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The rocks man and the columnist

By Stephen Keim - posted Friday, 11 December 2009

When Ian Plimer attacked creationism and the literal interpretation of the Hebrew bible in his book, Telling Lies for God, he stood on the side of science and I cheered for him from the sidelines. His love of the rocks, as a geologist, albeit, as a result, a long term servant of the mining industry, gave those views credibility. I was puzzled, therefore, when he emerged as another purveyor of what is, misleadingly, called “climate change scepticism”.

I was, however, interested in how other scientists would assess Plimer’s sceptism tour de force, his very long book, Heaven and Earth. (As Plimer points out, there are several editions. One is Heaven and Earth, Ian Plimer, Connor Court Publishing, Ballan, 2009) A summary of that response was brought together in an interesting email exchange between Plimer and British writer and columnist, George Monbiot. Among the detailed comments on the book linked to by Monbiot is this one by Tim Lambert, computer scientist at University of New South Wales. More particularly, I was interested in how Plimer would engage in debate with any scientist who criticised his methodology.

After an interview with Plimer was published in the Spectator, Plimer challenged Monbiot to a televised debate. Monbiot placed a condition on acceptance of that challenge, namely, that Plimer answer a number of allegations of blatant scientific errors made by scientific readers of Plimer’s Heaven and Earth. The challenge was in the form of 11 questions in which Monbiot suggested that statements Plimer made in his book misquoted the source relied on by Plimer or that clearly wrong statements were made and requested Plimer to provide his authoritative source.


For example, Monbiot’s second question accuses Plimer of continuing to use an unchanged graph from Martin Durkin’s film The Great Global Warming Swindle (Durkin is a climate sceptic, flavour of the month, from an earlier year) which Durkin had acknowledged as wrong and, subsequently, changed. The tenth question relates to volcanoes and quotes Plimer as saying that volcanoes produce more CO2 than the world’s cars and industries combined. Monbiot quotes the US Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory saying, in contrast, that human activities release 130 times more CO2 than volcanoes and asks Plimer for his authority for his claim.

Even a partisan believer in the science emanating from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the large numbers of peer reviewed scientific papers published since then, suggesting that the IPCC may have been conservative in its predictions, would have expected a response from Plimer that, superficially, at least, purported to be a persuasive defence of the allegations in the 11 questions.

Instead, Plimer ignored his highly credentialled critics and set a number of examination questions for Monbiot which, on even a charitable interpretation, read like a smokescreen to avoid being found out. Some idea might be gained from verbatim reading of Plimer’s second question which dealt with volcanoes (the subject on which he was accused of ignoring data from no less than the US Geological Survey):

Tabulate the CO2 exhalation rates over the last 15,000 years from (i) terrestrial and submarine volcanism (including maars, gas vents, geysers and springs) and calc-silicate mineral formation, and (ii) CH4 oxidation to CO2 derived from CH4 exhalation by terrestrial and submarine volcanism, natural hydrocarbon leakage from sediments and sedimentary rocks, methane hydrates, soils, microbiological decay of plant material, arthropods, ruminants and terrestrial methanogenic bacteria to a depth of 4 km. From these data, what is the C12, C13 and C14 content of atmospheric CO2 each thousand years over the last 15,000 years and what are the resultant atmospheric CO2 residence times? All assumptions need to be documented and justified.

A series of science nerds set out to discuss Plimer’s questions including classifying them both in terms of relevance to climate change and scientific coherence including this discussion at Real Climate by Gavin Schmidt of NASA. Schmidt, inter alia, described Plimer’s questions as “The throwing around of irrelevant geologic terms and undefined jargon … in order to appear more knowledgeable than your interlocutor.”

While Monbiot referred Plimer to Schmidt’s discussion, as well as a number of other well-documented responses to Plimer’s questions, Plimer has still failed to answer any of the charges of inaccuracy and misleading conduct brought against him and his book. As a result, the debate has failed to materialise.


Since I started with a prejudice in favour of Plimer for his attacks on creationism, I, for one, am thoroughly disappointed that he has failed to answer even one of the charges brought against him. In the term, “climate change sceptic”, there is an implied claim of respect for science including those scientists with whom one disagrees. If one cannot even attempt to answer simple questions about the accuracy of the facts in a book that purports to be thoroughly scientific, then any claim to being a sceptic as opposed to a misguided ideologue retains little credibility.

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About the Author

Stephen Keim has been a legal practitioner for 30 years, the last 23 of which have been as a barrister. He became a Senior Counsel for the State of Queensland in 2004. Stephen is book reviews editor for the Queensland Bar Association emagazine Hearsay. Stephen is President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and is also Chair of QPIX, a non-profit film production company that develops the skills of emerging film makers for their place in industry.

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