Alchemy vs. science
Critics laid in wait for new climate report
A comedian once said that the U.S. is a society in which people believe in UFOs but think the moon landing was faked.
Little wonder that science critics were in battle mode even before the new Sept. 27 and Sept. 30 reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were released. Those reports, six years in the making, were released last week and this, and critics were already attacking them without reading them, prompting science advocates to respond.
In an unsigned article, for instance, Fox News “reported” that the IPCC study found that “the planet has largely stopped warming over the past 15 years, data shows—and a landmark report released Friday by the U.N.’s climate group could not explain why the mercury has stopped rising.” That’s because the warming has not stopped rising, and—contrary to the Fox claim—the IPCC did not say it has. What it said was that the rate of increase of warming has slowed, but that warming continues.
At the website for KTVN in Reno, a news release for the International Climate Science Coalition was posted that claims “the balance of the evidence indicates that dangerous human-caused climate change is not happening.” The ICSC is funded in part by the Heartland Institute, which in turn is funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute. The ICSC also has ties to Australian coal and mining figures.
Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Thomas Mitchell penned a piece suggesting that global warming would be good for society by driving farming north.
At the website of Nevadans for Clean Affordable Reliable Energy, meanwhile, an article appeared with the headline, “IPCC climate change report out soon—denialists shift to overdrive.” The site lists as member organizations several groups, mostly environmental, such as the Bristlecone Alliance and Western Resource Advocates, plus the Nevada Chapter of American Institute of Architects.
Salon and Mother Jones published lists of the climate myths critics would be likely to employ in trying to discredit the new IPCC report.
The IPCC is a United Nations-created body established to sort out conflicting claims on climate change and provide reliable scientific assessments on the topic, as well as identify any environmental or social-economic consequences and make recommendations. It does not produce original research. Its periodic reports—five have been issued since 1990—are the result of surveys of all the current scientific reports and consultations with scientists in most nations. More than 2,000 scientists work on the IPCC reports. The second IPCC report in 1995 reported that it was more than 50 percent likely that humans were contributing to global warming. As more and more research has been done, that view has been reinforced. The 2001 report raised that figure to 66 percent. The 2007 report made it 90 percent. The new report has it at 95 percent.
Before each report is released, its paragraphs are projected on screens and approved by delegates from all participating nations. Nothing is released without such approval, a process that tends to make the report more cautious and conservative than most scientists would have it. The last report, in 2007, was initially enormously influential in swaying public opinion, according to opinion surveys (“Global warming comes home,” RN&R, Feb. 8, 2007).
That gain was sharply undercut by the 2009 release by hackers of thousands of emails and computer files of climate scientists that, when quoted selectively, suggested the scientists were cynically manipulating data. Eight subsequent investigations found no wrongdoing or evidence undercutting climate science. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was critical of the “selectively edited, out-of-context” use made of the material. But the news coverage of the aftermath of the dispute was minor compared to that given to the initial distorted interpretations.
More substantive but less publicized after the 2007 report was the publication in 2010 of Merchants of Doubt by scientist and science historian Naomi Oreskes and NASA historian Erik Conway. The book threw a spotlight on the activities of several scientists—all of them physicists, not climate scientists—who were prominent in trying to discredit climate science. (Actually, they might be termed former scientists, because few in the group had done primary research in years or decades.) The group, including Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, Fred Seitz, and William Nierenberg, were shown by the authors to have long contrarian histories of trying to discredit science on tobacco, tobacco smoke, acid rain and ozone depletion even before they challenged climate change, often while receiving funding from industry or industry fronts. Singer currently has a Nevada forum writing for Range magazine, based in Washoe Valley.
Sociologist James Richardson said such gadflys, even when funded by industry, perform a function in spreading misinformation.
“They’re furnishing legitimacy,” he said. “They serve a wonderful and important function of legitimacy. People don’t have to understand things as long as they can say somebody with a PhD agrees with them. …You get a renegade in some kind of field, and they can get a lot of attention.”
While science critics get considerable attention, the work of climate scientists proceeds undisturbed, and in policymaking it is the scientists, not their critics, who are relied on. Most state governments use IPCC figures in dealing with planning. Delaware, for instance, last year produced a study of problems it faces from higher tides. Science critics are not usually players in such policymaking. Nor does the criticism usually penetrate the scientific community, where the issue is regarded as settled and much research has turned to other aspects of the problem.
In journalism circles, there is growing criticism of “false equivalence” in news coverage. “[S]ome scientists challenge global warming, but the vast preponderance doesn’t,” Carl Sessions Stepp wrote in June in the American Journalism Review. “So an article that quotes one expert on each side is misleading. One should be scrupulous and always open to new evidence. But if sufficient research shows the evidence seems to lie more in one direction than another, journalists should present the findings proportionately.”
Richardson said the development of a small faction of people who are skeptical of reliable inf ormation in the face of overwhelming evidence is frequently driven by estrangement.
“I think what happens is people just end up isolating themselves and communicating only with people who agree with them and reinforcing each other,” he said. “And there are occasional slip-ups like the email scandal of two or three years ago, but basically it’s just self-selected social isolation and reinforcement.”
He said such figues assign truth to themselves and do not concede that their adversaries may also have truth on their side. Richardson also said they always have reasons for cherry-picking data, accepting information they agree with but finding reasons not to accept information they do not agree with.
“It’s dogma that gets reinforced. They never accept any contrary facts. They find ways of discounting them. If all else fails, they can do the ad hominem copout and say, ’Well, it’s so-and-so who said that, so we know he’s lying, so he doesn’t have the truth’ or what not.”