You are not a dummy. But climate deniers treat you that way.
That’s because they know that easy answers, the simpleton’s way of dealing with things, is so easy to digest and internalize that even you, and other smart people like you, are likely to digest and internalize it. You too can have that wonderful “Aha!” moment when everything seems to make perfect sense — especially if the simpleton’s way is disguised as sophisticated and scientific, and/or condensed to a 5-second sound bite. You will happily tweet about it and link to it on your facebook page. Before long, the simpleton’s way goes viral.
That’s not because you’re a dummy; you aren’t. It’s because the desire to understand is so strong, that when offered a cheap and easy chicken-McNugget answer with some honey mustard sauce, people will swallow it.
Let me give you an example.
In response to a recent post of mine, Tony Heller a.k.a. Steve Goddard posted what he considers a “rebuttal.” But he didn’t just talk about the subject at hand (summertime high temperatures), he also posted this graph of wintertime snow extent in the northern hemisphere:
I guess he still hasn’t gotten over an old post of mine showing how misleading his “snow job” about snow was.
The simpleton’s way: global warming must mean less snow, but wintertime snow has been increasing so — no global warming! It’s as easy as that.
The problem with the idea is that reality is not so simple.
First problem: that increase isn’t “fer sure.” We don’t just look at a graph, or fit a linear trend and check whether it’s going up or down, because we could get fooled by a false appearance due to random fluctuations. After all, if you roll the dice twice, and the first time you roll a 5 but the second time you roll a 6, you wouldn’t declare the dice are trending up. You’d accept the fact that dice rolls have randomness, so you shouldn’t be surprised at all if one roll is higher than another.
Same with snow cover. Rather than Heller/Goddard’s graph (which he didn’t actually make himself, it’s from Rutgers University), I prefer this one (it’s the same data):
Besides the solid red line showing the estimated linear trend, there are also dashed red lines showing the uncertainty in that estimate. Suddenly it’s not so clear, just from looking, that the trend is really going up. We can even apply a statistical test, which says: no, there’s really no reliable evidence that the trend is going anywhere.
But that takes some analysis. It involves math. It requires some thought, and even a bit of knowledge.
I don’t blame people for not having that knowledge — few people have studied statistics and even those who have sometimes make mistakes. I don’t even blame people for getting suckered by Tony Heller’s graph. It looks so scientific, it’s labelled “Rutgers Global Snow Lab,” it even has a trend line in it!
Second problem: as I pointed out in my post, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor; that’s basic thermodynamics (the “Clausius-Clapeyron equation”). More water vapor means it can rain more rain, or snow more snow. During autumn and winter, the seasons when snow builds up, heavier snows — not in spite of global warming but because of it — can lead to more extensive snow cover.
During the snow melt seasons, spring and summer, higher temperatures mean the snow melts faster and sooner, so we expect less snow cover.
And what do we observe? During winter the trend estimate is up, but as mentioned it’s not “statistically significant” so we can’t be sure. During autumn the trend is upward and it is statistically significant. That’s what we expect from global warming — unless you take the simpleton’s view that warming has to mean less snow, regardless of the laws of physics.
During spring and summer the trend in snow cover is down, and is statistically significant during both seasons. It’s even a large trend, going down faster than winter or autumn is going up. That too is what we expect from global warming, but you have to go beyond the simpleton’s view to see it.
The easy answer is so satisfying. It gives you the “Aha!” moment. It makes such perfect sense. You don’t have to work hard, in fact you don’t have to work at all, to get it. Anyone can look at the trend line for wintertime and see it’s going up. Anyone can think “more snow means no warming.”
The truth takes time, work, and knowledge. Who even bothers to wonder whether the trend line in Tony Heller’s graph is statistically significant so it means anything at all? How many readers know about the Clausius-Clapeyron equation and the greater water vapor content in the atmosphere because of global warming? How many dive even deeper, to figure out that we could expect heavier snowfalls during autumn and winter but faster snowmelt during spring and summer? Not many.
And how many people will tweet about that? How many will post multiple graphs showing seasonal differences in snow cover on their facebook page? Not many.
Climate deniers invest great effort crafting easy answers that everyone can digest; they work hard at it so that you don’t have to work at all. The result is that falsehoods spread farther and faster, reach a wider audience, than truth. As Jonathan Swift said, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect …”
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