Opinion — The debate over a flawed paper serves global warming skeptics well since it creates the illusion of an overall climate science debate
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The latest flap over climate science — and specifically about human-caused global warming — shows once again how ideological and political this issue has become, to the detriment of average citizens who are trying to understand what’s going on with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
A short timeline sets the scene: Earlier this summer, global warming skeptic Dr. Roy Spencer published a paper that discussed the role of clouds in the Earth’s climate system and purported to show how the Earth’s atmosphere was more efficient at releasing heat to outer space than previously believed. Last week, the editor of the journal that published the paper resigned after saying it was flawed. BBC news covered the story thoroughly.
Even though Spencer has a record of publishing research that’s been called into question by many other climate scientists, his July paper was pounced on by the few remaining media outlets that insist on pretending there’s still a legitimate debate about the fundamental physics of global warming. Fox News and Forbes, for example, trumpeted headlines suggesting that this one paper out of thousands somehow cast doubt on the entire body of climate science that’s been meticulously compiled and scrutinized again and again … and again.
Those headlines don’t even deserve to be repeated, especially now that the editor of the journal that published Spencer’s paper resigned last week, acknowledging that the peer review of the science was flawed, that the paper was “problematic,” and should not have been published.
What’s most interesting is that Spencer and his defenders are now circling the wagons. But rather than defending the paper on its merits, they are claiming that he is a victim of scientific orthodoxy, perpetrated by what they believe is a global warming alarmist conspiracy consisting of thousands of scientists from nearly every country on the planet, led, of course, by U.S. government agency researchers, who for some reason are the favorite target of the global warming skeptics.
This works well for the global warming deniers and skeptics, because even if the debate is about a debate — rather than the actual science in question — it serves to create the illusion that there is still some doubt about the causes and consequences of increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases.
The flavor of this attempt to manipulate public perception is evident in a long comment thread on Spencer’s own site, following a post in which he describes his reaction to the journal editor’s resignation. First, Spencer claims his science is sound, inviting people with a background in radiative transfer or physics to read the paper for themselves. Then he goes on to blame IPCC “gatekeepers” for “pressuring a journal for daring to publish anything that might hurt the IPCC’s politically immovable position that climate change is almost entirely human-caused,” thus twisting what should be a scientific question into a political and ideological issue.
Then he goes on to attack the media and other scientists who disagree with his findings: “Apparently, peer review is now carried out by reporters calling scientists on the phone and asking their opinion on something most of them do not even do research on. A sad day for science.”
It’s another favorite tactic now used by the global warming skeptics. Since there’s not really much left to challenge in the fundamentals of climate science, why not shoot the messengers — anything to undermine public understanding of global warming.
For his part, journal editor Wolfgang Wagner said that Spencer’s paper was most likely problematic in areas of fundamental methodological errors and false claims — a fairly straightforward explanation of why he now thinks the paper shouldn’t have been published in the first place.
Here’s an excerpt from Wagner’s letter: “The problem is that comparable studies published by other authors have already been refuted in open discussions and to some extend also in the literature (cf. ), a fact which was ignored by Spencer and Braswell in their paper and, unfortunately, not picked up by the reviewers. In other words, the problem I see with the paper by Spencer and Braswell is not that it declared a minority view (which was later unfortunately much exaggerated by the public media) but that it essentially ignored the scientific arguments of its opponents.”
Spencer responds: “But the paper WAS precisely addressing the scientific arguments made by our opponents, and showing why they are wrong! That was the paper’s starting point! We dealt with specifics, numbers, calculations…while our critics only use generalities and talking points. There is no contest, as far as I can see, in this debate. If you have some physics or radiative transfer background, read the evidence we present, the paper we were responding to, and decide for yourself.”
And finally, other scientists chime in with why they think Spencer’s science is damaging. In The Daily Climate, Kevin Trenberth, John Abraham, and Peter Gleick write:
“Spencer, a University of Alabama, Huntsville, climatologist, and his colleagues have a history of making serious technical errors in their effort to cast doubt on the seriousness of climate change. Their errors date to the mid-1990s, when their satellite temperature record reportedly showed the lower atmosphere was cooling. As obvious and serious errors in that analysis were made public, Spencer and Christy were forced to revise their work several times and, not surprisingly, their findings agree better with those of other scientists around the world: the atmosphere is warming.
“Over the years, Spencer and Christy developed a reputation for making serial mistakes that other scientists have been forced to uncover. Last Thursday, for instance, the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres published a study led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist Ben Santer. Their findings showed that Christy erred in claiming that recent atmospheric temperature trends are not replicated in models.”
Trenberth and his colleagues end by challenging the media to cover other scientific reports that question Spencer’s claims with the same vigor they devoted to covering his controversial paper.