18 June 2013
Few other fields of science come under such heavy public scrutiny as climate science. Climate change deniers pick data to fit their agendas, ignoring what the science is telling us.
There is strong evidence that global warming is happening and that it is man made, despite what deniers of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW) suggest. This group of predominantly non-experts differs from both non-scientific and scientific critics who rationally question and analyse the current climate data.
Our best sources of evidence are published peer-reviewed studies by scientists conducting multiple experiments from different sources. Scientists have gathered data from arctic ice samples, land and sea temperatures, satellite measurements of temperature and energy changes and changes in sea levels. These data tell us that the temperature of the earth is increasing and that our burning of fossil fuels and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere is a significant cause.
The peer-review process is not perfect. Studies can be performed incorrectly and data can be falsified. The results don’t always stand up to to scrutiny, and the experiments can’t always be repeated. This is why it is important to continuously criticise data. For example, Richard Muller, a climate scientist, recently switched from being a strong critic to a supporter of AGW, based on his own reviewing of data and analysis of current climate models. Climate science has not been clear cut; data collection is fraught with technical difficulties and the mathematical modelling used to predict future climate trends has inherent problems, which has been fodder for deniers.
In the media, a disproportionate amount of attention is given to sceptical scientists and bloggers in the name of balance. Those unable to put aside their personal or political agendas often present a biased point of view, putting more weight on evidence and people that support their ideas and ignoring or downplaying those that contradict them. This is known as confirmation bias.
One of the most common examples of confirmation bias is cherry-picking—presenting a piece of the puzzle that supports your argument, without looking at the whole picture. David Gleason’s recent BDLive article, Carbon tax has an ozone hole in it, cites a paper by Qing-bin Lu stating that CFCs are to blame for spikes in global temperatures and says, “This new data drives a huge hole in the conventional wisdom that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the cause of a global warming crisis.” He argues that this single finding invalidates AGW. But, unlike this cherry-picked data, evidence for AGW is based on multiple studies from multiple sources. Also, this isn’t Lu’s first attempt at putting this theory forward. He’s published articles about this in the past which have not stood up to scrutiny.
Lone scientists like Lu are often touted as renegades, scoffed at by the scientific community for questioning the existing dogma. It’s called the Galileo gambit: “They made fun of Galileo, and he was right. They make fun of me, therefore I am right.”
Of course, proponents of this idea forget that Galileo’s theories were accepted within a few years by most astronomers as evidence gathered to support them, not because public opinion swayed to agree with him. For every Galileo there are many more failed mavericks. As Carl Sagan put it, “the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
Another confirmation bias is to suggest that there is a conspiracy afoot, discrediting the scientists and organisations involved. In climate science, this reared its head as a series of leaked emails between climate scientists at the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia in the UK. The conversations, which again were cherry-picked from thousands of emails and documents, have been independently analysed and shown to be harmless. Taken out of context they have been used to seed distrust in climate science and suggest that it’s run by a group of unsavoury scientists who prevent any ideas opposing theirs from being published. This view seems to be the basis for Ivo Vegter’s distrust of climate science data and his suggestion that “what climate scientists and their supporters have to say about would-be critics of a new study about the paleontological temperature record, demonstrates that the scientific method has been abandoned.”
Vegter himself is a vocal critic of the green movements’s so-called climate alarmism. While his argument for caution is valid, he blatantly discards impartiality and looks for information to fit his agenda. In a recent column he attacks climate science as “a pseudo-science”.
What Vegter refers to is a new study by Shaun Marcott that reconstructs the temperature over the past 11,300 years, expanding Michael Mann’s previous ‘hockey stick model’ that looked back 2,000 years. Vegter skilfully avoids criticising Marcott’s paper by focusing on comments made by Mann to the press about criticisms he and his colleagues expected to receive from “professional climate change deniers”. Note, not other scientists, but deniers. Vegter then uses this to argue that Marcott is trying to avoid scrutiny of his paper and because science needs to stand up to scrutiny, Marcott is abandoning the scientific method. Again, Vegter takes this quote out of context and seems to suggest that Marcott sees the attack from deniers and peer-reviewed criticism from scientists as the same thing. What is glaringly absent in Vegter’s article is valid criticism of the paper. He refers the reader to blogs by Andrew Montford, Stephen McIntyre, Ross McKitrick and Anthony Watts, all of whom oppose the idea of AWG, suggesting a bias in his source of reliable criticism. Apart from this group, there has been some careful, valuable criticism of Marcott’s paper from bloggers with mathematical or scientific training.
Another confirmation bias is to magnify the dissenters and non-experts. Gleason’s article writes off the recent study by John Cook confirming a consensus about AGW in the scientific community by referring to a Forbes article where investigative reporters denounced the study as biased. Digging deeper, you see that this “investigative reporting” involved a “random sampling” of scientists used in the study to ask them their opinions on the Cook paper. Surprisingly all of the researchers questioned disagreed with the paper and felt that they had been misrepresented. If this had been a truly unbiased, random sample, you’d expect these results to have some variation—possibly within the range of 65% that Cook reported—with at least some researchers agreeing with Cook’s finding. The fact that they all disagreed suggests that Forbes’ “random” sampling was biased. If you look even further, you’ll find that all the researchers questioned are critics of AGW!
Vegter is guilty of this bias too, presenting the ideas of critics like Stephen McIntyre and Andrew Watts while ignoring findings of bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Science (IPCC) and scientists like Phil Jones and Michael Mann, disregarding them as members of the conspiracy. Vegter states: “But in the meantime, the evidence appears to be swinging towards the sceptic camp on climate change too. That’s not anti-science. That is science.”
The erosion of the public’s understanding of climate change is a direct result of biased reporting from the likes of Ivo Vegter and Donald Gleason. But, genuine criticism of scientific work should not be avoided - there have been valid criticisms of the current climate change models, as there always will be of new data. This is the sign of healthy peer-reviewed science, which is open to scrutiny. What is crucial is to put political bias and ideological preconceptions aside and to present a complete picture of the current evidence. With climate science, the weight of evidence supports AGW.
The science of climate change is detailed and complex, which gives deniers ample chance to create confusion. Most people, even those with an interest in popular science, feel they do not have the time to invest in understanding the evidence that shows anthropogenic climate change is taking place. There are, however, easy to understand resources that present the information in a way that will give you a good, albeit basic, understanding of the evidence. Here are some webpages and recommended books, starting from short articles that will take you a couple of minutes to tracts that require your undivided time and attention:
Kerry Gordon has a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Cape Town. Her main research interest was the 3-D shape of proteins and their function, ranging from ones involved in blood pressure regulation to HIV proteins that enable transmission. She is currently a scientific editor for a medical publisher. You can follow her on Twitter: @Kerry_Gordon