Saturday, March 17, 2007

Back to the climate... again.

I often seem to end up blogging (or ranting) more about climate change than astrophysics, even though I am not in the climate sciences. But it is an issue of great importance (I'd prefer not to experience the possible consequences of unchecked climate change in later life) and the science (matter interacting with radiation, thermodynamics etc) is close enough to the physics I specialize in that I can understand why they're saying what they're saying.

After all, Earth is just another planet orbiting a moderately typical star, so its all astronomy at the end of the day.

The climate is, as with all science, interesting, and I try to keep up to date on whats happening in the broader scientific world by reading popular science magazines, science blogs and even newspaper science sections. Earlier this week the NYT published a piece by journalist named William J. Broad with the title "From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype." As you might guess, the subject is Gore and "An Inconvenient Truth". What is the article about? Well, here is the second paragraph:

But part of his scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore’s central points are exaggerated and erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.
I thought this claim seemed very odd. I've seen Inconvenient Truth, and found it very nicely presented. I didn't notice anything in it that really jarred me as being something outrageous that I'd never seem claimed in other reputable writing about climate change. There were one or two slips of the tongue, an over-simplification of a few physical concepts, but its a presentation. Even when talking professionally to scientific colleagues at departmental colloquia or full conferences you pretty much have to simplify some aspects of what you're talking about.

Talking to a general non-science audience is even harder, and Gore did a great job, I thought. So how many climate scientists would be so pedantic as take Gore to task? On reading further into the article I became very suspicious, very quickly. The very small number of named scientists who actually make negative statements regarding Gore's presentation, and the details of statements they made, all made me think this was a hatchet job by climate deniers, a sort of "OK, we cant get away with claiming that there is no evidence for climate change, or that its largely man made, so lets change tactics and says there no way its going to be a big problem."

Some of the rhetoric used really set off the alarm bells:

Criticisms of Mr. Gore have come not only from conservative groups and prominent skeptics of catastrophic warming, but also from rank-and-file scientists like Dr. Easterbook, who told his peers that he had no political ax to grind. A few see natural variation as more central to global warming than heat-trapping gases. Many appear to occupy a middle ground in the climate debate, seeing human activity as a serious threat but challenging what they call the extremism of both skeptics and zealots.
The scientists who've been studying climate change for decades, whose work and predictions have been independently validated in more and more detail, who were in a very real sense right about there being recent unprecedented climate change, are now "zealots" and "extremists" according to article. The people who continue to deny climate change in the face of ever-increasing evidence for it are also painted as extremists, but only as extremist "skeptics." Mmmh, there is a time for valid skepticism, but that time is long past. And so we're meant to accept that in a polarized argument about a scientific issue, between the vast majority of professional scientists and a fringe of contrarians and non-scientists with a vested financial interest in climate change denial, that it is really the people in middle, the self-proclaimed "centrists" who are the most intellectually honest?

Centrism as a word has very clear political overtones, especially in the modern theatre of US politics, so its use in an article claiming to be a-political is somewhat inappropriate. Nevertheless, and please don't misunderstand me, the "golden mean" or "happy median" is a valid concept in certain situations, buts its use here is just wrong.

Should we also accept that there is a valid argument about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa, and that in such a "debate" between profession astronomers and some very strange religious conservatives, that the astronomers are zealots, the fundamentalist merely skeptics, and the best position is to be centrist and say "we don't know"?

How about a purely hypothetical scenario, between zealous mathematicians proclaiming 2+2=4, and skeptics claiming 2+2=5? Is the even a valid debate, let alone something where "centrism" is valid?

Anyway, to cut the story short it seems like I was right to dismiss the article as pure propaganda. Over at RealClimate, Michael Mann (he of the hockey stick graph fame) and Gavin Schmidt dissect the William Broad article and reveal the inaccuracies (or to be honest about it, the deliberate lies and dishonesty) put forth by both the few scientists in the article, and its author Broad (who also appears to have a history of climate denial). The post is well worth reading, so please go read it (the link repeated here for those too tired to move the mouse up to the previous link).

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