Having a rational conversation about public policy issues is becoming increasingly difficult because so many advocates will brook no disagreement, even if their positions are contradicted by facts or logic. Instead of engaging the argument, they demonize those who disagree with them as corrupt, ignorant, racist or worst. They use these ad hominem attacks, in turn, to justify their refusal to compromise. The result is that urgent problems grow steadily worse.
Environmental issues often provide vivid examples of this process, especially if the issue is global warming. Earlier this month, for example, global warming activists and their many allies in government and the traditional media made much of a report by the National Climate Data Center, which is part of the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The report, according to weather.com, found that “higher-than-average monthly temperatures were reported on nearly every continent around the world, including much of Europe and Asia, coastal Africa, Central America and central South America, as well as in the North Atlantic Ocean, southwest Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.
“Russia experienced its warmest November since national weather records began in 1891, as some parts of the country like Siberia and the Arctic islands in the Kara Sea recorded temperatures more than 14 Fahrenheit degrees higher than the monthly average. At the same time, cooler-than-average temperatures were reported in parts of North America -- especially in the southeastern U.S. -- as well as in northern Australia and southwest Greenland. No record cold monthly temperatures were reported.”
People willing to listen to dissenting arguments learned there was more — and less — to the NOAA report than was reported. Global temperature data collected by satellite sensors have been heavily influenced for years by what appears to be severe warming across Russia. But global warming skeptic and meteorologist Anthony Watt notes this about the Russian warming:
“I have been wondering about that Russian red spot for 5 years. I’ve seen this red spot come and go in Russia, and I don’t know what the reason is. I do know this: Neither I nor NOAA has a good handle on the siting characteristics of Russian weather stations.” He also points to the fact Russia’s extensive use of centralized steam heating systems “puts a lot of waste heat into the air from steam pipes.”
There are indeed longstanding questions about the accuracy of worldwide average temperature readings, due to errors introduced by the geographic distribution of recording stations across the vast expanse of Russia. As Watt wrote in 2008, “like in the USA, weather stations tend to be distributed according to population density, with the more populated western portion of Russia having more weather stations than the less populated eastern areas such as Siberia.”
There are statistical methods for correcting for such factors, but nobody knows with certainty whether those methods produce a credible result. These doubts are reason enough for humility among global warming advocates — if only they would take out their earplugs.