Photo: Ryan J. Reilly

Rep. Lamar Smith Misunderstands Science

Andrew Gunther, , | March 16, 2018, 5:07 pm EST
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Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) states that as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology he seeks facts about climate change, and that his Committee follows “the scientific method.” These are welcome and vitally important positions for a powerful Congressman to take on a topic of such vital national interest. It is essential that scientific evidence be the foundation for legislative action about climate change.

Unfortunately, in his article Mr. Smith does not seek facts or apply the scientific method. Instead, he makes claims that are contrary to established facts, and provides no evidence or analysis to support his assertions as the scientific method requires.

For example, Smith claims “United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed that they have “low confidence” in climate change contributing to extreme weather.” Actually, the IPCC stated that “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

Smith notes that “U.S. wildland fires are decreasing in frequency,” which is a trend under investigation using the scientific method of proposing and testing alternate hypotheses. For example, the decrease could represent an impact of a change in climate, but it could easily be the result of successful fire prevention strategies. But Mr. Smith does not consider alternate hypotheses as the scientific method requires. Instead, he concludes that reduced fire frequency proves climate change does not increase the frequency of such extreme events.

Meanwhile, Mr. Smith completely ignores the data demonstrating the total acres burned in wildfires is going up, which is the fact that constitutes the major threat to people around the world. The most recent assessment for the US states, “The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.” Ignoring data is a luxury that only politicians can indulge in, as any scientist who does won’t get manuscripts through peer review.

This is reminiscent of when Mr. Smith accused NOAA scientists of “altering the data,” calling their published scientific analyses of atmospheric temperatures “skewed and biased,” a claim made with no accompanying analysis or evidence. In fact, NOAA scientists were using the scientific method to identify the bias that exists in temperature measuring instruments and making their data more accurate by taking this bias into account. We all apply this same process when we compare the results of different bathroom scales, time pieces, meat thermometers, or fuel gauges in cars. This is an example of Mr. Smith practicing intimidation, not science, as noted by the American Meteorological Society.

Smith claims in his article that he is called a “climate denier” because he “questions assertions,” which again demonstrates a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The reason Mr. Smith is called a “climate denier” is because he questions scientific conclusions without providing an alternate explanation for existing observations. A true skeptic would propose an alternative, testable hypothesis for observations.

For example, our release of greenhouse gases has raised the average temperature of the ocean by a little over half a degree Fahrenheit, which represents an amount of energy (1023 joules) that is 10 billion times the amount of energy (1013 joules) released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A true skeptic of global warming must propose an alternative explanation for how all of this energy has accumulated if greenhouse gases are not responsible. Skeptics have suggested changes in the sun’s energy output as an alternate explanation, but it is now well established that the sun’s energy output has actually been declining over the last few decades. In fact, the brightness of the Sun is at a record low right now.  True skeptics would also propose an explanation for why greenhouse gases are not causing the earth to heat up, given that we know these gases trap heat.

Mr. Smith cannot offer such explanations because they do not exist. Instead, as we see from the examples above, he attempts to misrepresent or ignore existing evidence. This is deeply unfortunate given Mr. Smith’s position in Congress. Those who seek nonpartisan, evidence-based policies to address the impacts of climate change must demand that their representatives based their positions on facts supported by the scientific method.

While Smith states that “climate alarmists just won’t let the facts get in the way of their science fiction,” analyzing his own claims demonstrate that the fiction is being propagated by Mr. Smith.

 

Andrew Gunther is executive director of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, and a board member at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has published research in the field of ecotoxicology and has extensive experience in applying science to the development of air, water, and endangered species policy. Dr. Gunther served as the assistant chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Program from 1991 to 2002, and is currently the executive coordinator of the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium.

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  • Paulo A. Brennan

    He has obviously been paid off by someone or some company that wants to get away with polluting the environment and destroy as many regulations as possible. What amazes me is that other people don’t see this.

  • Mike Perkins

    Either he’s just plain ignorant, or he’s using the Standard Method of Denial: “Say anything that contradicts the inconvenient facts, and muddy the waters as much as possible so that the under-informed will believe that there is disagreement among the experts.”

  • AllSeasonRadial

    [Lamar] Smith cannot offer such explanations because they do not exist. Instead, as we see from the examples above, he attempts to misrepresent or ignore existing evidence.

    That’s not all he does. He also seeks to discredit his betters by ridicule and castigation: a true mark of the irredeemable demagogue.

  • Uncle Buck

    Mr. Smith may know nothing about climate change, but frankly, you have it upside down. The burden of proof lies upon anyone claiming to understand the vast science. You must be able to differentiate between current conditions and the past, and show what is unique, along with the physical drivers of all of those conditions. That is where skeptics come in, and why science works.

    It sucks to have such a high bar, but it has not been cleared. Belittling others will not change it. So far, there is nothing unique about this interglacial period. CO2 may well be the primary driver this round, but the past does not support it.

    • Maria Vidart-Delgado

      From: Andrew Gunther

      Hi Uncle Buck:

      Using the scientific method does indeed present a high bar, and when I examine the history of climate it is obvious to me the bar has been cleared easily.

      When Joseph Fourier first proposed the concept of a greenhouse effect in the 1820s, he did not have an understanding of physical drivers. John Tyndall was able to demonstrate a physical mechanism supporting Fourier’s hypothesis, leading Tyndall to conclude in 1859 “the atmosphere admits the entrance of the solar heat, but checks its exit; and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet.”

      In 1896 Svante Arrhenius was able to use the physical properties of atmospheric gases and a simplified model of the climate to calculate the equilibrium temperature of the earth if there was twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Decades of skeptical examination of his work followed, as you correctly suggest must occur in science, and this led to Revelle and Suess noting in 1957 that because carbon emissions were accumulating in the atmosphere “human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment.”

      Predictions were made based on this experiment, including those of Gilbert Plass, the Climate Research Board of the National Academy, and the Jason Committee of the Department of Defense. Among these predictions was “arctic amplification,” with temperatures rising more quickly in the arctic than in temperate regions. Our “large scale geophysical experiment” has validated these predictions.

      I welcome the continued application of objective skepticism to refine our understanding. This is why I noted observations that require explanation by true skeptics. However, this is not what Rep. Smith is undertaking. I believe I was careful not to “belittle” Mr. Smith, but rather his claim that he is drawing conclusions based on the scientific method. As the American Meteorological Society recently noted, “skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.”

    • From: Andrew Gunther

      Hi Uncle Buck:

      Using the scientific method does indeed present a high bar, and when I examine the history of climate it is obvious to me the bar has been cleared easily.

      When Joseph Fourier first proposed the concept of a greenhouse effect in the 1820s, he did not have an understanding of physical drivers. John Tyndall was able to demonstrate a physical mechanism supporting Fourier’s hypothesis, leading Tyndall to conclude in 1859 “the atmosphere admits the entrance of the solar heat, but checks its exit; and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet.”

      In 1896 Svante Arrhenius was able to use the physical properties of atmospheric gases and a simplified model of the climate to calculate the equilibrium temperature of the earth if there was twice as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Decades of skeptical examination of his work followed, as you correctly suggest must occur in science, and this led to Revelle and Suess noting in 1957 that because carbon emissions were accumulating in the atmosphere “human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment.”

      Predictions were made based on this experiment, including those of Gilbert Plass, the Climate Research Board of the National Academy, and the Jason Committee of the Department of Defense. Among these predictions was “arctic amplification,” with temperatures rising more quickly in the arctic than in temperate regions. Our “large scale geophysical experiment” has validated these predictions.

      I welcome the continued application of objective skepticism to refine our understanding. This is why I noted observations that require explanation by true skeptics. However, this is not what Rep. Smith is undertaking. I believe I was careful not to “belittle” Mr. Smith, but rather his claim that he is drawing conclusions based on the scientific method. As the American Meteorological Society recently noted, “skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.”

      • Uncle Buck

        A graceful response. While “belittle” may be too strong, we have a politician practicing science, and apparently the Union doing the opposite. I will acknowledge it’s easier for the latter, since everyone has a political persuasion, while few have the scientific background, including Mr. Smith.

        I accept CO2 is a global warming gas. I remain skeptical of its professed magnitude. CO2 increase as a following phenomenon after glacial periods begin, without the corresponding temperature maintenance, remains a serious problem that is invariably ignored. Models, with amazing math, are still no match for the complexities of a dynamic fluid like our atmosphere (and ocean). That does not mean I think they are flat wrong. Cloud formation, cosmic and solar weather phenomena, and many other variables exist. The earth has had tremendous climate events over its violent geologic past, yet these events, with their disparate drivers, to my knowledge, are rarely acknowledged or their mechanisms included as part of the model.

        The Union is saying that CO2 is rising due to anthropogenic contributions (true), the earth is directly and proportionally warming (warming, yes, proportionate to CO2, unprecedented, at least as far as we can measure accurately), the consequences are overwhelmingly negative (arguable – there are certainly challenges humanity has during this particular interglacial period, not the least of which is our expensive infrastructure, but a warm earth has more food and fewer cold threats), and that only governments can take the radical action needed to stop it (a political position – I’ll leave my opinion on the chance for success to myself).

        I believe most of you are very altruistic, but that does not substitute your responsibility for highly critical and open science, including recognition of data challenges and omissions, exactly like every other discipline. In this sense, the Union is not above behaving just like Mr. Smith.

        Like the rest of the public, my background suffers from many scientific and intellectual limitations. I could therefore be 100% wrong. You want my opinion? Quit snobbishly telling us to trust you because you’re so much smarter. Show us, and include the mistakes and redirections every other science has had to endure.

        Best.

      • neroden

        The consequences of global warming and ocean acidification, caused by human burning of fossil fuels increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, are overwhelmingly negative.

        Really, before you talk about this, you need to do your biology and geology research. Do you know the acidity level at which plankton, the base of the ocean food chain, become unable to form their shells? Do you know the temperature level at which humans cannot cool themselves off by sweating? Do you know the temperature level at which our major staple food crops fail? Do you know how the process of desertification, turning agriculturally productive areas into deserts, happens? I have looked into all of these and more, and the conclusion is: global warming and ocean acidification are disastrous.

        You can look into this data for yourself, but you have to *bother* to look at it rather than claiming “a warm earth has more food” — which is simply flat-out false. It has less food *for humans*, even if it will likely have more CAM plants. (Do you know about C3, C4, and CAM plants?)

        Have you researched the geology related to the P-Tr extinction? The evidence is piling up that it was caused by CO2 emissions.

        We can’t show you every detail because this is a blog entry. FFS, you have Google and Wikipedia. The details are out there. After learning freshman physics, chem, geo, and bio, I learned most of what I know from Wikipedia and from scholarly articles which I found on Google and through scientists’ blogs. We can point you to them, but you have to take the effort to educate yourself.

        I definitely encourage you to educate yourself about the topic. Take the time. Do the research. We’ll be happy to help with pointers.

      • Uncle Buck

        My friend, I am well aware of the past precedent our earth has set, which leads to my skepticism of CO2 as a primary driver. I am a geologist. You are speculating as to the voracity on the effect of rising CO2. I have seen nothing except unsupported theories on your position of overwhelmingly negative effects, for which there is little future accountability, and is largely untestable. The Permian extinction cannot be compared to our current conditions. That is embellishment for the sake of effect. We’ll see about how well CO2 actually correlates in the final analysis. I’m open. Are you?

        Herein lies the problem. Intellectual honesty. The fear of showing any weakness in the CO2-is-evil-always chant is what drives skeptics crazy. We know it’s not that easy, at least not in other sciences, and it can’t be objective without showing others how failures and setbacks were overcome. Give me that link and you’ll be my hero, as the path to a believable story will have finally been set.

        Also, I’m very interested in the math on ocean acidification. Altering pH to the point of dissolution is no simple feat and we have certainly encountered higher CO2 (and SO2) conditions in the past. How did corals and all the other calcium carbonate critters persist? Ask critical questions, and the level of alarmism may drop a bit. Good science can prevail.

    • excusemebut2

      Yes indeed….skepticism is part of the scientific process. The basic underlying principals of the earth’s radiation balance have been subject to much health skepticism and have survived and are accepted as scientific principals now.
      Smith has no such sound evidence to support his position. Period.

    • Lincoln F. Sternn, USAF (ret.)

      Sure, but when this tool makes easily disputable statements, the burden of proof is not on anyone but him.