Jan 18 2010

How Opinions and Guesses Become Policy

Here’s a story that shows how little evidence there can be behind the things we’re taught as settled fact by governments and media.  (Hat tip: Illinois Pedant.)  The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which wants the power to tell us all how big a car we can have and how often we can use our backyard grills, made a claim that all the glaciers in the Himalayas would melt by the year 2035 due to global warming, with a 90% degree of certainty.  And of course, therefore we must Do Something.  Now it turns out that claim was based on one guy’s guess.  The meat of the article:

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was “speculation” and was not supported by any formal research. If confirmed it would be one of the most serious failures yet seen in climate research. The IPCC was set up precisely to ensure that world leaders had the best possible scientific advice on climate change.

So a major claim by the IPCC actually came from a single story in a science magazine (not a peer-reviewed journal either, apparently, but more of a newsstand mag), and that story came from a single phone interview with a single guy in India, who it turns out was just making an educated guess.  Even better, later in the article it says he was misquoted, and that he never specified the year 2035 and was only talking about part of the glaciers!

It just goes to show how little real evidence it takes for the people who guide policy and public opinion to make outrageous claims and say that they’re basing it on loads of solid research—as long as the claim fits their biases and can be used to push forward their programs.  A few people (or even one person) can throw out a hypothesis, and a bunch of other people like the sound of it so they report it and embellish it a little, and pretty soon they’re all quoting each other as sources and claiming the evidence is overwhelming, when there may be little or no actual evidence at all.

So the next time a politician or bureaucrat walks up to a podium and says he needs to take some of your money or freedom because we know such-and-such is happening: just keep in mind how little evidence there might really be.

Perhaps the funniest and most revealing part of the article is this quote from the guy who was in charge of the glacier part of the report:

“If Hasnain [the guesser] says officially that he never asserted this, or that it is a wrong presumption, than I will recommend that the assertion about Himalayan glaciers be removed from future IPCC assessments.”

So, he doesn’t have a problem with the fact that his entire claim is based on third-hand reports of one guy’s speculation, as long as that one guy’s speculation was reported accurately?  There’s your government-based “researcher” hard at work, right there.

By the way, when people first challenged this claim, the chairman of the IPCC called the contrary evidence “voodoo science,” so they’re also dismissive and classless toward anyone who disagrees with them.

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2 Comments

  • Roger Buck says:

    Well, this is indeed much worse than silliness regarding Global Warming.

    And I think it good that thinking souls like yourself serve to sound the alert of how much of our society is driven by such chaotic, unreasoned and unpondered, non-diligent things.

    Which in the end only serve to discredit those who issue them …

    And this post puts me in mind of the very great diligence exercised by the Church, wherein the Vatican often takes not just years but decades, even centuries to render judgment.

    And how that is barely appreciated by our fast-forward manic, modern society.

    Still despite the silliness you call us to see, Aaron, it seems well indeed to me take seriously the threat of Global Warming, as the Holy Father is enjoining us to do.

    Not slavishly follow every piece of silliness, but ponder deeply all that is being said to us, from many quarters, including from the Vatican.

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    • Aaron says:

      Thank you for your comment, Roger! I agree that we should take any claims of impending doom seriously, which includes requiring that the people making the claims be honest about the facts. If human activity is causing global warming, and if there’s anything we can do about it (which is a separate and very open question), we won’t be able to figure out what that is until we can separate the truth from the myths and misinformation.

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