Archive for the ‘climate change’ Category

Temptation to Betray the Scientific Process

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Any properly trained scientist is uncomfortably embarrassed with the assertion that the science is in on global climate change. Science is inherently provisional, open to new ideas and new data. Scientific revolutions have been the consequence of new data that needed to be explained. Sometimes these new interpretations undermine established theory. A Newtonian approach to understanding the universe was largely consistent with observed data, particularly, for example, the motion of the planets. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries,  the photo-electric effect, X-rays and other radiation, and spectral lines emitted from heated materials, all created observations that could not be explained with conventional physics. Out of these measurements and new interpretations grew the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

The science underpinning global climate change is no different. In the 1970’s, scientists were concerned about global cooling. Additional measurements and careful theoretical modeling form a solid basis for concluding now that the Earth is warming in some important measure due to human introduction of additional green house gases into the atmosphere. Nonetheless, there are important questions to be addressed. In the last 10 years there has been a mild global cooling that is difficult to model. Additional work is necessary to understand potential feedback mechanisms that could either accelerate or modulate global warming. Long-term temperature measurements are constructed from proxies, such as tree ring diameters. Honest efforts at these reconstructions can either produce the famous “hockey stick” graph showing an unprecedentedly high global temperatures or roughly analogous temperatures in the Medieval Warm period. The latter graph might suggest a larger role for natural variability in the current period of temperatures.

If man is responsible for  climate changes with negative consequences like sea level rise, it is incumbent on humans to address the problem. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions will increase the cost of energy and very likely reduce economic growth, increase unemployment, and reduce living standards. It is, therefore, rational to balance these consequences against the consequences and possible uncertainty in global climate change. It is in taking positions with regard to this tradeoff that can tempt scientists to circumvent the the scientific process.

Recently, the e-mail server at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, a scientific institution at the forefront of climate research, was hacked. Some the correspondence was made available on line. Some of the e-mails are incriminating, writing of “tricks” to hide the recent decline in temperature. Perhaps most damning are discussions about pressuring journals in the peer review process, keeping articles from consideration by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and refusing to make data available to skeptics of global warming. Although is hard to conceive of contexts that would make these e-mails less damning, we need to acknowledge that this possibility still exists. We shall see what time reveals.

The revealed e-mails suggest less that a climate warming hoax is being perpetrated, and more that the correspondents wanted to make sure that modest scientific disputes are not used to undermine in the public mind a general consensus about global warming. Since climate analysis and modeling is a new science, there will be anomalies and discrepancies that are difficult to explain with theory. The fear among some is that this natural scientific uncertainty and debate will hide an overall generally-accepted conclusion that the Earth is warming.

It is the appropriate scientific (rather than political) disposition that the aggressive and even combative review of data and analysis, especially by skeptics, enhances rather than subverts scientific inquiry. We can be most sure of results if they have passed through such gauntlets. By appearing to eschew to the ethos of open inquiry, these analysts have undermined rather than enhanced the ability to persuade policy makers of the importance of global warming. Worst, they have made publicly suspect people involved in climate research with results similar to theirs.