In a recent newspaper article, I wondered aloud if maybe, just maybe, the tide was finally beginning to turn regarding Ireland getting real about climate change. As if to answer the question, the producer of Today FM’s The Last Word contacted me with an invite to participate in an extended live panel discussion on…climate change.
Were the topic politics, economics, business, jobs, marriage equality or agriculture, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at – yet another – panel discussion in yet another radio station with the usual talking heads bashing out various angles of the debate. But for climate change, almost 45 minutes airtime during peak hours in Ireland is genuinely almost unheard of (You can download the podcast from here. It’s no. 7 in the list).
Host Matt Cooper is an experienced media hand, and he guided the first half of the discussion comprising a three-person panel with perspectives from science (Prof John Sweeney), politics (Eamon Ryan) and media (myself). But, like in the Sinatra song, then he went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like: “we are now joined in studio by Lord Christopher Monckton…”
It was like déjà vu all over again. I’d been on Today FM back in January 2011 with Matt Cooper and, yes, His Lordship, but on that occasion, I thought it’d be good fun to point out that among Monckton’s kookier ideas in a career studded with kooky ideas, was that of setting up concentration camps to forcibly and permanently detain…AIDS victims. The exact wording, from his American Spectator article in 1987 was:
“There is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. Every member of the population should be blood-tested every month … all those found to be infected with the virus, even if only as carriers, should be isolated compulsorily, immediately, and permanently.”
It had the desired effect of winding up His Lordship into a state of high dudgeon. Still, since he was en route to join fellow crackpot conspiracy theorist Jim Corr at a public meeting, maybe the tone was in fact about right.
Roll forward two years, and Lord Monckton is still getting airtime to ‘balance’ debates in ways that make no sense at all. It’s as if Matt Cooper were having a discussion on the Six Nations and felt the need to ‘balance’ the discussion by bringing on someone who thinks that rugby is the work of the devil and makes the palms of your hand sprout tufts of hair. That may be one person’s point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily make it either relevant or worth including.
This is perhaps my long-winded way of explaining why, despite ample ammunition, I chose to keep the discussion entirely civil and, in so doing, perhaps accord Monckton a parity of esteem with the other speakers which he so blatantly does not deserve.
It’s the classic dilemma: go on the attack and be accused of being an extremist; or keep it all light and fluffy and let a fantasist like Monckton go through his statistical dog-and-pony show largely unchallenged. On the day, I chose the former route, but within hours, was wondering if this was as much a cop-out as taking the high moral ground. Yes, I rattled his cage back in 2011, but, listening back to the recording from this distance, I can see how someone listening in casually could well have been at a loss to decide which of us was the real headbanger.
The whole experience brings to mind the line: “Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon…no matter how good you are, the bird is going to shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway”. And, in that sense at least, the Honourable Viscount of Brenchley is quite the chess player. He certainly knows how to play the media, and yes, he is full of it too, but he comes from the public school debating tradition where the rights and wrongs of the argument are irrelevant, it’s about strutting about trying to sound awfully clever and working on witty one-liners to clinch the debate by acclaim.
And on the subject of sounding awfully clever, a new Irish website, modestly entitled Global Warming Solved, has appeared in recent weeks. It describes itself as a “family-run independent research group based in Ireland”. The family in question, the Connollys, are perhaps the world’s greatest polymaths – at least if you take their claims at face value.
Here are their four modest ‘key findings’:
1. We are not warming the planet
2. We are not causing catastrophic climate change
3. The scientific consensus on global warming was premature
4. Increasing or reducing our carbon footprint will make no difference to the climate
Ordinarily, you’d say, fair enough, the Connollys are as entitled as Lord Monckton to their opinions, however at variance with the scientific evidence they may be. However, they go further, much further, by actually presenting what they claim is the hard science to support the above four extraordinary propositions. And they do so via a brand new peer-reviewed online journal…their own peer-reviewed journal, featuring eight of their own articles. There is no mention anywhere on OPRJ.org of an Editorial Board, or any information whatever on who exactly is going to do the ‘peer-review’ of these papers, or other papers, should people not from the Connolly family choose to submit a paper.
The actual structure and format of the 8 papers already posted is quite impressive: take Urbanization bias I. Is it a negligible problem for global temperature estimates? This paper follows the recognised presentation style for an academic journal, and is fully referenced. Underneath the paper is a category called ‘Peer Reviews’. I wasn’t sure if this was a joke: do they actually literally mean that anyone who drops by can offer their (entirely unqualified) opinion of the paper and that will then be listed as a ‘Peer Review’? If so, this is Flann O’Brien country, but given that the papers themselves are carefully researched and written, I’ll leave it to those far more qualified than I to – professionally – review them and cast judgement as to whether they hold water.
I’d hate to in any way pre-judge the likely outcome of this scrutiny, but when you make bald statements like this: “Our research has shown that it doesn’t matter whether we double, treble or even quadruple the carbon dioxide concentration. Carbon dioxide has no impact on atmospheric temperatures” then you had better have quite extraordinary evidence to back up that quite extraordinary claim. There are plenty of other extraordinary claims too.
Generally, when people make grand pronouncements claiming to have overturned our understanding of something as highly specialised and intensely studied as atmospheric physics, then those people go directly to one or more of the established major peer-reviewed science journals. Fame, fortune and the Nobel Prize for Physics await anyone who can actually make such claims stand up.
This way, their study, as well as the supporting evidence upon which it is based, can be thoroughly reviewed by a panel of expert peers before being published. This makes a lot of sense. Peer-review helps to iron out any actual errors or omissions, large or small, before the paper makes its way into the public domain. In science, there are very, very few Galileo moments, but lots and lots of people who are convinced they are the next Galileo.
There’s a very good critique of the Connollys’ attempt at re-shaping our understanding of the physics of the greenhouse effect here.). What is truly novel is that one of the authors, Ronan Connolly, joins in the debate attached to the above article and manfully explains and defends their new ‘findings’. The physics involved is way over my head.
Another important thing we look for in a novel paper making potentially ground-breaking claims is: prior publication. Have the authors published hundreds, or even dozens of times previously in the peer-reviewed press? If so, have their articles been cited frequently in other papers (a good guide to the importance of a given paper over time is how frequently other peer-reviewed paper cite it)? There is no evidence presented on the website of any previous publication, and certainly none in a field relevant to the science of climate change.
Ronan Connolly has a PhD in computational chemistry from UCD. Since receiving his PhD, he says he has been working with his dad, Michael, and “we began actively researching climate change in early 2009”, but he doesn’t say anything about the nature of this research. Michael’s stated qualifications also include a PhD, but it’s not stated in what field. “I have lectured and tutored at third level in the fields of physics, chemistry, electronic engineering, computer science, mathematics and statistics” is all the information he provides, though he does also mention having owned and operated the National Aquarium in the past, and he has a strong interest in aquaculture.
Here’s how Ronan Connolly puts it in a comment on the above blog:
“We are acutely aware of the fact that our conclusions differ from the conventional “textbook” understanding of atmospheric temperature profiles. We didn’t come to our conclusions lightly. However, when we looked at the results of our studies, we found that the conventional understanding seems to be incomplete and inadequate.”
Wow, just wow. It is of course possible that the Connollys are right, and that every scientist from John Tyndall to Svente Ahhrenius and all those who have followed and built on their research work over the last century and a half are, well, just plain wrong. It does happen, just not very often. On the other hand, there has never been a shortage of people prepared to come forward seeking attention for what are proven to be half-baked rehashes of poorly understood and partially digested science.
Often, these folks are ‘not even wrong’, i.e. they don’t actually understand the science sufficiently to even be even fully aware of the glaring inconsistencies in their own work. As stated earlier, I’ll leave it to the actual experts to cast final judgement on the efforts of the Connolly family. Unsurprisingly, the denier websites are delighted. The Hockey Schtick blog is a notorious anti-science clearing house, and already they are cheerfully republishing this as though it were actually from a peer-reviewed scientific source. In a tweet, Penn State climatologist, Prof Michael Mann noted wryly: “I suspect that the description of the journal as “peer” reviewed is ironically correct in this case…”
A solid track record of relevant prior publication, for a researcher is a bit like caps for a rugby player. You start in the junior league, then, if you’re really good, work your way into a major club. From there, a tiny handful, the best of the best, progress to the provincial academies, where the successful few are blooded in competitions such as the Rabo Pro 12. From here, an even tinier group come to the attention of the senior provincial coaches; then, the elite 30 or so players in the country come to form the national squad.
What the Connollys have done, I’d suggest, is the elite science equivalent of me phoning up Joe Schmidt, pointing out that I absolutely love rugby, know all the rules, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, and, having played a bit in school, reckon I should be picked for the next two internationals. And to clinch my claim, I point out that I’m older and a far more prolific writer than any of the current Irish squad, so surely that proves I deserve to pull on the green shirt. And besides, when I was playing schools cup rugby in 1979, where was the ‘great’ Brian O’Driscoll? Oh yeah, at home in Clontarf having his arse wiped by his mammy, that’s where!