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WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SCIENTISTS DISAGREE? PART II: WHY IS THERE SUCH A LONG CONTROVERSY ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

 

Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

The much disputed controversy about global warming features scientists, politicians, business leaders, and ordinary people arguing for or against it.  Questions about global warming have shifted into a general debate about climate change.  Clearly, this ongoing dispute is not yet even close to being resolved.  This essay examines how and why this prolonged controversy is so very difficult to resolve despite the input of many professional scientists; the previous article in this series provided a general background for controversies involving scientists (see Part I at:  http://dr-monsrs.net/2015/04/18/what-happens-when-scientists-disagree-part-i-background-to-controversies-involving-scientists/ ).

What is global warming?

In a nutshell, global warming is a worldwide increase in ambient temperature.  This environmental parameter has been measured directly for recent periods or estimated indirectly from analysis of antarctic ice cores for hundreds and thousands of previous years.  Global temperature has increased since the industrial revolution began (ca. 1870) and has risen more rapidly since 1970.  It is known that elevating the amount of certain gases in the atmosphere (e.g., water, carbon dioxide, and methane) causes increased retention of heat; this is known as the “greenhouse effect”.  It is postulated that the global temperature is rising largely due to increased levels of carbon dioxide coming from burning of the fossil fuels, coal and oil.  Since further warming will cause melting of glaciers, increased ocean heights, changes in weather patterns, and other disruptive effects, the use of coal and oil must be decreased globally to stop any further rises in temperture.  Climate change includes global warming, as well as global cooling and other large environmental changes in the modern world. 

For those wanting more information about global warming and climate change there are very many materials available on the internet.  I recommend several informative presentations for general readers: (1) “Causes of climate change” at: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/causes.html ), (2) “How are humans responsible for  global warming?” at:  http://www.edf.org/climate/human-activity-is-causing-global-warming ), and (3) “5 scientific reasons that global warming isn’t happening” at: http://townhall.com/columnists/johnhawkins/2014/02/18/5-scientific-reasons-that-global-warming-isnt-happening-n1796423/page/full ).  An especially good gathering of arguments both for and against the official standard concept of global warming is available ( “Is human activity primarily responsible for global climate change?” at:  http://climatechange.procon.org ), and will help readers to come to their own judgment.  

The standard very official concept about global warming. 

The standardized viewpoint about global warming accepts that the temperature worldwide is indeed rising.  The primary cause of this temperature increase is human activities; people cause global warming by burning coal and oil to produce increased amounts of greenhouse gases, and also by paving and urbanization, generating carbon black microparticulates, deforestation, etc.  Much emphasis in the standard concept of global warming is given to the production increased carbon dioxide.  If no intervention is taken, this concept predicts more  warming that will cause very alarming changes in ocean levels, weather patterns, and life as we know it. 

What are the main issues in the global warming and climate change controversy? 

Global warming and climate change involve several different assumptions, all of which are being questioned.  (1) Is there really an increase in global temperature?  (2) What are the main causes of this rise in global temperature?  (3) Is there actually a recent large increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide?  (4) What causes the increased carbon dioxide?   For all these queries, the chief question that must be asked is, “What is the evidence?” 

Starting at the very beginning, one must first ask what is the evidence that there really is any global warming? (i.e., are measured global temperatures actually increased in recent times.  A positive answer leads to several other related questions.  (1) How much warmer is this average figure?  (2) How was surface temperature of the entire planet measured or estimated?  (3)  Are all countries and regions warmer, or are some simultaneously cooler?  (4) Have similar variations in global temperature ever been observed previously?  These questions involve science, and should be answered and debated by expert scientists (e.g., climatologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, atmospheric physicists, etc.). 

Anyone seeking answers to questions about global warming must inquire what is the primary cause of such climate change?  A big controversy involves the hypothesis that human activities cause this environmental change.  There are several other possible causes, including natural weather cycles, large shifts in solar energy discharges, changes in Earth’s orientation and distance from the Sun, large increases in the global number of humans and animals producing atmospheric carbon dioxide through their normal respiration, etc.  Good science demands that alternative explanations must be examined. 

The controversy about climate change engages all the foregoing plus corresponding questions about global cooling.  From our knowledge about forming and melting glaciers in the ice ages, we know that there have been very prominent changes in temperature during the distant past.  The causes of these well-known changes still are not clear.  Today, some portions of the globe have very increased temperatures and severe droughts.  Shorter term increases or decreases in temperatures occur in response to natural changes in the environment, including activity of the Sun, humidity levels, patterns of ocean currents, rain cycles, seasonal effects, etc. 

What have scientists said and done in this ongoing controversy? 

In additional to gathering and analyzing data, scientists debate what conclusions are valid and ask lots of questions.  In 1988, the United Nations convened a panel of expert climatologists to assess global warming and advise about what new policies are needed.  That group, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) constructed the official standard concept of global warming described above.  An independent non-governmental panel of expert climatologists has been established more recently; this group, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), has issued reports with conclusions about global warming that are very different from those of the UNIPCC.  Many other scientists have been involved from the beginning, and continue to dispute almost everything.  A survey of the literature by climate scientists (1991-2011) revealed that around 97% endorsed the consensus position that humans cause global warming (see J. Cook et al. 2013 Environmental Research Letters 8:024024 at: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024 ).  However, that figure directly contradicts the assertion that 31,000 other scientists, including many not working in climatology, do not see any conclusive evidence that the standard concept is valid ( http://ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths/31000-scientists-say-no-convincing-evidence ).  Clearly, in 2015 many scientists disagree about the official standard concept of global warming and climate change! 

What is the present status of this ongoing dispute? 

Almost everything in the controversial official version of global warming now is being questioned and debated vigorously.  Expert scientists are arguing against other expert scientists.  Many science organizations accept and support the official concept about global warming as being due to human activities producing increased levels of carbon dioxide.  All government agencies monolithically endorse the official viewpoint and promote activating strong intervention by the government.  Groups of environmentalists also support the official viewpoint. 

On the other hand, some former supporters of the standard position now strongly deny the validity of global warming.  These dissenters even include some members of the original expert panel (UNIPCC) that constructed the standard concept for global warming!  Many individual scientists and science groups now are contrasting predictions made from the official viewpoint with recent measurements showing cooler temperatures and enlarging sizes of polar icecaps; thus, the recent data support global cooling, rather than global warming!  Predictions from the official coincept do not match the reality. 

Debates about this controversy involve politics, finances, emotions, and egos, as well as science.  Questions and dissenting views by scientists are increasing despite documented efforts to suppress dissent against the standard concept  [e.g., 1-5].  It is most disconcerting that this and other unethical behavior has been uncovered for some of the scientists strongly involved in this controversy [e.g., 1-5]; that distracts attention from the actual scientific issues being debated, and reduces trust by the public in all scientists. 

Why is global warming and climate change so hard to establish or deny conclusively? 

Several distinct reasons can be identified why expert scientists have not been able to resolve this ongoing controversy.  First, the standard official concept of global warming increasingly seems to be invalid.  It’s predictions about rising temperatures, melting of polar icecaps, and alarming changes in weather patterns do not match reality.  It cannot explain large environmental changes that currently are observed.  Solid evidence for a recent rise in temperatures is questionable or missing.  One commentator recently has even dared to ask, “Is global warming a hoax?” [5].  Second, the complexity of this controversy is enormous.  In addition to science, it involves finances, politics, industries, and governments.  Arguments involve much more than scientific facts and figures; egos, emotions, careers, repression of questions, and, predictions of alarming disasters are prominent.  Third, the use of “global” in the questions being addressed is questionable because there are very many quite different regions and different human activities involved; many so-called global datapoints actually are averages or extrapolations.  How exactly can the temperature in Nepal be meaningfully averaged with that of Greenland, New York City, Tunis, and Tahiti?  Similarly, how can the different human activities within these 5 parts of our planet be averaged in a meaningful way?  Fourth, this long dispute has been made more difficult for science to resolve by the uncovering of data manipulations and repressions of dissent [e.g., 1-5].    

Concluding discussion. 

From the materials given above and all the pro/con data now available, I must conclude that this controversy is a quagmire, and that it is unlikely to be resolved.  Both sides in this long dispute have developed very hard positions, and both are supported by some scientists, some research findings, and some group organizations; those conditions can only lead to a stalemate.  Additionally, politics and commercial interests now have strong involvement in this dispute, and often overwhelm the input of science.  Scientific research can produce new facts, figures, concepts, and ideas, but it cannot readily deal with a quagmire that is a jumble of emotionally and financially charged positions. 

The fact that new laws and regulations already are being proposed in advance of any consensus agreement by scientists and the public suggests that some unannounced agenda is at work here.  The primary purpose of trying to reduce carbon emissions and establish a global carbon tax appears to be installing greater regulation of industries, economies, and nations; reduction of carbon dioxide levels is only a phoney excuse for establishing increased governmental controls over everything and everyone.  

 

[1]  Jasper, W. F., 2012.  “Climate science” in shambles: Real scientists battle UN agenda.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thenewamerican.com/tech/environment/item/11998-%E2%80%9Cclimate-science%E2%80%9D-in-shambles-real-scientists-battle-un-agenda .

[2]  Newman, A., 2013.  Top scientists slam and ridicule UN IPCC report.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thenewamerican.com/tech/environment/item/16643-top-scientists-slam-and-ridicule-un-ipcc-climate-report .

[3]  Newman, A., 2014.  U.S. agencies accused of fudging data to show global warming.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thenewamerican.com/tech/environment/item/17500-u-s-agencies-accused-of-fudging-data-to-show-global-warming ).

[4]  Booker, C., the Telegraph, 2015.  The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/globalwarming/11395516/The-fiddling-with-temperature-data-is-the-biggest-science-scandal-ever.html .

[5]  Hiserodt, E. & Terrell, R., 2015.  Is global warming a hoax?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.thenewamerican.com/tech/environment/item/19840-is-global-warming-a-hoax .

 

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WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SCIENTISTS DISAGREE? PART I: BACKGROUND TO CONTROVERSIES INVOLVING SCIENTISTS.

 

Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Controversies Involving Science Affect Everyone!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Controversy is good generally because it encourages discussion, questioning, debates, and testing of ideas.  For science, controversy is completely essential as part of the search to find what is true.  Both in the classical times and in modern years, some controversies between scientists take a very long time to be resolved.  Disputes involving science today mostly feature scientists disagreeing with: (1) other scientists, (2) local administrators, (3) government officials and granting agencies, (4) regulatory bodies, and, (5) commercial companies.  Disputes in conditions 2-5 often follow different rules than in class 1, and commonly aim for other goals than just finding the truth.

Controversies involving scientists are important for everyone because they often are the basis for making new laws and regulations.  This series of articles examines different types of controversies involving professional scientists.  Part I provides essential backround for the entire series.  Later, we will take a look at certain specific disputes and some courageous scientists. 

Controversies between individual scientists. 

After research results are collected and analyzed, doctoral scientists in universities or industries typically interpret their data and then reach conclusions about what these show and mean.  Forming interpretations and reaching conclusions often lead to disputes between scientists; that is completely normal and good.  For controversies between scientists, the most essential question in all of science is at the forefront: “What is the evdence?”.  When forced to discuss the opposing arguments, each side claims to have more expertise, and both point to features supporting their position or weakening the opponent’s position.  In most cases, the opposing scientists will then conduct further research studies to try to find more definitive support for their positions. Soon, other researchers can begin participating in that debate about the truth. 

This kind of controversy can be settled when the total evidence for one side becomes overwhelming, the number of other scientists agreeing with one position rises to a level sufficient to silence the opposition, or, the stalemated controversy withers and disappears after becoming seen to have little practical importance for science or society.  Although this type of common dispute can become nasty and personal, most level-headed professional research scientists will abide by whatever conclusions are supported by reliable experimental results. 

Controversies between scientists and local officials. 

Controversies between scientists and local officials are quite different from those involving only other scientists.  When scientists are confronted by local officials claiming that some rule or restriction is being violated, they typically try to make some changes aimed at either satisfying their accuser, or at least bringing their violation beneath the level of immediate concern.  Some examples of typical responses by scientists are: (1) “I’m so very sorry … I forgot about that” (e.g., turn in some periodic inventory of a toxic chemical), (2) “I asked my technician to do that, but she was out with a bad cold last week” (e.g., bring some regulated waste from the lab over to a shipping dock), or, (3) “I’m going to a meeting next week, so I’ll have that ready for you in about 2-3 weeks” (e.g., clean up some mess in the lab).  All such responses by a scientist cannot win against official authorities, but they do gain more time for the busy scientist to take corrective action.

Controversies between scientists and government. 

Just like ordinary people, scientists can disagree with some policies, priorities, or pronouncements of government officials.  The yearly crop of new governmental regulations for conducting research experiments often is disputed and resented by many scientists.  Any controversy with the government is inherently risky for scientists, because they can come to influence the hoped for continuation of their research grant support.  Particularly galling for scientists are any type of negative judgments by the agencies handling competitions for research grants.  Scientists receiving only partial funding for a successful grant application usually become depressed and angry that they now cannot conduct the full range of their planned research experiments.  However, any scientist serving on a panel reviewing research grant applications soon comes to realize that evaluations of proposals and judgments of funding priority are decisions which are inherently complex, difficult, and filled with divergent viewpoints.  Since authority always can override opposition, there is little point in trying to win by open dispute; it is nuch better to win by channeling efforts into composing a better stronger proposal. 

Controversies involving scientists and commercial businesses. 

When disputes about some commercial product arise (e.g., activities, capabilities, performance, precision, sturdiness, etc.), the manufacturer often releases facts and figures obtained from research by their own in-house scientists and engineers.  The opposing side also will have some scientists providing data that support its position.  Both sides here will claim to have more authority and better data.  This type of controversy is not part of the usual disputes between research scientists as described earlier, becuase investigators working for a commercial company almost always are not just seeking the truth, but have a bias in favor of their employer; they simply cannot stop trying to support their employer’s position no matter what research results they find and which data are brought forth by their opponents.  This type of lengthy controversy between scientists and industry easily can become stalemated.  

For a good example of this kind of controversy, we can think back several decades to times when smoking of tobacco was very popular and manufacturers of tobacco products brought forth research results that seemed to deny the validity of new scientific data showing that smoking of tobacco causes cancer and other major health problems [1-3].  This dispute lasted many years before more and more research results showing carcinogenisis accumulated; finally, laws were passed and information programs started in order to decrease smoking.  Today, smoking still is not completely banned, but many fewer people now smoke; this decrease has resulted in considerably reducing the incidence of smoking-induced cancers and other pathologies [1-3].  This controversy exemplifies that science and research can take much time to have social impacts. 

Controversies involving scientists and society. 

We must examine 2 different kinds of controversies between science and society.  The first is when a non-scientist in the public starts sincerely questioning why in the world would any scientist undertake some very esoteric research study, and why is it being funded by money from taxpayers?  Even when the value for science is fully explained, there remains little chance that the questioners will change their mind; this type of dispute strongly involves psychology, rather than just science and reason. 

The second is where members of the public, acting either from reason or emotions, hold some viewpoint very dearly.  They regard scientists bringing forth research results which disprove their opinion as being outright enemies or demons rather than objective seekers of the truth.  This kind of dispute involves a quite different set of rules (i.e., the number of scientists on each side, rather than their research results, can determine victory).  Although both sides theoretically could come to agreement, this rarely happens no matter how much new evidence is gathered by each side; the easiest solution for such controversies is for some authority or politician to take action. 

A very good recent example of this second type of dispute between scientists and society is the concept of global warming [e.g., 4-7].  Quite a few scientists have entered this ongoing debate and many have brought forth research results denying that global temperatures even have increased, let alone that such was caused by human activities.  Both sides of the global warming controversy are strongly committed and neither will give up; this lengthy dispute now is continuing on its merry way as a shifted question about climate change. Teachers should take special note that both sides of this controversy are being supported by doctoral scientists and their research results [7].  This ongoing dispute has much public importance because various new federal regulations are being sought even though no conclusions have been agreed upon by scientists, politicians, or the public.   

Concluding remarks. 

Science and scientists are involved in many different types of controversies.  When these are based upon the results of research experiments, the disputes usually are valuable for science.  When these are based upon emotions, politics, or ignorance, these disputes usually are not able to be resolved and often are a waste of scientists’ precious time. 

In forthcoming articles we will take a closer look at specific examples of controversies involving science, and at some scientists who are trying to win a dispute. 

 

[1]  National Cancer Institute, 2011.  Harms of smoking and health benefits of quitting.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco/cessation-fact-sheet

[2]  American Cancer Society, 2014.  Tobacco-related cancers fact sheet.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/tobaccocancer/tobacco-related-cancer-fact-sheet .

[3]  National Heart. Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, 2015.  How does smoking affect the heart and blood vessels?  Available on the internet at:  https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/smo .

[4]  National Resources Defense Council, 2015.  Global warming.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/ .

[5]  John Cook, Skeptical Science, 2015.  The 97% consensus on global warming.  Available on the internet at:  https://skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-basic.htm .

[6]  OSS (Open Source Systems, Science, and Solutions) Foundation, 2015.  31,000 scientists say “no convincing ebidence”.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths/31000-scientists-say-no-convincing-evidence .

[7]  Climate Change Debate Pros and Cons, 2015.  Is human activity primarily responsible for global climate change?  Available on the internet at:  http://climatechange.procon.org .

 

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