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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Another first impressions book review

Obligatory disclaimer...

I'm trying to alternate my reading between pro- and con-AGW views. I like to look at both sides of issues and come to my own conclusions. After having to rush through my comparatively short and incomplete review of the last book before returning it to the library, I wanted to make sure I don't fall behind again.

This time, I'm working on The Complete Idiot's Guide to Global Warming, from Michael Tennesen. (Passages quoted from the book will be in red italics.) This is a first impressions review only - I haven't finished the book. I'll be basing this review only on the forward, introduction, and back-of-the-book references. Although I'm about half way through the book itself, I won't touch that content until I post my final review.

The copyright for this book is 2004 (it took me a while to find that), so I would guess that the information in it is up to date to late 2003, perhaps early 2004. As such, I know that some of the information in there may not be accurate anymore, as our knowledge and technical abilities have increased. I expect that this will be only a small issue, though.

To begin, I have to say that this is my first exposure to any of the Idiot's Guide books. I'm thinking that the basic premise (that the readers are idiots??) is why, right from the start, I felt like I was being talked down to. The book actually starts on the inside cover with a letter to the reader, where it explains what the book is going to be about. Just in case the title, bullet points and quotes on the cover weren't quite enough, I guess. [scratches head] Why the book has two sets of contents ("Contents at a Glance" followed by "Contents"), I'm not sure. Part of the Idiot's Guide format?

The forward is written by two people. Stephen H. Schneider and Michael D. Mastrandrea. At first, I had some encouragement that there would be a level of scientific balance as, in the first paragraph, they write:

" is those who make knee-jerk, black-or-white statements about climate change is either "good for you" or the "end of the world" who are the real idiots, not basing their assertions on the full spectrum of scientific knowledge and understanding."

Unfortunately, that's about as balanced as it gets, as the writers later go on to to bemoan that, while it's appropriate for journalists to report "both sides" in other areas...

"In science, it's different. ... when reports present arguments for and against the existence of global warming, they are often giving equal voice to a mainstream, well-established consensus and the opposing views of a few extremists. To the uninformed, each position seems equally credible - after all, each claimant has a Ph.D. But you, the reader of this guide, will quickly see that these falsely dichotomous debates do not pit equally credible sides against each other. That is, although some "experts" and many politicians - especially in the United states, those affiliated with the fossil fuel industry or big car companies - assert that human-induced emissions have little impact on the climate, the vast bulk of those truly knowledgeable about climate change and its potential impacts are convinced there is overwhelming evidence for global warming and legitimate reason for concern. With this book you will have the facts to understand these concerns, and to better decide for yourselves who the real "idiots" are."

Wow. In a single paragraph, the writers say that...

  • when it comes to science, the media shouldn't show "both sides" of an issue.
  • that "both sides" refers to the existence of global warming, not the facts surrounding global climate in general (the "skeptics," by the way, aren't arguing whether or not there has been global warming. It's one of the few points both sides agree on. Not according to these two, it seems.)
  • that when they do, the pro-AGW people are all part of the "mainstream, well-established consensus," but everyone else is just an extremist.
  • that these debates are "falsely dichotomous."
  • claims that only one side is credible - it's pretty obvious which side they mean.
  • by putting "experts" for the other side in quotations, they imply that these "experts" are anything but. I find it funny that they include politicians on that side of things, what with Al Gore being the consummate politician, and very much in the AGW camp.
  • blatantly insinuates that people who disagree with AGW are in the pay of some evil emp... er... industry, while equally implying that AGE proponents aren't in the pay of any special interest groups at all, which is absolute hooey...
  • while only those "truly knowledgeable" are on the AGW side of things, implying that anyone who disagrees can't possibly be "truly knowledgeable."
  • and finally, those who disagree with AGW are the true "idiots."

Wow. All that in just a few sentences. That was truly impressive!

So who are these two? Bios for both of them are conveniently included under the forward. Both have a substantial list of achievements (strangely, actual credentials are not mentioned - are they Ph.D's, too? It doesn't say.). Among them, Schneider is described as "active in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," and consultant to presidents. Mastrandrea, among other things, is a researcher, including "intergrated assessment modeling of the climate and economy as a tool for international and domestic climate policy analiysis, forecasting the impacts of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle... as a policymaking tool and analyzing the effects of global climate change on the world ecosystems."

Which looks to me like both their jobs rely on AGW being a big problem and, as such, might be just a touch biased. :-P Well, I wouldn't expect otherwise under the circumstances. We all have our biases, whether we admit to them or not.

Next is the Introduction, with includes "what you'll learn in the book","Extras","Acknowledgments","Special thanks to the technical reviewer", and "Trademarks."

Right from the start, the author is pretty clear on the book's basic premise - that global warming is a problem, CO2 is causing it, and it's our fault. The author does at least state that there is controversy over some things. He then mentions the IPCC predictions that CO2 increases will cause the earth's temperature to increase between 2.5F to 10.4F (1.4C to 5.8C) within this century.

At this point, I became curious about sources and dates, because I know that the IPCC has since lowered that prediction and, in their last report (not the summary of all reports that just got released), they admitted that temperatures haven't actually increased since 1998. That's when I skipped to the back.

Now, I have to admit I came to this book with certain expectations. One of those was that, unlike the last pro-AGW book (first impressions, final impression) I read, this one would be able to dedicate space to references and bibliographies. So I was surprised when I flipped to the back of the book and didn't find any at all!

This is what I did find.

Appendix A is a list of "Concerned Organizations."
Appendix B is "Further Reading," which includes "Books on Climate and Climate Change," (while some appear to be generic, others seems to be pro-AGW, which is to be expected) "Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC)," (only 2001 is mentioned, 3 titles), "Field Guides," (3 titles, seem to be generic), and finally, "Books on the Environment," (while a couple of titles seem generic, most seem to be of the disaster variety).
Appendix C is the glossary.
Then there's the Index.

No references. No bibliography. So on what basis is the reader to believe in the accuracy and research behind this book?

It turns out the answer to that is back in the Introduction.

After listing what the reader will learn in the 6 parts of the books (again - is this an Idiot's Guide format? Because I've never countered this sort of thing before), and a description of the Extras - text boxes scattered throughout the book under 4 headings, Climatoids, Warm Words, Hot Debates and "Caution" Global Warnings (the word caution is in a drawing of a sign).

In the Acknowledgments, the author mentions and thanks "all the people that helped me assemble the facts for this book," followed by a list of names and titles, then mention of many others too numerous to list.

Finally, there's the Special Thanks to the Technical Reviewer. It turns out that one person - "an expert who double-checked the accuracy of what you'll learn here..." is our guarantee, a David Reusch. No mention of who he is or why he is so eminintly qualified to replace any references, research papers, etc. A quick search shows me that he's with the EMS Earth and Environmental Sciences Institute with Penn. State University. His role as technical writer for this book is included on the list of accomplishments in his online CV. He does seem to be quite accomplished, and more than competent to be the tech writer for this book. I just would really prefer to see references and footnotes to actual research, etc.

So my first impression of this book is one of cautious skepticism. The lack of references in a book of this scope really bothers me (can you tell? *L*). While there seems to be a token effort towards balance, it's clear without even reading the book itself that there's only one conclusion the author intends for the reader to reach, even while claiming some sort of middle ground, and its purpose to be helping the reader reach their own conclusions based on facts. It's a contradiction, and one I find off-putting.


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