The pillars of the Eagle nebula

One does not just snap an image through a telescope, write up what you think it implies and move on. There are many, many steps requiring years of training, expertise and experience before the pretty -- and scientifically relevant -- picture emerges. (NASA)

By Adam Frank

Who gets a say in scientific climate debates? Who do we, as a society, deem competent to judge the strength or weakness of the scientific case for climate change? It is, literally, impossible to understate the importance of confronting this issue. An incorrect assessment of climate science will, either way, cost us far beyond what we have the capital to cover. So, who gets a voice?

The explicit claims of Climate-not-gaters have nothing to do with the issue. Like that section in US magazine, all the emails really show is that climate scientists are JUST LIKE US. They say stupid and mean things sometimes in private conversations. The hacked emails do not show a widespread conspiracy to defraud the public. Attacking the scientists because you can't attack the science simply shows the turn the debate has taken for some. But climate change is such an important issue that reasonable people who begin from a place of skepticism (which is a critical scientific faculty) have a right to ask, "Why should I believe this?"

Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology has recently written a series of controversial essays/blog posts about engaging with so-called climate auditors. In her terminology an auditor is a technically competent non-climatologist who, supposedly, seeks to keep the climate science project honest. While I do not agree with many of Curry's assessments, she raises a number of points with great integrity and courage.

But there is step that comes before anyone can address the question "Have climate auditors found climate science wrong?" Before you get to that issue you must first get right with this question: "What does it mean to be wrong in science". This is the question that makes it tricky to open long term climate data-sets and giant climate simulation codes to everyone.

A friend of mine and I were talking about this and he related two stories which illustrate the different meanings of "wrong" in science (I will change the details here to protect the innocent).

Once as a post-doc he was working on radio telescope data related to temperatures in star forming clouds. Analyzing the data he found a smooth variation in the temperature across the cloud. Comparing what he found with a result published by a senior scientist he found a significant discrepancy. The temperatures and the shifts across the cloud differed. When he raised the issue with the scientist he was blown off, "I don't know why you got what you got but I have faith in my analysis" was all the older man would tell him. Only later did my friend realize the discrepancy arose because assumptions in their two methods were different. Thus both works gave the right answer, but those answers could not be compared in a straightforward fashion. In a sense, they were asking different questions. Neither result was wrong.

Then my friend told me about a new scientific programmer he had hired to analyze light coming from a young stars. The programmer's first job was to confirm previous results calculated by the guy who had the job before him. After weeks of trying the new guy could not reproduce the previous result. Only after much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments did my friend and the new programmer find the problem -- two lines of erroneous coding in the analysis software code. The previous programmer has screwed the pooch. The result was definitely wrong.

These two examples bookend how the scientific process is supposed to work. They also raise the critical question of who is supposed to work it. When an article published in a scientific journal makes a provocative claim, detractors have a couple of options in their response. You can do your own analysis, show that you get a different result and say "They screwed up somehow." You can also look really carefully at what they claim they did in their paper, repeat the analysis as best you can and show where they went wrong. In either case you must have the training and competence to do the heavy lifting.

Scientific analysis is rarely straightforward. In my own field of astronomy one does not just snap an image through a telescope, write up what you think it implies and move on. Anyone who has ever seen a raw Hubble Space Telescope image knows there are many, many steps requiring years of training, expertise and experience before the pretty -- and scientifically relevant -- picture emerges.

So it is with the climate auditors. So it is with the much larger and more pressing issue of science and culture as a whole. Ultimately these debates are too important, and too easily manipulated (as the politically motivated climate deniers have shown) to simply rely on scientists saying "trust us". On the other hand most climate scientists did not dedicate 15 years of their lives in training for their field because they wanted to be media communications experts. Nor should they be expected to handhold amateurs (I mean that literally -- people who do not do this for a living) who will make countless mistakes and claim them to be verifiable truth.

There must be a middle ground here. Perhaps an office should be created in the NSF, NASA and NOAA that works specifically in this new gray area. It would be worth the effort and the money. The stakes are simply to high to let the debate sink to where we are have fallen now.

categories: Science and Culture

10:10 - March 23, 2010