Climate science, the media and troublesome data

Further to my recent comment on Martin Durkin’s TV documentary – The Great Global Warming Swindle – there has been some discussion about this within the Psci-com community of science and technology media workers. The following is a slightly revised version of my contribution today to that discussion…

Durkin’s documentary played on a number of weaknesses in the arguments put forward by political environmentalists, and this single, prime-time TV programme has almost certainly damaged the reputation of science and scientists as a whole.

The sad fact is that no matter how much scientists complain about the errors of fact propagated by climate change deniers, the message will always be drowned out by those who play the mass media to greatest effect. And here we have hyperbolic left-environmentalists on the one hand, and the Martin Durkins of this world on the other.

The email exchange discussed in my previous comment on Durkin’s documentary is interesting, and not just because of Durkin’s interesting choice of vocabulary. Armand Leroi was in my view right to challenge Durkin on the bad science contained in his documentary, but he went about it in quite the wrong way.

In that rather one-sided email correspondence, Leroi raised the issue of Eigil Friis-Christensen and Henrik Svensmark’s work on cosmic rays and cloud cover, and repeated Peter Laut’s claims that Friis-Christensen and Svensmark’s data were at the very least unacceptably handled.

Declaration of interest: Eigil Friis-Christensen was my boss between 2000 and 2003. While employed by the Danish National Space Centre, I worked in magnetospheric and auroral physics rather than climate change, but I took a keen interest in the work of Friis-Christensen and Svensmark, and discussed with them data analysis issues pertaining to solar modulation of cosmic rays, and terrestrial cloud cover.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Friis-Christensen and Svensmark, but I have no doubt as to their scientific integrity. The analysis of geophysical time series is often problematic, and I’m not convinced by the correlation detected by Friis-Christensen and Svensmark. But these highly able physicists are asking the right questions, and continue to work on the problem. There is even a CERN experiment in the works to test the core hypothesis.

What we do not need is environmentalists and other climate scientists calling Friis-Christensen et al. climate change deniers, and shouting them down in an attempt to cut off legitimate scientific debate.

The evidence so far points to solar-terrestrial influences playing a minor role, but a lot more work is required before we can adequately quantify such influences on weather and climate. One of the problems here is funding, what with atmospheric physics and chemistry being classed as geosciences, and space physics as astronomy. Despite its relative proximity to the Earth’s surface, there remains to this day a relatively little explored part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere dubbed the ‘ignorosphere’.

For the anthropogenic climate change denier Durkin to co-opt Friis-Christensen was quite clever, but Durkin fell completely flat on his face in giving airtime to Piers Corbyn. This scientific snakeoil salesman claims that terrestrial weather can be forecast from sunspot behaviour, but refuses to justify the claim in scientific terms. Through his company Weather Action, Corbyn makes a living from selling ‘weather forecasts’ to people with more money than sense.

When I was a Research Fellow in upper atmosphere physics at Southampton University, I supervised along with Henry Rishbeth – who is one of the world’s preeminent space scientists – a number of BSc Honours project students. One of our projects was a statistical study of Met Office data and Weather Action forecasts. Needless to say, there was no significant correlation found between the datasets, and our mistake was to set the students such an unchallenging task.

Also interesting in the debate surrounding Durkin’s documentary is Simon Singh‘s contribution. As well as intervening in the email exchange between Leroi and Durkin, Singh had published recently on the Spiked website an article criticising Durkin and his documentary. Which is most interesting, as Singh is a trustee of Sense about Science – a front for the Revolutionary Communist Party/LM/Institute of Ideas/Spiked Online, with which Durkin is associated.

Why does the scientific community continue to tolerate highly partisan political activists and scientifically-illiterate media workers controlling the public debate about science? And I’m not just talking about climate change.