Climate Science Needs to do Some Soul-Searching

By Brent Fewell

Historically, the scientific community has jealously guarded its reputation for credibililty, accuracy and objectivity.  Just like the rest of us, scientists are not immune from bias and herding behavior when professional incentives are out of wack.  In one current battle being waged, some scientists have grown increasingly alarmed by “impact factor” abuse, concern over the manner in which research output is evaluated and which has inadvertently resulted in scientists trading-off good science for high-impact publications.

“We, the scientific community, are to blame — we created this mess, this perception that if you don’t publish in Cell, Nature or Science, you won’t get a job,” says Stefano Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology (ACSB), who coordinated DORA after talks at the ACSB’s annual meeting last year. “The time is right for the scientific community to take control of this issue,” he says.

This same self-policing of bias inculcation is occurring within the realm of biotechnology, where new editorial standards over at Nature are being adopted to “improve the consistency and quality of reporting in the life-sciences articles.”

As climate scientists try to explain the 15-year pause in global warming, I can’t help but wonder whether we’ll see the same soul-searching and reassessment of reporting standards in the realm of climate science.  Some pundits are trying to explain away the unravelling of the so-called scientific consensus on human-caused warming.  For example, this week Nate Cohn over at the New Republic issued an apologia of sorts on behalf of the scientific community, arguing that climate change science is a lot more difficult than originally believed and the uncertainty of the outcomes is even greater than anticipated.

As Cohn aptly points out, the warming that was expected to occur in the atmosphere may actually be occurring deep in the oceans or elsewhere – we simply don’t know yet.  According to Cohn, “[t]he combination of imperfect data, overlapping explanations, and continued uncertainty mean that scientists cannot discount the possibility that they have overestimated the climate’s “sensitivity” to additional greenhouse gas emissions.”   To some, like Cohn, the absence of warming doesn’t mean a whole lot – just another Mulligan to get it right – to others, however, it means much much more.

Will Wilkinson over at the Economist in his article A Cooling Consensus is troubled by Cohn’s post-hoc rationalization.  According to Wilkinson,

As a rule, climate scientists were previously very confident that the planet would be warmer than it is by now, and no one knows for sure why it isn’t. This isn’t a crisis for climate science. This is just the way science goes. But it is a crisis for climate-policy advocates who based their arguments on the authority of scientific consensus. Mr. Cohn eventually gets around to admitting that

In the end, the so-called scientific consensus on global warming doesn’t look like much like consensus when scientists are struggling to explain the intricacies of the earth’s climate system, or uttering the word “uncertainty” with striking regularity.

But [Cohn’s] attempt to minimise the political relevance of this is unconvincing. He writes:

The recent wave of news and magazine articles about scientists struggling to explain the warming slowdown could prolong or deepen the public’s skepticism.  But the “consensus” never extended to the intricacies of the climate system, just the core belief that additional greenhouse gas emissions would warm the planet.

Wilkinson continues to flay Cohn’s explanation:

If this is true, then the public has been systematically deceived. As it has been presented to the public, the scientific consensus extended precisely to that which is now seems to be in question: the sensitivity of global temperature to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Indeed, if the consensus had been only that greenhouse gases have some warming effect, there would have been no obvious policy implications at all.

[W]e have not been awash in arguments for adaptation precisely because the consensus pertained to now-troubled estimates of climate sensitivity. The moralising stridency of so many arguments for cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and global emissions treaties was founded on the idea that there is a consensus about how much warming there would be if carbon emissions continue on trend. The rather heated debates we have had about the likely economic and social damage of carbon emissions have been based on that idea that there is something like a scientific consensus about the range of warming we can expect. If that consensus is now falling apart, as it seems it may be, that is, for good or ill, a very big deal.

I, like Wilkinson, am troubled by Cohn’s casual attempt to explain away the flawed consensus (even if I’m in agreement with Cohn’s scientific explanation), without first dealing with the root of the bigger problem.  Credibility matters – once you’ve lost it, it’s a long and arduous path to reclaim it.  The failure by the science community, and in this case climate science, to communicate its research in an objective transparent fashion, failure to communicate scientific modeling and projections absent an exposition of the inherent and natural uncertainty, and, in some cases, encouraging or passively allowing certain of its prominent voices to cross a dangerous line between objectivity and advocacy remains a huge problem.  It’s no secret – most scientists are poor communicators and, rather than deal with the difficult and often obtuse public, would rather focus on their research.  Such shortcomings, unfortunately, have made it all the more possible for society’s irrational voices to seize and influence the non-critical public sentiment – see Rush Limbaugh is wrong on climate change, My new year’s wish, for less politics and more credibilityYou can’t handle the truth.

At an early age, we were all made to believe in the wonders and nobleness of science, whose very roots and erudition were steeped in healthy skepticism and a willingness to challenge the conventional flat-earth consensus thinking.  That is the quality of science I know and still believe in.  Unfortunately, in the case of climate science, rather than being a healthy model of skepticism, it has now become the object of skepticism.  That to me is a sorry sort of affairs.  The scientific community can do better.

[Update:  Stumbled across a good article titled A Closer Look at Climate Change Skepticism by Charles Schmidt which reinforces my point in this post. Schmidt does a nice job of fairly explaining the varying positions of the small handfull of prominent scientists, e.g., Lomborg, Michaels, Pielke, Patterson, who have remained skeptical of the so-called mainstream consensus view on climate change.  Their skepticism is not that climate change isn’t happening; rather, most prominent skeptics have argued about carbon sensitivity and the rate at which warming would occur.  But the courage of these skeptics to express dissent has not come without a price.  Claire Parkinson of NASA summed it up best, “It’s gotten so polarized that scientists who go against the mainstream worry they’ll be treated poorly in the press,” she says. “People will just say, ‘Oh, they’ve been bought off by the oil industry,’ but that’s not always true.”   It takes courage to speak up and go against the mainstream.  And, as it turns out, the views of the skeptics may be closer to the truth than the consensus thinking.  Perhaps the scientific community would be well advised in the future to approach healthy skepticism differently – embrace rather than ostracize.]