Clarion call for and end to attacks on climatologists

There's a letter in today's Science from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences that deserves to be read:

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial--scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of "well-established theories" and are often spoken of as "facts."

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world's scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

The original letter, with a full list of signatories, is here for all to see, which is great because Science's version is for subscribers only..


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Having just recently concluded an exhaustive multi-day debate with my father-in-law on this subject, I am in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly how somehow who shares his views on climate change will react: "It's all lies."

Of course, the fact that scientifically-illiterate politically-mired citizens will try to wish this away doesn't take from the power of a unified and articulate plea for reason and sanity such as this one, but it does sadden me to realize that most of this power will be lost on those most in need of its effect.

How can anyone make headway when scientists are "corrupt, dishonest eggheads" (his words) and anyone who tries to take him patiently through the science is "bamboozling with double-talk" or, worse, "being condescending"?

It's an open letter to the choir.


The sad and unfortunate dilemma faced by scientists in this day and age of light speed media coverage is the fact those same people attacking the scientific community are, in general, the same people who couldn't comprehend science and math in high school and still can't today, yet they are now the ones who are in front of the public everyday as radio and TV talk show hosts.

The Guardian has also reproduced it in full.…

The politically motivated, the uneducated, and the malicious will try to write this off but it's not easy to do that. It also acts as a rallying cry for those who might otherwise stand on the sidelines.

Don't write this off, things like this have far more effect on policy makers than you would expect. The American political class contains a disproportionate number of intelligent, educated people who know a real problem when they see it. The press tends to talk up the skeptics but they're basically still a bunch of crazies trying desperately to postpone the inevitable. They would not resort to these risky tactics he they were not running on empty.

By Tony Sidaway (not verified) on 07 May 2010 #permalink

Tony Sidaway, thanks for posting that. The money quote:

We maintain that peer review by the scientific community is the appropriate means by which to identify error in the generation, presentation and interpretation of scientific data. The Attorney Generalâs use of his power to issue a CID under the provisions of Virginiaâs FATA is an inappropriate way to engage with the process of scientific inquiry. His action and the potential threat of legal prosecution of scientific endeavor that has satisfied peer-review standards send a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earthâs climate and indeed to scholars in any discipline. Such actions directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.

Perhaps if scientists would support or make suggestions for solutions that don't involve bigger government, AGW as a theory would be more politically palatable to the right?

Science doesn't work like that. If the right cannot come up with policy solutions it finds palatable, ignoring the facts and attacking the science will not solve the problem.

Politics does not modulate reality, it can only aspire to deal with it.

By Tony Sidaway (not verified) on 08 May 2010 #permalink


But science does work like that. You can see it in the wording of this letter, and the thousands of others science groups relay on particular policy issues. That scientists weigh in on particular policy responses is not in doubt. But if scientists are going to be advocates for action -- and most of them seem to have opted for that route -- they need to still maintain an air of impartiality regarding policy responses.

There are many options. Speaking on only a few that a palatable to the left only will not win us a positive response on this issue.

Foster, do feel free to address my point. In your own time.

By Tony Sidaway (not verified) on 08 May 2010 #permalink

Foster, you do realize that no policy suggestions are made in the letter? Also, I am unsure how one can effectively address such a massive problem without significant government intervention. Should we have not addressed ozone depleting substances because it required international government regulation?

Your point seems to be that it is reasonable to ignore/deny science if you don't like the policies required to address those issues it uncovers. If you don't don't like the current set of proposed policies then the honest thing to do would be come up with better policies.