I’m not a scientist and I don’t play one on TV, but I am an intellectually curious individual with an admiration for the work of scientists. Even so, I’ve conditioned myself to give a big ho-hum in reaction to news stories about this or that study unlocking the secrets of this or that phenomenon or proving this or that chemical/food/microorganism is poisoning us or linking this or that molecule/process/super food to the cure for cancer.
I don’t call this blog Ordinarily Skeptical for nothing, you know.
And I’m on solid ground here, because Believe It Or Not, Most Published Research Findings Are Probably False. This doesn’t mean science itself is a failure; it just means the rush to publish findings is a beginning, not a conclusion, in the discovery of truth. You need to provide other scientists your data and your methodology. They need to try to replicate your results. “Peer review” is not enough. Quoting from the linked article at Big Think:
Replications, meta-analyses and systematic reviews are by their nature far more useful for portraying an accurate picture of reality than original exploratory research…so whenever you hear about a new piece of science news, remember the principles above and the simple rule of thumb that studies of studies are far more likely to present a true picture of reality than individual pieces of research.
Twelve years ago an epidemiologist at Stanford named John Ioannidis wrote a paper called, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. In the essay, Ioannidis gave six corollaries “about the probability that a research finding is indeed true.” Let’s look at numbers 4 and 6:
4. The greater the flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
6. The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.
When I first read about Ioannidis’s claims, I had a hmmm moment. His field is epidemiology, but his claim about bad studies wasn’t limited to that or even to medical science. I thought, well, is this true about the most talked about (hottest?) science of our time, climate science? And I went, hmmm. Corollaries 4 and 6. Hmmm.
Corollary 6 sure seems relevant to climate science. Is there a hotter field right now? So many scientists, so many models, so much data massaging, so many news writers frothing to get the next doomsday report. Hmmm.
Corollary 4. Climate science has a fairly straight forward and well understood component, that being, the nature of CO2 as a greenhouse gas. By itself a doubling of atmospheric CO2 will increase the average global temperature by 1 degree C. Pretty harmless. But beyond that, the question is, how much warming is added through poorly understood net “feedback” effects, if any? This is where corollary 4 comes into play, doesn’t it? The range of uncertainties in this part of the science is tremendous. Model design is problematic from the beginning. Hmmm.
None of my hmmms mean the planet isn’t warming or the effects aren’t worrisome or whatever. My hmmms just mean, I doubt that scientists really know as much as they seem to think they do about the feedback component of climate science. Yet.
I’m not alone. People who are way smarter than I am and who write way better than I do have lots to say about this. Aren’t you the least bit curious as to how some really smart people can be skeptical about what everyone knows is “settled science?” It isn’t that they deny the climate is warming or that man’s activities are adding to it. That’s not what they doubt at all, at all. If you read the links, you’ll learn something about skeptics, I promise.
Here’s Warren Meyer: So Skeptical Science Is “Correcting” Me.
Robert Tracinski: Scott Pruitt Is Absolutely Right About Carbon Dioxide.
Climate scientist Judith Curry: Scott Pruitt’s statement on climate change. I’ll end with a reflection from her piece:
If I am interpreting Pruitt’s statements correctly, I do not find anything to disagree with in what he said: we don’t know how much of recent warming can be attributed to humans. In my opinion, this is correct and is a healthy position for both the science and policy debates.
UPDATE: Climate scientist Richard Lindzen of MIT wrote to President Trump about climate policy. The guys at Powerlineblog posted the contents of the letter here. I see Corollaries 4 and 6 all over the place:
For far too long, one body of men, establishment climate scientists, has been permitted to be judges and parties on what the “risks to the Earth system associated with increasing levels of carbon dioxide” really are.
Let me explain in somewhat greater detail why we call for withdrawal from the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change].
The UNFCCC was established twenty-five years ago, to find scientific support for dangers from increasing carbon dioxide. While this has led to generous and rapidly increased support for the field, the purported dangers remain hypothetical, model-based projections. By contrast, the benefits of increasing CO2 and modest warming are clearer than ever, and they are supported by dramatic satellite images of a greening Earth.
• The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) no longer claims a greater likelihood of significant as opposed to negligible future warming,
• It has long been acknowledged by the IPCC that climate change prior to the 1960’s could not have been due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Yet, pre-1960 instrumentally observed temperatures show many warming episodes, similar to the one since 1960, for example, from 1915 to 1950, and from 1850 to 1890. None of these could have been caused by an increase in atmospheric CO2,
• Model projections of warming during recent decades have greatly exceeded what has been observed,
• The modelling community has openly acknowledged that the ability of existing models to simulate past climates is due to numerous arbitrary tuning adjustments,
• Observations show no statistically valid trends in flooding or drought, and no meaningful acceleration whatsoever of pre-existing long term sea level rise (about 6 inches per century) worldwide,
• Current carbon dioxide levels, around 400 parts per million are still very small compared to the averages over geological history, when thousands of parts per million prevailed, and when life flourished on land and in the oceans.
Calls to limit carbon dioxide emissions are even less persuasive today than 25 years ago. Future research should focus on dispassionate, high-quality climate science, not on efforts to prop up an increasingly frayed narrative of “carbon pollution.” Until scientific research is unfettered from the constraints of the policy-driven UNFCCC, the research community will fail in its obligation to the public that pays the bills.