This post will not be a review of the facts, theories and implications of the anthropogenic global warning (AGW) hypothesis. Watts Up With That has, throughout its lifetime, done a pretty good job of laying out the “skeptical” case against the alarmist position on climate change and this blog is not meant to rehash that case in detail, nor is this a post intended to blindly support all tenets of the skeptical argument. This is a post about the dangers of group-think (defined as a ‘thought’ or idea which gains enough momentum within a tight-knit group to be believe by all members of that group specifically because the group believes it – as in, “you can’t be in this group unless you believe X”).
I’ll start with an anecdote from my days as a grad student at Stony Brook University. I came to the school because it had strong ‘street cred’ among academics in atmospheric science. I was interested in medium and long range (days 4 to 45) forecasting challenges and my adviser was well respected in that venue. I cannot stress enough that the people at Stony Brook were, by in large, fantastic scientists doing top notch research and a privilege to work with. The school has its flaws, but one of them is NOT the rigor of the education it offers aspiring oceanographers and meteorologists. However; the school was heavily invested in climate change science, having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its partnership with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in preparation of the third assessment report. The School of Marine and Atmospheric Science was, at least in part, allowed to grow due to funding that arrived as a result of this honor; and the scientists there were fairly committed to their position regarding climate change.
And, to be fair, so was I. I entered Stony Brook already pretty well versed in the skeptical position on climate change, and my education at Stony Brook, if anything, hardened my position.
At any event, one of the things the department stressed was the importance of attending scientific lectures and meeting successful people in your field. They held (and still hold) weekly seminars with speakers invited from around the region to discuss their research, and strongly encouraged all grad students to attend (it was required in your first two years). At one such lecture, the speaker – who up until the final fifteen minutes or so in her talk had done a fairly decent job of staying objective, though her presentation was fairly weak – used the phrase “We can represent these changes in a way that no one can possibly miss – even climate deniers and people who hate science.” Thankfully, the talk was nearly at an end, and I walked out in disgust before the Q&A period.
This talk had followed a run of three lectures in four weeks on the subject of climate change, all of which had been seriously flawed and filled with rhetorical language that has no place in science, so I finally drafted an open letter to the entire department. I basically requested that the department not condone such statements as above, and that they make an effort to aspire to a higher standard of discourse that better cleaved to the scientific method. Here are some of the actual responses I got (no names named, for the protection of their right to privacy in academic conversation).
PROFESSOR IN PHYSICAL OCEANOGRAPHY
I would suggest that you better acquaint yourself with the standards of the scientific method. Nothing said in the above is inconsistent with it.
PROFESSOR OF ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE
We do, on occasion, invite speakers skeptical of the prevailing theory to give presentations. Last February, we had a talk by Willie Soon that generated some intense discussion, for example. If you believe you are sensing bias, it is likely because there is such a strong consensus in the literature in support of this theory. In short, it’s human nature that we, as climate scientists, show a bit of contempt in the face of skeptics who are still trying to undermine such a strong consensus. If there is a shift in that consensus, it will be reflected here.
ATMOSPHERIC CHEMISTRY STUDENT
Do you have a career death wish? What kind of idiot are you?
PROFESSOR IN PALEO-OCEANOGRAPHY
Please do not waste the time of this department to air your personal grievances. We do not exist to make sure all viewpoints are equally heard – we exist to promote scientific progress.
STUDENT IN PHYSICAL OCEANOGRAPHY
I missed this particular talk, but attend the Wednesday seminars regularly enough to know that this is nonsense. The only bias shown by this school is a bias toward good science. I guess they corrected that bias by accepting you.
As you would expect, the students were less civil, but look carefully at the comments of the professors. Every one of them equates consensus with truth, and the second professor I quoted also managed to dismiss all notion of bias by referring to the one talk every three or four years that they graciously allow from a known climate skeptic. I did get one reply that I would consider a representation of what a pro-AGW scientist should be saying in the face of an accusation of bias. He wanted to start a dialogue, and offered up a recent paper of his on solar-climate variability as a starting point in the discussion of the types of climate forcings that the models might be missing. It’s funny, because he was my least favorite professor as a student, but became one of the ones I most respected as a pure scientist.
But let’s ask the question – was their a bias toward “good science”? Here are a few examples of the science that the school supported in seminar talks leading up to this incident:
1) Climate modeling team from NASA attempted to add in the feedback effects of black carbon dust on arctic ice – their calibrated model without these feedbacks produced the usual global warming forecast – with the feedbacks added, the forecast produced 15 degrees of cooling almost instantly (within a few years).
2) In a study on sea-ice / low cloud cover interaction, Goddard scientists managed to gather six whole data points (the satellite data up there is limited and they needed to bin the data over 2 year periods to get reduced error estimates), which they attempted to fit to a linear trend projecting 0.1 C / decade warming rates in the arctic as sea-ice was lost, supposedly reducing low cloud clover. They later mentioned that there was some reason to be conservative with their estimates because if they removed the last data point from that fit, the trend dropped to 0.02 C / decade.
3) In a talk on global warming as revealed by SST warming in the Atlantic, the scientist concluded the presentation with a plot showing a cubic curve fit to some of his data, indicated calamity was ahead. He said “this isn’t really scientific, but I think it gets the point across.”
4) A scientist attempted to reconcile earlier consensus that the Sahel region in Africa would suffer unending drought due to global warming with data from the most recent 15 years suggesting that the drought of 1955-1985 was completely over. Their conclusion: although earlier tend analyses showed that the Sahel should dry under global warming, current modeling suggests the opposite. No mention of whether this trend would continue indefinitely.
I’ll let you folks be the judge if this is “good science” or not.
I want to be clear – I am not a hard skeptic (as in, I don’t believe there’s no such thing as human-induced climate change) – I believe that humans almost have to be having some sort of impact on climate. I question the rate of change, and the portion of that change caused by us, rather than natural factors like the sun. But what I saw in my time as a graduate student convinced me that the problem was not the scientists or their understanding of the scientific method, and it was not a coordinated government conspiracy to enslave us all – at least not among the scientists themselves – it was the funding.
I can’t count the number of times I had people at Stony Brook tell me that I should consider focusing on climate change because that was where the money was. I think what is happening is that scientists are falling for a group-think created by strategic government funding of a biased perspective on key issues, including climate change. As usual – when government distorts any market, including the marketplace of ideas, it only screws things up.
If you have an idea to study natural climate variability, you might get a small grant if you grovel enough and promise not to conclude that AGW is non-existent. If you have ANY idea remotely linked to climate science orthodoxy, you’re in the money. Even my adviser – whose main area of specialty is synoptic meteorology and terrain modeling – has extended himself into research on storm track changes under global warming, and regional climate downscaling studies, because synoptic meteorology doesn’t pay the bills. That’s not an insult to my adviser. We butted heads quite a bit, but the adversarial process produced in me my best work and I wouldn’t be where I am without his guidance. It’s a statement of reality.
In the 1970s, there was a group-think induced panic about the coming ice-age. Now, the direction sign has changed, but the culprit remains the same. I would ask my more liberal friends and colleagues why they are so ready to point out that skeptical papers are often funded by the private sector, but aren’t willing to take note of the same profit motive on the AGW side of the debate, where the funding is much larger and the source is more dangerous, big government? Big governments can twist arms, destroy careers, and enact policy more efficiently than private sector companies and lobbies.