Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Relentless Attack on Climate Scientist Ben Santer

Vital to inform ourselves by digging deeply, discerning who can be trusted as resources of information, and to share the truth again and again and again. Vital to do this for the well-being of us all. - Molly
"Merchants of Doubt" is one of three books The New York Times recommended last week that illuminate the climate debate. The book excerpt here describes how two men used the "tobacco strategy" to try to take down an esteemed scientist because they disagreed with his conclusion that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases.

The following is an excerpt from Merchants of Doubt by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes.

Ever since scientists first began to explain the evidence that our climate was warming — and that human activities were probably to blame — people have been questioning the data, doubting the evidence and attacking the scientists who collect and explain it. And no one has been more brutally — or more unfairly — attacked than Ben Santer.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world’s leading authority on climate issues. Established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, it was created in response to early warnings about global warming. Scientists had known for a long time that increased greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels could cause climate change — they had explained this to Lyndon Johnson in 1965 — but most thought that changes were far off in the future. It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists started to worry — to think that the future was perhaps almost here — and a few mavericks began to argue that anthropogenic climate change was actually already underway. So the IPCC was created to evaluate the evidence and consider what the impacts would be if the mavericks were right.

In 1995, the IPCC declared that the human impact on climate was now “discernible.” This wasn’t just a few individuals; by 1995 the IPCC had grown to include several hundred climate scientists from around the world. But how did they know that changes were under way, and how did they know
they were caused by us? Those crucial questions were answered in Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, the Second Assessment Report issued by the IPCC. Chapter 8 of this report, “Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes,” summarized the evidence that global warming really was caused by greenhouse gases. Its author was Ben Santer.

Ben Santer had impeccable scientific credentials, and he had never before been involved in even the suggestion of impropriety of any kind, but now a group of physicists tied to a think tank in Washington, DC, accused him of doctoring the report to make the science seem firmer than it really was. They wrote reports accusing him of “scientific cleansing” — expunging the views of those who did not agree. [1] They wrote reports with titles like “Greenhouse Debate Continued” and “Doctoring the Documents,” published in places like Energy Daily and Investor’s Business Daily. They wrote letters to congressmen, to officials in the Department of Energy and to the editors of scientific journals, spreading the accusations high and wide. They pressured contacts in the Energy Department to get Santer fired from his job. Most public — and most publicized — was an op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal, accusing Santer of making the alleged changes to “deceive policy makers and the public.”[2] Santer had made changes to the report, but not to deceive anyone. The changes were made in response to review comments from fellow scientists.

Every scientific paper and report has to go through the critical scrutiny of other experts: peer review. Scientific authors are required to take reviewers’ comments and criticisms seriously, and to fix any mistakes that may have been found. It’s a foundational ethic of scientific work: no claim can be considered valid — not even potentially valid — until it has passed peer review.   

Peer review is also used to help authors make their arguments clearer, and the IPCC has an exceptionally extensive and inclusive peer review process. It involves both scientific experts and representatives of the governments of the participating nations to ensure not only that factual errors are caught and corrected, but as well that all judgments and interpretations are adequately documented and supported, and that all interested parties have a chance to be heard. Authors are required either to make changes in response to the review comments, or to explain why
those comments are irrelevant, invalid or just plain wrong. Santer had done just that. He had made changes in response to peer review. He had done what the IPCC rules required him to do. He had done what science requires him to do. Santer was being attacked for being a good scientist.

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