Barry Brill's Open Letter to Professor Gluckman
Barry Brill's Open Letter to Professor Sir Peter
Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser
Dear Sir Peter
In your address at NIWA on 22 April, you worried that controversies in the field of climate change may be changing the way the public perceives science and scientists.
You were critical of those in the profession who “do not get beyond their biases, or are careless or fraudulent”, and identified the solution as greater transparency – “the scientific enterprise is built on publication, repetition, peer review and the inherent scepticism and questioning of scientists.”
Few could disagree. It is the absence of these normal building-blocks of science that has tended to bring climate science into disrepute.
Publication and repetition are difficult, as so many of the core drivers are buried from sight within computer models, all of which are operated by protective Government agencies. The crucial data fed into these models at global level are collected by only three Government agencies (CRU, GISS and NOAA). The key senior staff at these agencies are mostly climate modelers modellers themselves, in which capacity they have become notorious for hoarding data and resisting Freedom of Information requests from the private sector.
Greater future transparency might finally have been triggered as a result of the ‘Climategate’ scandal involving CRU. The UK Parliamentary Committee spoke strongly of “a return to scientific method” and made several extremely useful recommendations:
• “transparency and accountability
are of increasing importance to the public, so we recommend
that the Government reviews the rules for the accessibility
of data sets collected and analysed with UK public
• “all publicly funded research groups should consider whether they are being as open as they can be, and ought to be, with the details of their methodologies.”
• “climate scientists should take steps to make available all the data used to generate their published work, including raw data...In addition, scientists should take steps to make available in full their methodological workings, including the computer codes. Data and methodological workings should be provided via the internet. There should be enough information published to allow verification.”
The Committee also found prima facie evidence that CRU had breached the Freedom of Information Act and observed: “a culture of withholding information—from those perceived by CRU to be hostile to global warming—appears to have pervaded CRU’s approach to FOIA requests from the outset. We consider this to be unacceptable.”
Excessive secrecy of this type has not been confined to the hapless CRU. In New Zealand, the Climate Science Coalition sought for some years to obtain a copy of the schedule of adjustments used by NIWA to produce the 1°C warming trend shown in the National Temperature Record (NTR). It was finally published, in the wake of Climategate, and NIWA has consequently embarked on a major new project to create a replacement NTR. NIWA has belatedly admitted that the NTR appearing in its brochures and website has never been documented or peer-reviewed or subject to any quality control procedures.
Looking forward, New Zealanders have been assured that the process and the data for the replacement NTR will be open, peer-reviewed and published. Hopefully, this will usher in a new era of transparency in our climate science.
“The East Anglia affair”, as you term it, was about more than the confidentiality of data. Professor Richard Tol has noted this week – “The Oxburgh report confirms that the CRU is disorganised and not competent in statistical methods. As most of what they do is database management and statistical analysis, this is a harsh verdict.”
You mention peer review as a sine qua non of the scientific enterprise. Then, elsewhere in your speech, you assert that “the IPCC process was not perfect but it was not fundamentally flawed.”
The Panel’s chairman, Mr Pachauri, has claimed on several occasions that the IPCC studies only peer-reviewed science, and that “otherwise we can just throw it into the dust bin.” But he was clearly misled. An independent audit of the 2007 Report shows that of the 18,531 references cited, 5,587 are not peer-reviewed at all. Many were derived from named news magazines, green activists and other non-peer-reviewed (and usually non-scientific) sources. In 12 of the chapters, peer-reviewed references were actually outnumbered by items taken from the ‘grey literature.’
The “Summary for Policymakers” (SFP) is written and finally approved by bureaucrats from Environment Ministries, not by scientists, and is the only document ever read by the great majority of the world’s journalists, officials and politicians. In 2007, the SFP was published several months before the science papers, and the latter were then adjusted to conform with the statements in the SFP.
Thorough and urgent reform of the IPCC provides an unmissable opportunity to redeem the image of climate scientists. The public will be looking for objectivity, merit selection, diversity of opinions, verified data and detailed reasoning in all the key areas. Above all, as you have pointed out, the Panel’a authors must be clearly seen to be “inherently sceptical and questioning scientists.”
Although lauding inherent scepticism, your address appears to favour the nurturing of “consensus” and refers to views held by an undefined but monolithic “scientific community”. With respect, this is anti-science. It runs directly counter to all those strictures of empirical method which have earned “science” a special position of trust. It favours opinion and “appeal to authority” over hard evidence or proof. It smacks of an admixture of science and politics.
Albert Einstein said that the opinions of hundreds of scientists didn’t matter, and that his whole theory of relativity would need to be discarded if just one person could show it to be wrong. Karl Popper said that “only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgment of it”. Thomas Kuhn pointed out that ‘normal science’ is not linear, but is undertaken within a given paradigm (“consensus”) which eventually shifts when enough anomalies accumulate. None of the great thinkers has ever suggested that scientific truth lies in a head-count, or a show of hands.
In any event, your claim of consensus is limited to elective scientific bodies which act as quasi-trade-unions. It does not apply to the broader church of professionals who are trained in the scientific mindset and who understand the concepts of verified data and mathematical proofs. You have claimed elsewhere that ‘active climate researchers’ are of mostly of a similar mind. Perhaps, but ... if you wanted to enquire whether astrology is a true science, would you be content to ask active astrologers?
Current opinion surveys in most
developed countries show that belief in anthropogenic global
warming is somewhat less prevalent than belief in ghosts and
haunted houses. This is despite some $80 billion in
government spending on research and publicity over the
20-year period since 1990. You have blamed this out-turn on
scientists lacking the skills to communicate with a lay
audience, but I would partly ascribe it to a faulty
approach. Too often, scientists have grossly under-estimated
the intelligence of the public, by neglecting educative
detail in favour of arm-warming generalities of the sort
that are best left to politicians. Climate science deserves
better than being reduced to repetitive soundbites.
The IPCC worldview regarding human causation relies upon proof of four disparate steps – each of which is controversial:
• The measured globally-averaged temperature anomaly (GATA) displays a warming trend that is the result of external forcing: i.e. the statistical trend rate, in °C/decade, is beyond the known range of natural internal climate variation;
• No natural forcing is capable of explaining the observed GATA trend rate;
• GCM computer models confirm that forcing by increased atmospheric concentration of human-caused greenhouse gases (GHGs) can explain the GATA trend rate, whilst also being consistent with observed “fingerprints”;
• Socio-economic scenarios of likely future GHG emissions, when combined with an assumed high level of carbon sensitivity, project that the current GATA will increase by 1.4°C by 2100; and that level will prove to be ‘dangerous’.
It ought to be the aim of those who promulgate the IPCC messages to ensure that most members of the public broadly understand this case, and are familiar with the main arguments in support of each of these four steps. Scientists who regard the IPCC’s advice as alarmist will no doubt adduce counter arguments, and the public debate will and should evolve in balance with a debate amongst scientists.
Your lecture adverts to the problem that the entire topic of human-caused climate has become deeply ideological and even quasi-religious for many people. As Kuhn points out, scientists can never divorce their subjective perspectives and values from their theory choices. Kuhn also says that those within a given science paradigm cannot communicate with those outside it. I suggest these inherent communication problems can be minimized if climate scientists focus on hard science – avoiding speculative references to “could” or “might” or “worse than we thought”, and prescriptions for future lifestyles and the human condition.
You state that “every science leader agrees that we should engage with the public on matters of science”, and “our society depends on open, informed and civil dialogue” (emphasis added).
But, in February, when I offered you the opportunity to comment on my draft critique of a web article (see www.scoop.co.nz/stories/SC1004/S00013.htm), you neglected to reply. Recently, you advised Paul Holmes that you were “not going to debate this Dr Brill or Mr Brill” (http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news).
The NZ Climate Science Coalition prepared a point-by-point analysis of your article, but you declined to comment on any of the arguments. At the outset of your NIWA address you said “I am not going to enter the debate about whether the world is warming and whether that warming is anthropogenic.”
If you, as Chief Science Adviser, choose not to enter the debate, then I question whether you are really in a position to invite fellow New Zealanders to adopt your personal set of beliefs and prejudices. Your preference for ex cathedra statements, with close-out of any discussion, seems to be following a precedent that has long been set by the Royal Society of NZ, which has demonstrated a similar distaste for “engaging with the public”.
Public confidence in the integrity of the science system will not be enhanced by the coy withdrawal of scientific leaders from the public marketplace of ideas and opinions.