House Committee Hearing on Climate Science (March 29, 2017)

This morning I listened to the recent hearing on climate science for the house of representatives committee on science, space, and technology. I found the exchange very fascinating. I was disappointed to hear the naive questions coming from the representatives. Some are still touting the myth of the cooling predictions in the 70’s.  Another congressman seemed to be on a witch hunt by aggressively asking a panel witness to prove that he wasn’t part of the union of concerned scientists. Aside from the conduct of the representatives, I wanted to share some thoughts about the conduct of the panel. 

The panel was made up of 4 prominent scientists.

I don’t know much about John Christy, but it was pretty apparent that the panel was lopsided toward the “global warming is not a big issue” attitude. However, all panel members agreed that CO2 causes warming and only disagree about the extent, so that was encouraging. A more balanced panel would have been nice, but the people who publicly disagree with the IPCC conclusions seem to be more visible than typical scientists, which might explain the panel choices.

Gutter tactics

Judith Curry published her written testimony prior to the hearing on her blog. Part of her testimony focused on the current incentives for scientists to conform and how this shapes the debate.

“There is enormous pressure for climate scientists to conform to the so-called consensus. This pressure comes from federal funding agencies, universities and professional societies, and scientists themselves. Reinforcing this consensus are strong monetary, reputational, and authority interests. Owing to these pressures and the gutter tactics of the academic debate on climate change, I recently resigned my tenured faculty position at Georgia Tech.”

I am not aware of any pressure to conform to consensus for me or my colleagues, but I can certainly understand her concern over the toxic nature of the conversation. This was very visible in the back and forth of the hearing.

At one point in the discussion it seemed everyone was jumping on Michael Mann (especially Mr. Rohrabacher starting around 1:40:15, although there’s a gliche in the video around that time as well). Mann was outnumbered and the discussion definitely painted him in a bad light. To me, it seemed that he might come across as “unlikeable”, which is not something we should care about, but I fear it’s the kind of thing that really matters in a situation like this.

Curry’s main arguments always seem to be about the level of uncertainty. I think Mann did a good job pointing out that uncertainty shouldn’t delay action, but it seemed that his comments about uncertainty did not “stick” as well as Curry’s. Perhaps this is because Curry’s ideas are easier to grasp, while Mann’s point about the uncertainty being at an acceptable level is harder for non-scientists to trust.

I don’t envy Mann’s position, but I could help thinking about what I might say if I were in Mann’s chair. I think acknowledging a person’s credentials and accomplishments is an important prerequisite for disagreeing them, in order to build a mutual respect. Mutual respect, like social capital, is important for maintaining civilized discussions. I wonder how Mann would have been received if he wove some courtesy compliments in with his criticisms? Would he have sounded more convincing?


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