Why I Wrote About Judith Curry

Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

In trying to fulfill our mission to explain climate science to the public, Climate Central creates nonpartisan, nonadvocacy multimedia content for our own website and for outside media partners. When we do the latter, we normally just flag the publication or broadcast so our followers know about it.

In the just-published November issue of Scientific American, however, we’ve published a story that calls for a bit more explanation. It’s a profile of Judith Curry, the Georgia Tech researcher who’s been stirring up powerful feelings in the climate-science community by questioning the integrity of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and of individual scientists, and by befriending outsiders who are even more critical than she is. Some people see Curry as a whistleblower; others (including many climate scientists) think she’s a bit of a crank.

I was drawn to this story because, as a science journalist, my job is to try and ask the sort of questions the non-scientific public might ask — and in the contentious area of climate science, one key question is: “when scientists disagree, how do I know whom to believe?” It’s a particularly important question when it comes to climate, because the stakes are so enormously high. If we fail to act, the consequences could be dire; if we act unnecessarily, the consequences could also be costly.

In climate science, the overwhelming consensus view, backed by a mountain of evidence, is that climate change is real, caused largely by human activities, and likely to inflict significant damage on people and ecosystems around the world. The fact that most climate scientists do agree is something that’s not always fully appreciated by the general public, who often see it as much more up in the air than that. But could the consensus – or parts of it – be wrong?

There are times in the history of science where the consensus has been drastically wrong — in the case of Alfred Wegener, who tried to persuade the world of the fact of continental drift, of Barry Marshall, who insisted that ulcers are caused by bacteria, and by a long list of other men and women who were dismissed as cranks and turned out in the end to be correct. This phenomenon intrigues me so much that for several years I gave a freshman seminar at Princeton titled “They Laughed at Einstein: How Science Deals with Cranks and Visionaries.”

The thing is, being dismissed as a crank doesn’t mean you’re necessarily wrong. But it surely doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily right, either.

So when Judith Curry challenges her colleagues, is she right? Does she raise valid points? That’s what I set out to discover for Scientific American.

Is it Irresponsible to Discuss Curry's Views?

What I found out is that when she does raise valid points, they’re often points the climate-science community already agrees with — and many climate scientists are scratching their heads at the implication that she’s uncovered some dark secret. I also became convinced that some of her other points are not very persuasive at all. As Stephen Schneider, the eminent Stanford climate scientist who died prematurely last summer, told me: “It is frankly shocking to see such a good scientist take that kind of a turn to sloppy thinking. I have no explanation for it.”

Others were a bit less forgiving — understandably — at Curry’s tone. She doesn’t just question some of the IPCC’s procedures. She calls the process “corrupt.” She gives credence to some outsiders (also known as “climate skeptics”) who aren’t climate scientists and who, the actual scientists argue persuasively, aren’t qualified to offer an expert opinion. She accuses the majority of “groupthink” — implying they’re sheep who have been deluded into following some sort of party line. A recent report by an independent commission that looked into the IPCC’s procedures concluded that despite some flaws, the IPCC process is fundamentally sound.

Simply by giving Judith Curry’s views a respectful airing, I’ve already drawn accusations of being irresponsible — and it’s valid to raise the question of whether giving her any sort of platform is a bad idea. I argue that her name is already in the news, and that non-scientists need useful information about her and her views.

The topics Curry raises are well within Climate Central’s purview, which is to work independently and with other media outlets to objectively communicate climate science news and information to the public. Our team of climate scientists and journalists seeks to inform the public and elevate the discussion about climate change, and this occasionally means reporting on topics that may make some of our own scientific colleagues uncomfortable.

I also argue, as you’ll see in Scientific American, that the vehement reaction of climate scientists, while perfectly understandable, might be akin to the violent reaction of the human immune system to some bacteria and viruses — a reaction that’s sometimes more damaging than the original microbe.

At our request, Scientific American has brought this story outside of the magazine’s paywall. Anyone can read it, and make their own judgment. We don’t have the ability on our own site to take reader comments (it’s in the works), but if you’d like to have your views posted here, send me an email and we’ll publish them (up to a reasonable length, and we reserve the right to edit out personal attacks, profanity and other objectionable material) as a running addendum to this blog.

I suspect people won’t be shy about doing that.