An editorial on climate science in today's New York Times presents an interesting counterpoint to yesterday's denialist manifesto in the WSJ. Since the NYT is a sober, moderate paper, it naturally affects a sober and moderate tone in order to deliver a sober and moderate version of the basic denialist message.
First off, we need to consider the significant errors the IPCC made, as evidenced by the only one that's really obvious.
The controversy over the 2007 report has been stoked by charges of poor sourcing and alarmist forecasts, prominently a prediction — in a 938-page working paper — that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. This was clearly an exaggeration, though it was not included in the final report.I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that mistakes are mistakes and incorrect forecasts are incorrect. It doesn't matter whether an inaccurate forecast predicts melting Himalayan glaciers or a glorious new age of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows; what's at issue is the validity of the science behind it, not the possibility that it represents a sin against the holy spirit of optimism.
Regardless, the NYT is careful to note that this was an alarmist forecast, according to "charges" made by unidentified but presumably serious-minded people. Never mind that the IPCC report comprises any number of alarming forecasts, including -- as I noted yesterday -- its corrected forecast for glacial melting. Never mind that anyone who's capable of being frightened by the near-term disappearance of Himalayan glaciers ought to be frightened by IPCC forecasts that have not been retracted, and may even be conservative. What's important here is that during the process of quantifying and describing a serious threat to modern civilization, the IPCC arguably fell prey in one semi-unequivocal instance to alarmism.
And not the good kind of alarmism, like claiming that Colin Powell's colorful drawings of mobile bioweapons labs oblige us to attack Iraq, or that capping carbon emissions will condemn us to living in some UN-administered troglodyte gulag, where we'll gnaw roots and fronds by the ghostly light of bioluminescent fungus. Nope, this is the bad kind of alarmism...the kind that posits serious problems that can't be solved by electing more centrists, deregulating more industries, beating up more hippies, or dropping bombs on more ragheads.
When an orchestrated ideological attack is launched on science -- on the basis of blinkered business interests, zero-sum competition for authority, and seething resentments that go all the way back to the goddamn Scopes trial -- what can it mean but that science needs to mend its ways?
[G]iven the complexity and urgency of climate change — and its vulnerability to political posturing — scientists engaged in the issue must avoid personal agendas and be intellectually vigilant and above reproach.That's good for a start, but I could use a footrub while they're at it. If Rajendra K. Pachauri weren't so deeply embroiled in alleged (but still shocking!) conflicts of interest that have undermined the great eternal work of debating whether AGW is really a serious problem, he could be soothing my bunions right now with Ayurvedic massage.
I submit that it's not actually possible to be "above reproach" when ciphers like Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts can casually invalidate your life's work by waving the magic wand of blog science, and virtually any paranoiac halfwit with a Website and an axe to grind can have his or her "charges" about your "alarmism" stovepiped into the mass media. Worrying that scientists are "thin-skinned" because they object -- in private e-mails -- to being called incompetent socialistic genocidal frauds is not really fair. Especially since our nation's Titans of Industry routinely treat any scientific theory that challenges their worldview (i.e., their outdated business model) as a personal affront.
For some reason, the tantrums of these glibertarian dead-enders have a certain nobility and grandeur. But when scientists weary of being told by Dunning-Kruger casualties that OMG ITS TEH SUN STOOPID LOLOLOLOL, they need to be reminded that "perceived misbehavior...can diminish the credibility of science as a whole.”
That last quote is actually from Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. As such, it's a pretty good example of how poorly scientists tend to function in the political field, and how easily their words can be used against them. If you want to talk about "perceived misbehavior," you need to talk about how scientific behavior is represented to the public, which means you need to talk about media and politics, which means you need to talk about money and power.
It's nice to imagine that as long as scientists "behave," misperceptions won't arise. But as this editorial shows, the official lesson of the recent denialist onslaught is not that powerful, coordinated interests are dedicated to putting every single thing "warmists" do and say in the worst possible light while avoiding close scrutiny themselves, but that scientists shouldn't scare people and must maintain a saintly patience when they're accused of being frauds and fools. Essentially, climate scientists get a defective dueling pistol and are expected to hit their target eleven times out of ten, while denialists get a flamethrower and are allowed to burn down entire neighborhoods so long as they claim afterwards that their target was destroyed. Or failing that, singed.
The "liberal" NYT may favor a different tone than the "conservative" WSJ, but they work together nicely: In effect, the NYT holds climatologists' arms behind their back while the WSJ punches them in the face. And as is traditional in American life, any "perceived misbehavior" tends to be on the part of the victim, who clearly asked for it.