I’m not going to pull punches:  The Oregonian ran an opinion piece on climate science, penned by columnist David Reinhard, that simply isn’t up to the standards of responsible journalism.  Not only does it get basic facts wrong, it displays a disturbing arrogance, coming from someone who’s arguing that others should display a little humility.

The Oregonian‘s readers deserve better. 

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  • At risk of giving the article more attention than it deserves, I’ll point out one basic factual error, one conceptual error, and one instance of self-serving rhetoric.

    First, the factual error. Reinhard discusses a recent article, published in a newsletter of the American Physical Society, that expresses deep skepticism about human-induced climate disruption. In Reinhard’s view, the article exposes a long-hidden, embarrassing fact for climate science:  there really is no scientific consensus about human-induced global climate change.

    This past week witnessed the great breakup not of the icebergs, but of the global warming consensus. What’s existed beneath the surface, apparent to those who dug, exploded into public view.

    But in fact, the article exposed nothing new: skeptical scientists have long been part of climate change debates, both academic and public. Their views and critiques have been in plain view.  There’s really nothing original here, and certainly no “explosive” exposure of a hidden and inconvenient truth.

    Perhaps more importantly, prominent climate scientists have openly challenged the validity of the article itself.  (I think that this response, from the well-respected “Real Climate” website—run by actual scientists, not by editorialists—sums things up nicely, and points to other concise responses.)  Perhaps most damning of all was the response of the American Physical Society itself, which has now added the following text to the top of the “explosive” article:

    The following article has not undergone any scientific peer review, since that is not normal procedure for American Physical Society newsletters. The American Physical Society reaffirms the following position on climate change, adopted by its governing body, the APS Council, on November 18, 2007: “Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate.”

    So there you have it—the article wasn’t peer reviewed, and has been essentially repudiated by the scientific society in whose newsletter it appeared.  For climate science, this has been little more than a blip—more an implosion than an explosion, at least among the academics who make a career of studying the atmosphere, and who have weathered this sort of critique time and again.

    Second, a basic misunderstanding.  I think Reinhard doesn’t quite get the idea of scientific consensus. The word “consensus” is not a synonym for “unanimity.” Instead, it implies general agreement, after all views have been aired. So a scientific consensus is still a consensus, even if there are scientists who disagree with it.  The publication of a single article—unless it’s a truly groundbreaking one, which the APS article apparently was not—does little to shake an established scientific consensus built up through literally millions hours of collective labor, by tens of thousands of researchers worldwide, across the span of decades.

    Still, to Reinhard, it seems that the publication of any article scientific article challenging climate change was sufficient evidence that the facade of “consensus” is cracking.  That’s a basic misunderstanding of how science works, and of the very meaning of a scientific consensus.

    Of course, the critique over a lack of “consensus” on climate scientists might be fair if dissenting voices had somehow been suppressed in the climate science debate.  But that simply hasn’t been the case!  Indeed, far from being hidden, scientists skeptical of climate change have captured enormous amounts of attention, both from the scientific community—who take their critiques quite seriously—and the public at large.  Indeed, these voices have dominated the political response to climate change.  And they get plenty of play in the press. (Think, for a moment, of the scores upon scores of articles in academic journals that did have found strong evidence of human-induced climate disruption.  Yet Reinhard chooses to write about one of the relatively rare articles that questions that view.)

    To be clear: I’m not accusing all climate scientists who don’t believe in climate change of acting in bad faith or committing scientific error.  I’m just pointing out that their influence has been substantial, and probably out of proportion to their numbers and standing within the community of academic climate scientists.  Obviously, part of their disproportionate influence stems from finances:  the fossil fuel industry has spent a lot of money to promote their views and support their research.  But their public and political influence has also been spread by lazy “he-said-she-said” reporting, and “gotcha” journalism that finds narrow conflict more interesting than broad agreement.

    Third, the rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  Reinhard decries the passion with which climate advocates argue their cause.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s James Hansen, a global warming guru, calls skeptics “court jesters,” and Al Gore likens them to “flat-Earth” advocates….Curious. Why all the loaded verbiage?…Why all the anger?

    Why all the anger?  Well, Mr. Reinhard, James Hansen and Al Gore are angry because—after a sober evaluation of the evidence—they believe that rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will undermine agricultural production, spread tropical disease, flood low-lying areas, cause large-scale global population migrations, and disrupt both natural ecosystems and human cultures.  They’re angry because they believe that future generations will decry our own—and rightly so—if we put our own convenience above their livelihoods. And they’re angry that there are people who are deliberately spreading falsehoods and sowing confusion about the meaning of “scientific consensus,” and who act as though skepticism is a higher virtue than compassion. 

    In short:  They’re angry because they care

    So here’s the problem:  Reinhard tries to equate this anger not as a sign of conviction, but as a sign of uncertainty and confusion:

    The less sure people are of their views, the more inclined they are to name-call, yell and bully.

    So, by implication, if anyone calls Reinhard to the mat over his article, it’s not because they’ve done their homework and are legitimately disgusted by basic errors and lazy reporting. Instead, they’re angry because they’re simply confused and  “unsure of their views.”  Nice.  No wonder folks get angry at the Reinhards of the world—the ones who, in their own words, “bet” that the climate change consensus “isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,”  when it’s not their own lives they’re betting with.