Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, March 17, 2007

I'm no global warming expert, but ...

Surely the majority of the world's climate change scientists can't be wrong - can they?

by Simon Singh

New Statesman (March 19 2007)

Last Thursday night I watched Channel 4's The Great Global Warming Swindle. I have been convinced for quite a while that human carbon emissions are causing global warming, so I was shocked that the producer Martin Durkin was able to present an apparently convincing set of counter arguments. I went to bed that night puzzled. If Durkin was right, then the overwhelming majority of climate scientists were either stupid or deceitful.

The following morning I awoke to find that Armand Leroi had copied me in on an email to Durkin. Leroi, a media-savvy biologist, admitted that he was not an expert on global warming, but that nevertheless he was sceptical about some assertions in the programme. A few minutes later, my PC went ping and I saw Durkin's brief five-word reply. I am paraphrasing for decency, but essentially he called Leroi an intellectually challenged penis.

I immediately emailed Durkin in an effort to engage him in a more sensible debate. Although he replied with a few coherent sentences, they were rather blunt: ("Since 1940 we have had four decades of cooling, three of warming ... Why have we not heard this in the hours and hours of shit programming on global warming shoved down our throats by the BBC?"), and he ended with the instruction that I should engage in a sexual act with my own body that was physically impossible. All this and I had not even had breakfast.

I spent the rest of the day trying to find out the truth about the documentary. Despite the producer's potty mouth, maybe he was right? I sent a few emails, but before I could get any reliable answers I was heading to Venice to attend a conference on mathematics and culture.

Towards the end of the conference I bumped into mathematician and crime writer Catherine Shaw. We stood outside a lecture as she explained how she had recently met the legendary Alexander Grothendieck. Having revolutionised maths in the 1960s, Grothendieck became disillusioned with society. He was a pacifist and protested against the war in Vietnam by lecturing in the forests surrounding Hanoi while bombs were falling nearby. Then, in 1988, convinced that the world was evil, he withdrew to the French countryside. In 1990, he disappeared, abandoning the only woman he had loved and setting fire to his manuscripts.

Shaw had tracked him down and built a fragile relationship with him. As we discussed whether he would ever return to the mathematical community, we were interrupted by a flurry of froth. The last conference lecture was all about bubbles, which mathematicians call minimal surfaces. Its end was being marked by 200 academics frantically blowing bubbles. Never one to miss a bubble-blowing opportunity, I joined in.

Back in London, the truth about the Channel 4 documentary was becoming apparent. The Observer had published a letter by a group of eminent scientists who were angered because the programme had "misrepresented the state of scientific knowledge on global warming". They did not spell out the distortions, but my friend Gabrielle Walker, who has just written a book about the atmosphere, had emailed me with some information explaining that Durkin had been somewhat economical with the truth.

Debunking claims

For example, he is right to say that temperatures fell slightly for a few decades in the mid-20th century, which might seem peculiar as lots of carbon was being burned. However, Durkin forgets to say that the resulting soot reflected sunlight and caused cooling that compensated for the warming effects of carbon dioxide. In recent decades, because we have cleaned up the soot, global warming has taken off unchecked.

I could continue debunking Durkin's claims, but it is a new week and I am behind schedule on what I ought to be doing. My problem is that global warming is a serious issue, so I am easily distracted and irritated by programmes that fool viewers with incomplete arguments, and it is particularly annoying if the producer also lacks manners.

Simon Singh is author of Fermat's Last Theorem

Bill Totten


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