Climate scientists behaving badly? Part 6: Conclusion

One of the consequences of the epistemic corruption of the climate issue is that by criticising the failings in epistemic duty of these scientists I will be seen as having taken a side. But there are no sides on factual issues: there are just the facts. Once we see a factual question in terms of sides to belong to, as if it were a matter of politics or war, we have allowed our vision to be distorted—usually by an ideological approach to value.

 

On the first order issue of the facts of the climate I do not feel obliged to take a position. Both hawks and skeptics offer evidence and arguments. The evidence is sometimes murky and the inferences subtle. Both sides can exploit our ignorance of the complex statistical techniques needed for analysing the data; either may use them to reveal the truth or torture the evidence till it says what they want, and we can’t tell the difference. Even where methodology is not complex, it is very hard for us laymen to weigh the relative significance of the points and counterpoints. For example, we have records of increasing temperature readings from measuring stations, significant numbers of which are poorly maintained and sited, such as being sited next to air conditioning outlets. Clearly there is a problem with that data, but it is a further empirical question to determine to what extent the data is degraded by the faults and whether that degrading merely weakens or substantially defeats the claim of warming based on it. And this is about the simplest example. The whole issue is riddled with such imponderables for anyone who is not going to learn a great deal more about climate science than most of us can or should. For these reasons, laymen should not hold strong opinions about the first order facts at issue. Insofar as we must have some opinion, we must. attend not only to the first order claims and counterclaims but also to the epistemic character of those making the claims, to the epistemic character of the environs within which they are working, to question of the reliability of expert testimony and finally, to the epistemic character of the public debate. Here I have been concerned with epistemic character, but I note before moving on that expert testimony is considerably less reliable than we might hope, and especially unreliable about complex systems (see Tetlock  Expert Political Judgement).

 

The evidence I have summarised is, I believe, sufficient to conclude that climate science has fallen prey to a corruption of its epistemic character. Not only did the individuals fail in various epistemic duties; they did not regard their faults as vices, but rather, as virtues, and knew that their activities were quite acceptable with the field. The individuals concerned are eminent in the field and the institution is a central one within climate science. The same faults have been manifested by other climate scientists in other circumstances. So this is not a matter of individual human foible and weakness. The epistemic virtues of science, when practised, are sufficient to protect science from those. No. The defects are sufficiently severe and pervasive to have resulted in epistemic corruption.


Since the East Anglian CRU emails were first revealed another source of evidence for that conclusion has been reported. It has now turned out that many of the headline grabbing[1] claims in the IPCC’s 2007 report were false: the prediction that Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035, [2] that 40% of the Amazon rainforest will be lost,[3] that African crop yields will be halved by 2020, [4] [5] that sea levels are  rising quickly and that extreme weather events are more frequent.[6]

Let me be clear about the problem from our perspective here. It is not that these claims were false. That would not matter at all if the basing of the claims had been sound. We might simply have had a lot of misleading evidence. Nor would it matter if they were true. The problem is that these claims had no basis in the refereed literature (clearly a double standard: hawks have repeatedly rejected any skeptical criticism that is not published in the refereed literature), in some cases no basis in any literature at all, and that what basis they had was at best dubious and at worst spurious. No science of sound epistemic character would tolerate such claims made in its name.

 

When we consider the epistemic character of the public debate I think we have to conclude that it has been corrupted by the corruption in climate science. It is, for example, quite extraordinary that the IPCC should be publishing the 2007 report about which its own expert reviewer, Andrew Lacis, should comment:

There is no scientific merit to be found in the Executive Summary. The presentation sounds like something put together by Greenpeace activists and their legal department. The points being made are made arbitrarily with legal sounding caveats without having established any foundation or basis in fact. The Executive Summary seems to be a political statement that is only designed to annoy greenhouse skeptics. Wasn't the IPCC Assessment Report intended to be a scientific document that would merit solid backing from the climate science community – instead of forcing many climate scientists into having to agree with greenhouse skeptic criticisms that this is indeed a report with a clear and obvious political agenda. Attribution can not happen until understanding has been clearly demonstrated. Once the facts of climate change have been established and understood, attribution will become self-evident to all. The Executive Summary as it stands is beyond redemption and should simply be deleted.[7]

 

The public debate has been further poisoned by the intolerance and bigotry of ideological activists, who follow a policy of shutting down debate and disagreement as part of a general strategy to coerce belief. The activists have been aided and abetted by epistemic corruption in some parts of the media. The corruption in the media is evident from the attitude expressed by David Adams of the Guardian when he said that ‘I used to think skeptics were bad and mad but now the bad people (lobbyists for fossil fuel industries) had gone, leaving only the mad.’ Later at the same event, he said ‘The meaning of skeptic is very specific.  It’s not taxi drivers or people who don’t want to pay higher electricity bills.  It’s someone who knows better and takes a contrary view for pathological reasons’.[8]  If he has redefined ‘skeptic’ in this way there is no more reason to take what he says seriously than we should take Humpty Dumpty seriously when he talks about glory. The redefinition is simply a device by which intolerance evades gainsaying. For this environmental correspondent there is no room for disagreement, no room for doubt. There is just submission to the required belief.

 

And this takes me on to the final point I want to make. Much of the debate is not well understood in terms of scientific disagreement. What we see is something quite different. All the passions of faith are mobilised. Belief in global warming is a creed to be affirmed: denial is heresy: heretics are anathematized.

 

Faith has its own epistemic character, a character that answers to those needs in us it satisfies. We value community and harmony in belief. We use belief to signal our allegiance and moral worthiness. Disagreement undermines community and harmony and is experienced by believers as painful and threatening. Denial is taken as proof of disloyalty and moral turpitude. Disagreement and denial, however, are at the heart of science. Science doesn’t simply tolerate disagreement: science institutionalises disagreement. As a consequence, the epistemic characters of faith and science are opposed to one another.

 

Whether faith has a proper role in life, and whether therefore its epistemic character is epistemically virtuous, is not a question I can address here. In my opinion,  science is superior to faith in the natural realm, and by that I don’t mean only superior to religious faith, for in speaking of faith I am not speaking of any specific content of belief, but of a way of believing, a way that appears to be easy and comfortable for us.  I mean that science is superior because the epistemic character of faith is not virtuous in the natural realm. Beliefs about the natural facts should not be creeds.  Insofar as we need to know the facts about the climate, faith has erupted where it does not belong and its epistemic character has corrupted the epistemic integrity of science.


[1] “The glaciers on the Himalayas are retreating….We’re facing the risk of extreme runoff, with water running straight into the Bay of Bengal and taking a lot of topsoil with it. A few hundred square miles of the Himalayas are the source for all the major rivers of Asia—the Ganges, the Yellow River, the Yangtze—where three billion people live. That’s almost half the world’s population.” Lord Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/utilities/2791116/Water-crisis-to-be-biggest-world-risk.html

“Amazon rainforest at risk of ecological catastrophe. Climate change could kill the Amazon rainforest even if deforestation and emissions are curbed, scientists at the met Office fear”. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/4976275/Amazon-rainforest-at-risk-of-ecological-catastrophe.html

[3] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7009705.ece. More on it here http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2010/01/corruption-of-science.html

[4] http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch9s9-es.html

[5] The most important is a claim that global warming could cut rain-fed north African crop production by up to 50% by 2020, a remarkably short time for such a dramatic change. The claim has been quoted in speeches by Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, and by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general. This weekend Professor Chris Field, the new lead author of the IPCC’s climate impacts team, told told The Sunday Times that he could find nothing in the report to support the claim. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7017907.ece

[6] Landsea, together with top US hurricane researchers, published a study that finally disproves the supposed link between hurricanes and global warming. The study concludes with the assessment that "tropical cyclone frequency is likely to either decrease or remain essentially the same." http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,686697-6,00.html

[7] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/7798293?n=17

[8] at the Workshop arranged by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), the School of Geography and Environment and the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University, and the British Council, as noted by Simon Anthony

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6 Responses to Climate scientists behaving badly? Part 6: Conclusion

  • Statto says:

    I don’t think the epistemic virtues of this article would stand up to the scrutiny it claims to apply to climate science! A quick visit to Google may have turned up the following…

    Anthony Watts’s attempt to discredit the temperature record because of poor positioning of monitoring stations actually showed that they were rather good.
    http://climatechange.thinkaboutit.eu/think2/post/arch_denialist_scores_own_goal/

    Only two of your claimed ‘errors’ are really errors, and to call them headline claims is deeply misleading when certainly the Himalayan glaciers claim was not even included in the Summary for Policymakers, let alone in any ‘headlines’. (All three Working Groups’ reports are freely available online if you wish to check whether the other claims are given more prominence.)
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/02/ipcc-errors-facts-and-spin/

    Lacis was talking about an early draft of the summary, and he is now basically in agreement with its revised contents.
    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/02/andrew_bolt_doesnt_know_or_car.php

    None of these errors make David Adams’s comments acceptable, but he is a journalist and not a climate scientist. Disagreement is not anathema within the scientific community—it is precisely what scientists do all day, every day. Indeed, ‘if a scientist finds something that appears to conflict with mainstream opinion, she or he publishes it like a shot—this is not the behaviour of an adherent to a “genuinely held philosophical belief”.’
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/nov/05/climate-change-ruling-beyond-belief-religion

  • You have said much to little about the epistemic ethical problems of those scientists attacking the main stream consensus view on the basis of the content of emails. Although skepticism is a virtue in science, it must play by the epistemic norms of science and therefore the skeptics need to be held to epistemic standards themselves. This would require that the skeptics make there comments open to peer review that satisfies the epistemic norms of that science. The email controversy is notable for the ferocity of the attacks made about the content of emails and claims that the emails demonstrate problems with the consensus view without being held to the epistemic norms being demanded of the mainstream scientists. If anything, I think the email scandal is notable for demonstrating the need to establish norms about public comments on peer reviewed science.

  • jimspice says:

    It should be noted that the Times has retracted their story: from http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article196428.ece.

    The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change. In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

  • As I understand it this retraction makes no sense. The claim by the IPCC, widely publicised, was that climate change was threatening the survival of up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest. This was supposed to be on the basis that “up to 40 per cent of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to only a slight reduction in precipitation” (IPCC ch.13). Although the retraction quoted says that the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence, none of that evidence, if it exists, was cited by IPCC at the time, nor is it cited by the Sunday Times.

    The source cited by the IPCC 2007 report was a report from WWF in 2000. That is not a peer reviewed source. The 2000 WWF report cited a peer reviewed paper by Nepstad in Nature, but apparently that paper found that ‘logging companies in Amazonia kill or damage 10-40 per cent of the living biomass of forests’ which clearly has nothing to do with climate change threatening 40% of the Amazon. WWF later said that its 2000 report ‘did not say that 40% of the Amazon forest is at risk from climate change’.

    The state of play today is that the hawks have been challenged to cite peer reviewed papers that specifically support the 40% claim. They have not met that challenge. The responses I have seen have been irrelevant and evasive. For example, Nepstad cites his 1994 Nature paper which is about the effect of severe seasonal droughts so cannot support the claim about the effect of a slight reduction in precipitation.

  • Statto says:

    A quick Internet search shows that the IPCC citation was in error and that the WWF report’s citations were incomplete. There are peer-reviewed papers supporting the claim, and the IPCC’s failure to cite them was an honest mistake, one or two of which are frankly unsurprising in a 3,000-page document.

    That The Times didn’t reference anything is a lamentable reflection on science journalists not citing primary sources, but hardly surprising as this is not common practice.

    Further info:
    http://www.whrc.org/resources/essays/pdf/2010-02-Nepstad_Amazon.pdf

    In addition, you haven’t addressed any of the points I raised in my original comment; it still looks as though your calls for epistemic virtue are somewhat asymmetric.

  • The source for the IPCC’s claim that “up to 40 per cent of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to only a slight reduction in precipitation” (IPCC ch.13) has been traced back from the WWF report (not peer reviewed) to a website (for details see http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2010/07/amazongate-smoking-gun.html).

    So the state of play remains that this claim has not been shown to have been supported by peer reviewed scientific evidence. Furthermore, research has now been published that tends to contradict it.

    “the primary production in the tropics is not so strongly dependent on the amount of rain…. we need to therefore critically scrutinize the forecasts of some climate models which predict the Amazon will die as the world gets drier.” http://www.mpg.de/english/illustrationsDocumentation/documentation/pressReleases/2010/pressRelease201007041/index.html

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