The cat i' the adage

"The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement" Karl Popper (1902 - 1994)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Popperian on climate science

The distinguished climate scientist Hans von Storch is concerned about how theories of climate change are being presented. In this excellent article he makes a number of decidedly Popperian points:

The general belief is that in order to keep public attention focused on the issue of "climate catastrophe" ... it has to be presented "somewhat more attractively." In the early 1990s, just as Germany was being hit by severe wind storms, the German media were reporting that the storms were becoming more and more severe. Since then, storms of this magnitude have once again become less common in northern Europe, a fact now ignored by the media. They have also ignored the fact that changes in barometric pressure measured in Stockholm since the days of Napoleon reveal no systematic change in the frequency and severity of storms. Instead, the media are now filled with stories of heat waves and floods.

The media are now claiming that all kinds of extreme events are increasing in frequency. Using this logic, a drought in the German state of Brandenburg fits together seamlessly with a catastrophic flood of the Oder River and the two events don't contradict each other.

Unfortunately, the corrective mechanisms in science are failing. Public reservations with regard to the standard evidence of climate catastrophe are often viewed as unfortunate within the scientific community, since they harm the "worthy cause," especially because, as scientists claim, they could be "misused by skeptics." Dramatization on a small scale is considered acceptable, whereas correcting exaggeration is viewed as dangerous because it is politically inopportune. This means that doubts are not voiced publicly. Instead, the scientific community creates the impression that the scientific underpinnings of climate change research are solid and only require minor additions and adjustments.

This self-censorship in the minds of scientists ultimately leads to a sort of deafness toward new, surprising insights that compete with or even contradict the conventional explanatory models. Science is deteriorating into a repair shop for conventional, politically opportune scientific claims. Not only does science become impotent; it also loses its ability to objectively inform the public.

The principle that drives other branches of science should be equally applicable to climate research: dissent drives continued development, and differences of opinion are not unfortunate matters to be kept within the community. Silencing dissent and uncertainty for the benefit of a politically worthy cause reduces credibility, because the public is more well-informed than generally assumed. In the long term, the supposedly useful dramatizations achieve exactly the opposite of what they are intended to achieve. If this happens, both science and society will have missed an opportunity.

Kyoto has increased the economic advantage to mainstream climate scientists of presenting a united front and suppressing dissent. As a result, these wise words are likely to fall on deaf ears.


At 16 March 2005 at 19:07, Blogger Jorgen said...

Very good article!


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