Friday, May 22, 2009

Ian Plimer on climate change

As was mentioned last August by commenter Ktisophilos, Ian Plimer has a new book out on climate change, titled Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science, in which he challenges claims of anthropogenic global warming.

Plimer is an Australian professor of geology who I criticized for his methods in debate with creationists, as well as for his reliability and accuracy. He responded by criticizing me with more misrepresentation in his book Telling Lies for God, which contained numerous errors, as well as multiple cases of failure to properly quote and cite sources that he used in writing the book. (The Creation Ministries International documentary for which I was interviewed, Facing the Fire, is about Plimer's 1988 debate with Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research.)

It now appears that Plimer's latest work is also extremely sloppy and contains erroneous source attributions. Tim Lambert at the Deltoid ScienceBlog identifies a long list of problems in the book by page number, points out the facts about Plimer's misleading figure 3, which doesn't originate from the source Plimer has claimed, and about another misrepresented source and graph.

Some Christians who found Plimer to be worthless as a source on creationism as a result of my critique have nonetheless found him to be a worthwhile source on anthropogenic climate change, such as Bill Muehlenberg and some of the commenters at his CultureWatch blog. This strikes me as an inconsistent position--Plimer has demonstrated unreliability in both debates, and shouldn't be relied upon as a source for either. That doesn't mean to ignore what he says, or that everything he says is wrong--it's just that everything he says needs to be thoroughly checked for accuracy. If it checks out, then it's better to cite the original source, not Plimer.

UPDATE (May 26, 2009): Commenter Paul points out a review of Plimer's book by Barry Brook, which also includes a link to a point-by-point critique of the book by Prof. Ian Enting of the University of Melbourne (PDF). (This link has been updated as of June 1, 2009 to point to a location that will continue to maintain the most recent version of the critique, as per a comment below from Prof. Enting.)

UPDATE (May 28, 2009): Bill Muehlenberg still appears to be refusing to publish contrary opinions from me, continuing his past record. I posted the following two comments on his blog, which he has not allowed through moderation:

1. Comment submitted on the evening of May 22, 2009:
I am a critic of creationism and skeptic who challenged Ian Plimer's methods and reliability in his criticisms of creationism (cited by one of your commenters above). I am sorry to say that Plimer's methods and reliability continue to be unsound in his contribution to the climate change debate. For example, see the following two blog posts that document errors and falsehoods in his new book:

I think that Plimer is mostly correct about creationism (it's nonsense) and mostly incorrect about climate change (there are real trends that correlate with human activity), but given his record he shouldn't be relied upon as a source in either debate without carefully checking up on everything he says.
2. Submitted on the morning of May 23, 2009:

I do hope you will let my comments through moderation.

Here is another post from the Deltoid ScienceBlog about Ian Plimer misrepresenting one of his own sources:
UPDATE (September 2, 2009): Plimer has descended further into irrationality in his exchange with George Monbiot.

UPDATE (December 17, 2009): Plimer engaged in a debate, of sorts, with George Monbiot, on Australia's "Lateline" program. Monbiot offers his overview of how it went.


Ktisophilos said...

Tim Lambert? A self-described computer scientist is an authority on climatology, especially one not necessarily so reliable? I would agree about taking Plimer with a grain of salt, but find it amusing that his former media allies have turned on him. One example is Leigh Dayton, who used to write fluffy feelgood pieces on Plimer's battle with the Ark Search people, but was savage on his latest book.

Lippard said...

Thanks for the link to that Lambert DDT debate. I am not well-versed in that dispute, but from what I see, I'm disappointed that Lambert didn't offer a comprehensive response that either rebutted or acknowledged error on each point--in formal debate terms, he simply dropped most of the arguments.

I think that's a sufficient argument that Lambert's review of Plimer should be scrutinized point-by-point; the only argument he's made that I've personally reviewed in any detail is the one about the misleading table 3, and that looks like a pretty well-established screwup by Plimer.

Paul Foord said...

You may be interested in this review of Plimer's book by Prof Barry Brook and the associated lnks

Tim Lambert said...

It is very disappointing that you fell for Beck's version of the Gish gallop.

Lippard said...


The Gish gallop is a strategy in a live debate where there isn't sufficient time for a comprehensive response to every point. The Beck post in question was from a year ago, but as far as I saw in my short review, you didn't respond to most of it--you appear to have left the arguments unanswered (but please correct me if I am mistaken).

Gish, by contrast, is responded to quite comprehensively in published books, papers, and online materials. That may also be the case for J.F. Beck or the arguments he's making, but I'm not entirely sure what his general position is (apart from the very specific quibbling cited).

Now, perhaps I've just missed where you've pointed to the materials that offer such a response or would come to a different conclusion in digging deeper, but it appeared to me that at least some of the arguments did hit home (e.g., about citing sources that didn't say what was claimed). I've just now dug in a bit on a few of them, such as the dispute about a Miranda Devine misquote of Rachel Carson, and I agree that one is very weak (Devine was personally accused of quote doctoring and it appears to have been an editorial change; at least one of the people charging Devine personally with the misquote apologized).

I should add that I don't think I've come across J.F. Beck before, and am not clear on what the opposing positions are here. I see Beck correctly opposing the apparent claim that there was no U.S. ban on DDT in 1972, but also attributing an increase in malaria cases to WHO and environmentalist opposition to DDT, which looks to me like at least a gross oversimplification (with this letter from Dr. Alan Lymbery offering a rebuttal). There are clearly insect resistance and public health issues with DDT, and I don't think there's an environmentalist conspiracy that is the cause of its disuse (or lack of development of a malaria vaccine, for that matter). An organization I support, PATH, is very active in combating malaria via multiple means including working to develop a vaccine, and I've never seen them suggest that if only DDT were heavily used, the problem would be solved.

BTW, there are effective strategies for dealing with the Gish gallop in a live debate, though most of Gish's debate opponents have failed to do so. Two opponents who did very well--and left Gish as the one dropping most of the arguments--were Ken Saladin and Philip Kitcher. For example, multiple Gish points can be treated as a group and rebutted with references to comprehensive responses, so that while they aren't directly responded to by the debater, the arguments aren't dropped. Most of Gish's opponents were not as well versed with Gish's arguments and simply weren't prepared.

Lippard said...

Paul: Thanks very much for the Barry Brook review, which is a good complement to Tim Lambert's list of criticisms.

Tim Lambert said...

Jim, I dealt with three of Beck's 24 claims in detail as well as his responses and it took 2300 words. While in theory it is possible to devote unlimited space on a blog to debunking him, I feel there are better uses for my time, especially since most of his stuff is just a rehash of stuff that has already been rebutted. I think that if you read through the exchanges on those three posts you should conclude that Beck is not to be trusted -- he refused to budge an inch, despite being proved wrong on all three points.

You suggested two points where you think Beck may have a point:

"citing sources that didn't say what was claimed"

I have not done this. If you can be specific, I'll be happy to address this.

"Beck correctly opposing the apparent claim that there was no U.S. ban on DDT in 1972"

The "apparent claim" is a strawman.

Lippard said...

Tim: Beck claims you appealed to the "Roll Back Malaria" document as evidence of WHO support of DDT use, even though it doesn't mention DDT. He doesn't link to your claim, however--is he putting words in your mouth? What did you actually write?

Re: the "straw man" about "no U.S. ban on DDT in 1972"--what is your actual position about the 1972 U.S. DDT ban that has been misrepresented?

I just came across this Roger Bate article that criticizes you, have you responded to it somewhere?

I've not previously read anything by Bate, but his reply in this instance appears to stake out a reasonable position (and it looks like calling him a "tobacco lobbyist" was a mistake, if his response is accurate).

Brad said...

Why do you think climate change is the biggest talking point while in populated valleys we're breathing the pollutants and experiencing the health effects first-hand?

Tim Lambert said...

Yes, Beck is, as usual, misrepresenting what I wrote. In my post I said that that document shows that the WHO "clearly supports IRS in regions of unstable transmission".

Part of the problem is that the DDT fetishists like to categorize vector control efforts as "DDT" vs "no DDT", but if you are actually interested in vector control, the categories you use are IRS vs ITN. DDT is just one of the insecticides used for IRS and whether you use it or one of the other insecticides is not a big deal unless you are obsessed with DDT.

That document is a response to calls that they should be using more DDT, and when they talk about IRS in it they are referring to using DDT and other insecticides.

My position on the US ban is that the US banned DDT in 1972 (though with an exception for public health use).

My post on Bate's claim that he just did a little consulting for the tobacco industry is here and continues here.

Lippard said...

Thanks, Tim--I'm persuaded. The cases I've looked at all appear to go your way rather than your critics'.

Ktisophilos: Looks to me like Tim's a reliable enough source--but even if he wasn't, there are at least three different sources of serious critiques of multiple parts of Plimer's book. BTW, Bill Muehlenberg still hasn't let my comments through moderation--looks like he's continuing his record of quashing critical viewpoints, i.e., he's dishonest.

Brad: I think there isn't much debate over pollution and its attendant health risks... everyone agrees that things we can do to improve efficiency and reduce pollution are good. The disagreement over AGW/climate change is over whether there are further risks which merit additional regulation and government spending that is extremely costly and will impact efficiency as well as economic growth.

Brad said...

It's still hard for me to swallow that we must in a sense allow awful things to occur because of limited resources. Its hard to reconcile that with my opinion that all human beings are of equal worth.

Ktisophilos said...

JL: "Bill Muehlenberg still hasn't let my comments through moderation--looks like he's continuing his record of quashing critical viewpoints, i.e., he's dishonest."

Why is it "dishonest"? He makes no pretence of doing otherwise:

Commenting RulesReaders are welcome to post comments on the material posted here, but some simple rules apply:

1. I reserve the right to edit or refuse comments.

2. This site is meant to express my point of view. If you are looking for a soapbox to promote your own views, create your own website or blog site. ...
He is under no obligation to post anything, even your comments which are quite tame by comparison with some he allows.

Some of the blog entries on this site have moderation on comments too, which is your right.

Lippard said...

I think it's dishonest to suppress contrary information. He has the right to run his blog however he likes, I agree.

This blog is set to moderate comments on posts that are more than N days old (I think N=10), but I let anything through that's not spam--I have never deleted or suppressed comments because they express disagreement.

Ian said...

A number of people have noted that I have taken up Plimer's challenge
(Hot air doomsayers in the Australian) to address the science.

This is an ongoing activity. Our intention is that the latest available version (currently 1.7) will be available from

Ian Enting

Lippard said...

Prof. Enting: Thanks for the link. I have updated my post to link to your critique of Plimer's book at that location.