NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Media portrayals of climate scientists as a community split into warring factions are common. Particularly for those who would deny global warming in general and anthropogenic global warming and the role of CO2 emissions in particular, such a split helps trivialize the majority scientific opinion, in the same way disputes about the the details of evolution allow it to be touted as "just a theory" by creationists.
A couple of recent articles have thrown new fuel on that denial engine by pitting one scientist against the other. Taken together and in light of comments from other scientists, the two articles appear to prove the opposite: Scientific debate is alive and well. The takedown of global warming science is just not happening.
The first article, written by Patrick Michaels and published in Forbes on Feb. 3, draws on professional criticism of the scientific community in a literary journal by retired climate scientist Garth Paltridge. Paltridge's point is that his profession has been corrupted. Scientists have been swayed by a majority, government-led opinion and have allowed politics to influence their interpretations. The Forbes article echoes his conclusion that not only has global warming been "oversold," to the detriment of scientific credibility, but that a rebound of more objective opinion is coming in which the entire global warming edifice will come crashing down and scientific credibility with it.
Like many critics of global warming science, Paltridge emphasizes the last 14-year period of flatlined recorded global surface temperatures, which I discussed in more detail in my article Thursday, Global Warming 'Haitus' Is an Illusion, Study Finds. He pooh-poohs the notion that heat could be trapped in the deeper ocean and labels it a desperate attempt to save the global warming hypothesis.
The second, written by David Rose and published Feb. 15 in the Daily Mail, cites scientist Mat Collins, associated with the UK's Met Office, as saying that science can't link global warming to changes in the jet stream at the top of the world that have caused severe storms in England. This is news because the chief scientist of Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo, is on record appearing to say the opposite.
In actuality, Slingo's remarks don't seem as far removed from Collins as the Daily Mail author indicates. Speaking broadly, she said there was no definite proof of a link between climate change and the storms but that "all available evidence" seemed to point to a connection. Collins, speaking specifically about the jet stream part of the equation, said, "There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jet stream to get stuck in the way it has this winter. If this is due to climate change, it is outside our knowledge."
Paltridge, the author of the Daily Mail article, and Michaels, the author of the Forbes article, imply that these differing views amount to a war of truth vs. lies. They believe there is an inability of climate change scientists to entertain contrary arguments and a lack of sensible scholarly discussion within the scientific community.
But the fact that those views are being discussed at all in the media illustrates that scientific discussion and dissent are prevalent. In addition to being a Met Office scientist, Collins is a scientist for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That panel is at the heart of many criticisms about global warming science (including those of Paltridge) for its attempts to cultivate a consensus and shape international policy, a blending of politics and science that for many chafes against the spirit of independent inquiry.
Yet independent inquiry and dissent persist. In my conversation with scientist Matt England this week he noted inconsistencies in the models and, far from brushing past them, used them as guides for future research.
"The science that we're in is all about the ability to make projections," England said, adding that sometimes predictions miss the mark. "The hope is as we go down the track we'll work out why that might be."
I asked England specifically how he felt about the Forbes article's contention that the risks of climate change had been "oversold.'"
"Global warming has played out roughly according to the models," he said. Even models set up in the '80s and '90s, which by comparison with those used by scientists now were very rudimentary, have held up. At the same time, he freely admitted that scientists have a great deal of work to do to explain some discrepancies.
"We don't catch that decadal variability very well," he said. "But in time that irons itself out."
A lot of criticisms have to do with details and are missing the bigger picture, England said.
"Coming up to the summer time, you know it's going to be warmer in summer than winter," he said. "You don't have to say exactly when the rain times will occur."
Critics are often focusing on disputes over details of the science. Along with the so-called "hiatus" in surface temperatures, Paltridge cites the role of cloud formations that could be skewing the models on which a lot of global warming predictions are based.
In the case of Paltridge and Met Office scientist Mat Collins, we see voices clearly dissenting from majority opinion from within the scientific community. Collins goes so far as to say that any conclusions about the link between "climate change" and the storms in England is premature at best.
Matt England disagrees with the broadness of Collins' conclusion, preferring an interpretation in which climate change, whether involving the polar winds or not, is directly involved.
However, speaking specifically about whether the jet stream could have been shifted by changes we know were caused by global warming, England appeared to side with Collins, "What I'm hearing is that the science is not really solid enough to go and make that conclusion. The Daily Mail of course goes and makes a big thing about it. That's disappointing because [on the whole] the science is panning out."
Paltridge's airing of his concerns for his profession should be applauded. Healthy debate must function within the scientific community or it ceases to do its job. Scientists should question whether they are allowing their findings to be skewed by a majority opinion that is itself influenced by politics. That danger is real, even if its effects are not currently pronounced.
But for now, Paltridge's views are in the minority. And it is clear that the scientific process of discovery and argument, a process that involves much messy dissent and allows for minority findings to be aired and argued, has not been derailed, no matter how much some in the media might wish it to be.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York City