Roy Spencer: Letting Ideology Trump Science

Posted on May 14, 2011


I sent a message over that I was going to diss Roy Spencer and sure enough my climate denier neighbour got his denial slippers on.  I can hear Simple Sam clop-clopping down the hall right now.—Howdy, Sam.

“Roy Spencer is the author of 25 peer-reviewed papers on climate change,” says Sam, ignoring my pleasant greeting and getting right to business.  “He’s a genuine climate expert who disagrees with the IPCC conclusions on the issue.  He says…”

So you think we should listen to what Brother Roy tells us about climate change, then, Sam?

“Of course.  And why are you referring to him as Brother Roy?”

Oo, such a frowny, disapproving face you have, Sam.—I call him Brother Roy because Roy Spencer is a well known proponent of the pseudo-scientific “Intelligent Design” hypothesis.  (See here.)  You know, that’s the theory which says that if we don’t presently understand how evolution came up with complex forms, then evolution couldn’t have done it.  That means, according to Brother Roy, that super-intelligent aliens did it.  (Or a divine force getting directly involved.)

But Intelligent Design doesn’t qualify as a scientific theory because 1) if super-intelligent aliens did it, the theory fails to explain where the super-intelligent aliens came from, 2) there is no independent evidence of the existence of super-intelligent aliens, and 3) divine intervention is inherently untestable and science concerns itself only with what can be verified—and verified again—in the real world.

(Read more of my take on Intelligent Design here.)

“So you think we shouldn’t listen to Roy Spencer because of his religious beliefs?” asks Sam.  “I thought you liberals were supposed to be tolerant of those kinds of things.”

Being tolerant does mean I am adopting anybody else’s belief system as my own, Sam.  And Intelligent Design is about repackaging a religious belief system and selling it as science.  That I will not accept.

“But just because Roy Spencer has imported religion into the way he looks at evolution doesn’t mean he has done the same with climate science.  Aren’t you just trying to discredit him by talking about an unrelated topic?”

Well, science is not an unrelated topic, Sam, but I take your point.  Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that Brother Roy is, in fact, importing his religious beliefs into the way he regards climate science.  He is listed as the science advisor for the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, in their own words “a coalition of religious leaders, clergy, theologians, scientists, academics, and other policy experts committed to bringing a proper and balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development.”  He coauthored a report for them which was subtitled “An Evangelical Response to Global Warming.”

“That still doesn’t prove that it’s affected his scientific judgement on climate,” says Sam.

No, Sam, it doesn’t prove it.  But it’s something to consider, you have to admit.  And there are the fingerprints of bias in his scientific work.

“What do you mean by that?”

Well, you know, Sam, Brother Roy is a long-time partner of John Christy, (another well-known climate change denier) and together they authored a report on tropospheric satellite temperature data  back in the 1990s which they claimed indicated the troposphere was cooling.  If their report had happened to be correct, then one of the central indicators that climate change was being caused by CO2 was missing.  However, their report turned out to be incorrect—as they much later admitted themselves—and in fact exactly wrong.  The troposphere was warming, not cooling.  Just as the climate models by other climate scientists predicted.

“So he was wrong,” says Sam.  “Everybody makes mistakes.”

Yes, but to arrive at the conclusions that they did, Spencer and Christy had to be wrong in precisely the way they wanted, always in precisely the way they philosophically preferred, and wrong multiple times.  Every mistake they made in their analysis—and there were many of them—favoured climate change denial and their pre-made point of view.  They made not a single mistake in the other direction.  As I pointed out in my series of essays “History as a Beaker of Mustard Seed” this kind of pattern of mistake-making is how ideological bias manifests itself in science.

(See particularly Part 4 – Deciphering the parable.)

“Is there really a “pattern” to Spencer’s mistakes?”

None of the mistakes favoured a viewpoint that Brother Roy didn’t like.  That’s a pattern.  Anyway, as reviews of his latest book point out, Roy Spencer is continuing to make errors all of which continue to favour his ideology.

(See Roy Spencer’s Great Blunder Pt. I – Skeptical Science, etc. or Review of Spencer’s ‘Great Global Warming Blunder’ – RealClimate.)

Simply put, Sam, before you accept anything Roy Spencer has to say on climate change, (or on evolution, for that matter) check his figures first.  When Brother Roy weighs a scientific argument, alas, he tends to let his ideological thumb rest heavy on the scale.

Oh yes, and if the above isn’t enough, Roy Spencer also has multiple ties with Big Oil, too, as DeSmogBlog points out here.