I’ve been traveling in England to serve as examiner for a Ph.D. defense,
but back up and running now. Gave me a lot of time to read up on
the sextennial Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report
(the official press release summary here, and a great piece from
The Economist, as usual, this time on the importance of “just the
facts” in the climate change policy realm). I recently posted on the
importance of balanced debate regarding climate change, and I have
long had another idea along these lines. I want to write a short paper
on this idea, and maybe I can get feedback from you that will help
spur this along.
Tomes have written on the data regarding climate change, and I don’t intend to even skim the surface of that. I just would like to throw a hypothetical situation out there, and think about how (if) this could influence where we stand today in the scientific community (and beyond) with respect to climate change.
Perhaps Guy Calendar in 1938 was the first to link the greenhouse effect, rising carbon dioxide concentrations and the increase in world temperatures (for a discussion see Mike Hulme’s book “Why We Disagree About Climate Change”). Then jump ahead to 1992 and the UN Convention on Climate Change, one of the seminal international climate change agreements. Here it was suggested that the world community needed policy directed at avoiding “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. By this time, it was clearly on scientists’ radar that a major environmental problem may be developing.
In this academic climate (you must be impressed by that pun), there was surely a rush to address this developing issue. As with any such hot topic (wow, yet another pun that was all too easy) in the scientific community, there is pressure to be the “first” – the first to make new discoveries, the first to proffer new ideas, the first to publish papers. One means to this end is securing grants and other sources of funding to facilitate the nascent research. All of this should be rather obvious – just like my puns.
Now here is the core assumption in my little hypothetical exercise. On such pressing scientific issues, those putting forward the most “extreme” proposals, e.g., those who suggest in proposals the most dire consequences of global warming, might have an initial edge in securing funding. Looked at from the opposite perspective, why would funding in the 1990’s flow to a proposal whose title was “Global Change: Not likely to happen, and if it does, there will be no negative consequences”. It is very reasonable to assume in the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was a press to support investigators who were producing preliminary results that implied catastrophic significance of a warming world. I think it would be very interesting to go back through National Science Foundation grant records, for instance, and examine the first proposals funded regarding climate change.
Even with a slight initial slant toward funding the most extreme climate change proposals, it is easy to see how a positive feedback cycle could develop. Those producing the most extreme early predictions regarding climate change were likely to get the most attention. These same persons would have been viewed as early “experts” in this emerging field. Experts are then the ones that review new proposals, papers and ideas from other scientists. Being consistent with their own programs or views, there may exist a slight bias to accept those grants or papers that also are suggesting the most extreme climate change predictions. The field slowly shifts toward advocation of these extreme views, which the press will obviously latch on to (in this situation the press obviously will not be excited by alternative viewpoints that suggest climate change isn’t as extreme). And the field continues to creep toward more extreme positions and in the process, consciously or not, scientists and others may ignore/suppress alternative viewpoints. Over decades, even slight bias or inclinations at each iterative step could produce huge shifts in the types of grants that are funded, the types of papers that are published, and the accepted “experts” that become most prominent.
The makeup of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is example 1A. This body is consistently referred to as the consensus on climate change. For instance, the Joint Science Academies statement of 2001. “The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science.” But if the feedback cycle above is even partially real, how could anyone with alternative viewpoints, i.e., the “non-experts”, ever break through? Is Bjorn Lomborg included (I actually don’t know, but I can’t imagine he is. And yes I realize one could argue he isn’t a “scientist” at all, but the point is that scientists with views like his are very likely to be overlooked for inclusion on the IPCC)? The experts are experts because the experts who establish who the experts are also experts, all because a feedback cycle over decades established the experts – all of whom happen to agree on the most extreme positions (a statement as convoluted as some in the IPCC report itself).
In my hypothetical feedback example, it isn’t hard to see how prevailing viewpoints become entrenched. This cycle is quite similar to that conceptualized by the famous philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. In his view of science, individuals scientific “paradigms” dominate a given era. During this time, the vast majorities of scientists look only to expand, tweak, or delve deeper into whatever that paradigm currently is. Alternative viewpoints are ignored, as there is just one overriding paradigm by which “success” is judged in the field – how well it complements the existing paradigm itself.
Could this process be one factor that has lead to the point where we are today? I have no idea. But I do know something – one would risk criticism even suggesting such alternative ideas. The dire scenarios regarding climate change are so entrenched in the scientific community and beyond, it is hard to find alternative views.
The facts would be a nice place to start. No facts in my post today, just a hypothetical scenario. But sure seems like an interesting idea to consider further. I am not sayin’, but just sayin’….