A new survey of scientists

There are too many questions in this survey to go over each one in detail, and so we’ll just discuss a few specific examples (perhaps the comments can address some of the others). The series of questions Q15 through Q17, typify a key issue – precision. Q15 asks whether the “current state of scientific knowledge is developed well enough to allow for a reasonable assessment of the effects of turbulence, surface albedo, etc..”. But the subtext “well enough for what?” is not specified. Global energy balance? regional weather forecasting? Climate sensitivity? Ocean circulation? Thus any respondent needs to form their own judgment about what the question is referring to. For instance, turbulence is clearly a huge scientific challenge, but how important is it in determining climate sensitivity? or radiative transfer? Not very. But for ocean heat transports, it might very well be key. By aggregating multiple questions in one and not providing enough other questions to determine what the respondent means exactly, the answers to these questions will be worth little.

The notion of ‘temperature observations’ used in Q16 and Q17 is similarly undefined. Do they mean the global average temperature change over the 20th Century, or the climatology of temperature at a regional or local scale? Or it’s variability? You might think the first is most relevant, but the question is also asked about ‘precipitation observations’ for which a century-scale global trend simply doesn’t exist. Therefore it must be one of the other options. But which one? Asking about what the ability of models is for modelling the next 10 years is similarly undefined, and in fact unanswerable (since we don’t know how well they will do). Implicit is an assumption that models are producing predictions (which they aren’t – though at least that is vaguely addressed in questions 45 and 46). What ‘extreme events’ are being referred to in the last part? Tornadoes? (skill level zero), heat waves (higher), drought (lower), Atlantic hurricanes (uncertain). By being imprecise the likely conclusion that respondents feel that global climate models lack the ability to model extreme events is again meaningless.

Q52 is a classic example of a leading question. “Some scientists present extreme accounts of catastrophic impacts related to climate change in a popular format with the claim that it is their task to alert the public. How much do you agree with this practice?” There is obviously only one sensible answer (not at all). However, the question neither defines what the questioners mean by ‘extreme’ or ‘catastrophic’, or who those ‘scientists’ might be or where they have justified such practices. The conclusion will be that the survey shows that most scientists do not approve of presenting extreme accounts of catastrophic impacts in popular formats with the aim of alerting the public. Surprise! A much more nuanced question could have been asked if actual examples were used. That would have likely found that what is considered ‘extreme’ varies widely and that there is plenty of support for public discussions of potential catastrophes (rapid sea level rise for instance) and the associated uncertainties. The implication of this question will be that no popular summaries can do justice to the uncertainties inherent in the science of abrupt change. Yet this is not likely to have been the answer had that question been directly addressed. Instead, a much more nuanced (and interesting) picture would have emerged.

Two questions of some relevance to us are Q61 and Q62, which ask whether making discussions of climate science open to potentially everyone through the use of “blogs on the w.w.w.” is a good or bad idea, and whether the level of discussion on these blogs is any good. These questions are unfortunately very poorly posed. Who thinks that anyone has any control over what gets discussed on blogs in general? The issue is not whether that discussion should take place (it surely will), it is whether scientists should participate or not. If all blogs are considered, then obviously the quality on average is abysmal (sorry blogosphere!). If the goal of the question was to be able to say that the level of discussion on specific blogs is good or not, then specific questions should have been asked (for instance a list of prominent blogs could have been rated). As it is, the conclusion will be that discussion of climate science on blogs on the w.w.w. is a good idea but the discussion is thought to be poor. But that is hardly news.

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