Richard Lindzen’s curiously unskeptical skepticism

The Boston Globe today fronts a good story by environmental reporter Beth Daley on the feud between MIT scientists Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel. Lindzen, who is described as a global-warming skeptic, has had something of a falling-out with Emanuel over the latter’s rising fame resulting from his advocating strong steps to combat climate change.

No story about Lindzen’s so-called skepticism, though, would be complete without a reference to his classic 2007 essay for Newsweek, in which he revealed himself not to be a skeptic but, rather, someone who thinks global warming could prove to be a boon. The piece is no longer available on on the open Web, so allow me to quote from it at some length. Here are the highlights:

There has been a net warming of the earth over the last century and a half, and our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing at some level. Both of these statements are almost certainly true. What of it?…

A warmer climate could prove to be more beneficial than the one we have now….

Is there any point in pretending that CO2 increases will be catastrophic? Or could they be modest and on balance beneficial? India has warmed during the second half of the 20th century, and agricultural output has increased greatly. Infectious diseases like malaria are a matter not so much of temperature as poverty and public-health policies (like eliminating DDT). Exposure to cold is generally found to be both more dangerous and less comfortable.

OK, I’m being selective. Lindzen does write that his reading of the evidence shows human-caused climate change is less severe than most scientists believe, and that the climate models used to predict catastrophic global warming are inherently unreliable. He discusses that in more detail in the Wall Street Journal piece that Daley mentions.

But, at root, Lindzen the “skeptic” believes that the earth is warming, and that human activity is contributing to that warming. Nor do we have to worry about warming-related disease — all we need is the guts to bring back DDT.

Lindzen is free to believe anything he likes. But his opinions and political beliefs are not science.

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19 thoughts on “Richard Lindzen’s curiously unskeptical skepticism

  1. BP Myers

    Read this past week that many lizard species are already doomed, with up to twenty percent of all species more than likely goners by the end of this century.

    But hell, they’ve had a good run. Coupla hundred million years?

    Darwin in action, amiright?

    http://tinyurl.com/25s5rb2

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @BP: Let’s not prejudge this. What really matters is what Lindzen thinks of lizards. Good or bad?

  2. L.K. Collins

    “Lindzen is free to believe anything he likes. But his opinions and political beliefs are not science.”

    And neither are yours, Dan, in spite of your strident defense of both.

    There seems to me a touch of arrogance buried in the assumption that man is NOT subject to or SHOULD BE IMMUNE FROM the same Darwinian forces that affect other species.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @L.K.: All I have to do is rely on Dr. Lindzen, one of the world’s great atmospheric scientists, who agrees with the vast majority of his colleagues that human-caused global warming is a reality.

  3. L.K. Collins

    Seeing as though you have admitted time-and-again your absolute ignorance of matters scientific, I, somehow, cannot see you as a credible commentator, even if you rely on someone who you feel is “one of the world’s great atmospheric scientists.”

    I am sure that, if you should ask him, he would admit that we don’t have sufficiently sophisticated models of the climate or the computing capacity to come even close to an accurate assessment of what is going on now, let alone what is in store for the next millenium.

    Come on, they can’t even predict the weather next week reliably. What makes you so sure that Lindzen’s theories will hold up in 10,000 years, or for that matter, even 10?

    Your views are a POLITICAL opinion and not science. Please stop pretending otherwise.

  4. BP Myers

    @L.K. said: a touch of arrogance buried in the assumption that man is NOT subject to or SHOULD BE IMMUNE FROM the same Darwinian forces that affect other species.

    Boy, talk about missing the point.

    Man himself has become the Darwinian force.

  5. Mike Benedict

    @LK said: “Come on, they can’t even predict the weather next week reliably. What makes you so sure that Lindzen’s theories will hold up in 10,000 years, or for that matter, even 10?”

    You are confusing climatology and atmospheric science with meteorology.

    Not that I’m surprised.

  6. L.K. Collins

    No, Mr. Benedict, I am merely making it as simple as possible so that Dan can grasp the point.

    By his own admission he is scientifically challenged.

    Which is why all his postings on the subject are nothing but political spin based on his journal-du-jour or dart board — I haven’t figured out which, yet.

  7. L.K. Collins

    Didn’t miss the point B.P Meyer.

    The irony is that in becoming a, if not THE dominant Darwinian force, there is no way that man can escape the consequences of that force, and must, perforce go along for the ride.

    This flies somewhat in the face of Dan’s view of man holding his own destiny in his hands.

    I must agree to an extent that man can nudge the trajectory left or right a few millimeters or possibly even a centimeter or two. But in the grand scheme, those millimeters or centimeters will have little bearing on us, and only speculative bearing for those 10,000 or 20,000 years in the future.

    It is even more foolhardy to build a political movement to accomplish things unknown with resources unknown, about technology still yet unknown for goals that are still to be determined..

    But our Dan, will try to keep Gore’s Bores hacking at the problem.

    The world is a grand place, and Nature has more tricks up her sleeve than we can possibly imagine. It is foolhardy to try to tame what you don’t know and can’t possibly understand.

    And surprise, surprise, Nature often tames herself in ways that lead to astounding beauty and benefit that all of the earth’s inhabitants can share.

  8. Mike Stucka

    I find myself wondering if the mention of DDT was in Lindzen’s piece just to annoy people, to push buttons.

    There’s some folks who blame every death from malaria on the banning of DDT. That assumes DDT could have stopped every death since the banning, which is false on two counts. First, DDT was never perfectly effective (though it did a great job initially). But the second point is critical — DDT resistance was already in play when the chemical was banned. DDT was quickly becoming less effective. Mosquitos breed often.

    This becomes less of a curiosity when you realize that, in effect, people are saying the banning of DDT was a genocide launched by environmentalists inspired by Rachel Carson. DDT, in short, becomes a codeword for “environmentalists are trying to kill you.”

    Here’s a good response.

    And here’s a truly classy example of the anti-environmentalist attack page, brought to you by the Web site of FOX News contributor … and former tobacco lobbyist, yeah, we can trust him! … Stephen Milloy:
    http://www.junkscience.com/malaria_clock.html

  9. BP Myers

    @L.K. Collins said: I must agree to an extent that man can nudge the trajectory left or right a few millimeters or possibly even a centimeter or two.

    The great extinctions that are currently occurring–and are certain to happen in the coming decades–are entirely the work of man.

    The culling of the rain forests, the death of the Aral Sea, the poisoning of great swaths of land (see Kiev and environs) are not “natural” or Darwinian, but unnatural and man-made. I would argue each of them alone nudges things forward more than a centimeter or two.

    Reptiles born with misshapen genitalia from PCB’s in the water making them unable to reproduce is neither Darwinian nor natural.

    The grotesqueries being created in the poisoned forests of Chernobyl are neither Darwinian nor natural.

    Children born without limbs because of mercury poisoning is neither Darwinian nor natural.

    And the ongoing warming of the Earth that is resulting in the extinction of species who have been around for hundreds of millions of years is neither Darwinian nor natural.

    But if you’re argument is that man has been such a reprehensible caretaker of his own environment, such that continuing on his present course unaltered will surely result in even his own extinction, on that we can agree.

    Perhaps there will be one or two species left to start things all over again.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @BP: We’ve long since attained the ability to destroy the world’s environment long-term through all-out nuclear war. Since no one would dispute that we can do it quickly, I find it laughable that anyone would call it “arrogance” to point out that we can also do it somewhat less quickly.

      @Mike Stucka: Given that Lindzen accepts the basic science of human-caused climate change, it seems to me that many of his “skeptical” statements are designed more to annoy than to enlighten, with his DDT ramblings being only the most obvious. You never know about those MIT guys. During the Woburn trial, the W.R. Grace P.R. flack loved to regale the press with tales of an MIT scientist who had “proved” that peanut butter was more carcinogenic than trichloroethylene.

      That’s not to say Lindzen doesn’t know his stuff. But having accepted climate science, his opinions about its effects are no more valid than anyone else’s.

  10. Mike Benedict

    @LK: “I must agree to an extent that man can nudge the trajectory left or right a few millimeters or possibly even a centimeter or two. But in the grand scheme, those millimeters or centimeters will have little bearing on us, and only speculative bearing for those 10,000 or 20,000 years in the future.

    “It is even more foolhardy to build a political movement to accomplish things unknown with resources unknown, about technology still yet unknown for goals that are still to be determined..

    But our Dan, will try to keep Gore’s Bores hacking at the problem.”

    You question Dan’s right to comment on environmental matters, then insist on your non-scientific view? Look up irony, LK. Your picture is right there.

    Btw, ever heard of the nuclear bomb?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike Benedict: Good point, as usual. And I am not a complete scientific ignoramus. A lot of my work as a journalist has dealt with scientific matters. At one time I could explain how tetrachloroethylene biodegrades into vinyl chloride, and how measuring the biodegradation can tell you when the stuff was dumped. My book on dwarfism, “Little People,” deals with some rather complex genetics. But cutting-edge science has become so esoteric that we don’t even accept, say, a biologist’s ability to assess climate change unless we’re talking about an aspect of it that intersects with his particular specialty.

      So given that all except a few thousand people can’t really dig in and form their own, scientifically based opinion about human-caused climate change, we are faced with two choices: (1) We can throw up our hands and say, “There are scientists who disagree, so it’s all political. And, oh yeah, Al Gore!” (2) We can accept the fact that the vast majority of atmospheric scientists believe the earth is getting warmer and that humans are a principal cause.

      We can then buttress our view with objective data that don’t require us to be scientists, such as measurements that show the earth is getting warmer, and real-world phenomena such as the melting of the polar ice caps, the opening of the Northwest Passage and the like. And we can take into account the fact that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased exponentially over the last generation or so, and that scientists can explain how CO2 fuels global warming.

      It’s really not that difficult.

  11. BP Myers

    @Dan Kennedy says: I find it laughable that anyone would call it “arrogance” to point out that we can also do it somewhat less quickly.

    What caused the extinction of the dinosaurs wasn’t the initial asteroid hit, but what was spewed into the air.

    To think that we can continue spewing things into the air without consequence is unimaginable hubris.

  12. Dan Storms

    Hate to have to keep pointing this out everytime it comes up, but mosquito eradication for malaria prevention was and is a specifically exempted use of DDT. DDT is still used on mosquito netting and can be spayed on the inside walls of homes in malaria country. What was banned in many countries was the indiscriminate agricultural use of DDT, where it poisoned waterways and the animal life therein, and everything up the food chain from there. Oh, and yes, the nasties were becoming immune to it. Just sayin’.

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