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Facts of the MatterHawaii News

Climate theory holds up despite some bad data

Sometimes people ask me whether I believe in global warming, while others have said that they thought my column indicates that I do.

Belief is a matter of faith and is not suited to the uncertainties of science, although science is often misconstrued as a type of authoritarian gospel about nature rather than the process of learning and revision that it actually is.

There is a certain amount of faith held in the efficacy of the scientific process that uses logic to draw the best conclusions by melding the best data with the best theories within a framework of prior knowledge having been gained by the same process of accretion. Scientists are but mere humans, no more or less diabolical than others. Within and without the scientific community there are charlatans, scoundrels, renegades and demagogues. History has many accounts of scientists who were less than noble, but overall a wee fraction.

Critics, mostly nonscientists, were quick to pick out errors and falsifications in the original 2007 IPCC report that brought climate to the global stage, calling it "ClimageGate" and alluding to a worldwide conspiracy to "convince the public either with no facts or falsely created ones," as one source put it.

Unfortunately such episodes erode the public trust in science the same way that a bad policeman undermines law enforcement. A major part of the problem is that the public perception of science is more politics than science. Science is a process for obtaining knowledge, not a set of facts used to rationalize a political decision. Ideology does not decide how nature behaves. Ask Lysenko.

Trofim Lysenko was a government agronomist under Joseph Stalin. Today his agricultural experimentation and research is largely viewed as fraudulent.

The leaked IPCC e-mails illustrate the proper workings of science. An often overlooked aspect of science is the furious debate that can get ugly, but scientists know that disagreement over the smaller points does not always threaten the overall argument. Accordingly the IPCC’s conclusions were not altered when the bad data was removed.

It is puzzling that the sparsest evidence will sway people to believe that the moon landings were faked; yet the abundant and competent evidence for anthropogenic climate change is disdained and discredited.

Could it be that people incorrectly characterize and misunderstand science, then they get uneasy when it works the way it is supposed to rather than the way they think it should?

The existing data on the climatic system suggests a high probability that we are affecting the climate. Anyone with data to the contrary, this is the time to speak up and not just criticize that which you don’t understand.

Climate change is arguably the most significant and difficult problem ever faced by the human race, and we are treating it like a political campaign. Are we the frogs who won’t jump out of the boiling water, or are we the intelligent beings we claim to be who will continue to monitor as we hope for the best and plan for the worst?

Do I believe in climate change? No, what I believe is that our meager science has not afforded us an adequate understanding of nature, and I’ll take the worst verifiable knowledge over the best unfounded speculation whether it supports my beliefs or not.

Richard Brill is a professor of science at Honolulu Community College. E-mail questions and comments to rickb@hcc.hawaii.edu.


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