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Climate change: At least science admits its errors

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 30, 2010 at 7:38 pm with 3 Comments »
August 30, 2010 5:41 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

One of science’s great strengths is its tendency to self-correct. That strength is on display this year as climatologists respond to some tough attacks on the way they’ve presented global warming to the public.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got the world’s attention in 2007 when it concluded that the planet was indeed heating up and human industrial activity was indeed the chief cause. These findings reflected immense research and the combined authority of hundreds of leading scientists.

But winning over scientists can be a lot easier than winning over public opinion. Most citizens aren’t likely to pore through hundreds of studies and evaluate the credentials of their authors. Americans in particular are hard-wired to distrust official dictates and scientific orthodoxies.

So the cause of reducing greenhouse gas emissions has taken some devastating hits as skeptics have gleefully pounced on errors and overstatements in the 2007 report to the United Nations.

The most embarrassing was an assertion that the Himalayan glaciers could be entirely melted in 2035 – an unsubstantiated factoid that appears to have found its way to the IPCC by way of environmental zealots.

There were several more such blunders, including a claim that global warming threatened to cut harvests in Africa by 50 percent.

This kind of loose talk is common among advocates trying to build political support for climate legislation. Science – particularly climate science – doesn’t have the luxury of throwing claims around recklessly. The 2007 IPCC report may be 3,000 pages long and loaded with sound data and careful conclusions, but it’s easy to paint the whole thing as an exercise in scaremongering by pointing to a handful of indefensible statements.

Climate science was just as embarrassed last year when hackers ferreted out several scientists’ email exchanges about suppressing contrary scientific views. That, too, handed ammunition to non-scientists who’ve been arguing loudly that the whole business of global warming is a fraud – never mind the bulk of the data.

The mistakes in the 2007 report now threaten to force a shakeup in the IPCC. An organization representing the world’s academies of science has just published an independent review that points to serious organizational flaws in the international panel.

The InterAcademy Council called for more rigor in vetting and publishing the U.N. report and also for replacing the IPCC’s leadership on a regular basis. That could be construed as a scathing judgment. One complication, though: the InterAcademy probe was requested by the IPCC itself – as part of a critical self-assessment.

Inviting criticism from independent experts is a big part of scientific ethics. If only it were part of this country’s political ethics, too.

Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. “Inviting criticism from independent experts is a big part of scientific ethics. If only it were part of this country’s political ethics, too.”

    And yes, if only credibility were a priority for news organizations. The missteps and outright distortions of Fox News are too many to list here, but their recent GOP contributions are only the latest example of their spin on “fair and balanced”.

  2. Whether it’s global heating, cooling or dimming the science will never claim climate change is a natural occurrence when their work is funded by governments who want to use their findings for politcal gain. Climate change has always been and will always be a natural phenomenon.

  3. pen_mightier_than_sword says:

    God Damn idiot scientists! The Bible is where it’s at and all we need to know. Those idiot scientists think the world is more than 6,000 years old. They even think we evolved from apes! Obviously they are complete God Damn idiots!

    What a bunch of socialist, communist, fascist, Marxist, communal lunatics! In fact not only should we get rid of the Department of Education, but we should get rid of sciences classes in public schools. Those heretical science teachers just try to turn our kids into a bunch of no good environmentalists and go out of their way to prove the bible wrong. Enough! Throw out the science books and teach the bible instead!

    Next thing we know these scientists will be telling us that humans have been around for more than 200,000 years.

    Well I’m going to go now and take some more Airborne that Rush and Glenn used to sell on their radio shows. Now that’s some good stuff. It was invented by a teacher and not some God Damn idiot scientist. Never got another cold after I started taking them magical herbs and got my immune system up to snuff!

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