Engaging with the climate enemy

In the November edition of Scientific American, Michael Lemonick discusses the subject of climatologist Judith Curry, who has made herself unpopular among colleagues for engaging with sceptics in online debates hosted on blogs such as Climate Audit. Engaging with the enemy is, say Curry’s detractors, a waste of time and effort. Needless to say, she doesn’t agree…

“[T]here’s a lot of crankology out there. But not all of it is. If only 1 percent of it or 10 percent of what the skeptics say is right, that is time well spent.”

Given that I am of the opinion that climate scepticism and denial can be divided into two symbiotic spheres – nutjobbery on the one hand, and hard-right realpolitik whose practitioners have no real interest in climate, or science in general for that matter – I tend to favour the ‘ice pick’ strategy when it comes to dealing with political obstructionists.

That said, I see Curry’s activities as having intrinsic value. Climate scientists cannot justify refusing to engage with the more serious critics. It is useful to have respected climate scientists talk dirty detail, and take the opposition to task on their own turf. Curry can surely justify devoting some of her time to playing such a role. It’s not as if she is demanding that all climate scientists take time away from their data and models to confront the sceptics and deniers. Climate science is a community activity, and Judith Curry is but one member of that community. If anyone is being naive, it is not Curry, who appears to understand the political as well as science dynamic at work in the climate change debate.

If the real problem is not Curry’s online engagement with climate sceptics and deniers, but rather her criticisms of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), then her critics should focus on the substance of these, and not hide behind knee-jerk defences of this controversial and quasi-political body. Lemonick addresses this subject in some detail, and gives space to Curry’s critics to detail their objections to what they describe as sloppy thinking regarding the communication of scientific uncertainty.

One telling quote in Lemonick’s piece comes from Alexander Haslam, an organisational psychologist based at the University of Exeter…

“I think her criticisms are damaging. But in a way, that’s a consequence of failing to acknowledge that all science has these political dynamics.”

Given that they are prepared to engage only with their own, it’s no wonder that some members of the climate science community naively claim that politics plays no part in their proceedings.

Long may Judith Curry continue to stir the political pot. It is a constructive game she is playing, and one most definitely needed for there to be any progress in the public debate around climate change, and to foster public confidence in climate scientists.

Finally, I must take issue with Lemonick’s conclusion…

“It is perhaps unreasonable to expect everyone to stop sniping at one another, but given the high stakes, it is crucial to focus on the science itself and not the noise.”

As long as sufficient funding is in place, climate science research will largely take care of itself. The rest is political noise, and it cannot be ignored. Inconvenient though it may be, science is a human and therefore inherently political pursuit. Judith Curry understands this salient truth.