Science as a Contact Sport:
Inside the battle to save Earth’s climate
by Stephen Schneider
National Geographic, 295 pages
Not even Stephen Schneider could have anticipated how timely his new book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the battle to save Earth’s climate, would be. The histrionics generated by the theft and publication of the UEA emails suggests climatology is much rougher than even Australian rules football.
Schneider was one of the first climatologists to understand the need to communicate what his research was showing with the general public. He appears in documentaries back in the 1980s, and is second only to Jim Hansen when it comes to battle scars. I dout there’s anyone better positioned to tell the inside story of how science is hammered out.
I read this book a few weeks ago, before the purloined emails found their way onto a Russian server, which helps explains why I used words like “banal” to describe the correspondence that so many climate change pseudoskeptics find so shocking.
It also helped that I have spent several years actually working along actual scientists. So the notion that they can sometimes be arrogant, hypersensitive, snarky and impatient with their critics did not exactly comes as a surprise. Schneider’s book, however, provides some rare insight into the challenges that face climatologists who are being asked to do much more than just scientific research.
The IPCC process, for example, demands much of the volunteer army that produces the reports we use as the definitive, albeit politically watered down, word on the state of climate science. Here’s what Schneider has to say about his introduction to that particular realm:
The way some IPCC detractors tell it, the IPCC is a loose cannon of radicals, which is nonsense — it is much more a debating club dominated by conservative empirical scientists. It took several assessments just to get them to mention surprises, let alone formal subjective probabilistic treatment of uncertainties.
Schneider revisits the war between empiricists, who tend to scoff at the modelers and whom they accuse of violating the core tenets of science. The modelers, on the other hand, can’t understand what’s wrong with using the only tool at their disposal to predict the future, which is, after all, what anticipating climate change is all about.
This sort of debate continues today. For example, a pair of papers released last month within a week of each other came to contradictory conclusions. One, in Nature Geoscience, says the airborne fraction of carbon dioxide is increasing, meaning that carbon sinks are loosing their ability to soak up our emissions. Another, in Geophysical Review Letters, says the airborne fraction hasn’t changed at all. The difference is the GRL paper, by Wolfgang Knorr, is based on empirical data while the Nature Geoscience paper, by Corinne Le Quéré, uses models to come up with the estimate.
It’s this kind of thing that consumes climatologists. When, that is, they’re not fulminating against the pseudoskeptics who think no one has anything better to do than respond to freedom of information requests for data that’s already freely available. Science as a Contact Sport covers both the internal bickering and the circle-the-wagons mentality that many believe is at least partly responsible for the public relations mess in which the entire field is now mired.
If climatologists are only human, so are journalists, however, and Schneider doesn’t restrict himself to his own profession. He devotes more than a few pages to the consequences of giving a nuanced quote to a journalist. He told Discover magazine:
So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.
That part of the quote gets a lot of mileage in the denialosphere. But the full quote ends with a line that is almost always left out.
I hope that means being both.
It’s no wonder that some scientists are leery of talking with reporters.
Fortunately, Schneider is wise enough to know someone has to keep talking. And he does. His story is his own; no doubt other participants in the conferences he attended would remember things differently, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is not who’s right, but how science is done. And anyone who takes the time to follow Schneider down memory lane will have a hard time believing that climatologists are part of some global conspiracy to defraud the public.
Unless of course, you think Schneider is in on the conspiracy.
Ordinarily, I’d wrap up a book review with something from the book. But Peter Watts, a marine biologist who now writes science fiction, recently offered a take on the email controversy that helps explain why books like Schneider’s have never been needed more than today. Schneider doesn’t come right out and say it, but I think he would agree that:
Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?
If only this book had come out a few months ago. It wouldn’t have deterred too many of those who are already convinced all climatologists are evil communists. But maybe a few critics would have understood where the climatologists are coming from and not been so quick to judge.