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Vincent Courtillot: ‘The IPCC Is Not The Guarantor Of Scientific Truth’

LE FIGARO INTERVIEW with Geophysicist Vincent Courtillot in response to the petition of French climatologists. Translated and slightly adapted from an interview by Marc Mennessier, published in Le Figaro, 2 April 2010

In a letter sent Thursday to Valérie Pécresse, the French Science Minister, 400 researchers and climate scientists complained about “false accusations” made against them by climate sceptics. One of their leaders, Professor Vincent Courtillot, director of the Institut de Physique du Globe in Paris [and a member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council], has agreed to answer questions exclusively for the Figaro.

LE FIGARO: How do you respond to this petition?

Vincent Courtillot: The attacks against me are very wrong and deeply offensive. I share this honour with Claude Allègre. It is not necessary for me to defend his point of view. True, some of our conclusions on the question of the origin of global warming are similar, but he has his own arguments and his own methods and I have mine. I limit myself to answer the charges brought against me specifically.

LE FIGARO: Regarding the “false accusations” against the “community” of climate research …

Vincent Courtillot: We must first define the contours of this community that it is permissible to ask if it did not self-decree itself as such. Two of its main leaders, Jean Jouzel and Hervé Le Treut, are specialists in geochemistry and numerical modelling respectively. My colleagues and I all have significant expertise in handling long series of observatory measurements. All these approaches have something to contribute to climate research, an especially young science, which mainly consists in the addition of many very diverse disciplines. The petitioners confuse (perhaps deliberately) their community with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). It is the very mechanism of the IPCC which I criticise, not the people. I maintain that even with large numbers of qualified scientists, this type of system does not guarantee anything about the “scientific truth” at any given instant in time. After all, scientific truth is not decided as a result of a democratic vote… A single opposing view may turn out to be ultimately correct. The twentieth century is replete with such instances: in my own area of expertise, for example, the controversy about continental drift, the equivalent of IPCC would have arrived at the truth only sixty years late (the time between Wegener’s founding paper and acceptance of the plate tectonics theory by more than 90% of scientists in the ’70s)!

LE FIGARO: The signatories accuse you of questioning their “integrity” …

Vincent Courtillot: Wrong. I criticize only the interpretations of some of them. Is this now forbidden in science? In addition, we forget the fact that both ‘carbo-centrics’ as well as ‘climate sceptics’, fortunately, do not speak and think with one voice. There are significant differences between them which are all too often forgotten.

LE FIGARO: Have you published the results of your work in scientific journals?

Vincent Courtillot: The petition accuses me that my publications did not “pass through the filter of standard peer review.” But again, this is absolutely wrong! I have published six papers on climate issues in the last five years in eminent international journals: Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL), Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences and several in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics. Two others are currently being peer reviewed anonymously. None of the papers has yet been the subject of scientific critics, with the exception of one paper in EPSL two years ago. But we responded, my colleagues and I, point by point, in the journal. I add that all our subsequent studies have reinforced our initial findings. It is only after this patient work, “in the shadow”, that I finally summarized in a book published this fall (1), and which is a target of the petition, a summary of our research.

LE FIGARO: You will therefore continue …

Vincent Courtillot: Until further notice, there is no ideological censorship in science … The best way to criticize our scientific results is not to send a petition to the government authorities but to submit, by the same means, papers for publication. As written by my colleague, physicist Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond (2), “that the signatories consider it necessary to appeal to political and administrative authorities to support their positions, amounts to a recognition of the lack of independence that is criticized by their adversaries and also hampers the reliability of the work of the IPCC”. I have certainly not forgotten the basic principles of scientific ethics. My colleagues and I have just helped to open a debate that was previously very difficult to have.

(1) “New Journey to the Center of the Earth, Odile Jacob, September 2009.

(2) Published in Liberation on April 8th.