August 12, 2013, by Warren Pearce
Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?
At the Science in Public conference, which we hosted in July, Alice Bell convened a panel on science and the green movement. Following the conference Alice asked me to contribute to a series of posts on the same theme for the Guardian’s Political Science blog, focusing on my research area of climate scepticism. The post caused something of a stir, drawing over 700 comments and plenty of positive and negative comment ‘below the line’ as well as on other blogs (see bottom for links). The article is reposted in full here:
Championing ‘real science’?
Since climate change came to prominence in 1988, the role of scientific knowledge – especially an idea of scientific consensus – has played a starring role in the ensuing academic enquiry/political debate/trench warfare (delete as preferred).
Beyond a depressingly binary characterisation of simply pro or anti-science, I’d argue sceptics cannot simply be written off as anti-science or conspiracy theorists (although I am sure one or two may fall into that category). Rather, they see themselves as upholding the standards of what they’d call “real science”.
Many climate sceptics worry climate science cannot be dubbed scientific as it is not falsifiable (as in Popper’s demarcation criterion). They claim that while elements of climate science may be testable in the lab, the complexity of interactions and feedback loops, as well as the levels of uncertainty in climate models, are too high to be a useful basis for public policy. The relationship of observations to these models are also a worry for climate sceptics. In particular, the role of climate sensitivity.
As well as their use of models, the quality of observations themselves have been open to criticism; some of which have been attempts to clean up issues deriving from the messiness of data collection in the real world (eg the positioning of weather stations), while others have focused on perceived weaknesses in the proxy methods required to calculate historic temperature data such as cross-sections of polar ice sheets and fossilised tree rings.
Such claims are of variable quality, but what unites them is a conviction that data quality in various branches of climate science are below those required by “real science”. This poses the question as to when climate science becomes real science and whether only then it can be used in climate policy making. The next question then is through what process of negotiation that stage could or, indeed, should be reached.
Positioning in the mainstream
Unfortunately for climate sceptics, their desire to be seen as advocates for scientific standards is damaged by the blunt advocate/sceptic typology which dominates climate debates, meaning they can become associated with those who occupy the fringes of scientific argument.
Sceptics such as Andrew Montford and Anthony Watts agree with the mainstream view that the greenhouse effect brings about atmospheric warming as a result of carbon emissions, but dispute levels of climate sensitivity. However, others offer far more fundamental challenges to climate science, such as fringe sceptic group Principia Scientific who reject this orthodox view of atmospheric physics.
Watts found himself under frequent challenge by members of the group on his blog, leading him to post his own experiments on YouTube to disprove their claims. As well as being a nice example of scientific claim and counter-claim on the web, Watts’s actions also helped position himself as a “mainstream” sceptic who can challenge key areas of climate science without entering into pseudoscience, a brush he had previously been tarnished with.
Watts’s public experiments provide an example of one more area in which sceptics seek to uphold standards, through transparent and auditable scientific practice. One of the most contentious issues arising from Climategate was the effort to withhold from publication data subjected to freedom of information requests. When physicist Phil Moriarty challenged these practices as being outside of accepted scientific standards, he was lauded by numerous commenters on the Bishop Hill sceptic blog as a “real scientist”.
While this may mark a new era of extended and unforgiving online peer review, is it also a convenient modus operandi for politically motivated sceptics who can utilise doubt as a weapon against effective implementation of climate policy. Those who favour free market policies over regulation certainly have ample motivation to chip away at climate science if they think it will cast aspersions on the basis for policy. However, how can criticisms of sceptics as politically motivated be squared with science’s commitment to findings always being provisional and open to challenge? At what point can we judge that a scientific question moves from a position of “doubt” to being “settled”?
What does ‘real science’ provide?
Both climate change sceptics and advocates of climate policy see this question as important; sharing a faith that scientific evidence is the basis for public policy. However, such a faith omits the possibility that science is not suited to such a role, and that “solving” climate change does not flow linearly from agreement on the science. The attentions of sceptics may or may not be improving the practice and knowledge of climate science. However, if sceptics’ never-ending audit is really damaging policy, that may be more a reflection of an overly scientised policy process than a basis for denying them a voice in debate.
The conundrum is that both “sides” (if one can use that term) seem to focus on real science as the arbiter of knowledge claims. In doing so, they risk constricting material policy measures, issues of wider public significance than scientific debates about climate change.