Climate Science: Opinions, Baloney And Bloggers

  • Date: 20/12/12

Our world is based upon science. It is a shame, though perhaps inevitable, that more people do not truly appreciate it. The clothes you wear, the mobile phone you use, the food you eat and the vaccination that protects your child are all wonders of science, based on so many generations of scientists carrying out experiments and measurements, formulating hypotheses and theories, using logic and mathematical models.

Few would argue that climate science has not been controversial, even if opinions as to why differ. It is important to everyone on the planet, so the bar on evidence and conclusions should be set high. But climate science is no different from any other area of science. The process of science involves scrutiny, questioning and often cussed unreasonableness in the face of data, its gathering and interpretation. Truth will out eventually and the result is progress, a step towards better understanding. Carl Sagan (how he is missed) once told me that science was a “baloney detection kit.”

But where is the baloney? Many misunderstand what is going on in climate science. It’s as if there is a reflex against what is seen as an attack on the scientific method by outsiders, by uninformed, unqualified skeptics armed with their blogs and a bad attitude. Their views are dismissed as mere opinions out of line with the consensus and indeed of science itself. But the debate about climate science is not an attack on the scientific method. That view shows a shallow understanding of climate science and the issues involved. Neither is the debate regarding climate science about politics or a view about the right course of human development. It might come as a surprise to some, but the debate about climate science is about science, framed in the way science is changing.

Let’s get one thing over quickly. Not many disagree with the basics of climate science; that the world is warming, or that mankind is emitting greenhouse gasses, or that man, as a result, is influencing the climate. I believe that those few who do disagree are wrong, but they should not define everyone who raises questions. If popularisers and professors want to go on about those kind of “skeptics” then they are missing the issue. That’s not the point. It never was.

Who Is Upholding The Scientific Method?

The debate about climate science is played out in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that never gets reported in the media, and in the blogs that provide skillful analysis coupled with a disdain for spin. It is a high-level debate about so-called climate sensitivity, the importance of the recent global temperature standstill, the global extent of the medieval warm period and the previous historic warm periods that were as warm or even warmer than current conditions, about the technicalities of tree-ring measurements, the statistics of sea-level data, the correct way to process time series, the nature of Arctic warming and Antarctic cooling, and the poorly understood decadal climatic variations, to name just a few controversial issues. True, there is rubbish out there, but some of the most sensible, informed discussions about these key scientific points is taking place in blogs. Opinions are ruthlessly tested against observations. That is why it is wrong to see an attack on climate science as an attack on the scientific method. It is in fact the opposite.

The fact is that the internet is changing science and the debate about climate science is a good example of it. You can be a professor of anything these days but there will be someone out there in cyberspace who is smarter, better at statistics and computing, and has more time to focus on key problems. Someone who will ask for the raw data and mercilessly pick away at it, pointing out mistakes that before would have gone unnoticed. This might be uncomfortable for some, but it is undoubtedly good for science that cares nothing for personal feelings. The baloney detection kit is in ten thousand parts and is on the internet. Science needs to find a way to encompass this new reality.

Science has benefited from this. The so-called hockey stick graph showing global temperatures unchanging for over a thousand years and then an almost exponential recent rise – a graph that for years was an icon of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and hugely politically influential – was shown to be wrong by a blogger not by an academic climate scientist or by a journalist. There are other examples.

In the past the paper on the hockey stick would have been published in a journal after peer-review and stored in a library. But peer-review is not infallible, very many papers published in peer-reviewed journals turn out to be flawed. Access to the paper would be difficult for non-scientists. You could get a photocopy of the paper, but where is the data? How could it be checked? Scientists were forced into silos with the public forced to accept the conclusions of the priesthood with no way to check. False avenues in science took years and decades to correct, if at all. With the internet I suspect that the story of transposons, bacterial ulcers, continental drift, and smoking and cancer would have been different.

Because of the Internet and the demand for free access to scientific data (that is after all paid for by the taxpayer) science is becoming more open. It is the bloggers who are science’s new auditors. Many do not like it and have a cultural difficulty in accepting that the times are a changing. But as the new generations take over science will become more participatory and more appreciated.

All scientific conclusions are open to revision, especially those of climate science. Only today that revision is no longer exclusively in the hands of the scientific priesthood, or in the overvalued opinions of those on TV. Richard Feynman, once said, “It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.” He and Carl Sagan would have loved these times. They would be looking at the data, and writing blogs.