Monday, March 01, 2010

Climate Crisis or Truth Crisis?

In case you missed it, there was an excellent summary at American Thinker of the recent climate-science-scandal revelations. The bad guy is United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The supposedly scientific IPCC report cites data drawn from environmental advocacy groups like World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace (list of such citations)—sources that are no only rather non-scientific, but also far from neutral. Even the leftist Boing-boing was on the defensive.

More recently, has come further revelation: the retraction of a Nature Geoscience paper predicting rising sea-levels. A New Scientist article examined some claims in the IPCC report and provides a balanced evaluation. It concludes that, while some of the details are wrong or rely on dubious sources, the report's findings are on-the-whole correct or at least credible (that is, backed by peer-reviewed research).

Now, Al Gore has weighted in with an op-ed on his favorite topic in last week's New York Times (h/t The Reference Frame). Here's a remarkable sentence: "From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption." Not sure what he means by "redemption"—surely there's a legitimate non-religious way to understand what he saying, right?

I am not a climate scientist, so I cannot speak directly on the science. My take on this subject is that, even assuming the climate-crisis pushers are correct, everyone needs to calm down and take a deep breath. Breathless invocations of crisis are no way to make a careful decision based on science. Even less are such considerations a basis for doing science worthy of its reputation as an objective arbiter of truth. Scientists find themselves in a difficult situation, which Stephen Schneider captured well in a Discover interview:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. (Schneider letter1)

Scientists are also (and first) human beings. And that means being susceptible to extra-scientific factors, like political correctness and other forms of peer pressure, as well as financial and other institutional pressures. Sometimes we can think we "know" some conclusion that our data doesn't support, and we might be tempted to stretch the results to make "the world a better place." But, as I've written before, such maneuvers are manipulations that have less to do with the discovery of objective truth than with the Baconian roots of the modern scientific project.

For too long scientists have been given a free pass (rather like clergy were in previous ages). Remember the line from Ghostbusters: "Back off, man, I'm a scientist." While being a scientist may be enough to excuse weirdness, it isn't enough to guarantee honesty.

At last month's APS meeting in DC, Princeton physicist William Happer observed that the cover-up and secrecy have deeply embarrassed science in general. In truth, this is not a bad thing. It makes plainly apparent the humanity of scientists and the fact that science, while being an amazing tool, is not an infallible institution.


1. Schneider's quotation would have been less susceptible to misquotation had he not said, "So we have to offer up scary scenarios". One has to wonder why he formulated it that way, instead of saying something like "we feel the need to."

William Happer, APS Talk on Secrecy (February 13, 2010, Washington, DC).