Friday, June 11, 2010


I've taken a look at the paper, "Global Warming Advocacy Science: A Cross Examination", and so far find it to be, in a word, odd.

The author, Jason S. Johnston, is a professor of law at Pennsylvania University and is something of an old school libertarian. He oversees UPenn's PLEE (Program On Law, Environment and Economy), and is head of the "Penn Workshops on Markets and the Environment", which is supported by a grant from The Searle Freedom Trust. As you know, the SFT also supports a veritable laundry list of conservative/libertarian outfits like CATO, The American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation, to name a few, and is even thought to rival the ultra conservative Scaife Foundation in terms of annual grant amounts. Interestingly, the president of The Searle Freedom Trust is Kim Dennis, who also sits on the board of the Independent Women's Forum which I mentioned a few posts back on the BEE episode. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Searle Foundation money also supports the IWF, since the IWF certainly meets the standards set up by Daniel Searle in the SFT's charter. Small world, eh?

Professor Johnston's papers available at "Penn Workshops..." all reflect a decidedly libertarian stamp. You can review some of them here, (and a few more here). When it comes to the environment, his work can be broadly divided into two distinct classes: 1, the impact of environmental legislation from a legal point of view - on which Dr. Johnston clearly has relevant expertise, and 2, questions and criticisms regarding the actual science behind various environmental issues - on which he has none. "Global Warming Advocacy..." apparently falls in the second class. The paper is, by the way, neither unbiased nor thorough.

At first blush, I had to wonder exactly who the intended audience is for this paper. PLEE's mission is a real head scratcher:

" encourage research and teaching that explores the positive and normative foundations of environmental and natural resource law and policy, seeking both to explain the existing system and to provide a rigorous theoretical and empirical basis for a better way forward."

If it means that legal experts, generally considered to be charged with determining how laws are executed, should now go the extra mile and also consider if the laws themselves are wise, why then this represents a huge quantum jump in the definition of "legal expert". It is if a lawyer, defending his client against prostitution, should first ask the court to consider whether or not the laws against prostitution are justifiable.

But let's be generous and suppose that the faculty involved in PLEE ought to be looking into the state of environmental science. If that is so, why, of all people, would they have a law professor doing this? After all, UPenn has a school of environmental studies, staffed by 12 competent professionals. If professor Johnston, or any other member of PLEE for that matter, had questions about the state of environmental science, why wouldn't they just pick up the intercom and ask a competent professional? Anyway...

Dr. Johnston's paper's stated purpose is to review "peer edited literature" in a systematic way to determine whether or not the climate science community (under the auspices of the IPCC) is intentionally overstating the impact of global warming. Well it turns out it is. Surprise!

Now I'm going to have to say here that the paper isn't much more than a re-hash of several of the most common denialist talking points - with a bunch of legal boiler plate thrown in to wow the field hands. A clear bias is indicated by the title itself, by which Mr. Johnston identifies a particular field of atmospheric theory and research as "advocacy science" (oh, come on...), which he intends to "cross examine". Coming from a person who should know better, the whole concept is insulting.

In any fair trial, don't attorneys present each other with witnesses and evidence from both sides? Mr. Johnston does nothing of the sort. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands of peer reviewed papers have been published in detailed refutation of Mr. Johnston's talking points, yet he doesn't present them. His discussion of "the hockey stick controversy", which not surprisingly presents only Ross McKitrick's side of the story, is a representative example.

It is as if in a civil trial, the only evidence allowed to be presented would be that approved solely by either the defense or the prosecution - which indicates Mr. Johnston not only misunderstands climate science, but also the bedrock principles of his own field of specialty: the American legal system.

Am I being harsh? Early on (Page 7) Dr. Johnston cites the book "Climate Confusion", by Roy Spencer as explaining in a "concise and accessible way" that "some of the most crucial (and actually testable) predictions or assumptions underlying predictions of dangerous climate change are not in fact being confirmed by observations". This is merely asking the reader to accept as a given the opinions of a highly biased skeptic as presented in what could hardly be described as "peer reviewed literature".

It occurs to me Mr. Johnston's paper fits an
observation by George Monbiot:

" takes only a minute to make a claim, but can take hours, even days, to investigate it. So if people are making lots of claims, exposing them requires a great deal of work. Judging by the outcome of all the investigations I've mentioned, the gurus of climate change denial appear to expect that no one will have the time and energy to question them."(my emphasis)

Similarly, "Global Warming Advocacy Science" makes a lot of skeptical claims, but pretty much sticks only to the evidence offered by those who are making them. One is then presented with the option of either accepting these claims, or proceeding with the far more rigorous and time consuming task of tracking them down, reviewing the opposite side of the story and deciding for one's self whether they are true or not. And that is the central failure of the paper.

Had Mr. Johnston really been interested in making an impartial review of his subject, he would have presented a reasonable summary of the evidence on both sides of the issue in terms the average lay person could be expected to understand and verify. Which leads me right back to the question of who he intends his audience to be. The paper hardly stands as an exposition of the finer points of environmental law - which is in fact his specialty. Neither does it qualify as a contribution to original scientific research. This therefore leaves out as potential audiences members of both the legal and scientific communities. So who is he trying to convince anyway? Let's suppose it is the general public.

Now seriously Steve, are you telling me the average reader is going to be able to follow Mr. Johnston's arguments without extensively ramping up his or her technical knowledge of the science itself before hand? For Pete's sake, go back and have a look at the math Mr. Johnston presents us with starting on page 26. For most readers in the general public, including myself, this math is well beyond our ability to casually evaluate.

Steve, if you already understand how this math works, why do you need Mr. Johnston to explain it to you? And if you don't understand it, what possible basis could you have to decide if Mr. Johnston's calculations are correct?

I suspect that what passes for science in this paper was put together by none other than the authorities Mr. Johnston cites in his footnotes on page 1. Now there's nothing fundamentally wrong with that. The Roger Pielke Sr's, Richard Lintzens and Ross McKitricks of this world are entitled to their opinions. But what strikes me as uncomfortably deceptive is a law professor who sets himself up as an impartial arbiter, then proceeds to represent these sceptics as the only trustworthy authorities.

The scientific establishment has had its share of thoughtful, patient writers who have made the effort to work within the confines of the layman's technical abilities and reduce truly marvelous and complicated science to terms the general public can comprehend. George Gamow, Arthur Clarke and Carl Sagan come to mind. While this process doesn't magically transform the average citizen into an expert physicist or biologist, it does add an important dimension to our understanding of the world around us.

This piece by Jason Johnston does precisely the opposite. It obscures the science, intentionally, to leave us believing Mr. Johnston knows what he's talking about because he sounds like he knows what he's talking about - thereby allowing him to assert the existence of "advocacy science" from a presumed position of authority. Steve, this is nothing more than the tiresome charge of conspiracy tarted up with big words.

I'm a little troubled by your intellectual flexibility in this regard. You've repeatedly complained of climate scientists who adhere to the consensus because that is where their paycheck comes from. Now comes an law professor, outside the field entirely and recipient of a grant from the ideologically conservative Searle Foundation... and you accept his opinions without question. Really?



  1. Accept it blindly? Hardly. I just thought it was an interesting paper. And, no, in today's world a lawyer is only expected to present THEIR side, not both. The (modern) objective is to WIN THE CASE AT ALL COSTS - not to pursue an abstract such as justice. We all lose because of this obsession. Sorry.

    Research of ANY issue is difficult. If claims are made (again by either side), validation is certainly necessary. In the good old days of science, we could rely on 'peer-review' to be a part of that process: sadly that isn't the case anymore. Oh, well.

    And as for 'where the paycheck comes from'... if climate scientists (and we in the unwashed masses) are going to use 'who's paying you' as a valid criteria for determining the accuracy of the information presented, it's only fair to do the same to BOTH sides. If one is going to discount the research of a denier because he's in the pay of X, then we should equally discount a proponent because he's in the pay of Y. Rubbish. Personally, I think the information should speak for itself, regardless of who funds it.

    More importantly, from a pure science perspective: if you cannot independently duplicate and validate the claims being made, then you should NOT rely upon those claims as a justifiable motivating force to turn the world economy upside down.

    - Steve

  2. Steve,

    Why don't the masses ever wash? Don't get me wrong, but this seems like a serious character flaw to me.