Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh, effing terrific

On Wednesday, the IPCC retracted a claim made in its 2007 report that Himalayan glaciers were melting so rapidly there was a "very high" chance that they would be gone by 2035, leaving Central and South Asia in a state of severe, perhaps permanent, drought.

It turns out that the claim was based not on peer-reviewed science but on the speculation of an Indian glaciologist named Syed Hasnain, who made the statement in a 1999 interview published in New Scientist - a respected popular journal of science but not a peer-reviewed one. While those glaciers are melting, they aren't doing so at nearly the pace the 2007 report indicated - and some of them may even be expanding. The statement should not have appeared in the report. So the IPCC has retracted it.

Just how long do you think it will take for the nanny-nanny naysayers to get all bug-eyed, to start screeching and pointing fingers about this? Oh, wait, they already are.
Climate change skeptics have lapped up the scandal, which they've already dubbed "Glaciergate," saying that it further erodes the credibility of climate science already damaged by last year's Climategate e-mail scandal. Global warming denier Peter Foster, writing in Canada's National Post, said the error showed how the "IPCC's task has always been not objectively to examine science but to make the case for man-made climate change by any means available."
There are so many things wrong with that paragraph that it's hard to disentangle the nonsense from the rest of it. One thing is that I have really gotten sick of the lazy, sloppy way that supposed journalists string together claims made by the naysayers in a way that makes them sound like accepted facts rather than the wild, unsubstantiated bullshit that they represent. In this case, how many casual readers are going to realize that "erodes the credibility," "already damaged," "Climategate" (presented without, be sure to note, quotation marks), and "scandal" are the words of the naysayers spouting their already-debunked garbage rather than a recitation of conventional wisdom - especially when the sentence starts out by embracing the too-easily-employed description "scandal?"

(I can't help but compare this to my experience some years ago of writing press releases for a political campaign, during which newspapers insisted that everything I stated had to be punctuated with some form of "he said," even when it was, indeed, a statement of routine fact that was not disputed by anyone involved.)

But the other thing involved here is more important: The IPCC initially defended the assertion - but when it was shown that it did not come from peer-reviewed work, that it could not be firmly substantiated, it was retracted.

So what "scandal?" What the hell are they talking about? In fact, that's part of how science is supposed to work: When you're proven wrong, you take it back. As IPCC Vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele said,
"Some people will attempt to use it to damage the credibility of the IPCC; but if we can uncover it and explain it and change it, it should strengthen the IPCC's credibility, showing that we are ready to learn from our mistakes."
But that, of course, is not how the nanny-nanny naysayers will see it, nor how they will seek to use it. Instead, they will use the very self-correction that is part of science as a weapon against it. And they will do it, and do it with neither pause nor shame, because they are not engaged in science. They are engaged in PR. Some in service to corporations, some in obeisance to corporate ideology, some because it's just easier to close their eyes than to see, some because any mention of the UN sends black helicopters flying in their skulls. But whatever the reason, what they are doing is, again and quite clearly, not science. And it never should be regarded as such.

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