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The Straw Men of Climatology


The contrarian critique of climatology in the media, popular books and blogs is based on a “straw man” version of science. Image: iStockphoto

By James Risbey

The straw man arguments of climate contrarians portray a brittle image of climatology that ignores how science produces robust knowledge by embracing and correcting errors.

The climate contrarian voice has been prominent in media discussions of climate change in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, North America and elsewhere. For example, Australian geologist Ian Plimer and Danish author Bjorn Lomborg have made numerous appearances in the media to argue that anthropogenic climate change is not an issue. Recent tours of Australia by international contrarians such as Christopher Monckton and Anthony Watts have also received broad, largely uncritical coverage in the media.

All science thrives on critique, and climate change is no different in this regard. However, it is important to distinguish between legitimate critique of the content of scientific argument and a critique based on a false view of the process of science itself. The contrarian critique of climatology in the media, popular books and blogs is based on a “straw man” version of science.

Since the United Nations climate meeting in Copenhagen last year, the contrarian critique has focused on discrediting the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with a persistent obfuscation of distinctions between weather and climate. Examples of this critique include the notion that the IPCC is unreliable because one reference (among thousands) misattributed the time at which Himalayan glaciers are likely to disappear, and that climate change is somehow discredited because the warming isn’t strictly monotonic. In practice, climate change is imposed on top of natural fluctuations, with the result that each successive year is not necessarily warmer than the last even though the trend is evident.

Contrarians have also attacked the land-based surface temperature record. Watts claims that the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) record of US land temperature is unreliable, yet NOAA shows that Watts’ own list of “reliable” stations produces a US warming record that is virtually identical to NOAA’s.

The New Zealand land record is now the subject of a legal challenge by contrarians. Even if these challenges had merit, the evidence for warming is much broader than the land record and is evident in ocean temperatures, ocean heat content, sea level rise and lower atmospheric temperatures, among other indicators.

Media coverage of the contrarian claims has presumably contributed to declining levels of popular belief in the seriousness of the climate change issue. The success of the contrarian challenge in this regard is not a function of the contrarian critique of the science itself.

The contrarian critique is mostly devoid of new content and lacks the usual quality control procedures that help produce substantive arguments. Their critique has very little implication for understanding of climate change science. So far it has uncovered a handful of disputed studies and sloppy citations in a vast sea of literature on climate change. The rest of the contrarian critique is, in the main, a mix of old or weak arguments and non-sequiturs that have long been examined or refuted.

In order for such an empty critique to have so much traction, the contrarians have had to sell a notion of what science is and how it works to the public and the media. Their conception of the science bears no relationship to the practice or method of science.

For a weak critique to have traction, the science must be portrayed as exceedingly brittle. If the method of science can be viewed as a house of cards, then an attack on any one of those cards will be sufficient to bring down the whole edifice.

Thus, the contrarians have operated as if the science they were confronting was a brittle edifice of interconnected facts, each depending one on the other in order to make the case. Such a framework would need to be error-free in order for the brittle edifice of facts to support itself.

Science has in this way been presented as an error-free operation to the public. When errors (real or imagined) are discovered in such a framework, then the science is seen to have failed.

In practice, science is not error-free but rather error-correcting. Scientists assume that there are errors and approximations in all the basic data and methods used to generate knowledge. Such errors can take a variety of forms and are important, but tend to be corrected with time through practices of replication, evaluation and review. If the same result can be reproduced using several different approaches, it is increasingly unlikely that the result is an artefact of an error or approximation in one of the approaches.

Day-to-day work in science aims to progressively uncover errors, relax previous assumptions and improve arguments. Through progressive approximation and variation of approaches, scientists seek to eliminate competing hypotheses and critically test those that remain.

This process is not infallible, but it can, and does, produce robust knowledge. The discovery of error in the conduct of this process is normal and expected. When theory is supported by multiple, independent lines of evidence – as it is for climate change – it is highly unlikely that the discovery of isolated errors implies the need for a radical revision of the theory.

The appropriate metaphor for climate science is not a house of cards but a deck of cards, where the removal of a single card among many does not change the preponderance of evidence and conclusion.

The maturity of a science is gauged in part by its ability to recognise and correct errors. While some parts of climatology, such as three-dimensional climate modelling, are still evolving, the key components of the field for establishing the climate change case are relatively mature. The climate change case is founded on basic physics, observations of present and past climates, radiative transfer theory and simple models. These domains are not free of errors, but the process of error checking is systematised and mature. The basic canon of climate science is now one of the most well-tested domains of modern science.

The process of error correction must also be applied to the contrarian critique. Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth has been critiqued by Ian Enting of the University of Melbourne, who lists a catalogue of errors ( Lomborg’s climate chapters and books have undergone similar critiques by Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, and others. Schneider writes: “Bjorn Lomborg’s chapter on global climate change is a clever polemic; it seems like a sober and well-researched presentation of balanced information, whereas in fact it makes use of selective inattention to inconvenient literature and overemphasis of work that supports his lopsided views”.

US author Howard Friel’s book The Lomborg Deception is devoted to misattributions of cited literature in Lomborg’s recent climate book. Monckton’s lectures have been critiqued by Peter Sinclair, John Abraham, Barry Bickmore, Tim Lambert and others.

Despite critiques pointing to egregious errors in contrarian studies, their proponents typically maintain the same arguments and positions. The failure of contrarians to respond to scrutiny with improved hypotheses sets them apart from science in not correcting error, and undermines the credibility of their case.

With the notable exceptions of George Monbiot in the UK and Tony Jones in Australia, the media have generally refrained from examining the claims of the contrarians themselves. The media’s tacit acceptance of the contrarian arguments and their brittle model of science has contributed to a view of climate change as a pseudoscience that is perpetually on the brink of collapse.

Faced with this misleading picture, the public sees any alleged error in the science of climate change as a fatal flaw rather than a normal part of the process of generating knowledge. These false impressions undermine an appreciation of the robustness of climate science and its considerable consequences. The application of this false impression of science to climatology allows compelling science to be seen, incorrectly, as if it were mere speculation.

When the contrarian du jour tells you about the latest errors in climate science and their radical implications, think about the vision of the science they are selling. It’s not what we do.

James Risbey is a senior research scientist in the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research.