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Climate Science in the Thunderdome

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJanuary 30, 2012 6:37 PM


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When issues becomes hotly politicized, such as GMO's ("Frankenfood"), health care ("death panels"), and yes, climate science ("hoax"), the extremes dominate the public dialogue. When this happens, it is virtually impossible to have a grown-up conversation about these issues in the public sphere. The press, following the scent of controversy and conflict, ends up in a funhouse, where it has to distinguish between various shades of distortion. Reporters on the climate change beat not only navigate this funhouse but also follow the science and translate its meaning. But that, too, is often turned into sensationalist gruel or something unrecognizable to scientists. Either way, the public is not served well. A 2009 Popular Mechanicsarticle, examining media reaction to five climate studies, observed:

A leading climate scientist argues that overbroad claims by some researchers--coupled with overblown reporting in the media--can undermine the public's understanding of climate issues. Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate modeler, author and PM [Popular Mechanics] editorial advisor, concurs with the consensusview that the planet's temperature is rising due largely to human activity. But, he says, many news stories prematurely attribute local or regional phenomena to climate change. This can lead to the dissemination of vague, out-of-context or flat-wrong information to the public. "People think that if there's a trend, it has to be connected to this bigger trend," he says. "You often get this kind of jumping the gun." Sometimes researchers are citing a potential connection to global warming to get noticed, he says, and sometimes journalists are focusing on that connection to make the story more compelling. "There's a bit of a backlash amid people who have a brain," says Schmidt. "It's akin to [the media's reporting on] medical studies. It adds to people's confusion."

In an ideal world, Real Climate (where Schmidt is a contributor) would have been a neutral arbiter of the science. Or at least be perceived as one by all sides. Of course, what website, magazine, or institution is perceived by all sides as unbiased? The problem isn't that we don't live in an ideal world but that the civic space we inhabit has become so polluted with personal animosity, vitriol, and disrespect. The climate arena is merely an extension of this depraved landscape, where arguments are made by hyperbole and ad hominem. Opposing sides try to tear the other down, by casting aspersions on individual reputations and motives. In the climate debate, few can claim to be innocent, even those who would have liked nothing better than to stick to science or policy. Indeed, as I wrote here,

many prefer a smashmouth style of fighting. That means every provocation is taken up, every quote is potential fodder, every action is open to being exploited for partisan advantage.

This corrosive dynamic is by now well established. So who should suddenly step into this lion's den? A climate modeler--Tamsin Edwards-- from the University of Bristol, who has just started a blog with a devilish name:

All Models Are Wrong

The title is pure genius, because just below it appears this subhead:

..but some are useful. A grown-up discussion about how to quantify uncertainties in modelling climate change and its impacts, past and future.

A grown-up discussion about climate science. What a quaint idea. Before launching her blog, Edwards got some pushback on her chosen name, with one well-known scientist insistent that it would be deliberately misinterpreted and misused by opponents of climate science. She discusses this in her inaugral post:

I was surprised that a senior academic tried to persuade me, fairly forcefully, not to use the name.

Ah, innocence. As Tina Turner in Mad Max 3 said, Welcome to the Thunderdome!

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