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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Joseph Romm: Scientific American jumps the shark. Memo to the Editors: Stop the unscientific online polls!

Memo to the Editors: Stop the unscientific online polls!

by Joseph Romm, Climate Progress, October 26, 2010

Please click here and freep this poll until the magazine has the decency to take it down.

A number of climate scientists I know are baffled at the new direction of Scientific American.  One has gone so far as to cancel his subscription.  I thought this was overblown until I actually looked at what SciAm is doing and read the articles in question.

In my entire life I never imagined I would read the following sentence in a Scientific American article:

In a sense, the two competing storylines about Judith Curry—peacemaker or dupe?—are both true.
Folks know that I have issues with Curry, but this is Scientific American, not some blog, not TMZ.

Like most scientists, I have held Scientific American in high regard as a magazine that aims for the informed public while maintaining strong scientific standards with articles by respected scientists and science writers.  Getting two articles published in the magazine over the past three decades was certainly one of the highlights of my career.
The article is problematic enough, as we’ll see, but the shark-jumping comes with the accompanying online poll, “Taking the temperature: Climate change poll.”

WARNING:  The screen captures I am about to publish may make your head explode, so please put your head in a vise before reading further:

SciAm Poll 1

Pause to clean up gray matter.

First off, the magazine needs to apologize to Judith Curry for question #2.  Seriously, what were the editors thinking?

Second, the magazine needs to apologize to the rest of its readers for this inane poll and promise to stop doing them! If not, I would recommend canceling your subscription.

Online polls are inherently unscientific and usually garbage (see “Memo to media, science museums, homo ’sapiens’: Enough with the online polls! Especially the poorly worded ones”).  As I wrote
The problem of course is that these polls are meaningless and unscientific, wholly gamable by whichever group decides to put the biggest effort into online voting.  Yet, since the results are visible for millions to see, and have the imprimatur of credible organizations like The Economist and USNews and the London science Museum, the parties involved have little choice but to participate in the charade.
And besides being easily gamed, they are inevitably poorly worded, which is what makes them garbage.  Question #1 is a joke.  Every climate scientist I know discusses uncertainty in every forum, mainstream or otherwise.  No one has ever provided any evidence that scientists are downplaying uncertainty — and the article certainly doesn’t.  In fact, as I have discussed many times, most scientists — and the IPCC in particular — have tended to overemphasize uncertainty on the key issues, particularly sea level rise, carbon-cycle feedbacks, and business-as-usual impacts.

The question, as phrased, strongly implies the scientific community is not doing what it is in fact doing.

Question 3 is extremely poorly worded.  Climate change is driven by multiple factors.  Is the question asking about short-term climate change, medium-term climate change, or long-term climate change?  Who knows?   What matters most is that the best evidence says that humans are probably responsible for most of the warming in recent decades — and we are increasingly becoming the dominant factor, so much so that on our current path of unrestricted emissions, climate change will, with a high degree of probability, go far beyond the bounds experienced by human civilization.

And the whole friggin’ poll has clearly been freeped by the anti-science crowd, as the next set of questions makes clear:


Yes, 56% believe that the IPCC is “A corrupt organization, prone to groupthink, with a political agenda.”  Thank you so much Scientific American for this useful piece of informationdisinfotainment.  No, I can’t claim to have coined that word, but disinfotainment is what these online polls are.

What precisely does this tell anyone, other than the fact that the disinformers got to this poll first?  I really do appreciate that Scientific American carried out the math three places, so we get the mathematically precise piece of nonsense that 56.1% of responders believe the IPCC is corrupt.  Then we have this:


Uhh, since when is “keeping science out of the political process” (whatever that means) a “policy option”?  Seriously.

And again, isn’t it nice to know that 49.7% of respondents would pay absolutely nothing to forestall the risk of catastrophic climate change?  Could anything provide more evidence of the inanity of such a poll?

It would be bad enough if this online poll were an isolated incident.  But I just blogged on this absurd push poll — Scientific American’s truly lame Shell-sponsored pop-up “Energy Poll”:

SciAm 10-10

To be clear, the only reasons for a science-based publication to do these garbage online polls, which tell you nothing scientific whatsoever but might actually mislead some people, are
  1. to (artificially) boost web traffic or
  2. make money from a co-sponsor with an agenda.
Now let’s go back to the deeply flawed original article.  First off, the title is just beyond the pale:  “Climate Heretic.”  The term carries a strong religious connotation, which is, of course, the frame of the anti-science crowd.  It’s the disinformers who accuse climate science of being a religion.  No scientific publication should accept that nonsensical spin.

People who disagree with the broad and deep understanding of climate science aren’t heretics.  They are just unscientific — unless of course they actually provide some scientific evidence that the broad and deep understanding is wrong, which, of course, they never do.  They usually just quibble with tangential bits and suggest that calls everything else into question.

Wikipedia defines heresy as, “a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma.”  And it defines dogma as “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization: it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted, or diverged from.”

Scientific understanding is the exact opposite of dogma.  Also, it’s never clear exactly what the supposed dogma is.  If it’s the 2007 IPCC report, then I dispute it regularly as having lowballed the likely impacts on our current emissions path — and the overwhelming majority of the scientific literature since 2006 also “diverges” from it.

I won’t go through the entire piece paragraph by paragraph, but here are a couple that are particularly unilluminating:
Rather than sweeping that uncertainty about ice sheets under the rug, as Curry’s overall critique might lead one to assume, the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report flags this uncertainty. Specifically, the report projects 0.18-0.59 meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century but explicitly excludes possible increases in ice flow. The reason, as the report explains, is that while such increases are likely, there was insufficient information at the time to estimate what they might be. Since the report came out, new research has given a better sense of what might happen with ice dynamics (although the authors caution that considerable uncertainty remains about the projections). It turns out that the original projections may have been too benign.
Given that there are more than a half a dozen major studies on this subject in the last 3 years, I don’t even know why much time is wasted on the widely criticized SLR estimates in 2007 IPCC report, which stopped taking new science input over 4 years ago.

The IPCC reports aren’t dogma, people.  They are primarily literature reviews!  And the literature has moved on (see “Scientists withdraw low-ball estimate of sea level rise — media are confused and anti-science crowd pounces“).  To say, “It turns out that the original projections may have been too benign” is a vast understatement.  Indeed, two years ago the Bush administration itself was forced to concede that the IPCC numbers are simply too out of date to be quoted anymore — see US Geological Survey stunner: 

Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections.

The next paragraph is even less illuminating:
The same could be true for other aspects of climate. “The plausible worst-case scenario could be worse than anything we’re looking at right now,” Curry says. The rise in temperature from a doubling of CO2 “could be one degree. It could be 10 degrees. Let’s just put it out there and develop policy options for all the scenarios and do a cost-benefit analysis for all of them, and then you start to get the things that make sense.”
Won’t anybody cite science anymore?

First off, we are going to blow past 550 ppm (a doubling of CO2 concentrations) on our current emissions path (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — 1000 ppm).  Indeed, even the IPCC report makes clear, if one reads it, that we are headed to 1000 ppm on our current emissions path, particularly if there is even a modest amount of carbon cycle feedbacks.

So let’s not keep leaving people with the impression that this is about a doubling.  It would take super-aggressive CO2 cuts nationally and globally starting now to have a plausible chance of staying substantially below a doubling this century — cuts that half the people in the article cited are fighting tooth and nail — but again, you’d never know any of that from this article.

Second, there really isn’t much of a chance that the (fast-feedbacks) sensitivity to a doubling “could be one degree.”  As the IPCC literature review made clear, it is
“likely to be in the range 2-4.5 °C with a best estimate of about 3 °C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 °C. Values substantially higher than 4.5 °C cannot be excluded, but agreement of models with observations is not as good for those values.”
I don’t want to review the literature again, you can find that in this post, “A detailed look at climate sensitivity:  Debunking the dangerous anti-science fantasy of the ‘lukewarmers’.”

The key point is that the full response of the climate system to the initial doubling over a period of decades, which includes the carbon cycle feedbacks such as the tundra, is almost certainly higher than 3 °C and may well be 6 °C as Hansen et al. and many others have argued based on the paleoclimate data.

Third, I have always agreed with Curry that we need to examine it closely the plausible worst-case scenario.  But in fact, notwithstanding all of the talk about uncertainties, most of the low range of warming scenarios require both low emissions scenarios and a very low sensitivity and no serious carbon cycle amplifying feedbacks, which is about as likely as you’re going to the horse races and winning the trifecta.

But again there is a growing body of scientific research on how grim just business as usual is — the top half of the likely range of impacts if we keep doing nothing:
And this  is all consistent with the best recent analyses of  paleoclimate data (see Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5-10 °F warmer and seas were 75-120 feet higher — “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm”).

But the article leave the impression that there is no science on this at all, that it’s all a great mystery, that the belief of one semi-informed person matters.  It doesn’t, as all scientific americans should know.  I agree with the article’s final sentence
It is perhaps unreasonable to expect everyone to stop sniping at one another, but given the high stakes, it is crucial to focus on the science itself and not the noise.
Memo to Scientific American:  Please stop focusing on individuals, please stop the online polls, and please focus on the science itself.  Or you may face a mass exodus of subscribers.

And for those who wonder why I keep blogging on this sort of thing, I can already report one success.  Shell appears to read this blog and they did change their poll, since this is what popped up today:


It’s better, but it’s still unscientific and so it’s still somewhere between pointless and pointless.


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