There are two open letters shot off to Congress these last days, one from “alarmist” scientists and the other from “denialist” scientists1. Those pejoratives were not picked by me, but by each rival camp, each seeking to find the best stinger to dismiss the other with a word.
The 28 January letter was signed by, inter alia, Ben Santer, Kevin Trenberth, and Michael Mann. The 8 February letter was avowed by Richard Lindzen, Craig Idso, and Patrick Michaels and others of a similar mind. These names are familiar enough so that readers will understand me when I say that the first letter was of the form “Is too!“, the later answering “Is not!”
Letter two begins, after explaining that its purpose is to rebut the authors of letter one, with
We, the undersigned, totally disagree with them and would like to take this opportunity to briefly state our side of the story.
The eighteen climate alarmists (as we refer to them, not derogatorily, but simply because they view themselves as “sounding the alarm” about so many things climatic) state that…
Sarcasm, humor, and bombast have their place in this debate, but a playground “They started it!” is not the ideal way to address Congress. And nobody is buying the demure claim that “We mean ‘alarmist’ in a good way,” especially considering that phrase is littered throughout the letter. These techniques, and the non-arresting language used throughout, make the effort too easy to dismiss. I believe an opportunity has been missed.
How much better to have begun:
To the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate:
We believe that many of our brother and sister scientists are too certain of themselves regarding climate change. We have looked at the same data and same models that they have, but we have drawn different conclusions. We disagree about the range and extremity of changes and wonder if our colleagues have let their politics influence their science.
Our colleagues often point to their numbers and suggest that because many of them belong to various learned organizations, they therefore cannot be wrong. But we belong to the same organizations and we also have a large membership. Our colleagues are fond of announcing that they have polled themselves and that their resulting unanimity proves their case. But we have polled ourselves too, and we are unanimous in concluding a logical fallacy is not an ideal foundation for science. No scientific body has license to issue “Truths” determined by vote.
Earth’s climate has always changed; it has never been constant; thus we conclude that it always will change. It is also clear that mankind must have some effect on the climate. With these statements, we agree with our colleagues. We diverge when estimating the magnitude of effects.
There have not yet been accurate predictions of future climates to a level sufficient to convince us that our understanding of climate science is complete. Our colleagues say that no one has yet “provided an alternative scientific theory that adequately satisfies the observable evidence or conforms to our understanding of physics, chemistry, and climate dynamics.” This is false, alternate theories abound; but even if our colleagues’ claim were true, it does not follow that they have discovered the correct theory. This is their second fallacy.
Based on modeling efforts thus far, the level of certainty of what Earth’s future climate will be is low. Even assuming a constant climate, there exists great uncertainty in how the environment, our economy, human health, and national security are affected by the climate. Thus, projections of future threats to or changes in these things are doubly uncertain.
We must first improve our understanding of climate change before we can confidently say what will happen in other areas. Our colleagues are satisfied by “the seriousness of the charges” and say doing something is better than doing nothing. We are not convinced and would remind our colleagues that examples of unanticipated consequences of precipitous actions has a long and depressing history.
It is also strange to us that our colleagues have discovered that only bad things will happen if the planet warms. No inconvenience is so small that it will not develop into a positive menace once climate change truly begins. Every species of animal is threatened with extinction and hardship, except pests, which are projected to thrive. Warmer climes are predicted to exacerbate every malady and will palliate none. All this might be so, but it is extraordinarily unlikely.
Our colleagues finally devolve into name calling, which is, as you know, always a sign of a lack of surety. They claim that “deniers”, defined as those who disagree with them, should not be listened to because these deniers deny their theories. That many of our colleagues have convinced themselves of the unassailability of their position based on an argument as blatantly fallacious as this one causes us to view the remainder of their claims with healthy suspicion.
Lastly, our colleagues call for Congressional hearings on the state of climatology. We welcome this idea and look forward to participating.
William M. Briggs
Anybody else? (Scientists I mean.)
1Joe D’Aleo sent me a copy of the “denialist” letter a day before it went public. I took this to be an indirect invitation to sign it, but I hadn’t the time to even read it before it was sent. But this matters not: I would not have signed.