by Judith Curry
Documenting, understanding and predicting climate variability and change is an issue of substantial scientific and socioeconomic importance. The IPCC put forth a strategy for assessing the science that is based upon reducing uncertainty and building a consensus. This consensus was used to convince the public and policy makers of the IPCC’s scientific findings, which were linked with the UNFCCC treaties and policies to urge action on carbon stabilization. The partial success of this strategy was reflected by the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC.
Failures of this strategy in terms of the actual science are to overly focus the science on one aspect of the climate problem, marginalize dissenting voices, polarize the scientific community, and alienate a large segment of the educated public who have the desire, interest, logic, and often the mathematical and physical science skills to understand and even contribute to the science.
There is a really good article in the Guardian by Andrew Holding. Ignore the title and brief summary below the title, and read the main article. Some excerpts:
The body of science is like a branching tree of concepts and theories: those at the trunk of the tree are concepts for which there is little debate, such as the existence of gravity or that the world is round, while the periphery of the tree is where the research happens, where new ideas develop and grow or die, and as the evidence gets stronger so the branch thickens.
In contrast, issues are presented to the public as if they are black or white. Headlines often read as if scientists have proved or disproved a whole subject in a single study. In reality, topics are sets of theories that evolve over time with the advancement of knowledge. The important thing to understand, though, is that the core of the research is generally a constant; it’s the fine details that keep developing and moving forward.
Of course, sometimes, a result will shatter preconceived ideas, but this is incredibly uncommon. When it does happen, it is also normally the result that will define an individual’s career, not something to be covered up.
If we want people to respect the scientific community and understand its own confidence in its output, we have to also accept that it’s not the individual scientists or skeptics who hold weight. We need to tear down the ivory towers of the past and remove the walls dividing the public and academia. Journals need to be open, and in complex cases, such as the evidence for climate change, we need to provide the skills and tools that people need to discover the answers for themselves. If we ask them to to accept our viewpoints just because we are the experts, we have already lost. We would be no different than anyone who stands on a pedestal and proclaims the truth.
Climate change is a massively complex topic and it is often assumed that dissemination of the body of evidence is beyond the understanding of the public. Professor Andy Parker, who is leading the ATLAS project in Cambridge, recently stated “[We should] give the public a bit more credit, they may not have the mathematical training, but they have the desire, interest and logic to understand”. If Andy believes he can explain the theories behind something as complex and abstract as subatomic particle physics to a lay audience, we should take note.
Scientific inquiry will not always provide the right answers first but, unlike other methods, it will eventually get there even if it has to admit its mistakes. There is plenty that we don’t know yet, but what we do know is that, given the same resources, tools and time, there is no reason for the public to disagree with the established consensus.
Pushing the “restart” button
The importance and complexity of the problem of climate variability and change means that we need “all hands on deck.” Given the disarray of the past year on the climate change issue, the time is ripe for raising the level of the game and there is an opportunity to push the “restart” button. Lets toss ideas around for what this would look like, here are a few of mine:
• Acknowledge that the climate variability and change problem is massively complex, and that expertise from researchers from a wide range of scientific, engineering, mathematical, statistical and computational fields are needed, in addition to social scientists and philosophers of science. Stop marginalizing scientists that do not belong to a certain “club” of climate researchers, such as attempted by the PNAS article. Actively encourage collaborations between climate scientists and those from these other fields. This can be accomplished through incentives from national funding agencies, and the blogosphere can play a major role in facilitating these connections.
• Make all scientific journals publicly available. Require all publications to make their data publicly available with adequate metadata. Migrate towards open (online) discussion journals, where reviews are made public.
• Establish an information system with climate data records, that include both raw and processed data sets with uncertainty estimates and the supporting documentation to explain the processing and uncertainty assessment. The data should be easily accessible and searchable with ontologies and semantic search.
• Stop using a laundry list of evidence and a consensus in place of explaining how the climate system actually works. The fact that the public, not to mention a group of scientists, do not understand how the atmospheric greenhouse effect works is an indictment of our education on this topic. I just received notice of publication of a new book entitled “Slaying the Sky Dragon – Death of the Greenhouse Gas Theory.” I haven’t read the book, but the contents are fairly predictable from the list of authors, and the contents undoubtedly include that the atmospheric greenhouse effect is physically impossible. Explain the greenhouse effect on two different levels: one without mathematics, and a more technical version (and don’t use an actual greenhouse; talk about molecules selectively absorbing and emitting certain wavelengths of radiation, and moving around and bumping into to other molecules.) Design some simple experiments. Make youtube movies, etc.
• Fully documented verification and validation of climate models.
• Rethink how the overall scientific arguments are being made. This includes reasoning about uncertainty in a much more sophisticated way, and the organization of evidence, relations, and hypotheses using influence diagrams, hierarchical hypothesis models, etc.
• Figure out how to better use the blogosphere to enable large-scale collective intelligence to address the scientific challenges, including open source and crowd source.
• other ideas?