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Saturday, September 17, 2005

Science, schmience

Last Thursday, Terry Gross interviewed Chris Mooney, the author of The Republican War on Science. (As soon as I can find a discounted copy of the book, I'm going to read it. I promise.) The interview was interesting and worth a listen.

Well, because journalistic balance must be maintained, she followed Chris by interviewing Robert Walker, former advisor to the 2000 Bush campaign on Science and Technology:

Robert Walker, a retired congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chairman of the Science Committee, responds to allegations that the Bush administration has mishandled scientific issues. Walker now serves as chairman of Wexler & Walker, a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.

I suppose it would have been too much to ask that the Bush campaign actually have a scientist advising it about science and technology. But I digress. Here is a transcript of the interview starting from about 4:50. (I transcribed this myself, editing out only the "Ums", "Uhs" and the like. If I made any errors, forgive me.)

Robert Walker: But scientists then have a burden of proof to assure that the peer review that is done of their science is in fact a peer review of science and not with a political bias to it. During the 1990s, much of the work that was done on global warming, for example, became highly suspect because it was being done in an atmosphere that anything that you had to say on the formulation of models for global warming was almost accepted out of hand by the government because the review panel did not represent a broad cross-section of the views on that issue. For example, there were a lot of scientists who spoke out on global warming during the 1990s who have no credentials as climatologists whatsoever. They were people, they were social scientists. There were a whole group of scientists who did not have background in the science to which they were speaking.

Terry Gross: Whether that is true - you know, if that is true they were social scientists who spoke out - there were also many climate scientists who spoke out, and those climate scientists seemed to pretty much be in agreement that global warming is a major issue and global warming is a result, at least in part, of human activity.

RW: The climatologists had not come to that conclusion, and if you look at the broad base of climatologists who have spoken out on the issue, they have been very circumspect about what they've said. They do believe that there is a warming trend, but most of them are unwilling at the present time to say that that trend is a result of some induced activity; that it may well be a part of larger trends, and that's one of the things that needs to be investigated. That's one of the things where the Bush administration has put a good deal of money is in trying to figure out just exactly what we're dealing with here. Are we dealing with multi-decadal trends that involve climate being climate, or are we in, do we have human related activity which is having a detrimental impact. And a large portion of the climatology community has not yet come to that conclusion.

TG: Do you think it's a large portion, or a minority?

RW: No, I think it's a large portion of climatologists who are not prepared to say that we have global warming and it absolutely is a result of human activity. You know, the Union of Concerned Scientists and some of the liberal ideology says that, but the climatologists are very, very reluctant to be put in that kind of a position.

Okay, so first he suggests that social scientists constitute a major block of climatologists' peer reviewers in the '90s. While I haven't been able to locate a reasonably comprehensive list of the editors of climatology related journals during that decade; the vast, vast majority of current editors of these periodicals are scientists specializing in climatology and related subjects (physicists specilizing in the physics of weather, atmospheric chemists, etc). I believe that my doubts as to the preponderance of social scientists on these panels in the previous decade is justified.

More importantly though, Walker asserts, "No, I think it's a large portion of climatologists who are not prepared to say that we have global warming and it absolutely is a result of human activity." Since he specificly uses the term "large portion" in preference to the offered term "minority", "large portion" must be interpreted to mean "half or greater."

So let's double check and see who disagrees with him:

Well the American Meterological Society does:
Because human activities are contributing to climate change, we have a collective responsibility to develop and undertake carefully considered response actions. The fundamental challenge is to understand and respond to the risk represented by climate change in the larger context of overall societal issues and environmental stresses.
The National Academy of Sciences, headed by Earth Systems Scientist, Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone, does:
Laboratory measurements of gases trapped in dated ice cores have shown that for hundreds of thousands of years, changes in temperature have closely tracked atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Burning fossil fuel for energy, industrial processes, and transportation releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at its highest level in 400,000 years and continues to rise. Nearly all climate scientists today believe that much of Earth’s current warming has been caused by increases in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels.
And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does, as well:
There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Detection and attribution studies consistently find evidence for an anthropogenic signal in the climate record of the last 35 to 50 years. These studies include uncertainties in forcing due to anthropogenic sulfate aerosols and natural factors (volcanoes and solar irradiance), but do not account for the effects of other types of anthropogenic aerosols and land-use changes. The sulfate and natural forcings are negative over this period and cannot explain the warming; whereas most of these studies find that, over the last 50 years, the estimated rate and magnitude of warming due to increasing greenhouse gases alone are comparable with, or larger than, the observed warming. The best agreement between model simulations and observations over the last 140 years has been found when all the above anthropogenic and natural forcing factors are combined

The American Meterological Society is the primary association of American climatologists, the National Academy of Sciences is the premiere organization of American scientists, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the foremost group of climatologists internationally. All three of these groups agree that global warming is one of the major problems facing our planet and that human contributions to greenhouse gasses represent the primary cause of global warming in our time. To the best that I have been able to determine, all of these groups operate on democratic principles; i.e. in order for any of the organizations to put forth a specific position, the majority of its members must vote to support that position. Therefore, lacking any organized survey of climatologists, the only reasonable conclusion is that a "large portion" of climate scientists do not disagree with the assertion that "we have global warming and it absolutely is a result of human activity."

The rest of the Walker interview follows along the lines of the section that I've chosen to investigate. If you have the stomach, it's worth listening to, if only so you can get a basic understanding about what the other side believes vis a vis science. In particular, listen to him avoid the question about whether or not Intelligent Design is science and should be taught in our nation's science classes.

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