Heartland Replies to 'Nature'

Heartland Replies to 'Nature'
July 28, 2011

Joseph Bast

Joseph L. Bast c.v. Joseph Bast is president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, a 29-year-old... (read full bio)

Nature, the well-known British science journal, has a feature story and an unsigned editorial in its latest issue addressing The Heartland Institute’s contribution to the global debate over climate change. The articles can be read (for free) at the following links: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110727/full/475440a.html and http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v475/n7357/full/475423b.html.

These articles are surely a sign that the debate is not over regarding the causes and consequences of climate change and what, if anything, should be done to alter the human influence on climate. But the articles themselves hardly do justice to our efforts, or the efforts of many scientists who are speaking out against the fake “consensus” that Nature itself has done so much to promote in its coverage of climate change.

Turning first to the feature story by Jeff Tollefson, titled “The Sceptic Meets His Match,” I’ve thanked Mr. Tollefson for an article that is, by and large, fair and accurate. He accurately summarizes my position, saying “he does not necessarily deny that humans are having an influence on the climate, but he does question the forecasts of catastrophic impacts and the rationale for curbing carbon emissions.” But there are some important errors and omissions we wish to correct.

  • Two of the five critics of our efforts he quotes are the world’s most notorious global warming alarmists who have made it their business to exaggerate the scientific certainty of climate predictions and the impacts of climate change, and to suppress academic debate and demonize skeptics. It’s no surprise they object to our calling them out. The third critic works for an organization started by and still run by President Bill Clinton’s former global warming advisor and Kyoto negotiator – no partisan bias there! Al Gore would be no less objective or credible a judge of our work than these three advocates. More about the remaining two critics in a moment.
  • The article implies we rely on a 1999 NASA study to argue for the existence of a natural “heat vent” over the tropics that cools the Earth as ocean temperatures rise. In fact, this discovery has been documented in a series of peer-reviewed studies, many of them reported in our 800-page report, Climate Change Reconsidered, and the controversy is being hotly debated in the leading journals today. We summarized and cited research questioning this discovery and its implications as well as seeming to confirm them.
  • One of the authors of the 1999 NASA study (the fourth of the five critics) is quoted as disagreeing with our interpretation of his findings. It is good journalism to report this, but it underscores a point I made repeatedly during the interview and make in all my writing on climate change, which is that most scientists working in this field “believe” in man-made global warming even though their own published work punches big holes in the scientific foundations of that belief. This is an important point.

It is easy to cry wolf and make scary predictions in presentations to Congress or even in classrooms, but scholars who do this often publish research that either contradicts basic tenets of alarmism or contains admissions of major gaps in knowledge that would be necessary to predict future climate conditions. Either this is hollow careerism and ought to be subject to public criticism, or it is cognitive dissonance – holding two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time. If the latter, it is probably caused by the complexity of the issue (we must trust the judgment of scientists working in other fields to form opinions on subjects we are not ourselves expert about) and its close association with social and economic agendas (we want to believe something is true even if our own research suggests it is not).

Is this an outrageous claim or an attack on the integrity of working scientists? Absolutely not. It is a standard theme in many books on the history of science, dating back at least as far as Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and as recently as Mike Hulme’s 2009 tome, Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hulme, not incidentally, is no skeptic: He contributes to the alarmist IPCC reports and works at the University of East Anglia (home of the Climategate scandal). Even he admits that his position is based on belief rather than scientific understanding and is inseparable from his partisan political beliefs.

  • Roger Pielke Jr., the fifth and final critic quoted by Tollefson, is admirable for his ability to stay suspended in mid-air for years between the two camps of alarmists and skeptics. One of these days, he’ll need to plant his feet in one camp or another, and because he’s a good scientist, I believe it will be in ours. He is quoted characterizing Climate Change Reconsidered as “a big fat bowl of cherries.”

The reference is to “cherry picking,” or citing only the scientific reports that support one’s point of view. But Climate Change Reconsidered has (I am told) 4,235 source citations. How many examples do we need of scientists writing in peer-reviewed journals admitting that the science doesn’t support claims of man-made catastrophic warming before we can conclude that skepticism, not alarmism, is the real position of most scientists? I think we passed that threshold hundreds or even thousands of citations ago. Frankly, it’s getting boring pointing this out over and over again. Only people who are blinded by ideology or careerism are still defending a hypothesis that has been soundly and repeatedly debunked.

  • Finally, contrary to Mr. Tollefson’s claim, I do not “dismiss” the findings of Bray and von Storch’s latest international survey of climate scientists. In fact, I write about it because it demonstrates once again the extent of disagreement among scientists over the underlying science.

Approximately two-thirds of the questions about the underlying science of climate reveal deep uncertainty or outright skepticism, even as 85 percent of the scientists who participated say they “believe” in AGW. So what questions help us get closer to the truth about climate change? Questions about the science, which the scientists actually understand and say is missing or contradicts alarmist predictions? Or questions about how they feel or what they believe about global warming? The right choice should be obvious, but good luck finding a reporter willing to ask these questions and make that choice.

Turning now to the unsigned editorial, titled “Heart of the Matter,” the difference in tone and rhetoric from Tollefson’s essay could hardly be greater. According to the editorial, The Heartland Institute’s conferences – which have drawn more than 2,000 scientists and other experts from some 20 countries – are “curious affairs,” “easy to lampoon,” “predictable,” and “absurdities.” Nature deigns to recognize us, we are told, only because “closing our eyes will not make the climate sceptics go away.” Well, they at least got that part right.

The editorial admits that Climate Change Reconsidered “is well sourced and based on scientific papers,” but complains it “makes many bold assertions that are often questionable or misleading, and do not highlight the uncertainties.” The complaint lacks any examples or substantiation, so it cannot be rebutted except to say “prove it.” But the irony should not be overlooked that it was Nature’s record of publishing misleading editorials and articles that hide uncertainties or make claims that cannot be replicated by other scientists that made publication of Climate Change Reconsidered necessary. If we err on the side of being too skeptical, it is only because we are trying to restore balance to a ship that is listing so far to one side that it is in imminent danger of capsizing.

Finally, the editors declare they are in pursuit of “a theory that can explain observations of the world,” whereas the skeptics seem content to point out gaps in that theory. “The Heartland Institute and its ilk,” they say, “are not trying to build a theory of anything.” Well, where to begin?

I am not a scientist, and it certainly is not my place to tell the editors of Nature what they ought to be about. But it is my understanding of the scientific method that it proceeds by the falsification of hypotheses, not their defense by every means possible, which is what Nature and regrettably other leading science journals have resorted to in the case of man-made climate change. The goal ought not to be to defend a hypothesis, but to test it, and if it fails, to consider competing hypotheses and test those just as rigorously.

Nature, it seems to this nonscientist observer, has lost its way. Until the journal opens its eyes, it will not be a serious voice on climate science.

Joseph Bast

Joseph L. Bast c.v. Joseph Bast is president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, a 29-year-old... (read full bio)