Three recent events have brought the controversy over climate science back into the news and onto my radar screen:
First, Ivar Giaever, the 1973 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, resigned from the American Physical Society over his disagreement with its statement that “the evidence (on warming alarmism) is incontrovertible.” Instead, he writes that the evidence suggests that “the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this ‘warming’ period.”
Second, the editor of Remote Sensing resigned and disassociated himself from a skeptical paper co-authored by University of Alabama Climate Scientist Roy Spencer after an avalanche of criticism by “warmists.” His resignation brings to mind Phil Jones’ threat to “get rid of troublesome editors” (cited above).
Third, the New York Times and other major media are ridiculing Texas Governor Rick Perry for saying that global warming is “not proven.” Their message: Anyone who does not sign on to global warming alarmism is an ignorant hayseed and clearly not presidential material.
What lessons do I, as an economist, draw from these three events?
First: The Giaever story starkly disputes warmist claims of “inconvertible evidence.” Despite the press’s notable silence on such matters, there are a large number of prominent scientists with solid scholarly credentials who disagree with the IPCC-Central Committee. Those who claim “proven science” and “consensus” conveniently ignore such scientists.
With his public resignation, Nobel Laureate Giaever joins a long list of distinguished “skeptics,” which includes Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT and member of the National Academy of Sciences, Hendrik Tennekes, retired Director of Research, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, Sallie Baliunas, astronomer, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Ian Clark, hydrogeologist, professor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Ottawa: William M. Gray, Professor Emeritus and head of The Tropical Meteorology Project, Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, William Happer, physicist, Princeton University, Tim Patterson, paleoclimatologist and Professor of Geology at Carleton University in Canada, and Fred Singer, Professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia (just to name a few from a long list).
Second: As someone with forty years experience with peer reviewed journals. I can testify that the Remote Sensing editor’s resignation and public discreditation of Spencer’s skeptical paper would be considered bizarre and unprofessional behavior in any other scholarly discipline.
In all fields of scientific inquiry, journal editors base their publication decisions on reports of referees, who are supposed to be experts in the area. Presumably, in the case of the Spencer paper, referees supported its publication. Even if there had been a negative report, good editors often publish controversial papers to open a scholarly dialog. (Can anyone think of a topic that is more controversial and more in need of open scholarly dialog than global warming?). In the case of controversial papers, the editor gives credible critics space to air their objections, and the author is accorded the opportunity to respond.
In this odd case, the editor did not follow the normal procedure of publishing critical comments by specialists who disagree with the paper. He chose instead to disavow and discredit the paper himself, despite the fact that he is not an expert on the subject. Nor did the editor give Spencer an opportunity to respond to his personal disavowal. Instead, rebuttals of the Spencer paper are scheduled to be published in another journal friendly to the warmist position. Spencer will not be given an opportunity to respond in that journal. (Spencer is like the muzzled Trotsky in my quote above. Stalin will decide what others are allowed to hear).
In my field of economics, such unprofessional behavior would destroy the editor’s professional reputation and make him or her a laughing stock. Not in climate science apparently. We can see Jones’ threat to “redefine peer review” in action. Like Stalin, the climate establishment cannot allow climate science to be turned into a “discussion club.”
Third: The media is tarring and feathering Rick Perry, we now see, for agreeing with Nobel laureate Giaever and a host of other prominent scientists. I guess if Perry is a know-nothing Texas hick (or worse, a pawn of Big Oil) so is every other scientist who dares to disagree with the IPCC Central Committee. Such intimidation chillingly makes politicians, public figures, and scientists fearful of deviating one inch from orthodoxy. They want to avoid Orwell’s “watching their comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.” How many are willing to shoulder that burden?
I do not know whether the warmists or skeptics are right. I do know that the modeling of the climate is among the most complex of scientific tasks. In this regard, climate science and economics have much in common. We both must try to understand complicated systems with intricate feedbacks and uncertain causality. As recent experience shows, we economists have yet to find “incontrovertible truth.” We will never reach a consensus. Nor should we. Why should we expect climate science, unlike other disciplines, to reach a consensus when we do not expect this of other fields of scientific inquiry.
About a year ago, I attended a debate between a noted warmist and skeptic. They agreed only on one thing: Climate science is in its infancy. We are just beginning to understand the climate. When we look back, we will understand how little we really understood and how wrong our first findings were. This is the way science is created.
False claims of consensus and inconvertible truth reveal a political or ideological agenda wrapped in the guise of science. The incontrovertible bad behavior of the warmists has led skeptics to suspect base motives, and who could blame them?
The only thing in science that is incontrovertible is the principle that nothing is incontrovertible. The constant resort to "incontrovertible" language by the alarmists is a signal that the person making the assertion has just passed over the border of science into the realm of politics.