Many of you will remember our pioneering discussion of the Sheep-albedo hypothesis, where we suggested that increasing numbers of sheep would cause a cooling climate because of their impact on the ground reflectivity. Well, new observations have now added significantly more complexity to this seemingly understood situation. It has just been reported that as well as the original sheep-albedo effect, there is now evidence of a second sheep-albedo effect (smaller sheep as the world warms). That would be a amplifying effect in general, but the actual population of sheep concerned come in many colours, so the overall affect is uncertain. (There is even speculation about a third effect (the sheep lifetime albedo impact), which could go either way depending the Lamb Marketing Board advertising campaign).
Yet more evidence that the science is very woolly.
The vast majority of mainstream media items about science are related to new hot-off-the-press studies, often in high profile journals, that report a new breakthrough, or that purportedly overturn previous ideas. However, while these are exciting news items, this preponderance of coverage given to these state-of-the-art studies compared to assessments such as from the National Academies, can give a misleading impression about the state of a scientific knowledge. The more mature and solid a field, the less controversy there is, and thus the fewer news stories. Ironically, this means the public is told the least about the most solid aspects of science.
One effect of this tendency is that quite often news stories are focused on claims that turn out to be wrong, or if not actually wrong, heavily reduced in importance by the time the dust settles. This is not deliberate, but merely how science works at the frontier. People push measurements to the limit of their accuracy (and sometimes beyond) and theories are used slightly out of their domain of applicability. In recognition of that, Richard Feynman had a useful rule of thumb that the last data point on any graph should be discounted because, if it had been easy to obtain, there would have been another one further along.
Roger Pielke Sr. has raised very strong allegations against RealClimate in a recent blog post. Since they come from a scientific colleague, we consider it worthwhile responding directly.
The statement Pielke considers “misinformation” is a single sentence from a recent posting:
Some aspects of climate change are progressing faster than was expected a few years ago – such as rising sea levels, the increase of heat stored in the ocean and the shrinking Arctic sea ice.
First of all, we are surprised that Pielke levelled such strong allegations against RealClimate, since the statement above merely summarises some key findings of the Synthesis Report of the Copenhagen Climate Congress, which we discussed last month. This is a peer-reviewed document authored by 12 leading scientists and “based on the 16 plenary talks given at the Congress as well as input of over 80 chairs and co-chairs of the 58 parallel sessions held at the Congress.” If Pielke disagrees with the findings of these scientists, you’d have thought he’d take it up with them rather than aiming shrill accusations at us. But in any case let us look at the three items of alleged misinformation: