RAPID REACTION: Ian Plimer launches new book on climate change – experts respond

Fri Dec 9, 2011

John Howard will be launching Ian Plimer’s new ‘anti-Warmist manual for the younger reader’, How to Get Expelled from School, on the evening of Monday 12 December. Scientific experts have read the book and provided their comments below.

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Professor Chris Turney is geologist in the Climate Change Research Centre and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow in climate change at the University of New South Wales.

“I was in two minds about looking at this book, let alone reviewing it. I had been a real fan of Plimer’s earlier work when he challenged young Earth creationists on their beliefs and showed how they twisted data and used statements out of context to put across a terribly skewed view of our planet. A few years ago I had been sent ‘Heaven and Earth’ to review and had assumed it would do the same with the so-called ‘climate sceptics’. Instead the opposite was the case. ‘How to get expelled from school’ is a follow up, designed to encourage students to question the science of climate change.

Scientists have to explain their work to the public; to inspire, to enthuse; to show the relevance of what they do. In a time of austerity, it is no longer good enough to take the public money, keep busy, out of sight, and hopefully out of mind. Scientists largely communicate with one another through journals few people can afford or understand. As a result, efforts to provide a context for the public and explain the science contained within specialised research articles would normally be applauded. Sadly this is not the case with ‘How to get expelled from school’.

With the declaration on the back of the book that the author is ‘Australia’s best known geologist’, hopes might be considered high that this would be a balanced, well-researched piece of work, showing how the past can inform on how our planet works. Unfortunately, the past is referred to throughout the book but badly. If I were in a less charitable mindset I would suggest the author has learnt lessons from the creationists and applied the same cherry-picking approach to climate change. The best I can write is the author doesn’t seem to understand much of the past at all; it’s almost as if the book has been ghost written. Changes in the past seem to be assumed to have happened globally and that to disprove anthropogenic warming, it is necessary to show how carbon dioxide wasn’t the principle cause. The number of misleading statements are far too numerous to be listed here but consider just one example, made on page 174: ‘Some 12,700 years ago, temperatures fell quickly by 8˚C and a 1,300-year cold period, the Younger Dryas began. After this 1,300 year period of intense cold, global temperatures rose very rapidly by about 12˚C marking the end of the Younger Dryas and the end of the latest glaciation. Did this glaciation end rapidly because we sinful humans suddenly put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Of course not, there was no industry and no agriculture than and again the hypothesis is wrong.’ Where to start? The Younger Dryas was a marked climatic downturn but it was centred on the North Atlantic region and perhaps across large parts of the Northern Hemisphere but it was not global. It’s been known since the late-nineties that Antarctica was warming up at exactly the same time it was cold during the Younger Dryas in the north. Research over the last few years has shown that warming in the south extends across most of the mid-latitudes of the southern hemisphere, and could have been used to illustrate how we can gain tremendous insights into the climate system from investigating past change. Plimer instead seems to be using the climate signal preserved in Greenland as a record of our planet’s climate and then misleadingly argues the temperature increase at the end of the Younger Dryas in the high latitudes was global. The cause wasn’t carbon dioxide, true, it was most probably linked to changes in the ocean circulation system, but this doesn’t mean increasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere isn’t a problem for the future.

Research published last year in the prestigious journal Science (and before ‘How to get expelled from school’) has shown that without carbon dioxide, global temperatures would soon fall to an average of -21˚C (see reference below). Fortunately the atmosphere does contain carbon dioxide and as a result we enjoy a relatively balmy 15˚C today. By flooding the atmosphere with carbon you would expect temperatures to increase. After all, science is built on the premise of Ockham’s razor, namely the simplest explanation is invariably the correct one. Ultimately, we’ve been here before with the young Earth brigade. To paraphrase Plimer from earlier work, all the ‘sceptical’ view of climate change science has to do is prove the fundamental principle that increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase temperature is wrong. A Nobel Prize and instant fame would be the reward for the first scientist – or politician – who could not only explain away future climate change but at the same time expound thermodynamics, energy transfer, infrared absorption etc in a totally different way to that understood by science and used by civilization for centuries. I wish them the very best of luck.”

1 see Lacis and co-authors, 2010, volume 330, pages 356-359


Dr Helen McGregor is a research scientist from the University of Wollongong. She has a degree in Earth Sciences, has worked as a geologist in the mining industry, and currently investigates the climate of the past. Her research is funded by the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology and the Australian Research Council

The new book from Ian Plimer: Does it make the grade?

“Plimer’s book for students asks the questions but does not necessarily give the full answers.

‘…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know…’ Former US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

This oft-parodied quote from 2002 about the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, could well be applied to the sciences, including climate science. Climate science is full of knowns, unknowns, nuances, complexities, and uncertainties, all of which must be understood through the lens of the scientific process. However, when explaining this to the public through the media filter (which operates in sound bites, demands definitive answers, and portrays the sciences as an adversarial, polarised debate) it is no wonder that misinformation and confusion abound. In this context, a more questioning public, knowledgeable of the scientific process is a good thing.

Ian Plimer includes an explanation of the scientific process as part of his book How to get Expelled From School: A guide to climate change for pupils, parents and punters. Plimer also includes his opinion on the scientific process with respect to the climate sciences, his critique of temperature and CO2, and short answers to 101 climate-related questions.

A central tenet of Plimer’s book is the need for valid evidence. He states that if another piece of valid evidence emerges then the theory in question must be discarded. But it is more accurate to describe the process in terms of the weight of evidence. The weight of evidence tells us that the planet has warmed through the twentieth century. The weight of evidence also tells us that the most likely cause is emissions of CO2, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. It is not a single piece of new evidence that should overturn this view but a weight of evidence. This is because in order to properly close the loop, the new counter evidence must also be reproduced and verified. This is just one part of the scientific process that provides a framework for understanding the world around us. The scientific framework is not perfect, but without it, all we are left with is unsubstantiated opinion, whereby the loudest voice wins the day. Those criticising climate sciences must also provide a weight of evidence to support their conclusions.

I had high hopes for a weight of evidence when I turned to the chapter “One hundred and one simple questions for your teachers”. Plimer could have built on his outline of the scientific process when answering the 101 questions he poses. Many of the answers should be in the realm of Rumsfeld-esque “known unknowns”, and to be answered properly need a thorough outline of the evidence with a frank discussion of the uncertainty or certainty surrounding a particular topic. For example, question 97 on ocean acidity in the past, is incomplete. It excludes evidence for lower pH (more acidic ocean) and consequent changes in biota and global temperatures during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event ~56 million years ago. See McInerney and Wing (2011) for a comprehensive review (http://973.geobiology.cn/photo/2011050939692101.pdf).

Instead, the book takes sides, and frames the topics as for or against arguments. As it is, it seems to me that the pupils, parents, and punters are generally left to take Plimer’s words as given. It is difficult to get to the sources of information and data contained in an answer. References are given via Plimer’s previous book, with some additional sources listed. Thankfully, the sources for the figures are stated. But pity the pupil, parent or punter with a curiosity to delve into a question to either confirm for themselves what Plimer has written, investigate other information related to a given topic, or to understand further that particular field of science. That it is so difficult to trace the source and evidence for Plimer’s statements is a disappointment and is in contrast to the healthy scepticism Plimer purports to encourage.

And are there “known knowns” in any field of science? No. There are things we know with a higher degree of certainty than others, but again the weight of evidence comes into play. All scientific studies need to be open and honest as to the degree of certainty or otherwise of the “knowns” – the scientific process demands it. ‘Unknown unknowns’, the new ideas and unexpected findings, must be subject to validation – a process that is iterative and takes time. But much of scientific inquiry is in this territory of ‘known unknowns’. These need to be stated and constrained as best as possible. Generally they are. It is a shame that this book is not more representative of this fuller story.”


Professor Ian Enting is a Professorial Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematics and Statistics of Complex Systems (MASCOS) based at the University of Melbourne. He worked on global carbon modeling for many years with CSIRO Atmospheric Research and has published numerous scientific papers on carbon cycle modelling.

The following are excerpts from his comments, for the full statement please click here.

“Ian Plimer’s new book, How to Get Expelled from School is presented as a shorter version of Heaven + Earth, being aimed at the under-20 audience. As such, How to Get Expelled from School claims (p229) that its assertions are “underpinned by the thousands of references cited in Heaven + Earth”. My analysis shows that in many cases Plimer explicitly misrepresents the content of his cited references in Heaven + Earth, and in many other cases the references that are cited do not in fact support his claims.”