Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Climate conversion

I have a piece in the Guardian online about this paper from Richard Muller that is causing so much fuss, though it says nothing new and hasn’t even passed peer review yet (and might not). Actually my piece is not really about the paper itself, which is discussed elsewhere, but the question of scientists revising their views (or not).

I suspect one could publish a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free that read simply “climate change”, and then let them get on with it. There are a few comments below my piece that relate to the article, but they quickly settle down into yet another debate among themselves about whether climate change is real. Hadn’t they all exhausted themselves in the 948 comments following Leo Hickman’s other piece on this issue? But there’s some value in it, not least in sampling the range of views that non-scientist climate sceptics hold. I don’t mean that sarcastically – it seems important to know how all the scepticism justifies itself. Disheartening, sure, but useful.


It’s tempting to infer from the reports of University of California physicist Richard Muller’s conversion that climate sceptics really can change their spots. Analyses by Muller’s Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which have been made publicly available, reveal that the Earth’s land surface is on average 1.5 C warmer than it was when Mozart was born, and that, as Muller puts it “humans are almost entirely the cause”. He says that his findings are even stronger than those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which presents the consensus of the climate-science community that most of the warming in the past half century is almost certainly due to human activities. “Call me a converted skeptic”, says Muller in the New York Times.

Full marks for the professor’s scientific integrity, then. But those of us who agree with the conclusions of nearly every serious climate scientist on the planet shouldn’t be too triumphant. Muller was never your usual sceptic, picking and choosing his data to shore up an ideological position. He was sceptical only in the proper scientific sense of withholding judgement until he felt persuaded by the evidence.

Besides, Muller already stated four years ago that he accepted the consensus view – not because everyone else said so, but because he’d conducted his own research. That didn’t stop him from pointing out the (real) flaws with the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph of temperature change over the past millennium, nor from accusing Al Gore of cherry-picking facts in An Inconvenient Truth.

In one sense, Muller is here acting as a model scientist: demanding strong evidence, damning distortions in any direction, and most of all, exemplifying the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, ‘take no one’s word for it.’ But that’s not necessarily as virtuous as it seems. For one thing, as the Royal Society’s founders discovered, you have to take someone’s word for some things, since you lack the time and knowledge to verify everything yourself. And as one climatologist said, Muller’s findings only “demonstrate once again what scientists have known with some degree of certainty for nearly two decades”. Wasn’t it verging on arrogant to have so doubted his peers’ abilities? There’s a fine line between trusting your own judgement and assuming everyone else is a blinkered incompetent.

All the same, Muller’s self-confessed volte-face is commendably frank. It’s also unusual. In another rare instance, James Lovelock was refreshingly insouciant when he recently admitted that climate change, while serious, might not be quite as apocalyptic as he had previously forecast – precisely the kind of doom-mongering view that fuelled Muller’s scepticism. There’s surely something in Lovelock’s suggestion that being an independent scientist makes it easier to change your mind – the academic system still struggles to accept that getting things wrong occasionally is part of being a scientist.

But the problem is as much constitutional as institutional. Despite their claim that evidence is the arbiter, scientists rarely alter their views in major ways. Sure, they are often surprised by their discoveries, but on fundamental questions they are typically trenchant. The great astronomer Tycho Brahe never accepted the Copernican cosmos, Joseph Priestley never renounced phlogiston, Einstein never fully accepted quantum theory. Most great scientists have carried some obsolete convictions to the grave, which is why Max Planck claimed that science advances one funeral at a time.

This sounds scandalous, but actually it’s useful. Big questions in science are rarely resolved at a stroke by transparent experimental results. So they require vigorous debate, and the opposing views need resolute champions. Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson are currently locking horns about the existence of group selection in Darwinian evolution precisely because the answer is so far from obvious. I’d place money on neither ever rescinding.

The fact is that most scientists seek not to convert themselves but to convert others. That’s fair enough, for it’s those others who can most objectively judge who has the best case.

Could this mean we actually need climate sceptics? Better to say that we need to subject both sides of the debate to rigorous scientific testing. Just as Muller has done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I completely agree, it is important to question theories and evidence from both sides. Being able to scrutinise ideas is vital to discovering what is real and what is false. Although, I don't agree with climate sceptics, I would always be willing to listen to their views (even if it is to debate them). It is only through reasonable debate that you can hope to ask people to see things from your perspective. I think if we are to tackle climate change, it needs to be a collective effort from everyone where we all look to embrace green sources of energy.