Friday, December 11, 2009

Climate Change: Science, Transparency and Public Opinion

From the Wildlife Society Blog:

Climate Change: Science, Transparency and Public Opinion
December 5th, 2009
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I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic since the story broke about “Climate-gate” around a week ago. As many readers may already know, there has been considerable controversy about a series of private e-mails stolen from the world famous Climatic Research Center at the University of East Anglia in Britain.

In those e-mails, the unit’s director, Phil Jones, told a colleague that he would “hide” contradictory evidence from Siberian tree rings and replace it with more accurate data on changes in local air temperature. In another message, he speaks of keeping research he disagrees with out of a U.N. report, “even if we have to redefine what the peer review literature is.”

The recent debate has energized critics of climate change science, who believe that some scientists are playing political games and altering results for their own purposes. They claim that this incident has called into question the credibility of science and scientists. Others believe that this debate is about the scientific process itself, which is suddenly playing itself out in the public arena. Politicians and the public want certainty, but science is a messy affair. Indeed, scientists can draw different conclusions from the same data.

But, I wonder how much this ”scandal” has damaged climate science? The musing of individual scientists in their personal e-mails are one thing. In fact, I’ve been know to say a few stupid things in my e-mails as well, and I challenge anyone who uses electronic communication to examine their own record.

That being said, individual scientists should understand the need for transparency in science and never forget its central tenet: skepticism. To quote Charles Darwin, one of the greatest scientists to have ever lived:

“I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as the facts are shown to be opposed to it.”

The massive amount of data that have been accumulated on climate change–from rising global temperature trends, to melting glaciers, and numerous phenological effects on animals and plants–have convinced many, if not most scientists, that something is going on. According to Jane Lubchenco, Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Our collective understanding of how the earth is warming…rests on a wealth of scientific information that is very diverse and comes from multiple sources and multiple groups.”

One of the main points of contention is whether or not our changing climate is the direct result of human activities or simply yet another natural cycle of warming and chilling that we have seen throughout earth’s history. Our warming climate (9 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the past decade) is correlated with the rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, many of which are due to human activities. However, as all scientists are taught, correlation does not imply causation. Its that pesky uncertainty again. As an analogy: Do you believe that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer? This connection is also based largely on correlational studies–people that smoke have a higher probability of getting the disease. Knowing this, should you take a chance that you will die substantially earlier by starting to smoke, a highly addictive habit? I sincerely hope not.

There might be a degree of uncertainty in all science. However, there is also the Precautionary Principle, which tells us that if the risk is great, perhaps society should err on the side of caution. The risks associated with climate change are great–especially the risks to wildlife, plants, and existing natural ecosystems. We’ve already pushed them to the limit, and the extra burden of climate change, in theory, could be catastrophic. And I haven’t even touched on what a warming planet could do to human agriculture, fisheries, forestry and other industries. Of course, I don’t want to be alarmist, or to predict how fast one of these potential futures might play out. On the other hand, what if we do have a serious problem? What if it is happening faster than we’d all like it to? Looking back decades later, climate scientists will derive little pleasure in telling people “I told you so.”

Uncertainty is a part of science, one that is often exploited by those who disagree with its findings. But the public should not worry. Science is the most self-correcting of all human endeavors. Scientists that cheat the system are not tolerated by it–they are punished and cast out. The scientific fraternity values truth above all, and those that abuse that responsibility pay a price. Charles Darwin recognized the power of science to see through the smoke and mirrors when he said:

“Great is the power of steady misrepresentation, but the history of science shows how, fortunately, this power does not long endure.”

The true nature of climate change will reveal itself and scientists will light the path.

1 comment:

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