Questioning Mainstream Climate Science from Within
A few days ago, I spent a couple of hours with Judy Curry, a scientist at Georgia Tech who’s been rocking the climate-science boat recently by palling around with some people variously known as climate contrarians, denialists or, if you want to be polite about it, skeptics. We’re not talking here about people who call global warming a scam, or insist that humans can’t possibly affect the planet, or that carbon dioxide isn’t a greenhouse gas. Those people don’t interest Curry at all. What interests her is (some of the) maverick scientists and self-taught experts who question the way climate science is carried out and how it’s presented to the public—people who inhabit blogs like Climate Audit and The Blackboard.
I won’t go into too much detail about the conversation, since it’s going to be the basis for a future article. But in general, it raised the question of how laypeople and even science journalists deal with the problem of competing experts. Curry thinks that while there’s lots of nonsense on contrarian blogs and other places that question the mainstream consensus on climate change (i.e., the climate is warming due largely to human activities, and climate change is likely to get dangerously worse if we don’t take serious action, and quickly), it’s not all nonsense.
Some of the questions these outsiders are asking, she says, are legitimate — questions about transparency, but also about scientific rigor, and about the way the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the high profile sifter of climate science information, operates.
Unsurprisingly, she thinks that some of the questions are on target — she called the IPCC process “corrupt” and believes that the public has been misled about the uncertainties in projections about where the climate is heading.
So does she have a point? The broader climate-science community says no (and not always in a friendly way), but the history of science doesn’t necessarily give us very good guidelines for judging. I once taught a course at Princeton entitled “They Laughed at Einstein: How science deals with cranks and visionaries.” The students learned that sometimes the lone outsider declaring that the emperor is naked is right (think Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift) and sometimes is not wrong (Immanuel Velikovsky). Or, as I’m fond of saying, they laughed at Einstein, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. (Actually, they didn’t laugh at Einstein, but it’s too good a line to fact-check).
If Curry is right, the so-called “Climategate” affair was not, as many believe, much ado about nothing — and the mistakes uncovered in the most recent major IPCC report could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Other outsiders are at least taking the possibility seriously. Britain’s InterAcademy Council has formed a commission to look into the workings of the IPCC, chaired by Princeton University’s former president, Harold Shapiro. The group just met for the first time in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, the rumor mill has it that the American Physical Society may launch an analysis of widely used climate models to offer an independent assessment of their rigor and validity.
In short, the skeptics may be completely unjustified in their critiques — but some of those critiques may be worth paying close attention to, because they just might improve the conduct and communication of climate science.