A Brief Lesson in the Integrity of Science: Climate Scientists Challenge Bad Science, No Matter theSource
Peter GleickAll scientists are, by definition, skeptics. Hence the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of theworld’s oldest scientific academies (founded in 1660),
Nullius in verba
: “Take nobody’s word.” Skepticsand good scientists question and change their minds when presented with competing and convincingevidence. Indeed, scientific reputations are made by identifying flaws in current thinking, developingand testing new hypotheses, and by being right, not wrong. And while all scientists (and all people)make mistakes, good ones acknowledge their mistakes, correct them, and refine our knowledge. Badones dig in their heels, defending a faulty paradigm to the bitter end.While a huge amount of effort is put into debunking the bad science promoted by climate deniers,scientists work to correct errors in understanding about climate on all sides. Here is a good example of honest climate science at work, in this case to correct a technical error in a report from an Argentineanfood security NGO overstating some climate risks.Earlier this week a small Argentinean non-governmental organization (FEU) released an embargoed copyof a new report on the food implications of climate change. It is well understood that climate changeswill have very significant and varying impacts on the agricultural sector and the ability of differentregions and the world to produce food. This new report makes a simple, but important error aboutclimate science, which led to an exaggeration of the severity (and especially the timing) of agriculturalimpacts. Very simply, the authors confused the “equilibrium” and the “transient” temperature increasesassociated with future concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As a result, they arguedthat temperature increases in the coming years will be far higher than they are expected to be byclimate scientists. This “transient versus equilibrium” problem is well understood and discussed(seehere for a fine summary by Scott Mandia, and another nice review and comment by Steve Easterbrook).
It’s like turning up the thermostat in your house: the temperature doesn’t increase instantly – it takessome time. Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere does the same thing: a certain concentration inthe atmosphere implies a
of a certain temperature, but the change isn’t instantaneous: ittakes time to reach that temperature because of lags in the system. The FEU report didn’t understandthe idea of “lag.”When the embargoed report was made available to the climate science community, the error was seen,identified, and called to the attention of the authors of the study. FEU chose not to fix the error andwent ahead and released the report (to the detriment of their own credibility – while I doubt their errorwas intentional, they had the opportunity to correct it when scientists pointed it out to them and theychose not to do so). The climate science community has responded quickly with an explicit criticism of the science error – an excellent example of how climate scientists work to correct errors, no matter thedirection. [Indeed, there is a new group dedicated to rapidly responding to mistakes and
misunderstandings in the press and other forums about climate.] Gavin Schmidt, for example, a NASA