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Climate Science, the Media, and the Middle Ground

By Keith Kloor
Nov 25, 2011 9:29 PMNov 19, 2019 9:26 PM


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If you're following press coverage of the second wave of purloined email communications between climate scientists, you might have noticed that many in the media have turned their attention to the whodunit angle. This is very much a worthy story to pursue (which I'll have more to say on in a few days), since the identity of the hacker/leaker remains unknown. But before we move on, there is one notable observation shared by all sides, which deserves greater attention. And that is the healthy display of outright skepticism in many of the highlighted exchanges. As the BBC's Richard Black noted,

what's interesting is that some of the most frank and forthright wording comes from scientists telling their peers off - often, trying to calm them down and get them to be more grounded in accurate science, whatever the political implications.

This point was echoed by Guardian reporter Juliett Jowitt in a comment at Collide-a-Scape:

They do disagree, and sometimes rather bitchily (these were "˜private'), but if anything it is reassuring that even this supposedly close cabal of self-reinforcing climate change mongers (the views of others) were so critical of each other, and so frequently at pains to make sure that uncertainty was not just taken account of but clearly shown, to make sure they would not undermine their field by appearing to hide observations which did not appear to fit the story.

Similarly, Fred Moolten makes this assessment over at Climate Etc:

The new revelations remind us of the academic squabbling, pettiness, and biases that pervade many areas of science, and the existence of a siege mentality among some of the top echelons that works to paper over differences and uncertainties. Like Judith Curry, I also believe the revelations will have little impact on MSM reporting, and so I expect little influence on public opinion or climate policy. At the same time, I'm troubled by what I see as a misconception underlying much blogosphere commentary here and elsewhere (particularly elsewhere) "“ a tendency to confuse the IPCC with climate science, and to impute sins of the former to the latter. As Jim D reminds us, there are gradations in the uncertainty within the science itself, ranging from a near certainty (never absolute but very substantial) about the basic strength of greenhouse gas warming potency within a range of estimates derived from multiple sources (not all dependent on GCMs), to a much less sure sense of how this will play out in terms of secondary consequences "“ for example, how hurricanes or regional flooding will behave. These conclusions can be derived from the thousands of reports in the literature and do not require a dependence on IPCC synthesis of the data. Equally important, though, uncertainty, even if belittled in some public comments by IPCC defenders, is clearly apparent in the literature itself, and so I don't see the implication that it has been neglected as supportable. What I state is a personal judgment. While others may disagree, I don't think the disagreement would be well-informed unless expressed by individuals who are themselves familiar with the climate science literature first hand by reading it rather than second hand from what others are claiming. Finally, although the use of the email revelations as a political weapon is unfortunate, I do hope the revelations will have a chastening effect on individuals such as Michael Mann, Phil Jones, and some of their colleagues, whose inflated sense of importance and entitlement led to the transgressions that have surfaced.

Along these lines, Jim D expands in that same Climate Etc thread:

Fred hits a point that I wanted to add to. The intersection of politics and science via the IPCC has led to some trying to put more certainty into public statements than they could in a scientific journal (on both sides), and some feel that without more certainty politicians won't listen. This is an added distorting force that doesn't exist in purely scientific debates (e.g. in fields of science with no political intersection), but this is the context that drives some scientists who are more involved with IPCC to push for certainty more than they otherwise would have.

Which brings us to Alexander Harvey's observation on the frank back-and-forth between climate scientists:

You will find the unspoken middle ground on display, This is the ground that the science community left largely publically undefended and where many of the sceptics are camped out. I think it quite shocking that this territory was largely left publically unoccupied by the science community. It is where the debate seems to take place internally, yet externally, in the public domain, the existence of that debate is denied or downplayed.

Has this "middle ground" been adequately represented in the media? If not, why?

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