The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seems to be stumbling over one pitfall after another these days. In recent weeks we have seen the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15) tarnished by “Climategate”, the scandal over climate scientists’ correspondence suggesting they “fudged” some data; moreover, the IPCC cites non-scientific sources, e.g. WWF articles, in its report, and confuses flood plains with areas below sea level in the Netherlands; and to top it all off, it bases its conclusions about the melting Himalayan glaciers on information from non-existent Chinese observation posts.
To climate sceptics, who deny that global warming is caused by human activity, these errors and omissions are “proof positive” of the “carbon conspiracy”: that in fact the polar icecaps are not melting and Copenhagen was a farce. Let’s make no mistake about it: the ice is (still) melting. The prediction that the Himalayan glaciers will be gone by 2035 may have proven unfounded, but that doesn’t mean the climate is not in hot water.
Cryptoscience in the hands of climate sceptics
What gets far too little press is that climate data are indeed manipulated – not by the IPCC, but by climate sceptics who are well versed in the ways of “cryptoscience” [using scientific methods to study unexplained or irrational phenomena]. This practice is proliferating in the fertile compost of postmodernity, the World Wide Web and powerful US, Russian and Saudi Arabian pressure groups. The selfsame methods have, incidentally, already been tried and tested by Big Tobacco, the nuclear power industry and, more recently, by the US insurance industry to sabotage Obama’s health care reforms.
Postmodern society gives every Tom, Dick and Harry a chance to speak his piece. The Web is infested with the prattle of self-proclaimed pundits who will use any titbits of (mis)information they can get their hands on to back up any farfetched claim. The typical “crypto” tricks are to amplify uncertainties, distort figures and hype up serviceable incidents. The “cryptos” have pooled their forces to form the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC for short) – which just happens to be sponsored by the Australian and American coal industries, as reveals Canadian author James Hoggan in his book Climate Cover Up. And it was the Science and Public Policy Institute in Washington (SPPI), a mouthpiece for this pressure group, that brought the article about the non-existent observation posts, which lacks any confirmation by peer review whatsoever.
The IPCC, a left-wing tool
The media, often ravenous for scandal and scientifically uninformed, pounce upon “revelations” of this ilk. A typo here, a mis-citation or innocuous footnote there: that’s enough material for a front-page “exposé” proclaiming that global warming is a hoax. Everyone is, after all, entitled to his own opinion. It may be noted in passing, however, that these “cryptos” rarely work for well-reputed establishments or rank among the serious scientists whose papers are subjected to peer review. No wonder, ripostes the climate sceptic faction: those establishments and journals are all controlled by the “carbon mafia”, who will not admit lay critics in their midst.
According to the sceptics, the IPCC is a left-wing political tool that distorts the facts and denies the truth: the climate is actually getting colder, say the cryptoscientists; the sun and water vapour have a far greater impact on the climate than CO2 or methane; and the earth’s temperature was at least 20°C higher X million years ago. Naturally, all that can be refuted. As a matter of fact, those contentions were deemed unworthy of discussion at Copenhagen and were even thrown out as irrelevant at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi in January.
Science on the scrapheap of history
Nonetheless, there is ample cause for concern: the great attainments of modern science are liable to be consigned to oblivion without our even noticing. Over the past few centuries, science has freed itself from the chains of theocracy and developed the “scientific method”: a formidable system of rules of observation, experimentation, comparison, measurement, falsification, review and the diffusion of knowledge whereby it is transformed into concrete technological and social applications. Cryptoscience, which couldn’t care less, is hell bent on sacrificing modern science on the altar of populism. It is up to the political establishment to defend modern science and resist the temptation to follow the herd whenever problems arise.
Scepticism is the key to science
My non-scientist friends are beginning to ask me “What’s gone wrong with science?” Revelations about melting glaciers and potentially dodgy emails about global warming and other stories alike, have created the impression for some people that science is in a mess. Of course science isn’t in a mess, nor has anything changed. But the stories underline two important features of scientists and science. First, scientists, just like every other trade — bus drivers, lawyers and bricklayers — are a mix. Most are pretty average, a few are geniuses, some are a bit thick, and some dishonest. Second, science itself is often misunderstood. Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman’s phrase says it best: “Science is the organised scepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” Scientists don’t have all the answers, but they do have a way of finding out, and the fact that our lights come on, our computers compute and our mobile phones phone are among the myriad daily reminders that the scientific way works.
Scientists, like everyone else, have human frailties and are susceptible to fashion and orthodoxy. Nevertheless, over time, science is self-correcting because someone will have the courage to challenge the prevailing view and win the argument, provided he or she has sufficient evidence. The prevailing view in many areas of science will include significant uncertainties (as with climate change), so challenge is central to the progress of understanding. The claim that Himalayan glaciers would melt in the next 30 years is an example of this self-correction. It was debunked from within the scientific community and not by outside commentators, it does not undermine the core conclusions about man-made global warming, and the mistake that the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made was to dismiss this challenge without studying the evidence.