December 22, 2005

Proving Science Bias

Filed under: Climate Politics

Two recent events underscore how predictable is the distortion of global warming by those who gain from exaggeration. The events were the Montreal “Conference of the Parties” which had signed the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. Both took place in early December.

The sheer volume of hype was impressive. Following are the headlines, along with the sources, generated on the afternoon of December 7, first from the Montreal UN conference. (University news sources are those that were eventually picked up in other stories). These were obtained from Google’s news search page.

•Global warming to halt ocean circulation (University of Illinois)

•Warming trend adds to hazard of Arctic trek (Salem OR News)

•Pacific islanders move to escape global warming (Reuters)

•Tuvalu: That sinking feeling (PBS)

•World weather disasters spell record losses in 2005 (Malaysia Star)

•Arctic peoples urge UN aid to protect cultures (Reuters)

•Threatened by warming, Arctic people file suit against US (AFP)

Next, from San Francisco:

•Ozone layer may take a decade longer to recover (New York Times)

•Earth is all out of new farmland (London Guardian)

•Forests could worsen global warming (UPI)

•Warming could free far more carbon from high arctic soil than earlier thought (University of Washington)

•Rain will take greater toll on reindeer, climate change model shows (University of Washington)

•Methane’s impacts on climate change may be twice previous estimates (NASA)

•Average temperatures climbing faster than thought in North America (Oregon State University)

How can things be so bad?

Each one of these stories carries an “it’s worse than we thought” subtext. There was a single additional story to the contrary, carried by AP, which indicated that plants may store more carbon dioxide than was previously thought, which would help to limit warming.

That gives us a score of “it’s worse than we thought” winning by 14-1. What’s the chance that this is really true?

Start with a prediction about climate change. For example, perhaps some computer model predicts that the next 50 years will see about three-quarters of a degree (Celsius) of warming (which is actually the most likely value). Now, given new information, what’s the chance that this forecast will be raised rather than lowered, i.e. that “it’s worse than we thought” rather than “it’s not as bad as we thought it was.”

Fifty-fifty. Unless the world is a very strange place, each new piece of information that causes us to change an estimate of some future quantity has an equal probability of raising or lowering that forecast.

That’s the same probability one gets in a coin flip. The odds of two successive “heads” is one in four. So what’s the chance of only one “head” in 15 successive coin tosses? One in 2,000.

The most casual observer would have to remark on this prima facie evidence for rampant bias in climate science, but the most casual social scientist might find it quite predictable.

Scientists compete with each other for finite resources, just like bankers and corporations. In this case, successful competitors are those who are rewarded by their universities or institutions. In all science, this means publishing research articles in the refereed scientific literature. That research costs tremendous amounts of money and there really is only one provider: Uncle Sam (i.e. you and me).

No one gets much of this pie by claiming that his or her issue may, in fact, be no big deal. Instead, any issue – take global warming, acid rain, and obesity as examples, must be portrayed in the starkest of terms. Everything is a crisis, and all the crises are competing with each other.

Similar logic applies in the policy arena. Remember that the job of policymakers is precisely that: to make policy, which does not get made unless whatever policy there might be is “absolutely necessary” to avoid certain doom.

Then, finally, what gets played on TV and in the papers? More crises. Near-death experiences sell newspapers and attract viewers. Those who question this need only look at ratings for The Weather Channel. Some people may remember that it used to be the station where you turned to for round-the-clock national and local weather. The ratings were in the tank.

Now, in prime time, you are more likely to see the twentieth re-run of how this tornado went over that house and how everyone almost died, usually with some pretty snappy home video. Or, just to get your attention for sure, a re-enactment of the sinking of an oil rig in a howling cyclone — re-enacted because everyone on board drowned. Ratings have boomed.

Perhaps it is dismaying that science has become as blatantly biased in the direction of tragedy as television. But, given the way we fund and reward science and scientists, it was inevitable, and global warming is only one of many of science’s predictable distortions.

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