by Judith Curry
Keith Seitter is Executive Director of the American Meteorological Society.
Each month, in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), Keith Seitter writes a column “45 Beacon: Letter from Headquarters.” The December issue of BAMS arrived in our mailboxes about two weeks ago, and for this issue, Keith Seitter elected to write his column on our uncertainty monster paper.
The column is not available online, although an image is posted at Pielke Sr’s site. I think this column deserves a wider audience, so I have reproduced it in entirety here.
Dealing Honestly with Uncertainties in Our Understanding of Climate Change
Earlier this year, I wrote of trying to neutralize the language associated with global warming (BAMS, April 2011, p 497). At that time, I suggested that I would be using the terms “convinced” and “unconvinced” to describe those who had been convinced by the evidence that anthropogenic climate change was occurring and those who had not been convinced. So far, I have found this terminology pretty easy to incorporate in my writing and speaking, and I find it works pretty well.
Shortly after that column appeared, I received a note from a long-time AMS member who rightly suggested that I had overly simplified the situation. As he noted, there are scientists who are convinced that humans are affecting climate in significant ways but who feel that anthropogenic influences other than the increase in greenhouse gases, such as aerosols, land use changes, etc., can play a larger role than typically acknowledged. The scientists studying these other human influences — despite being among those I would refer to as among the “convinced” — sometimes find their work discounted, or even marginalized, since their results complicate the simpler picture of increasing greenhouse gases representing the only major anthropogenic forcing term for a changing climate.
Scientists generally welcome any avenue of research that is carried out with integrity and scientific rigor — especially when the results of that research challenge our thinking. It has become harder to maintain that ideal objective stance with respect to the science of climate change because of the politically charged atmosphere that now surrounds the topic. Results that complicate the picture, or that explore more deeply the uncertainties in our knowledge, are quickly seized by some as evidence that the research results on the role of greenhouse gases in the warming of the planet must be wrong. In such a confrontational environment, the discomfort we all feel in the face of uncertainty can make it hard to avoid compromising our scientific objectivity.
In this issue, Judith Curry and Peter Webster present a provocative paper on “uncertainty monsters.” Many climate scientists will be angered by this paper, feeling that it undermines the consensus reports and calls their results into question. Many in the unconvinced crowd will hail this paper as justifying their position, and it will probably be widely quoted on the blogs devoted to arguing that anthropogenic global warming does not exist. Neither should be the case. The climate science community should view this as an opportunity to discuss the approaches to uncertainty that have been employed (as also occurs in this issue), but all of us in the scientific community should also appreciate the reminder that our desire to develop a self-consistent and coherent picture sometimes impedes our ability to work toward unraveling the full complexity of the climate system. The unconvinced crowd should see this paper as promoting a standard of scientific honest that most of ther blogs and opinion pieces simply cannot meet.
I have enormous faith in the scientific process, and feel that the discussions generated through challenges such as that provide in the Curry and Webster paper will lead to increased understanding. Because of the policy decisions the world faces given the potential for truly disruptive climate change, climate science is playing out in a very public and politicized arena, and that makes it harder for the scientific process to move forward in a natural way. We can and should be merciless in our condemnation of unscientific noise that seeks to obscure real scientific results, but we must also embrace legitimate science that seeks to increase our understanding even as it complicates the emerging picture of how the climate system works. We all must continue to work toward insuring that we are operating with the very highest levels of openness and honesty in the presentation of our science.
Keith L. Seitter, CCM Executive Director
JC comment: I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting essay on the topic of the ‘uncertainty monster.’ If you have missed the previous threads, see