Posts Tagged ‘climate change debate’

Lisbon reconciliation unsettling

February 4, 2011

The Lisbon climate reconciliation workshop is over and it has created a lot of blog-fodder. I’m quite intrigued by the concept and find it a worthwhile undertaking to try to assuage the tempers in the public debate. Whether this workshop was a useful step towards that goal I wouldn’t know; I wasn’t there. The stories floating around paint a bit of in-crowd picture, with participants varying from staunch contrarians, social scientists and journalists to a small handful of climate scientists at the more agnostic side of the spectrum of professional opinion. Strong proponents of the mainstream scientific view were largely absent AFAIK, as were more activist voices. (I don’t know the views of all those present, so take this characterization for what it’s worth.)

If one were to divide the whole spectrum of opinion in three categories (overplaying uncertainty – mainstream scientific view – overplaying certainty), one could say that only the former category was well represented, and perhaps some who are edging between the first and middle category. Based on the names I recognize, it definitely wasn’t a representative sample from those engaged in the public climate change debate. Which thus defeats the purpose of reconciliation a bit I guess.

Apparently RC’s Gavin Schmidt was also invited, but declined. Gavin writes that his

decision not to go was based purely on their initial assessment of why there was conflict in the climate debate. They appeared to think that it was actually related to reconstructions of medieval temperatures and differing analyses of ice extent. Since these are not even close to the reason why climate science is politicised, I saw little purpose in trying to ‘reconcile’ on points that are completely tangential to the real causes of conflict.

Somehow Gavin’s absence was twisted by Fred Pearce, who wrote that Gavin Schmidt

said the science was settled so there was nothing to discuss.

Needless to say, Gavin has said nothing of the sort (he’s said the opposite). Anonymous conference participant “tallbloke” has outed himself as the source. In a letter to the New Scientist editors, Gavin wrote:

Since, in my opinion, the causes of conflict in the climate change debate relate almost entirely to politics and not the MWP, climate sensitivity or ‘ice’, dismissing this from any discussion did not seem likely to be to help foster any reconciliation.

As an experienced climate journalist, Pearce is well aware of the baggage that the term “settled science” carries: It is often used as a strawman attack on climate science, in which context it means something like “there’s no uncertainy and therefore no need to discuss any of these scientific issues”. Gavin and most, if not all scientists, would vehemently disagree to this.

At other instances (e.g. by Simon at CaS) it is defined as “widespread agreement amongst experts on the main tenets of the issue”. Most Scientists would agree that such consensus exists (it’s hard to argue with really), but it is not at all the same as the definition often used when used as a rhetorical weapon by contrarians. So a defense that that’s how it was meant doesn’t sound convincing to me.

As Stoat rightly sais:

“the science is settled” has been one of the mantras used almost exclusively by climate denialists as a term of insult for those actually doing science (…). It is a feeble attempt at a double bind: is the science settled? ha ha, then you can’t be a scientist because real science is never settled. Is the science not settled? Oh great, then we don’t need to do anything until it is.

Update: Gavin’s response to the conference invitation conforms to his initial description of why he declined. Steve McIntyre chimed in to say that Fred Pearce had read this email as well, which makes the twisted transcription into “settled science” even weirder. Eli assembled the main back and forth’s.

Professional deformation

September 25, 2008

(Nederlandse versie hier)


A meteorologist and a chemist were discussing the cause of the unexpected isoprene concentrations at a forest site (isoprene is an organic compound emitted by trees). The meteorologist thought it was most likely caused by some specific boundary layer dynamics, whereas the chemist thought that perhaps some unexpected chemical reaction was taking place. What did I learn from witnessing this discussion?



Everybody has a natural tendency to think along familiar lines. And to a certain extent, it makes sense: If you’re much more familiar with meteorology than with chemistry, then of course most explanations you can come up with are meteorological in nature. And as long as you are fair in weighing your thoughts and specific evidence alongside those coming from other disciplines, then there’s no problem. By discussing the relative merits of different explanations, you can hopefully come to a conclusion (dare I say “consensus”) as to what is most likely the case, taking all evidence into account.



Problems may arise when you downplay explanations coming from other relevant disciplines, being all too sure that the explanation is to be found within the realms of your specialty. If in doing so you ignore evidence to the contrary, chances are you’re in denial.



The theory of continental drift was rejected by some influential geologists in the early 20th century. In an excellent presentation, Oreskes sais of one of them, Bowie, that he did so “wholly on the basis of geodetic evidence (from his own specialty), and ignored the large body of data from various other geological specialties that independently argued in favor of continental drift.” She goes on to say that “we all gravitate towards certain kinds of evidence and arguments, and they tend to be the ones with which we are most familiar.”


Professional deformation

This “professional deformation” of favoring familiar lines of evidence, while ignoring that from other disciplines, is also happening in the climate debate: Examples abound of meteorologists who point to the chaotic nature of weather and turbulence, of geologists who point to massive climate changes in the past, of astronomers or solar physicists who point to the sun as the main driver of climate change, etc. Such claims are often so called half-truths.


These are all specialties that are related to the broad field of climate science, and as such they often make very useful contributions to the field. But some individual scientists make strong and contrarian claims about climate change, rooted in their own specialty, while ignoring the vast body of data and evidence from various other disciplines that independently argue in favor of the scientific consensus. That’s a red flag for taking their opinions on climate science with a grain of salt, even though they may be perfectly capable and honest scientists in their specialty. A multidisciplinary view is not everyone’s cup of tea.



The feeling of being the new Galileo, the misunderstood underdog fighting “the scientific establishment”, may be an important psychological drive for “skeptical” scientists. This feeling is amplified by a big fan-club cheering them on from the sideline (in the popular media).


In addition to the explanation given by Oreskes above, I think that many people tend to gravitate towards the kinds of evidence of which we like the perceived consequences best. With continental drift nobody besides geologists could care less what scientific consensus would be reached, but that’s a different story with global warming. Those who are afraid of the solution (predicting economic doom) find an easy way out, psychologically speaking, by ignoring or denying the problem, e.g. by holding on to even the flimsiest piece of evidence to the contrary. They are more of the “anything-but-CO2” kind, and they constitute the fan-club mentioned above.


Btw, the meteorologist was most likely correct, as I could show with a 1 dimensional box model.

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