An Unrepentant Skeptic -- Jeffery D. Kooistra

Sunday, 31 January 2010 20:24 Jeffery D. Kooistra
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Jeffery D. Kooistra is a science fiction writer, a free-lance physicist, and a father of three.  His opinions, observations, and cranky ideas appear in every other issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, in that magazine's "The Alternate View" feature.  He is a member of SIGMA, a collection of SF writers who do think-tanking and consulting as a public service (http://www.sigmaforum.org).  He's also a member of the high IQ Triple Nine Society (http://www.triplenine.org) which his family doesn't let him forget when he does something stupid.

Tangent Online wishes to express its gratitude to Jeffery Kooistra for his appearance here, and for his (unpaid) time and effort in contributing a no-nonsense view of the on-going debate regarding the Global Warming issue so relevant to each and every one of us on many levels--especially to our pocketbooks with the proposed "cap and trade" environmental legislation pending in congress.




An Unrepentant Skeptic


By Jeffery D. Kooistra


I’m one of the two authors who write “The Alternate View” column for Analog Science Fiction and Fact (the other being John Cramer).  I’ve been doing this since 1998 when I inherited the G. Harry Stine chair.  I’d written a few guest columns while Stine was on leave from the post due to an investigation of whether or not he’d plagiarized something from Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.  Originally I was to write one column, but the affair with Stine dragged on, and then he died, as the story goes, in front of his computer, still writing.  So editor Stanley Schmidt called me up, told me what had happened, and the column was mine.

Writing Alternate Views gives me a wonderful opportunity to wax philosophic, or crazy, about damn near anything I feel like so long as it can in some way be connected with either science or science fiction.  Because I am in the Stine chair, I keep in mind the nature of the shoes I’m filling.  You see, Stine was an iconoclast, and far more open minded about things, like psychic abilities and the Dean drive, than almost anybody, science fiction writers included.  He was also willing to check out claims for himself and report back, and he didn’t give two hoots about whether or not other people, even be they scientists, thought there “was nothing to it.” In most ways, I’m more skeptical than Stine was.  I don’t have the reference handy, but at one time he said that he felt the Dean Drive “push against my hand.” He found that convincing.  But I question how much a hand can be trusted to detect a push. Unless you have experience with what it feels like to put your hand against some other kind of similar funky-oscillating dingus that you know isn’t a reactionless drive, how can you tell if the Dean Drive is pushing rather than that your hand is simply interpreting the unfamiliar sensations that way?

On the other hand, Stine may have found me excessively open-minded and would have his own catalog of my gullibility sins.  He’s not around to ask about it, but plenty of other people think I’m gullible. The polite ones.  Others think I’m just plain stupid to take seriously some of the “crackpot claims” I’ve written about.  Early on I did write about some topics I wouldn’t write about now, because now I know better.  But one of the reasons I know better, perhaps the biggest reason, is because I wrote about those things. Some of my critics turn out to be right when they say a crackpot claim really is crackpottery, and I value corrective feedback.  Eating crow can be a healthy meal.

That having been said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had to eat crow.

The truth is, I’m far more skeptical than most.  What annoys my detractors is that I’m not skeptical of the “right” things.  Because I often express skepticism about accepted science (like the ultimate value of string theory or the ultimate truth of the Big Bang as currently understood) they think I must either be stupid or I just don’t understand science.  But it’s easy to be skeptical of faith healers and spoon-benders — take on those people and you have a big choir to preach to.  My concern is that my readers aren’t nearly skeptical enough, especially when they’re convinced that “agreeing with what the scientists say” is invariably the right thing to do.

I’m completely onboard with letting science seek out the answers to physical questions.  I love science.  Always have.  However, science is not what scientists do, but rather, that thing that scientists are supposed to do.  Also, having a degree in a science does not make one a scientist, and a consensus opinion amongst many scientists does not a fact make.  But I have noticed that public funding of scientists to investigate trendy topics does tend to produce the expected findings.

Of late my detractors are on me about my skepticism of the whole anthropogenic global warming (AGW) thing.

I wasn’t pro or con AGW until the “warmists” came out with the hockey stick graph.  I thought the notion of excess CO2 leading to extra warming was a hypothesis worth investigating, but I paid little attention to the issue until the claims started to get out of hand.  The hockey stick graph showing unprecedented warming in our era also failed to show the medieval warm period.  Now we have excellent evidence for the MWP, so in ordinary science the failure of a graph to show it would call the methodology for obtaining said graph into question.  But that didn’t happen in the warmist climate research circles.  Certainly, plenty of us “on the outside” had doubts, including plenty of other climatologists, so I assumed that after a few years the climate community would see reason.

Instead AGW snowballed into a doom and gloom cult.  When Katrina came along, all you could hear about was how terrible hurricanes were going to be — more of them and worse than ever.  This prompted me to write a column about the foolishness of making “worse than ever” claims when the data we actually had that we could rely on as being up to modern snuff only went back a few decades.  Then we were going to lose the arctic ice cap.  By the end of summer 2007, more of it than ever had melted away.  Soon it would be gone!  Yet it didn’t take long to find articles printed in the The New York Times from the 1920s and 1930s era also claiming the ice caps were melting and might soon be gone.  By 2008 the arctic ice cap had grown, and it did so even more in 2009, but we saw few headlines about the ice cap recovering.

As I write this, all the talk is about the extremes of cold this winter season.  When it goes below freezing at Disneyworld, people begin to notice.  Indeed, when that baseball playoff game in Denver was postponed on account of snow last fall, even a warmist climate scientist (Kevin Trenberth, of Boulder, CO) asked “where the heck is global warming?” in one of the now infamous Climategate e-mails.  He also said to his colleagues: “The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.” (If you want to read the emails yourself, they’re here: http://www.eastangliaemails.com/index.php and I’m quoting Trenberth from here: http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=1051&filename=1255496484.txt)

I have an alternate view on what Trenberth said.  Not knowing is not a travesty. Not knowing but acting as if you do, and convincing the world at large that we’re right at the tipping point of disaster unless we fork over billions of dollars, and RIGHT NOW, is a travesty.

Somewhere along the line I became a global warming “denier,” a name which you’re supposed to let drip off your tongue with the same disdain it would have if you were talking about a holocaust denier.  How could I deny what all the scientists say?  Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?  Though I’ve had my share of slings and arrows shot my way since I began occasionally discussing my skepticism about global warming, my skin is thick.  And really, being called names by people who think the world is coming to an end is never going to cause me a sleepless night.

I am neither gullible nor too skeptical of authority.  I am not lacking in IQ and I have my Triple Nine Society pin to prove it.  Nor is my personality an impediment to doing science since I’m an INTP, a type I share with Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pascal, and Socrates (although I am skeptical as to how one could know for sure what any of those guys would have scored on the MMPI).  But I am extremely skeptical of excessive certainty.

When I examine the claims of the warmists — their arguments, their data, their means for collecting data, processing data, the circumstances under which the data is collected, the assumptions built into both their methodologies and their pretty hockey stick graphs — I find their rigor flaccid.  They say climate is complicated and I do not deny that.  However, what the warmists actually do is not complicated at all.  In fact, it is insufficiently sophisticated to warrant anything like the claim that “the science is settled.” Oh, they’ve settled on a conclusion.  But it was not arrived at via science properly done.

What I’ve had to say here is entirely my opinion, not paid for by an oil company, or a conservative think tank, or even by this magazine.  If I’ve offended any warmists in the audience, that’s just too damn bad.  I’m not at all sorry and it’s not my fault the warmist climatologists and their political sycophants are prone to hyperbole.  In time we’ll know whether or not I’m correct in my skepticism.  But I fully expect to see the warmists picking black feathers out of their teeth a few years from now.

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(If you want a taste of how uncomplicated “climate science done the warmist way” is, read the first email you’ll find here, http://www.eastangliaemails.com/emails.php?eid=1052&filename=1255523796.txt.  It is Trenberth writing to Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann, explaining why they can’t answer the question, “Where did the heat go?”  Go ahead, don’t be afraid.  You’ll understand it. It ain’t rocket science.  If it were, they’d know where the heat went.)


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