Unsettled Science

Unusually, I’m in complete agreement with a recent headline on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page:

“The Climate Science Isn’t Settled”

The article below is the same mix of innuendo and misrepresentation that its author normally writes, but the headline is correct. The WSJ seems to think that the headline is some terribly important pronouncement that in some way undercuts the scientific consensus on climate change but they are simply using an old rhetorical ‘trick’.

The phrase “the science is settled” is associated almost 100% with contrarian comments on climate and is usually a paraphrase of what ‘some scientists’ are supposed to have said. The reality is that it depends very much on what you are talking about and I have never heard any scientist say this in any general context – at a recent meeting I was at, someone claimed that this had been said by the participants and he was roundly shouted down by the assembled experts.

The reason why no scientist has said this is because they know full well that knowledge about science is not binary – science isn’t either settled or not settled. This is a false and misleading dichotomy. Instead, we know things with varying degrees of confidence – for instance, conservation of energy is pretty well accepted, as is the theory of gravity (despite continuing interest in what happens at very small scales or very high energies) , while the exact nature of dark matter is still unclear. The forced binary distinction implicit in the phrase is designed to misleadingly relegate anything about which there is still uncertainty to the category of completely unknown. i.e. that since we don’t know everything, we know nothing.

In the climate field, there are a number of issues which are no longer subject to fundamental debate in the community. The existence of the greenhouse effect, the increase in CO2 (and other GHGs) over the last hundred years and its human cause, and the fact the planet warmed significantly over the 20th Century are not much in doubt. IPCC described these factors as ‘virtually certain’ or ‘unequivocal’. The attribution of the warming over the last 50 years to human activity is also pretty well established – that is ‘highly likely’ and the anticipation that further warming will continue as CO2 levels continue to rise is a well supported conclusion. To the extent that anyone has said that the scientific debate is over, this is what they are referring to. In answer to colloquial questions like “Is anthropogenic warming real?”, the answer is yes with high confidence.

But no scientists would be scientists if they thought there was nothing left to find out. Think of the science as a large building, with foundations reaching back to the 19th Century and a whole edifice of knowledge built upon them. The community spends most of its time trying to add a brick here or a brick there and slowly adding to the construction. The idea that the ‘science is settled’ is equivalent to stating that the building is complete and that nothing further can be added. Obviously that is false – new bricks (and windows and decoration and interior designs) are being added and argued about all the time. However, while the science may not be settled, we can still tell what kind of building we have and what the overall picture looks like. Arguments over whether a single brick should be blue or yellow don’t change the building from a skyscraper to a mud hut.

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