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Archive for May, 2012

The Truth is not an option – part 5

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Part 5. No awards and no allowance for willful ignorance

 “A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.”

—Bertrand Russell, On the Nature of Acquaintance: Neutral Monism (1914)

Bertrand Russell was a philosopher, a pacifist, anti-Stalinist, anti-Nazi, anti-religious, and anti-Vietnam War.  He was also a prisoner of conscience.

In these key cases, more damaging than the misinformation about one scientific issue can be the grave damage to public understanding of the legitimate, constructive roles of science in society.  Science and its applied engineering offshoots (along with the labor and entrepreneurial spirit of millions of citizens and the vision of many leaders) are what built America and other modern developed nations.  Science and engineering have propelled America and the world into the age of planetary exploration, where planetary climate change (all natural, of course) is one of the driving scientific foci of exploration.  The same methods of analysis, but with a far deeper database of observations, are utilized to understand climate change on Earth, where causes in recent decades are clearly both natural and man-made.  The man-made component of climate change on our planet is rising above magnitude of the natural oscillations in many parts of the world.  If there is one thing that planetary science has taught us, it is that planets have many climate tripwires, many nonlinear forcing-and-response functions, many climate change mechanisms that are a challenge to understand from the past and even more difficult to predict.  The ones we know about and understand, when put into physics-based global climate models, are doing a pretty good job replicating the actual recent climate trends; the same models project more rapid and severe climate changes in the future.  Empirical models based on climate and CO2 levels of the geologic past suggest that, compared to baseline models presented by the IPCC, far more severe climate change could be in store for us.  The heat storage capacity and heat conveyance of the oceans, for example, are loaded with both slow and rapid climate change mechanisms, and the slow ones are apt to cause climate to keep warming for centuries even if we could stop greenhouse gas emissions.


The Truth is not an option – part 4

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Part 4.  Denial, doubt, and fear

“Uncertainty is commonly misunderstood to mean that scientists are not certain of their results, but the term specifies the degree to which scientists are confident in their data.”

— Anthony Carpi and Anne E. Egger, Data: Uncertainty, Error, and Confidence

Science is a cooperative endeavor dedicated to produce the most accurate possible image of how

things are now, or once were, or will be. No clique can rig an inaccurate image of truth and perpetuate it. Science is about our understanding of the Cosmos and everything included within.   Competition among peers is relentless, and valid hypotheses that turn out to be wrong are identified, and those on the right track are reinforced. Science is never a one-track path of advance, but rather it is a web of thought. Scientists must simplify the web for the public so they may derive some tangible meaning from the complexity; however, scientists must not be so simplistic as to present science as a singular linear train of thought, as from ignorance to knowledge, from false to true, from evil to good.  It is rather a dispassionate construction of an image of reality that is never perfect but can be ignored or inverted only to one’s peril.

Being wrong is not the issue. Reality is always there and rather insistently will tend to correct any falsehoods and incorrect conceptions. A few activists among the climate skeptics appear to have sincere motives to get to the bottom of matters, which can be confusing and complicated (because the Earth is complicated). The climate-change science community has no worries about well-intending skeptics; we thrive on serious questions and rise to the challenge of developing better explanations, filling logical or observational gaps, and doing a better job at communicating the science.  Where we are weak, we need and thrive on criticism; identifying weaknesses in one another’s work, and our own, and then remedying the weaknesses, is what we do for a living.  The history of science is replete with examples of how nonscientists have contributed critical analysis that has strengthened or altered scientific ideas.  In climate change science, deep probing by some of the more able skeptics led to an improved attention to uncertainties by many climatologists.  This has improved the science (actually lending greater credence to the high side of climate sensitivities).  Likewise, scientists who have models that may be on an extreme low or high side of climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases, or glaciologists who have nonstandard models of glacier responses, have nothing to fear; they may be wrong, or they may be right. Ideas that rail against the status quo of general understanding can and do meet with some resistance, but ultimately those ideas are given a hearing.



The Truth is not an option – part 3

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Part 3. Lessons learned

“I had the opportunity with regard to Galileo to draw attention … the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences.”

–Pope John Paul II

Before Saturday’s end, the tide of media coverage had shifted from reporting the erroneous 15% disappearance of ice, as though it was real fact, to reporting the scientists’ rejection of a false claim by an atlas publisher.  Only on a few blogs was it being played as a scientific blunder or a controversy among scientists, and even those people generally relied on scientists’ statements to point out the mistake. There was nothing controversial about it.  HC goofed up, plain and simple; that is what the media reported over the weekend and into the next week. This shift was made by the intervention of the scientific community to lay out the facts, and by the mainstream media clearly wanting to play the story as it should be—true to the facts.

Addressing the Cryolist and SPRI’s letter15, on Saturday, 17 Sep 2011, I captured some of the cryosphere community’s sense of the turning tide:  “This cartographic fiasco and sad journalistic event is a dark cloud made a little smaller, but there is the silver lining: everybody with striking results, especially new results, should push it to the media and use the Scott Polar letter as a hook.  Greenland itself is beautiful, the data are exquisite, the science is sound, the changes are profound, the meaning of it is important to people; and honest journalists– by far most of those who would be inclined to report on the "15% mistake"– will be wanting answers to the question of what IS happening.”

Many lessons stemmed from that sequence of events. Foremost for me was from John Vidal, a reporter for The Guardian, who first broke the story from the HC press release.  He responded to my initial criticism, which I had levied (wrongly on my part) equally on The Guardian and HC: “… It's actually quite hard to know what to do in these circumstances. We are not academically equipped to sort, sift and judge all the decisions made by Times's cartographers, … …  I am more than happy to write another piece saying that groups of eminent cryologists are in profound disagreement with the Times atlas … … But in this case please don’t blame the messenger!” 


The Truth is not an option – part 2

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Part 2. Tackling misinformation in the 24-hour news cycle

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from the lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

–Francis Bacon, 1620, Franciscus de Verulamio Summi Angliae Cancellaris Instauratio magna, in: Bacon, F., The Works, Part IV, J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D.D. Heath (eds.), London (1901).

Climate change denialism and trivialization, whether a result of scientific illiteracy and ignorance or something more willful (possibly conspiratorial among some practitioners), has its mirror in climate change exaggeration.  Both are harmful to public understanding of issues bearing on human well being, are harmful to the economy and national competitiveness, and are dangerous for the next generations. 

The formal story of the HC mistake and the response (including HC’s courageous and productive response) is told elsewhere,2  but it is worth adding to the record, mainly as guidance as to whether the scientific response to the bogus news story may serve as a model for the future. The upshot is that valuable lessons were learned and will be applied in the future, but future misinformation crises are not apt to be as ideally tailored to a speedy, positive outcome as this case was.  Indeed, the publisher has made amends with intensive consultations with scientists and a new map recently provided as an insert for their Atlas.  That is the happy end of the story.  It’s worth reviewing briefly a few details leading up to that ending which are not already covered in a formal peer-reviewed account.These details are primarily available in the semi-public record provided by the Cryolist (, a listserve, administered by glaciologist Todd Albert, for glaciologists and scientists in related fields, but available to reporters and other legitimate users and citizens who eschew abuse of the service).  I also add my personal perspective, which is mine only and does not necessarily reflect opinions of my employer, my funding source (NASA), my research colleagues, or the International Glaciological Society. 


The Truth is not an option – part 1

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Part 1. The Truth is not an option (it’s mandatory)

By Jeffrey S. Kargel

Disclaimer: The following 5-part series represents my own opinions and responsibility. Quotations are likewise not necessarily my opinions, but are of those quoted. –JSK

“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, 
nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.”

–Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, A Weekly Journal, 26 Feb. 1925.

On September 15, 2011, midnight London local time, the publisher HarperCollins (HC) released a marketing statement about their newly published 13th Edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World (henceforth, the Atlas). The company marketed their renowned atlas via a press statement claiming an alarmingly high rate of loss of ice cover in Greenland1; one-seventh of the microcontinent’s permanent glacial ice cover had melted, thus “turning Greenland green,” just in the 12-year interval since their previous Greenland mapping. HC had announced the most dramatic consequence of climate change yet documented; or so they thought. Unfortunately for HC’s book sales, but welcome news to everybody else who may have believed the news, the story was a grotesque (and accidental) exaggeration of a real retreat occurring roughly a factor of a hundred more slowly2

It was a big mistake, but we all falter and sometimes fail. HarperCollins has not only apologized (albeit awkwardly), but took immense measures to rectify their mistake3-5. For HarperCollins, surely the motive was to support their claims regarding the quality and time-vaunted credentials of their atlas6. Why then is this still a story and a vital lesson to heed and to be committed to full record? It is not for the debt of the mistake maker, but for the debt of those who would repeat the accidental mistake of exaggeration of climate change or its mirror opposite of trivialization of climate change.


Atlasgate – the follow up!

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

You all will recall the flurry of activity last autumn when the new Times Atlas of the World was published by HarperCollins and the unified response of the glaciological community to their marketing ploy. The publishers claimed to have spotted an alarmingly high rate of loss of ice cover in Greenland. This proved to be a mistake and a result of overzealous interpretaion of the publishers. Fortunately the glaciological community was 'on the ball' and the mistake was picked up immediately. Letters and e-mails were written and the end result was that HarperCollins apologized, and has taken measures to rectify their mistake. 

The glaciologists involded in pointing out the mistake and forcing the apology from HarperCollins banded together and wrote an article about the episode that was published in the online journal The Cryosphere last week. As a followup, the lead author, Jeff Kargel has written a five-part blog that will be published on the IGS web during the next few days.

The series is called 'The Truth is not an Option' with the subtitles 

Part 1. The Truth is not an option (it’s mandatory)
Part 2. Tackling misinformation in the 24-hour news cycle
Part 3. Lessons learned
Part 4. Have plenty of patience
Part 5.  No awards, no allowance for willful ignorance

I trust you will find this series informative and enlightening.

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