Posts Tagged ‘climate debate’

How science does and does not work (and how skeptics mostly fall in the latter category)

June 22, 2011

Another kick-ass article on The Conversation, providing some insights into the scientific process and the place that pseudo-skepticism takes in (or rather outside of) that process.

In science, to actually contribute at the forefront of a field one has to earn credibility, not demand it. Being taken seriously is a privilege, not a right.

In science, this privilege is earned by not only following conventional norms of honesty and transparency but by supporting one’s opinions with evidence and reasoned argument in the peer-reviewed literature.

This is what makes science self-correcting. If arguments turn out to be wrong, in time they are caught and corrected by other scientists. It is virtually impossible to publish long-refuted nonsense in good peer-reviewed journals.


an overwhelming scientific consensus does not imply the absence of contrarian voices even within the scientific community.

Over time, those contrarian voices simply fade away because no one takes them seriously, despite their shouts of “censorship” and accusations of bias.

This is not to say that a scientific consensus is never overturned.

There are well-known examples such as the Helicobacter pylori discovery in medicine, and continental drift in geology. But in both cases the arguments were won and lost in the peer-reviewed literature, not by contrarians sitting on the side-lines writing opinion pieces about how they were being oppressed.

A ‘change in paradigm’ occurs when the evidence for the prevailing theory is shown to be weak, and the evidence for a competing theory is getting stronger. That is the opposite of what has been happening in climate science over the past 150 years: The evidence of human influence on climate has been steadily accumulating from the time that it was first postulated as a prediction. Arguments against it have been shown to be either wrong or irrelevant for the big picture.

Even more so, the prevailing paradigm (that us tiny humans can’t possibly compete with the great forces of nature in affecting the earth’ climate) has been gradually overturned by the evidence which pointed out that yes, we can.

Oreskes gives a good overview of how climate science stacks up against the scientific methods (Highly recommended: “How do we know we’re not wrong?” slides and book chapter).

Back to The Conversation. Read and shudder:

One self-proclaimed “rocket scientist” who has published junk science in the opinion pages of The Australian has been quoted on aNew Zealandwebsite as saying:

“To win the political aspect of the climate debate, we have to lower the western climate establishment’s credibility with the lay person. And this paper [an accompanying picture book of thermometers] shows how you do it. It simply assembles the most easily understood points that show they are not to be entirely trusted, with lots of pictures and a minimum of text and details. It omits lots of relevant facts and is excruciatingly economical with words simply because the lay person has a very short attention span for climate arguments. The strategy of the paper is to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists. That’s all. There is nothing special science-wise.”

Undermine credibility.

That’s all.

Nothing science-wise.

Are these the people one should entrust with the welfare of future generations?

The tried and tested strategy of sowing doubt in the minds of the public seems to be supplemented by a strategy of lowering the scientists’ credibility. The latter strategy seems to be at least as successful as the former, if recent events are any guide.

PS: I’m well aware that the bulk of public skepticism is not based on a well orchestrated campaign, but stems more from individual reasons (which I’ve discussed in a previous post). That does however not negate the fact that certain lines of reasoning are repeatedly used in the public debate.

Another necessary element of denial is conspiratorial thinking. Any denier sooner or later, whether an academic or not, must resort to a global conspiracy theory to negate the overwhelming evidence arrayed against them.


Just imagine the devastating rebuttal of climate change that Bob Carter could submit for peer-review if he wasn’t being oppressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles.


Time to close the phony debate on climate science

At a time when the oceans are accumulating heat at the rate of five Hiroshima bombs per second, are conspiracy theorists the people whom a nation should entrust with the future of our children?

The so-called “debate” on climate change has been over for decades in the peer-reviewed literature. It is time to accept the scientific consensus and move on, and to stop giving air-time to the cranks.

It is time for accountability.

Other articles on The Conversation that I enjoyed reading:

Part Two: The greenhouse effect is real: here’s why.

Part Three: Speaking science to climate policy.

Part Seven: When scientists take to the streets it’s time to listen up.

PS: Even though I chose not to use the word “denier” to describe those who don’t accept mainstream science, I did not change it from the original text as quoted. However, I do not intend to host a discussion here on the arguments pro and con of using this or the other label.


Mike Hulme on the impacts of “climategate”

November 19, 2010

Mike Hulme has an editorial in the Guardian about “climategate”. It is a thoughtful piece, where he tries to take some distance from the events and see what impact they’ve had, focusing mostly on the positive:

I believe there have been major shifts in how climate science is conducted, how the climate debate is framed and how climate policy is being formed. And I believe “climategate” played a role in all three.

How climate science is conducted

As to the first, “climategate” may indeed have spurred the inevitable transition to more open source computer code and increased transparency. With the increased public and political interest, it is only natural to expect increased openness and transparency, to the extent possible and desired by scientists themselves (that last addition is not unimportant). The hope is that this could aid in the understanding of and respect for science, though that may be a little naive.

Efforts to re-examine the surface temperature record don’t signify a major shift in how climate science is conducted; they are replication exercises which, unsurprisingly, come to pretty much the same results as CRU or GISS do.  This seems merely a response to the misplaced decrease in trust in the temperature record. Overall, I don’t think the way climate science is conducted has changed dramatically as a result of this affair. It probably made a lot of scientists more afraid to speak out or more defensive when they do, neither of which is a good thing. That is the most significant impact as I see it.

How the climate debate is framed

Second, there has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of “here’s the consensus science, now let’s make climate policy” has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: “What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?”

The ‘ambiguous frame’ as Hulme calls it makes a lot of sense, and it always has. Does that signify a change? I don’t think so. Isn’t it common wisdom that there is more than just science that influences what policies are enacted? Consider e.g. this quote from the late Steve Schneider via mail to Andy Revkin:

To be risk averse is good policy in my VALUE SYSTEM — and we always must admit that how to take risks — with climate damages or costs of mitigation/adaptation — is not science but world views and risk aversion philosophy.

And as I wrote in a comment at the polarization and ideology thread:

One’s value system and circumstances influence how this risk is perceived. (…) How do you value the future vs the current (encapsulated in the discount rate), how is your sense of responsibility vs freedom, how do you weigh small probability – high impact events, those are the issues there, and they are inherently tied to one’s value system.


The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.

This is puzzling to me, as it seems to imply a straightforward relation between scientific certainty and policy making, whereas he just made the obviously correct point that there are other things that influence this relation. Update: I think I misinterpreted what Hulme said. Even if the science were 100% certain (which it will never be of course, by its very nature), it would still not ‘force’ a particular policy, exactly because contested values and human ideals will still enter the picture of decision making.

In effect, the big picture of what we know is clear, at least as to the ‘needed’ direction and thrust of policies (paraphrasing Herman Daly). But this direction and thrust apparently clashes with the values and ideals of a not unimportant segment of society.

The increased polarization between supporters of science and contrarians over the past year did probably contribute to putting this ‘ambiguous frame’ more into focus:

The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science.

Very true.

How climate policy is being formed

Hulme’s third point, the lack of faith in reaching a global agreement on emission reductions, has much more to do with the failure of Copenhagen than with “climategate”, I think. During CoP 15 in Copenhagen, the overhyped expectations collided with the harsh reality of nations thinking mostly about their own short to medium term self interest. This classic tragedy of the commons on a global scale proved much too viscous to be easily solved.

Hulme argues that

with scientific uncertainties and complexities about the future proliferating (…) further policy fragmentation around climate change is inevitable.

Here again, Hulme seems to suggest that scientific uncertainty is the primary cause for the differences in opinion about the policy direction, in apparent contradiction to him stating earlier that contested values and ideals are also important. Is lack of scientific certainty really the limiting factor in reaching political agreement? I don’t think so. Policy fragmentation will be inevitable because people will continue to have different values and ideals and live in different circumstances, not because of scientific uncertainty (which concern the details rather than the big picture anyway).

Hulme continues:

But if such fragmentation reflects the plural, partial and provisional knowledge humans possess about the future then climate policy-making will better reflect reality. And that, I think, may be no bad thing.

Here I’ll quote a comment by Lcarey over at CaS, which captures my take quite well:

My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct, then humanity faces a global scale problem beyond the power of any given nation or small group of nations to address [except perhaps by geoengineering as a risky bandage-type strategy. BV].   In that case “fragmentation” translates into “pursuing our own short term interest, and not doing anything of great significance regarding CO2 emissions anytime soon”, which translates into “we’re screwed”

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