Friday, 29 January 2010

Of Drama Queens and Climate Science

Yet another bunch of anti-science letters in The Australia, this time in response to an article reporting the UK's chief scientist as saying climate scientists are prone to dramatise claims.

It suits the tabloid press (including those who disguise this tendency with a broadsheet layout) to frame issues in absolutes and set up crazy debates. Anything any scientist says that sounds the vaguest bit extreme or contrary to known science gets blown out of proportion, and the 99.9% of scientific work that doesn't fit this model is ignored.

Try reading the scientific literature using Google Scholar instead of regular Google as your search engine. You'll be amazed to find the vast majority of accusations against climate scientists (here for example the claim that they underplay uncertainties) are totally unfounded. Try however to get an article into a newspaper that tells it the way it is rather than setting it up as a screaming match between drama queens and you will get nowhere.

I stopped buying newspapers that do this and only read them where I can find them for free (online, in coffee shops etc.). If more people did this they would get the message.

It's hard to get a real debate going in the online comments so I will repeat some of my points here.

Peter: your claim that the raw data is "destroyed and manipulated" is rubbish. Most of the raw data is freely available. The drama queen argument here is that if a tiny fraction of the data used by one research group isn't available then all of it isn't. NASA for example makes ALL their climate data and their computer code available (see here for theirs among others). Enough data has been available for years for any serious scientist wanting to undo the mainstream theory to do so. Instead, we get vicious personal attacks, theft of email and political arguments.

SW1: your claim that further flaws will come to light is not only plausible but almost certain, but so what? Published science is riddled with errors. A researcher develops a new theoretically superior instrument, and in the rush to get published, makes mistakes in calibration. A research group finds a new angle on a problem and in their enthusiasm at finding something exciting, miss an obvious error. Peer review is a filter but not a perfect one, and this kind of thing can slip through. Sometimes the reviewers are lazy, or have a predisposition to accept the paper's findings. That's why scientists check on each other. Let's take as an example the 2009 paper by Lindzen and Choi that purported to show a much lower climate sensitivity to CO2 increases than the accepted range of 1.5-4.5°C. This paper was trumpeted over the blogosphere as yet another nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming. Now various analyses of their paper are showing that their approach was flawed, including one by Roy Spencer, who generally disagrees with the mainstream figure on climate sensitivity. There is at least one published response that shows the paper to contain serious errors. The drama queen version of events: Lindzen once again strikes a fatal blow against science, and the "corrections" can safely be ignored.

Another example is the claim that the oceans are cooling. NASA has an interesting story on their web site of how the science in that case unfolded. One of their researchers, Josh Willis, published results using a new technology, Argo floats, that showed the oceans were cooling. While he described this as a "speed bump" rather than a slowdown in warming, the blogosphere went gaga and many people still quote this result. What actually happened was some of the floats were under-reporting temperature, while the older technology used for older measurements was over-reporting temperature, and these two effects combined to create an appearance of cooling. Any cooling would contradict a range of other kinds of evidence, so had these results held up, it would have been a major challenge to the science. Instead, the problem turned out to be in the data. Again, nothing too unusual. But the drama queen interpretation is Willis overthrew the entire theory, and the conspirators worked hard in the background to reinstate it.

My focus here has been on attacks on the mainstream but of course there are people out there who make extreme claims about the risks of climate change. These people do not represent the scientific community, who as a whole are pretty loath to make extreme claims without strong evidence. But these stories too get the headlines.

The bottom line? Google Scholar is your friend. Whenever something implausibly extreme or contrary to accepted knowledge appears, go to the scientific literature. Preferably after waiting 6 months for the dust to settle.