'The Science is Settled', Part 858

by | Oct 22, 2011

I found myself being called a ‘climate sceptic’ and ‘denier’ this week. I find this odd, because I rarely take a view on the science, which I regard as largely a massive red herring — the climate debate is mostly political. My argument is that if you want to know what ‘science says’, you have to have a good idea about what it has been asked. Some in the debate believe that ‘science’ can speak uncontaminated, objective truth to the policy-making process; you merely have to assemble all the scientific literature, summarise it, and tell the policy-makers. Job done.

But doesn’t setting up special organisations — the IPCC, for instance, or the UK’s Committee on Climate Change — to inform special policy-making process imply something of a loaded question, to which the answer is to some extent presupposed? Doesn’t there appear, therefore, to be a dialogue in which the policy-making process to some extent informs the evidence-making process? I’m not talking about the IPCC being an explicit exercise in policy-based evidence-making, but that there’s a very naive view of science as a process entirely distinct from the rest of the world. (And it’s not as if the climate change issue doesn’t come to the rescue of politicians who find themselves in crisis.) I’m fairly confident that science can answer questions such as ‘is climate change happening’. The best available evidence will suggest that it is. But all the evidence in the world won’t shed any light on what the question means. Science can not deliver value-free answers to political questions, and cannot produce statements about the world independently of the world.

A more useful question is ‘how much has the climate changed’. But even then there are the corollaries: ‘should it have changed at all’, and ‘so what’. A more useful question is, ‘what are the consequences of climate change’. But is that a question only for science? Is climate change worth stopping at all costs? To what extent should climate change be the organising principle of the entire human race’s productive activity? In the same way that special scientific and policy-making processes implies a dialogue between them, the consensus it produces (it is presupposed) precludes another kind of dialogue.

The BEST results are out, pre-peer-review, and amidst a storm of articles reproducing the press release announcing the BEST conlcusion. Says the No Scientist,

Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed

A group of scientists known for their scepticism about climate change has reanalysed two centuries’ worth of global temperature records. Their study largely confirms previous ones: it finds strong evidence that Earth is getting hotter.

I don’t remember the BEST scientists ever being ‘known for their scepticism about climate change’. I do remember them being sceptical of some approaches in climate science, though, and in the presentation of their results. There’s been a lot of discussion about what the BEST results do and don’t say, so I won’t dwell on them. But it is curious that the No Scientist chose the headline Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed, and then goes on to quote a number of sceptics, each of whom seem to have told the article’s author, Michael Marshall that the warming was never in question. For instance, Steve McIntyre is quoted,

I haven’t ever suggested that temperatures haven’t risen since the 19th century. Quite the contrary

Moreover, as David Whitehouse at the GWPF points out,

The researchers find a strong correlation between North Atlantic temperature cycles lasting decades, and the global land surface temperature. They admit that the influence in recent decades of oceanic temperature cycles has been unappreciated and may explain most, if not all, of the global warming that has taken place, stating the possibility that the “human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.”

And that’s a very different message to the many news items covering the report. Consider this story on Channel 4 last night. (H/t Bishop Hill).

The item ends with a discussion about whether the BEST results will end the debate.

What this makes clear, then, is that none of the journalists — churnalists — actually understand the debate they are purporting to have analysed. There, in black and white on the No Scientist‘s page, and across the entire climate-sceptic part of the blogosphere are many statements of position, few — if any of which — claim that ‘there has been no global warming’, or words to that effect.

Once again, then, what this shows is that the coverage of the debate tells us more than the actual substance of the debate. What is revealed by the failure of journalists to cover the debate is that they’re reporting from inside their own heads. In their view, the debate is about that familiar trope, ‘climate change is happening’. ‘The scientists’ say it is, and ‘the deniers’ say that it isn’t. That is an imagined debate. It doesn’t exist. This view of the debate precedes (and indeed precludes) any understanding of it.

This in turn reflects the presuppositions implied by the creation of special scientific and policy-making bodies, that all you need to do to move forward with climate change policies is establish that ‘climate change is happening’. Yet there does not appear to be any discussion about attribution in the BEST studies, and there is already some criticism about its methodology.

Many in the debate want to draw a line under the science, to have it ‘settled’ once and for all. But as has been discussed at length, here there and everywhere, that just ain’t science. The desire to move forward with policies, then, without further debate about ‘what science says’ — it has spoken, after all — speaks about the extent to which the policy-making process precedes the evidence-making process. Looking more deeply at the coverage of the debate reveals that expectations of science precede the science. The dialogue between the policy-makers and the evidence makers is two-way, and precludes any criticism or alternative discussion entering the dialogue.

If it were not so, the preconceptions of journalists and other activists would not dominate their analyses of the debate. They would be able to accurately reflect the claims made by ‘sceptics’. They would be able to answer them, and include them in the process. There would be a multi-dimensional dialogue; it would not consist of merely the official evidence-makers and the policy-makers, sitting apart from the rest of the world, deciding its fate.


  1. James cox

    I’ve just had an idea that will solve all our problems . Lets line up the pope and Richard Dawkins and fire them at each other in the GIANT hydron collider and see what happens. If their is a god particle it will surely reveal itself amongst the remains.

  2. James cox

    on a more serious note, I am fed up with the hubris that is prevelant among scientisst (not science itself). Being good at scientific research does not mean that you understand human behaviour.Quite often it is the contrary. This is why economics. politics and the rest are not sciences and cam’t predicty anything from one day to the next.

  3. James cox

    good post by the way ben..

  4. James cox

    This article points out the newly found status of scientists as the bearers of “truth”, in much the same way that priest once did in the name of religion. Not only does ecologism have all the eschatological hallmarks of religion in the form of “end time”, it offers the same from of spiritual relief through human suffering. The notion that we are “bad for ourselves” is not far away from the idea that we are all ”sinners”. The parallels and common roots between ecological primitivism and all Abrahamic religions are not just anecdotal – although it won’t be long before we hear that taking the apple from the tree amounts to the first act of environmental vandalism. What we are observing is a social, philosophical and political continuum .
    I think my point is that it is not objective science that drives ecologism, but guilt about our very existence. We are suffering from a neuroticism as we are cut adrift from religious certainties, such as our eventual salvation and immortality, and we are not yet able to truly move on.

  5. geoffchambers

    James Cox #5
    Agreed that “ecologism has all the eschatological hallmarks of religion”.There are also similarities with other, non-religious ideologies.
    So is ecologism a religion? Or simply like a religion? Or a useful replacement for religion in a non-religious age? Or a political movement with dangerous anti-democratic tendencies? And how does one express this without provoking a tit-for-tat psychological analysis of “denialism”? and a “plague on both your houses” reaction from the 99% of the population who think we’re all a load of obsessive nutters?

    You say #3 “economics. politics and the rest are not sciences”, but the social sciences are all we’ve got for analysing this phenomenon. Sociologists like Max Weber had a lot to say about the nature of religion, and about the relation between science, politics, and the wider culture. Unfortunately, the social scientists who could help provide insights are right in the middle of the social group (western liberal academia) who are responsible for the rise of the phenomenon which needs analysing.

  6. tadchem

    The ‘climate change’ issue actually raises a lengthy series of questions.
    Q: Is climate change happening?
    A: That depends on how precisely one makes the measurements. Generally, the answer is ‘yes.’
    Q: How much has the climate changed?
    A: That depends on the space and time encompassed in the definition of ‘climate.’ The larger the space-time involved, the broader the range of climate variables which must be considered.
    Q: Is the observed change significant?
    A: In this context ‘significance’ is the key variable, and there is as yet no commonly accepted threshold for ‘significant’ change. On the scale of planetary physics, Life itself is simply a skin disorder.
    Q: Is climate change bad for humans, the environment, or wildlife?
    A: It is a natural part of Life on Earth, to which all life has always adapted. It is a major driver of evolution, without which we would all still be blue-green algae.
    Q: Is it the fault of humans?
    A: That is a foolish question, the kind asked by someone who is looking for someone else to blame rather than by someone looking for solutions to problems.
    Q: Can humans change the climate?
    A: Probably ‘yes.’
    Q: Can humans ‘fix’ the climate change problem?
    A: It has not yet been established that the climate is ‘broken’. Even so, humans are still so ignorant of the complex second and third-order interactions of the myriad variables involved that any deliberate action humans take will inevitably fall before the Law of Unintended Consequences. “Geoengineers” are children playing with high explosives and WMDs.

  7. Fay Kelly-Tuncay

    Channel 4 News hits an all time low. The Climategate scandal led the Royal Society to admit in 2010 that the science was infused with uncertainties and that, “It is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future…” Why wasn’t this mentioned, just as an introduction?
    And then go on to mention the recent report from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project BEST has confirmed what we already knew that there has been a very modest warming, which has been recorded over the last 150 years. We are today warmer than the Little Ice Age, warmer than the Victorian Era, indeed warmer than the 1970s. The proper question is, of course, why? The BEST project have no conclusions about this.
    There was however an interesting comment by Nigel Calder in the New Scientist on the BEST project, which confirms Climategate.
    Nigel Calder’s comment:
    “What do they mean by ‘global warming is real’? The graph of global land temperature changes associated with BEST’s announcement neatly confirms by their independent method that the warming stopped about 15 years ago. The Sun’s recent laziness has apparently cancelled any effect of ever-increasing man-made greenhouse gases.”
    The interviewer replied:
    “I take your point about the reduced warming trend over the last 15 years, but this study is focused on the long-term warming trend which covers a century. How do you account for this long-term warming trend?”
    Calder replied:
    “Increased activity of the Sun, of course, from 1950 to the early 1990s as signalled most strikingly by the decline in ionizing cosmic rays at the Earth’s surface…”
    The most significant finding of the BEST project didn’t make it on to Channel 4 – the fact that the root causes of global warming are poorly understood, which reflects the findings of the Royal Society last year.
    However the BEST researchers did find (again what we already know) a strong correlation between North Atlantic temperature cycles lasting decades, and the global land surface temperature. They admit that the influence in recent decades of oceanic temperature cycles has been unappreciated and may explain most, if not all, of the global warming that has taken place, stating the possibility that the: “human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.”
    Clearly we can strongly argue the science is far from settled for policymaking, but where was this debate on Channel 4? Really they treat us like children.

    Perhaps they should have had these reports on Channel 4:
    ENSO INDEX explained by Joe
    The Sea Ice Report, which puts things into perspective

  8. George Carty

    I expect they’ll try to pin the end of the warming temperatures on the much higher level of particulate pollution being emitted by Chinese coal-fired power stations. (They use similar pollution from Western industry to explain the drop in temperatures in the 1940 through 1970 period.)

  9. David C

    Excellent post Ben, and good point about the journalists totally missing the point. It’s not just in the climate debate that we see such poor reporting. I don’t know whether it was ever any better, but the well-informed blogs we have these days certainly show up how poor the MSM are.



  1. News & Views – October 24, 2011 | JunkScience.com - [...] ‘The Science is Settled’, Part 858 – I found myself being called a ‘climate sceptic’ and ‘denier’ this week.…

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