November 2009

Essays

Peter Doherty

Copenhagen and beyond: Sceptical thinking

Scepticism is central to science. Good scientists look critically at their own and others’ ideas as they seek understanding from available observations and measurements. Better to find the flaw yourself than have someone else point it out. This is as true for climate scientists as it is for research biologists (like me). As an occasional attendee of ‘climatology’ seminars, I don’t see any basic difference in philosophy between these scientific fields.

The scope of what science can do is constantly being enhanced by technology. While microbiology is benefiting from new, ultra-high-speed gene and protein sequencers, climatology is being informed by next-generation satellites that can measure the depth and area of ice sheets, as well as relay temperature measurements from different levels of the oceans. The science of climate change is moving fast and – as in my field – anyone who isn’t actively involved in research soon becomes history. That’s why elderly scientists who don’t fully understand and don’t support the current consensus – though they may convey an amiable aura of experience and wisdom – are well advised to be quiet.

I am an experimentalist who manipulates acute systems, so I may be marginally more conscious of Murphy’s Law than scientists who observe long-term natural events. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is a principle realised all too often when you are deliberately intervening in complex systems, which is what I do for a living. When it comes to perturbation, there is no precedent for the greenhouse gas experiment presently being conducted by humanity. We are simultaneously releasing the combustion products of billions of tons of fossil fuels, devastating the forests that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and rapidly acidifying the great CO2 ‘sink’ (the surface layers of the oceans). This experiment, which involves 6.8 billion human beings, as well as every other complex life form on our small planet, can only be done once. Can we afford to explore the extent of its possibilities? I fail to comprehend how any competent scientist could argue that our current strategies are sustainable. Comparable intimations of disaster during, for instance, the testing of a new drug would lead to the immediate termination of the trial.

The identification of the fossil fuel–greenhouse gas problem is based on physics and chemistry and is further informed by research in meteorology, oceanography, geophysics, glaciology, palaeontology, marine microbiology and terrestrial ecology, among other fields. While the occurrence of significant climate change may seem conceptually straightforward, developing an accurate description of the intricacies of what is happening is deeply complex. The scope of this task places it beyond the capabilities of any individual or small group. Making sense of the myriad information is the responsibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a unique body fostered by the UN Environment Program and the World Meteorology Organization. Thousands of scientists are involved and the IPPC draws its evidence exclusively from peer-reviewed, published scientific literature; the contents of its Summary for Policymakers must meet the approval of government representatives from some 100 nations.

Active researchers will inevitably have some uncertainty – scepticism, even – about this or that emphasis in climate-change research. That’s how science works: scepticism develops the scientific debate. It plays itself out in competition, in discussion, in analysis, and by generating further results that test whether previous conclusions are justified, need further refinement or should be overturned. Everything is open to question, including the most basic assumptions. The debate is often intense and not always friendly. It does, however, inspire questions around which new studies can be designed – and these studies may produce new findings.

In a completely different category are the climate-change sceptics and deniers who cut themselves off from ongoing scientific discussion but happily share their views in the full glare of the media. The more extreme sceptics use the language of conspiracy theorists to characterise the IPCC as deeply flawed and to describe its key data-sets as fraudulent. They claim that the climate-science community largely comprises fools and knaves. The University of Adelaide geologist Ian Plimer argues along these lines in his book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – The Missing Science, which has sold more than 30,000 copies in Australia since it was first published in April. It has been greatly acclaimed by those media commentators hostile to science and rational enquiry, but universally panned by informed reviewers for its scientific inaccuracy and basic misrepresentations.

In a way, climate-change scepticism is unsurprising. A denialist fringe operates at the margins of almost any important field of science that gets discussed widely in the public domain. The most egregious example in my field is the faction that claims the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause AIDS. Despite numerous identified cases of AIDS having been contracted by HIV-infected needle transmission, the identification and study of similar diseases in non-human primates and the fact that specifically targeted ‘designer drugs’ have been shown to reduce the virus load and bring people back to something like clinical normality, HIV–AIDS deniers include Nobel laureate Kary Mullis and senior American National Academy of Sciences member Peter Duesberg. Unfortunately, early-career achievement in science confers no protection against later becoming a dangerous and dogmatic nutter.

As well as outright deniers, every field has the occasional ‘combative confrontationalist’ who automatically assumes a position in opposition to any major consensus. If they are active researchers – and their urge for confrontation doesn’t reach virulently destructive heights – confrontationalists can serve a useful role by forcing people to sharpen their arguments. Writing a mundane study becomes much easier if you can cite an article by one of these folk, which often also allows you to establish the brilliance of your intellectual synthesis in the process. Another category of nay-sayers are the ‘professional controversialists’. Science is hard and it takes a great deal of effort to establish a strong reputation in any area. If you speak out loudly against the consensus view, however, it is much easier to become part of a prominent public discourse. The pronouncements of the eminent, and elderly, physicist Freeman Dyson on climate science are a case in point. The crux of Dyson’s argument seems to be that we shouldn’t take action on climate change because it could delay development in countries such as China.

 Finally, there are the ‘conflicted nay-sayers’: people who have, say, worked closely with the mining industry and who feel a strong sense of personal loyalty towards it. It seems to me, though, that the compromised loyalty of this particular form of nay-sayer is wasted, as, while miners may currently be losing on the swings, they stand to gain on the roundabouts. Coal mining may be in trouble, but uranium sales are up, and those in the much cleaner natural gas industry must be doing well. Most renewable-energy strategies use a wide variety of metals, including structural steel and aluminium, nickel, cadmium, indium, gallium, and platinum for batteries and fuel cells. Some mining jobs will be lost but – as with any technological revolution – others are being created. Once an ETS is in place, I suspect the current phase of the energy industry protesting too much will have passed.

With the exception of Stewart Franks – a mid-career hydrologist, who is publishing well – Australia’s prominent climate-change sceptics are not active research leaders. Some have held impressive appointments in the past, but spending a decade or more as the public face of an institution doesn’t necessarily correlate to a high level of contemporary scientific awareness. I, for one, am acutely aware that – although I am still looking at data, talking to young scientists in the lab and helping to write research papers – there is no way I can be ‘across’ my own increasingly complex area of research without the constant input of colleagues with different expertise and insights.

The reality that multi-faceted science must necessarily be collaborative is the basis of my extreme scepticism regarding climate-change deniers in the media, who purport to command an enormously complex field from the Promethean perspective of the superior detached intellect. Like all other science, climatology is data-driven, and the data is constantly flooding in: measurements of change in bird-migration patterns; details of ocean temperatures and wind profiles; measurements of the calcification of coral, the ripening of grapes, the retreat of glaciers, and so on. Those who try, like Plimer, to cover the field simply by reading the specialist literature will inevitably make major mistakes. It’s essential to talk to other scientists, especially as relevant findings inevitably occur in areas outside your expertise. Meteorologists, physicists, geologists and oceanographers each have contributions to make, but the issue of climate change doesn’t belong to any one of them individually. It certainly does not belong to those at, or near to, retirement who are at odds with currently active scientists.

If media commentators and public deniers, such as Senator Steve Fielding, really want to understand what’s going on, they might talk to active climate scientists working in the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Antarctic Division, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and in most of our leading universities. Australian scientists are largely funded by tax dollars; most are available to talk to elected representatives and journalists. They have no problem laying out what they know to be sound about their findings and what needs further questioning. However, the fact that science bases its findings on data, rather than conspiracy, is a working principle that may prove hard for politicians and pundits to comprehend, given what they have to do to stay in the public eye.

Peter Doherty

Cover: November 2009

November 2009

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