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Andrew Montford: Whom Should We Trust On Climate Change?

Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, has written his take on the Muller paper. Coming a day after the initial furore it’s somewhat more considered than many of the initial reactions, although not so considered that he has noticed all the argy-bargy going on as to just how sceptical Muller really was in the past. But that aside, there are some interesting questions raised, not least on the questions of authority and trust:

As a non-climate scientist, I have to accept certain things on authority, as I do with all expert knowledge. This is an argument from authority, but we all do it, and it’s vital: if I had cancer, I’d accept the authority of the oncologist and the body of knowledge of the oncology community, rather than try to guide my own treatment with information I’d found on the internet. As Ben Goldacre said long ago in a different context: “you have only two choices: you can either learn to interpret data yourself and come to your own informed conclusions; or you decide who to trust”.

This is quite true; we all have to rely on people we trust. I therefore see nothing particularly objectionable in this position. And Tom is clear about who he is going to trust.

I’ve decided who to trust, and it’s mainstream scientific opinion: the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, Nasa, the US National Academy of Sciences, the US Geological Survey, the IPCC, the national science bodies of 30 or so other countries. And that gives me a possible route out of the confirmation-bias trap: I have, in advance, outsourced my judgment to expert bodies. If several of them changed their position, I would change mine. It’s far from perfect, but short of becoming a climate scientist myself, it’s the only option I have; otherwise my reasonable belief that the climate is changing due to human behaviour becomes an article of faith. As it is, although it is mediated through authority, it’s still, I hope, based on empirical data, on the scientific method.

You have to laugh at that list. I’m not sure if Tom noticed there has been a bit of a rumpus over the IPCC in the last few years – something to do with some emails I think. The whole point of Climategate was that it showed that the IPCC is not to be trusted – dissenting authors excluded from the report, fabricated claims  that dissenting findings were statistically insignficant, that sort of thing.

Perhaps he thinks the CRU scientists were exonerated? I can only assume that if this is indeed the case, since he still trusts the IPCC and wants others to do so too. I can only assume therefore that he is also taking the integrity of the inquiries on trust rather than having actually examined any of the facts – a pity because this is a simple matter of procedure rather than an area of science requiring months of research and study. Even a relatively cursory look at what the inquiries did would demonstrate to a moderately intelligent twelve-year old that no meaningful investigation had taken place. Even as eco-friendly a writer as Roger Harrabin describes the inquiries as “inadequate”, which I think is just a diplomatic way of saying “thorough floor-to-ceiling whitewash”.

Then again, there were all those other problems with the IPCC report – the claim that Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035, for example, a claim that had been touted by environmentalists long before the IPCC report, had been incorporated in the final text in the face of dissenting review comments, and had then been defended to the hilt by the chairman of the IPCC himself when it was exposed as a preposterous and cynical exaggeration.

Or what about the IPCC’s decision to restate an important study of climate sensitivity by Forster and Gregory, putting it on a Bayesian basis and then imposing an inappropriate uniform prior that biased the resultsso as to increase climate sensitivity from 1.6°C to 2.3°C per doubling of CO2?

And Tom C wants us to trust these guys?

But what about the others – the NAS, the Royal Society and so on? The thing that has to be remembered here is that the reports issued by these august bodies are not representative of the fellows. They are put together mostly by politically minded insiders and a handful of climatologists – the same people who have caused all the trouble at the IPCC. It took a rebellion of dissenting fellows at the Royal Society to get its prognostications on climate to even have the appearance of a scientific rather than a political document. And if you look at the society’s post-rebellion climate statement it still carries visible signs that its authors are taking things on trust. Here’s what they say on climate sensitivity:

Climate models indicate that the overall climate sensitivity (for a hypothetical doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) is likely to lie in the range 2°C to 4.5°C; this range is mainly due to the difficulties in simulating the overall effect of the response of clouds to climate change mentioned earlier.

Not a word of the observational study by Forster and Gregory, the one that found that climate sensitivity was only 1.6°C, at least until the IPCC rewrote the story. I don’t see this as deception – they probably just took the IPCC report on trust and were therefore probably unaware that Forster and Gregory was based on observations rather than climate models and found a lower climate sensitivity.

So the NAS, the Royal Society and all the other academies are simply conduits for the received wisdom coming from the IPCC – whom we know cannot be trusted. There is only the IPCC that assesses the climate literature from beginning to end. That is the dilemma we face: we are being invited to a game of poker by a bunch of known cardsharps.

Tom thinks we should play.