THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
By doubting we come to inquiry;
and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.
IS IT GETTING HOT IN HERE?
The big news last week on the climate change front was the concession by a pair of leading skeptics that maybe, just maybe, the atmosphere really is getting warmer. Environmentalists sighed with relief. "Finally," you could almost hear them saying. "Can we put the debate behind us now?"
At risk of minimizing the clever reasoning by the scientists who finally figured out what was wrong with satellite data that implied the world was actually cooling, it seems to me that a little too much attention was paid to the story. Indeed, I'll even go so far as to argue that media reaction to the announcement is more revealing than the science itself.
First, the obligatory background. For almost 20 years now, a consensus has been building among climatologists that the world is warming due to the heat-trapping properties of emissions from fossil fuels. This idea is based on surface temperature records from around the world, supplemented by "proxy" evidence from the pre-thermometer age -- ancient tree rings and ice cores, that kind of thing.
In addition, computer models of the planetary ecosystem have invariably indicated that, given what we're doing to it, the world should be getting warmer.
It all pointed to a warming trend that started about the same time civilization started burning coal. So far so good. Only problem was, satellites monitoring the Earth from above seemed to have detected a slight cooling over the past few decades.
Much of the past few years of popular and political debate over whether climate change is real relied on the failure of the scientific community to reconcile the conflicting observations. Hey, they can't even agree on whether it's getting hotter or cooler, so why should we spend billions reorganizing the entire foundation of industrial society? So the argument goes.
Never mind that the number of climatologists who believed that the world is warming outnumbered the skeptics by about 500:1 -- the conflict-obsessed media latched onto the false equivalency of a house divided. Some journalists (myself included) wrote stories as long ago as 1990 announcing that the only real source of debate revolved around why the climate is changing, not if. But not many managed to break out of their straightjacket. USA Today, for example, only wrote such a story in June.
I might have been a bit hasty in 1990, but it's a moot point now. Last week, the journal Science published three papers that collectively put the nail in coffin of satellite-derived cooling observations. Among the problems, for example, was a simple failure to take daily measurements at the right time of day.
The scientists whose analysis of the satellite data started the fuss, John Christy and Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama, anticipated the publication by issuing their own press release a few days early. In a brilliant piece of spin, they turned what amounts to a correction of their mistakes into a victory for science (which, to be fair, it is):
A curious puzzle in the study of climate science has been solved, and that solution is helping scientists at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) make the satellite record of global climate change more reliable than it was previously.Then the trio of papers hit the Internet (here, here and here are the abstracts).
First, it is important to remember that, while clearing up this "puzzle" does constitute significant progress, it doesn't change the fact that the overwhelming majority of climatologists already shared a high degree of confidence in the computer models and data that show a warming. That point was largely overlooked.
The New York Times's Andrew C. Revkin wrapped up his Aug. 12 story with a quote from Steven Sherwood, an author of one of the new papers: "Nobody is debating any more that significant climate changes are coming." Over at the online science news service, Live Science, the headline was "Key Argument for Global Warming Critics Evaporates" for an Aug. 11 article.
That sort of thing was typical. New Scientist produced a more cautious headline of "New probe may silence climate sceptics" for a piece by Duncan Graham-Rowe.
But the best coverage I could find came from Science's primary competitor, the journal Nature. "Climate argument solved?" was its headline for Jenny Hogan's story. Note the question mark. More interesting were her final two paragraphs:
"I don't think this will be the last word," says Phil Jones, a researcher from the University of East Anglia, UK, who has looked at the new results for the next assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.Hogan also quoted Carl Mears, author of two of the new Science papers, at least one of which she predicted "is bound to draw its own criticism."
"It's going to be very interesting to see how this reverberates through the climate-sceptic blogosphere. I expect by Tuesday there will be plenty of articles calling me a fraud," says Mears.Isn't context wonderful? Just to check that I wasn't being too cynical about the prospects for an end to debate, I asked Christy for some context of his own. His emailed response is worth sharing:
Characterizing the climate community and my position in it is beyond my capabilities. I've always been very skeptical of our ability to model and predict this complex system. There is more than meets the eye on the papers presented. What is not presented is the fact we have corrected our dataset and it is available on the web as usual. The correction was within our published margin of error....In other words, the skeptics haven't quite thrown in the towel. In a perfect world, I'd say that was a good thing. Christy and Spencer have in the past kept climate science honest with their stubborn refusal to ignore genuine discrepancies. I just wish politicians and media outlets would stop blowing such things out of proportion for their own nefarious ends.
Plus: another, complementary, take on the subject at Chris Mooney's site. He asks why the government funders for the three new studies didn't warrant press releases.