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If you pay attention to our mistakes, the world will end

February 3, 2010

There has been quite a bit of negative coverage of the IPCC these days. Add to that a fairly high-profile “tour” of Australia by the Grand-Daddy of all Skeptics, Lord Monckton, and you can see how climate scientists might begin to feel a little demoralized. But I worry that their reaction to these circumstances will only make things worse, as they demonstrate time and time again the same “us vs. them” crusader attitude that made certain individuals look quite silly in the wake of the CRU email scandal.

Here is a fascinating example of a scientist accusing people of playing politics, ignoring or downplaying evidence, and misrepresenting reality. In the process of making these claims, he proceeds to play politics, ignore or downplay evidence, and misrepresent reality.

This article on ABC News quotes Professor Andy Pitman, IPCC author and co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales at length. The speech provides insight into how climate scientists view themselves, and how they view their “opponents.”

“Climate scientists are losing the fight with the sceptics,” he said.

if scientists lose the climate change debate, it would be “potentially catastrophic”.

Fortunately, Pitman is absolutely wrong when he implies that the fate of the world depends on the triumph of scientists over skeptics in this endless war of words. To take Australia as an example:

  • Both major political parties see climate legislation as crucial to their success. The argument is simply about how to do it.
  • Desalination plants are opening all over the country with “offsets” for the added energy consumption.
  • Extensive federal, state, and local efforts to develop adaptation plans are under way.
  • The government is making investments in clean coal and other energy technology development.

These and other Australian policies may or may not turn out to be effective in dealing with climate change. But the problem is not the loud voices of skeptics, nor the outcome of scientist-skeptic battles.

Our speaker also warns us that focusing on mistakes in IPCC reports is just giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Professor Pitman says sceptics have used the IPCC’s error to skew the climate change debate.

…”After two years, people have been going over that report with considerable care and have found a couple of errors of fact in a 1600-page document.

“I mean, we ought to be talking about the other 1599 pages that no one has found any problems with.”

Let’s think more carefully about what is being recommended here. He wants us to ignore troubling lapses in the IPCC’s peer review process which led to misleading or even false statements in the final report (e.g. glaciers, disaster losses, amazon rainfall, and mountain ice). These are statements meant to inform government policies worldwide, which turned out to be questionable and/or misleading. That injects a certain degree of irony into the following statement:

“They are doing a superb job at misinforming and miscommunicating the general public, state and federal governments.”

Wait, Professor Pitman, you’re still talking about the skeptics, right?

In all seriousness, I still think there is a lot of good information in the IPCC report. But the best response to such criticisms would be to own up to them and show a genuine commitment to doing better in the future. Minimizing them may seem like a good political tactic on the short term, but in the end, how can it do anything but diminish the credibility of the IPCC? This “never give an inch; never admit your mistakes” attitude feels a lot more like politics than science.

Pitman’s description of the two groups in this debate show disdain and intolerance:

“The sceptics are so well funded, so well organised. “They have nothing else to do. They don’t have day jobs so they can put all their efforts into misinforming and miscommunicating climate science to the general public, whereas the climate scientists have day jobs and [managing publicity] actually isn’t one of them.

“All of the efforts you do in an IPCC report is done out of hours, voluntarily, for no funding and no pay, whereas the sceptics are being funded to put out full-scale misinformation campaigns and are doing a damn good job, I think.

These are some wild generalizations and misrepresentations of both “sides.” It’s one thing to demonize and stereotype people who spread misinformation. But lately some of people have raised absolutely legitimate observations regarding flaws in the IPCC process as to peer review, conflict of interest, transparency, and accountability.

As long as climate scientists continue to insist that IPCC gaffes are unimportant they are going to keep getting into this kind of trouble. It doesn’t matter that the overall trend of warming remains unchallenged; that is absolutely not the point. To present the IPCC as infallible reflects a political stance directly at odds with the its image as a neutral organization whose credibility stems from open, honest debate about a complex scientific issue.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    February 3, 2010 6:46 pm

    Should peer-reviewed major document, especially those with evolving science and interpretation, be living and progressing online volumes (instead of 1600 "pages")? This way, one could correct and address issues. But then, those likely "qualified" to peer-review would indeed keep the rest of us out. I always liked the statistic…– Ask an expert and the answer will be correct 48% of the time (or slightly less likely than flipping a coin).– Ask a diverse, broad crowd and the answer will be correct 68+% of the time(a) not sure of the exact percentages, but close.(b) no APA formatting or anything, from Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki filtered by my memory…

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