I read an interesting article not long ago that claimed that scientists were not debating climate change enough. It said that they were refusing to debate skeptics on television and in the media, as they “knew they would lose”. Examples of “believers” who apparently refused such debates were Al Gore, David Suzuki, and well-known climatologists such as Hansen and Weaver.
Could it be that these advocates are refusing debates not because they “know they will lose”, but because they know that such a media-ravaged spectacle will have no scientific value?
If you look at these people, two – Gore and Suzuki – do not specialize in climatology. They are purely lobbyists and media figures (Suzuki is also a geneticist). For the purpose of determining how much debate goes into creating working conclusions on climate change, we should look at the top of the credibility spectrum. Let’s exclude An Inconvenient Truth, editorials, films, and narrative non-fiction (such as Keeping Our Cool by Dr Weaver). These have not been peer-reviewed. They are (hopefully) based upon scientific conclusions, but would not be acceptable to cite in a research paper about climate change. They were created purely to reach the general public and to relay a certain political or ethical message.
What we will include are the documents which drive government policy, which have been peer-reviewed (or are peer-reviewed compilations of peer-reviewed science, such as the IPCC reports) and which have been created by sources at the top of our credibility spectrum. NASA is a good source. So is the IPCC. So are the 32 national academies of science that have approved the IPCC. Peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature, Science, or EOS are also credible.
This is where it all starts. This is where climate change theory began. It wasn’t cooked up by the government, the media, or someone like Al Gore. These are the people that objectively study details of global warming that you or I can’t even understand.
Back to the debate thing
There would be no point in Al Gore facing down a skeptical journalist in a “scientific debate” on prime-time TV. One of two scenarios would occur:
1) The debate would be of a true scientific nature (which would be surprising as neither of the sources are even climatologists). They would be talking about things like Dansgaard-Oeschger events, Milankovitch cycles, and the solubility of carbonic acid in water as a function of temperature. To the average viewer, it would be really boring. They wouldn’t understand a word of it. Nobody would watch. The television station would declare it a failure.
2) The debate would resort to name-calling and ridiculous claims. The journalist would go on about it all being a liberal conspiracy. Al Gore would go on about ethical responsibilities. The journalist would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that, as CO2 levels often lag behind temperature, climate change wasn’t real at all. Al Gore would take advantage of the audience’s lack of scientific knowledge and claim that Hurricane Katrina could be directly attributed to a warming planet. Scientists all over the world would shake their heads. The public would get even more confused.
You can have a scientific discussion. You can have a debate that becomes a media spectacle. It’s much harder to do both at once.
Scientists aren’t lawyers. They don’t each try to prove opposing arguments. Scientists aren’t politicians. They don’t try to make their ideas interesting for the general public. Scientists are seekers of truth, or the closest to truth humans can get, regarding the physical world.
Getting closer to that truth requires a lot of second-guessing, a lot of checking and revising and admitting that you’re wrong. It requires looking at every possible outcome and deciding which is the most probable. It requires inspecting new evidence whenever it comes up. It is “debating” in a gentler, more objective, more dry sense of the word.
So yes, scientists do debate in their own way. It’s called peer-review. It involves all that second-guessing, checking, and revising we just mentioned. It involves considering every objection. It involves addressing every objection that is deemed relevant. The sources we listed above – NAS, IPCC, Nature – peer-review all of their publications.
If this skeptical journalist had a new idea about climate change, he or she should get a degree, study their idea meticulously, write it up in the form of an article and submit it to a peer-review institution. That’s the normal scientific practice. Spreading their scientific hypotheses around the media without first passing their work through a peer-review process shows that they’re trying to influence the public, not educate them.
Go do some reading about how claims like “climate change is caused by the sun” or “it’s a natural cycle” have stood up to peer-review. Go see what the qualified, credible, objective scientific theories have found. Go see just how much research the scientific community has done about solar activity or natural cycles.
Yes, scientists do debate about climate change.
They just don’t do it on TV.