Monday, November 09, 2009

A few words about Warren Meyer's bona fides.

It's been brought to my attention that Warren Meyer of the Coyote Blog and its side project "Climate Skeptic" will deliver a talk in Phoenix tomorrow about anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

Arizona has real experts on the topic--Chris Castro and Jon Overpeck both immediately come to mind--but Meyer, an "amateur" working through the literature (in that respect, not unlike myself, but read further) almost certainly draws a different audience, one I suspect overlaps a bit with this 'blog.

Meyer may call his climatology 'blog "Climate Skeptic", but I wouldn't call him a "skeptic" at all. "Skeptic" involves a measured, rational, cautious take; Meyer is if nothing else very excitable. Many of the would-be "skeptics" don't even bother to read up on the scientific case for AGW before claiming that the scientific mainstream--98% of people actually working on the problem--is wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong for reasons that would have the scientists involved being outright slobs or worse. Meyer, on the other hand, clearly reads and could almost be said to be trying to learn the science.

The trouble is the spirit in which Meyer is reading. Meyer is not trying to gain an understanding of the state of the science, but instead, he's looking for tidbits to help him argue a preconceived position, like a lawyer does. He's looking for a "gotcha!", and when he thinks he's found one, he stops without going further, without checking to see if his criticism is well-founded or if it is merely a personal hangup, and he tries to convince the public that the people who do this for a living have made a (usually gross) mistake or worse.

When you make a statement about science or the state of science, it comes with an unwritten message: "I have exercised intellectual due diligence and can not only make this argument but can be confident that it is truthful and valid." Meyer completely neglects this. His mistakes are often things that someone working in that field would spot right away but take a bit of effort for someone like me working on different problems. I can't usually fault him for getting it wrong--but in maybe every tenth post there is a glaring exception where he doesn't bother to get the basics right before slandering scientists as being slobs--but I can fault him for not being skeptical, for not examining his position before he tries to convince others that he is correct. And I can fault him for never correcting himself. Being Warren Meyer means never having to explain one's self or apologize.

One of the clearest examples is a a recent post on ocean acification. Ocean acidification isn't a consequence of AGW but it shares a cause, so is often brought up in the same conversation. Meyer plays some word games He thinks it's insightful to note that the pH of seawater is not predicted to drop below 7 and therefore finds use of the word "acidification" objectionable, as though his being an ignoramus implies moral failings for others. But that's not the worst of it.

Meyer tries to pick through the chemistry ab initio--and without the use of tables--and fails in a ridiculous fashion. The claim is that carbon dioxide not only doesn't acidify seawater, but that it cannot, because it "soaks up" H+ ions. (He also gets the mechanism of shell thinning wrong, but that isn't common knowledge.) In short, he is claiming that the
CO2+water <--> carbonic acid <--> H+ + bicarbonate
reaction causes water to become more basic! This is not an advanced topic: this is freshman-high-school level stuff that he could learn from a textbook at a used bookstore. Aquarists (fishkeepers) and others have firsthand practical knowledge of the affect of dissolved CO2 has on pH; if Meyer wanted for some reason to experimentally confirm it, he can purchase a pH meter, Instant Ocean seawater mix, and either generate his own CO2 in a yeast reactor or capture it from a 2 liter bottle of pop, and test what happens to the pH. That sodium carbonate (washing soda) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) are alkaline should also give him pause. Or perhaps he is also a baking-soda-as-antacid "skeptic".

The basic chemistry, empirical work, physiology, and more are spelled out with constant reference to the literature in the Royal Society's review of ocean acidification, which was written to summarize the topic for nonspecialists (and nonscientists). If nothing else, Warren Meyer should have read this before trying to convince the world that the position that increased partial pressure of CO2 acidifies the ocean and that such acidification has negative impact on marine life is "silly". But the normal rules of intellectual honesty do not apply to Warren Meyer and other faux-"skeptics". Take what he has to say tomorrow cum grano salis, or perhaps chase it with antacid.

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