Who's Afraid of the Climate Community?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 6:39 PM PDT

Jonah Goldberg recommends a Scientific American piece this month about "climate heretic" Judith Curry, so I eagerly clicked the link to see what it was all about. Here's what it says:

It is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy. What she does believe is that the mainstream climate science community has moved beyond the ivory tower into a type of fortress mentality, in which insiders can do no wrong and outsiders are forbidden entry.

Curry, for those who don't know, is head of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. And her primary critique has almost nothing to do with the reality of climate change. Her critique is that (a) climate scientists don't acknowledge the uncertainty of their models enough, and (b) years of dealing with yahoos and corporate shills have convinced climate scientists that every skeptic is a yahoo or a corporate shill. Because of this, they unfairly dismiss all criticism, retreat into groupthink, and demonize their opponents instead of making public arguments that are actually persuasive.

My own take is that (a) seems a bit of a stretch. Popular descriptions of science are always simplistic compared to the journal articles they're based on, but even at that I'd say that virtually all the popular portrayals of climate science I've seen state things as a range. Warming will be between 2°C and 5°C over the next century. Sea level will rise between 33 and 100 centimeters. Drought will worsen by 23% to 65%. That kind of thing. This sort of description seems to me to be almost universal.

Her second critique seems much fairer. I sympathize with the fortress mentality described in the article, since its genesis is pretty clear: a constant stream of largely corporate and/or idiotic amateur criticisms that seem to be simply unending no matter how many times you debunk them. At some point, after you've put up with this long enough, it's entirely natural to tune it all out and begin refusing to even engage with critics at all. Still, sympathetic as I may be, Curry is right that you can't do this. Critics need to be given access to data even if it's a pain in the ass, the best of the critics need to be engaged with, and the public needs to be treated fairly. If there's any positive fallout from the Climategate controversy, it's a growing recognition of this.

That said, this is primarily a critique of the social nature of climate science. It's basically a charge that some climate scientists have been overly churlish and need to clean up their act. And that's fine. But the science itself? Error bars and all, it's in good shape. The earth is warming, humans are a big cause of it, and we're1 most likely headed for disaster if we don't do something about it. Nothing about this hinges on whether or not climate scientists have been pricks.

1And always keep in mind who "we" really is. For the most part, a whole lot of poor countries are going to be affected a lot more by climate change than Americans will be. This is why you should remain very, very skeptical of arguments that it's cheaper to just let warming happen and then pay the price when it does. The likelihood that Americans fifty years from now will be willing to pay the trillion-dollar price to save a bunch of people in Africa and Asia is somewhere between nil and nada.

UPDATE: A dissenting view!

You should have done your homework here. Judith Curry is on her way to becoming the Ann Althouse of climate science. She's staking out an ever-increasingly false faux centrist position on the science, and she appears to adore the attention. You will find her deliberately misreading her critics and ignoring any substance all the while inching closer and closer to the entirely discredited skeptics. She is not even close to how you perceive her.

More here.

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