One of the central problems of keeping a level head in the climate wars is maintaining the bipartisan bandwidth of one's sense of humor.
Either side emits enough nonsense in a month to drive a case-hardened Hollywood gag writer to conceptual burnout . With world-saving ideologues and K-Street gunsels working overtime to ridicule each others worst efforts, the underlying comedy of manners rarely surfaces, for the professional propagandists on both sides are focus group driven, and bent on catering to down-market factoid demand.
With policy agendas to sell, the advertising and PR shops interest in scientific nuance is negligible, because while quantitative coherence is a nominal prerequisite for peer-reviewed publication , 95% of the electorate has never picked up a copy of Science or Nature , and 99 % couldn't make heads or tails of their contents if they did.
It follows that for all practical purposes , all scientific papers are created equal. Forget the indices of citation that funding agencies go by. In adressing polemics to a scientifically illiterate audience , there is no difference between views voiced in a letter to the Proceedings of the Oregan Academy of Biology or The Biafran Academy of Theosophy and a review article in say , The Proceedings of The National Academy of Science. Worse, it is a mere fact of the sociology of science that activists gravitate to often partisan foundation funding . When that gives rise to organized science journalism , serious journals that feature science news atop their scholarly content can become strange attractors of political commitment.
The resulting asymmetry of discourse is only exacerbated when ,as is the present case in America, one side or party throws in the towel and goes off to concentrate its meager resources in a separate constellation of think-tanks that focus on reading each other's publications to the exclusion of the scientific literature at large.What they engender in competition with more established media is best seen by comparing the scientific memes of PBS with the gonzo alternatives adduced by Talk Radio.
It has long been observed that there is no scientific hypothesis so absurd that two Nobel laureates cannot be found to endorse it . There is likewise no paper touching upon the climate wars so daft that one side or the other will not deem it ready for prime time. It is hard to say which is more damning- Republican failure to discriminate between serious and silly objections to the left's agenda-driven take on climate science , or the Democrat's refusal to acknowledge the polemic overkill of its own political spokesmen.
Last week, Bill Moyers was joined by Harvard's avuncular doyen of biology, E.O. Wilson in a PBS aimed at calming the confrontation of science and religion. The sincerity of Wilson's respect for the Southern Baptist milleu of his childhood makes one wonder what science could possibly add to the Ten Commandments? High on the stone tablets the Greens are offering are :
Thou Shalt Not Use Fire and
Thou Shat Not Covet Another Species Ecological Niche.
I'd favor one more modestly focused on science as a manifestation of human nature :
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Own Hypothesis.
Consider modeling climate change. Available computer power is rising rising faster than global temperatures, and The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change has spent decades developing climate models that are supposed to definitively inform environmental policy around the world. Forget about the politics what the models need to gain policy traction is the proven ability to reproduce what climate actually did in the twentieth century ,in orderto render plausible their predictions of what the interaction of the atmosphere and human civilization will yield in centuries to come . But though past records of rising greenhouse gases cab help track real climate history, the economic history of centuries to come remains unknowable . Lord knows what posterity will do.
In Nature Reports Climate Change , Stephen E. Schwartz et al. consider the 14 models the IPCC has relied upon. They conclude they did a respectable job of relating the rise of greenhouse gases in the last century to observed warming, but note that that does not translate into cerain knowledge of the future. In this figure, the violet band of model results coincides well with the black line showing the century's actual warming , and lies well above the blue band of simulations run with model atmosphere's free of human emissions.
Figure 1 Not so certain. The uncertainty range in the modeled warming (red bar) is only half the uncertainty range (orange) of human influences. Graph courtesy of AAAS , as adapted from Schwartz Et Al.,
But Schwartz told Robert Kerr of Science last week that:' the close match between models and the actual warming is deceptive. The match "conveys a lot more confidence [in the models] than can be supported in actuality," says Schwartz.' The Nature Reports Climate Change paper notes the range of simulated warmings-- the width of the purple band--- to be only half as large as the large range of uncertainty in the parameter and variables driving climate change in the computer simulations.
"Climate scientists are used to skeptics taking potshots at their favorite line of evidence for global warming. It comes with the territory." observes Kerr, "But now a group of mainstream atmospheric scientists is disputing a rising icon of global warming, and researchers are giving some ground... Greenhouse-gas changes are well known, they note, but not so the counteracting cooling of pollutant hazes, called aerosols. Aerosols cool the planet by reflecting away sunlight and increasing the reflectivity of clouds. Somehow, the three researchers say, modelers failed to draw on all the uncertainty inherent in aerosols so that the 20th-century simulations look more certain than they should."
Modeler Jeffrey Kiehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, reached the same conclusion by a different route... He found that the more sensitive a model was, the stronger the aerosol cooling that drove the model. The net result of having greater sensitivity compensated by a greater aerosol effect was to narrow the apparent range of uncertainty, as Schwartz and his colleagues note.
"I don't want certain interests to claim that modelers are dishonest," says Kiehl. "That's not what's going on. Given the range of uncertainty, they are trying to get the best fit [to observations] with their model." That's simply a useful step toward using a model for predicting future warming. IPCC modelers say they never meant to suggest they have a better handle on uncertainty than they do. They don't agree on how aerosols came to narrow the apparent range of uncertainty, but they do agree that 20th-century simulations are not IPCC's best measure of uncertainty... It would seem... IPCC could improve its communication of climate science."
Amen to that. But how ? A lot of things are subject to change in response to human intervention. Some results are proverbial no-brainers, others utterly unpredictable. But this much is certain- human language is malleable. If policy goals drive research funding, scientific results will tend to converge in ways amenable to the justification of policy, because Big Bureaucracy tends to get what it pays for and pay for what it gets, scientific services included. The same iron laws and revolving doors observed to plague defense procurement around the world are in effect in the domain of climate policy. Or for that matter , dog or pigeon breeding.
Lord knows what climate modelers would come up with if they were all independently wealthy. Left to their own devices , pooches are observed in a matter of a few generations to converge on a sort of golden mean- your basic yellow dog, as found in tail wagging packs everywhere from the Australian outback to the urban jungles of the Bronx. But human communities of interest, from the American Kennel Club to the International Panel on Climate Change have ideas of their own.
The results can be a bewildering, but by no means mindless proliferation of decidedly unnatural results, from Paris Hilton's long-suffering string of Chihuahuas to gargantuan Saint Bernards and Irish Setters likely to be knocked over by a stiff breeze. They all are dogs, products of nature and nurture, yet no global model of doggy population ecology would predict their arising from what people do to the environment. They represent not the science of evolution, but human taste. The same can be said for what goes into climate models , for the unpredictable taste of future generations in technology-- and economics-- will determine what gets added to , or extracted from , the atmosphere as human civilization evolves.
Considering that scientists brag lees about climate model's modest gifts of prophecy than do politician, a Twelfth Commandment seems in order-- Thou Shalt Not Declare A Scientific Debate Over Before It Has Fairly Begun. Let us call this "The Precautionary Principle." I realize that his expression has been floated before, but like the information superhighway, it requires constant reinvention to remain of practical utility.