On science, weigh qualifications
Friday, August 24, 2012
The recent publication of two op-eds on global warming (aka climate change) has caused a flurry of activity in the blogosphere. Long-term global warming caused primarily by human activities is called anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to differentiate from global warming that may be attributed to other causes.
The two articles are “The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic” by Professor Richard A. Muller in the July 30 New York Times, and “PNAS Plus: Perception of Climate Change,” by J. Hansen, M. Sato and R. Ruedy published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The credentials of Professor Muller are extensive. He is a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and a former recipient of a McArthur Foundation fellowship (aka “genius grant”). A complete biography of Professor Muller, as well as information on the study by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project (the basis for Professor Muller’s op-ed), can be found at berkeleyearth.org/faq/. Dr. Hansen is a professor at Columbia University and a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He has been actively advocating the reality of AGWfor over 24 years. His op-ed appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Washington Post. Professor Muller’s views are those of one who was a skeptic of AGW for years but changed his stance after considerable analysis, while Dr. Hansen’s views have remained unchanged over years of study.
Both articles immediately drew vociferous attacks from the deniers of AGW. I will note a few of the prominent ones with comments regarding their qualifications. The first was by Anthony Watts (his blog is “Watts Up With That?”) now widely quoted by those attacking Professor Muller’s paper. What are the qualifications of Mr.Watts? His career consists primarily as a broadcast meteorologist. There is a claim in his biography that he studied at Purdue University, but there is no record provided that he actually received a degree. Another critic is Marc Morano who runs the website ClimateDepot.com. What are Mr. Morano’s qualifications? He has a bachelor of arts in political science. He worked as a producer in the mid-’90s for radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, and was among the first reporters to write about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign scrutinizing John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Earlier this year, Mr. Morano penned an article questioning the Purple Heart medals of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a leading critic of George Bush’s Iraq policy. Neither Watts nor Morano have any scientific credentials.
Another critic of Professor Muller’s conclusions is Professor Judith Curry at Georgia Institute of Technology. Professor Curry does have significant scientific credentials, however, her criticism is more of the methodology used by the Berkeley Earth group rather than the reality or lack thereof of AGW (see berkeleyearth.org/faq/). It is an age-old argument in science: How complicated should the model be that is used to analyze a given set of data? A basic tenet of physics is that the simplest model that explains the phenomena is best.
So what is the moral of this story? When forming opinions in a field in which one lacks specific expertise, one must not only evaluate the subject matter discussed, but also the qualifications of those who argue pro and con. An excellent article “On Experts and Global Warming” by Professor Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame can be found on The New York Times opinion blog The Stone. To first form an objective view of climate change, I recommend reading the consensus paper on climate change by experts in the field published by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), www.ametsoc.org/policy/2007climatechange.html. This paper, an information statement of the AMS, is updated regularly as new information comes on line, intended to provide a trustworthy, objective, and scientifically up-to-date explanation of scientific issues of concern to the public at large.
The bottom line is: All credible evidence points to the fact that AGW is real. What can and should society do about it?
Juris Vagners is a resident of Lake Wenatchee. He is professor emeritus at the University of Washington, a member of the faculty since 1967, and holds a doctorate in aeronuatical and astronautical sciences from Stanford University.
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