Monday, May 16, 2005

Bad typing and bad science

At first it sounds like environmental political correctness run amok:
Professor David Bellamy is likely to lose his role as the figurehead of two leading wildlife organisations because of his refusal to believe in man-made global warming.

The television presenter and conservationist is the president of Plantlife International and of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. Both organisations have given warnings that wildlife faces a catastrophe because of global warming.

They have been acutely embarrassed to discover that while they have been campaigning to raise awareness, their president has been leading seminars and writing articles in science magazines declaring that man-made warming is a myth. (Time Online)
This much is true, anyway. Bellamy is likely to be asked to step down as figure head of the two organizations because he is saing that global warming is a largely natural phenomenon and trying to stop it is a waste of time and money. His defense that he is in no one's pay is probably also true. Unfortunately, most of the rest of what he says about climate change is false.

In a devastating take-down, George Monbiot at AlterNet, destroys the 72 year old Bellamy's claims and his credibility. At issue are statements made by Bellamy in a recent New Scientist, the respected British newsweekly:
On April 16, New Scientist published a letter from the famous botanist David Bellamy. Many of the world's glaciers, he claimed, "are not shrinking but in fact are growing . . . 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980."
His claims and his solid reputation as a botanist were quickly seized upon by climate change deniers and henchmen like the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Bellamy's cited source for the glacier "facts" was the World Glacier Monitoring Service. Monbiot phoned the Service and read Bellamy's New Scientist letter to them.
I don't think the response would have been published in Nature, but it had the scientific virtue of clarity. "This is complete bullshit." A few hours later, they sent me an email.

"Despite his scientific reputation, he makes all the mistakes that are possible." He had cited data which was simply false, failed to provide references, completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world's glaciers are retreating.
Monbiot didn't stop there, however. He wanted to know the source of the figures. If it wasn't the World Glacier Monitoring Service, what was it? Repeated emails to Bellamy finally produced this source: a website,, kept by former architect Robert W. Felix.
His website is so bonkers that I thought at first it was a spoof. Sadly, he appears to believe what he says. But there indeed was all the material Bellamy cited in his letter, including the figures -- or something resembling the figures -- he quoted. "Since 1980, there has been an advance of more than 55% of the 625 mountain glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring group in Zurich." The source, which Bellamy also cited in his email to me, was given as "the latest issue of 21st Century Science and Technology."
And what is 21st Century Science and Technology? It is a site published by American nutcase supremo Lyndon Larouche, familiar to rapid transit and airport travelers throughout the country as peddler of literature that variously accuses Henry Kissinger as a communist agent (he's actually a war criminal), the British Royal family as head of an international drug cartel (I have no opinion about this), the British government as controlled by Jewish bankers (haven''t I heard that one before?), and most tellingly, modern science as a conspiracy against human potential.

Where did Larouche get the numbers? From Professor Fred Singer, a real environmental scientist and climate change curmudgeon who could only cite as support "a paper published in Science in 1989." Monbiot did an automated and manual search of Science for 1989 but found nothing resembling these data or even a paper on the advance or retreat of glaciers.
So it wasn't looking too good for Bellamy, or Singer, or any of the deniers who have cited these figures. But there was still one mystery to clear up. While Bellamy's source claimed that 55% of 625 glaciers are advancing, Bellamy claimed that 555 of them -- or 89% -- are advancing. This figure appears to exist nowhere else. But on the standard English keyboard, 5 and % occupy the same key. If you try to hit %, but fail to press shift, you get 555, instead of 55%. This is the only explanation I can produce for his figure. When I challenged him, he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics."
That hasn't stopped Bellamy's figures and bad typing from being held up as evidence that human-caused climate change is a scam of the Left and hard-edge environmentalists. Or to the lionizing of him by the Right as the "latest" victim of environmental political correctness.

Kudos to Monbiot for an exemplary job of debunking. Too bad the bunk will continue to have a life of its own.