A group of 20 retired engineers and scientists who worked on the Apollo programme have got together to form a group called The Right Climate Stuff (TRCS). Their goal was to look at the evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and to write a report with their assessment. You can access their report and read a summary on their website. I don’t really want discuss the report in any detail, but it does seem as though they make a number of statements that aren’t consistent with our current scientific understanding. It also appears to have a somewhat neo-liberal bias. They suggest that even though we will need alternative energy sources in the future, governments shouldn’t be influencing the development of these alternative energy sources. Market forces should be driving the development of new technologies. Rather ironic given that they were involved in one of the biggest publicly funded projects in history, a project that would almost certainly not have taken place had it been left to market forces.
To some extent I found the premise of TRCS a little arrogant. Somehow because they’re retired engineers and scientists who worked on the Apollo mission, they’re somehow amongst the best and can analyse and interpret climate science. I imagine there were thousands of scientists and engineers working on the Apollo programme, not all of them can have been brilliant. I was, however, going to comment on something else, and that is the interpretation of what is referred to as the scientific method.
The scientific method is simply an understanding that when trying to study something complex, scientific research will tend – over time – to converge towards an agreed understanding. There will be a consensus about the strength of the evidence and what it tells you about this scientific area. One of the great examples that people use is indeed the Apollo missions. Many scientists and engineers worked in this area and eventually they understood it well enough to put men on the moon. There are many other examples of successes that one can attribute to the scientific method. A success of the scientific method, however, does not mean that every paper published in this area is right and that every interpretation is correct. What it means is that, over time, you eliminate that models that don’t fit the data and you also collect more and more data to compare with the models and theories. It also doesn’t mean that once a scientific consensus has been reached, that nothing will then change. The understanding could still be completely wrong – although I can’t really think of a good example where a good scientific agreement was reached that later turned out to be completely wrong (I’m ignoring historical things where the agreement was influence by, for example, religious belief). The understanding could still also change as more research takes place, although this would normally be an evolution of our understanding rather than a complete revolution.
The scientific method often comes up in discussions of climate science and, in my opinion, is typically misused. Some seem to think that it is a set of rules and you’ll regularly get people saying “you can’t do that, it’s unscientific” or “they combined two different data sets, that’s not allowed and invalidates their research”. Some also seem to think that if they can find one piece of published work that supports their idea, it makes them right (forgetting that the same should then apply to everyone else). It’s really much more complicated than this and is a process that leads to an overall understanding, rather than something that applies to individual bits of work. So, why do I think this is relevant to the TRCS? Well, this is a group of people who were involved in one of the greatest successes of the scientific method, but who seem to have largely ignored it when writing their report. Some of what they say has merit, but much seems to be cherry-picked. Just because you can find a few studies that say that rises in CO2 levels in the atmosphere isn’t going to significantly influence our climate doesn’t make it right. There’s a claim that rises in CO2 will be good for agriculture and will have a beneficial effect on many parts of the globe. Really, where does this come from? They claim that global warming can’t be catastrophic. Maybe, but I think you need to define what you mean by catastrophic. A Venus-like catastrophe may be unlikely but there are millions of people living in areas that may become uninhabitable if climate change predictions are correct. I do think that it is good that people are interested in this issue, but I think that the apparent lack of trust in the climate science community and the sense that their work can be ignored is an extremely dangerous tendency. In my opinion, reports like that produced by the TRCS are likely to do more harm than good.