Ben Pile: ‘The Science Is Settled’, Part 858

23/10/2011 14:04:12

Most environmental journalists don't actually understand the climate debate they are purporting to have analysed.

Sunday, 23 October 2011 Ben Pile, Climate Resistance

I found myself being called a ‘climate sceptic’ and ‘denier’ this week. I find this odd, because I rarely take a view on the science, which I regard as largely a massive red herring — the climate debate is mostly political. My argument is that if you want to know what ‘science says’, you have to have a good idea about what it has been asked. Some in the debate believe that ‘science’ can speak uncontaminated, objective truth to the policy-making process; you merely have to assemble all the scientific literature, summarise it, and tell the policy-makers. Job done.

But doesn’t setting up special organisations — the IPCC, for instance, or the UK’s Committee on Climate Change — to inform special policy-making process imply something of a loaded question, to which the answer is to some extent presupposed? Doesn’t there appear, therefore, to be a dialogue in which the policy-making process to some extent informs the evidence-making process? I’m not talking about the IPCC being an explicit exercise in policy-based evidence-making, but that there’s a very naive view of science as a process entirely distinct from the rest of the world. (And it’s not as if the climate change issue doesn’t come to the rescue of politicians who find themselves in crisis.) I’m fairly confident that science can answer questions such as ‘is climate change happening’. The best available evidence will suggest that it is. But all the evidence in the world won’t shed any light on what the question means. Science can not deliver value-free answers to political questions, and cannot produce statements about the world independently of the world.

A more useful question is ‘how much has the climate changed’. But even then there are the corollaries: ‘should it have changed at all’, and ‘so what’. A more useful question is, ‘what are the consequences of climate change’. But is that a question only for science? Is climate change worth stopping at all costs? To what extent should climate change be the organising principle of the entire human race’s productive activity? In the same way that special scientific and policy-making processes implies a dialogue between them, the consensus it produces (it is presupposed) precludes another kind of dialogue.

The BEST results are out, pre-peer-review, and amidst a storm of articles reproducing the press release announcing the BEST conlcusion. Says the No Scientist,

Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed

A group of scientists known for their scepticism about climate change has reanalysed two centuries’ worth of global temperature records. Their study largely confirms previous ones: it finds strong evidence that Earth is getting hotter.

I don’t remember the BEST scientists ever being ‘known for their scepticism about climate change’. I do remember them being sceptical of some approaches in climate science, though, and in the presentation of their results. There’s been a lot of discussion about what the BEST results do and don’t say, so I won’t dwell on them. But it is curious that the No Scientist chose the headline Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed, and then goes on to quote a number of sceptics, each of whom seem to have told the article’s author, Michael Marshall that the warming was never in question. For instance, Steve McIntyre is quoted,

I haven’t ever suggested that temperatures haven’t risen since the 19th century. Quite the contrary

Moreover, as David Whitehouse at the GWPF points out,

The researchers find a strong correlation between North Atlantic temperature cycles lasting decades, and the global land surface temperature. They admit that the influence in recent decades of oceanic temperature cycles has been unappreciated and may explain most, if not all, of the global warming that has taken place, stating the possibility that the “human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.”

And that’s a very different message to the many news items covering the report. Consider this story on Channel 4 last night. (H/t Bishop Hill).

The item ends with a discussion about whether the BEST results will end the debate.

What this makes clear, then, is that none of the journalists — churnalists — actually understand the debate they are purporting to have analysed. There, in black and white on the No Scientist‘s page, and across the entire climate-sceptic part of the blogosphere are many statements of position, few — if any of which — claim that ‘there has been no global warming’, or words to that effect.

Once again, then, what this shows is that the coverage of the debate tells us more than the actual substance of the debate. What is revealed by the failure of journalists to cover the debate is that they’re reporting from inside their own heads. In their view, the debate is about that familiar trope, ‘climate change is happening’. ‘The scientists’ say it is, and ‘the deniers’ say that it isn’t. That is an imagined debate. It doesn’t exist. This view of the debate precedes (and indeed precludes) any understanding of it.

This in turn reflects the presuppositions implied by the creation of special scientific and policy-making bodies, that all you need to do to move forward with climate change policies is establish that ‘climate change is happening’. Yet there does not appear to be any discussion about attribution in the BEST studies, and there is already some criticism about its methodology.

Many in the debate want to draw a line under the science, to have it ‘settled’ once and for all. But as has been discussed at length, here there and everywhere, that just ain’t science. The desire to move forward with policies, then, without further debate about ‘what science says’ — it has spoken, after all — speaks about the extent to which the policy-making process precedes the evidence-making process. Looking more deeply at the coverage of the debate reveals that expectations of science precede the science. The dialogue between the policy-makers and the evidence makers is two-way, and precludes any criticism or alternative discussion entering the dialogue.

If it were not so, the preconceptions of journalists and other activists would not dominate their analyses of the debate. They would be able to accurately reflect the claims made by ‘sceptics’. They would be able to answer them, and include them in the process. There would be a multi-dimensional dialogue; it would not consist of merely the official evidence-makers and the policy-makers, sitting apart from the rest of the world, deciding its fate.