What Can a Non-Scientist Do?by Orrin H. Pilkey | August 4th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
- Googling almost any aspect of global warming returns such a dizzying array of opinions, what’s a non-scientist to think? Reporters and scientists are trying to provide some guidance. Here’s my advice.
Last week New York Times reporter Andy Revkin sparked an online conversation about the difficulty of covering “conflicting findings” of ongoing research in climate science. The folks at Realclimate.org picked up on this thread of “journalstic whiplash,” noting how news coverage of a scientific discussion on, say, global warming and hurricanes can come off as “ping-pong across the media” and give the sense that “scientists are more divided on the basic questions.” My own experience of researching a book on sea-level rise has led to a related question: how should the general public (including members of the press) parse the nuances of scientific argument?
The blizzard of opinions, offered in mainstream media and across the Internet, stretch from the negative to the positive, the cynical to the passionate, the well documented to the anecdotal. It’s no wonder polls show that non-scientists believe scientists are in a state of disarray about human-induced global warming. In reality, although there are some differences over details as well as unfolding discoveries as more aspects are studied, the vast majority of scientists agree about the nature and cause of global climate change. How can people without Ph.D.s in climate science separate the wheat from the chaff? It’s not easy, but here are some rules of thumb.
Avoid the Manufacturers of Doubt.
There is a large group of mostly nonprofit organizations dedicated to debunking global warming and its human connection. These include among others Heartland Institute, George C. Marshall Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Frontiers of Freedom, Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Property and Environmental Research Center, Heritage Foundation, and the Center for the Study of CO2 and Global Change. These and other assemblages of deniers can usually be identified by their energy-related (i.e., oil and coal companies) or libertarian sponsorship.
Sometimes their statements have an element of truth, and occasionally they speak the whole truth, but I recommend that non-scientists give their prolific works little credibility. There are also some prominent naysaying individuals who should be disregarded, including climatologist Patrick Michaels, geologist Don Easterbrook, and Fox News Junk Science commentator Steve Milloy.
Ignore Declarations From Non-Scientists.
Recently, a prominent astronaut was quoted as saying that global cooling was about to commence because of changes in solar radiation. Maybe so and maybe not, but a skilled pilot is not necessarily an expert on climate change. Holly Fretwell (astoundingly) declared in a children’s book on global warming (The Sky’s Not Falling, page 34) that the melting of the world’s ice sheets wouldn’t have much effect on global sea levels. Fretwell, an economist, may be off by more than 200 feet of sea level rise –- enough to wipe out many coastal cities around the globe!
Beware of Long-Term Conclusions Based on Short-Term Events.
Evidence that global climate change is occurring is necessarily long-term — decadal at a minimum. A single storm, a warm winter or two don’t mean anything. The spectacular disappearance of the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets just in the last five years (and its potential for sea-level rise) is impressive, but continuation for another five years will make it more so.
Be Cautious With Results from Mathematical Models.
Much of the evidence for global warming is based on mathematical models. The mathematical sophistication of such models should not be disconnected from the realities of nature. Recently, a scientist testified before Congress that his models indicated we have 10-12 years to reduce CO2 concentrations globally. Maybe so and maybe not. With all the atmospheric uncertainties involved in the models, perhaps the scientist should have said we need to reduce CO2 output ASAP.
Listen to Researchers but Use Common Sense.
Non-scientists are best advised to give media reports from global climate change researchers the highest credibility. Their results, however, must be viewed in the context of common sense. Recently NPR reported a glaciologist had discovered on a Greenland glacier that a process of ice degradation was not as important as generally assumed. The scientist believed his work indicated that global sea-level rise would be less than anticipated. Maybe so and maybe not, but one glacier does not a global trend make.
Orrin H. Pilkey is a James B. Duke professor emeritus at the Nicholas School of the Environment.filed under: faculty, guest