Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jim Steele at WUWT pushes for pseudo-science, not science, in schools

Sou | 2:04 PM Go to the first of 21 comments. Add a comment

Update: See below for comment from Michael C Singer, husband of Camille Parmesan, who Jim Steele referred to in his article and the comments.

Jim Steele is a climate science denier who's popped up in the last year or so at WUWT, trying to flog his book protesting climate change. He is known for denying practically anything to do with global warming and more (eg ocean acidification), but most of all he will use any excuse to take a shot at scientist Camille Parmesan (see here).

Jim Steele's Serengeti Strategy

I don't know what is really at the heart of Jim Steele's vendetta against Camille Parmesan. He hasn't said except that he disputes something about her 1996 publication on butterflies. But his ongoing personalised campaign goes way beyond that. If it was merely a scientific dispute he'd argue scientifically, in the literature. He doesn't. He just rants and raves to science deniers, and contradicts himself, and misrepresents Dr Parmesan's work. This leaves one to wonder - did she snub him at a party? Did she forget who he was one time? Does she not know who he is? Whatever the reason, if Jim Steele can bring Dr Parmesan into a discussion he will. Even if there's no reason to do so, he will.

It's Jim Steele's application of the Serengeti strategy.

Today he's arguing (archived here) that Dr Parmesan and the AAAS are wrong about teaching science to children in Texas. To demonstrate how he applied the Serengeti strategy, the article that Jim used as his launching pad was written by Camille Parmesan and Alan I. Leshner. But Jim doesn't once mention Alan Leshner by name, only by his organisation, the AAAS.

Camille Parmesan is a world-renowned biologist. Last year, she was named the 2013 Distinguished Texas Scientist by the Texas Academy of Science.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is one of the most highly regarded scientific organisations in the world. Alan I. Leshner is the CEO of AAAS.

By way of comparison, Jim Steele is not a scientific researcher. He has never done scientific research that I could find. Or none that he's published in the academic literature. I believe this would be the closest. He was a part time teacher at different places, and ran a field station part-time. He also says he ran a bird counting program that got funding from the US Forest Service. You can read the chips he's lugging around on his shoulder in his own bio.

Draft science textbooks have wrong information

The first paragraph of the Statesman article Jim quote-mined was this:
Some proposed Texas textbooks would badly misinform K-12 students by falsely suggesting that scientists do not agree on what is causing climate change and by incorrectly suggesting a future cooling trend. Two draft textbooks — astoundingly — even confuse climate change with the ozone hole, which is a completely separate concern and driven by different human actions.

So now you can see the context of the article. Apparently some ideologues in Texas got some people to write some dodgy science denying books and want to flog them in schools. It's the same as the religion vs science vs politics battle that's been waged before in the USA - for example, creationism vs science. Jim is on the side of the ideologues and against science. Jim Steele seems to be arguing that textbooks that confuse climate change and the ozone hole should be used in K-12 schools.

You can read the Parmesan and Leshner article here. It lists a few awful examples of pseudoscience that the politicians want taught to the children of Texas. (It also says that Professor Parmesan is a geology professor. She's not. Her field is biology.)

Debating pseudo-science in schools

Jim Steele reckons that children should be fed all manner of denialist nonsense and allowed to "debate". He cites climate science denial as an example, but it looks as if he means it to apply to any scientific topic, writing:
Science textbooks should not be instruments to teach one-sided propaganda. Textbooks should encourage debate....

A bit later he writes:
...It is Parmesan and the AAAS that are using politics to pressure school boards to force feed school children that CO2-caused global warming is now some sort of scientific law, when in fact both Parmesan’s research and the CO2 hypothesis are increasingly not supported by the evidence. 

So Jim Steele is a greenhouse effect denier, with his "CO2 hypothesis". Well, I already knew that.

By all means let's debate science in the classroom. Except it's clear from what Jim wrote that he wants to control the debate and argue that all the science is wrong. Anyway, I've had a shot at chapter headings for debates to be included in Jim Steele's revised science textbooks:
  • Debate the moon: Is the moon made of cheese and is there really a man living there?
  • Debate the shape of the Earth: If the Earth is flat, have all the missing persons simply fallen off the edge?
  • Debate evolution: Is Jim Steele evidence that humans evolved from the same ancestor as our (very) distant relative, the gibbon?
  • Debate extinction: Which species will survive the sixth major extinction and how.
  • Debate water vs beer. Which is better. Do a taste test.
  • Debate atoms. Are they no more than imaginary models?
  • Debate models. Miranda Kerr vs Fernando Cabral vs Henrik Fallenius vs Kate Moss vs Tyra Banks vs Gryphon O'Shea.
  • Debate the atmosphere. Would wacky pseudo-scientists like Jim Steele have evolved if there were no atmospheric CO2 and Earth was a snowball?
  • Debate the ice age that cometh: Are rising sea levels evidence that an ice age cometh?
  • Debate science itself. Should paranoid conspiracy theories be given equal weight with science in the classroom. The pros and cons.
  • Debate science hoaxes: Is climate science the biggest hoax perpetrated on dumb deniers? List all the people and organisations that must be in on the hoax and explain how the scam has been kept secret from the other 8% of the world's population.

Here are some debating tips from Huffington Post for all the deniers at WUWT, as if they need them.

And if Jim Steele doesn't want his children and grandchildren to learn about science, he can always send them to a charter school that is anti-science.

Update: Comment from Michael C Singer

The following was sent to me via email. It was too long to be posted as a comment. 
Sou 12 November 2014
I am Parmesan's husband, referenced by Jim Steele.  I have, indeed, advised him against replicating Parmesan's work.  However, I didn't say that the original study was "not important," I said that it would not be important to replicate it NOW.  And I gave Jim an explanation of my opinion.
Parmesan's work was done between 1992 and 1996.  As a grad student she spent 2-3 months in the field each summer, driving her pickup from Baja California to Alberta and back, examining previously-reported populations of Edith's checkerspot and reporting which still existed and which were, at that time, extinct.  Her published study reported presence or absence of the butterflies in sites that she judged to be still suitable habitat.  She concluded that the average location of an existing population in good habitat was both significantly further north and at significantly higher elevation than prior records.
Edith's checkerspot is not migratory, it lives in small habitat patches susceptible to natural extinctions.  However, usually when natural extinctions occur, not all the populations in an area go extinct and if the habitat is OK the extinct site can be naturally recolonized.  I've observed this several times; I've seen extinct sites recolonized after just 3 or 4 years or after 20-25 years, and I've seen them stay extinct to the present day.  Ilkka Hanski in Finland, working with a related butterfly, has shown that every population has a high risk of natural extinction. The species persists in Finland only through an approximate balance between rates of extinction and colonization.  What Parmesan showed was that in Edith's checkerspot the extinction process had recently involved an elevational and latitudinal bias. For me to observe, as I have informed Jim, that some populations reported by Parmesan as extinct have since been recolonized, is entirely unsurprising and does not refute the conclusion that she drew.  Jim accuses me of scientific dishonesty by not publishing these observations, because he believes that they refute Parmesan's conclusions.  He is wrong. They do not.  If they did, I WOULD have published them.
It would be possible to repeat Parmesan's study now and to ask whether Edith's checkerspot has shifted its range in the opposite direction to that reported by Parmesan, but to do that you'd need to examine the entire species' range again, from Baja to Alberta. This would be an enormous amount of work, and it did not seem to be what Jim proposed to do.  Instead, he felt that, if he could show that some of the populations reported as extinct by Parmesan were no longer extinct, this would refute her conclusion. It would not. 
Unfortunately it's not possible now to ask whether Parmesan was wrong back in 1996, you'd need to be a time-traveler.  This study was important in 1996 as a pioneering effort to ask what was happening to an entire species’ range.  But this study was just a single species, and the bias that Parmesan showed, while consistent with warming climate, could have been caused by other factors.   For this reason the study is no longer an important part of the evidence that biologists use to conclude that species’ ranges are shifting upwards and polewards in a GENERAL sense.  This comes from aggregate studies, called meta-analyses.  For example, Vincent DeVictor and 20 other authors (not including myself or Parmesan) published a paper in Nature Climate Change in 2012 in which they summarized data from 9,490 bird communities and 2,130 butterfly communities and found an average poleward shift of 37 km in the birds and 114km in the butterflies.  In this study some species were shifting towards the equator, some towards the pole and some were not shifting at all, but there was an overall significant trend for poleward range shifts.  This is the type of evidence used to conclude that a general trend for range shifts is under way.

Suppose that Jim Steele were to replicate Parmesan’s study and find that Edith’s checkerspot has now shifted its range towards the equator.  Suppose that Jim’s conclusion were incorporated into a summary like the one by DeVictor et al.  In the context of such a large study it would be a drop in the ocean and would make no difference to their overall conclusion.  The average poleward range shift of butterflies might change from 114km to 113km.  This is the sense in which I have advised Jim Steele that he would make little scientific impact if he were to replicate Parmesan’s study of a single species and get a different result.  The original study was important at the time.  However, to replicate it now in the context of the very large amount of knowledge on other species that has accumulated since 1996, would not be important, no matter what the result.   
Parmesan’s affiliation is correct: in Texas she is now in Geology; in the UK she is a Professor of Oceans and human health in a Marine Biology dept.

From the WUWT comments

The extremists come out in favour of Jim Steele. A very large number of comments were about what a nasty awful person Dr Parmesan is, and how people should write to her university (email address was provided) and anyway, climate science is a hoax.

SasjaL is an illiterati who argues science shouldn't be taught in school and likens science to extreme religious indoctrination.
November 8, 2014 at 2:58 pm
Parmesan is a nice cheese (like all other Italian food), but this both smell and taste bad!
This type of indoctrination are found in countries where extreme forms of Islam exists.
– Wait … We already have these (climate) changes in Swedish schoolbooks 

M Courtney says that one can use pseudoscience to teach children how to distinguish it from real science. Perhaps he's just wanting to up the traffic to WUWT.
 November 8, 2014 at 11:38 am
Surely science is a process not a catechism?
Why doesn’t she call for the “wrong” science to be presented and then debunked with numerous validated models of how the climate works, graphs of the correlation of GHG emissions with Global temperatures and, of course, the obvious methods of distinguishing anthropogenic from natural effects?
Wouldn’t that teach the young Texans how to spot pseudoscience and confront it thorough out the lives?

J. Philip Peterson thinks there are only two "sides" to climate science. He knows nothing about it.
November 8, 2014 at 1:58 pm
I wish more would speak out. You really can’t teach both sides of the CAGW science?? (without getting fired)?? You have to teach it as settled science??

mpainter does get one thing right:
November 8, 2014 at 11:46 am
This report dismays. Camile Parmesan seems to be an evil antithesis of science. That there are so many in science who are like her is sickening.
It bears repeating: the CAGW crowd represent a setback for science.

One person posted Dr Parmesan's email address, with obvious bad intentions. Another said they've already written to her University - something about the IPCC's Nobel Prize award.

jim Steele says populations of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha) haven't moved north, only the statistical centre has moved north. Huh? He's not that good at arithmetic. (extract)
November 8, 2014 at 2:48 pm
What I find most disgusting and dishonest in this 2013 video is that she still repeats her old story that her butterfly (Edith Checkerspot) had moved upwards and northwards when 1) No such thing ever happened. Only the statistical center moved because more the butterflies had been extirpated due to urban sprawl mostly in southern California and 2) she has known for at least 5 years now that populations that she reported as extinct have now returned. Thats why she refused to let me replicate her study. So she still refers to her zombie data, instead of telling the world she was wrong the butterflies returned and never died due to global or local warming! 

He makes up weird stuff, implying butterflies "died" rather than shifted, due to global or local warming. Is he an utter nutter or a disinformer, or both? He's not very bright but is he at some level conscious of his absurdities?

Another thing. Jim Steele claims that the butterfly populations reported as extinct have now returned. But he also claims he doesn't know where those populations are, so how does he know they've returned? jim Steele claimed:
November 8, 2014 at 3:21 pm
Although good science requires a methods section to allow independent replication her paper in Nature never had a Methods section. I needed the coordinates of each location and her determination of present or absent, to check both her statistical conclusions as well as to examine the surrounding habitat to assess the effects of landscape change. Instead of providing me that data, her husband and colleague Dr. Michael Singer kept trying to dissuade me from replicating her work saying it was “too much work” or that original study was “not important” any more. Curiouser and Curiouser she still touts that original story in every press release as a “beautiful example” global warming. (Makes me gag)

Note: See update above for response by Michael Singer.

The thing is that Camille Parmesan doesn't ignore landscape changes. (Also, unlike Jim, she knows the name of the butterfly in question.) Click here to read a short overview of the work of Dr Parmesan on Edith’s checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha). Click here for the original paper that Jim Steele is still stewing over nearly twenty years later.   Click here to see what I discovered when I looked into Jim Steele's various claims some time ago. Jim Steele has not published one scrap of scientific research to support his own claims about it. Not in the scientific literature. It's all hot air denier style - full of fudgery, misrepresentation and self-promotion.

If Jim Steele represented the work of others properly, he'd never be invited to write at WUWT or be a guest speaker at science denier shingdigs, and his pseudo-science book sales would plummet.

Parmesan, Camille. "Climate and species'range." Nature 382, no. 6594 (2009): 765-766. doi:10.1038/382765a0


  1. But Jim Steele's book cover and title is so evocative, "Landscapes & Cycles"

    It brings to mind John McPhee's classic "Basin and Range" but is exactly the opposite in content and intent -- instead of fostering an interest in earth sciences, Steele has created a massive turn-off.

  2. I skirmished once or twice with Jim on some major climate website.
    He coughs up a lot of info and detail, but did not, as I expected, really engage constructive ways. He rather avoided anything that did not fit his agenda.
    at first I was really concerned but his case against Parmesan seemed to be really based on a valid critique. Being a skeptic myself, I have no propbem believing that scientists in tangential fields could jumpy to convenient conclusions without adequately considering other more reasonable possibiities. I was perfectly willing to concede that in this specific he could have a valid point. but when I actually looked into it his arguments started falling apart and he reacted as I expect
    someone with an unfair vendetta would act

    1. If Jim had done research as detailed as that described in the Nature paper (linked above), and was able to come up with another explanation (or different findings) he could have published. But he hasn't done anything like that research. Nor has he ever presented a plausible alternative explanation.

      I don't think Jim would know how to design a research project much less carry out research or write it up. He's a wannabe who doesn't have what it takes. All he can do is waffle and deny.

  3. I've gone round and round with Steele over at LinkedIn. Totally hopeless. He is completely impervious to actual science. Any science.

  4. I received an email with a comment from Camille Parmesan's husband, Michael Singer, addressing some of things that Jim Steele wrote. See the update above.

  5. I really like Michael Singer's comment.

    The parallels between Steele's obsession with Parmesan and the general denialosphere's demonization of Michael Mann are obvious. In both cases, the scientist being pilloried did pioneering work that has long since been confirmed and superseded by other scientists, rendering criticisms of their original work pretty much moot -- or, more accurately, not germane at this time. Yet in each case, denialists pretend that showing a flaw in the original study will cause the whole theoretical edifice to crash.

    It sheds a harsh light on their intellectual bankruptcy, and their towering disingenuousness.

    1. Yes. Mike's comment highlights two things (at least). Jim is careless with the truth. Jim has been less than honest here too, on previous occasions.

      Also, Jim's knowledge of ecology is abysmal. He pontificates on things he doesn't understand. Or if he does, then he deliberately misrepresents the situation.

    2. What palindrom said. Spot on. Jim Steele is just another pseudoscience crank, trying to push his book. It's very unfortunate that he has this misplaced (and extremely vitriolic) vendetta against Dr. Parmesan.

      But as been demonstrated time and again, it's nigh on impossible to get a crank to ever change their tune. By definition, it's their single minded obsession with something that people with a clue (i.e. actual scientists) have already figured out that makes them cranks in the first place.

    3. Really interesting Sou, it's great that you got this email. It puts everything in (a reasonable) perspective plus I learned a few things about meta studies on the range of birds and butterflies.

      Also agree with Palindrom. Well said.

  6. Jim Steele wrote in his WUWT piece "Camille Parmesan has prevented independent replication of her own dubious climate research on butterfly extinctions....."

    This is classic bullshit (as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt) from a pseudoskeptic. What evidence does Steele have that independent research has been prevented? Absolutely zip. His beef is that the original data has not been made available to him, but that in no way stops him from performing an independent study. His biggest problem is that he does not have the male attachments to get out in the field and actually collect data.

  7. Jim is correct that it would have assisted him in any attempt to replicate Parmesan's study if he had access to her raw data, which he requested a few years ago. Their negotiations about potential collaboration foundered, I'm not sure why.. perhaps because she developed the opinion that he was approaching the topic from too biased a perspective. Which it's clear that he is, because he won't accept the conclusions of much larger modern studies that show the type of range shift exected from warming climate.

    These days the raw data are usually made available online but that wasn't true in 1996 and it would have required quite a bit of work on camille's part to organize them for Jim. Which, I admit, she didn't do. Jim is also correct in stating that I told him that several populations reported by Parmesan as extinct had since been recolonized. I did better than that, I gave him a complete list of those populations. I'm reluctant to give him more information, whatever I tell him just seesm to bring me grief and insults.

    1. "he won't accept the conclusions of much larger modern studies that show the type of range shift expected from warming climate." And that is the crux of the problem that pesudoskeptics like Steele have, their myopic obsession with studies that simply led the way. I think they believe that if they can disprove the original study then they have destroyed the foundation of all subsequent observations and thus all become invalid. Their understanding of how science is done and how it progresses is simply naive. Subsequent studies are never just about supporting the original observations, they are designed to be rigorous tests of the conclusions of earlier studies - in essence attempts to disprove the proposed hypothesis coming out of the earlier study. And the strength of those subsequent studies lies in the fact that they are independent. If Steele cannot appreciate that then he warrants no further consideration.

  8. Jim Steele asks that I should correct the statements made here that Edith's checkerspot populations have moved north. The original study showed that a higher proportion of populations at low elevations and latitudes were then extinct than those at higher latitudes and elevations. It did not show that a population had moved or that the northern range limit had expanded. Jim suspects that Parmesan's conclusion would no longer hold if the study were repeated. He may be right, I don't know and neither does he. My point is that it would not alter the general conclusion that ranges are shifting, which comes from aggregate analysis of many species.

    We make no implication that butterflies can detect warming climate and respond by moving; nor can they detect the limits of their geographical ranges. The range limit has been a limit because individual that crossed it failed to found new populations. If the poleward limit is climate-caused (which not all are), then we expect a warming climate to allow some of the insects that spill off the range edge to successfully found populations, and this would cause the range limit to shift.

    1. Any reasonably bright ten-year-old could follow that. Jim Steele, apparently, not so much.

  9. In Europe poleward range shifts are happening on a large scale, across many species, and despite the best efforts of butterfly collectors to prevent it by collecting new and exotic species in their areas. Back in 1999 Parmesan and I were taken to a site in Sweden to see the Purple Emperor butterfly, a spectacular species that had recently colonized Finland from Denmark and has since colonized Finland from Estonia. We found not a single individual, and our guide said:


    I replied: << Well, no wonder there are none left today!>>



    My response was < >

    He was not amused

  10. SORRY that last post din't work herei it is:

    In Europe range shifts are happening on a large scale, across many species, and despite the best efforts of butterfly collectors to prevent it by collecting new and exotic species in their areas. Back in 1999 Parmesan and I were taken to a site in Sweden to see the Purple Emperor butterfly, a spectacular species that had recently colonized Finland from Denmark and has since colonized Finland from Estonia. We found not a single individual, and our guide said:

    That’s very odd, my friend Anders was here last weekend and he caught more than 60

    I replied: Well, no wonder there are none left today

    He said: No,, that’s ridiculous, collecting butterflies has no impact at all on their populations

    Me: How can you tell?

    Him: Look at this, Araschnia levana has colonized Sweden in the past two years. Last year fourteen were seen in Sweden and every one was captured. This year we’ve already seen 21 and the season isn't even over

    My response was the fourteen will go down in Araschnia levana history as the fourteen martyrs of the Swedish colonization

    He was not amused

  11. O dear, I meant to write that the Piurple Emperor had recently colonized SWEDEN from Denmark and then went on to colonize Finland from Estonia

    1. AW has put a plea to all guest bloggers to please torture their particular area of interest into a blunt instrument with which to attack Sou.

      Anthony and his attack dogs hate being taken on face to face and fist to fist.

      In seeking to ridicule and undermine Sou, WUWT has only succeeded in promoting her.

      What AW hates the most about Sou is that she makes him work harder. He now has to give some sort of nod to rigour. It's never achieved but he's nodding like a fucking mad man.

  12. So, some scientists are hiding data to avoid replication of a study the authors themselves claim is no longer of any use since based on false premises 20 years ago and now debunked by new semi disclosed data. Seems like a pretty moot topic for debate, LOL!


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