Andrew Neil, Melanie Phillips and ClimateGate: it cuts both ways
On the same day that Andrew Neil was joining Melanie Phillips at the vanguard of the AGW scepticism-for-rightwing-journalistic-career-enhancement lobby, I read a much more interesting article at the website of the excellent Institute of Science in Society.
In his post, Andrew Neil is content enough to play to the crowd. His basic argument is that the IPCC has made some claims in its literature which have not been properly peer-reviewed, and that this therefore proves that ‘the science as promulgated by the IPCC is very far from “settled” and that there are important questions still to ask.’
To be rigorously fair to Neil, he doesn’t go as far as saying that AGW theory is total bunk. Indeed he is careful to note that the ‘politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs and green activists’ that he suggests make up the IPCC may or may not be right’. No loaded terms there at all! But Neil is a journalist. He knows his readership, and the torrent of denier comments that accompany his post fully in keeping with his figurative headline ‘The dam is breaking’.
Compare this now to the studied calm of the I-SIS article by Dr Mae-Wan Ho and Professor Peter Saunders. They end by concluding their support for AGW theory, but they are also quite clear that scepticism about AGW can be a healthy part of climate change research:
Scepticism is healthy, especially when the political stakes are high in something like climate change; but it must be accompanied by a passionate commitment to the coherent whole. Contrary to the claims of Taylor and other climate sceptics, scepticism has stimulated good research on cloud formation, for example, which has long been identified as a major area of uncertainty by top climate scientists.
But the most interesting part of the article points us towards evidence that at least some in the ‘sceptic community’ may not be interested in such ‘passionate commitment to the coherent whole’; while there may be some perfectly justified criticism of the IPCC for the way it has set out its case based on some unsubstantiated claims, that doesn’t excuse the sceptic community from committing what, at face value, appears to be a a much greater scientific sin: providing false and misleading data.
Here’s where we enter Melanie Phillips territory.
Here she is, in 2006, extolling the research of Henrik Svensmark, (Director of the Centre for Sun-Climate Research, Danish National Space Center) on ‘cosmic rays ‘ which ‘are known to boost cloud formation – and, in turn, reduce temperatures on Earth’.
This work, she says:
could well open a can of wormholes in climate-change science’ because it provides proof ‘that temperature fluctuations over the past 550 million years are more likely to relate to cosmic-ray activity than to CO2.
Except for the small inconvenience that the ‘apparent strong correlations….have been obtained by an incorrect handling of the physical data’.
That’s according to a 2003 paper by Peter Laut of the Technical University of Denmark. The paper is horribly complex, but the allegations include the fact that a key graph, in which Svensmark (and previous researchers on whose work he relies) seek to show correlation between the intensity of galactic cosmic rays and strength of cloud cover (leading to lower temperatures), were in fact
extended artificially by combining into one curve into two incongruous data sets ie. two data sets representing entirely different physical qualities.
This particular graph, says Peter Laut
has played an important role in the scientific debate as well as in discussions conducted in the general public about possible causes of climate change.
And that’s just one example. There’s plenty more detail in the paper if you’ve got the energy.
The point is not to seek to batter Svensmark’s and his colleagues’ reputation (and I don’t suppose they’re watching anyway). As Mae-Wan Ho and Peter Saunders suggest, scepticism in itself is a good thing, and there is no particular reason to suggest that these sceptics are anything other than decent scientists using data in a way they think is acceptable, just as there is no reason to doubt Peter Laut’s intentions in challening them.
That’s the perfectly valid cut and thrust of scientific challenge and counter-challenge.
The point is rather that accusations of lack of scientific rigour can cut both ways in the climate change debate.
The point is to ‘call out’ people like Melanie Phillips and now Andrew Neil, who seek to appoint themselves as guardians of the truth against what they’d like to have us believe is a crypto-communist conspiracy to push AGW theory down the throats of decent Spectator readers (though for what reason such a conspiracy might exist, I’m still not entirely clear).
They know no more than I do about this stuff, and they need to be challenged on the use of their media power to sell a version of science which happens to suit their career-as-controversial-right-wing-journalist ends.
Unity at Libcon does that much better than me, but I thought I should make the effort. This climate change stuff is important.