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Journalistic whiplash

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 July 2008 - (Español)

Andy Revkin has a good article in the Science Times today on the problem of journalistic whiplash in climate change (also discussed here). This phenomena occurs with the more uncertain parts of a science that are being actively researched and where the full story is only slowly coming together. In such cases, new papers often appear in high profile journals (because they meet the ‘of general interest’ test), and are often parsed rather simplistically to see what side of the fence they fall – are they pro or anti? This leads to wide press interest, but rather shallow coverage, and leaves casual readers with ‘whiplash’ from the ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ messages every other week.

This is a familiar pattern in health reporting (is coffee good for you/bad for you etc.), but in more recent times has started happening in climate science too. Examples picked out in the article include the hurricanes/global warming connection and the state of Greenland’s ice sheet. In both cases, many new pieces of evidence, new theories and new models are being thrown into the pot, but full syntheses of the problems remain elusive. Scientists are of course interested in knowing how it all fits together (and it usually does), but the public – unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain – see only the ping-pong across the media. Unlike more mature parts of the science (such as the radiative effect of greenhouse gases), there is much less context available to relate to these new pieces of science.

This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it? Your thoughts are most welcome!


287 Responses to “Journalistic whiplash”

  1. 51
    Hank Roberts says:

    > good journalism

    But the journalists don’t get to define what “good” is in their profession. They’ve been overruled by the owners of the media in court.

    Remember this?

    http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2000Q4/lawsuit.html
    “… In his deposition, Cronkite said that an ethical journalist should resist directives that would result in a false or slanted story being broadcast. “He should not go a microinch towards that sort of thing. That is a violation of every principle of good journalism,” Cronkite said….”

    (On appeal, the Fla. Supreme Court ruled against the position Cronkite was supporting there. Sigh)

    Remember this?
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14379-why-climate-swindle-film-is-dangerous-despite-ruling.html
    “… Don’t believe anything you see in a TV documentary made in the UK. Documentary makers here have no obligation to be accurate …”

    This is why there needs to be some OTHER venue in which scientists can present their work to the public.

    Journalism’s already a lost cause, though it will always have some outstanding good practitioners, because the journalists don’t own the journals.

    Scientists could, open-source, online — at least to the extent that it remains true that “the Internet perceives censorship as failure and routes around it.”

    This is why having your servers located outside the countries where censorship is practiced is smart.*

    Let’s hope. How can we amateur readers help the scientists present their work? Please, ask.
    _______________
    *reCaptcha: Pavillion abroad

    Spooky!

  2. 52
    dhogaza says:

    Well, since Chris MCV gets at least some of his information from the wikipedia article on “the controversy”, apparently his lack of faith in science is fueled by the information he finds there.

    Such as this, perhaps:

    On April 29, 2008, environmental journalist Richard Littlemore revealed that a list of “500 Scientists with Documented Doubts of Man-Made Global Warming Scares”[45] propagated by the Heartland Institute included at least 45 scientists who neither knew of their inclusion as “coauthors” of the article, nor agreed with its contents.[46] Many of the scientists asked the Heartland Institute to remove their names from the list; for instance, Gregory Cutter from the Old Dominion University was reported by Littlemore as saying,

    “ I have no doubts ..the recent changes in global climate are man-induced. I insist that you immediately remove my name from this list since I did not give you permission to put it there. ”

    However, the Heartland Institute refused to remove any names from the list.

    I mean, just how much more evidence do you NEED that there’s not really a scientific consensus regarding AGW?

  3. 53

    Chris MCV does mention an important point: How is the public supposed to know that the debate they see in the media is fake, or at least a very different debate than is taking place amongst scientists at large? It is a bit too easy to just out his comments aside as just another stupid skeptic who is not aware of the truth.

    As Walter Pearce also points out, the public by and large can not evaluate the merits of competing scientific claims.

    Many skeptics may have a predetermined notion against any human influence on climate, but there are bound to be many who are sincerely doubting which side is right, and in the media they read (websites, magazines, newspapers, radio, TV) they are indeed finding two sides. Even without a predetermined notion for or against, it is extremely hard for the lay person to figure out who is right. The main two factors influencing their opinion are probably the quality of the communication (good speaker?) and the authority of the source (does it sounds scientific? Is the messager a scientist?)
    Now, to Chris I’d also like to point out that the same wiki also provides info on how widespread the consensus position is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change
    And if one understands the IPCC process (eg http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/ipcc-2/) it becomes clear that indeed amongst scientists there is widespread agreement on many aspects of human induced climate change.

  4. 54
    Fred Jorgensen says:

    Re. 20. Hank Roberts states
    “I can’t find what you claim Pachauri said. Where’d you find it? ‘Mandatory’ doesn’t always mean ‘legally required’….”

    R.K. Pachauri’s comment re ‘mandatory measures by 2012′ was referenced in (2).
    His comment to BBC re ‘Get off the backs of China and India’ is referenced
    here:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7495641.stm
    In effect, he says China and India should be paid to reduce emission growth!

    If it’s mandatory to take action before 2012, then I would expect cataclysmic, irreversible
    consequences if we don’t. No fuzzy language. No equivocation. Just the scientific facts!

  5. 55

    Chris MCV does mention an important point: How is the public supposed to know that the debate they see in the media is fake, or at least a very different debate than is taking place amongst scientists at large? It is a bit too easy to just put his comments aside as just another stupid skeptic who is not aware of the truth.

    As Walter Pearce also points out, the public by and large can not evaluate the merits of competing scientific claims.

    Many skeptics may have a predetermined notion against any human influence on climate, but there are bound to be many who are sincerely doubting which side is right, and in the media they expose themselves to (websites, magazines, newspapers, radio, TV) they are indeed finding two sides. Even without a predetermined notion for or against, it is extremely hard for the lay person to figure out who is right. The main two factors influencing their opinion are probably the quality of the communication (good speaker?) and the authority of the source (does it sound scientific? Is the messager a scientist?)
    Now, to Chris I’d also like to point out that the same wiki also provides info on how widespread the consensus position is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change
    And if one understands the IPCC process (eg http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/ipcc/) it becomes clear that indeed amongst scientists there is widespread agreement on many aspects of human induced climate change, some exceptions notwithstanding.

  6. 56
    Chris MCV says:

    So, if lets say I am some fellow just looking into this issue for the first time and I find that wiki site, then I read your statement
    “An a priori determination not to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, and an eagerness to grasp at any straw, no matter how flimsy, to support that determination, is not “skepticism”. It is denial.”

    How do I take that?

    You assume I have a determination not to accept reality, but so far without a pretty heavy amount of digging, that reality is not presented in a clear cut way as you state.
    It might be clear cut from your experience, but that does not mirror the average person. Saying I am denying reality just insults me on top of that.

    IF you are right, then it is worth doing whatever it takes to show people that fact. Right now as, an outsider, it seems like the pro AGW side has its opinion and nobody should dare question it. Forget that I am a skeptic and look at it from the point of view of someone who has no opinion at all. It still comes off the same way, and thats not helpful.

    Combine that with the media hype from one position to the other, and add in people pushing political agendas by getting behind one view or another, guess what, you lost any clear cut obvious answer. If there is no two sides to the debate then to be frank, you have absolutely failed in presenting that effectively. Most people do not see it that way, right wrong or indifferent that is the facts of public opinion right now.

    Stepping out of one view or another though, let me qualify things a bit, you have to convince people enough to take action. Most people will say X only because thats what the news tells them, but to act on X takes commitment to an idea, which niether side seems anywhere near achieving.

  7. 57
    Ike Solem says:

    A natural response from scientists intent on their work is “why should I bother myself with talking to journalists who might distort what I say?” As a result, much of the information goes out to the press via “embargoed press releases” produced by university outreach people. A good compilation of these press releases on climate science is at http://www.sciencedaily.com/news/earth_climate/

    Let’s take a recent press release, published at sciencedaily, on the role of trade in China’s CO2 emissions:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080729142524.htm

    ABCNews also picked up the story and covered it: “How the West fuels China’s emissions”
    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=5467388

    Nice quote included: “It’s just like narcotics,” says Müller. “Who is responsible, the drug baron or the junkies?”

    That, we can safely say, is an example of how delivery of information from the scientist to the journalist to the general audience is supposed to work. The journalist felt no need to throw in a quote from Monckton or Michaels about how global warming was a myth, any more than a journalist writing about a new antiretroviral drug for HIV would throw in a quote from someone who thought AIDS had nothing to do with HIV.

    Where this gets really thorny is when the concepts are difficult and the journalists and editors are aiming to write and publish stories that attack the science behind global warming projections, or are under great pressure to do so by their advertisers or executive board members.

    Take the much-discussed issue of climate sensitivity – something that the public has probably heard of, but likely out of context and in a confusing manner. Let’s try and explain the basic scientific details, after the IPCC 4th (Chapters 9 & 10, mostly). This will take some space…

    First of all, there are two defined climate sensitivities, as described in IPCC: the transient response (TCR) and the equilibrium sensitivity (ECS), and secondly, they are largely used in practice as benchmarks for atmosphere-atmosphere coupled climate models, and are only rough guides to the behavior of the real-world climate system. Vaguely similar measures might be a car’s modeled 0-60 acceleration time (transient response) and its maximum speed (equilibrium response). The two are related, but they measure (well, estimate) different features of the climate response, and under somewhat artificial and controlled conditions. Of course, we have the 20th century observational record to compare to – but we are only at about 1.35X CO2, with other gases (CH4, N2O, etc.) included. None of that casts any uncertainty on the basic fact of global warming, since one can only recreate 20th century warming records by including greenhouse gas forcing in the models.

    If the ocean did not absorb any heat from the atmosphere, the TCR would be very similar to the ECS, but since it does, the transient response is always less than the equilibrium response. (The transient response for a climate model is defined as the surface temperature change at the time CO2 doubles over preindustrial values, assuming a rate increase of 1% per year, averaged over 20 years).

    The transient response is always less then the equilibrium response because the ocean absorbs atmospheric heat (cloud responses seem to play a role here as well). The rate it does this is dependent on things like wind speed, which complicates matters. One large uncertainty is in how fast the Southern Ocean will absorb heat – that will lead to a slower increase of surface temperatures but also to a faster rate of ocean warming and ice melt.

    Physical analogies might help: for example, take a long iron bar, rest one end in a roaring campfire and hold the other in your hand. It will begin to feel warm, which is the transient response; eventually it will get to hot to touch, which is the equilibrium situation, when the iron bar is radiating & conducting away as much energy as it is receiving from the fire. Use a very thin iron bar, and the transient response is much faster. (Imagine no oceans…) Now try it with a wooden beam – low heat conduction means that the transient response is much less, but the equilibrium condition is now a pile of ash. (corresponding to the highly implausible “runaway greenhouse” scenarios).

    Understanding all this requires a basic knowledge of high school-level physics and thermodynamics – which much of the general audience is probably lacking, even though scientists tend to take such knowledge for granted. The science journalist’s job thus might be better thought of as translation of scientific jargon – a challenging task.

    Now, with that background, let’s consider current scientific research into the transient and equilibrium climate responses (IPCC 10.5.2.1 and Figure 10.25).

    A large ensemble of the BERN2.5D EMIC has been used to explore the relationship of TCR and equilibrium sensitivity over a wide range of ocean heat uptake parametrizations (Knutti et al., 2005)… Fitting normal distributions to the results, the 5 to 95% uncertainty range for equilibrium climate sensitivity from the AOGCMs is approximately 2.1°C to 4.4°C and that for TCR is 1.2°C to 2.4°C (using the method of Räisänen, 2005b). The mean for climate sensitivity is 3.26°C and that for TCR is 1.76°C

    So, hurray! – we have numbers – 1.76 and 3.26, with more certainty for the TCR than for the ECS. What do these numbers mean, however? In the real world, there are numerous additional factors: the sensitivity over the oceans is less than that over the land, leading to greater ocean-land temperature gradients, in general, and the sensitivity in polar regions is much greater than that in tropical regions, by as much as 5-10 degrees C – and we are completely ignoring the issue of carbon-cycle feedbacks as well, as well as how precipitation changes relate to temperature increases. However, one has to have a decent understanding of the basic concepts before tackling modifications, right?

    To get back to the Great Swindle, notice that the transient climate response is dependent on things like ocean circulation and global wind speeds, especially in the data-poor regions of the Southern Ocean. So, a respected scientist (Carl Wunsch) pointed out to a “journalist” from the Great Swindle set that uncertainty in ocean mixing models is a real issue in predicting the climate response – and that journalist then took that statement out of context, insinuating that this cast doubt on the basic fact of global warming.

    Faced with this kind of deceptive and dishonest behavior on the part of some journalists, the rational thing for scientists to do might be to limit their conversations with journalists to official press releases, unless the person in question has a good track record. Even then, face facts: it is almost impossible to explain complex scientific concepts using thirty second soundbites, but let’s try anyway:

    “Basically, the combination of the transient response and the equilibrium sensitivity tells you something about how fast the climate will change as infrared-absorbing gases increase, and how extensive those changes will be. The transient climate response sets a lower limit on the equilibrium climate sensitivity, with the difference between the two apparently due to oceanic heat uptake rates. Upper bounds are somewhat poorly defined due to the likelihood of positive (emissive) feedbacks on the carbon cycle as temperatures increase. These estimates are global averages – actual temperature and precipitation changes in the real world will vary widely with latitude and with region.”

  8. 58
    Yenna says:

    (this is my first ever post here, and quite possibly the last)

    Re #49, SecularAnimist

    >>An a priori determination not to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, and an eagerness to grasp at any straw, no matter how flimsy, to support that determination, is not “skepticism”. It is denial.>>

    It seems to me that that misses the point. To science, such denial doesnt matter, it can be safely left behind by the scientists. But the issue here seems to be public awareness and that is not science; or understanding why there is such a gulf between the unanimity of scientists and the public impression of the state of the science. Then it is not sufficient to just note that the public mind is in denial and return to the lab. If as you imply there is a need to actually change the public impression of the science – in the interests of everyone, including the deniers – then the scientists will somehow have to find a way to overcome this wall of denial. Like Hansen tries to do, apparently. It seems to me that that is the challenge that Chris MCV laid down, and its a serious one (even if it doesnt help that MCV him/herself seems rather slanted to the denialist viewpoint).

    now, guess this has already been said here a lot of times already, so excuses if its repetitive.

  9. 59
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chris MCV wrote: “… so far without a pretty heavy amount of digging, that reality is not presented in a clear cut way as you state.”

    No heavy digging required. See “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart, which David Benson helpfully pointed you to above:

    http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.html

    Chris MCV wrote: “… add in people pushing political agendas by getting behind one view or another …”

    The only people pushing “political agendas” with regard to the reality of anthropogenic climate change are those who stand to profit — enormously — from the continued use of fossil fuels, who will say anything and do anything to delay the necessary phasing out of their products as long as possible. They are the ones who are funding and otherwise promoting the fake, phony “controversy” about the reality of anthropogenic global warming and climate change.

    Of course you are under no obligation to do so, but you have not responded to my query: what exactly is the basis of your “skepticism” of the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientific community that anthropogenic global warming is real, and is dangerous?

    Do you believe, in general, that scientists are not to be trusted?

    Do you think it is rational to be at least as “skeptical” of the claims put forth by those who stand to profit from preventing or delaying action to address climate change, as you are of the thousands of scientists who are telling you that it is real?

  10. 60
    tamino says:

    Re: #56 (Chris MCV)

    If you want to discriminate between the relative merits of opposing viewpoints regarding scientific topics, but you lack the training to evaluate the scientific literature yourself, there are two important clues you can use.

    First: see whether there’s a concensus among the national academies of science in a variety of nations, and how strong that concensus is. In the case of global warming, the concensus is unanimous: it’s real.

    Second: see whether you can detect dishonesty and/or gross incompetence from the advocates of either side. I have noticed that dishonesty and gross incompetence aren’t just present in the anti-global warming side, they’re more like the modus operandi.

    The confusion over global warming is very much like the confusion over the detrminental health effects of tobacco smoke. Ironically, some of the scientists who most strongly argue against the reality of global warming, used to be on the payroll of tobacco companies for the specific purpose of creating doubt among the public about that issue.

  11. 61
    Jeff Chambers says:

    Global Warming, the Media and the Public

    It may be that even given the media’s penchant for reporting on both sides of a issue, despite scientific conclusions being heavily weighted in one direction (e.g. anthropogenic climate warming), the public may be a bit more savvy than we give credit in peering through this media fog. Here are a few polls (one cited on RealClimate) I found on the public perception of AGW:

    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/GlobalWarming/story?id=1750492&page=1

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/08/new-public-opinion-poll-on-global-warming/

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,250571,00.html

    Perhaps the public skeptics are now a minority, and that those who remain will never be convinced, similar to trying to convince theory of evolution skeptics (see below). So why waste our time? I say we should focus on improving education for the majority who already recognize that AGW is real, and is a real problem, while continuing to whack-a-mole the most vocal skeptics. An example of powerful skeptics is the Louisiana legislature. Below is an excerpt from Louisiana House Bill 1168 which also targets “global warming”, and was recently signed by Gov. Jindal into law:
    http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/science_law_could_set_tone_for.html).

    Here is a version of HB-1168
    http://www.legis.state.la.us/billdata/streamdocument.asp?did=479172

    and an excerpt
    “Proposed law provides that neither the state Dept. of Education nor any school official shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system from helping students understand, analyze, and review, in an objective manner, the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course or courses being taught. Specifies that such topics may include biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

  12. 62
    Paul Middents says:

    Re Fred Jorgenson:

    What Pachauri really said according to your link:

    “They should get off the backs of India and China,” he told reporters in the Indian capital, Delhi.

    “They should say: ‘We’ll assist you to move to a pattern of development which is sustainable, low in terms of emissions intensity. But we as the richest nations are willing to take the lead and we affirm our commitment to do so.'”

    Sounds eminently reasonable to me. Maybe that’s why he was chosen to head the IPCC.

  13. 63
    Paul Melanson says:

    Re: Chris MCV #32

    You most likely can NOT educate people to the degree needed to really understand the complex nature of the issue. Therefore you MUST find a way to remove the remotest chance that politics may be intruding into the research. That includes even the PERCEPTION that it is.

    I agree that we can’t educate the bulk of the public as to the details of climatology. I don’t understand how the second statement follows, however. Are you assuming that anything “tainted” with politics takes away its objectivity? The reason I ask is because I believe it’s impossible to “remove” the perception of politics from social issues – simply because the opposition can always make the claim whether it is valid or not.

    Look at Darwin and evolution as an example. Any review of Darwin’s biography shows that he was led into his conclusions by his observations. But one wouldn’t know this by visiting some anti-evolution websites where he’s portrayed as an anti-religion zealot who went searching for a way to challenge faith in “God the creator.” Given this climate, could anyone “remove the remotest chance that religion may be perceived as intruding into his research?”

    The same thing happened with Galileo, he thought he was describing the motion of the Jovian moons but instead he was igniting a firestorm about a geocentric universe. I can’t say that religion has ever been removed from this question, but it certainly is settled as far as the bulk of society is concerned. Strangely enough, one could pose the central “denialist” argument for the sun revolving around the earth to people who believe in a heliocentric universe today but still get a largely contrary answer. That is, “If people were traveling 1,000 miles an hour (1,600 kph, the speed at the equator due to rotation) don’t you think they would notice or fly off?” “Common sense” tells me it would (that is, until I consider the question in the proper context). Why then, isn’t this a contentious topic?

  14. 64
    krog says:

    The public is largely beyond the AGW debate. Note that both the Bush administration and National Review magazine have acknowledged the greenhouse effect of CO2. Local government (Seattle) is hot on it. What to do about it is a different matter.

  15. 65
    Joe Hunkins says:

    Secular Animist:
    ALL of the political interference has been on the side of the deniers, and that interference is driven by those with a huge financial stake in prolonging the use of fossil fuels as long as possible. If you want to “hate” someone for “blurring the line” between politics and research, then those are the folks at whom your “hate” should be directed…

    All as in 100%, every single instance, perfect totality? My view is essentially the opposite. There is certainly a small amount of self-serving science out there, but as a science person who accepts the high likelihood of AGW I’ve become *increasingly skeptical* of illogical generalizations that don’t fit the data. Big media is at fault for some of this, but most of the bogus assertions are either actively encouraged or unchallenged by climate scientists for reasons I do not understand.

    For example the film AIT made many references to what they suggested would be catastrophic climate changes that could be coming fairly soon. These included massive sea level rise, widespread drought, and suggested that massive killer hurricanes like Katrina would be much more common. The film was clearly designed as an alarming advocacy piece veiled in simplistic interpretations of good research, yet AIT’s unreasonable extensions from that quality research have gone largely unchallenged in the climate community because it’s now considered acceptable (in fact fashionable) to mix science and advocacy.

    I’m not sure you can ever divorce the two completely, but my fairly recent journey into climate science has taught me that the perils we have always known about with corporate sponsored science (e.g. suggestions that tobacco smoke was not dangerous, pharma studies, etc, etc) appear to have reared their very ugly head in government sponsored science as well, though I think in more indirect ways. The first is simply that advocates spend a lot of mental and emotional energy advocating, and this detracts from the time that can be spent doing quality research and doing the kind of introspective skeptical analysis that is the cornerstone of good scientific inquiry.

    But this is not the major issue because historically scientists often “stick to their guns” in spite of evidence in favor of alternative hypotheses or modifications to prevailing hypotheses. It’s a human defect that good peer review helps to fix but bad peer review fails to fix.

    Therefore I think a key challenge to reason is now coming from the overt hostility towards the small number of climate scientists who continue to challenge AGW and the large number of people who challenge it.

    This at the least is going to inhibit them somewhat and at most appears to be denying funding to projects using the two patently false assertions you make above, to wit:

    1. AGW is a certainty. This is an absurd contention no responsible scientist would ever make. My goodness I hope you are not a professor somewhere.

    2. All challenges to AGW come from vested corporate interests. This is a preposterous statement. Although there are not a lot of skeptics in the climate community there are many responsible ones, and rather than disparage their views it suits science to at least listen to them. It’s even important to listen to those who make preposterous claims in their scientific ignorance so that they and others can be better informed.

    More important than respecting skeptics is respecting the common sense point of view about Global Warming science, which is that in our mitigation efforts we need to act rationally with regard to many variables that remain uncertain and difficult to model accurately. The real climate debate about the most appropriate actions has yet to begin in earnest. This is in small part due to skeptics suggesting we have nothing to fear at all, but in *much larger measure* due to alarmists exaggerating the implications of current trends.

  16. 66
    Chris MCV says:

    Tamino,
    People, for good or bad, on both sides seem to have plenty of ammunition to blast the other side with. A huge amount can be seen for what it is, but there is enough room to leave a question in many peoples minds. The reality of the way groups of humans interact means that what you say is true, but it will also depend HIGHLY on a persons politics and opinions when they start to look into the issue to try to decide what they believe. For good or bad, these institutions and groups are viewed in the same way governments, think tanks and other groups are viewed. You probably have a lot of info that says X is funded by this corporation and such, but most likely that will get lost in the signal to noise ratio surrounding the issue, and true or not will get chalked up as “talking points” by people as they review the information. If you look for dishonesty and imcompetence in any group, your probably going to be able to find it unfortunatly, and that appears to apply to both sides I am sorry to say.

    Jeff,
    Keep reading the first abc story and you see that the public also does not believe there is consensus regarding cause among scientists. It more or less tells me people are aware of the issue and unsure of the facts. That vague a set of opinions could easily be swayed by a few stories or strong personalities to believe something completely different (no I don’t have that much faith in the intellectual capacity of large groups of people).

    As I said, you don’t have to try to convince me one way or the other, thats not the point of my posting at all.
    The point is that the way the press and politicians are dealing with it makes it look like scientists cannot decide the facts (true or not, thats the perception). When one decides to dig deeper and look closer the picture does NOT come into any clearer of a focus. It probably is worse because there is enough technical information argued over that even when one tries to follow a particular issue to the end (say the bristlecone pines) you never really reach it. When you follow the point/counterpoint debates the DO get somewhat nasty and political. So the laymen is left with a lot of open ended questions and no real definate answers.
    I don’t envy you your jobs, I don’t know how to fix it, I just know that IF your point of view is right, then something does need to be done to prove that to the average person. As much as you think the issue is settled, I can tell you that as far as regular people on the street goes, thats NOT the case, OR when they are convinced, it isn’t based on scientific research, its based on what some politician or the media has told them.

    That scares me a bit.

  17. 67
    SecularAnimist says:

    Joe Hunkins, I am sorry that you are so misinformed.

    1. Anthropogenic global warming is a certainty. It is an empirically observed reality, not a mere conjecture or hypothesis.

    2. At this point in time, the only “challenges” to the reality of anthropogenic global warming come from “vested corporate interests” and the frauds and cranks that they pay or otherwise encourage to spout pseudoscientific nonsense in order to misinform and confuse the public and thereby defuse public pressure for action.

    Your suggestion that the debate about appropriate actions (which is a legitimate debate, although the most basic required action — ending anthropogenic GHG emissions as quickly as possible — is beyond dispute) is being hindered “in much larger measure” by those who point out the very real dangers posed by unmitigated warming, rather than those who deliberately deceive the public about the danger for the specific purpose of delaying any action as long as possible, is absurd.

  18. 68
    Jeff Chambers says:

    With respect to skeptics that are best to ignore, the following statement is an good example “1. AGW is a certainty. This is an absurd contention no responsible scientist would ever make. My goodness I hope you are not a professor somewhere.”

    We know with a fair amount of precision how much CO2 has been released from fossil fuel burning, a change from 280 to 380 ppm over the past 150 years. Basic physical chemistry demonstrates that CO2 is radiatively active, so we know that at least some GW must be from H (parsimony). Perhaps the exactly climate sensitivity is difficult to quantify, but it is incredibly irresponsible to brush aside the work of the vast majority of climate scientists, and assume that the climate system will not significantly respond to a 100 ppm increase in CO2 (and other GHGs). It’s just unfathomable that these presumably educated “skeptics” would be willing to gamble with the planet’s climate system with such hubris.

    So why waste our time responding to irresponsibly arrogant (and powerless) skeptics? Let’s focus our attention on helping to educate a largely responsible public, and more perilous skeptics like the Louisiana legislature and Governor.

  19. 69
    Shelama says:

    I am disheartened to admit that, although a big fan of Real Climate and Gavin, et.al, nearly done slogging thru AR4, and originally finally convinced by Spencer Weart’s “The Discovery of Global Warming”, that I can no longer comfortably say “the science is settled.” But only that it seems “probable” (more likely true than not) that AGW is occuring, and primarily as a function of GHG’S. I suspect very strongly that within 20 years the case for “certainty” will be much stronger. And also much closer to being “too late.”

    On the other hand, I am not a scientist, struggle to follow many of the arguments and threads, and am very comfortable totally dismissing those who cry “hoax.”

    I will continue to watch and study and attempt to be at least minimally conversant. But my confidence of what I used to feel more certain about is waning.

    Not specifically relevant to this or any other thread; just my $0.02; and wondering if any other of you, particularly those more capable than I, might also be feeling the same?

  20. 70
    Jeff Chambers says:

    Public perception of scientific consensus

    No responsible scientist would disagree with the following basic facts about AGW:

    1. The change in CO2 from 280 to 380 ppm over the past 150 years was due to human fossil fuel burning.
    2. CO2 is radiatively active – without greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the Earth would be a frozen ball of rock and ice orbiting the Sun.
    3. The Earth is warming, particularly since ~1980.

    Parsimony would have it that the culprit is CO2. Research scientists are constantly investigating the exact climate sensitivity – i.e. how much warming for a known change in CO2 (and other GHGs), and that is where most of the responsible debate resides (and where the media and public rightly see the contention). But the core facts above do not change, and this is where we need to focus public education. So, you’ve got to ask yourself, do you feel lucky gambling with Earth’s climate system? Because, yes, there is the remote chance that the Earth may not be as sensitive to CO2 as the current range of predictions indicate. Wouldn’t that be an incredibly irresponsible bet?

  21. 71
    Hank Roberts says:

    Worth a read:

    2008 CRITICAL REVIEW
    ISSN:1047-3289 J. Air & Waste Manage. Assoc. 58:735–786
    DOI:10.3155/1047-3289.58.6.735

    http://www.climate.org/PDF/MacCracken-AWMACriticalReview.pdf

    —-excerpt follows——
    “… the scientific understanding that the IPCC documents is not a “house of cards” that falls if one point is not fully understood; it is a pyramid built on extensively tested findings that interlock with under standing of observations and analyses drawn from such disparate situations as Earth’s climatic history and the evolution of planetary atmospheres. Alternative explanations attributing the observed changes to natural variability, forcing by the Sun or cosmic rays, or other exotic factors may show good correlations in particular situations but generally fail quickly when evaluated against the broader set of supporting information. Thus, although it is interesting to discuss the uncertainties of specific critics, [n27] organizing this review around specific criticisms by well-known dissenters would divert attention from the overwhelming evidence supporting the key findings. Instead, responses to the most important of the criticisms will be covered as the topics arise.

    On the other side, there are also many who criticize
    the IPCC for understating the intensity and seriousness of climate change and its impacts, arguing that the IPCC process keeps it from being current on the most recent and dramatic changes. Indeed, because its process limits conclusions to those well established in the scientific literature, lags are introduced into its findings ….”

    Source:

    The Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, A&WMA’s flagship publication, is the oldest continuously published, peer reviewed, technical environmental journal in the world. In print since 1951, the Journal features the latest in cutting-edge research and technology.

  22. 72
    Lawrence Brown says:

    I feel that no amount of careless journalism or voodoo science will continue to confuse the public,for much longer. Maybe I’m overly optimistic but we’ve been here and done that with the tobacco industry and most recently with SUV’s. It used to be “cool” to smoke, macho, glamorous, adventurous, all at once. Ads touted that “more doctors smoked such and such a brand than any other cigarette”, and “You’ve come a long way baby……. , you’ve got your own cigarette now baby….” and there was the Marlboro Man. Finally the weight of scienfific evidence convinced the public that they were being had. Things began to turn after the Surgeon General’s report in 1964. The report’s impact on attitudes was huge.A Gallop poll conducted in 1958 found that only 44 percent of Americans believed smoking caused cancer, while 78 percent believed it by 1968.
    Perhaps the next administration, will have the cohones to have the EPA or Dept. of Energy take on the fossil fuel industry, in the same manner, and claim that burning of fossil fuels is a clear and not too distant danger to the health and well being of our planet.

  23. 73
    Hank Roberts says:

    Shelama, nope, far more certainty than you imagine. You might have run across a thing being circulated lately about “IPCC on the run” (at all the usual septic sites).

    Instead to get the accurate informatin about the probabilities and what the words mean, check the IPCC

    “Words in italics represent calibrated expressions of uncertainty and confidence. Relevant terms are explained in the Box ‘Treatment of uncertainty’ in the Introduction of this Synthesis Report.”
    http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-syr.htm

  24. 74
    Mark says:

    Shelma #69.

    Well, it’s *possible* that we are being hit by a heatwave from a 10-dimensional being passing this way in hyperspace. It is more possible that you are, in fact, insane and there is no reality and this is just your subconscious talking to you.

    It’s a bit of a bugger, really, but if scientists say “we know this is true” we’re smacked with “you can’t KNOW 100% absolutely” and when we say “we know this is very likely” we’re walloped with “Ha! So you ADMIT you’re wrong!”

    When your doctor says you’re in danger of a heart attack, do you

    a) ignore him because he doesn’t KNOW that and in any case, when you do have one, he doesn’t know you will die from it
    b) take the medicine and advice

    I mean, you hear a lot about people with a THIRD heart attack and they are still very much alive and well, so they don’t KNOW it’s dangerous!

    Oh, and when your heart does give a murmur, do you go to ask advice of your hairdresser rather than the doctor “because he’s in it for the money: if people didn’t go to the doctor, they’d be out of a job, so they’re BOUND to lie”?

  25. 75
    Hank Roberts says:

    Relevant, topical, worth reading, with links worth following:
    http://scienceblogs.com/angrytoxicologist/2008/07/science_the_enemy_of_public_he.php

  26. 76
    Pat Neuman says:

    True, the public is often unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain concerning climate change, and the spectacle of dueling and contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything.

    I doubt that scientists, press officers and journalists can actually do anything about it, but government agencies can and should speak with one voice, which would help.

    NOAA, particularly NOAA NWS, has in past years spoke with many voices on climate change but has now become silent. NOAA NWS has 124 offices with direct connections to local media and local government.

    NWS doublespeak on climate change was wrong. Silence is just as wrong!

  27. 77
    Paul Harris says:

    A few months ago I selected every tenth item listed on our ‘Climate Science Coalition’s’ denialist web site. This led to some wild and wonderful reading from the 14 items that I had sampled. It included material from site/organisations/spokespeople claiming -inter alia: that,HIV does not lead to AIDS, that the US government organised the twin towers attack, that Europe is a state, and that \The personal attacks and abuse heaped on ‘sceptics’ in an attempt to intimidate them and others into silence is a sure sign that real science has little to do with the climate change debate” You don’t have to be a scientist to be able to make a distinction between sense and nonsense on the AGW issue.

  28. 78
    wilwindry says:

    Re #69, Shelama: I agree with you. It is called “getting of wisdom” and it happens to many of us as we get older. One of the symptons is a growing awareness of how complex things are and how little we really know about it all, both individually and collectively.

    On this site (and many other places) we see claims of certainty that far surpass the information in the body of the IPCC reports (I deliberately left out the SPM). Many of us have learned to be suspicious of those claiming absolute certainty, when we know that life just isn’t like that.

    [Response: Hmmm… Perhaps you could show me one place on this blog where we have claimed absolute certainty on anything remotely contentious? – gavin]

  29. 79
    Jess says:

    If it helps any, here’s a word from a working, non-expert journalist who has written about scientific topics in the past.

    There are two issues here, I think.

    First is whether the journalist knows anything about science. Most people think that if a guy is writing about politics he was a poli sci major in college or if he writes about finance he must have some knowledge of business. This is not usually the case. While we may be drawn to certain beats because we are interested, most of the time it’s assigned you. That is, i came to writing about my beat (finance) in a rather roundabout way. Unlike many journalists I have actually taken a physics class (it was my first major). I can do elementary calculus. Most (on the order of 90%) of my professional colleagues are baffled when you bring up even relatively elementary physics. They aren’t stupid, they just never took science after their junior year of high school.

    The upshot is that our knowledge of the beats we cover is earned by talking with people in the field. A good chunk of the time it basically means we are self-taught.

    So given that most of us are humanities majors (though we might be interested in science) it’s important for scientists to understand that the guy on the end of the line might be anything from really interested in the subject (hopefully) or he’s been assigned the story for the day. There is simply no way in six hours to build up anything like expertise in any subject. And more often than not I have had to do science related stories about fields i know nothing about in about that time.

    Now, this is where scientists can help us out. The trick is to not get caught up in minutiae. They aren’t minutiae to you, but they are to me because I have six other stories to write this week and need to be able to answer for readers “so what” in two sentences or less. Tell me that and we have a story.

    Second, realize that you (as scientists) use terminology in a vastly different way than laypeople do. Getting the terminology right isn’t so important as making sure that the average reader has some idea what’s going on. When we write about complex topics It’s important to get the science right. But it’s equally important not to confuse us. I’ve had to lead a few scientists down the path sometimes because they understand as little about writing as I do about their field.

  30. 80
    wilwindry says:

    Re #78: Actually Gavin, I was referring to Secular Animist’s statements primarily. I should have said that.

  31. 81
    Walter Pearce says:

    RE: 51

    “Journalism’s already a lost cause, though it will always have some outstanding good practitioners, because the journalists don’t own the journals.”

    Cite, please? Who says “journalism” is a lost cause? What would you replace it with?

    I agree that on climate and other issues, we’ve seen significant institutional failure within traditional news organizations. My experience leads me to believe that, to do their best work, journalists need fearless and financially strong publishers behind them. Perhaps we can agree that media in this country need to be “de-corporatized,” with a return to family- and foundation-owned organizations. Indeed, it may mean that new organizations will need to arise online and off.

  32. 82
    Jim Galasyn says:

    wilwindry, it’s funny, I thought for sure your “humility is wisdom” post was going to be a lecture to global warming “skeptics” on crackpot theories — instead, it’s a lecture to climate scientists!

  33. 83
    Walter Pearce says:

    A clarification on “de-corporatizing.” Many print media are under the gun to produce financial results, either because their corporate masters demand it, or because they are so debt-leveraged as to struggle to survive. Obviously this is the enemy of fearless journalism. Remove the relentless demands to maximize profits and one removes a barrier to the kind of fearless journalism needed.

  34. 84
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Shelama, Chris MCV, Joeduck, et al. OK. It is foolhardy to make unqualified, absolute statements in science. No one would claim that we have nothing left to learn about climate. OTOH, few who are familiar with the science expect our picture of the role of CO2 to change drastically. It can’t really. Between 2 K/doubling and 4.5 K/doubling there just isn’t that much wiggle room, and nobody has figured out how to make a climate model work with sensitivity less than 2 K/doubling. So we know with high confidence that we are the main driver of the current warming epoch. We also know that such a large change will have very significant, negative effects. That is sufficient: Science has established the threat.

    Here, we have to turn to engineering and ask the question: How bad could the consequences be? We have to use a different model here, since we are trying to bound the effects ON THE HIGH SIDE. This bound lets us know how much effort we need to invest in mitigating the effects. It is my opinion that Gore’s AIT, the Stern Report and some of what Hansen is doing now falls into this category. At this stage, you can’t reject threats out of hand. If it’s credible at all, you have to look at its consequences. The problem we have here is that the probability that sensitivity is large (say, more than 6 K per doubling) is not negligible. The probability that we’ll have increased severe weather (including hurricanes) cannot be shown to be negligible. Ocean acidification cannot be ruled out, and in fact it appears likely. Viewed this way, such activities are not really alarmist, but a necessary aspect of risk enumeration. Look, I realize that Al Gore is the bete noir of the right, but all you are doing by rejecting good science is abandoning the high ground to him. And he has an Oscar and a Nobel Peace prize to prove it. To bound the risks, you first have to accept the existence of the problem.

  35. 85
    greg smith says:

    re 78 and 80
    There seems to me to be lot of certainty expressed here about a science where you are still finding your feet and are trying to reconcile a large number of variables and uncertain data sets. As a geologist I am somewhat bemused that you all seem to ignore billions of years of earth history. Is it because there is no satellite data? Perhaps Gavin or Ray could point me towards a “consensus” view of what caused recent events such as the Little Ice Age or the Medieval Warm period or even what was the cause of the warming that enabled us to thrive and evolve as a species in the Holocene. To me as an old fashioned scientist you must expect some debate when you yourseves and your advocates want to radically change the way we as a species have become accustomed to or aspire to live. Discussions of ways to educate the press to your point of view to the exclusion of all others reminds me of “1984”. Is that what you want?

    [Response: Of course there is debate about many aspects of the climate. The ‘consensus‘ is on a relatively small – though important – part of recent climate history. What sensible views do you think are being excluded? – gavin]

  36. 86
  37. 87
    Chris Colose says:

    #85 (greg smith)

    Speaking from little experience, in the public setting, “scientific debates” seem to take the form of broad-brush questions like “does evolution really happen,” “is the globe warming,” “do greenhouse gases cause warming,” etc. These are the kind of things that are “settled” in the scientific community (Absolute proofs are rare, but the evidence ends up being too overwhelming to really deny it). For the most part, I think policy makers are interested in those broad-brush questions, with a few more details built in (like does the best evidence suggest it would be worthwhile for a CEO to consider climate change in business).

    In actual science, the questions are not so broad: why does strengthening convection enhances heat uptake in one region while weakening convection enhances it in another; can we cosntrain the aerosol impacts on cloud cover better; how will climate variability change with a climate trend?

  38. 88
    Tim McDermott says:

    This post on the Houston Chronicle climate change blog gives a different perspective on the idea of “settled science.” He formulates it as a Kuhnian paradigm shift so that “global warming is happening” has become the null hypothesis. It is the baseline expectation.

    I can illustrate the importance of this different, new baseline this way: even without any global temperature measurements whatsoever, our measurements of greenhouse gases and our quantitative understanding of the greenhouse effect would be sufficient to convince me that global temperature were most likely rising. The new baseline assumption is that temperatures are rising in accordance with the additional heat input, with the complications mentioned in the previous paragraph.

    Thus I became a skeptic: I’m skeptical of the possibility that we are NOT driving temperatures upward.

    I like this a lot. It allows folks to ask “Have you thought about invisible pink unicorns?” And it allows those convinced by AGW to say “and how do you intend to reject the null hypothesis.”

    OK, that may be a bit esoteric sounding to lay folk, but I think that saying AGW is woven into lots of science these days (especially field biology) and it cannot be lightly dismissed is a stronger posture than the-science-is-settled. Asking someone to propose an experiment that overturns the consensus seems more politic that seeming to dismiss them out of hand.

    It may even lead to converting true skeptics. If someone thinks the sun is the culprit, we can ask them what data they think would be sufficient to change the minds of the IPCC, overturn a couple dozen GCMs, and explain observed changes in wildlife behaviors.

    after multiple previews, when I’m ready to post, captcha says: accept sugar

  39. 89
    Garry S-J says:

    Re: #85 greg

    “As a geologist I am somewhat bemused that you all seem to ignore billions of years of earth history.”

    Are you kidding?

    I am somewhat bemused that the IPCC people managed to condense “Paleoclimate”, Chapter 6 of “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis”, down to only 64 pages, including 13 1/2 pages listing over 500 references.

  40. 90
    Paul Middents says:

    Re 78 wilwindry

    You might be getting older but I would seriously question the wisdom that is coming with age. If you have any scientific background and have been seriously following the literature then you will have a very hard time arguing with any of Ray Ladbury’s oft repeated points.

    If on the other hand you have been reading the literature and have some real questions or issues, our hosts and some of the very knowledgeable contributors like Ray, Hank, Timothy or Martin can help you achieve some real understanding.

  41. 91
    dhogaza says:

    As a geologist I am somewhat bemused that you all seem to ignore billions of years of earth history. Is it because there is no satellite data?

    True, paleoclimatology only considers a few hundred million years of earth history, rather than four billion.

    I mean … even (the last?) snowball earth was less than a billion years ago.

    Pity that climate science is totally uninterested in events on the geological timescale. That’s why we have zero information on any climate events before the satellite era.

    Since you’re a geologist, would you agree that earthquakes are a normal part of the geological history of the earth, nothing in the least bit unusual, and that therefore we should ignore their impact on modern cities? Seismic activity on the 100-year timescale is, after all, somewhat boring when placed in the context of a 4 billion year old earth …

  42. 92
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Chris MCV #66

    As much as you think the issue is settled, I can tell you that as far as regular people on the street goes, thats NOT the case, OR when they are convinced, it isn’t based on scientific research, its based on what some politician or the media has told them.

    Tell me about it… if that was your point, yes, we know. Thanks for spoiling my day.

    … I don’t know how to fix it, …

    Don’t post again until you do.

  43. 93
    pete best says:

    A lot of the posts in this thread seem to be asserting that realclimate are being some what bold in their statements about climate change and decribe it as certain. Well of course to some degree realclimate are going to do that becasue they have the science to back them up and can and do find holes in the ones who claim otherwise.

    I mean the globe is warming according to the statistics, that is irrefitable I thought. However what is causing that warming, the Sun, well no not according to the scientific literature and people who study that sort of thing, the Suns output has not changed in 50 years and hence cannot account of the warming of the past 30 years. Cosmic rays that prevent clouds from forming, not proven and scientifically not that credible. The lsit goes on until we get to GHG theory which to the obvious distaste of many fits the bill and is scientifically viable and valid and has been demonstrated to be the current best fit and the simplest explanation that accounts for all of the observed data something that I believe Einstein said was a prerequisite for a scientifc theory.

    Therefore at the present time GHG theory coupled with land use changes (albedo effects) and others related factors is the best fit at present for AGW. The media though and others seem to think that this makes AGW fair game for all of the non peered reviewed people to be interviewed just because they have a track record in some other science or some other non related subject that gives them a voice. The environmentalists then do the same things for the pro side of the argument exaggerate the situation leaving the scientists who we should all be listening to out in the cold whilst the media has a feeding frenzy on all the pseudo knowledge.

    I can think of many names on both sides and hence the reason why I only come here for the real facts after I have read the mumbo jumbo of both sides.

  44. 94
    Mark says:

    On certainty:

    “Everyone knows that the sun rises in the west”.

    *Everyone*? What about people who don’t know what “west” is?

    “The Sun will rise tomorrow”

    Really? You KNOW this? What makes you KNOW that the sun will not explode tomorrow, or a ELE meteor hit the earth?

    Normal usage of language uses certainty to shorten the statement and leaves out all the nuance that is really there in this never certain universe.

    How about accuracy:

    “I am 5’6″ tall”. Uh, in the morning I’m nearly an inch taller than when I go to bed.

    “A pint is exactly 568ml”. And the decimal points. And WHOSE pint?

    But when it comes to saying

    “Anthropogenic CO2 is causing most of the heating of the planet in the last 100 years” we can’t use the semantic shortcuts. We have to batter against everyone who niggles at the little bits you leave out to make a statement to prove you wrong.

    THAT, Jess (#79), is why we don’t use words and phraseology that is acceptable to ordinary people: if we do, then we are attacked on the very wording you asked us to use because it isn’t 100% precise. We resort either to ignoring these attacks (which are then spun as accepting their validity), accept them (which is spun as us accepting the skeptics are right [without saying what we agree with them about: look at the GGWS]) or attacking them on the same pissly little things (which is spun as us using ad hom or proof of lying to the public).

    Why does this happen? Because journalists WANT conflict. Sex sells, but if you can’t get sex on the topic (we’re scientists!), conflict is nearly as good. And if there’s only one talking head, you either

    a) spout the denialist mantra to get conflict going
    b) ask the denialist about his theories because they’re all too willing to make a hostile statement to a willing audience

    We can’t do what you ask, Jess, because you don’t accept the standard (inaccurate) phraseology of the ordinary person as what it is: the broad-brush stroke missing out the minutae. When we leave out the minutae, you let someone attack based on missing out that minutae. You don’t tell them off with “hang on, that’s unfair because normal relaxed english is imprecise and you can’t therefore use that imprecision as your basis of counterexample”.

    Do that and maybe we can start talking like normal people rather than scientists.

    PS if you don’t think this is likely to happen, take a look at the #70-#85 comments above…

  45. 95
    Geoff Wexler says:

    For UK Readers (but I may not be able to go).

    It might be worth considering items 25 and 26? No idea how it will turn out if the topic is the GGWS. No idea if it will be fair. It would good if the focus is on :

    (a) Failure of Channel 4 to review/summarise the reasons behind the consensus over a period of years.
    (b) Channel 4’s introduction to the topic of “reasons behind the consensus” consisted of an hour long programme misrepresenting that consensus in almost every conceivable way.
    (c) Failure to put it right so far.

    (Revision: Realclimate has done this and I have written a forensic summary and link to commented transcript in comment #108 following “Aerosols, Chemistry and Climate”; more still in Stoat and elswhere).

  46. 96
    Matt says:

    No it’s not inevitable.
    Scientists, press officers, journal editors and journalists need to move the debate forward. Too much of climate scientists’ and journalists’ time is being expended on the question of ‘is AGW happening or not?’ The basic facts are so secure now that it’s wasted effort to be engaging in this debate (most sensible skeptics seem to accept this and have adjusted their position accordingly, focussing on ‘global warming alarmism’ rather than the basic physics of AGW- I’ve got some sympathy with them).

    Editors and journalists should stop asking the ‘is AGW real?’ question, and scientists should stop trying to answer it (maybe just direct the questioner towards a basic undergraduate text instead). I realise there’s a problem with journalists trying to shoehorn every new piece of research into that context. But editors of reputable outlets shouldn’t be publishing work that does this, and reputable scientists shouldn’t allow their names near it.

    There are plenty of valid questions around the issue that do need to be discussed and debated by scientists and journalists alike (and where a valid skeptical viewpoint is helpful):
    How much warming? Over how long? Is there anything we can usefully do about it- and if so, what?

    The extent and urgency of the world’s response to AGW depends on the answers to these kind of questions. There’s relevant research to discuss in the mass media and on websites like realclimate, but the context is all wrong. The focus on the finer detail of climate science (Greenland ice sheets etc) is only of immediate interest to climate scientists, and desperate climate science deniers looking for material to confuse and confabulate the rest of us. This finer detail doesn’t really matter in the short term- of course, when the syntheses are made and some light can be thrown on the bigger questions, then it becomes a different matter.

  47. 97
    Geoff Wexler says:

    Perhaps science education is relevant?

    Most educated people are familiar with the romantic view of science which is based on true stories of e.g. Einstein or Planck overthrowing a consensus starting with a couple of anomalies. The misleading part of that story is to suggest that classical science has been completely overthrown and rendered useless. Some quite well educated people try to fit every news item about climate change into the model of a fragile edifice which is ready to collapse when the next tiny discrepancy is found.

    One main source of science education in the UK is the Horizon series on BBC 2. It may be changing now, but for many years the pattern was to spend the first half or three quarters of the programme developing a theme and then the last quarter showing how the conclusions of the first part of the programme were completely wrong. It was all very entertaining and often quite valid. But it is not the whole story. It can give a misleading impression of the way that “normal science” works which may appear to be less exciting but involves slow and steady progress without regular huge collapses.

    Another common assumption is that if there is a conflict, new observations must always trump an old theory. Even theorists make this mistake sometimes. It often happens that it is the observations which turn out to be wrong. Very strong theoretical reasons should be treated with respect.

  48. 98

    Joe Hunkins writes:

    1. AGW is a certainty. This is an absurd contention no responsible scientist would ever make. My goodness I hope you are not a professor somewhere.

    It’s not a certainty in the sense that our being real people and not brains hallucinating in a tank of fluid is not a certainty. But there’s no practical uncertainty at this point. Global warming is happening, human technology is causing it, and it’s a real problem. If you think any of those three statements is controversial, you don’t understand the issue. Period.

  49. 99
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Greg Smith, Discussion of scientific matters should be subject to the constraints of scientific evidence. In this case, ALL of the evidence is on the side of the consensus position. Let me put this another way: Scientists have the evidence; denialists have talking points. Scientists know climate is a noisy system, and that the signal emerges more and more from the noise as the time period under investigation increases. Denialists insist on drawing trends from cherry-picked periods as short as a month!
    Scientists have models that explain much of what we observe. Denialists have bupkis so they are reduced to attacking the models or claiming “it’s all natural.”
    Scientists have over 1000 peer-reviewed papers supporting their position. Denialists have a handfull of mostly discredited studies that never seem to point the way forward.
    Scientist’s have independent review by dozens of professional societies, national academies, etc. and not one has dissented from the consensus position. Denialists have photo ops and “petitions” with zero quality control.

    By all means, Greg, old fashioned scientists like you are welcom to contribute, but could you contribute something of value that actually advances the state of the science–that is, something other than talking points?

  50. 100

    I have a PhD in computer science, which makes me moderately more competent than a journalist in assessing scientific claims in an area in which I’m not expert but it’s their job. The way so many seem to take no pride in doing it right is depressing. For those having difficulty in assessing competing claims, see my article, Death by a thousand blogs.

    Short summary for those who don’t want to go there: there are other areas of alleged controversy, and by slight tweaks of your search terms in such areas, you can get vastly different slants. That we should be making policy decisions that could in the extreme destroy the biosphere based on such rubbish is absurd, yet the South Africa government for the better part of 10 years based its HIV policy on just this kind of “research”.

    I end the article with a 1-word question: “Darwin?”


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