Ask Yourself: What Would Prove me WRONG?

An excellent comment I heard recently suggested how we are primed to look for the data that supports what we are already believe rather than challenge our own visions of the world by asking what arguably is the most important question you can ask about your own beliefs:   “What Would Prove Me WRONG?”.     We see this all the time in politics where advocates present only information that supports their position and only review comments from the opposition that make them look bad.   Where objective people look at “all the facts”, advocates only look in one direction.

As a science person the importance of the “What Would Prove Me Wrong” approach  is pretty obvious  – though I sometimes fail my own test and forget to ask this question rather than the more common and misguided “what data will prove my idea correct?”.

At first glance you might say “hey, it’s important and justifiable to look mostly for the data that will prove my idea right!”.    But you’d be … WRONG.. to think that.    More importantly you’d be *irrational* if you think that approach will get you closer to the truth.   It will simply reinforce your existing perception.   You may be right or wrong, but since it’s easy to find support for even completely faulty ideas by “cherry picking”, truth demands you look at *all* the data or when that is not possible work hard to sample the data you do review in unbiased ways.

In science this inappropriate focus  is often called “Cherry Picking” and it’s the practice of focusing too narrowly on supporting data in such a way that it creates a biased observation.      An extreme example would be for somebody to suggest that an unusually hot summer “proves”  global warming, or that an unusually cold winter “disproves” it.     Contrary to what you’d think if you get your science from common journalistic misinterpretations, few of the events cited in the news tell you much of anything about how to evaluate the complex climate models and observations that frame the complex global warming issues such as the role of human factors vs natural variation, the costs of mitigation, and the significance of the warming trends themselves in terms of our global future well-being.

Science relies heavily on a wonderful principle called skepticism.   Unfortunately that wondeful notion of “skepticism” has been seriously damaged during the massive global warming debates where “skeptics” of the “anthropogenic global warming hypothesis”, also called “AGW”  are disparaged as “deniers” who have no interest in science or truth.     While it is true that many “global warming skeptics” are simply parroting nonsense talking points and never asking themselves “What Would Prove me WRONG?”,  many defective forms of rational inquiry are now commonplace in the scientific community as well.      This is unfortunate and more importantly has created within science a new “advocacy model” where many scientists no longer see their primary role as that of unbiased, objective researcher – they also want to become spokespeople for policy changes they feel are the logical extension of their research.    This scientist/ advocate model has combined with our natural human egos in very undesireable ways.

An excellent example is the defense by no less than several NASA climate scientists of the misleading and scientifically unjustified claims in the film “An Inconvenient Truth”.     Debating the merits of that film at the blog quickly taught me that my old school ideas about science and scientists as “profoundly skeptical seekers of truth” have been replaced by the new idea that scientists are not only entitled to be advocates, they are pretty much obligated to be advocates.      I’d argue that this single factor is the most alarming trend in science right now because advocates don’t see or think nearly as clearly as researchers (formerly proudly called skeptics).   If there is one thing we need moving forward it is clear thinking and skepticism rather than an almost blind adherence to complex models attempting to describe the world.

Update on this meme:

27 thoughts on “Ask Yourself: What Would Prove me WRONG?

  1. Leland thanks – I mangled that sentence. Here is what I meant (corrected above also:

    If there is one thing we need moving forward it is clear thinking and skepticism rather than an almost blind adherence to complex models attempting to describe the world.

  2. Joe, excellent as usual. I was wondering if you could pull together a “definitive” post on the evidence you’ve found that is cause for doubt of the severity of global warming. Not looking for a debate on it, but honestly I have given up looking at most sites for the information because non of it seems to be based on the ideas you espouse here in this post. Everybody has an agenda. Everybody has a theory. Nobody seems to have truth.

    It’s damn frustrating. 🙂

    BTW, for anybody else on this thread who might reply with theorist sites/videos, etc., I have no interest in conspiracy theory on Al Gore and all the BS on both ends of the political spectrum. I just want the science on how serious the situation actually is, and it’s increasingly difficult to find.

    Thanks as always Joe – you always seem to me to be a source of reason.

    • The interesting problem regarding GW and if people are the cause…it literally does us no good to hinder our ability, raise our costs, etc…as long as countries like India, China that have many times more the population than we do WILL NEVER adopt the extreme changes we are trying to implement.

      We are only weakening our position in the world while they continue to get stronger.

      It is very short-sighted and unfortunately look at the cap & tax boondongle…over 90% of the collected “taxes” are going back out as payments to the groups just to get their support. It is outrageous and full of corruption.

      The government isn’t the answer.

  3. Metro that’s a great idea and I’ll work on it, though keep in mind I still think (as I have for years) that global warming is “nearly certain” and human causes are “likely”. I just don’t buy the notion that we are doomed by these climate changes or that we can do much to stop them given all the human issues relating to CO2 reductions.

    My main beef is with those who think that the warming will be catastrophic and those who think skeptics have no place at the debate table anymore.

    But I really like your idea of having to make the case for “what, me worry?” using the standards I’ve suggested above which means I should always identify the evidence will would suggest I am wrong.

    On that last point I’d point out the UK Stern Report, which suggests that it’s much cheaper to spend money now on CO2 mitigation than later on warming problems. If Stern is right than my main point is WRONG. However Stern’s still in the economic minority on this (most economists want only very modest spending / GDP reductions in exchange for what they see as the CO2 mitigation benefits)

  4. Welcome Tamino and thanks for posting here. I wish I could spend more time at RealClimate but often my comments are lost/deleted by moderation standards I still don’t understand or are posted too many hours after I’ve been unreasonably attacked by the true believers. RC could help the discussion along quite a bit by white listing rather than black listing the people whose opinions they routinely moderate out of existence.

    To answer your question: I continue to believe as I have for about 10 years that warming is nearly certain and human causes – mostly CO2 related – are the very likely culprit. I’ve posted about this topic for some time now.

    The reason I’m intrigued and more respectful of the AGW skeptics every day is, in fact, because I have been asking “What would prove me wrong” and I keep seeing plenty of reasons to challenge the climate doomsayers.

    So it’s true that even though I believe in AGW I’m far more skeptical than most at RealClimate or the absurdly non-scientific advocacy blogs like The current models are not as robust as is usually suggested or implied. And I’m completely skeptical that the implications of warming are as severe as suggested, for example, in the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, much of which is nonsensically hyped speculation.

    In science people used to pride themselves on being skeptical of any “consensus” that was not falsifiable. Now agreement with the “climate change consensus” is worn as a badge of pride, and that is tragic.

  5. Totally, 100% agree. I believe we are having significant impact, but ideas like global sea levels rising by 20 feet as a result of ice melting (ignoring laws of displacement and surface area, for example) does not have the ring of truth to me. The problem is, I can’t tell what does anymore.

    BTW, I’ve never watched Al Gore’s movie precisely because the “science” is rather, eh, sketchy.

    To the loudest proclaimers of doom I have one thing to say: Y2K. 🙂

  6. Joe, I suggest you go and hang out with a few climate scientists, chat to them, find out how they think, before you judge them. You’ll be surprised how humble they are. And how wrong you are in your judgement of the nature of the science. But I guess it’s easier just to sit back and do armchair philosophy.

    • Steve that’s what blogs are supposed to be for. However I have also had many personal interactions with scientists and generally find them to be the clearest thinking folks in the room.

      Yet I’ve also spent many, many uncomfortable hours at RealClimate looking for the objective signal and finding advocacy. I should note that it’s usually the other commenters and NOT the principals who are the most closed minded, but my first extended experience “chatting” with climate scientists was to read bizarre justifications for the inaccuracies in the film and then be lambasted for suggesting the obvious – An Inconvenient Truth is an advocacy piece, not a scientific one.

      This isn’t about judging people as much as it is about my concern that good old fashioned skepticism is routinely disparaged as “anti science” when in fact it’s the cornerstone of good science. I’d suggest that a combination of egos, attacks from Limbaugh/Bush era anti-science right wingers, funding issues, and a belief that modelled abstractions trump real world data are all part of the problem.

  7. Hanging put in the comment section of a politicized blog is quite obviuosly not the same as hanging out with climate scientists. Go have a beer with them. Attend a climate science conference (eg the AGU meeting). Go listen to talks at your nearest university.

    “a belief that modelled abstractions trump real world data”??? Huh? Do you have any idea what a climate model is? Have you looked at the code?the data sets that drive them? The continuous validation against real world data?

    Don’t just repeat soundbites – it doesn’t do your credibility any good.

    • Steve,

      With all due respect you are completely discounting the political agendas behind the “groups” that are promoting climate change.

      Their models are horribly flawed, based on a minuscule amount of data. Our planet, solar system is constantly going through changes with so many variables (most we don’t even understand yet) – so for ANYONE to say they can predict what is going to happen is complete bunk. It is near mathematically impossible for them to predict.

      Go and look deeply into the Ozone hole issues and what the brilliant scientists did to combat that…the material they put into the atmosphere to help close the hole actually trapped 5000X’s more greenhouse gas than does Ozone and in fact they now concede that they have made the problem worse.

      How do you explain the “climate trends” on other planets – as far as I know there aren’t any humans living on them?

      You have lunatics inside the U.N. stating we have 4 months to save the planet…seriously do you actually believe that?

      Even if that were the truth…what exactly do you think we could in 4 months to correct it?

      Anyone who thinks 4 months of ANYTHING will EVER affect our planet long-term is a complete idiot.

      The entire climate change debate is a farce and the science behind AGW is significantly flawed.

      Most people are reasonable in their view on how to be a good steward of the planet but these draconian measures from the growing 4th Reich global government have nothing to do with climate change.

      You want to solve climate change issues…then we should spend a lot of money understanding how to terraform a planet – that is basically the level of science we would need to be able to control and understand before we would ever have a chance to suggest a reasonable and effective solution.

      Stop drinking the kool-aid and try to understand the scope of the problem – once you get the scope you know we are nowhere close to understanding the problem. Anything they propose right now is a guess and guess can go either way.

    • Steve I also answered below. Agree with you that climate scientists are to a large degree more reasonable and rational than the people who are attacking them – often on unreasonable grounds. However the Wegman report and RC posts have convinced me that even disciplined climate scientists may react to certain bureaucratic or research or funding pressures just as we all know industry scientists sometimes do. In fact although you suggest otherwise I think more studies of this would make for some great sociology.

      But my practical concern is the tendency to conflate the likelihood that humans are the cause with the complex optimal mitigation issues – ie the key action items. These are almost completely separate questions, and I think alarmism is now used almost routinely to get us to act ineffectively and expensively. There are catastrophic conditions in about 1/3 of the world now as measured by health, violence, and poverty. I see those as much more pressing issues than CO2 mitigation by any reasonable measure of “what we humans should do NOW”.

  8. Joe there just isn’t any intellectual honesty anymore in the process. Honesty, integrity, etc is all TRUMPED by ideology. The ideology is designed to manufacture crisis to overwhelm the system and force change.

    This isn’t about some big conspiracy theory…it is right there in plain sight you just have to be willing to see it.

    The liberal left is using whatever means they have available to polarize these issues (i.e. abortion, etc) and force people to choose a less than optimal solution.

    The entire “green” movement (by the political cronies) is all about control of the population and enslavement from a tax standpoint.

    You have picked up on something that is right out of Saul Alinsky’s playbook…personalize it.

    That is why we know have the “ers”. DeniERS, BirthERS, DeathERS, etc…

    The demonize anyone against the “cause” and through personalization they create ridicule that is personal after all it is much easier to defeat a person than it is an institution.

    Our government is no different than an organized crime syndicate and the intimidation on all fronts is staggering and just plain unacceptable and this only leads us to a very serious violent future – and as I said a year ago…ACORN will be at the center of it.

    Whether is is AGW, Cap & Tax, Healthcare, etc…they will be there all helping to support the thugocracy…

  9. Steve I do appreciate your advice and although I’m familiar with more than the talking point critiques of the models I will follow up. That said I’m not clear why you are defending the scientists on “good guy” grounds or the models on technical grounds as neaither of those are valid criticisms in my view. Climate folks are extremely bright, hard working, dedicated scientists. I also agree that the technical research tends to be of high quality. My beef is that too many are not extending the research findings properly to the real world. The current catastrophic conditions in the developing world with respect to health and poverty are far greater than the “extra” trouble we can expect if current warming trends continue. Even if we could stop the warming (which we probably can’t), it is not clear this would be worth the cost of doing so. I realize that is a different issue from AGW but I think they both relate to the ego and emotional investements in the research.

  10. Joe – your original post attempts to set up some kind of equality between “two sides”, with mistakes and biases on both, and you equate “skepticism” (the sensible scientist’s tool) with “denialism” (the one that involves ignoring the vast majority of the evidence). Over the past few years, I’ve met many climate scientists, hung out at their conferences, and visited their labs. My personal assessment is that they are the good guys, doing brilliant work, with plenty of healthy skepticism and a deep understanding of the limits of their knowledge and the uncertainties involved.

    I’ve yet to meet anyone on the “other side of the debate” who has any idea how climate science as a field really operates. Yet everyone seems to “know” that the science is flawed.

    The key issue is not whether we can stop the warming. You are correct that we cannot. The issue is at what new temperature will the earth will stabilize, and what will the consequences be for human society. If you take time to understand the latest science, to read the original papers (rather than the over-blown discussions of them in the blogosphere), you’ll get a much better understanding of the risks involved. And why so many quiet, respectable scientists are starting to get frantic that humanity is ignoring their findings.

  11. Glenn. NO! Enslavement ? !. As we’ve argued about many times this is about sincerely held views by respectable people and that’s completely obvious if you take off your political blinders.

    I can agree we should not demonize people or practice the ad hominem attacks that now characterize much of the blogOspheric climate chatter.. It’s just a weak and cheap way to avoid the real issues about what is going on now, what will happen in the future, and how much we should spend dealing with the effects of the warming.

  12. Steve I think you are right that I may be generalizing way too much from my adventures at RealClimate, especially since the commenters there vary from research authors and NASA authorities to kooks. That said I think most would agree that RC is the most influential online watering hole for climate change topics.

    I am NOT trying to equate skepticism with “denialism” above. There is an ignorant way to process the AGW research which is simply to dismiss the huge body of work supporting the AGW hypothesis. I’m not even an AGW skeptic. I’d fall more in line with the views of Lomborg [INCOMING!!!!] who believes in AGW but feels many are exaggerating the negative consequences of the warming we are likely to see in the next 100 years.

    But I am always amazed by the bizarre treatment of Lomborg’s excellent criticisms of the alarmist and even hysterical reactions to AGW research findings. He’s lumped in with the “ignorant” crowd because his views don’t match the “consensus view”. Ironic since IPCC should be the bible for a consensus view and he’s very supportive of the concrete findings in IPCC.

    In short Steve I think we’ll live to see that IPCC estimates of SLR and Temps were pretty much correct but that the effects on humans and the biosphere will be substantially less than many are fretting about now.

  13. Yes, Mr. Duck, real scientific research, unlike ideology, involves searching for counterexamples. Recall the debate between Cockburn and Monbiot from three years ago or so, after Gore’s AGW schtick. Alex and his crew of scientists did find counterexamples–like the data showing rising man-made CO2 levels from like 30s to 70s, and yet no corresponding temp rise. IN certain areas man-made CO2 was much higher in 30s and 40s (due to wood smoke, pre-EPA pollution, etc), and yet temps were normal, and even very cool. Volcanoes also showed a similar situation (no great temp rises, even after a massive plume of years worth of man-made CO2).

    Now, that doesn’t falsify the AGW claims, but does present fairly weighty problems. The IPCC people thus started discussing “time lags”, which have hardly been nailed down either. OK, there might be time lags. 10 years? 100? 1000? They don’t really have the time-lag/CO2/water vapor interactions out at all.

    I object to the Foxnews AGW deniers, however. AGW does occur , but it appears to be far more regional, and not merely due to manmade CO2, but other GHGs as well. (Rancourt is a bit of an eccentric, but has some decent writing on this)

  14. … real scientific research, unlike ideology, involves searching for counterexamples

    This is well put and it is the reason more tolerance should be shown to those who dispute a consensus view.

    And I certainly agree that FOX does not helpi to bring much reason into the mix. Like any advocate they are usually more interested in pushing their perspective than enlightening people.

    The biggest “obvious” thing I’m saying is that scientists are not immune to the tendency for humans to view the world in a biased fashion.

    Ideally this bias is eliminated in the research and peer review process, but in practice I am no longer convinced this happens, partly because of the pressure I see to shout down reasoned AGW skeptics as “industry shills” and “deniers”. That argument is not only unfair to people who are neither it’s not even all that relevant to their findings.

  15. The AGW may be functioning as an “Obedience meme” at this stage. That works with both left and right (anti-tax hysteria a rightist meme), but the dems have come into power, and so the AGW meme has been implemented, thanks to Big Brother Al Gore, and IPCC (the realclimate like sites), the Waxman/Markey bill, etc.

    The typical liberal has also been given instructions (via media, the usual dem blogs, etc): DO NOT question the AGW meme. To do so means, according to LIB-code, that one’s an AGW “denier”; ergo, Foxnews fan (NRA supporter, Red meat eater, teabagger, etc). A similar process occurs with the treatment of various Demo leaders. LIB-code allows the Demo-voter the right to diss GOPers all the time, put them in nazi uniforms, blood on their claws, etc but they cannot say anything negative about a DLC Par-tay leader, even if, as with a Feinstein, she’s voted about the same as GOP has for years, and has made millions of shekels from war profiteering.

    The Demo-Bot (like these flakes) simply cannot criticize his Leaders, irregardless of their record. He’s usually too cowardly, not to say irrational and narcissistic. Barney Frank for instance has been a corrupt, self-serving bureaucrat for years, and did nothing as FHLMC fell apart and the lending crisis developed (neither did the Pelosicrats as a whole, and GOP did little either). But any criticism of Frank or other DLC leaders by Demos is now Verboten, and those who do so (even when non-conservatives do so), they are branded as neo-nazis, “homophobes” etc etc.

    Those hyper-defamation tactics all come from the KGB rulebook, if not Goebbels.


    J. Scott Armstrong, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, has a bet for Al Gore. A $20,000 bet.

    Armstrong is confident that his “no change” climate model will predict temperatures over the next 10 years more accurately than Gore’s “CO2 global warming” model.

    Armstrong says he’s willing to donate his winnings to charity, but the Goracle hasn’t taken neither the bait nor the bet.

    The interesting thing here is that you can get a piece of the action through

    Putting a bet on Armstrong right now will cost you $62 for a potential $100 payoff. Placing your money on Gore’s side of the bet would cost you $38 to win $100. Based on those odds, it looks like the market favors stable temperatures.

    C’mon, Al, put your money where you mouth is. Why, this should be easier than shooting polar bears in a barrel.


    THE global-warming bill moving through Congress would cost the nation nearly $10 trillion — while doing virtually nothing to stop warming.

    The Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” bill passed the House in late June; the Senate’s due to take it up late this month. Its biggest problem (among many) is that it relies on the myth that we understand exactly what causes warming and what to do about it — that the only issue is finding the political will.

    Yet a major new study published in the American Geophysical Union’s official publication, the Journal of Geophysical Research, indicates that most warming isn’t man-made.

    The party line is that manmade “greenhouse gas” emissions are clearly the greatest contributor to warming, with the major culprit being carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels that heat and cool our homes and power our vehicles.

    But that assumption appears false. “We have shown that internal global-climate-system variability accounts for at least 80 percent of the observed global-climate variation over the past half-century,” says study co-author Christopher de Freitas.

    De Freitas, a climatologist at New Zealand’s Auckland University and former editor of the prestigious international journal Climate Research, performed the study with his colleagues Robert Carter (an environmental scientist at two Australian universities) and John Mc- Lean (a climate consultant in Victoria, Australia). They found that the major cause of increased global surface temperatures since 1950 are El Niño and La Niña — the abnormal Pacific surface-water heating and cooling phenomena.

    Even the remaining 20 percent of observed warming isn’t necessarily related to greenhouse-gas emissions, the researchers say. They point to other natural conditions, such as an increase in solar radiation that’s part of the sun’s normal cycle, called solar variation.

    The major media ignored the study, as they do virtually all research that doesn’t fit their preconceptions. Yet it “is just one of several papers over the past six years that have shown that observed [increased] temperatures can be accounted for by natural phenomena” notes MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen (who has been critical of both global-warming skeptics and alarmists over the years).

    His own work shows that at most “about a third of the surface warming is associated with the greenhouse effect, and, quite possibly, not all of even this really small warming is due to man.”

  18. I am profoundly moved by your comments, which I repeat below. I wish I’d said that. I will, later 🙂 But I’ll quote you until you’re read in the face.
    Also, I’ll try to emulate your adage. I already do, but now I’ll try harder.
    “[i] my old school ideas about science and scientists as “profoundly skeptical seekers of truth” have been replaced by the new idea that scientists are not only entitled to be advocates, they are pretty much obligated to be advocates. I’d argue that this single factor is the most alarming trend in science right now because advocates don’t see or think nearly as clearly as researchers (formerly proudly called skeptics). If there is one thing we need moving forward it is clear thinking and skepticism rather than an almost blind adherence to complex models attempting to describe the world.[/i]”

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