04 October 2008

Politicizing Climate Science

I got the news about Richard Lindzen's new, hmm, let's call it pamphlet on the state of climate science via Lubos Motl and Michael Tobis. Interesting indeed.

One of the main messages of the treatise is that climate science has been politicized and hence is not able to provide answers anymore. Well, surely Lindzen's pamphlet does its best in politicizing climate science. Another thread of the paper is that skeptical opinions are systematically suppressed in the literature. As I have pointed out in my last post, this claim is typical for bogus science. But ok, it surely is difficult to publish something that contradicts established theory. So the claim may in some cases be founded, but if it grows into some large scale conspiracy theory, it becomes suspicious. As a general rule, I am very skeptical about conspiracy theories.

Michael Tobis criticized one gross misstatement in what he calls the Lindzen Diatribe, but suggested that others may find more grotesque mischaracterizations. Well, I think I found a number of points that are worth discussing.

One point in Lindzen's text that I found distorted was his account of the "correction" of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) paleotemperatures. I have a quite different memory of the story, in which I was to some extent involved by determining noble gas temperatures (NGTs) from groundwater that played a certain role. It is true that there was some conflicting evidence, but it was more of a problem between different paleotemperature proxies (oceanic foraminifera versus continental snowline, NGTs, etc.) than between model and data. The data available in the 1990s indicated that tropical LGM sea surface temperatures (SSTs) were about as warm as today (the CLIMAP result), but continents and high elevations were some 5 °C colder. Could that be? That's where the models came in and - hardly surprising - they said no, it was not possible. So it was essentially inconsistent data and some of the proxies had to be wrong. It seems that new evaluations of the oceanic proxies come up with cooler LGM SSTs, which more or less solves the problem. This is normal scientific progress and in no way needed to save the greenhouse paradigm.

A basic theory put forward by Lindzen is that science fosters fear to secure funding. Well, politicians on all sides, including environmental activisists, certainly use this tactics sometimes to gain votes. But scientists? I know of many examples where science actually tries to fight exaggerated public fears, e.g. nuclear energy, genetic engineering, or the recent LHC-micro-black-holes panic. The argument that fear is the basis for funding science simply does not convince me at all.

Another critique of Lindzen is that science has deteriorated by moving from theory to simulation and modeling. I completely disagree: Numerical solution of complex equations is simply the logical way forward once your basic theory is known (which is the case in atmospheric and ocean dynamics) but you want actual solutions of the equations. The reason that modeling has become so large is simply that ever better computers have made this possible, a tool that was not available to scientists in the good old times conjured by Lindzen. An example of the power of numerical modeling is weather prediction, where models using the same core physics as climate models have achieved tremendous progress. Just remind yourself of how the tracks of this year's hurricanes have been predicted accurately many days in advance. This would not have been possible by theory alone, without numerically solving the equations.

Professional scientific societies are all politicized and infiltrated by environmentalists, according to Lindzen. This is why they require impressive presences in Washington. But what about the many non-US scientific societies which all support the global warming theory (see Coby's list, for example)? Are they all affected by the same virus? Global conspiracy in science, I suppose. See my remark above about conspiracy theories.

A funny detail is how Lindzen uses a workshop invitation by an IPCC organizing committee as a proof for political bias. I may be completely blinded, but I can't see anything suspicious in the document, which Lindzen adds as appendix 1. What's wrong with listing some of the topics that should be discussed at the workshop? I don't get it.


  1. Professional scientific societies are all politicized and infiltrated by environmentalists, according to Lindzen. This is why they require impressive presences in Washington

    I don't understand that sentence. Do you mean "This is why they have aquired impressive presences in Washington" ?

  2. crf, you have to ask Lindzen. I took the wording from his paper. Here is the paragraph:

    "Professional societies represent a somewhat special case. Originally created to provide a means for communication within professions – organizing meetings and publishing journals – they also provided, in some instances, professional certification, and public outreach. The central offices of such societies were scattered throughout the US, and rarely located in Washington. Increasingly, however, such societies require impressive presences in Washington where they engage in interactions with the federal government. Of course, the nominal interaction involves lobbying for special advantage, but increasingly, the interaction consists in issuing policy and scientific statements on behalf of the society.