Posts Tagged ‘settled science’

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.


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