It’s the hype

Uwe Buse wonders Is the IPCC Doing Harm to Science? in Spiegel Online. The view is sympathetic to the climate catastrophists but trying to understand the critics. The US is, of course, in the wrong. Dr. Lindzen is selected to present as a lone critic with worthy credentials.

First, the group raising the most recent brouhaha is described.

The IPCC is a scientific panel created by the UN Environmental Organization (UNEO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Once every five or six years it issues a report summarizing the current status of research on climate change. It operates on a minimal annual budget of only €5 million ($6.8 million). To be able to fulfill its mandate, the IPCC is dependent on assistance from UN members. They finance the conferences and provide the scientists who, as authors, are responsible for the contents of individual chapters.

This, as is usual in government organizations, indicates a charge to come up with results that rationalizes the funding. That is another topic that is a concern, especially in funding for science related activity. It is a self reinforcing loop where ideas and money chase each other and nonconformity is minimized. That may be an issue in the difficulties with Dr. Lindzen.

In his speeches, articles and studies, Lindzen concedes that climate change is a reality, but he also insists that it is unclear whether the warming measured to date can be considered dramatic. He criticizes the models that are used to estimate climate change, calling them too imprecise and therefore unusable. Lindzen also says that the results achieved by his opponents in the scientific debate are based on arbitrary assumptions. He calls the SPM, the summaries of the IPCC reports prepared for the politicians, “alarmist” and the tone of the debate “hysterical.” In his opinion, mankind would be better off addressing the world’s true problems: wars, epidemics and hunger.

These are valid concerns for intellectual integrity and Buse illustrates that they create an irritation that must be scratched. They must be rationalized. That brings in the sociologist.

Peter Weingart, a sociologist of science from Bielefeld, a city in northwest Germany, believes that the climate experts’ lack of distance has something to do with their training. Scientists usually learn only to reflect on the results of their work, not on their role within the social decision-making process. As a result, they join forces with politicians who share their views. And in this way they do harm to science.

The ‘distance’ is what scientists often call observer bias. It is a particular concern when measures are subjective but also rears its head even in supposedly objective measures. It is a factor that must be considered by every scientist in interpreting experimental outcomes. One component of this bias is when the meaning of an outcome is pondered and extrapolations to social significance start to wander around the brain.

The same question haunts IPCC chairman Pachauri. This week he will be in Bangkok, where the subjects of debate will be possible solutions, distribution of the burdens and the structure of the future. Pachauri will sit on the podium, follow the debate and do what he believes he has to do — be on the side of a good cause and not on the side of science.

This same difficulty was noted by Michael Barone in Prioritizing Our Problems.

But for some, global warming is more a tenet of religious faith than a matter of scientific inquiry. Al Gore is sure that the oceans are going to rise 20 feet — 240 inches. He sounds like Jeremiah: All argument must be over, you must have faith or you will meet your doom; you have sinned, and you must pay the price.

The damage in this approach is that of making decisions that cause regret later. Priorities get confused. The utilization of resources is not focused for maximum effect.

Sometimes politicians get things upside down. They ignore problems that are plainly staring them in the face, while they focus on dangers that are at best speculative.

Consider two long-range issues that are not pressing matters this year but pose, or are said to pose, threats a generation or two away. One of them you don’t hear much about: Social Security. The other you hear about all the time: global warming. Yet this gets things upside down. We have an unusually precise knowledge of the problems that Social Security will cause in the future. But we don’t know with anything like precision what a continuation of the current mild increase in temperatures will mean.

In the long term, the integrity of scientific inquiry and the analysis of the real world is a concern. In the shorter and political frame it is the proper assessment of priorities in light of what we know, how we know it, the risks involved, and the costs to address problems. Those are reasons why it is appropriate to be concerned about the nature of the debate and how emotional is seems to have become.

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