During my 45 year legal career I had direct experience in environmental hearings with numerous scientists from various disciplines, both in the preparation and the presentation of their evidence. If they could survive my pre-hearing preparatory “cross-examination” they were likely to do well at the hearing. I wrote and edited a manual for First Nations on how to present their case in an environmental hearing, one of the first such books translated into Cree and Ojibway. I was legal counsel to Canada’s first federal environmental assessment process, assessing two major projects, during which I retained several environmental scientists for the hearing panels and cross-examined others. I also advised Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization in the early stages of its formation.
In the last year I have spent many hundreds of hours reading texts, scientific publications and journalists’ articles about climate change, and I continue to do so daily.
I am not qualified to judge the mathematics used in scientific debates, but I am fully qualified to judge whether there is such a debate. I am also qualified to judge the logic scientists use in justifying their arguments. And finally, I am as well qualified as anyone to judge whether much of what we read in online publications by journalists, or in sponsored posts in social media, purporting to represent “the science” actually does.
It is striking to me how much of what is presented in the popular press is collective misinformation, a journalists’ opinion piece about what that non-scientist writer thinks are some scientists’ opinions about the future, presented as indisputable fact. For example, some journalists’ descriptions of the 2015 Paris Agreement demonstrate that they have never read either the Agreement itself or what various countries have promised to do under that Agreement. They merely repeat the misinformed opinions of others.
Even worse, there is a failure to ask the obvious questions one should ask about shocking and frightening statements: is it too bad to be true? Are my emotions being manipulated? For example, when I read that last summer was the hottest “on record” if I was cross-examining that author I would ask: how far back, in what “record” did you look; and how was the global temperature measured then and now? In some cases the “record” was opened a decade or two after much higher earlier temperatures. By excluding these earlier temperatures from the record recent temperatures were made to appear the hottest in that purposely selected time period.
However, in a selected longer record including many more years or even centuries, the temperatures in the earlier years were not taken from accurate thermometer measurements of that time because no accurate, complete and globally widespread measurements existed. Rather, temperatures from earlier years were estimated, and then compared to observed temperatures in more recent years. By estimating earlier years to have been colder than was likely and making judgmental adjustments to the temperature records of the recent past (e.g., to compensate for possible sampling error), the result may be to increase the slope of the temperature graph to overstate the rate and extent of recent warming.
Even the scientists’ description of the level of confidence they have in these judgments (e.g. “high confidence”), or their probability of being right, is subjective – tantamount to saying “I have high confidence in my own unverifiable opinions.” Yet the “warmest on record” estimates are presented as “fact” in the media even though it is mostly subjective judgment.
But subjective judgments go both ways. In other cases scientists look at the “paleoclimate” in geologic history going back millions of years, perhaps even before homo sapiens, or in the earliest days of humanity (when humanity was small groups of nomads), concluding that if extreme hot or cold temperatures occurred then there can be no problem today (when humanity is 7+ billion people in fixed settlements).
The time period selected and the data adjustments made to historic and recent temperatures largely determines the conclusions. And there is no single “right” time period or “right” adjustments; some just appear more reasonable than others.
I am fully aware that the only totally open mind is a totally empty mind. That is not me or you. So all I can do is try my best to be as objective and impersonal about the evidence as I can. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe in conspiracy theories; or evil scientists fraudulently altering data to create fake science. I assume that everyone is acting with the best of intentions, whether or not I might agree with their methods or conclusions.
I am also unpersuaded by the now common articles that claim to be “debunking” a list of “10 myths” or inconvenient truths presented by someone they disagree with. The myths attacked are usually an oversimplified ‘straw man’ argument, and the debunking often includes personal attacks, as in: she went to a 3rd rate university and didn’t get a PhD in climate science; or: he got his funding from the evil X (whether the oil industry or a foreign billionaire’s charitable foundation). And therefore what they say is just a myth. Working scientists and journalists all have to get their funding from somewhere. I don’t care where.
In today’s polarized times, it is a lot easier to get funded and published in peer reviewed journals when presenting a commonly held viewpoint than a skeptical or even contrarian one. Unfortunately, peer review is no longer the powerful tool it once was if all your peers think the way you do, but reject anyone who doesn’t. For these reasons I don’t look only at the author’s credentials, peer review or alleged sources of funding, but try to judge the presentation on the merits of the evidence and arguments presented.
My interest has been to look behind the headlines to form my own tentative and evolving conclusions. In retirement, I have the time and experience to ask the difficult and sometimes embarrassing questions without needing funding or peer review from anyone. Some of my conclusions will be presented in blog posts here. Keep reading.