How I Decide What to Pay Attention to and What to Ignore When it Comes to Climate Change Research

Recently a friend of mine brought this article (The Logarithmic Effect of Carbon Dioxide) that appears on the Watts Up With That web site to my attention.  His note to me read:

"I'm curious how you might react to the attached short article.  It was written to reach out to the average concerned non-scientific type about the illogic of the IPCC climate change models.  It did impact public policy in Australia. Do you understand what the author is trying to say?  It would seem fairly straightforward to a typical technical type but I'm afraid it would still cause someone's eyes to glaze over if they weren't a technical person.  This is probably a good part of the communication problem for a fairly scientific issue?"

It's an interesting question, and I agreed with him that technical papers in general are generally going to be ignored by the public and often will be misunderstood (and misreported) by the media.  However, science is a technical subject, and there is constant research going on, much of which is very important.

(photo by Leo Reynolds)
So how does one go about deciding what research to pay attention to?  Or how to sort through it all?  Here's how I do it.

1) Since I am generally not qualified to completely understand most technical papers, I leave it up to those who are.  That means I am more likely to take into account research that has appeared in  peer-reviewed publications such as Nature or Science.  That means qualified scientists have looked at the research and deemed it worthy of publication.  This particular paper has not been peer reviewed.  It may be the greatest paper ever written about climate change or total hogwash.  I'm not qualified to determine that, and I don't have the time to try to figure it out myself--even if I had the requisite knowledge. 

2) There are dozens of papers on climate change published every month--many more if we include blog postings by anyone who wants to post.  Some of them point to different conclusions than others.  In my mind, each one represents just a single data point.  Therefore I am not that interested in what any one particular paper might say, such as this one.  What seems to me to be more prudent is to see what the overall research points to--the overwhelming preponderance.  From everything I have seen over the last twenty years, the overwhelming preponderance is:
  • Greenhouse gases are being added to our atmosphere by humans at an unprecedented rate
  • These gases are causing our world to absorb more energy, making it warmer
  • The outcome of this rapid warming is detrimental to humankind and civilization
This particular paper addresses the second one of these, making the case that the warming will be much more mild than the peer-reviewed science indicates.  Fair enough.  That's one small data point (and a weak one, since the paper has not been peer reviewed) among many--most of which point to a different, more dangerous, conclusion.

3) Because there are bazillions of papers and postings and comments flinging around the Internet on this topic, I defer to the real experts--the scientists themselves.  However, I don't defer to any particular scientist, because any one person might have an agenda.  Instead I look for the most highly respected scientific organizations and see what they say.  Using this heuristic makes it easy.  Every single, well respected scientific organization in the world agrees with the three points above (or at least does not dispute them).  Every.  Single.  One.  Who am I to question the wisdom of the Royal Society, which was once headed by Isaac Newton and has included fellows like Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking?  Or the National Academy of Sciences, which was founded by Abraham Lincoln and has been advising our government for over 150 years?  It seems to me that listening to what they have to say would be a far more intelligent way to come to an understanding of the science than trying to figure it out for myself one paper at a time.  (If you think the scientists are all conspiring, read this previous post for my views on that.)

So in conclusion, I rarely try to dig into any particular scientific paper myself, since I'm usually not qualified to really understand how the science was determined (I do read the conclusions, however).  Then I wait to see what the highly respected organizations say--the ones that have generations of reputation to uphold--on the overall topic.  Should those organizations change their statements regarding the overall science of climate change, then I will most certainly sit up and take notice.  If however, they do not because of a single paper here or a blog post there, then I'll assume they have accorded that research its due and have determined that, by itself, it does not change the current overall understanding of the science.

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