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Bernard Finel
Senior Fellow, American Security Project

Bernard Finel

Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project where he directs research on counter-terrorism, defense policy and climate change. ALL POSTS

Science is a work in progress, but well supported

Q: Recently, a U.N. scientific report was found to have included a false conclusion about the melting of Himalayan glaciers. That followed the release of stolen e-mails last year, which showed climate scientists commiserating over problems with their data. Is there a broader meaning in these two incidents, and should they cause the public to be more skeptical about the underlying science of climate change?

The broader meaning is that any enterprise involving thousands of individuals will include people of various qualities and attributes. There will be some who are kind-hearted and wholly transparent, and others who are spiteful and secretive. In any large enterprise, there will also be errors of judgment, fact and typography. The Washington Post prints corrections on a regular basis. Should that cause the public to be more skeptical about the underlying quality of the paper? Consider the IPCC report in which the false statement about the Himalayan glaciers of published. In that document alone there were literally tens of thousands of statements of fact. Even if several dozen were wrong -- which isn't the case as far as we know -- it would still be a tremendously high-quality product. A failure to achieve perfect is not synonymous with an untrustworthy source.

The question isn't ultimately whether climate scientists are all good people, or whether their work is perfect or infallible. Rather, the issue, as in all scientific endeavors, is which theory best explains the available data? While skeptics of the dominant consensus are doing a valuable service by pointing out ambiguous data or weak arguments, there is no compelling alternative to the core consensus -- which is simply that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and that human activity contributes to greenhouse gas concentrations in the environment. There are criticisms of various parts of the argument, and certainly active debates on many micro-foundational issues such as the reflectivity of clouds and the absorption capacity of various carbon systems, but there the skeptics have been unable to produce a coherent alternative that explains the data as well as the dominant consensus -- which is precisely why the consensus is dominant.

Some will argue that because many are proposing policy responses that climate science should be held to a higher standard, that in effect we must wait until there are no doubts and no ambiguities before proceeding. But the reality is that we don't apply this standard to any other policy decision. There is, for example, much more evidence to support the notion of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) than there is to support the notion that population-centric counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine can be successful. Yet, the United States is currently investing over a $100 billion in year on population-centric COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is more evidence in support of AGW than there is support of the idea that locking up non-violent drug offenders reduces drug abuse, yet the United States keeps roughly 400,000 non-violent drug offenders incarcerated. The evidence on AGW is stronger than that on the health effects of second hand smoke, yet bans on public smoking are becoming ubiquitous.

Climate science is a work a progress, but is already a potent and well-supported theoretical framework. We should remain vigilant, but excessive skepticism is not warranted despite the unfortunate string of well-publicized glitches in the process.

By Bernard Finel  |  January 25, 2010; 3:27 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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One problem with the debate here is that the data and scientific analysis of global warming are mostly available through scientific journals that are limited access. Because I work at an institution with library access to the journals, I have current access to most of the literature. Not long ago when I criticized some comment writers for ignoring the facts and not looking at the science, I was taken to task for having referred to a series of articles they could not read. That is a criticism I cannot refute and I realized that much of the scientific information that underlies my opinions about global warming is not really publically available. However, even if there were unlimited access to the scientific literature the anti global warming comments here come from people uninterested in facts and scientific analysis of data. They seem to have decided to disbelieve scientific reports in favor of believing conspiracy theories from far right wing talk radio. Therefore their opinion should be ignored and set aside as far as policy is concerned. They do need to be taken into account for a few more years so as to neutralize their ignorance, to avoid being dragged under by them, since our modern civilization will be a destroyed ruin if their business-as-usual approach is followed. However, their intransigence is not a long term problem. In just a few more years their numbers will dwindle to insignificance since soon global warming and its harmful effects will be so obvious that maintaining their position will only result in public ridicule and they will fade away.

Posted by: infrederick | January 31, 2010 7:01 PM
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This is what scientist say to the general public:

"Please be skeptic, please do not trust us, please demand more evidence, please look at the evidence, and PLEASE EDUCATE YOURSELF!"

I'm yet to meet a scientist who is not skeptic. Please be skeptic and look at the evidence.

Posted by: gershwin2009 | January 31, 2010 5:20 PM
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It seems to me that taking action now against the possibility of AGW running out of control is alot like buying term life insurance. No, we don't know that we'll die in the next ten years, but, if we have dependents, buying term insurance is widely considered a good idea. Given that there is SOME reasonable and untainted-by-industry-bias debate on the extent of the risk, debate on the size of the insurance policy is reasonable. But the idea that we don't need the insurance at all is not reasonable, at least not in my opinion. We need to take action now, as a matter of national security, even though we don't know to a scientific certainty that inaction will prove disasterous. (And for those still agnostic on AGW, see Thomas Friedman's argumment in "Hot, Flat and Crowded" that embracing green technology would be a wise national economic policy for the US. As for me, I am willing to pay more for products and energy and am willing to do more to conserve energy, simply to reduce the risk of catastrophe. I would support a steadily increasing carbon tax, especially if it were largely revenue-neutral (via reduction in income tax) with some of the revenue helping lower income people conserve.

Posted by: jlibertelli | January 31, 2010 10:22 AM
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Your argument that a dozen or so factual errors should have no impact on the factual basis of tens of thousands of other conclusions is itself a pig in a poke. Two months ago you would have claimed no factual errors in the IPCC reports. And to cling to the notion that no more exist is very telling of your preexisting bias. I suspect this house of cards is very close to tumbling.

Posted by: infuse | January 30, 2010 2:14 PM
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Comparing COIN (as a response to terrorism in countries like Iraq) to the Kyoto Treaty proposals (as a response to AGW) is something like comparing apples to oranges. COIN can be fully implemented within a couple years' period, and the results can be assessed on a similar timeline. The Kyoto proposals, on the other hand, might take decades or longer to implement, and the results may be difficult to detect or verify, other than with cryptic measurements that may or may not be in synch with the weather and environmental conditions that people perceive around them. Therefore, it entirely makes sense that the US should go ahead and implement COIN while awaiting further review and debate before embracing Kyoto.

Posted by: cocktails42 | January 30, 2010 1:46 PM
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The IPCC is a bore.

Its science has rot at its core.

They're kaput. They are through,

Cause whatever they do,

No one will believe, anymore.

Posted by: RobertAJonesJr | January 30, 2010 1:18 PM
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"Rather, the issue, as in all scientific endeavors, is which theory best explains the available data?"
I agree with that statement. However, with all due respect, I believe you have entirely missed the point of the so-called "climate-gate" scandal: What the emails show is that the raw underlying "available data", upon which any valid scientific theory must ultimately rest and prove consistent with, have been certainly hidden, possibly fudged, and generally obfuscated. Without fully disclosed and trustworthy data, any argument, theory, or model on either side of the debate cannot be deemed "Science"; Instead, statements such as, e.g., "the past year, 2009, tied as the second warmest year in the 130 years of global instrumental temperature records, in the surface temperature analysis of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)" are nothing less than statements of faith.

"It doesn't matter how beautiful you theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong." --Richard Feynman
"Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." --Richard Feynman

Posted by: jts2c | January 30, 2010 12:44 PM
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In many ways, he is correct. Science is a work in progress... much like complex bank fraud and the establishment of global crime syndicates transporting drugs and moving cash.

Claiming the WIP label does not excuse. exonerate of refute the shady, underhanded, misleading deployment of agendas over science, not can true science turn a blind eye to measurable, repeatable facts by tilting the data to support pre-determined outcomes no matter how inconvenient the behavior of facts turns out.

On the other hand, IPCC is a UN body, and how can you not love and support anything that is distributed or broadcasted under the imprimatur of that august body.

Still, the latest data indicates that since the IPCC pushed Global Alarming too far, 40+ comedy writers in LA are now out of work; the AGW jokes just seem to write themselves.

Posted by: dbsinOakRidge | January 30, 2010 8:38 AM
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"Climate science is a work a progress, but is already a potent and well-supported theoretical framework. We should remain vigilant, but excessive skepticism is not warranted despite the unfortunate string of well-publicized glitches in the process."

Well said, Dr. Finel. But this isn't about the science anymore. It's become a political football for the evidence-cherry-pickers on both sides to kick around to advance their sometimes nefarious interests.

Posted by: post_reader_in_wv | January 30, 2010 12:43 AM
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