An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore presents a story that has strong citations, impeccable source material, and uncontestable imagery. We know the world is round, and yet there will always be those who insist they are living on a flat surface. Gore points this out right away, when he quotes Mark Twain:

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.
It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

Take for example Kevin Carr. Carr is not only known for publically embarassing himself in a noodle-eating competition by puking up the four pounds of noodles he shoved in his mouth (the winner ate less than three pounds, just to put his passion versus sensibilities in perspective), but he also fashions himself as a writer and movie critic.

Here’s how he passed judgement on Gore’s work before he even saw the movie:

There was a time when I thought that no other filmmaker in the history of America would be considered more partisan than Michael Moore. All that changed when I heard that Al Gore was coming out with his own film.

Imagine Roger Ebert saying “I heard a movie was coming out and so I give it a thumbs down.”

Carr then explains why the movie fulfilled his expectations:

Even if I liked Al Gore, I’d have trouble stomaching this movie, which is completely biased, partisan and loaded with bait-and-switch arguments. I could have stood for more real science and less Al Gore.

I suppose this noodle-puking expert has a lot to say about what he can and can’t stomach these days, but one has to wonder what really motivates someone to try and eat four pounds of anything in just a few minutes. My guess is Carr prefers less-filling material to the hard stuff, even if you measure by weight. On that note, Carr actually called up a fellow Gore-a-phobe to help chill the “theory” of global warming. First, consider who he asked for a “balanced” perspective. Western Fuels and other energy companies hired Balling to create doubt about the effects of CO2 and warming:

From 1991 to 1995, Dr. Robert Balling received about $300,000 from Cyprus [Development Corporation], the British Coal Corporation, the German Coal Mining Association and OPEC. In his collaborations with Dr. Sherwood Idso, Balling has received about $50,000 in research funding from Cyprus Minerals, as well as a separate grant of $4,900 from Kenneth Barr, at the time CEO of Cyprus. The German Coal Mining Association has provided about $80,000 in funding for Balling’s work. The British Coal Corporation has kicked in another $75,000. Balling also received a grant of $48,000 from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science as well as unspecified consulting fees from the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. Balling’s 1992 book, The Heated Debate, was subsequently translated into Arabic and distributed to the governments of OPEC. The funding for this edition of his book was provided by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.

Apparently some people will say anything for money. Second, it seems that Balling’s arguments were actually covered in Gore’s movie as the common tactic used by large companies to fight the facts that they can not disprove. Since there are no counter-arguments, they instead argue “not good enough” and “that’s just speculation since nothing is ever watertight”. One thing Gore missed, actually, is that the uncertainty argument swings both way and things may be far worse than estimated.

A perfect example of this is Balling’s Thank you for Smoking style of argument about tornadoes. He tells Carr:

it’s almost foolish to show this whole plot that indicates tornadoes have been on the rise. That’s not even true. Actually the plot might show damage from tornadoes is on the rise. But the idea that we have more tornadoes now because of global warming is not supported at all by the literature

“Almost” foolish. Upon closer examination, this claim is based upon the idea that better discovery tools allow you to say nothing is changing, even when logic and reason tell you otherwise. Here’s how it appears to work:

  1. Official records show the total yearly number of tornadoes occurring in the United States has increased from 100 to nearly 1400 since 1916
  2. New technology, such as radar detection that was started in 1953, is designed to find and track tornadoes in more remote areas and is therefore responsible for some of the higher numbers
  3. Some of the higher numbers might also be due to people settling in areas where tornadoes would otherwise go undetected (nevermind the overlap with the radar argument and the fact that rural populations are often actually shrinking) or it could be from storm chasers (they’ll find things radar can’t, right?) and then television and radio could also help increase the number of reported tornadoes as well…

So the feeling you are probably meant to have is that the trend would be flat-lined if measurement tools had been the same over time. In other words, they admit that data shows a trend, but they dismiss that certainty with an uncertainty about today’s technology in 1916. You can’t really argue against that bit of fantasy, now, can you?

To highlight the silliness of this perspective try asking yourself what the charts would look like if dragons and unicorns existed in 1916.

In Kansas, this would be called the pile of bullsh*t that it really is…you can’t look at the numbers and just totally discount that the numbers have been steadily increasing because of radar. What about the rise prior to 1953? What if you try and correct the numbers for rural/unpopulated areas? That makes some scientific sense and would be a factual counter-claim to perhaps reduce the percentage of increase, but Balling’s response that an increase is “not even true” is actually an attempt to divert the listener to fantasy while making it seem that it is known that the numbers have not increased. And that clearly is foolish, as well as not true:

US Tornadoes

On the flip-side, therefore, you might say that technology begins to show that there are far worse events taking place than originally assumed, and it becomes even more imperative to take counter-measures immediately. In fact, this has often been my experience in information security. As you introduce testing and measurement methodologies into an ad hoc environment, you will see a large spike in critical bugs that need urgent attention. They are usually indications of bigger issues to come; not an anomaly. Woe be the company that dismisses this as a natural fluctuation in programming or refuse to act upon evidence of insecure code (e.g. CardSystems). I could draw some real-life parallels here, but let it suffice to say that I remember a CIO who always said the current global warming is just part of a natural trend and large amounts of insecure code pushed to production is just a fact of life. Another common theme in information security is when a product manager will ask for permission to release products with known flaws because some other product manager has flaws in their production code. Another arguement I am certain Ballinger uses — the US should just keep cranking CO2 since China and Europe are polluting too. As Gore said, once you realize the truth of the risk, these issues really come down to a question of morals.

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