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The over-blown science of global warming

By Garth Paltridge - posted Monday, 17 August 2009

It is even less likely that a national government would risk the anger of its scientific establishment by creating a research institution - it would have to be a very large research institution - designed solely to perform a large-scale critical audit of the scientific bases of the forecasts of climatic doom. While the suggestion along these lines by Michael Crichton some years ago was sensible enough, one has to suspect he didn’t really hold out much hope that such an institution would ever come to pass.

On the face of it, the long-term risk to the profession is much greater. In 50 or a 100 years the forecasts of doom will have been tested and, with any luck, proved wrong. But by then the leading role of the scientific community in upsetting the global economic system will probably have been forgotten. The scientist of that time will be able to dig into the archives and find various quotes to the effect that “on such and such an occasion, this or that scientist spoke publicly about the uncertainty of the climate forecasts”. He will therefore be able to maintain with his hand on his heart that it was not the fault of scientists that society went overboard on the matter. Rather, it will have been the fault of the environmentalists and politicians who misinterpreted the scientific results for their own nefarious purposes. Loud enough repetition of statements along these lines should effectively obscure the existence in the past (that is, in the “now”) of a carefully calculated campaign to trade scientific reputation for political action.

By then as well, there will be enough “wiggle room” to evade serious enquiry as to why scientists rarely bothered to refute in public the more fantastic of the scenarios for climatic disaster. “It was not our job to protect the public from misinformation” they will say in the year 2109. Die-hard global warming scientists make that comment even today. Strangely enough, they are not nearly so coy when it comes to refuting ideas to the effect that things might not be as bad as they are painted.


As to the “why” of the business, there are a fair number of very strong forces at work to encourage the interpreters of climate science to overstate their case. To a large extent the forces are at work also on the scientists themselves. As with all religions, woe betide those demented souls, scientists or not, who are so deluded as to question the beliefs of the politically correct.

It is worth remembering that among the interpreters are the scientific administrators - in particular the managers of research institutions who by virtue of their office are the official spokesmen for the views of their organisations. Their words carry tremendous authority with the public because it is assumed they have a deep understanding of the science for which they are responsible. Sadly, in the modern era of management, that assumption can be way off the mark. They may have little real knowledge of science, and are as subject to the necessities of political correctness as the rest of us. Indeed, perhaps rather more than the rest of us. Many of them have been appointed to their position precisely because of their “feel” for the views and needs of the community rather than their “feel” for science.

There are a number of pragmatic reasons for sub-conscious bias by the ordinary bench scientist towards the politically correct. Basically they boil down to the need to eat. Fame and fortune in the research profession depend largely on artificial measures of success related to the quantity rather than the quality of research publications and of grants. Undoubtedly the system rewards conformity to the popular view when outcomes are determined by consensus rather than proof.

There are also a number of less pragmatic reasons for bias. Among them are other agendas related, for instance, to a belief in the need to preserve the world’s fossil fuels, or to a belief in the need for global government, or perhaps to a vision of forced transfer of resources from rich nations to the poor.

But perhaps the saddest and most deeply hidden is related to the fact that much modern research can be intensely debilitating to the scientist concerned. The reward system of his profession forces him to spend a great deal of his time researching safe topics whose importance in the grand scheme of things is virtually nil. He can be reasonably certain that work of this type, when published, will probably never be read by anyone. Persuading himself that it is nevertheless significant and worth doing requires a tortuous and painful exercise of self-delusion. In such circumstances it is an immense relief to be associated with an international program which, whatever one might think of its aims and politics, at least has high and popular moral purpose. It restores his pride.

The bottom line in the global warming story is that the potential for bias is overwhelmingly towards the politically correct. If for no other reason, the money lies on that side of the fence. Perhaps the most interesting, and probably unanswerable, remaining question about it all is how a belief in climatic doom became politically correct in the first place. Conspiracy theorists would probably favour the idea that it was all planned 30 years ago by some small, shadowy, secret organisation bent on destruction of the world’s social order. Personally I would rather believe that, given the human addiction to tales of collective guilt, there is no need to invoke conspiracy as part of the explanation. The path to the final outcome was inevitable from the start.

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This is an edited extract of the author's recently released book, The Climate Caper, published by Connorcourt in July 2009.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Garth Paltridge is an atmospheric physicist and was a Chief Research Scientist with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research before taking up positions in Tasmania as Director of the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies and CEO of the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre. He retired in 2002 and continues to live in Hobart. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

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