A Levelling

The Spectator has allowed me to rebut Nils-Axel Morner’s rubbish about sea levels.

By George Monbiot, published in the Spectator 8th December 2011.

If people are committed to an unscientific position, no evidence or argument will shake them out of it. Whether they subscribe to AIDS denial, excessive fear of radiation, vaccine scaremongering, homeopathy or creationism, they tend to demand impossible standards of proof from their opponents but to accept any old rubbish that supports their beliefs.

So if you are among those who reject the vast weight of scientific evidence for manmade climate change, I don’t expect this article to persuade you. Ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. If tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers, against a tiny handful supporting your position; basic physics, demonstrable in a lab; instrumental temperature records spanning 150 years and much else on these lines can’t sway you, what could?

Conversely, which claims will you not accept? Do you believe that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human beings? That the hockeystick graph of global temperatures is a fake? That global warming is a conspiracy cooked up between governments and scientists? If none of the science persuades you, but you accept these groundless claims, your belief is likely to be a religious one, by which I mean unamenable to refutation.

So demonstrating in the pages of the Spectator that last week’s cover story was complete hogwash is probably a waste of time. But I’ll do it anyway.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If someone maintains that he has overturned the entire canon of knowledge about global sea levels, derived from a massive database of readings from tidal gauges and satellites, he’d better have some powerful evidence for it, and he’d better publish it in the peer-reviewed scientific journals, where claims are assessed by people who know what they’re looking at.

But Nils-Axel Morner’s evidence is close to non-existant. He did publish a peer-reviewed article maintaining that sea levels in the Maldives are falling, back in 2004. But the “evidence” it contained was anecdotal – a skeleton found on a reef, accounts of fishermen sailing over shallow rocks – and it was comprehensively debunked by two later articles in the same journal. They explained that his paper “contains a number of unqualified and unreferenced assertions” and ignored a vast body of hard data – from tide gauges and satellites – in favour of unsubstantiated accounts. They found “no evidence for the fall in sea level at the Maldives as postulated by Mörner.”

Since then, he has chosen less conventional outlets for his claims, such as 21st Century Science and Technology, a magazine published by the convicted fraudster and conspiracy theorist Lyndon Larouche, and an online pamphlet co-authored with Lord Monckton. In this pamphlet, Monckton and Morner engage in one of the most blatant distortions of evidence I’ve ever seen. They take a graph published by the University of Colorado, which shows a clear trend of global sea level rise, then they tilt it by 45 degrees until the line is flat, whereupon they announce that there’s “no trend”. For sheer, transparent chutzpah that takes some beating.

Morner’s article in the Spectator demonstrates a similar carelessness with the facts. He suggests, for example, that the International Union for Quaternary Reseach (INQUA) supports his claim that “sea levels have been oscillating close to the present level for the last three centuries”. This has forced INQUA – not for the first time – to speak out. Its spokesman explained that “99% of INQUA scientists don’t subscribe to this view, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the only one who believes this.” The evidence from satellites and tide gauges shows that mean global sea levels are now rising by 3mm a year.

Morner has also made groundless claims in other fields. He says he possesses paranormal powers to find metal and water with his dowsing rods (but has consistently refused James Randi’s invitations to test them) and that he has discovered “the Hong Kong of the [ancient] Greeks” in Sweden. The archaeologist and chair of the Swedish Skeptics Society, Martin Rundkvist, comments that if Nils-Axel Mörner is associated with a project, it’s “a solid guarantee for high-grade woo.”

On the one hand you have a massive body of evidence showing that global sea levels are rising, assessed by scientists and widely published in the scientific literature. On the other hand you have one debunked paper by a serial promoter of mumbo-jumbo, followed by evident falsehoods in publications with no scientific standing. It’s your choice, but if you accept Morner’s claims about sea levels, just don’t pretend that you got there by assessing the evidence.


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