NPR logo Scientists Speak On Climate Change Science And Independence


Scientists Speak On Climate Change Science And Independence

Two NASA visualizations of the Earth in April 2001. On the left, heat given off and pumped out into space. On the right, a look at sunlight reflected back out to space. These images were taken by NASA's CERES experiment. Tom Bridgman/NASA hide caption

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Tom Bridgman/NASA

Last week, right before Independence Day weekend, the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science circulated a statement concerning attacks on climate scientists by global warming deniers.

The statement, touching directly on thorny issues related to academic freedom and the relationship between science and policy-making, is a lucid and direct explanation of how science works and what it needs to succeed:

Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process.

This process is the lifeblood of science. Research moves knowledge forward but not in a straight line. As I discussed here last week, every scientific result is valid within a margin of error, even if it's right. Once a discovery is announced, it falls upon the rest of the community to judge it, by carefully evaluating its claims.

Climate research works precisely in the same way. To politicize it, to persecute and scrutinize individual scientists as if they were corrupt politicians, is not only misguided but useless. Not all scientists are virtuous (and not all doctors, lawyers, bankers, or teachers either), but the whole point of the scientific process is to free itself from such personal flaws: sooner or later, fraudulent or wrong data is uncovered and the path toward certitude is restored. Errors may persist for a while, but not for a very long while.

So, we must wonder what's behind all these attempts to denigrate scientists working on climate change. One of us here at 13.7, Ursula Goodenough, asked in May what motivates climate change deniers.

I can't say I know, and there probably are many answers, but one is surely ignorance of how science works. Another is manipulation by politicians, talk-show hosts with clear political agendas and the oil industry. Another must be a culture that feeds on the humiliation of the other for its own self-gratification.

Being a fly fisherman, I'm horrified by the recent oil spill at the Yellowstone River, which could compromise much of the trout fishing industry in Montana. That industry brings in $240 million per year (in 2008) to the state.

I wonder why on Earth oil pipelines nowadays must go so near crucial waterways. It seems that Exxon-Mobil will never learn its lessons. The worse part is that the oil industry is like a technological dinosaur we all feed from.

When I think of seven billion humans on this planet, and of the effort to find new ways to produce energy which are cleaner for the environment and thus to humans, it really is hard for me to understand why there is so much public suspicion toward climate research.

Is it because people are too set in their ways? Do we always need a tragedy in order to start acting? Even if the climate change predictions were off the mark (which they aren't — within their error bars), what do we have to lose by changing our ways to do a better job protecting the place where we live?

Earth existed long before we did and will continue to exist without us. But we can't survive without it.