Science, research, and a touch of global warming
This chapter exists mostly as a disclaimer. I have a four year degree in a scientific field, so I have more experience with science than the majority of Americans. I have done research, collected and analyzed data, studied statistics, and read scientific journals. Having this background, I want to make a few points concerning science, research and statistics. I would like to begin by commenting on the ’natural’ fad that has gripped the country. I laughed really hard the first time I saw ’organic’ foods for sale. Organic means living (or carbon based), so I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to pay twice as much for a banana that isn’t any more alive than the banana they bought last week. Commercially, ’organic’ mean that no synthesized chemicals are used in to grow the products, harsh pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Do people think natural fertilizers are better? I would rather have a fertilizer with purified chemicals on my food, than a natural fertilizer (which is going to be closer to feces). The purified nitrates and phosphates are the same chemicals you will find in natural fertilizers, without any undesirable ingredients. People have very little understanding of what that means. It is just assumed that ’natural’ and ’organic’ are better and ’chemicals’ or ’synthesized’ are bad. (Unless ’synthesized’ is being used to describe a computer model that predicts catastrophe, then ’synthesized’ is good.)
I will use medicines as an example. I know some people who will only take natural herbs as treatments, and completely shun modern medicines. The herbal pills are all leaves and bark, all natural, so they must be better. Right? Aspirin, for example, is acetylsalicylic acid and is made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It is most commonly used to treat headaches. It is derived from a chemical found in tree bark; the bark has been used for hundreds of years to treat aches and pains. You prefer natural treatments and are scared of ’chemicals’, so instead of taking an aspirin you take a crushed willow-bark pill shown to effectively treat headaches. The problem with that is, you have no idea what else is in the willow-bark pill. When you take an aspirin you are taking something that scientists have studied; they know exactly how it reacts with the body and they have put it in a form that is gentle and non-damaging. Instead of taking the harsher salicylic acid in a bark form with who knows how many other chemicals, you are taking it with harmless sugars or chalk. The salicylic acid in the bark may treat your headache, but there may also be unknown addictive chemicals, or carcinogens. See, these natural herb pills don’t need to be FDA approved, so you have no idea what is in them.
People are scared of ’chemicals’, but there are chemicals in everything. The foods you eat all contain esters and proteins, lots of acids. Most of the vitamins are acids. When scientists synthesize a drug it is in a much purer form than you will get from an herb. Being natural doesn’t make it better. Tobacco is natural; it’s a leaf, and it has hundreds of chemicals in it, most of which are bad. Marijuana is also a leaf. Poison ivy as well. You wouldn’t want to ingest any of them. Why would you want to take an unknown leaf said to treat stomach pains, when you could take a medicine that is purified and tested, with known side effects and known ingredients? The point is, most people don’t understand science. They don’t understand research. They don’t understand what words like ’organic’ mean. The media makes it out to be a good thing, so it becomes a popular fad.
I would like to quickly address research. There is, unfortunately, a problem with solely citing research to show why you support one side or another. I have enough experience with science to know that research can show anything. Whether or not it is true is a different story. Perhaps you wanted to use research to prove the Earth was flat. That would be quite easy to do. You could go outside with a meter long level and go all over your town, setting the level down and recording that it shows the ground is flat. Or, instead of taking random samples around your town you could take a stream of samples, setting the level down a yard apart for a few miles in a row. You could observe that the ground is flat as far as you see, and use that as supporting evidence. You could take a larger sample size, and travel all over the world, stopping in every major city in every country to take data. Then you could graph it all, showing that every city you visited was flat, and concluding that your research has proven that the Earth is flat.
It sounds ridiculous, right? But, if no one had ever told you the Earth was round, would you assume it was flat? Taking large sample sizes, taking data in different areas of the world, and taking a lot of data in one spot are all reliable methods for collecting valid data. There are problems with the method of gathering data, one of which is that a meter long level is not sensitive enough to measure the curvature of the earth. If you had a mile long level then you would produce more accurate results. But, you don’t have access to a mile long level. And, since you’ve only observed the Earth from your limited view-point, it appears flat and you have no reason to doubt it and think that you need more a more sensitive method of gathering data. You assume the Earth is flat, you use the methods available to test that belief, and the data confirms your hypothesis.
The problem with research is that you can prove almost anything. If you want to prove that global warming exists, it is quite easy to do research that will show increasing temperatures. There is also research that shows there is no global warming, or even recent research from the Astronomical Society of Australia predicting a global cooling due to decreased solar activity. Who is right? Which group’s research is the most accurate? If you want to show that less guns result in less gun crime, that is quite easy to do. There is also research that shows that looser gun laws result in less crime. Researchers have shown that homosexuality is a genetically controlled predisposition, other researchers have shown genetics does not influence sexual preferences. There are arguments about the credibility of the scientists performing the research. There are questions about who provides each group’s funding. There are questions about the influence their personal beliefs have on the outcome of the research. There are questions about the credibility of the data, the interpretation of the data, the methods used in acquiring the data. The point is; research can show anything. If someone wanted to do research and prove the Earth is flat, they could. Their methods and interpretation would be in question, but they could certainly obtain data showing that the Earth is flat. If you happened to believe the Earth is flat, you would agree with their data, cite their research, and ignore the contrary evidence. If you happen to believe in global warming, you will cite all the research showing it is happening, trust that the data is valid, and call dissenting scientists quacks.
Both Liberals and Conservatives have research to support most of their perspectives. They question the motives of the other side’s research, bash their scientists and economists, and believe in their own research without question. Both sides twist the research to support their own perspective. Mark Twain called ’statistics’ one of the three kinds of lies. I think everyone needs to understand this; you can’t just read a researcher’s conclusion and take it for fact. If you want to really trust the data make sure you know of any other possible influences on the data, any data that was thrown out because it was ’corrupted’ or didn’t fall within a certain standard deviation, any personal stake the researcher may have in the outcome, who is contributing to the research, or if they had any preconceived notions of what the outcome would be. There are a million and one factors that influence the economy, the weather, the quality of public schools, wars, public health, everything. It is nearly impossible to include all the possible factors and predict what effect each factor has on the outcome.
I heard a public school teacher complaining about the comparison between public schools in America and Europe. People supporting vouchers or other reform, or anyone wanting to show that American schools are failing, sometimes compare test scores between schools in America and Europe. The scores show that European high school students perform better than American high school students. American elementary school students do better in lower grades, but the longer they are in American schools the worse they compare. Naturally, presented this way the data can be interpreted to show that American public schools provide a lower quality education. However, European high schools don’t provide the same education to every eligible student. By the end of high school students with less ability have been sent to vocational schools, and don’t take the same standardized tests. In the Czec Republic just over 4% of high school age students attend a vocational school. Naturally, if American schools didn’t count the lowest 4% of test scores, our scores would look better when compared to other nations. But America provides the same public education to every student, not dependent on their ability, so our scores are going to reflect the presence of lower scoring students.
That is just one example of how research can be presented, leaving out factors that influence the outcome or only reporting part of the data that supports the desired outcome. In one of my college Biochemistry classes we were given an assignment to compare two scientific journal articles on the structure of cell walls. No one really knows what cell walls look like at a molecular level. I read the two assigned articles from two different research labs which had studied cell walls, and published their findings. Their results were fairly different, but after reading through each article a few times I understood that one of the labs had synthesized a cell wall, then studied it. Synthesized means, they made it. They built a cell wall, then studied it to see what it looked like. These scientists were not quacks. Their research was not worthless. It wasn’t submitted as a joke. Researchers sometimes synthesize things and then study their properties, because it may be easier than obtaining the pure form of what they want to study. Or, maybe what they want to study is too rare, or too massive. However, I came to the conclusion that the research done on the ’real’ cell wall was probably more accurate. There was nothing in the research that convinced me that the research on synthesized cell wall produced more accurate results than the research done on a real cell wall.
This leads me to global warming. Global warming is based on past measurements, many of which are faulty, all of which are just a miniscule collection of data compared to the entire Earth, used then to predict a future outcome using computer models programmed to give a certain outcome. Because of these predictions the government invests billions and billions of your tax dollars on studying the climate and implementing changes to control the climate. That bothers me, just a bit. In the 1970’s scientists and the media had the public all worked up about an imminent, unavoidable global cooling. Would you have liked it if the government had spent $100 Billion making changes to warm up the Earth? I don’t like it any better today. I, personally, would prefer to have those billions of dollars circulating in the economy, allowing people to do what they like with their money. I would prefer to allow the climate to change naturally, rather than spending absurd amounts of money stifling economic growth in the name of fixing the environment, when nobody has any idea what they are doing, and will have no effect on the environment at all. The climate changes. The world gets warmer, and cooler, and warmer again. I grew up in Southern Indiana, and am personally grateful for the warming period that allowed me to grow up in the woods,and not on a glacier. I am even more grateful that it happened before environmentalists existed, because they would have tried to stop it. They most certainly would have failed, but they would have drained the economy trying, and in the end the only difference would have been that no one had any money. At least they would have been warm, and fortunately each year cold kills about ten times more people than heat.
The world happens to be a massive place, with innumerable factors effecting the climate and the environment. How do you think researchers get ’global’ temperatures? They take temperatures from all over the world and average them. Do you think that is a good way to get a global temperature? Is it possible there could be any unexpected factors that could effect their results? When researchers started building temperature stations several decades ago, they built many of them in convenient locations, near enough that they could easily go and collect data. Some of these stations are now inside cities, which have grown and expanded since the stations were originally built. Anytime I am listening to the weather on the radio I hear a few different temperatures announced; one for Utah Valley, one for Salt Lake Valley, and another temperature for downtown Salt Lake City. That is because the temperature is different downtown; it is warmer because solid stretches of buildings and blacktop hold more heat. The same is true of all major cities, they are warmer than their nearby rural areas. If there were several stations located within city areas that used to be more rural, and they started measuring temperatures there that were consistently a few degrees warmer, then is it conceivable that these stations might give the global average a falsely inflated result?
We can also look at some factors involved in the 1990’s temperature data, the ’Hottest decade on record’. The average temperature rose sharply, beginning in the early 1990’s. This rise in temperature correlated very closely to the fall of the Soviet Union, when hundreds of temperature stations in the Soviet Union shut down. We can’t assume that correlation automatically means causation; that the close of hundreds of stations in colder areas of the world caused a noticeable rise in the average temperature data continuing to come in from warmer areas of the world. But it is something to be considered. One easy way to see if the collapse of the USSR might have made a difference would be to go back a few decades and recalculate the average temperatures leaving out all the same stations we are missing data from in the 90’s. If the newly calculated temperatures are comparable to the 90’s data, that would strongly suggest to me that the high 90’s temperatures were a result of the missing data, not a rise in global temperatures. If the 90’s temperatures remain higher, then perhaps it really was warmer. So, does anyone have that data?
Another important consideration is that many times researchers have to build physical models, use computer models, or just study a small sample of the Earth in order to predict what will happen over the whole Earth. The fact that they are using models to predict future behavior doesn’t mean their research isn’t valid. But, the fact that much of the global warming research is done using synthesized and computer models also makes the results questionable. Computer models are programmed to give certain results, the results will vary depending on what they are programmed to do with the data received. I could (actually, I couldn’t, but my husband could) make a program that predicts tomorrow’s weather depending on today’s temperature. His computer model could say that if it is 72 degrees today, tomorrow we will have an earthquake. If it is 75 degrees today, tomorrow we will have a tornado. Having a computer model that makes projections does not mean the projections are true. Having a computer program that says today’s weather data means ocean levels will rise over the next decade, just means that someone programmed it to say that ocean levels would rise under certain conditions.
Once I was a volunteer judge at a local Science Fair. I judged one booth with a 5th grader who had done a board on Global Warming. He hadn’t done any kind of experiment, just presented research he had done on the topic. He showed me two pictures of the same mountain; one picture was taken thirty years before the other, in the first picture the mountain was covered with snow and ice, and in the next picture it was green and rocky. I asked him if he knew what time of year the pictures were taken. He pointed out the years, and I explained that I wanted to know if they had been taken at the same time of year, or if one had been taken in June and the other in December. He said he didn’t know, and there was no indication in the pictures when they were taken. That was part of his research showing that global warming was occurring. He saw two pictures taken years apart, one with snow and the other without, and concluded that it meant the Earth was getting warmer. From his perspective – assuming that global warming is taking place – the pictures made sense and he didn’t wonder any further about the validity of the comparison. Having a scientific background and knowing how data can be presented to convey false information, I immediately questioned when the pictures were taken. There are also considerations of factors other that temperature that effect the amount of snow – like humidity. If the air has gotten dryer, but not warmer, the snow will evaporate.
Another part of his research was a graph showing Carbon Dioxide trends since 1900. He pointed out that at the beginning of the graph the line was at the bottom, and in 2000 it was at the top. I didn’t mention that that is how graphs are made, but I did explain the numbers to him. In 1900 there were 280 ppm CO2 in the air, and today there are about 360 ppm. That ppm stands for ’parts per million’. So, there are 360 CO2 particles for every 1,000,000 total particles in the air. That means that in 1900 CO2 made up 0.028% of the atmosphere, and today it makes up 0.036%. That is a change of 0.008%. The relative change is 22%; there is 22% more CO2 in the air today than there was about 100 years ago. 22% may sound like a lot, so we can compare it to something else. Picture a football field, and imagine throwing a pebble into it. That pebble will take up a very small percent of the field. If you throw in another pebble, the space the pebbles take up increases by 100%. There are 100% more pebbles! But, there still aren’t very many pebbles in the field, and they still don’t take up very much space. The carbon dioxide content has increased by 22%, but looking at the actual numbers, it’s still a really small amount. Of course, the boy didn’t understand any of that, he just saw a graph that showed a little bit of CO2 in 1900, and the line going all the way to the top of the graph today.
I don’t say any of this to discount Global warming (or ’climate change’, as environmentalists are suddenly calling it; I think because it is impossible to be proven wrong when all you are claiming is that the climate is changing, as it has been for thousands of years). For all I know, a 0.008% change in CO2 concentration could mean an increase of 10 degrees. But, then again, it could mean nothing. I am just making the point that the research, including pictures of green mountains, is presented in such a way to make things look a certain way. Typically people don’t understand numbers, graphs, statistics and research enough to know what questions they should ask to ensure the research is valid.
No one has definitively proved that CO2 has any causative effect on the temperature; some research shows that CO2 increases slightly after warming, and that CO2 concentrations more closely correlate to sun activity. This research could be interpreted to mean that CO2 and heat have a correlative effect on each other, not a causative effect. They both happen to increase at the same time, because of another factor altogether. For example, imagine a graph that tracks the number of churches in America, and the number of murders in America. For the last three hundred years the numbers have steadily grown. The media, school teachers, and anyone with antipathy to religion present those graphs as meaning that more churches cause more crime. No one proposes that the churches and murders have both increased because there are simply millions more people in America than there were three hundred years ago. No one proposes that maybe more people want to go to church because they see an increase in crime and it scares them into attending. There are many reasons why CO2 concentrations can change. People and animals breathe out CO2, and plants produce it as a byproduct when they die. Maybe there is more CO2 when it is warmer because animals and plants flourish in nicer weather. Plants also need CO2 to live, like we need oxygen, so it is good for plants to have that available. Industrial human activity doesn’t produce more that 3% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Is that a bad thing? (In the 1970’s there was a scientific consensus that CO2 was causing a global cooling, but somehow now they are positive the effect is the exact opposite ’everyone’ agreed on 35 years ago. Maybe having a bunch of scientists agree on a future outcome doesn’t mean as much as some people think.) Scientists have only shown a correlation between warming and CO2, not that CO2 causes a warming. But have you ever heard an alternative explanation as to why more CO2 and higher temperatures might go together?
For these reasons, I try to avoid using research and statistics solely to prove my point. I don’t want readers to discount the validity of my conclusions because the data I have found can be disputed. I do use them – I think sparingly – and I try to use simple percentages and numbers to cut down on the chances of the data having been skewed to favor one perspective. If you don’t trust my numbers, then I encourage you to concentrate on the content and the logic of my perspective. I encourage you to do your own research, even if you simply want to prove me wrong. Just be careful trusting too much in statistics and research, because they can always be disputed.