Explaining Global Warming to the Public is Impossible Because We Are Not Talking the Same Language

Explaining Global Warming to the Public is Impossible Because We Are Not Talking the Same Language


Guest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball

I get many emails from people asking for tips on how to explain to others, including their friends and family, what is actually going on with the global warming issue. I also hear from many people about how they lost family and friends because of being a global warming skeptic. It is harsh, but it appears that the English Philosopher, Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) observation, is the situation today. He said,

“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

Uninformed is a better word than “fools,” but the challenge remains the same. This is not a new problem but seems more virulent in today’s so-called information age. Michael Crichton was correct when he more accurately called it the age of misinformation. As Bertrand Russell said,

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

Voltaire suggested a place to start.

“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”

I would add if you wish to converse with me have a modicum of understanding of the facts. During a recent interview, I became exasperated with the interviewer who kept saying I was wrong and a liar, so I finally challenged him to explain the greenhouse effect for the audience. He couldn’t! He did not even know that the greenhouse theory could result in a colder world. This misconception is a result of the words used. The public associate a greenhouse, and therefore the word, with higher temperatures. The concept automatically infers warming. It is why the analogy was chosen for the political agenda and deception of anthropogenic warming. Several other analogies, most implying energy balance, such as the filling and draining of a bathtub, were suggested over the years but did not replace it. The same misdirection of using a word or catchphrase to create a mental image was used in the ozone deception. There it was the phrase “holes in the ozone.” There are no holes, only an area of thinning, but the phrase implies something is leaking or broken.

Because of this deliberate use of words to mislead, it is incredible how many people hold intractable views on global warming without even a basic understanding. It creates the unsolvable dilemma of trying to have logical discussions about illogical things.

Then, there is the added problem of technical jargon. It is estimated the average English-speaking person has a vocabulary of about 9000 words and about 100 of those words they use repeatedly. Most don’t believe these numbers, as evidenced by the fact that they think they need to learn every word in a foreign language to be conversant in that language. I understand Shakespeare used 24,000 words in his plays and sonnets and introduced 1700 new words into the language. I jokingly told my students that this was about right, 9000 to 24,000, because most people understand about one-third of Shakespeare. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words but acknowledges this does not include many areas such as scientific and academic jargon. However, they conclude,

“This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 percent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.”

A university professor has, on average, a vocabulary of 40,000 words, but a majority of them are jargon. The first thing a student learns in a first-year course in any subject is the ‘language’ of the discipline. Some of this is done because the area of study requires unique words, but often a different meaning to a common word is used and creates confusion. The best example appeared early in the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) debate when those scientists, who correctly challenged the theory using the scientific method, were called skeptics. Michael Shermer explained.

“Scientists are skeptics. It’s unfortunate that the word ‘skeptic’ has taken on other connotations in the culture involving nihilism and cynicism. Really, in its pure and original meaning, it’s just thoughtful inquiry.”

All this came into focus again this week because I was involved in discussions with a group who want to arrange a debate. I am totally in support of debate and free expression of ideas and opinions, but here is the problem. If you have a debate between two scientists on the subject, most of the public would not understand because they don’t know the jargon and have different meanings for some of the words. If the debate is between a scientist and an environmentalist, or even an ordinary citizen, it quickly devolves into an emotional, fact-free argument.

The shameful truth is the courts will not entertain a scientific case because they don’t understand the jargon at even the most basic level. My challenge in finding a defense lawyer was to get one who could follow the basic science. I did it by using knowledge gained from former students who went to law school. They told me most lawyers are Arts students and the biggest failure percentage was in a Taxation course, usually in the second year. I obtained a list of defamation lawyers and asked them how they did in Taxation. The one who said he was top of the class and very proud of his 84% became my lawyer. So far it is working.

The problem with illiteracy about numbers extends to the public at large. Figure 1 shows the number of 15-year-old students with science skills.


Figure 1

The highest level is Finland with approximately 18 %, which means that 82% lack science skills. The average for the countries identified is about 10%. It is reasonable to assume that this reflects the percentages in society, so, 90% are incapable of understanding the Summary for Policymakers designed explicitly for the general public, let alone the Science Reports of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Despite that inability they are imbued with the absolutism, perfection, and immutability of numbers. This evolved from a movement in the 1920s called logical positivism defined as,

…characterized by the view that scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge and that all traditional metaphysical doctrines are to be rejected as meaningless.

In response to this, mathematician and philosopher A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947), wrote,

There is no more common error than to assume that because prolonged and accurate mathematical calculations have been made, the application of the result to some fact of nature is absolutely certain.

People are so imbued with logical positivism that they can’t believe there are different types of numbers and therefore data. I learned early in my career when doing a study of energy inputs into the formation of a beach for my Masters’ degree that they can be discrete or continuous. In many statistical applications, the difference is critical to the validity of your results. Most people don’t even know that there are imaginary numbers used in some parts of mathematics.

At the same time as logical positivism was emerging, statistics were being applied to society and especially humans and human behavior. I wrote about this in a previous article Standard Deviation, The Overlooked But Essential Climate Statistic.” Climate, the average of the weather, was studied and understood by the Greeks but slipped into history until the first part of the 20th century. In response to demands from pilots in WWI for forecasts, meteorology became what everybody knew in relation to weather. It is still true today, but few people know that meteorology is restricted to the study of physics of the atmosphere. Climate only occurred in national weather offices because somebody, often a person tired of forecasting, had to compile daily, weekly, and monthly averages. This is why it was and remains the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). After 1947, the list of its duties was still dictated by the needs of aviation weather, so weather stations continued mostly at airports and the only reference of obligations directed to all the agencies under the umbrella of the WMO was “climatological statistics.”

All this began to change when Reid Bryson (1920-2008) and Hubert Lamb (1913-1997 began studying climatology seriously. Bryson set up the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s meteorology department and Center for Climatic Research in 1948. Lamb established the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in 1972 but need for reconstructing climate data and long-term records from the past germinated long before then. Lamb’s obituary in the Independent explains.

At around the same time (1950), Lamb – and climatology – experienced a huge slice of luck. He was posted to the Meteorological Office’s moribund climatology department, where he was able to indulge his fascination, with little interruption, in what was probably the most complete, and unstudied, meteorological archive in the world. He set about reconstructing monthly atmospheric circulations over the North Atlantic and Europe back to the 1750s, confirming his growing conviction of the reality of climate change on time-scales of significance to modern humankind. He also started to make the first connections between sea-surface temperatures and the atmospheric circulation.

It is ironic that there is a major effort today to understand such connections, because of the significance of links between ocean circulations and the overlying atmosphere, much of it with the computer techniques Lamb felt were used in an uncritical way right to the end of his life.

Lamb was correct about the computers and their use, but he was also correct about the problems inherent in researching a generalist subject in which there were so many sub-disciplines. This is why climatology was traditionally taught in the original integrative discipline (chorology) of Physical Geography.

“This modern field of study is regarded as a branch of the atmospheric sciences and a subfield of physical geography, which is one of the Earth sciences.”

Many try to put me down as obtaining my Ph.D., in Geography. It was one of the lines trotted out by the interviewer who called me a liar. The only climatology options outside Physical Geography at the time were Bryson or Lamb’s programs. I communicated with Wisconsin but could not afford to attend. Instead, I did my degree through Queen Mary College at the University of London, where my supervisor, Dr. Bruce Atkinson, specialized in Urban Heat Island studies. He arranged several visits for me with Professor Lamb at East Anglia. There I witnessed even then the disgraceful way those, under the control of Tom Wigley and Phil Jones, who later dominated the CRU and the IPCC, spoke about and treated him. Fortunately, their actions and behaviours were disclosed in the emails leaked in November of 2009.

A few disciplines, such as people studying systems analysis understand the fundamental problem at the centre of the AGW issue. Figure 2 is a simple systems diagram of the atmosphere produced by Kellogg and Schneider in 1974. The so-called Climate Scientists don’t understand. The more arrogant among them believe, because they have degrees in mathematics or physics, they are superior and understand, while the rest of us trying to put even the major pieces of the system in place are stupid. It is the inevitable extension of logical positivism.


Figure 2

The arrogant few who bully the rest of us don’t even realize the difference between generalization and specialization. They don’t know that for every area on the diagram there is a different specialist, each using different jargon. Just ask them if they know the meaning of the word yazoo used by experts who study the overland flow of “precipitation” on the diagram.

Now you know why there is a Glossary with every IPCC Report, including the Summary for Policymakers (SPM). Here is their definition of sequestration.

The uptake (i.e., the addition of a substance of concern to a reservoir) of carbon containing substances, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2), in terrestrial or marine reservoirs. Biological sequestration includes direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through land-use change (LUC), afforestation, reforestation, revegetation, carbon storage in landfills and practices that enhance soil carbon in agriculture (cropland management, grazing land management). In parts of the literature, but not in this report, (carbon) sequestration is used to refer to Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS). {WGIII}

There, now you know. The trouble is that it is not the most common use among the public. The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition;

· The action of sequestrating or taking legal possession of assets.

‘if such court injunctions are ignored, sequestration of trade union assets will follow’

1. 1.1 The action of taking forcible possession of something; confiscation.

‘he demanded the sequestration of the incriminating correspondence’

M1.2 The action of declaring someone bankrupt.

‘in Scotland there were 1,908 sequestrations of individuals’

M2 The action of chemically sequestering a substance.

So, most of the public is no better informed and another specialization, lawyers, understand something very different.

The task is to produce a few simple points of challenge to AGW, in the most common and widely understood English available. Of course, you have to overcome a classic. the numerically and linguistically inaccurate claim that, “The consensus is that 97% of all scientists agree.” Good luck.

Superforest,Climate Change

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