Some thoughts on sorts of science sources

OK, it’s not quite up there in the tongue-twister stakes as my best creation: “We’re wearing weird red wellies”. Try saying that quickly after a few pints!

About 10 days ago my Sunday morning was spoilt by the sight of the really rather scary, formerly reassuringly plump (maybe he’s become a vegan) ex-Chancellor of the UK Exchequer Nigel Lawson on Andrew Marr’s weekly political couch-fest. Why had he crawled out of his coffin? Well, to plug his book, of course. It is indeed one of the world’s great mysteries why the BBC is so careful not to mention products by name (to utter “Coca-Cola” without permission would be blasphemous in Beebland), yet so shamelessly allows so many people to promote their products. The occasion of Ryanair’s financial results, for example, seem to provide a free 1 minute advertising slot for Michael O’Leary. I’m surprised he doesn’t move to quarterly reporting.

Presumably, if you have good PR help, a public profile or the right connections, you can get as much time to plug a book on the BBC as you want, because, blow me down if I didn’t hear Count Lawson again on the radio a few days ago, on some type of pick of the week show on Radio 4. At least he was being grilled this time – listen and learn, Andrew Marr. But surely there should be some criteria for whether a book is worthy of BBC airtime? E.g. positive reviews by experts in the field?? Tricky, but how could anything be worse than the apparent old school tie basis of selection we have today?

Get this, Lawson’s book was turned down, he said on TV, by 7 UK publishers, but he has a “good agent” who managed to get it published overseas. Makes you wonder if it’s really worthy of promotion in the mainstream media, don’t it? I was therefore going to put TV bottom of the list of reliable science sources.

But then I read the Times’ review of Nigel Lawson’s contribution to the debate. Astonishingly, the reviewer, an Alexander Cockburn, chides Lawson for accepting the anthropogenesis of global warming! In fact, Cockburn’s review leaves me with the impression that Lawson may be saying something useful. A view dispelled by a somewhat more comprehensive (family connections?) review in the Spectator. Lawson, it seems (before I rush out to buy his work), doesn’t deny global warming, he merely downplays it, in order to argue against doing anything much at all (I’ll be more specific when I’ve read the book – which I will likely do, because, unfortunately, publicity grants de facto credibility, requiring a response). Insidious.

So, let’s award 0/10 for the informativeness of the mainstream print media (Times) and 1/10 for the broadcasters (BBC), who at least attempt to be impartial. Let’s give general current affairs (Spectator) 2/10. And let’s give published works 3/10. At least the publishers tried to stop Lawson, if to no avail; perhaps his memory of the Spycatcher affair stood him in good stead.

Now, compare this piece by Gwyn Prins from the Guardian’s Commentisfree site. For all I know, Gwyn Prins makes similar points about the ineffectiveness and counterproductivity of existing policy responses to GW as does Nigel Lawson, but at least he does not base his argument on false premises. In fact, I was interested enough to download Prins’ paper “The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy” (written jointly with Steve Rayner). Prins & Rayner argue that GW is serious and urgent, but the Kyoto mechanism ineffective. They therefore advocate “enlightened self-interest” (ouch!). Still, a step forward from the “downplaying” strategy of a failed UK Chancellor (the Lawson Boom was followed by an inflationary bust – anyone else notice a pattern starting to develop? – let’s ignore problems until it’s too late, shall we, Nigel?).

So, let’s say 4/10 for op-ed (as the Yanks call it), and 5/10 for online publications.

But what I want to draw attention to are the exchanges in the comments on Prins’ piece. First, let’s backtrack a little. Lawson (like Nigel Calder) apparently claims the Earth is no longer warming, since annual average global temperatures have not returned to their 1998 record level. Now, as we all know, temperatures are bound to fluctuate from year to year about a long-term warming trend. All the scatter of annual mean temperatures tells us is that the annual variability of transfer of heat from the surface of the oceans exceeds the amount of heat gained by the planet each year. But, if the oceans were to cease gaining heat, without an overt cooling cause (such as a volcano) then GW theory would be in trouble – it would imply (since the oceans are so large and important in this context) that the Earth is no longer cooler than it needs to be for it to be in energy balance. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the IPCC’s 4AR implies. Yes, Fig. 5.1 on page 390 shows the oceans cooling over the last few years. Does the IPCC really explain this anomaly? No. It is “bottom-up” science – based more on observation than theory-driven.

So, say 8/10 to the IPCC. Maybe they need to put a bit more effort into the coherence of the whole package, and resolve or at least discuss these sorts of problems before rushing their 900 pages to CUP.

Anyway, I was mulling over this problemette when I noticed it discussed by PacificGatePost and deconvoluter in the comments on Prins’ Guardian piece. Phew! It turns out there was a problem with the measurements. deconvoluter refers to a Realclimate piece that gives chapter and verse.

So let’s give blogs (Commentisfree) 6/10 and specialist blogs (Realclimate) 9/10. Now we’re getting somewhere.

But there’s more. The Prins piece was in response to an article in Nature, by Roger Pielke et al arguing that the IPCC scenarios (actually I consider these unrealistic and irrelevant, but let’s put that to one side for now) are over-optimistic. The scenarios – shock!, horror! – assume some carbon “savings” will occur without specific policy to reduce emissions (um, anyone seen the price of oil today?). Now, even though the Pielke article and a Nature editorial are accessible on the internet, much of their content is subscriber only, so it does rather perturb me that so much debate (rather than actual science) is being conducted (in Scienglish) in the pages of Science and Nature. Not their fault, but what are the mainstream media doing? I believe as many people as possible need to develop their own understanding of the science and the issues. “Trust me, I’m a scientist” is only going to get us so far.

So, 7/10 in our informativeness competition to science magazines.

I gave the Realclimate site 9/10 – for trying to bridge the gap between the scientific world and normal people – but they’re not the real winner. 10/10, and the top prize goes to – yes, you’ve guessed it! – the internet itself which has made all this possible. Without it, I suggest the GW debate would be years behind even where it is now.