we don’t have the luxury of long term studies to test predicted outcomes. Of course we have to challenge and test–life, unlike a law case, has no final judgments–but we can’t continually delay action in this type of situation: not to act is to act.

    Finally, conventional wisdom may be right, it may be wrong. Social proof is a convenient heuristic for many activities, but for each instance of conventional wisdom we might challenge, we can cite many more that we’d all agree with. Again, it’s a matter of regarding the burdens, testing the evidence, and arguing the inferences. Providing a contrarian view and claiming its validity simply because it is contrarian seems to me a very weak argument indeed.

    Enough. Thanks again for the provocation, and keep up the good work.

  18. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t really think of an area in physics where a consensus has been achieved only to be shown to be completely wrong. Sure, models are incomplete but this is different from being wrong. My feeling for this is that climate models have the same chance of being wrong as standard stellar models.

  19. Patrick, I think you need to study your Latin.

    Anthony, yes. People who believe that the government planted bombs in the WTC are lunatic nutcases who are dead wrong. I don’t care if they have engineering degrees…
    Now of course having just said that, I would like to walk back my hyperbole. We all believe the evidence supports various “conspiracies” and I am certain I am someone else’s Lunatic Nutcase.

    I think my point here is that it’s good that the New Yorker is rebutting D&L when they go off the tracks. D&L are authorities in their own right who are treated with a certain amount of deference. But in this case they are probably wrong. Global Warming is probably a serious threat and will probably require massive concerted efforts to minimize its damage. Hopefully technology will play a part. But just like that excerpt from the reviewer so eloquently puts it: downplaying the science of global warming while buying whole hog the science of a technological cure for it is a serious lapse in D&L’s judgement. The book reviewer not understanding that the study of nutrition is practiced by people who failed out of dental school has nothing to do with it.

  20. Steven: You must be joking. Physics is the poster child for fundamental reorderings. Right now we have two consensus theories that are fundamentally incompatible.

    It may be true that in previous temperature swings, CO2 lagged temperature. What is manifestly true is that this time, CO2 is leading temperature. It may be, likewise, that in previous events, CO2 was released from the ocean. In this event, ocean CO2 is radically elevated, to the point that it is killing whole reef ecosystems. Therefore, this guy is barking up the wrong tree, and has evidently nothing to say about the present crisis — which crisis it certainly is, whatever the cause.

  21. A minor quibble: Murray & Herrnstein said they were agnostic on the genetic contribution, although I think they also said it was a good guess to say half genes and half environment.

  22. As a retired professor in electrical engineering, one thing I am certain about is the overwhelming desire of young scientists to (a) publish, (b) get tenure or a promotion, and (c) go to lots of scientific gatherings and become accepted in the “cutting edge” peer group. And I haven’t even mentioned the cocktail parties at these government supported love feasts! And regarding consensus on any subject, it is good to recall what George Carlin said about the “average person.” He said, as I recall, “The average guy is not very smart. And if that bothers you, consider the fact that half of the population is dumber than him!” Al Gore is the poster child for the religion of liberalism; he did what Willy Sutton did and went where the big money was! What we should all be concerned about is how we will operate when the Arabs drain thier oil swamps and we get cold and unable to move around cheaply!

  23. CO2 isn’t killing the reef ecosystem by “consensus”. Why don’t you consult a biologist, not a climatologist. Many believe it is nitrogen run off from fertilizers, and furthermore, there is a correlation to reef predators nearest rivers.

    And we don’t know what the correct temperatures are, doctored data from CRU is no longer acceptable as gospel.

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