A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I – II.0 – II.5 – II.75 –  III.0 – III.3 – IV.0 – IV.4 – IV.8 – V – VII – VIII – Full Report 

The front matter Everett provides (0) is as good a place to start as any. He gives a bit of biographic information, highlighting his experience with NOAA and the IPCC; his expertise is in fisheries, not geochemistry. This itself doesn’t invalidate what he has to say: A non-expert can have a valid opinion, even a contrary one (his opinion is much more relevant than that of Sigorney Weaver, who also testified). But when a non-expert disagrees with the opinions of most experts, we should at least take a more critical look at the basis for their opinion. Everett also cites his website, ClimateChangeFacts, which he tries “to keep unbiased in its treatment of conflicting science”. One of the first lines on his site is a reference to ClimateGate, the conspiracy-that-wasn’t to falsify climate data; ClimateGate itself has been widely debunked (“ClimateGate is a hoax”: 10 google hits.) Already, I have to be skeptical of his expertise.

He wraps up his introductions with a nod to the BP spill, perhaps to prove that he really does care. It’s certainly true that chemical pollutants are a serious concern, but he sets up a false dichotomy between the “many insidious contaminants entering our estuaries, causing genetic harm and poisoning our birds, turtles, and seafood”and CO2 pollution. He’s pitting fast, visible pollution against slow, invisible pollution. This is a little silly: the fact that a process is imperceptible doesn’t mean that it is negligible. The neurological damage from a childhood in substandard lead-painted housing is less tangible, but no less real than that coming from a single traumatic blow to the head. And the problems are interlinked; addressing one will help address another. Keeping the Arctic covered with ice will make it much harder for BP to drill there.

(Incidentally, his statement that, unlike carbon dioxide, ”contaminants create only losers … There are no winners“ is not true. Bacteria flourished in the wake of the BP spill, using the oil for food. They are the ones who consumed all the oxygen in the area, creating dead zones. Another example: the extremophiles that thrive in mine tailings toxic with heavy metals.)

The next section, (I) Everett lays out some of the concerns about ocean acidification, and summarizes his main points. (He leaves off his list such items as copper toxicity, but does find room to include jellyfish invasions. Oh, those zany Alarmists!) For now, I’ll just mention something that caught my eye, a line that from the start told me that Everett is seriously confused- or worse, more interested in playing word games than helping the Environmental Protection Agency protect the environment. Here it is:

Importantly, oceans are alkaline – not acidic, so use of the term “acidification” unnecessarily promotes fear.

I’ll give him credit: this is great PR. It’s snappy, it’s to the point, it sounds nice, it’s easily remembered and repeated. But it’s scientifically vacuous. If a solution has a pH above 7, it is alkaline. If its pH drops, it has become more acid- acidified- even if the solution is still alkaline. If the pH of a solution changes from 9 to 8, the solution has acidified, even though it is still basic. If someone who’s fallen off a bridge says, “I’m falling dooooooooooooooown”, Everett’s response would be akin to saying, “You’re not falling down! You’re still way way up in the air!” The most charitable explanation I can come up with is that Everett is confusing a quantity (acidity) with its rate of change (acidification). He’s comparing miles to miles per hour. (In the next section, we’ll see that he continues to play fast and loose with the distinction between quantities and rates.)

(The term actually was first used to describe chemical changes during the last glacial period, dating back to about 1 million years ago. Yeah, real scary.)

There is one meme that Everett thankfully doesn’t pull on us, but is worth discussing any time acid/base chemistry pops up in an environmental context. It goes like this:

It’s only 0.1 pH! What‘s the big deal?

The problem with this argument is that pH is a logarithmic measurement. The point of using logarithms here is that they make big numbers look small and small numbers look big. That’s useful if you want to compare numbers that have a HUGE spread (when you’re talking about acidity, the numbers that you encounter typically range from one part in in ten to one part in one hundred thousand billion). But looking at logarithmic numbers on their own can be misleading: An 0.1 change in pH is a 125% change in hydrogen ion concentration, which is what determines acidity.

Here’s an example. Remember that graph I showed you last post? Here it is again.

Remember me?

Look at the horizontal axis. You see how there’s the same distance between 1 (10^0) and 10 (10^1) as between 10 (10^1) and 100 (10^2)? The graph’s scale is logarithmic, like the pH. Here’s what the actual numbers look like:

wait what

Peoples' internet beliefs, plotted on a linear scale. The only NonWeird belief doesn't even show up!

And that’s how easy it is to misrepresent data with a graph, even a graph which correctly presents the data. In my next post, we’re going to look at some of the graphs that Everett shows us. Do they say what he says they say?