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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. 1
    CraigM says:

    Thanks for this essay; it speaks to the nature of science in general, which is probably the most important lesson I can teach my students.

  2. 2
    Steve says:

    Er, yes. If the science was settled, then we would stop asking for all those massive big research grants to do more research. Has anyone ever seen a published paper that didn’t say “more research is needed”? Oh, I forgot. The people that write for the WSJ never read the primary literature.

  3. 3
    matt says:

    “Climategate” story is falling apart. The scientist were right, the public and the critics made a mess of the emails. It has only created confusion. But perhaps in the end this debate in the media needed to happen.

    We’re about to make a major commitment to changes in our economy, and whenever a big decision like this is made, there is a natural need of double checking and appropriate “look-back”. We (in the US) have been snookered before with tall tales of global catastrophe if we did not fall in-line behind newly laid out plans and accept a new paradigm for living.

    But for me, reading about Climategate, reading the blogs from McIntyre, other deniers and yes RealClimate has only solidified my confidence in AGW. The science behind climate change isn’t a fad and it isn’t new. I had no idea that it started back with Fourier (amazing). The point is, there has been nothing rushed about this science. The CRU emails show that it has slowly plodded along with each avenue and nuance carefully examined. The CRU emails are also no different than any other form of electronic discussion. Is there an internet discussion site that doesn’t have emotional debates, hyperbole, and unfulfillable threats?

    The only fault I find with CRU and the AGW crowd is the sheer lack of PR skills and ability to take on the highly charged right wing media machine. But, then again, perhaps thats a good thing that scientists are so hapless when it comes to PR and shaping public opinion. Oooops, another conspiracy theory implodes on itself.

  4. 4

    Not only is the science not settled, anthropogenic global warming is a theory, not a fact. Once the general public realizes that the last 500 years of human civilization has been built on theory – whether it was Newton’s, or Darwin’s or Einstein’s – we might actually move forward and learn. As wise man once said “There is no knowledge without theory.”

  5. 5
    debreuil says:

    Umm, ‘unequivocal’ does not allow for doubt. I guess it depends on context?

    Main Entry: un·equiv·o·cal
    Pronunciation: \ˌən-i-ˈkwi-və-kəl\
    Function: adjective

    1 : leaving no doubt : clear, unambiguous
    2 : unquestionable

  6. 6
    Jack Handy says:

    “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’.”

    …agree there

    “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.”

    …Well let’s just say that the fact you can’t account for the recent lack of warming is a travesty and it points to a lack of consensus on this point, even I dare say within the hallowed halls of climate research institutions. (only during private conversations of course)

    :Gasp: perhaps the magniture of natural variation hasn’t been accounted for?

  7. 7
    Jack Handy says:

    forgot to mention

    “and the fact the planet warmed significantly over the 20th Century are not much in doubt.”

    …but the 21st century warming is very much nonexistant

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Pete says:

    What will be the effect of modest reductions in manmade CO2? Most proposals only hope to decrease the rate of increase of CO2. Let’s assume all of the promises made at Copenhagen are kept, what will be the net effect on manmade CO2 and more importantly, what will be the impact on the climate? The old “something is better than nothing” answer is not very satifying (nor scientific).

  10. 10
    Bernie says:

    If you are saying that some of the science is settled and some is far from settled, then it is hard to disagree. You note that the claim that the “science is settled” is a rhetorical device used by contrarians. That is certainly partly the case. 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?

  11. 11
    Rob Bradley says:

    Why can’t you go ahead and state the author–Richard Lindzen–and link his essay?

    The science is not settled in very fundamental ways as Lindzen’s piece indicates.

    Take the IPCC 2x warming range of 2C-4.5C, a range that could be wholly wrong. Would you admit that the science is unsettled in that the 2x warming could be below 2C as Lindzen and others believe?

    [Response: No. The standard range is well supported by paleo-climate studies and a small sensitivity is not. Lindzen’s latest paper will not turn out to be robust (I predict), and even Roy Spencer has said he can’t get the same results with only modest differences in approach. You might like to think that a single paper from Lindzen overturns everything, but it doesn’t. – gavin]

  12. 12
    BartH says:

    This article is right on the mark. As a student of physics, I can relate to this. There’s an interesting anecdote concerning Max Planck which is related to this. His physics professor, Philipp von Jolly, actually advised Planck against going into physics, stating that: “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes”. That was before 1874, 31 years before Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis and 41 years before his publication of his general theory of relativity. I’m not even mentioning the advent of quantum mechanics, the standard model, big-bang theory, string theory etc. etc.

    Although there certainly is an established body of theories and conjectures (that are verified by experiments very well) in every field, science is never settled. It’s even downright arrogant to presume it ever will be. To quote Feynmann: “I think Nature’s imagination is so much greater than man’s; She is never going to let us relax”.

  13. 13
    ERJohnson says:

    Very good post.

    Would love to see you take this to the next step and expand specifically on what are considered to be the most important aspects of AGW theory that are not “settled” — most importantly, a focus on those aspects, if understood and properly modeled, that could have the greatest impact on climate model accuracy / reliability.

  14. 14

    Unsettling journalism at the WSJ.

  15. 15
    alf says:

    Seems as if Steve McIntyre would agree with most of your points, so why the animosity towards him?

  16. 16
    tharanga says:

    Steve: You might want to check who wrote that piece for the WSJ. Not having read the primary literature isn’t the issue with this author. That said, gavin was actually being charitable in his description of the op/ed.

    “The IPCC reports should be required reading for anyone…”

    I’d have ended the sentence right there.

  17. 17
    Andrew says:

    As Joe Romm pointed out: if we proceed business as usual, and I add given enough time, then it is pretty settled that we’ll end up with a dystopian world. Perhaps a best available description of the world about 55 million years ago would be a good primer for what’s at stake.

  18. 18
    Bruce Tabor says:

    Hi Gavin:
    “…there are a number of issues which are no longer subject to fundamental debate in the community. The existence of the greenhouse effect…and its human cause…”

    I thought the IPCC put a >90% likelihood on human action being behind climate change in AR4. Are you saying this has since moved to an “almost certain” level?

  19. 19
    Phil 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.

  20. 20
    Dan Wang says:

    Next time when Al Gore says the science is settled, why don’t you ask him to clarify what he means by “settled”?
    The key question is: Is it “settled” enough for the world to spend billions of dollars on cap-and-trade or emissions trading schemes or is it not? I would hazard to guess that by this definition of “settled”, you would say “yes”, but the WSJ would say “no”, and neither do many others, yours truly included. I don’t believe that the magnitude of natural variations other than CO2 is fully understood or taken into account. Given that, how can anyone say that CO2 is the major cause?

    [Response: Read Chapter 9 in IPCC AR4 – it explains exactly how they they can say that (with the minor caveat that there are more forcings than just CO2). – gavin]

  21. 21
    PeterK says:

    “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”

    Where is this heard virtually non-stop, is from the mouths of politicians, journalists, eco-campaigners and members of the public demanding action on AGW. And scientists persuaded of AGW are guilty of letting this go on uncountered for far too long. Indeed some have even actively sanctioned a culture of distortion and exaggeration on the grounds that the public needs to be ‘woken up’. I welcome this attempt to put things right – better late than never.

  22. 22

    The Wall Street Journal opinion writer takes care to intimate that the emails represent the whole science, and he disregards the other independent evidence. What this “Climategate” affair mostly means is that these tut-tutting skeptics are actually going to have to learn the science, themselves. It’s “put up, or shut up” time. (Also a bit of the history and philosophy of science, since they appear to misunderstand what Galileo did, and are wading into nonsense about “post-modernism.”) Of course they were hoping not to do any work at all, rather just cast aspersions on the science, to protect their insistence that climate mitigation policy must be economically costly. Indeed the Journal opinion writer intimates that, too. Yet that is another big and unscientific mistake, though we hear it repeatedly from the skeptics. The economic models are in terrible shape, compared to climate models. That is because we can’t predict human creativity in innovation. Climate mitigation could have greater economic benefits than costs, i.e. it could be a net plus. In fact that is likely to be the case.

  23. 23
    Steve Bloom says:

    Your thoughts are appreciated as always, Gavin, but I’m a little surprised at your quote of Mike Hulme’s astonishingly naive opinion piece.

    As you know, early on the science became a target of a denial industry whose skills had been perfected in campaigns dating back many decades to the efforts to keep lead in paint and gasoline, and more lately to obscure the ill effects of tobacco. I don’t know about risk management, but for a long time it’s been an ineluctable fact that when valuation and political ideology enter into it, the side on whose side the science isn’t will attack it in order to obscure the case for action. What we need is advice about how best to move forward under those circumstances, and Hulme provides none.

    But beyond being merely useless, a couple of Hulme’s comments had the flavor of throwing his UEA colleagues under the bus (e.g. when he states that the science has been undermined). Neither they nor their correspondents have been demonstrated to be bad actors to any degree, and Hulme’s insinuations otherwise are offensive.

  24. 24
    Inge-Bert Täljedal says:

    “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,…”
    This is presumably a correct statement, if by “community” one means a certain large group of researchers who identify themselves as “the climate researchers”. However, there are a few outsiders who seems seriously to think that this “community” are simply not doing proper natural science. The most obvious example of such harsh critics are the physicists Gerlich and Tscheuschner. For human psychological reasons it is easily understood if their attacks would arouse anger and scorn within “the community”. But emotional reactions and scornful journalism aside, what is in fact the crisp scientific argument showing that Gerlich and Tscheuschner are fundamentally wrong? Perhaps the answer is simple, perhaps it is not, I personally cannot say. However, I am pretty convinced that the challenged “community” has to come up with a clear scientific (as opposed to popular) answer to this question, unless it will lose respect in the eyes of concerned but climate-agnostic scientists who are neither climate researchers nor physicist, i.e. after all the vast majority of the large “scientific community”. So, what’s the scientific answer?

    [Response: Read the rebuttal by Arthur Smith. G&T are cranks. – gavin]

  25. 25
    Terry 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:

    The truth is in there, Gavin, and it’s coming out…

  26. 26
    TimTheToolMan says:

    Re : Arguments over whether a single brick should be blue or yellow don’t change the building from a skyscraper to a mud hut.

    It might if CO2 was somehow shown to be responsible for (say) 0.02C/decade temperature rise rather than the 0.2C as is believed right now.

  27. 27
    David Graves says:

    Now, the WSJ has published Richard Henninger’s commentary that claims (among other things) that the episode shows the futility/fallacy (not entirely clear what he intends) of the entire scientific enterprise. Has he never read Watson’s “Double Helix” on the discovery of the structure of DNA? Has he never read about the controversies about deserved credit for identifying the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS? The willful misrepresentations of the “expose'” and its implications are truly breathtaking.

  28. 28
    Paul says:

    I read this site regularly and really appreciate how the moderator has handled this crisis. There’s a lot here to share with students and friends/relatives to help explain what’s going on, because they have a lot of questions. It struck me however that, while it is easy to create a cast of ‘denialist’ characters from the RC discussion and archives, there must be researchers on the ‘alarmist’ side who are doing egregiously bad science to promote AGW that make it uncomfortable for those doing careful rigorous work.

    Can someone on the list (maybe not the overworked moderator) point out some published papers -or labs/individuals- that have bent the data/models to the other extreme, overstating their results for personal or professional gain in a way that RC readers thought actually hurt the credibility of the argument for AGW?


  29. 29
    Mike M says:


    You have been feeding the idea that the science is settled to the media. If you suddenly agree now that the science isnt settled then you should properly disseminate that message to your media pal so they stop miselading the public.

    [Response: Read the post again. – gavin]

  30. 30
    PaulK says:

    The Science is not settled, for most people it never will be. The analogy of Relativity and Newtonian Physics doesn’t apply in the case of Climate Change. This is because unlike other hypotheses, the AGW hypothesis has profound implications for the behaviour of every person on the planet. There hasn’t been a comparable situation where fundamental change may be required on the personal level. Change is painful. For most people the symptoms of climate change are vague, unless you happen to be a scientist and understand climatology. A hot summer here or there is not convincing. As for the Maldives — where are they? AGW is, frankly an abstraction, something that most people hope is not happening, and would rather not think about. Hence the 65% of people in recent polls who do not believe in AGW. It’s not the fault of RealClimate for not mustering a better case, or ExxonMobil for working against it. But unless we change our overall strategy that focuses on hard science, believers in AGW will be restricted to green-issue people, a scientific elite, and some progressive politicians. When the waters rise and cities are flooded, attitudes still may not change. Most people will say that the changes are inevitable. Natural. We aren’t much disposed to blame ourselves when something goes wrong.

    As Mike Hulme correctly points out, social scientists (including psychologists) have an important contribution in developing a strategy to deal with climate change. To convince people to make fundamental changes will take a lot more than presenting the science or debating “hockey sticks.”

  31. 31
    George Ortega says:

    It’s important to consider whether an expression is used in a scientific or colloquial sense. As you note, scientifically nothing is ever “settled,” colloquially much of science IS completely settled.

    Making the distinction between colloquial and scientific usage is very important to presenting the findings of climate science, and as a fundamental demand of scientific communication is clarity, scientists should respond to the WSJ op-ed piece by noting that, in the sense by which the vast majority of WSJ readers use and understand the word “settled,” climate climate science, as it relates to climate change, is completely settled.

    For a scientist to agree with the WSJ article’s statement “Climate Science Isn’t Settled” would simply be wrong because it does not address precisely what the author meant by “settled.”

  32. 32
    harry says:

    While its nice to try to characterise the claim of “settled science” as another paranoia of the skeptics, it doesn’t match reality. The term settled science is used as an appeal to a higher authority by warming alarmists particularly politicians and environmental groups.
    Apparently the term was recently used by Obama and has been used by Gore in the past if newspaper reports are reliable. Australian PM Rudd said it in 2007.
    Stanford professor Stephen H. Schneider talking to media execs: “The science is very settled.” So too is the attribution of an important part of that warming to humans, he said.

    So trying to blame skeptics for pointing out the stupidity of this term and its use by alarmists as a way of ending debate doesn’t seem to be very credible.

  33. 33
    Edward Greisch says:

    That is a very good article Professor, but there are problems, not with you or your article:

    The first problem is that the required course [Probability and Statistics for undergraduate Physics majors] requires a math IQ over 150. I passed the course myself, but it was the most difficult course I ever passed. That means that very few people will ever understand what you are talking about. You are correct, but to most people, the article above is just noise. At best, your article sounds like doublespeak. There is no hope of ever communicating Prob&Stat to the average person. A few may just accept what you say, but very few. They SHOULD accept what you say because you are correct. The Physics Prob&Stat course is transformative: It makes you into a different person, like virgin versus adult, but a much bigger change. There is no going back and there is no explaining it to a humanities major. I have no idea how to help you. If I were the dictator, I would require that probability be introduced to all students in the 4th grade. There is a probability book for that level. That sort of thing would make the transition easier.

    The second problem is that the WSJ type of person is TERRIFIED of the new idea of global warming BECAUSE IT IS A NEW IDEA.

    The third WSJ problem is, of course, $$MONEY$$$. Those who have it want to keep it.

    Thank you for trying.

  34. 34
    Ole Juul says:

    You’re right “Playing rhetorical games . . . is no answer at all to the real issues we face.” I always wonder what makes someone care whether the science is “settled” or not. What difference does that make? There are other issues besides AGW. I have a theory that there are some people who worry about the price of gas because they are fearful of having to walk or drive a bicycle. Actually I believe that environmental concerns need to be extended to include psychology. Without that extension we will be fooling ourselves about what can be done.

  35. 35
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    Scientists may say this. Engineers are applying the lessons of science all the time. They would say that the theory is applicable within certain boundaries. That it is useful for the task at hand. they would then apply a safety factor to allow for the uncertainties.

    This is what we must do with AGW. Within the boundaries of the need for action, we define a limit, say 2 deg C, and set targets to reach it. All very logical. BUT as you say, it is based on a best guess and not on something that is fundamentally a PROVEN scientific fact.

    This does not change the need for action, as there is sufficient evidence to recognize the hazard. For me, the turning point of proof came when reports from other disciplines bagen to see the light.

    For example, movement of species, melting of glaciers, change in disease patterns, forest dieback, etc. the most convincing nail in the coffin was ocean acidity. This has nothing to do with any change in the climate and simply reflects the scale of change we have begun by pumping huge amounts of gases into our atmosphere.


  36. 36
    Annabelle says:

    I don’t know where the phrase “the science is settled” came from, but I have certainly heard it from several of my friends, and I’ve read it on many discussion forums.

    If you reject the phrase, then surely you must also stop calling people who don’t think the science is settled “denialists”.

  37. 37
    Reinhard Bösch says:

    Reasonable people will agree to your essay. Unfortunately I get quite different information about the science of climatechange here in Germany. I´m told what kind of catastrophies will happen and when. And the journalists quote Gore,Rahmstorff,Schellnhuber…
    Now what is this? Are 90% of our journalists incapable of doing their job? Where do our media have their informations from? Certainly not from Steve McIntire

  38. 38
    Dan Olner says:

    I’ve started an ongoing conversation with a climate change skeptic (and I think they *are* a skeptic rather than denier), and it’s the realm of uncertainty where I think the most trouble is going to come. I’m in the process of trying to satisfy myself about as much of the science as possible, and this is the trickiest area. Everyone knows boundary conditions for seasonal change: the angle of the Earth to the sun. I *don’t* know century-long boundary conditions for the climate,
    quite how various forcings change these, and indeed whether talk of ‘boundary conditions’ analogous to seasonal forcings is even plausible, given the range of possible feedbacks involved. I would love to have some straightforward way of visualising the range of possibilities. (Even feedbacks are contained within boundaries – what are they? How do we know?)

    It’s an easy attack point for someone like Monckton: the climate is chaotic, therefore it’s inherently uncertain. It’s incredibly annoying: there are large chunks of climate science that are too technical for most people (myself included) to come to a judgement. Extracting trends from tree ring data is waaay beyond me. (Perhaps a reason why some people choose that particular point to apply their pseudo-scientific water torture…) But chaos and boundary conditions? Everyone can get that: today may have been warmer than last week, but you wouldn’t claim that meant Spring was coming. Just because we can’t be sure what the weather will be *next* week, that doesn’t meant we don’t know which season we’re going towards. Boundary conditions!

    Every time someone like Monckton makes his ‘chaos’ argument (all very scientific sounding), this sort of low-hanging fruit should be picked
    and thrown at them. I’m hoping, as I carry on learning, that I’ll find analogies to ‘seasonal forcing’ that can allow myself and others get a better intuitive grasp of where boundaries are, and where chaos might poke a nose in, so we have more fruit-based projectiles to throw at this growing ‘uncertainty’ meme. Any pointers gratefully received.

  39. 39
    Matti Virtanen says:

    Obama has said something to the effect that, the science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Of course, this is not quite the same as “the science is settled”, but obviously he needs some advice. Maybe he should talk to scientists.

  40. 40


    If the science was settled, then we would stop asking for all those massive big research grants to do more research. Has anyone ever seen a published paper that didn’t say “more research is needed”? Oh, I forgot. The people that write for the WSJ never read the primary literature.

    Apparently you haven’t either. I’ve read thousands of academic papers and can’t recall that particular phrase being used in any of them.

  41. 41
    Bert Logg says:

    2. Steve says: 3 December 2009 at 11:31 PM

    Your post is a little incoherent, but I think you are arguing for LESS climate research. Unique.

  42. 42
    Paul A says:

    The “science isn’t settled” is a very pervasive non-argument. Clive James, the Australian critic, novelist, TV presenter, poet and essayist, made a very similar statement on UK radio a few weeks ago. I emailed him in response and, hopefully, many others did as well.

  43. 43
    MalcolmT says:

    Well said, Gavin! I will be sending this to a few scientifically illiterate fence-sitters I know, in the hope that they will then understand how and why they have misunderstood the scientific debate. Then, with any luck, they will hop down off the fence and start doing something useful.

  44. 44
    Erica Rex says:

    It’s impossible to change any other person’s behavior – short of killing him. There’s nothing that’s going to sway the confidence of the truly ignorant – but the scientific community keep refusing to ‘observe the behavior’ and then figure out a real strategy for dealing with it. Verbal tantrums thrown by scientists in the public light cast an unbelievable pall of ludicrous over any and every valid scientific statement they make. I’m frustrated that many of them won’t put their faces into the sun and figure out that continuing to be pissed off at the enemy and then hurling counter-accusations (even if they’re true) about motive and affiliation are no match for the well-lubricated propaganda machines funded by oil and coal companies.

    Where is the ‘scientific’ strategy for dealing with one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in human history? Who is the grownup here???

    The stakes being what they are, surely WINNING – not whose fault the problem is – should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind….

  45. 45
    ccpo says:


    Thanks for that. It’s *almost* stated in a way that the average Joe can understand without saying, “SEE! THEY REALLY DON’T KNOW!” You say, “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.”

    Huh? There’s doubt in the scientific community that the planet warmed significantly? News to me.

    You can’t be colloquial without being careful, but must be colloquial to be understood by A. Joes. Is it incorrect to state, “…and the fact the planet warmed significantly over the 20th Century are not in doubt.” Using “much” here acts as a qualifier, of course, which is read by those ignorant of the science, scared out of their wits or ideologically blinded to read that these issues actually ARE in doubt.

    Also, while your analogy is fine, all the verbiage takes away its power. And, you need to give examples in order to make clear that the points that cannot be stated as settled are also not fundamental and don’t change the understanding of climate trends. Perhaps you cite that we can’t identify tipping points – which makes them more dangerous than if we could – before they happen at all really, but we know they are coming.

    Or you could discuss that we know clouds don’t have a significant impact on warming, and that we can be reasonably sure of that because ways of constraining that data, but that we don’t really understand the smallest details.

    Or anything. But example are always good when teaching. The analogy helps with the concept, examples bring it back to the topic and illustrate the actual mechanism… or whatever.

    Moving on. Another thing you might like to do is pull out the key points on the e-mail thing as a condensed post, without comments perhaps. There’s too much text there. Reading through them it’s obvious a lot of people missed important points. There are some nice rebuttals floating about you incorporate into such a post.

    I’m hoping this whole e-mail thing has awakened the Average Scientist to one simple reality: You’re going to have to come out from behind your desks and engage the public actively, and critics strongly, if you (collectively) wish to help avoid the 6C scenarios.

    Personally, I think the President needs to do a major policy statement on TV complete with supporting evidence (and scientists) – hours, not minutes – and let the scientists have their shot at turning this thing around.


  46. 46
    Mike Chapman says:

    Actually, it will depend on where you draw the boundaries of the system. Take the field of physical optics, I’d say this field has been wrapped up with a line drawn under it for a long time. More recently optics forged ahead into the brave new world of adaptive optics – a very different field from physical optics. Whilst this is the only field of completed science I can think of – I think it is a good example.

  47. 47
    t.plan says:

    ooh, “it’s author” –> “its author”

  48. 48
    Firkas says:

    Thanks for this essay.
    It’s good to read quality material.

    Regarding Richard Lindzen, he has already an informative Wikipedia page,

  49. 49
    Dan says:

    #2. What embarassing rubbish from another hit and run poster. The big money comes from the Exxon/Mobils of the world, the anti-AGWers. Stop simply regurgitating what others have told you and use some critical thinking. We just had 8 years of an anti-AGW administration in the US so if you think that is where the big money was from, you are completely mistaken. Have you read the peer-reviewed science? Obviously not. Your comment could not be more wrong if you tried. Learn how science has always been conducted! And seen when has anyone at the WSJ had a clue about climate science? If you beleive them then I guess you consult your plumber for serious medical issues, right?

  50. 50
    Bill DeMott says:

    Nicely stated and basically what I’ve thought when I read the “science is settled” comment. There are, however, some basic and key issues that are “settled”, like the recent rapid increases in temperature and CO2 and that fact that the global CO2 increase can be clearly attributed to humans and mainly to the burning of fossil fuels. What used to surprise me is that many of the “skeptics/cynics” keep raising questions about these “settled” issues. If nothing is settled, then science makes no progress.

    As an ecologist, I have been surprised by the strength and breadth of climate warming signals from ecosystems and natural populations. My first publication on “climate change” just appeared in a special issue of Limnology and Oceanography (top ranked journal in aquatic sciences) with the theme “Lakes and Reservoirs as Sentinels, Integrators and Regulators of Climate change.” I contributed to the data analysis and writing for a study of the food chain of a large and beautiful lake at the foot of the Alps on the Italian and Swiss border. Even though I have had a long career in lake food chain studies I needed to read about 120 journal articles to be able to feel confident about placing our 21 years of data in a well reasoned, scientific context.

    Authors of Limnology and Oceanography papers have the option of paying a fee to make their articles open access. More than two-thirds of the papers are open access at the ASLO web site.

    The special issue includes work on recent changes in lake temperature, chemistry and food chains, interpretation of paleo/sediment data, and data and models on the roles of lakes in carbon and methane cycles. Anyone who things that the land temperature records are too flawed to give confidence in recent warming should take a look at temperature data from lakes scattered around the world. The issue starts with five synthesis/review papers and then papers with new data. For a review of temperature data, see the paper with Rita Adrian as lead author.