Posted by: bmeverett | May 3, 2012

The New York Times still doesn’t understand science


There’s a lot of discussion these days about the sorry state of math and science education in the US – and rightly so. In addition to the overall dilution of the curriculum in US public schools, some of our critical institutions have simply lost sight of what science is. Why? Because they prefer to focus on political advocacy, and science often conflicts with the need for a clear and convincing policy narrative.

Justin Gillis, an environmental reporter for the New York Times, showcases this problem yet again in his April 30 article “Clouds’ Effect on Climate Change Is Last Bastion for Dissenters”. By all means read this article.

Let’s review for the umpteenth time how science works. We start with a falsifiable hypothesis such as “If I drop this baseball, it will fall to earth with an acceleration of 32 feet per second per second”. I can then test the hypothesis empirically to see if it is valid or not. The word “falsifiable” is critical. The hypothesis “If I drop this baseball, it will move in the direction God chooses” is not falsifiable, since no experimental result can disprove it.

The “Climate Community” takes a different view of science. They establish a hypothesis, such as “Continued emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will accelerate the rise in global temperatures with catastrophic results.” They phrase the hypothesis in such a way that anything that happens can be considered supporting evidence. A warm winter is supporting evidence, but so is a cold winter. Unusually strong storm activity is supporting evidence, but so is unusually weak storm activity. The current term for this nonsense is “weather weirding.” The problem, of course is that the weather is always variable and never “normal” whatever that means.

They then take a vote among the world’s scientists and deem the hypothesis correct if a large majority agree. This consensus can then be expanded and reinforced by attacking the intelligence and integrity of dissenters and cutting off their access to research funds and publications. Once the consensus has been established, the burden of proof shifts to those who disagree. Politics works this way, but science does not.

Science generally makes progress because people question the conventional wisdom and ask meaningful questions. Before the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in 1543, 99.999% of all scholars believed in the Ptolemaic view that all celestial bodies orbited around the Earth in complex “epicycles”. Dissenters were not only ostracized by the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the time, but subject to arrest, torture and execution. As new instruments, like the telescope, began to show evidence that contradicted the prevailing theory, the reaction of the Church was to belittle and suppress it, right up to the point that it became incontrovertible.

Cloud formation remains the largest uncertainty in climate modeling. Some types of clouds trap heat in the lower atmosphere and add to the warming trends. Other types of clouds, however, increase solar reflection and reduce the warming effect. The work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (if you read it closely), acknowledges this major uncertainty. Advocates for drastic carbon reduction, however, generally sweep the problem under the rug by simply assuming that clouds on balance accelerate rather than retard warming.

Scientists like Richard Lindzen of MIT are right to focus on this major unresolved issue, which is a major flaw in the catastrophic view of climate change. Mr. Gillis, however, sees the problem differently, claiming that dissenters “exploit” the uncertainly surrounding cloud formation to undermine the consensus. In his view, dissent is destructive, providing “a dangerous alibi for inaction.” Here is the crux of the matter. Mr. Gillis has the problem backward. He argues that political action is the purpose of science, and that the job of both scientists and reporters is to build support for a particular agenda.

The most important objective of climatologists should be to get the science right, not to climb on board a political bandwagon. In an early April interview with the Columbia Journalism Review”, Mr. Gillis said, “To head off the worst consequences of global warming, we needed to get started 20 years ago and we did not. So this will now be a pretty heavy lift to get to very low emissions by 2050. If we started today it would be hard, and we’re not starting today.” This is the view of a political advocate and not of either a scientist of a journalist. Mr. Gillis’ New York Times article belongs on the op-ed page, not page 1.

Scientists ended the 20th century with a great deal of credibility. They had made a major contribution to victory in World War II, helped to eradicate age-old diseases and supported an unprecedented improvement in living standard. It’s no wonder that all the science fiction movies of the 1950s featured scientists as the heroes. If the scientific establishment is not careful, however, they will lose this credibility by lending their talents to politicians to support highly questionable activities which will undo all the good things we have come to enjoy about living in a free and prosperous society.

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Responses

  1. The cloud issue when related to weather is fine; but it means absolutely nothing whem related to climate. Weather is a daily, weekly, monthly series of events. Climate change is more in tune with centuries. However, journalist ordinarily have more faith in the ramblings of political scientists.
    Credentials: retired petroleum engineer/geologist w/ over 6 decades of scientific experience domestic and foreign.
    See my blog: http://energycrisis12.blogspot.com. My recent e-book – The Sky Will NOT Fall – Unmasking the Green Revolution. Available – Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Shortly – 2nd e-book – Beyond Our Control – Debunking Manmade Global Warming.


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