Monday, 31 January 2011

Ghost lab or ghost sham?

Sam is a student of mine. He's the son of two medical doctors and when other kids are playing with toys or blowing their pals to pieces on some online computer game, Sam is usually busy reading about the latest advances in science. At the age of nine, this boy can name all the layers of the atmosphere (how many of us can do that?), explain the components of a molecule or describe the differences between an amphibian and a fish, all in a foreign language. You see where I'm going here - Sam is a genius.

One recent morning I was discussing a fairy tale with the class. The topic of magic came up. "Do you believe in magic?"; I asked the class. Some of the kids said "yes", which will be no surprise to those who read my previous article. Sam said "no". "What about ghosts Sam, do you believe in them?" I ask; "Sometimes" says Sam. "Really? I'm surprised. Why do you believe in them?" I ask; "Because I saw something on the TV about them" says Sam. My heart sank. I already knew the answer to my next question but I had to check: "What show was it Sam?" I ask; "Ghost Lab" he replies.

For the uninitiated, "Ghost Lab" is a regular show that airs on National Geographic (in Asia, anyway) that purports to document a team touring the United States and examining familiar "haunted" areas with a variety of equipment and a mobile lab. The obvious implication being that it's all done scientifically.

The problem as I see it is that the show does nothing of the sort. From the very first episode there's a spin being put on events that would make a politician envious. We're shown a clip from Gettysburg supposedly taken by 'Ghost Lab' member Brad, of a group in military dress walking across a field. We're then told in the most sensational terms that the group just "disappeared" in broad daylight! How frightening! What we're not told is that the area of Gettysburg is - for obvious reasons - famous for re-enactment groups acting out old American battles. Oh, and the actual part where the mysterious group "disappear" just happened to be missed off of the film cut, the cameraman was busy running after the group you see, because he was so far away to begin with.

That piece of nonsense really sets the tone for the whole series where minor or non-events are treated as climaxes. A door opening "by itself" in a concert hall is accompanied by lots of screaming and is edited in with dramatic music. The "Ghost Lab" team's scientific analysis of the whole thing is that: "The door was shut hard and there's no breeze here".

Ghostly EVP voices are frequently played back to the camera. They're presented as fact, yet are so indecipherable that the viewer is given subtitles to make sure the ghost's message is clear. Again, the grand sum of scientific analysis offered is one person trying to recreate the voice message. When the volume level is found to be different, that's offered as proof that it was a spirit doing it the first time.

Both the aforementioned events happened in episode one and at the end of the investigation the team leader tells us the building is: "definitely haunted". His evidence? I just gave it to you.

The series continues in the same vein. In episode three - shot in some old 'wild west' town - a photo taken in a suitably notorious area was found to display a shadow. The team leader's immediate response was: "Hmmm....perhaps we should get this analaysed by Joe Nickell or some other expert so we can rule out natural phenomena before jumping to conclusions." No, I'm kidding of course, his real response was: "That's a shadow person right there!" jumping for joy as he did so. I could give further examples of the way it's all spun but I think you get the picture.

What gets my back up about all this is not that it's so cheesy. I understand TV shows need viewers and a truly scientific approach may have less appeal, but it's all presented so deceptively. It's not just my genius but young student Sam who has been taken in by this, it's a whole group of young people. I recently tried debating with a few fans of the show on Facebook and their defence of their favourite show was truly passionate. I almost felt mean for trying to dissuade them.

Those who value truly scientific principles and wish to peruse a better way to perform research than the 'Ghost Lab' crew could do worse than consult a published article on the Rochester University website (I'll link to it below) that explains how we can truly collect, measure, present and validate data in all types of scientific research.

One of the rules is that we should aim for a series of experiments. If we catch a "shadow person" on camera once, can we do it again, ever? If not, how does this contribute to scientific research? Another vital area is "controlled variables". In our 'Ghost Lab' show, a controlled variable might be something as basic as a door, for example. Keeping it locked, inaccessible and observed would make it much more impressive when it allegedly opens "by itself". Certainly it would be more convincing to scientists than simply stating "there's no breeze here".

One last rule discussed in the article and one I always keep as my own golden rule is also known as 'Occam's Razor'. It states: "Things need not be multiplied beyond necessity". What this means of course is that when we have a multitude of explanations for an event or occurrence, we should always choose the one that requires the least amount of assumptions and stays the closest to what we know to be true. So when a "shadow person" appears on a photograph, does a good scientist immediately conclude "Shadow person" - for which there exists zero evidence - or a probable error in the camera lens - an event that happens daily? When presented with creaky audio that may have a faint voice on it , does a good scientist first try to rule out living people or other natural noises, or immediately conclude that dead people are communicating via audio recorders with non-sequitur messages?

Again, I could go on but I'm sure you get the picture. Perhaps some readers could find an enjoyable hobby in reading the article and then watching the show to see how the whole team completely ignore scientific principles. All I ask in return for introducing such a fun filled thirty minutes is that the reader ensures any young viewers accompanying them are shown what nonsense it all is.

Rochester University's guide to the scientific method:

More on 'Occam's Razor':

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Greenfyre strikes back

Greenfyre - the man who "doesn't debate" - does not take criticism as well as he hands it out and has responded to the deconstruction in my previous post. Unlike Greenfyre, I allow people right of criticism so his original comments are welcome and untouched.

Now let's respond. My previous article was long so I'll make this rebuttal as quick as possible.

    GF says.... 

i) In that whole long screed you can't accurately quote & link a single specific [sic] to substantiate any of your claims ... that tells any thinking person all they need to know;

Any "thinking person" would see that I had made several links in the article. Since GF omits to mention what the "specific" is (irony, anyone?) this is a pretty appalling response.

   GF says....
ii) You need to look up "argumentum ad ignorantiam", you clearly do not understand it;

Here is the definition from as I specifically linked to in the article:

Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: (appeal to ignorance) the fallacy that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. This error in reasoning is often expressed with influential rhetoric.

A. The informal structure has two basic patterns:

Statement p is unproved.
is true.

Statement not-p is unproved.
is true.

Let's look at the second basic pattern: "Statement not-p is unproved..." "Santa Claus does not exist" is an unproven statement, because a negative cannot be proven. We can show it's very unlikely that he exists and it would be impossible for him to visit every home in one night, but we cannot categorically prove he doesn't exist.

"The current global warming is not entirely due to anthropogenic activity" is an almost identical premise. The only exception being that basic theories of heat transfer and radiative forcing make it likely that some of the heating is being accelerated and slightly exacerbated due to man's activity. However the premise remains the same, it's impossible to prove that all the heating is not due to us humans.

So when it's pointed out that climate science is a new science, unbelievably complex and not yet understood fully by anyone, so we should be careful about abusing other opinions, then how is the argument ad Ignorantiam an acceptable response? It's not. It's simply saying: "I'm right, because you can't prove me wrong".

There's one more area I should be more clear about. In my article I mentioned:
His comment policy warns us that any "gibberish" will be deleted. His idea of "gibberish" is quite broad of course and includes theories relating to Climate Change papered by highly qualified scientists.

The actual wording of GF's comment policy is:
Comments that are not relevant to the post that they appear under or the evolving discussion will simply be moved or deleted, as will links to Denier spam known to be scientific gibberish

In short: "I'll censor anyone who disagrees or disputes with me". Notice what the final words link to;  the index already discussed that features "Skeptic  Vs Science"  arguments. Those "skeptic" arguments very loosely and sloppily cover arguments from sunspots and solar activity as discussed by astrophysicist Piers Corbyn, a dismissal of  the clear growth of Antarctica's sea ice as discussed by Syun-Ichi Akasofu. Perhaps most ludicrously of all it rejects the overwhelming evidence that the Medieval Warming Period was warmer than today. The lie to this is given by a plenitude of papers as disseminated by the Idso family, all respected scientists.

That's just three examples. So by describing arguments advanced by such people as "gibberish" seems a bit rich for an NGO. Minority? Maybe. Gibberish? Hardly. And apart from some bluster, we've now dealt with the full extent of GF's response. Perhaps now it's becoming clearer why he "won't debate".

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Dousing a damp Greenfyre - responding to personal criticism by Mike Kaulbars

You can learn a lot about a person from watching them argue. When feelings or values are questioned is when our words are most unguarded. Even the internet offers no escape, as we are about to see in our special little case study. I hope we may learn something about dealing with aggressive people in debate, use or misuse of logical arguments and climate change science on the way. Heck we might even get a glimpse at human nature and the art of misdirection thrown in somewhere, too.

How will we achieve this? By my deconstruction and rebuttal of a blog called Greenfyre, run by Mike Kaulbars. There's nothing really special about the blog in terms of popularity, content or design. In fact, it's very much a blog's version of Nicholas Cage; great things may be expected but mediocrity is always delivered. So why bother? Well, it's become personal. Mike has been abusive to me several times of late because I've challenged him to a debate on a neutral forum of his choice. He's sidestepped all those challenges and continued his abuse and censorship of my comments. That's his prerogative. This article is mine.

Yet in this petty squabble we can see a far bigger and more positive picture. Greenfyre's blog is very typical of environmentalists and their attitude to Climate Change and those who dissent with mainstream opinion. Every time you read the name "Greenfyre" in this article, don't think of one dull blog, think of the huge number of people around the world who hold a very similar point of view and reason in a similar way. There's a lot of insight and learning to be had if we look for it. However, before we start I should mention my own attitude to the Climate Change debate is briefly summarised here.

There are three issues I want to deal with here. One, the blog itself: its tone, its content and the manner of the blogger. Next is use of the 'denier' tag. Finally we'll analyse the logical constructions and method of debate used. At the end of this piece I'll link to some excellent sites that offer a wealth of scientific information on climate change. That will summarise my viewpoints on the science better than I could do myself.

The Greenfyre blog - alarmism at its best

Lest I make the debate more personal than needed, the easiest way for anyone to get a feel for Mike's blog (I'll call him "Greenfyre" or "GF" from now on for the same reason) is to take a look at the introductory page and browse around a little. It shouldn't take long for the picture to form.

When I first encountered GF's blog I asked an innocent question and was told by GF that I was "humiliating myself" along with some other niceties. More recently when I requested a debate, GF - the man who runs an entire blog based around argument - told me he "doesn't debate".

To his credit, GF is honest about the aggressive and bellicose nature of his blog. It's exactly what he states it is - a collection of arguments and responses. But of course there are two basic types of argument - rational or hysterical. The two are not mutually exclusive but the latter often occurs without the former. Rational argument is done calmly, with logic and a clear mind. Hysterical argument is usually aggressive - peppered with insults and anger and is designed merely to silence the opponent, rather than decide who is right.

Looking at GF's "tag cloud" in the right hand column of his blog tells us immediately what type of argument we are looking at. Three forms of the word "denier" make up the biggest clouds along with sensationalisms like "exposing deniers" and "climate justice" (whatever that means). A quick scan of articles draws a similar conclusion. Of his five most recent articles, three have nothing whatsoever to do with science. Indeed, two of them are simply pseudo-tutorials about how to infer someone who disagrees with his arguments is akin to a Nazi, another is simply a mockery of one person. The other two cover little science.

His comment policy warns us that any "gibberish" will be deleted. His idea of "gibberish" is quite broad of course and includes theories relating to Climate Change papered by highly qualified scientists.

There is a science section with a variety of links, but none of the links are authored by Mike and it is clearly a side-issue. Is such an approach productive? Would the unsure, the intelligent layman, the inquisitive or the shy be persuaded to follow and concur with the scientific beliefs of such a person? If not, how is the blog useful?

That's the problem when dealing in nothing but polemics. It's hard to keep rational when all you're doing is fighting with people. GF - like so many others -  has become fanatically sure he's right. Once a person reaches that stage, reason and facts challenging that belief become objects of anger or even hatred. Science is not immune to such emotions. The Roman Inquisition were sure they had science on their side when they sentenced Giordano Bruno to death for suggesting The Universe was infinite. 

The "Denier" tag

Denier: A person who denies

The 'Denier' tag is used - usually lazily and indiscriminately- by left wing and/or environmentalists against anyone who dissents with their views on climate change. The reason why such a label has been chosen should be obvious. The word has two implications. The first one is being in the wrong, as a person who 'denies' something usually has to defend themself against something and is usually placed on the defensive. The second, more subtle but powerful implication is the obvious association that I don't even need to specify.

When you hear the word, what are the pictures that follow? It's loved by alarmists for this reason. Its undertones are strong, obvious and sinister yet cannot be proven, in the same way it can't be proven that FIFA took a bung in their recent World Cup vote.

But the disgraceful tag isn't just immoral, it's plain wrong. What is it that "deniers" actually deny? That climate is changing? Of course not, climate is always changing. That it's getting hotter? Even leading sceptic Lord Monckton regularly publishes a report showing global temperatures, which are, of course, increasing. Do they deny that it's getting hotter because of humans? I've yet to find a single credible person who believes that anthropogenic activity does not play a single part in recent warming.

So how do those who use the "denier" designation get away with it then? Most of them don't. Challenge them on their meaning and they cannot take the argument as far as we've just taken it in the last paragraph. But a few will claim that "deniers" means anyone who disagrees with the mainstream viewpoint on global warming. Aha! So are we getting somewhere now? Not really.

The "mainstream" opinion on global warming is engineered by the IPCC (I've discussed them before), a panel of scientists who pool their ideas together. But IPCC members rarely agree on the exact amount of warming or exactly how responsible humans are for it, or any of the other statistics in their reports. Their reported estimates are a compromise of opinion. So what "deniers" actually dare to dispute is not the single viewpoint of any single human but a very broad range of compromised statistics from a group of people who also agree to being unsure.

So what is it that 'deniers' are 'denying'? Apparently we are denying that sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 centimeters this century (as the IPCC warn). So if your own forecast is 17 centimeters, you're a denier. Not a "dissenter", a "disagreer", a "contrarian" or a "rebel", just an evil "denier".  Likewise, if you believe that average temperatures will rise by 1.0 degrees before 2100, you're a Nazi. But if you believe the rise will be 1.1 - 6.4 degrees, that's OK, you're inside the IPCC estimate, you're one of the good guys!

Oh and it doesn't matter that the IPCC have been wrong so many times before. ( one, two , three random examples. ) That's irrelevant propaganda, probably thrown out there by Nazis.

The use of logic and debate

As we've already seen, Greenfyre's blog is mainly based around polemics and argument rather than learning or informing people. But polemics and arguments can be deceptive and psychologically cogent when structured carefully.

We all know a good example of this - the last word. How many of us can really deny (no pun intended) that we feel better when we get the last word in an argument?  It takes a strong person to resist such a temptation. In the case of science, it shouldn't really matter what order the facts come in, but the way they are presented can influence people.

This is why GF links to an ostensibly neutral website that presents all the arguments from "Skeptics" (credit at least for avoiding the cheap-shot 'denier' tag) and then presenting the "science" as a response. Note that by using the term "science" on one side, it implies the 'skeptic" is not using science. In all 139 arguments, the skeptic' line is given first and the "science" second. This gives a strong impression that all "skeptic" lines have been answered and dealt with. That is not true, nor is it how a real debate works.

In a real debate, parties take turns to speak, analyse the opponent's arguments, point out flaws or faults in their argument and reinforce their own angle. If this can't be done, then an honest person should reconsider their own position.

A look at the list of arguments GF links to is a worry. The third argument - the 97% myth - has been proven as deception. The second argument is aimed at someone who denies humans cause any warming, and we've established how rare they are. The first argument - the sun is causing warming - is "debunked" by one single graph. One single graph to discuss a hugely complex, incredibly important and powerful topic.

I can't go through every listed argument but you get the point. Important issues are swept away simply by the way they are presented; as not having 'the last word'. This is a big deal, because it will heavily influence causal readers, the easily mislead and researchers.

GF is also aware of the power of the 'last word' and the way arguments are presented, which is why he "fisks" the comments of anyone and everyone who disagrees with him. 'Fisking' means taking apart a person's argument line by line and responding to it. This is a commonplace and perfectly fair tactic and I do it myself.  However GF actually does it with the person's original comments, the online equivalent of speaking over someone. It's not only rude, it's also prejudicing how the person comes across to other people. A similar tactic to the Scientologist method of publicly smearing anyone whom they think is about to speak out against them. Likewise, Greenfyre Mike has a "Dunce's Corner" for comments "too stupid to reply to". Needless to say, he is judge and jury about who gets sent there.

All these antics serve to make GF or anyone else feel secure. By always having the last word, they feel nobody can threaten their belief system and nobody can persuade others that their viewpoint is wrong either. It's not how honest science works, though.

Use of logical arguments, and lack thereof

It's not just back and forth argument that can be misued in scientific discussion.  Logical arguments can be used and abused in such circles and their effect can be just as powerful as the 'last word' psychology, especially when the recipient or target is unaware of what is happening. Let's take a look at a few examples....

The 'denier' tag is of course, ad-hominem attack. This has become so obvious that GF now uses this as a double bluff, claiming that anyone who uses the term doesn't know what it means.

Further arguments come into play. Clearly GF is playing  the "Argument By Vehemence". People don't like being insulted and many will shy away from argument if they believe it will happen.

We have yet more examples on the field of play. On one occasion I pointed out to Mike that Climate Science is new, incredibly complex and as such nowhere near fully understood. My point being that in such circumstances he could or should not label people as deniers for disagreeing with his opinions. He responded (well, fisked actually) that I was using argumentum ad ignorantiam, his inference suggesting something cannot be true because we don't understand it. Actually that's a poor use of the argument, a better explanation of it is here.

The irony of course is that the argument from ignorance is coming from the Greenfyre. Because Climate Science is so complex, there really is nobody who can lay claim to having all the knowledge or all the facts about what will happen. And therefore, since GF's arguments cannot be disproven, they must be true!

As with every other section, I could give further examples but you surely get the picture. For a good breakdown of logical fallacies, go here. When you see one being used, simply call it out.

In this article we've seen many of the ways that we can be deceived, mislead, manipulated or just plain bullied. We've also seen how some logical arguments can be used or misused. Simply knowing the techniques that some of these nasty aims can be achieved is often enough to defend against them.

But none of us are perfect. We're often better at deciding or misleading ourselves than anyone else. If readers - including Greenfyre - feel that I've been unfair or wrong in any of my conclusions, then my offer offer of a debate or simply a discussion still stands. In the meantime however, my own verdict is that Greenfyre may well have some solid scientific arguments but they are lost in the shrill voice of his angry rants. In that, we may be able to see the many faults of a person so convinced they are right.


Sites that generally disagree with IPCC opinion: - contains details of hundreds of peer reviewed science papers concerning climate change. Also has links to a highly informative alternative (to IPCC) climate change report.

http://www. - similar to the previous link - slightly more polemical than the above two sites but still highly informative. Christopher Monckton is  regular contributor to the site and is hated by many environmentalists for matching their aggressive tactics. - the most popular sceptic blog online. Sometimes has up to ten blogs per day. - an underrated site with a lot of research, graphs and data. - the site of Steve McIntyre, one half of the duo that exposed Al Gore's hockey stick graph fraud.

Sites that generally concur with mainstream theory: - Partly run by William Connelly , who is banned from Wikipedia for aggressive censorship and editing of GW articles and publishing links to his own site as source. Still useful though. - The IPCC site The UN's climate change site

Other sites of interest: - a fantastic and longs serving site dealing with sceptical views of most things paranormal. The only worry is that it has recently inserted a link to Greenfyre's blog. I can only think it was done as a personal favour. - Again, a list of faulty arguments - a site documenting public uses of weasel wording, another form of deception.