April 12, 2013, by Warren Pearce

Families of climate scepticism I: faulty science?

Turbine Road by James WheelerAt last week’s British Sociological Association conference, I presented some initial observations from my research on climate change scepticism. My starting point was that climate change scepticism – or as it is often inaccurately described, denial – is not monolithic. Those people typically labelled as sceptics vary in their arguments. Sometimes may employ many different arguments, some may focus on only one or two. Often these arguments overlap with each other. In my presentation I highlighted writers and commenters on two prominent UK sites: Bishop Hill and Climate Resistance (there are many other examples)

With these points in mind, I identify two broad families of climate sceptic argument. First, that it is ‘faulty science’ from which policy flows: this could be in terms of the methods being used, the practices of scientists ‘beyond the lab’ or the ways in which scientific knowledge is publicised. Second a questioning of the very idea that policy should flow from the science, instead arguing that scientific advice enjoys too privileged a position in policy makers’ thoughts. I will address this issue of the science/politics relationship in my next post. Below, I outline three related arguments which form part of the ‘faulty science’ family of arguments.

Modelling and observations

Computer models are critical to climate science and the projected effects of carbon dioxide emissions on global temperatures. Criticisms are levelled at these models sometimes focus on the assumptions upon which they are based. More broadly, there are worries about the weight afforded to these models over empirical observation. In other words, can we not learn more from existing temperature data than projections? As an aside, worries over modelling are not restricted to future projections, but also research done to calculate historic temperatures over the last few thousand years, for example this discussion of potential weaknesses in dendroclimatology (estimating past temperature from measuring tree rings)

Science by press release

Here is a concern that by the time research results make their way into the public domain, they have been in some way exaggerated, often giving undue weight to the worst case scenario (WCS) within a range of uncertainty. This may come from media reporting. For example a journal article about the effects of climate change on coffee clearly reported the significant range of uncertainty about effects in the abstract. Compare this to the funder’s press release, which repeated this clear reporting, but highlighted the WCS in a ‘box quote’ high up the page. Finally, a Telegraph report of the research made the WCS the story ‘lede’ in the very first sentence of the text, only reporting the full range of uncertainty in the eighth paragraph. Academic uncertainty and caveats give way to journalistic concerns for the ‘story’.

Press releases are sometimes seen as more directly responsible for miscommunication, a  high profile case being the recent paper by Marcott et al which generated significant press coverage around its apparent replication of the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph showing a steep climb in global temperatures during the twentieth centruy. This undoubtedly newsworthy aspect was emphasised in the accompanying press release but came under sustained online scrutiny by climate sceptics, notably Steve McIntyre.  A subsequent FAQ  issued by the paper’s authors downplayed the importance of the recent temperature rises described in their paper, describing that aspect as ‘not statistically robust’, instead emphasising the importance of their temperature reconstructions over the last 10,000 years. While this was certainly of scientific interest, it did not have the political salience of findings which could be linked to increased carbon dioxide emissions.

It is noteworthy that while journal articles can be scrutinised using this kind of ‘extended peer review’, there is a worry that once headlines hit the media the damage has already been done, and that prominent corrections need to be made in order to uphold scientific integrity.

Scientific practices

Climategate continues to cast a shadow over the climate debate. The short version of this lengthy saga is that sceptics feel the email leak/hack demonstrated how a prominent group of scientists sought to distort the peer review process, shut out dissenting voices from IPCC reports and go to great lengths to resist Freedom of Information requests to publish datasets. At the launch event of our Making Science Public programme, Mike Hulme argued that practices of climate scientists may not have been particularly unusual within scientific communities, and that perhaps it was these scientific ethics which needed opening up to scrutiny. Physicist Phil Moriarty disagreed, citing his ‘shock’ that such practices had taken place. Commenters on sceptic blog Bishop Hill supported Moriarty’s stance, hailing him as a ‘real scientist’.

So, faulty science?

As stated at the start, this was a presentation only of my initial impressions, so is by no means intended to be exhaustive. I invite those of you familiar with the arguments from the climate sceptic (critic?) community to correct me where I might have been mistaken, or highlight other aspects of the ‘faulty science’ family of arguments (or come up with a better name).

In part 2, I focus on the critique of the politicisation of climate science, post the audio from the BSA presentation, and explore the idea of climate sceptics being an ‘uninvited public‘…

Posted in Climate ChangeScepticismScienceSocial science