Bickering and Checking Sources

As a quick diversion, I want to take a little time to talk about a recent lecture given by a guy named Matt Ridley. I had heard he was going to give it but hadn't paid attention to the topic until I saw this in my Twitter feed:

Which quoted this tweet:

With people throwing around claims of "false" and "baseless" allegations, I figured it should be easy to figure out who was correct. I thought the same thing in the past when Bob Ward, one of these two individuals, said similar things about work by a man named Richard Tol. As it turned out, everything Ward had said there was correct. (Interestingly, Ridley has liked to promote the work by Tol which Ward correctly criticized.)

The first thing which struck me is the timeline. Ridley offered a link to what he said was "new commentary on" Ward's allegations in response to a tweet in which Ward provided a link to a piece in which he wrote:

For his part, Viscount Ridley has confirmed that he misrepresented Professor Myneni’s work, but refuses to acknowledge that his allegations are demonstrably false, and protests that he has done nothing wrong.

The link in that quotation goes back to the "new commentary" by Ridley. That seemed strange. It took me a minute to figure out Ridley's "new commentary" offered in response to Ward's piece was actually a response to a letter Ward wrote, to which Ward was responding in a new piece. That is, Ridley wrote something which Ward criticized (and linked to), and in response to those criticisms, Ridley... directed people back to what was being criticized.

That's a little weird. It's also not very substantive. For substance, we can look at Ridley's "new commentary." For instance, he writes:

Dr Myneni does, however, in his response, make two entirely false accusations against me, saying that I go “on to ignore 30+ years of IPCC assessments!”, when in fact I discussed several such assessments and quoted verbatim from two, one in 1990 and one in 2014; and that I “argue that thousands and thousands of scientists are somehow in cahoots to push the global warming hoax on innocent people of the world …”, when I made no such argument and specifically detailed how my position was different from those who think global warming is a hoax.

This is a discussion of things said by someone other than Bob Ward, a scientist whose work Ridley discussed in his lecture. The points here come from a question and answer session during which this exchange happened:

Q: Are Climate Change (Global Warming) and attendant impacts real?
A: Lord Ridley discounts global warming and impacts. Yet, he is all for the fertilization benefit. He starts his talk with the statement “I am a passionate champion of Science” and goes on to ignore 30+ years of IPCC assessments!

The "entirely false accusations" Ridley refers to are somewhat misrepresented. This person was asked about the impacts of global warming. The scientist responded saying Ridley ignores "30+ years of IPCC assessments"! Ridley says that's not true because he quoted two (of five) major assessment reports. While this may make what was said technically false, it is not entirely unreasonable to say a person "ignored" large bodies of work even if the person quoted one small aspect of them, particularly not if that aspect was cherry-picked.

Was what he said wrong? Sure. Was it "entirely false"? No. The reality is Ridley barely talked about the what the IPCC reports said. More on that in a bit. We ought to discuss the second "entirely false" accusation first. Ridley says he never claimed there was a massive conspiracy, yet this is what the scientist actually said:

What is worse, he assumes that the people behind the science have malevolent motives (suppressing publication of our work … etc). How sensible is it to argue that thousands and thousands of scientists are somehow in cahoots to push the global warming hoax on innocent people of the world

Nothing in this claims Ridley believes there is a massive conspiracy. That's the portrayal conveyed, but it is not what was actually said. If Ridley wants to resort to technicalities to label the other accusation "entirely false," then the same technicalities show the second accusation never even got made.

Yeah, it's stupid. This is the sort of thing this dispute requires one look at. It's like how Ridley writes:

I used the word “might” in my suggestion that the publication of these results might have been delayed lest they give sceptics a field day, so there was no accusation, as Mr Ward claims.

But the word "might" was in this sentence:

Myneni’s results, however, remained unpublished. I was puzzled by this. Then I realized that one of the IPCC’s periodic assessment reports was in preparation, and that probably Dr Myneni and colleagues might delay the publication of their results until after that report was published, lest “the skeptics have a field day” with it.

Yes, Ridley said he realized the authors "probably... might delay the publication of their results" for nefarious reasons. He says this isn't an accusation. Is it? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't fault someone for thinking it is. Simply throwing the word "might" into a sentence in which you say people "probably" would do nefarious things doesn't seem to make the accusation disappear.

Is there some line between the "accusation" Ridley didn't make and the "accusation" Myneni did make? Not that I can see. That Ridley used poor writing to say people "probably... might" do nefarious things doesn't seem inherently different from Myneni's use of a rhetorical question to imply Ridley is a conspiracy nut. It seems to me like a lot of arguing over wishy-washy phrasings that can be spun to provide plausible deniability.

The factual matters of the dispute aren't much better. In the lecture, Ridley says:

At this point Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit drew attention to my vindication on twitter. Richard Betts, the Met Office’s twitter frequenter, protested that global greening was well known and had been referred to in the IPCC’s report.

This was misleading at best and false at worst. The Summary for Policy Makers of Working Group 2 refers to global greening not at all. The full report of WG2, produced six months after the Summary for Policy Makers in that reprehensible fashion so beloved of the IPCC, does very gently hint at there being some evidence of greening, but in a dismissive way, and far too late to catch the attention of journalists. These are the only mentions I could find:

[“Satellite observations from 1982–2010 show an 11% increase in green foliage cover in warm, arid environments…Higher CO2 concentrations enhance photosynthesis and growth (up to a point) and reduce water use by the plant…these effects are mostly beneficial; however, high CO2 also has negative effects.”

“In summary, there is high confidence that net terrestrial ecosystem productivity at the global scale has increased relative to the preindustrial era. There is low confidence in attribution of these trends to climate change. Most studies speculate that rising CO2 concentrations are contributing to this trend through stimulation of photosynthesis but there is no clear, consistent signal of a climate change contribution.”]

If that’s a clear and prominent statement that carbon dioxide emissions have increased green vegetation on the planet by 14% and are significantly reducing the water requirements of agriculture, then I’m the Queen of Sheba.

This is an obvious non-sequitur. Ridley complains one Richard Betts said "global greening was well known and had been referred to in the IPCC’s report." He then shows global greening was referred to in the IPCC report. That proves there cannot be a contradiction. Despite that, Ridley portrays this as a contradiction because the IPCC report doesn't provide "a clear and prominent statement that carbon dioxide emissions have increased green vegetation on the planet by 14% and are significantly reducing the water requirements of agriculture."

That's nonsense. Whether or not the IPCC report provided "a clear and prominent statement" promoting the conclusions of a single study does not determine whether or not "global greening was well known and had been referred to in the IPCC’s report." Ridley is simply using a non-sequitur to attack one of his critics.

Moreover, another section of the IPCC report actually cited work by the very scientist Ridley has been relying upon. Ward pointed this out in his original letter complaining about this lecture:

Yet your lecture ignores the contribution of working group I and complains about the coverage of ‘greening’ in the contribution of working group II. This is a mistake that you have made before,
which Professor Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office, pointed out on social media. Yet you used your lecture to attack Professor Betts and wrongly to describe his efforts as being “misleading at best and false at worst”.

As this letter says, Richard Betts had told Ridley about the IPCC covering this topic in another section before. Despite being told where to find this discussion, Ridley still gave a lecture in which he couldn't find it...? Very strange. Even more strange is Ridley's decision to go after Betts in his lecture on this issue with what was ultimately a fabricated contradiction.

I'm not going to go any further with this dispute. It's petty and boring. Before I go though, I would like to point out a couple basic errors in Ridley's lecture. Remember how above I quoted Ridley as saying:

The full report of WG2, produced six months after the Summary for Policy Makers in that reprehensible fashion so beloved of the IPCC...

That's highly misleading. There are a number of stages that go into producing the IPCC reports. The Summary for Policy Makers (for each Working Group) is released before the full report, but that does not mean the full report is produced last. In reality, both the summary and full report are worked on concurrently. The full report undergoes its last round of external review and changes prior to the summary being finalized.

What Ridley refers to is the fact the summary is finalized and published first. This is portrayed as being terrible, but the reality is with different people working on different documents, discrepancies in focus and wording will happen. The summary is finalized and published first so that the larger, full report can have its wording and phrasing adjusted to line up. That's not nefarious. (Additionally, the full report takes longer and thus needs more time to prepare.)

Similarly, Ridley says:

The opening words of the executive summary of working group 3’s report on the impacts of climate change in AR5 read as follows:

“For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers (medium evidence, high agreement). Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”

That’s the IPCC’s consensus view.

There is no such thing as an "executive summary of Working Group 3's report." Executive summaries come at the beginning of individual chapters within IPCC reports. The text Ridley quotes is from the executive summary of Chapter 10 of Working Group 2.

Not only is this a basic factual error, it also brings up an interesting coincidence. Richard Tol, whose work Ridley likes to promote, is the lead author of Chapter 10. This is a chapter Tol edited without any external review in order to promote his own, highly flawed work. This abuse of the IPCC process was so bad I contacted the IPCC to detail the wrongdoing (and was summarily ignored then dismissed).

So maybe Ridley is right. Maybe the IPCC process is terrible. The sort of changes Tol made to his chapter, a chapter Ridley has regularly relied upon, are inappropriate. According to the IPCC's public statements, they shouldn't happen. That they do happen may mean Ridley has a point. It does make one wonder why Ridley doesn't complain about his own source being a perfect example of the problem though.

Oh, and for the record, Ridley totally misrepresents that quote. That other things like population growth will have a much larger effect on the development of economies in the future in no way means global warming will have a minor impact on economies. One effect can be small relative to another yet still be quite large. That's what I was talking about before when I said Ridley cherry-picks from the IPCC report. If he had actually given a fair overview of what the IPCC reports say, it'd be clear the "consensus view" is quite different from what he portrays.

16 comments

  1. Thank you Richard Tol, for once again proving how useless your contributions to discussions always are. Nobody had said a single word about whether or not Bob Ward is a scientist before you brought it up. You choosing to take this opportunity to make remarks about a person that have no bearing on anything being discussed simply so you can try to smear him is pathetic.

  2. Richard, not an important thing in the context of Brandon's article, but quite strange - I have to say I read the sentence the same way you did and was also surprised. It's only after Brandon's response that I reread it and realized that there's an alternative way to read it.

  3. What sentence are you guys talking about? My best guess is:

    This is a discussion of things said by someone other than Bob Ward, a scientist whose work Ridley discussed in his lecture.

    But I don't see how that could be interpreted as labeling Bob Ward a scientist. Sentence structure aside, I had previously referred to Ward several times in the post. If I were going to describe Ward with an aside like that, I would have done so when I first brought up Ward in the discussion.

    Moreover, I immediately went on to quote the person I was referring to, a quotation which did not come from Ward. I directly linked the quotation back to a quotation I provided from Matt Ridley which begins with, "Dr Myneni."

    Looked at on its own absent any context, I can understand why someone might think I was labeling Bob Ward a scientist. I just don't see how anyone can read the sentence in context and come up with that conclusion. Were you guys maybe looking at a different sentence?

  4. By the way, Matt Ridley didn't discuss any work by Bob Ward in his lecture. The post never suggests he did. Just FYI.

  5. Yes, that's the sentence. I think that as you were the one writing the sentence having something else in mind, it's hard for you to see a different interpretation. But, as I said, I misread it as well. The context that you gave in your comment serves just as a proof that you did not have my or Richard's interpretation in mind but this kind of thorough analysis usually does not go through readers' minds.

  6. "This kind of thorough analysis usually does not go through readers' minds."

    Or I guess maybe it should, maybe it's just sloppy reading from my part

  7. I'm going to go with lazy reading. I know I could have made things more clear by writing the name into that sentence, but when read in context, there's no way to reasonably think I was referring to Bob Ward.

  8. @brandon
    The sentence is unambiguous when all words are read. If you read quickly and skip words, it goes wrong.

    This is my fault entirely. I should not comment on things I skip-read.

  9. This is why I grew tired of the whole "climate discussion". There are really better ways to be productive in this world...

  10. This sort of thing will come about in any field with significant disagreements. It's always stupid, and it's always boring. Yeah, you can adjudicate who is correct on each point, but why bother? Most of this is just posturing anyway.

    That doesn't kill my interest in the "climate discussion" though. I think you have to get used to this sort of thing if you want to follow any debate. The things that kill my interest are like the ones I discussed in my last post. It's a shame because I actually have a new-ish project I think is cool which I should be working on.

  11. But I don't see how that could be interpreted as labeling Bob Ward a scientist. ... I can understand why someone might think I was labeling Bob Ward a scientist.

    I'm sensing a contradiction here.

  12. MikeN, I hope you're trying to demonstrate how people can reach nonsensical interpretations by reading only tiny fragments of text, out of context. If so, well done on the subtlety. If not, your comment is incredibly stupid.

  13. Just a note, I misread it as well. It seems the clause is referring to Bob Ward not the 'someone other'. It can be read either way.

    Not to be harsh but if multiple people read something 'wrong', it probably isn't the readers who have the problem. Clarity is good (though I need to work on it as well)

  14. Eric:

    Just a note, I misread it as well. It seems the clause is referring to Bob Ward not the 'someone other'. It can be read either way.

    Sure. Many sentences can be read in multiple ways. That's why we have context. I regret writing the sentence the way I did, but I never expected people to choose to ignore the context of the sentence and come up with a nonsensical intepretation.

    Not to be harsh but if multiple people read something 'wrong', it probably isn't the readers who have the problem. Clarity is good (though I need to work on it as well)

    If anyone who misread it could give an explanation as to why they ignored the context of the sentence other than something like, "I just didn't pay attention to the context," I would likely agree it was a bad sentence. Nobody has. That multiple people might take a sentence out of context and then misunderstand it doesn't mean the sentence is bad.

    The sentence certainly could have been made clearer. I thought about that when I wrote it. I decided not to edit it to include Myneni's name because I figured readers would have little trouble understanding the context meant I couldn't be referring to Ward with that description.

    I have no sympathy for anyone who fails to understand what that sentence means. If people want to say it's a bad sentence because it caused them confusion when they had to try to reconcile it with the context, that's fine. I get it. I can even accept that might mean it was a bad sentence.

    But for anyone who read the post and came away thinking I was referring to Ward with that description, all I have is scorn. That interpretation makes no sense given the context. I already dumb down my writing style a great deal for people. When people are too lazy to try to understand it despite that...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *