Sunday, November 1, 2009

ABC's muddled take on climate

I'm a big fan of the ABC, but it appears to be suffering from the same disease afflicting the broader media when it comes to climate change. That disease is the inclusion of unexamined, untested positions of so-called scepticism relating to climate science, ostensibly for the sake of balance.

There was a prime example of the malady in The Sunday Age last week, with Melissa Fyfe's strong article on brown coal and moves to muzzle protestors ("A show of power"), contrasted with James Kirby's weak apologia for Ian Plimer's climate denialist tome, Heaven and Earth ("Going against the current climate").

Fyfe delivered a tough-minded, factual account; Kirby suggested big sales of Plimer's book after it had been "sidelined" by major publishers meant that we have not been getting the full picture on climate (see today's letters in The Sunday Age for reader responses - beginning with Michael Down).

Now we have the ABC at it, with Margot O'Neill and her excellent Countdown to Copenhagen blog in the corner of climate science, and the 7.30 Report's Chris Uhlmann singing the praises of sceptics as one of the ABC's Off Air bloggers.

Uhlmann draws on Karl Popper to suggest there's something unscientific to claims about climate science being settled. First he notes Einstein's view that: "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong".

Fair enough, but this doesn't justify the massive leap he then attempts by invoking Popper:

Popper became famous for his epistemological work demarking science from pseudo-science. It boiled down to testability. If a theory could be falsified by experimentation it was science, if it couldn't it wasn't.

So Popper would argue that to say any theory is "settled" means that you are not talking about science but pseudo-science.

The false leap is in the second paragraph. The claim that climate science is settled in terms of the basic mechanisms and impacts of global warming is not a claim that the science is beyond Popper's challenge of verifiability.

What can be said is that the weight of scientific evidence has created an increasingly high probability that the globe's unprecedented rate of warming is resulting from human actions. Global warming could be falsified by experimentation, but the chances are beginning to compare with those of falsifying the claim that the earth is in orbit around the sun.

Instead, Popper's challenge was to claims where there is no question that could be asked that could lead to results capable of testing. An example might be the claim: "Green looks the same to everyone".

While there might be a high level of consistency across healthy populations in the ability to identify the colour green, just how could you test that the experience of seeing it was exactly the same for every person? The unique subjective experience can only be known to the person actually seeing the colour.

In contrast, Uhlmann's challenge to climate modelling is in fact an admission of defeat in terms of Popper's challenge of verifiability. That's because he suggests modelling can be wrong. It is therefore verifiable, and is amenable to rigorous scientific scrutiny - leaving aside his weak comparisons of financial modelling and the GFC, and climate models that are proving increasingly robust not only in their predictions, but also in their ability to reproduce past climatic conditions using historic data.

It is on this basis that we are able to compare the claims of climate scientists arguing the case for urgent action to address global warming, and denialists unable to back their spurious claims with peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

Balance is without value if it has no basis in fact. Imagine listening to Dr Norman Swan's excellent Health Report only to find alternative, 'balancing' coverage elsewhere on the ABC suggesting that sufferers of cancer give faith-healing a go (see also Lynn Frankes' letter on "quacks" in The Sunday Age).

If it's not on in medicine, why should it be acceptable with climate? As laypeople, we don't reject the science of CAT scans and chemotherapy because we do not fully grasp their technical detail. While we certainly seek second opinions, we should do so from authoritative sources.

That's my invitation to James Kirby and Chris Uhlmann on climate science - unless we drastically reduce our carbon emissions, they'll find the diagnosis is consistent among those qualified to make it.

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Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.