17 May 2010

Five Myths

[UPDATE: Keith Kloor has an interesting take on this debate, and helpfully reminds me that I've made these points before. Also, I've modified this post with the material in brackets below, thanks to a helpful comment from a reader.]

The comments that I've received and exchanges that I've had with a fair number of people over the past few days about issues of scientific fraud as related to the so-called hockey stick indicate a few things. First, some people are really, really angry. And I mean red-in0the-face livid such that they aren't going to hear anything except their own indignation. These folks won't be convinced of anything. There are others whose views are fueled by myths -- views that are not just wrong, but unhelpful in trying to make sense of the issue. Still others simply have a different take on issues than I do.

This post is focused on the second of those three categories -- those who repeat common myths in the discussion. Here are a few of those myths:
1) Myth: Science provides absolute truths and scientific misconduct can be identified as any action that moves science away from truth.
Reality: Science is messy. Claims can be argued many different ways. [Successfully adjudicated cases of] scientific misconduct are very rare and exceedingly hard to prove. Since truth is determined via scientific debates, using it as a fulcrum on which to adjudicate misconduct is obviously problematic. Hard cases, as they say, make bad law. The same goes here as well.
2) Myth: Policy makers care about tree rings, temperatures of the Middle Ages or other arcane details of climate science.
Reality: They don't. It is easy to confuse politics and policy. Almost all debates about climate science are purely political, with little or even no policy connection. In any case, effective climate and energy policies will be robust to scientific uncertainties and associated politicized debates.
3) Myth: Billion or even trillion dollar decisions are being made based on the Hockey Stick, or more expansively, the claims of IPCC WG I.
Reality: No such decisions hinge upon the correctness of the Hockey Stick. None. It is a political symbol. The IPCC WG I has established that there is an issue of risk management that might occupy your attention. It is in fact a pretty low threshold to reach. IPCC WG I says nothing about what our options are or what we should do.
4) Myth: There are mechanisms for identifying and correcting mistakes, misrepresentations and, yes, fraud, under the IPCC.
Reality: These terms aren't even defined under the IPCC much less set forth in guidelines for practice. All of the anger in the world isn't going to change this fact. Discussing institutional reform might, for some, be a bit like getting a root canal, but it is where improvements in institutions (and thus practices) of climate science will come from.
5) Myth: Getting very angry, calling me names and being rude will make me see the wisdom in your views.
Reality. No, it won't. Please keep the discussions respectful. In the end, it is OK for people to agree to disagree.