Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Will the climate ever change?

There is yet another story in the NYTimes on the climategate issue. This is an accusation by skeptics that the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has been sloppy and the leader should resign. Of course skeptics would say that!

Science depends on skeptics. In fact, all scientists should be skeptics! Instead, most scientists are skeptics of details (especially of others' work!), but not of deeper issues. There is too much circling of wagons or playing it safe so as not to ruffle the status quo that works for them -- in this case, the grant system.

But the kind of skepticism in this story is not scientific, not responsible, and not honorable. It is like current US Republican tactics in their desperate need for power, feeling of importance, wealth, or whatever. It takes some faults in the system (and any system has faults, since they're all run by humans), and treats those faults as if they undermine the basic premise of important human-affected climate change. There are problems with some of the use of scientific reports, as one might expect in so large an issue as climate change, with so many investigators involved. And there are accusations, that based on the story seem rather thin, that the director of the IPCC has conflicts of interest. He may, or may not have financial conflicts, but of course is and probably must be an advocate for the cause of recognizing the reality of climate change.

Assailing him and the IPCC for flaws that are trivial relative to the real issues is a flaw in reasoning, but reasoning is not what these particular critics are up to.

Sadly, our current political system works by demogoguery rather than on the basis of honor and facts. Societies always have to deal with vanity, greed, inequality, and the like. But an educated democracy ought, at least, to be able to deal nobly with threats to our shared, communal interests. Profiteering by these deniers is not different from war profiteering: the deniers want to keep things the same, which means good for their selfish interests, even when trauma threatens.

This is important. We are all, even us scientists (yes, even us!) are helpless in the face of knowledge outside the narrow spheres of our own experience and expertise. As we sit here gazing out at two feet of snow (and more falling), with the temperature around -5 degrees, how can we judge the truth of climate change statements? We must rely on the integrity of the reported results of science. We happen to accept the seeming overwhelming evidence that global warming is a fact and is due in pat to human agency. But we have zero knowledge of our own on that subject--zero! We must judge based on faith in the integrity of science publishing.

What we do about climate change is, and needs to be, political. But when we can't keep the facts themselves honest, or they are distorted for self-serving ends, we are all lost in a blizzard of uncertainty. Manipulating data is a threat, but so is the demagoguery associated with politicizing the facts.

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