Ben Pile, a writer for Spiked Online who has his own blog called climate-resistance, has a guest post on a University of Nottingham Making Science public blog. His post discusses Andrew Neil’s interview with Ed Davey, Dana’s response, and also discusses the Cook et al. consensus paper. I don’t want to say much about the actual post, but it does seem to be written be someone who thinks it’s more important to philsophize about science, than actually do science – or maybe, more correctly, someone who thinks they can judge science by philosophizing about science.
What was interesting is that Mike Hulme commented to say
Ben Pile is spot on. The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it.
Now, Mike Hulme is a Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, so – presumably – is not someone who’s views should be simply dismissed. According to his homepage his work explores the idea of climate change using historical, cultural and scientific analyses, seeking to illuminate the numerous ways in which climate change is deployed in public and political discourse, so this is his area of expertise.
I don’t quite now what to make of Mike Hulme’s comment. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with there being a disagreement about whether something is worthwhile or not. It could mean nothing at all really. He also, strictly speaking, may have a point. In an ideal world, a consensus paper would be unnecessary. The literature would simply reflect that some kind of agreement had been reached. So, maybe Mike Hulme believes that such work is unnecessary and that publishing such a paper reflects poorly on the field. Maybe Mike Hulme thinks that this makes it appear as though climate science is unable to make the “consensus” obvious without publishing such a paper and hence makes it seem that the “consensus” isn’t real. Also, such a paper might make it seem that the they’re claiming that the “science is settled” because there is a consensus, rather than the other way around.
There is, however, a problem with this interpretation. Most scientific fields do not have people making claims about whether or not a consensus exists. Typically, people have some faith in the scientists. If a scientist is interviewed and explains the current scientific understanding, most people are happy to listen. That there might be a few scientists who disagree, doesn’t really play a role. Climate science is, however, a field where not only are some claiming that there is no “consensus”, but is also a field where some are promoting the work done by those who are in the minority (in terms of their scientific ideas at least). In my opinion at least, a paper such as that by Cook et al. is necessary so as to point out that those claiming that there is no consensus are wrong.
Cook et al. is not trying to claim that the science is settled because there is a consensus. It’s trying to point out that a “consensus” exists so as to address those claiming that it doesn’t. The science might not be settled, but there is much more agreement within the scientific community than many would have you believe. I realise that many are using the Cook et al. paper to argue that science isn’t done by consensus and hence that the paper illustrates a fundamental problem with climate science, but I still think that such a paper has value. Eventually, the message will have to get out there and it will become clear that there is strong agreement about the science. There may be aspects of the paper that will turn out to be counter-productive (i.e., people using it to argue against the consensus), but I still think that you do need to do something to address the claims made by those who want people to believe that there is no agreement within the climate science community. So, maybe Mike Hulme thinks otherwise, but I think he’s wrong.
Maybe my sense of what is driving Mike Hulme’s views is also wrong. According to his Wikipedia entry he is also quoted as saying
At the very least, the publication of private CRU e-mail correspondence should be seen as a wake-up call for scientists – and especially for climate scientists. The key lesson to be learnt is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned – the IPCC does a fair job of this according to its own terms – but that in the new century of digital communication and an active citizenry, the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned.
This seems like a rather strange thing to say. I’ve read quite a few of the climategate emails and, as far as I can tell, they’ve largely been mis-interpreted or taken out of context. Is Mike Hulme implying that there’s something to the claims being made with regards to these emails? Is he really suggesting that we should be making all our correspondence open? That seems highly unrealistic. I know it’s probably sensible now to consider what someone might make of an email were it to be made public, but that doesn’t mean that it should all be public. Not only would they almost certainly be taken out of context or mis-interpreted, presumably it’s also reasonable that even scientists could have robust exchanges with colleagues without having to worry that what they say may be scrutinised by those who don’t understand either the science or the scientific method.
So, maybe I’ve completely mis-interpreted Mike Hulme’s comment. If anyone can add more context through the comments, it would be appreciated. I was also going to add something about Richard Tol’s criticism of the 97% consensus paper, but I’ll leave that for a later post.