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Global Warming, Media and Politics

Robert Grumbine has a series of posts with thoughts about climate change and what a non-expert can do to get properly informed:

Climate is a messy business:

Climate certainly is a messy business. One of the things that makes it interesting to those of us who work on it is precisely that. Wherever you look, you find something that affects climate, regardless of whether you look at permafrost, sea ice, forests, farms, rivers, factories, sunspots, volcanoes, dust, glaciers, …

So certainly we have a complicated science and certainly few people are going to understand enough of it to argue the finer points. This is true within the science as well, as few who study volcanoes and their climate effects are going to be able to argue the finer points about the role of sea ice in climate, or vice versa.

What does an honest and interested person do then? Two things as I see it. First, not all the science involved is difficult. For those parts of the science, learn the science. Anybody who can get through normal life, cook a recipe, balance a checkbook, etc., can understand the basics. One source is Jan Schloerer’s summary at http://www.radix.net/~bobg/faqs.scq.basics.html Jan was not a climate scientist, but, as I said, you don’t need to be one to understand the basics. One thing he did do (see his acknowledgements, for instance) is check with people who were to ensure that he’d gotten the science right (or at least correct given the limits of writing a general audience description). I’ll come back to basics in a minute.

Second, for things that aren’t elementary, start looking to expert opinion. No different than if your car is acting up and you can’t figure out why, or you’ve got something like a cold but it isn’t going away like one should. You go find an auto mechanic or doctor and use their expertise. If your concern is, instead, about climate, then find some climate scientists. While there aren’t that many (even counting worldwide) they do exist. And it’s not that hard to find their professional understanding. You’ll see it more directly in journals like Science and Nature than Scientific American or Discover. But both can be gotten fairly easily, and both include summaries of the science which are written for laymen.

Science not politics:

Many people have vested interests relating to climate change and thoughts about what, if anything, to do about it. That does produce politics, in that groups of people with interests act politically.

But the science is the science, and respects no party, no nation, no religion, etc.

This does make for the problem that groups with interests other than explaining and discussing the best science also establish web sites, write editorials, produce shows, etc. to propagandize their views, distorting and lying about the science along the way. So if you’re interested in the science, you have to work harder to find it than in something which doesn’t scare people. You also have to work harder to disentangle the parts of an article that are science from those which are opinion, wishful thinking, and such.

One thing which I think is helpful in deciding about sources is to, first, hold your nose about their political viewpoints. This can be hard when the politics are greatly different from yours, but bear with it. As you read through, look for scientific claims, or claims which the author thinks are scientific. As you find them, go hit the literature on the topic and see if the author has represented the point correctly. It may sound like a lot of work, but in practice, most web sites which are more concerned about their politics than the science display this fairly quickly by lies and distortions, and some are at an extremely basic level. Basic enough that you can check the truth of it by looking at a textbook from 30 years ago (before the topic was getting nearly as much press, but well after the scientific basics were understood). If not an outright lie, very often what you’ll see is a quote selected from a scientific article and removed from its context. Once you find the context, you see that the original author’s intent was quite different than the bit quoted.

Climate confusion:

Agreed about the media thing. It’s one of the things which irritates the scientists who are trying to communicate accurate, careful, correct information. People hear wild claims in the media, and then when we discuss what we really know and how well, we don’t get believed (since we’re not as extreme as the media reports, it’s no story). (‘we’ by the way doesn’t exactly include me. I haven’t talked to the media for a long time, and it wasn’t about this. Still, I do know folks who get quoted.)

One thing for you to do, with the 27,000 on either side of you, is to start looking at what they’re scientists of. It turns out that the 27k saying that climate is changing and part of the reason is human activity are climate scientists, while the 27k disagreeing are doctors, chemists, nuclear physicists, … But do the checking yourself. There’s a petition, for instance, with over 17,000 signers, but very few of them are in climate sciences (but check me on that). If your mechanic says your car needs a new belt, as do the several other mechanics you take the car to, while a bunch of doctors you know say that it doesn’t, do you get the belt or not? I get the belt. Being knowledgeable (about something) isn’t sufficient; you have to be knowledgeable about the thing at hand.