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The credibility of climate science

Dan Farber, professor of law | October 25, 2011

Climate denialists contend that climate science is either the result of a conspiracy of some kind  or of groupthink plus institutional incentives to support alarmist predictions.  The conspiracy theory makes even less sense than most conspiracy theories, because there would have to be hundreds, perhaps thousands of people involved, scattered across the world at  numerous institutions.  The other theory is less ridiculous, but it doesn’t hold up.  New research can go either way rather than being uniformly alarmist.

An example involves recent research on glacial water supplies. As ClimateWire explains:

From the Andes to the Himalayas, scientists are starting to question exactly how much glaciers contribute to river water used downstream for drinking and irrigation. The answers could turn the conventional wisdom about glacier melt on its head.

Stream chemistry analyses have found that far less surface water comes from glacier melt than previously assumed. In Peru’s Rio Santa, which drains the Cordilleras Blanca mountain range, glacier contribution appears to be between 10 and 20 percent. In the eastern Himalayas, it is less than 5 percent.

It remains to be seen whether this new research itself holds up to the give-and-take of scientific debate.  But the point is that the debates within climate science are very active, and scientists are constantly pushing the envelope in terms of data and modeling.

So the forces of groupthink and the pressures of institutional funding do not, in fact, seem to be overwhelming.  That’s what you’d expect: scientists make their careers by finding new things, not by parroting existing views.

By the way, when I say climate science is credible, that doesn’t mean there’s an absolute certainty that the thrust of climate science is correct.  Maybe more like 95% certainty.  For comparison purposes, scholars of evidence law customarily translate “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” into 90% certainty.

Is 95% probability enough?  A comparison may be helpful. At a recent public gathering, a major presidential candidate was enthusiastically applauded because of the large number of executions in his state.  The juries in those cases were asked to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in other words, the 90% standard.  In short, the evidence supporting those executions was weaker than the evidence for climate change.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comment to “The credibility of climate science

  1. What we really need is a new Declaration of Independence, this time to fight back against Special Interests who buy out the integrity of the majority of Congressmen making them just like the Tories who betrayed us during the Revolutionary War.

    Thomas Jefferson defined some of the principles for American Democracy that Congress seems to have forgotten today recreating conditions our Founding Fathers fought against to build the United States in the first place, principles including:

    “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and

    “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    However, far too many constituents fall into the trap: “All experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” This is one reason that special interests and the politicians they control are so successful today.

    Special Interest threats to American Democracy today also include:

    Refusals to “assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

    Refusals to “pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”

    And the overthrow of the Rule of Law by making far too many judges susceptible to the power and money of special interests.”

    Worst of all, the pledge that congress fails to honor today is: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

    These are some of the main reasons that climate change scientists are marginalized so successfully while the window of opportunity continues to close beyond the point of no return, even when this years climate and environmental disasters alone should be a major wake-up call for all of humanity.

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