Saturday, December 05, 2009

The art and craft of climate debate

I confess I have been rather fascinated by blogosphere and journalistic politicos taking a stab at science over the past fortnight--and I think that metaphor, by the way, is apt.

"Look! A piece of code that looks like..."

"They tried to suppress two papers! Oh, they were published after all? OK, what about..."

"'Trick!' They said 'trick!' 'Decline!'"

"The IPCC has found nothing wrong! That proves that something is wrong!"


I grew up with scientists--astronomers and physicists, mostly--and they were about the most apolitical crowd I know. They were far too interested in what they were doing. I try to imagine sometimes how these gentle folk might have reacted had some discovery of theirs, and the documentation that accrued around it, led to sudden and savage public attacks from howling cranks and scientific illiterates, including threats, thefts and loony accusations.

They wouldn't even have had the survival-schooling that Galileo had in the art of dancing carefully around the powers that be. A mis-step in those days could kill you. The bold man insisted on his views to the point that he was tried for heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. But he still managed to keep friends in the Church: his books were not burned, and neither was he.

The crowd that frequented my house were babes in the woods in comparison. They quite simply wouldn't have known what to do. These were uncompromising people when it came to the scientific method, and, when my father moved over to the Defence Research Board, they were uncompromising on Cold War issues as well.
But if the pop press and politicians had launched an angry assault on special relativity or operations research, they would have been so many deer caught in the headlights.

The embattled folks at the CRU in East Anglia, deluged with FOI requests, excoriated by denialists (few of whom are scientists, and even fewer, scientists in the field), reacted like human beings. In other words, they did not speak
among themselves in that "neutral" fashion that we have come, stereotypically, to expect of scientists. They called a spade a spade and a crank a crank, and their frustration showed. Now they're paying the price.

After two weeks, the so-called mainstream media have joined in on the feeding frenzy already bloodying the blogosphere, and they're doing nearly as badly. I read Doug Saunders' piece in the Globe this morning, in which he uses phrases like "dangerous bunker mentality" and "data-fudging scandal" as though the first was unexpected and the second, established. He quotes an excitable scientist who claims the mass theft of emails has "set the climate debate back 20 years."

On a political level, he says, the "controversy has been catastrophic." That, too, is grossly overstated, I think, but it is certainly the case that political denialists have not been slow to seize an opportunity and leverage it, as we saw just a few days ago in Australia, and then in Saudi Arabia, where it's all about oil. The latter, according to the breathless Saunders, "will argue in Copenhagen that carbon-emissions controls are pointless because the CRU scandal has nullified any evidence of human-caused atmospheric temperature increase."

"Nullified?" Did the earth stop rotating around the sun because Galileo was indiscreet enough to insult the Pope in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems?

Says a critical climate scientist from East Anglia, Mike Hulme, "I think there is a serious problem with the way scientists are used, and they way they position themselves, in climate-policy debates. Wherever you look around climate change, people are bringing their ideologies, beliefs and values to bear on the science."

No kidding. Perhaps one positive thing that might emerge from this political tempest in a teapot is a public awareness that scientists
are fallible, emotional, and anything but value-free--just like everyone else. Rather than having privileged access to some "objective" realm denied to the rest of us, they are equipped with a well-tested and productive procedure. The only ethical question is how that procedure--observation, analysis of data, tests of replication, predictability and empirical adequacy, and so on--is administered.

And thus far we simply have no smoking gun. For all of the selective interpretations, misinterpretations and deliberate skewing of bits and pieces hacked away by denialists from the body of the research as a whole, there is to date no evidence whatsoever of malfeasance. All that has really come to light is flashes of anger and frustration, and hunkering down as the frenzied attacks have persisted.

Given the now-proven propensity of denialists to seize gleefully on a phrase here or an ambiguous bit of code there, I can see why the folks at CRU have been reluctant to share their data. I don't defend that--it's time to make all of the raw data public as soon as possible, which will require a considerable number of permissions to be sought and obtained. But I can understand it.

In any case,
some people, thank goodness, are getting the hint.

I need to state for the record at this point that I am not on top of the science by any means. From where I sit, refusing to take stabs or bite off chunks, I am forced to rely on second-order observations: the art and craft of
debate and the politics of climate change (proxies, if you will) to help me form a judgement. I suspect I'm far from alone.

In broad strokes, a huge majority of climate scientists reckon that anthropogenic global warming (AGW)
is established, is significant in scale, and endangers the planet. A handful do not, and continue to press their case. Their science can be downright shoddy, and the petroleum industry is seldom more than a few steps away. Politicians have entered the fray, and astroturf organizations like the Calgary-based Friends of Science, which received money from Talisman, have sprung up as well. (What I wouldn't give for a few thousand emails from their computers to gawk at.)

But style is also very much a part of this. Never mind the informal, flesh-and-blood conversations among irritated scientists that shouldn't really have surprised anyone. Their public utterances are sometimes harsh about denialism as well, but there's almost inevitably scientific argument behind it. Most of the time they simply publish papers. They are scientists, not politicians.

On the other side, casting themselves as latter-day Galileos, brave voices in the wilderness, are the denialists. But while Galileo moved to shift an existing paradigm, the denialists are resisting a new shift that has already taken place, like so many fossilized Newtonians grumbling about Einstein and sneering sceptically about "curved space" and "time compression."

And then there are the camp-followers: raving far-right tinfoilers, some of whom believe that oil is continually produced in unlimited quantities at the earth's core, hackers, thieves and know-nothings, oil shills and dabblers.

What is someone who once failed calculus at university supposed to do?

As I watch beleaguered scientists,
spluttering and defensive, dragged from their labs by mobs with pitchforks and torches, my sympathies are certainly aroused on their behalf. They aren't very good at PR, in fact they're lousy at it, which is why some people in that game have helpfully stepped forward.

I do try to hack my way, no pun intended, through some of their papers, but I really depend upon science writers and popularisers who report the latest depressing findings. Perhaps they or the hands-on scientists are exaggerating the consequences of what is being observed, perhaps not. They differ among themselves on that, and on many other points. But they all seem to agree that there is a problem.

And none of them appears to believe that the other side is engaged in a global conspiracy. Few if any of them use a vocabulary of invective and suspicion. Most, I suspect, would just like to get back to work.

Judging on the basis of the respective art and craft employed by the two sides--the way their discourses are constructed, their style, their tone--I really have no option. I must stand with the vast majority of climate scientists
and their stolid progress through the data--and with the Inuit on the front lines, currently watching the undeniable shrinking of the Arctic ice-cap, and seeing robins for the first time.

An agreement in Copenhagen to put even a mild brake on global warming would obviously be a step forward on a road we all need to travel. From denial and anger, perhaps we have now achieved a critical mass of people who have reached the point of bargaining, if not, as yet, acceptance. But given the current eruption of magical thinking and political paranoia, accelerated by a well-timed but foolish controversy that is more apparent than real, it may well be the road not taken.

No comments: