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Unsettled Science

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 December 2009

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.

The IPCC reports should be required reading for anyone who thinks that scientists think that the ‘science is settled’ – the vast array of uncertainties that are discussed and dissected puts that notion to bed immediately. But what we do have are reasons for concern. As Mike Hulme recently wrote:

[S]cience has clearly revealed that humans are influencing global climate and will continue to do so, but we don’t know the full scale of the risks involved, nor how rapidly they will evolve, nor indeed—with clear insight—the relative roles of all the forcing agents involved at different scales.

The central battlegrounds on which we need to fight out the policy implications of climate change concern matters of risk management, of valuation, and political ideology. We must move the locus of public argumentation here not because the science has somehow been “done” or “is settled”; science will never be either of these things, although it can offer powerful forms of knowledge not available in other ways. It is a false hope to expect science to dispel the fog of uncertainty so that it finally becomes clear exactly what the future holds and what role humans have in causing it.

Dealing with the future always involves dealing with uncertainty – and this is as true with climate as it is with the economy. Science has led to a great deal of well-supported concern that increasing emissions of CO2 (in particular) are posing a substantial risk to human society. Playing rhetorical games in the face of this, while momentarily satisfying for blog commenters, is no answer at all to the real issues we face.

567 Responses to “Unsettled Science”

  1. 51
    Ville Koskinen says:

    The brick versus building analogy is quite good! Although it implies a steady, linear progress towards the ultimate truth (which is often not how things happen), the argument that we can know the shape of the building without having laid all bricks is very descriptive.

  2. 52
    Jimi Bostock says:

    Gavin, another fantastic post.

    Having come from the other side, the old denier, your work over the past week has been a delight to me. You are a champion and I wish you and all your readers a wonderful christmas.

    Let us all take a nice break once Copenhagen is done and get back into it in the new year. You can be sure that I will be doing what I can to argue against any so called backlash. It is hardly the point. So bravo to you mate from downunder

  3. 53
    asdf says:

    Google for “science is settled”

    The science is settled, Gore told the lawmakers. Carbon-dioxide emissions — from cars, power plants, buildings and other sources — are heating the Earth’s atmosphere.

  4. 54
    antik says:

    Gavin, perhaps you could answer a quick question.

    Regarding the CRU data which “cannot be released because of agreements with National Metrological Services” (I paraphrase).

    Shouldn’t the various international partners obviously allow open access to this data as the first part of any climate change agreement? Would you support writing something like that into the next climate bill or bringing that up at Copenhagen?

    [Response: Sure. That would be a big step forward. – gavin]

  5. 55
    Tom Donnelly says:

    “The article below is the same mix of innuendo and misrepresentation that it’s author normally…”

    Surely “..that its author..”

    Possesive pronoun and all that 4th grade stuff?

    [Response: Pedant! – gavin]

  6. 56
    PaulD says:

    The article makes the following statement:

    “So how do models with high sensitivity manage to simulate the currently small response to a forcing that is almost as large as a doubling of CO2? Jeff Kiehl notes in a 2007 article from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the models use another quantity that the IPCC lists as poorly known (namely aerosols) to arbitrarily cancel as much greenhouse warming as needed to match the data, with each model choosing a different degree of cancellation according to the sensitivity of that model.”

    I wonder if one of the modelers here could comment on this assertion?

    [Response: There is uncertainty in both climate sensitivity and the degree of aerosol forcing (see figure 2.20). No model simulation can ‘prove’ that it has exactly the right sensitivity and aerosol forcing, but each of the simulations that match the 20th Century trends are plausible estimates of what might have happened. Projections going forward are obviously going to be a little different depending on that balance, but that is a real part of the uncertainty in those projections and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. – gavin]

  7. 57
    Theo Hopkins says:

    I was please to read the non-existence of any (competent) scientist using the precise words “The science is settled”. Thanks

  8. 58
    Don Thieme says:

    The appearance of this editorial in the Wall Street Journal brought to mind a particularly odd aspect of the “skeptical” ideology among those who question anthropogenic global warming. Many of these skeptics are quite well versed in both economics and evaluation of energy resources. Poorly constrained forecasts and estimates are typical of the sort of science practiced by experts in these areas. In fact, I would hold that climate science has a far stronger basis in physics. Few question our assumption that the underlying phenomena obey invariant laws or models. Meteorologists and climatologists are far more consistent in their assessments, and they have produced more accurate forecasts and models than have economists studying financial events.

  9. 59

    My first visit here and linked to it through the Infidel753 website. I tought this piece explaining especially why “science” isnt ever settled is damn good.I personally am sick and tired of seeing the conflict caused or supported against scientist’s in this field by those who’s only science is “making a buck” ..because that is what all of this is about … companies that want to business as usual and just keep trashing the earth, atmosphere and water’s. Even “if” we didnt have global warming …none of them ever give any reason as to why it is so important to act with such disregard for the only place we have to live … it’s nauseating.

  10. 60
  11. 61
    Sufferin' Succotash says:

    But if something isn’t settled, that means it’s not true, which in turn means that it’s a lie.
    A fallacy by no means limited to perceptions of science, I’m afraid.

  12. 62
    Danimals says:

    Look, the WSJ editorial is in response to politicians who claim the science is settled. Clearly if the politics of this issue weren’t so one sided, AL Gore wouldn’t have won the Noble Prize.

    Politicians, at least in the US, repeatedly state “the science is settled” and “only a fringe group of non-peer reviewed scientists are ‘sceptical'”.

    The WSJ KNOWS FULL WELL that prominent scientist such as RICHARD S. LINDZEN of MIT do not consider it settled, but how many of your readers here know it is NOT settled.

    I will be STARTLED if you allow this post, but not suprised that you allowed a slur like post 2 by Steve at 3 December 2009 at 11:31 PM.

    Dan in NJ, USA.

  13. 63
  14. 64
    turbobloke says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m fed up with deniers spouting the “The science is settled” meme. In future I will direct them here.

  15. 65
    Sean O says:

    Interesting discussion.

    You point to the conservation of energy and the theory of gravity in your article. The great thing about these disciplines is there are readily repeated experiments to demonstrate these principles. In fact, high school (and perhaps grade school) science classes do experiments that show these principles – even recreating some of Galileo’s famed experiments. The data and the techniques to do these experiments is well-known and constantly being repeated throughout the school year at grade school, middle school, high school and more completely in colleges across the world.

    But you did not discuss the the law of computational prediction. This would be the law that I could feed whatever data I wanted to into a computer and the correct answer would pop out. Obviously, I am in jest as we all know that computers are only as good as the programmers that program them, the mathematical models behind those programs, and the integrity of the data sets.

    You may not have actually read the WSJ article that you cite but when I read it, it is pointing out that the law of computational prediction has again been proven to be false. That just because a computer predicted something does not mean that it is true.

    For years, we have assumed that the scientists of the world were cross checking each other with regards to computational prediction. We assumed that since the typical science student and science lab could not reproduce the claims of global warming, that others with greater knowledge, greater resources, and more time were reproducing the claims of their peers. Not just in reviewing their work within peer reviewed literature but reproducing their efforts with similar or duplicate results. The WSJ article calls this to question and therefore calls the unverified and non-repeated conclusions to question.

    Surely, everyone will understand if all scientists would question the validity of any conclusion resulting from the work of the CRU in East Anglia and in particular Drs. Jones and Mann. This should not be a big deal if other, more open and transparent work is available to produce the same conclusions. We simply throw out the work of East Anglia as tainted and rely on the better work of others.

    If the high school student is recreating the famed work of Galileo but instead attaches a parachute to one of the rocks therefore concluding that Galileo was wrong, we would simply throw out that data as obviously not following the methods required to test the hypothesis. The teacher would likely award poor grade to the student as well. The same should be done for the work of those involved in the East Anglia scam – throw out their work and move on.

    [Response: This is a typical comment from ignorance. How many computer models do you think Mann and Jones are involved with? 10? 5? 1? zero? (Answer is zero). You are simply taking the opportunity provided by this incident to simply pile on with some completely unconnected issue that you happen to have a pet peeve about. Your assessment of this, and of the science in general is woefullly uninformed by anything except your desire for a pre-determined conclusion. Please try a little harder in future. – gavin]

  16. 66

    It’s too bad that this needs to be said, but I thought you said it with a beautiful clarity.

  17. 67
    donald moore says:

    In inorganic chemistry reactionsA+B always equals C+D.In organic reactions A+B can equalC+D & E+F & G+H but we can make it reasonably sure by controlling temp. pressure and introducing a catalyst.In biological reactions A+B can equal an enormous number of possibilities because of the complexities of the reactions.There is therefore the certainty of science and areas of science which are becoming speculative almost like a faith or religion which is ‘evidence of things hoped for and substance of things not yet seen’.We need to make a distinction between the two and the latter to be held of equal value with other ‘prophecy’whether religious or secular on the basis of ‘your guess is as good as mine’.However i do commend those people who are braving the elements to bring us such exciting evidence of things that may be, what we are heading for though is anybodies guess.

  18. 68
    Denbo says:

    Wll Al Gore testified before Congress that the “Science was settled”. See

    Perhaps if you had not allowed a politician to ‘lead the charge’ you would not be dealing with issues you currently have.

  19. 69
    Dennis says:

    This is excellent, thank you. I am not a scientist, but have read much of the IPCC reports and many other scientific documents related to climate change. When trying to discuss science with the skeptics I know (and there are far too many), I usually have to fall back to the types of discussions you describe here. The problem is they will always jump on uncertainties and pounce on that as proof. The rhetorical device that seems to stop them is my asking why their emphasis on “uncertainty” plays no role in their decisions to not smoke, to not ingest their bodies with mercury, etc. I’d like it if some scientists could assemble a list of items that are “settled” in the same way as climate science that no sane person would disagree with. As a non-scientist, I;ve started with the first two I can think of.

  20. 70
    Nathan says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I’d like to see it printed on the op-ed page of the WSJ.

  21. 71
    Richard says:

    I think you’re guilty of your own brand of misrepresentation here. “Settled Science” in the cited WSJ article almost certainly refers not to AGW as established fact but rather a degree of certainty sufficient to justify large-scale policy change.

  22. 72
    Dave Rado says:

    Unfortunately, I have heard many environmental activists use the phrase “the science is settled” – and the media in general, not just contrarian journalists – tend to conflate environmental lobbyists with mainstream climate scientists.

  23. 73
    Michael Sweet says:

    When I checked the link to WSJ they have a bunch of OP/ED pieces on AGW. Pretty depressing reading.

    Thanks to all at Real Climate for your work containing the stolen e-mail issue. Apparently WSJ only needs accuations and not evidence of wrongdoing.

    I would like to see a (guest?) blog on Real Climate about what needs to be done to set up a carbon free electrical system. Scientific American recently had two articles. In the more recent issue (November?) they also had an article on skyscraper farms. I find it hard to believe the farms so I wondered about the electricity. Can you suggest what mainstream scientists think could be done for electricity generation?

    I saw newspaper reports last spring that Spain got 40% of their electricity one month from wind (It was a windy month). Surely the US with its much greater wind resources can equal or better that effort.

  24. 74
    john says:

    I believe the term “the science is settled” is commonly attributed to Al Gore. Mr. Gore has positioned himself as the liaison between scientists and the public. He has repeated this line on numerous occasions. I will let you ascribe his motives for such a comment.

    one such example –

  25. 75
    Mark Gibb says:

    Semantics. Of course it’s not settled, but then you bandy about terms like “scientific consensus” which are functionally and logically equivalent.

    [Response: Kind of, but you need to know where there is consensus and where there isn’t. It is not contradictory or confusing that on some things there is more agreement and supporting evidence than on others. It really isn’t that hard a concept. – gavin]

    The reason this debate is so poisonous is that it really isn’t about science, it’s about politics. I believe there is some warming, but I also believe that the political agenda favored by the current AGW side is far more destructive than the warming will be.

    And your assertions that only the skeptics engage in hyperbole while the scientists are engaged in calm pursuit of the truth does not hold water for me. Just look at the Copenhagen report that was linked on this blog. The first thing I noticed about that report is that almost every image in that report of of some scary weather phenomena, which may or may not be related to AGW. You even went so far as to produce a computer-rendered picture of an angry-ocean for the cover. Why? It is a piece of advocacy, designed to produce an emotional response.

    A calm scientific pursuit of truth wouldn’t need computer-rendered oceans and out-of-context pictures of tornadoes if it was truly independent and objective.

  26. 76
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Gavin, I had a very difficult time figuring out that you were referring, at the beginning anyway, to a recent WSJ opinion piece by Lindzen (

    I thought you were taking Mike Hulme to task. Some clarification might be in order.

  27. 77
    cervantes says:

    The terrain of science is not knowledge, but ignorance. Scientists spend little time with what they already know, except perhaps in the classroom. They are obssessed with what they don’t know.

    I may call the advancing edge of science — in every direction — the epistemological foam. Here is where scientists dredge through mountains of observations for sparks of concordance; where they conjecture, dispute, and squabble; build long and fragile chains of inference; criticize each other’s equipment, methods, analysis, and conclusions; clobber each other with contradictory theories and apparently inconsistent observations. Here, instead of knowledge, is the foam of uncertainty, a whirling boil of beliefs that are constantly merging, dividing, dissolving, devouring one another.

    Start to move back from the edge, and the foam becomes less active. The bubbles of belief grow fewer, larger, more stable. At last they dissolve into a single fluid, at first turbulent, then rippled, then placid. Here is the Lagoon of Knowledge, whose warm and perfumed waters make us feel langorous and happy. (Some of us anyway. There are those afraid to swim who huddle on the icebergs of faith. Sorry, my metaphors are getting out of hand.)

    Swim back out into the foam, and the skin begins to tingle. It’s exhilarating, energizing, but also uncomfortable, stinging us with doubt, dissatisfaction, confusion. Out there on the agonizing edge, the foam dissolves truth out of the rock face of the universe, which distills out of the foam and flows back into the ever-growing lagoon.

    Wow. Sorry about that. But I hope it makes the point. There is a great deal that we know, far more than we knew even a decade ago, incomprehensibly more than the biblical scribes could ever have imagined. Nevertheless, where science is most active, we know the least, and we are usually wrong.

  28. 78
    NJ Tom says:

    If the science truly isn’t settled, that certainly hasn’t been the
    message in recent years. True, the media and politicians have translated scientific
    publications into an indisputable vision of imminent Armageddon, but the climate
    science community has said and done very little to discourage them.

    [Response: Have you read any of the postings here over the past 5 years? Please do so. – gavin]

  29. 79
  30. 80
    Paul says:

    Anyone with an undergraduate degree in a hard science discipline understands that science is never “fully settled.” It just depends on how many more questions you want to ask, and if the answers are worth time and funding.

    But that’s an intellectual/academic issue, not something for a policy decision the way certain contrarians like to spin. Even in Congress, things are never “fully settled.” You only need 60 out of a 100 senators to end a filibuster and vote on a bill.

    So 60 percent is good enough for law makers, but contrarians would have you believe that we need 100 percent of scientists in agreement before taking action.

  31. 81
    Dan says:

    Perhaps it would be beneficial for Gavin or someone at the CRU to write a little one-page paper essentially stating that while they believe the research indicates climate change is being influenced by man, it is by no means conclusive and the science is not settled? Basically state in a paragraph or two that more research is needed, and that Governmental or intra-Governmental actions are not justified on the basis of the still unsettled science?

    [Response: Why would I write something I don’t agree with? I think that there is plenty of evidence that justifies reductions in emissions to reduce risks associated with further climate change. – gavin]

  32. 82
    SecularAnimist says:

    The statements “the science is settled” and “the science is not settled” are both vacuous. The only proper response to either is to ask “what ‘science’ are you talking about, exactly and specifically?”

    As far as I am concerned the major question that is not settled is whether we have already put in motion irrevocable and irreversible processes that are driving the Earth’s biosphere towards global collapse that we can no longer prevent no matter what we do.

    I tend to think that the preponderance of evidence supports the view that we have indeed done so.

    The possibility that we have not yet done so is of course the compelling reason for urgent action to reduce emissions to near zero as quickly as possible, so that a rapid decline in emissions begins within perhaps five years.

    Setting aside the climate science, and turning to human behavior, I tend to think the preponderance of evidence supports the view that human societies will most likely fail to take the actions necessary to do that, and whatever small chance there may be to prevent global catastrophe will be lost.

    For that we can thank the deniers and obstructors who have successfully delayed for an entire generation — and continue to successfully delay — the actions that we already knew were needed, twenty years ago.

  33. 83
    Reinhard Bösch says:

    Hear it!

  34. 84
    D. Robinson says:

    The post could be construed as an act of obfuscation.

    The warming attributed to AGW and CO2 took place from ~1975 – ~2000. That’s ~25 years.

    The gist of the debate is “How much did it actually warm? How much of that is due to AGW? How much of that is due to CO2?”

    “NONE of the warming from 1975-2000 could be due to natural variations [that aren’t yet understood]. However the lack of warming and lack of accelerated warming in the 21st century well that IS due to natural variations [that aren’t yet understood].”

  35. 85
    Bryan S says:


    I do not disagree with one thing you wrote here. The fact is however, that what you have written in this particular weblog is not at all the tenor which is actually reflected by a certain group within the climate science community, as exposed by the recent e-mail controversy. There has been a clear infiltration of political advocacy into the public statements and casual private discussions of certain members of community (your boss included), while attempting to hide behind the cloak of science. This has damaged the credibility of all scientists, and many of us are deeply offended by this. Judy Curry for one has been courageous enough to call this as it is, and I would bet many scientists at least privately agree with her.

    I will now risk over-personalizing the following to make a point: As evidence of my claim, on your very own website, it is almost impossible to come here and actually discuss and debate some of the finer points of the science without being called names like denialist, contrarian, or skeptic, sometimes by the moderators, and almost always by some of the regulars. The fact is, I am none of these, and certainly adhere to the science as you have laid out in the above commentary. All must ask themselves then, what is driving this clear attempt to discourage genuine scientific inquiry? In my opinion, it is politics plain and simple. Many associated with this website do not want to openly discuss the finer details of the science because they greatly fear certain “untidy” scientific discussion might un-necessarily swirl into the public mix, and delay certain political action which they advocate. This view is a political judgment plain and simple.

    You have political beliefs, I do, we all do. The problem comes when someone proclaims that it is “only about the science”, then goes on to make politically charged statements. Please step back from this a little and ask yourself honestly whether some of this criticism derived from these e-mails is justified. You risk coming across as an unwavering apologist for every aspect of this process, and Gavin, that is just not credible.



  36. 86
    John E. says:

    The subtitle to Lindzen’s op-ed is: “Confident predictions of catastrophe are unwarranted.”

    Would you care to clarify for us your opinion on that?

    On the one hand I read the quote from Hulme:

    “[…] but we don’t know the full scale of the risks involved, nor how rapidly they will evolve, nor indeed—with clear insight—the relative roles of all the forcing agents involved at different scales.”

    On the other hand you say:

    “Science has led to a great deal of well-supported concern that increasing emissions of CO2 (in particular) are posing a substantial risk to human society.”

  37. 87
    PaulD says:

    I agree that the IPCC report clearly acknowledges areas of climate science where the “science is not settled”. With due respect, however, I can also understand where Richard Lindzen is coming from. In the “climate debates” he is frequently labeled a “denier”, suggesting that he denies facts about climate that are as well-settled by climate scientists as the historicity of the holocaust. The label is applied even though he agrees with the basic physics of greenhouse gasses, he agrees that there has been a significant increase in greenhouse gases cause by emissions and he agrees that this increase has made a significant contribution to current warming. In short, I think he agrees with all the facts that you cite as being well-settled. Where he is skeptical is on the issue of climate sensitivity, based on many of the questions that the IPCC acknowledges as unsettled, such as cloud feedbacks and the modeling of precipitation. If you agree that there are many areas where the science is not settled, do you also agree that is unfair and unreasonable to label Richard Lindzen a “denier”?

  38. 88
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    @ Steve in response #2

    Robert A. Heinlein once wrote the following:

    Seriously, following Steve’s line of reasoning, it is obvious that spending money on research is bad and should be stopped immediately. Of course, without research, he probably wouldn’t have that nifty computer with which to share his thoughtful insights, and this blog wouldn’t exist because the funding for the science that led to the internet would have been cut off long ago because, well, those pesky scientists and engineers keep saying more research is needed and we all know they are just trying to line their pockets with ill-gotten gains, eh, Steve? For that matter, so many things Steve no doubt takes for granted, like the latest medicines and medical procedures, electronics, developments in automobile safety, cell phones and all the other electronic toys and endless medical and technological developments that we take for granted and so forth … well, if we’d just cut off that stupid research these developments simply wouldn’t exist and Steve wouldn’t have to worry about those sneaky scientists and their ill-gotten gains.

    Here’s some softballs for you, Steve, given as you seem to be in the know: where does most scientific research funding come from – the private or public sector? What percentage of those monies go into climate research, and who is funding it? What do you think the biggest threat to independent research might be (aside from rhetorical fallacies promoted by a willingness to embrace ignorance, of course)?

    Thanks in advance.

    I’ll leave it with this thought from the late Robert A. Heinlein:

    “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are all the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    “This is know as “bad luck”.”

    That said, on a more serious note, I also want to thank RC for the essay …

  39. 89
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re my previous … sorry about the first Heinlein mention – bad C&P on my part.

  40. 90
    AJ says:

    “…right wing media machine” Satire, I assume? It is an objective fact, proven by their own admission (polling data) that the mainstream media in America is ideologically liberal. As for non-experts politicizing AGW in the media, I present to you Mr. Al Gore. One can’t be any more scientifically hapless and ideological driven than him. So let’s leave that nonsense behind.

    Your skyscraper analogy has one problem, Gavin. You say it was built brick by brick with a foundation dating back to the 19th century. A much more realistic picture is a skyscraper of infamous instability that has burned down and collapsed multiple times through the years. Much of the rubble has been picked through and used as building material for the next incarnation, each of which is higher and more impressive than the last. The engineers in charge of this building are supremely confident in its stability, yet it continues to collapse and require rebuilding, time after time. I give you a few examples:

    – Mainstream science referred to William Harvey as “crack-brained” upon offering his new theory of blood circulation

    – The Royal Society rejected and discredited Dr. Edward Jenner’s paper describing the smallpox vaccine.

    – Mainstream science scoffed at Louis Pasteur and ate crow when his cure for rabies worked.

    – Mainstream science castigated Joseph Lister and rubbed their operating tools in dirt as confidence that “bad air” was responsible for infection. Lister introduced antiseptics to medicine.

    – Lord Kelvin (president of the Royal Society) declared X-rays to be a hoax. Kelvin also said “heavier than air machines are impossible” and followed up with a prediction that “radio has no future”

    – Meteorologist Alfred Wegener was the butt of ridicule and derided during his lifetime by his geologist colleagues for his theory of continental drift.

    – Many mainstream science found Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity incomprehensible and loathsome.

    – In 1932, Albert Einstein himself confidently declared “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.”

    – Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Richard van der Riet Wooley declared “space travel is utter bilge”…only a decade before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.

    Now I happen to agree with just about everything the AGW community has put forth, as it pertains to the physical mechanisms of global warming. What has NOT been demonstrated by any reasonable measure, is impending catastrophe to the human race. What HAS been demonstrated is the historical narcissism of the scientific community (of which I am a part). The human frailties evident in the quotes above in people like Al Gore have been on display through this whole email dustup and all over this message board. “The Climate Science Isn’t Settled” is an understatement, and your community would do well to acknowledge it.

  41. 91
    JM says:

    The author of the WSJ piece is Richard Siegmund Lindzen, an American atmospheric physicist and a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I daresay he’s read the primary literature.

    Yes, and it would be nice if he would start being honest about it.

  42. 92
    JM says:

    I would say the ’science’ is unsettled (and becoming more so by the day), what with the IPCC now announcing its own investigation into Climategate

    Good. The more time that scientifically literate people spend actually reading the emails, rather than the usual suspects alleging what they “prove,” the better. That’s been the fundamental weakness of this denialist attack: it survives on innuendo and credulity.

    Sunlight is the best cure.

  43. 93
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Harry, are the glaciers melting on your planet? because they sure are on mine.

  44. 94
    Paul UK says:

    Bernie said in 10:
    “Your essay, hoever, seems to miss a key point. It doesn’t address the question as to why contrarians employ such rhetorical devices. Isn’t it in part to counter those looking to push public policy solutions that ignore the unsettled parts of the science namely all the uncertainties around the scope and net impact of AGW and downplay the tremendous costs and risks associated with such policies and the highly debatable long term benefits?”

    If you actually did a real risk analysis, then you would take action even if the science wasn’t 100% certain.
    Debatable long term benefits??
    So reduced resource use isn’t a long term benefit?
    Using energy and materials wisely isn’t a long term benefit?
    You seem to be suggested that you shouldn’t take responsibility and leave the problem to someone else in the future.
    Is most science unsettled?
    But we still use what is settled to build things and make decisions, eg. we base risks taken on what we do know not on what we don’t know. If we didn’t do this you wouldn’t drive a car because it was designed using Newtonian science which isn’t complete!

  45. 95
    G.L. Alston says:

    Nice strawman you have here.

    ‘Settled science’ is a PR matter and the primary cheerleader is Al “the debate is over” Gore.

    Nobody assumes SCIENTISTS say this; even the very notion is anti-science.

    Lindzen is correct to point out that science is unsettled. He’s making the case against Gore and public perception and politics. And he’s correct to phrase it as he does given that climate change is felt to be a club politicians will wield to enforce possibly unecessary (and unwanted) change. If not for the political overtones of all of this, climate would merely be an academic endeavour and your blog traffic would be somewhere near zero. Lindzen is addressing the politics, and you misinterpreted.

    [Response: Lindzen is declaring that any degree of uncertainty (no matter how small) should be enough to prevent any action. This is not an argument anyone would use in any other field, and certainly the opposite has been argued on those pages many times (Remember Cheney’s 1% doctrine?). – gavin]

  46. 96
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: 68

    I like (terrible word) “Desdemona Despair” (the name of the blog linked to in Jim Galasyn’s post), but I can’t read it more than once a week. At first it would make me extraordinarily anxious, but I got narcotized to it a little too fast. Dire things need to stay dire. They need to use images of lesser quality.

    There’s a disturbing novel by Kevin Brockmeier called “The Brief History of the Dead” that has an absolutely horrifying conclusion. Reading “Desdemona Despair” reminds me of that book.

  47. 97
    RHD says:

    “Sunlight is the best cure,” says JM. Yes, indeed. Too bad the erstwhile paragons at the CRU and others didn’t heed that dictum from the get-go. Now they will reap what they sowed.

    The emails give you merely an impression of their mindset. Not pretty, but not determinative of the key questions either. Whether the science was distorted will only be known when someone goes through the data and the codes to see how the data was normalized, massaged, etc. That is happening now, and the recent posts I have seen elsewhere about embedded ‘fudge factors’ — so called by the programmers in the code comments — do not inspire confidence. Perhaps that will all turn out to be just the occasional fluke serving to prove the solidity of the rest. Only time and detailed — and fully transparent– analysis will tell.

    What is utterly beyond debate is how badly science was served by those at CRU who thought they could engage in the tactics detailed in those emails supposedly in service of higher goals.

  48. 98
    Russell Seitz says:

    Congratulations to Gavin and Mike

    Plus ca change–

  49. 99
    Jan Perlwitz says:


    Although I agree with the sentiment of the essay to refute another straw man argument put on the table by the “climate skeptics”, I think your house building analogy isn’t fully appropriate. We shouldn’t forget that history of science is not just adding smaller or larger pieces to a foundation reaching far back, the house is also being fully replaced, including the foundations, now and then. The new house still fulfills the functions of the old one, but with a new understanding of the how, with a new apparatus, and much more comprehensively so that it also can provide something, of which we even hadn’t be aware before. Newton’s physics was replaced by the theory of relativity and quantum physics, not just complemented. Lets not be fooled by that we still use some tools from the old apparatus in certain special situations, just because they are useful due to their (relatively) easy design. And there isn’t any reason to believe that the whole house won’t be replaced again, eventually.

  50. 100
    vg28 says:

    Gavin, like most people I much appreciate your efforts to provide context and and respond to criticism derived from the emails. However, as I’m sure you understand, the important part of the leaked data is not emails, it’s code. I understand it’s not your code, but I’m sure you’ve read by now about the sloppiness, the mess, the inconsistencies, the lack of documentation and tests, things that look like artificial adjustments to fit the desired results (for example, ). I think a post or a series of posts with some context on that would be extremely helpful. Even more helpful, now that the code is effectively in the public domain, would be an effort to take advantage of the open source development process to clean it up (or perhaps rewrite it) in a way that would make maintainable and understandable.