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FRAME 25: Famous photo of Tina Resch and the “flying phone.” Copyright © 1984 by The Dispatch Printing Company. Photographer: Fred Shannon.

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The Columbus Poltergeist
(featuring James Randi)

In 1984, objects began to fly around the room in the presence of a Columbus Ohio teen named Tina Resch. The local paper claimed this was a poltergeist attack, and published photos to prove it.

Tina’s story caught the attention of a young organization called the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal [CSICOP, now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)] and its chief investigator, James “The Amazing” Randi. In this episode, Randi tells the MonsterTalk hosts about the outcome of this case — and shares his personal views about the unfortunate impact it may have had on Tina’s life.


Hitch 22 (book cover)

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My Dinner (and Drinks) with Christopher (Hitchens that is)

In this week’s Skepticblog post, Michael Shermer shares his (admittedly limited) experiences of dining (and drinking) with one of the greatest literary masters and creative thinkers of our age.

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In this week’s eSkeptic, James N. Gardner reviews The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps, by Peter D. Ward. James N. Gardner is an Oregon attorney and the author, most recently, of The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos.


Waterworld
A review of The Flooded Earth:
Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps

review by James N. Gardner

IS ANTHROPOGENIC GLOBAL WARMING the cataclysmic threat that Al Gore and the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proclaim it to be? Or do powerful natural forces like variable solar output, plate tectonics, and volcanic activity dwarf the climate impact of human-generated greenhouse gases?

That is the deep question that lurks beneath the surface of a fascinating new book — The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps — by University of Washington scientist Peter D. Ward. Ward, co-author of the highly acclaimed Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, is at his best when he provides snapshots of the climate extremes our planet has experienced over the billions of years of its existence. Here is his description of ancient episodes of global warming that make the dire warnings of current climate prognosticators seem almost benign:

Long before humans were even a gleam in nature’s eye, the convergence of geological forces repeatedly caused the planet to heat up. Such events, however rare, hugely altered life and its evolution. The warming had resulted from enormous volumes of carbon dioxide that emanated from the flood basalts, creating atmospheric greenhouse conditions that quickly heated the planet to a point that the poles were nearly as warm as the equator, leading the normal winds and ocean currents to diminish and in some cases totally stop. A stilled ocean, eventually even on its surface regions, loses oxygen. The apparent result was a series of nasty events, such as oceanwide “dead zones” … where conditions of eutrophication — where a body of water first warms and then loses its oxygen as its enclosed life dies and then rots — have eliminated all the life-giving oxygen in the water.

If nature is capable of this level of environmental catastrophe on its own, just how much can we feeble humans really influence the future evolution of the vast, complex global climate system? The optimistic answer, favored by Ward, is that humankind is now firmly in the driver’s seat of climate change:

As I give talks around the country about a newly discovered phenomenon of the deep past greenhouse extinctions, people always ask about the relevance of these studies to the present and near future. That question is simple to answer, at least for me: what happened in the past can and will happen again if we continue to heat the planet at present rates.

Ward’s implication is that if we humans will only cease our global warming malefactions, the violent climatic oscillations he so colorfully documents — oscillations that predate by millions of years humanity’s evolutionary emergence on the savannahs of Africa — will be brought under tolerable control.

The pessimist would argue that the mountain of geological evidence assembled and expertly presented by Ward points to precisely the opposite conclusion — that what happened in the past can and will happen again regardless of what human beings do.

What seems incontrovertible from Ward’s compelling narrative is that, irrespective of the precise causal interplay of human-induced and natural factors, the Earth’s deep history offers ample evidence that the atmospheric conditions on this planet are likely to continue to fluctuate dramatically, with potentially dire consequences for the biosphere. From the mysterious Permian extinction 250 million years ago, in which 96% of all marine species went extinct, to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65 million years which killed off the dinosaurs, the story of our planet’s long environmental history is a tale of repeated episodes of dramatic change that have threatened the very survival of complex life.

In the face of this overwhelming evidentiary record, only a cock-eyed optimist would contend that what is past is not prologue.


Skeptical perspectives on global warming
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According to Brand, three profound transformations are under way on Earth: climate change, urbanization, and biotechnology. In light of these changes, Brand suggests that environmentalists are going to have to reverse some long held opinions and embrace tools that they have traditionally distrusted. Brand challenges myths and presents counterintuitive observations on why cities are actually greener than countryside, how nuclear power is the future of energy, and why genetic engineering is the key to crop and land management.
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(DVD $23.95 CD $15.95) with Dr. William Ruddiman

THE IMPACT ON CLIMATE from 200 years of industrial development is an everyday fact of life, but did humankind’s active involvement in climate change really begin with the industrial revolution, as commonly believed? Dr. William Ruddiman, a climate scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of the controversial new book, Ploughs, Plagues, and Petroleum, argues that humans have actually been changing the climate for some 8,000 years… READ more…

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SOMETIME THIS CENTURY THE DAY WILL ARRIVE when the human influence on the climate will overwhelm all other natural factors. Over the past decade, the world has seen the most powerful El Niño ever recorded, the most devastating hurricane in 200 years, the hottest European summer on record, and one of the worst storm seasons ever experienced in Florida. With one out of every five living things on this planet committed to extinction by the levels of greenhouse gases that will accumulate in the next few decades, we are reaching a global climatic tipping point. READ more…

Browse other lectures on global warming

15 Comments »

15 Comments

  1. Richard says:

    The commentary by James Gardner is seriously disappointing. Of course it’s likely that Earth’s climate will eventually swing this way and that on its own, but that’s not the issue. It’s when. It makes a huge difference to me and others if it’s 50 years or 50 million years. Does he refute the evidence that human activities stand a good chance of bringing about such a change much sooner? If so he should make that argument and back it up. To say “it will happen anyway” is beyond empty. Yes, in the long run we’re all dead. But time scales matter. C’mon Skeptic! Vet this stuff.

    • Bad Boy says:

      Well said. Time scales are enormously important and the rate of climate change (compared with the rate of change of CO2 abundance) are part of the evidence in support to anthropogenic causes of climate change.

      Additionally, Gardner broaches topics like solar variability but doesn’t examine them. This is misleading because the solar astronomy community has reached a consensus that solar variability cannot account for all (or even most) of the change in Earth’s temperature. I once attended a Skeptic’s talk about dealing with creationists and the speaker referred to bringing up points in apparent contradiction without elaboration as a ‘red herring’ argument. It is sad to see skeptics take pages from the creationists’ playbook.

  2. frank says:

    interesting!

    all this ‘new data’ re catastrophism and vast changes must be making geological uniformitarians uncomfortable and eliciting “i told you so!” from the young earthers.

    hey! if the latter are right, maybe remodelling climate change would better fit their scenario of the end of the world as we know it?

  3. Bob Pease says:

    1. The ecosystem of the earth will recover from the Extinction Event that is now in progress, admittedly caused by human activity.

    2. The problem is that it might take tens of millions of years to recover , but there will be green life and cute animals ( maybe not the same kinds as now).

    Humanity cannot survive for more than several decades, the way things are going.
    But the reasons (although related ) are different than those popularly touted.

    If I knew how to collect and make book on these matters
    I whoud give the highest probability of the cause of death to living humans ( age 0 to 30 ) to

    CIVIL DISORDER due to management of distribution of existing resources.

    Causes:
    1. population growth.
    2. supply of recources ( Due to man-made global
    warming )
    3. WAR because of above ,justified by alleged
    directives from Al’lah or Jehovah
    3.5 Greed and ignoring problems by lassiez-faire
    Capitalism’s consumers and marketers
    4. Famine

    5. Plague

    In a nutshell , the Four Horsemen will get us first if we don’t attend to social problems as a first priority.

    Honi Soit

    Dr Sidethink Hp.D

  4. Dotan Naveh says:

    Even if we are on a natural course to another catastrophe, there is still the “small” matter of timing.

    Natural geological forces take millions of years to develop, while our current human-induced course could cause a catastrophic impact in decades. It could be the difference between a meltdown in a million years or in a hundred years from now.

  5. steven popkes says:

    Mister Gardner makes a common logical fallacy that I’ve seen both creationists and climate deniers say. It goes something like this:

    1) There is evidence of similarity of effect in the past as to the present.
    2) Ignore the difference in the cause of the effect of the past to the present.
    3) Conflate and “refute” present effect to be denied.

    CO2 build will happen in the future from causes that are not anthropogenic. Is this a reason to not handle the CO2 buildup that is anthropogenic?

    I think it’s clear from the Ward quote that Ward is referring to the current warming as the common effect but that happily this effect has a cause under our control.

    Mister Gardner selectively ignores that.

  6. Pat Frank says:

    The warming had resulted from enormous volumes of carbon dioxide that emanated from the flood basalts, creating atmospheric greenhouse conditions that quickly heated the planet. … what happened in the past can and will happen again if we continue to heat the planet at present rates.

    The causality of past events, of course, determined using the same general circulation models that tell us anthropogenic CO2 is warming the climate today.

    But such circular thinking doesn’t upset skeptics.

  7. Bad Boy says:

    We need to stop thinking in terms of “The Earth’s ecosystems recovering from human activities.” The ecosystems are not disappearing – albeit they are changing and many of those changes are unpleasant for us and our favorite organisms.

    Deserts *are* an example of Earth’s ecosystems – they are no more or less ecosystems than are forests, grasslands or arctic tundra. Further, the ecosystems *do not care* if they change. Grasslands don’t get bummed out at becoming deserts. Oceans don’t care if only jelly fish can live in them.

    People care.

    We care because we find some ecosystems more suitable, profitable and pleasant than others. Were we rational beings, the Americans would work tirelessly to maintain the present climate but maybe the Russians and Canadians would subsidize chloro-flouro-carbons production. It is ironic that one of the nations which benefits most from the present climatic conditions seems most ambivalent to maintaining them.

    [Note: Whether or not humans are ‘to blame’ for climate change we have a self-interest in it]

  8. Bob Pease says:

    Pat Frank seems to be suggesting that skeptics should not be upset by discarding the principle of Uniformatarianism.

    A skeptic has a right to doubt such principles but there are times when doing so can lead to unthinkable flapdoodle.

    For examle, in around 1980 a Christian Science Educators Conference (I am not able to track down more specifics. but I distinctly remember reading the document)

    “Be it resolved that the Laws of Physics were not in effect until after the Flood”

    This resolves a lot of problems.
    No circular thinking here, by cracky!

    RJP

  9. Pat Frank says:

    #8, Bob Pease, you’ve misunderstood the point.

    The CO2-water vapor feedback mechanism present in climate models, with its globally constant relative humidity, is an assumption, not an empirically verified fact of climate.

    Climate models employ a hyperviscous atmosphere to suppress sub grid-scale turbulence, and their parameter sets are therefore necessarily unphysical. This turbulence, which climate models cannot model, is responsible for about 50% of the heat flux into the upper atmosphere.

    Because their physics is incomplete, and even distorted, climate models are not physically reliable, and have no predictive value. Take a look here, for example.

    Climate models, with their non-physical constituents, are tuned to reproduce the present, and are then used to impose the same non-physical meaning on the climate of the past.

    Therefore, when one assumes that CO2 drives climate, one imposes the same assumed but non-physical meaning on both past and present.

    Then hot spells in the past are assumed to be caused by any contemporary high CO2. What is assumed is also deduced, in other words.

    All climate models do is explain their own outputs. They don’t explain the climate of Earth. The same assumptions used to construct the climate models are used to interpret their results. The whole business is circular thinking.

    It’s climate philosophy, not climate science.

  10. Bob Pease says:

    Thanks for the specifics.

    I think That I DID understand that some folks are of the opinion that the state of some processes has been so inconstant throughout history that no valid physical model can be built.

    Although it does not negate anything , I choose to trust that Climatologists have a sound basis in scientific thinking.

    I might refer you to the diatribes of by Creationists in Talk Origins such as “ZOE”, who has proved that the existence of vertically sloped rocks disproves the possibility of determining the age of other rocks .

    This rests on the curious belief that division by zero is the same as not dividing at all and so 3/0 = 3 ., for example

    RJP

  11. Nathan Phillips says:

    Questioning humankind’s ability to affect nature sounds like an artifact of fatalism or some sort of Gaia worship. We have good documentation of several major ecological changes that have been brought about due to humanity. The introduction of non-native plants and animals to several continents, the introduction of agriculture and its devastating effect on biodiversity and the industrial revolution and acid rain. Regardless of whether or not we are the cause of an environmental change, we have evidence that we can change the environment. Why not try to change it in a way the keeps us and what we cherish alive?

    • Bill George says:

      “Why not try to change it…?” Isn’t that the point of contention? In short, it comes down to cost and benefit – not unlike a patient who confronts a prescription that poses unsavory side effects. Do we instill a carbon tax or mandate expensive renewable resources at the risk of an economy that already have states and nations in massive debt only to find out that our measures have meager or zero effect regarding the trend in global climate?

      We need to focus on the hard data of science – perhaps ignore nothing, but always diligent on the benefit/risks in reducing anthropogenic warming.

  12. Stan Mathews says:

    I find it hard to understand how a “Skeptic” magazine can publish an article about past global warming, when humans could not have changed anything, and then blame humans for future global warming with out any facts, only conjecture and mathmatical predictions that have been proved totaly false. Wow.

  13. John Footen says:

    It is unclear to me how skeptics can write a sentence like this:

    “Although it does not negate anything , I choose to trust that Climatologists have a sound basis in scientific thinking.”

    How is choosing to trust a form of skepticism? Anyone with a skeptical mind who examined the details of the science and the models in particular will see that there is almost nothing that can be said about human-caused climate change.

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