Embracing scientific boundaries in flux 

A new paper* just out today has focused its attention on the hiatus. But this study isn’t joining the throng of papers exploring the hiatus in terms of its causal mechanism. Instead, the new research is looking at the idea of ‘seepage’, or how climate denial has influenced the scientific community. This study focuses on the ‘hiatus’ as an example of the inadvertent intrusion of memes that arose outside the scientific community into scientific discourse and thinking.

In 2013 and 2014, coincident with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) handing down their fifth assessment report, discussion of the hiatus reached fever pitch. There was heated public discussion about the recent observed slow down in the rate of global warming at the Earth’s surface – the ‘hiatus’ or ‘pause’. Some contributors were adamant that this providing unequivocal proof that the world is not warming at all.

Prior to 2013, a few scientific papers identified this as an area of interest and interrogated the physical causes behind the change in the rate of observed warming. But suddenly the number of comments and papers on the hiatus ballooned. It seemed like every month, a paper from a Nature subsidiary Nature Geoscience was published and countered rapidly by Nature Climate Change, or vice versa. So far, the hiatus has been categorically attributed in the scientific literature to just about everything, including deep ocean processes, aerosols, measurement error and the cessation of ozone depletion. The flurry of hiatus papers has not slowed.

Throughout that period, the state of the climate system was publicly discussed and intensely debated. In responding to feisty public comments that the hiatus disproved global warming, many scientists countered that we never claimed that the rate of global warming would be linear, with the same increase in heat recorded in each successive decade. Rather, complexity should be expected within the climate system. In addition, a Nature Climate Change editorial from February 2014 reminds us that the “average rate of warming at the Earth’s surface is only one piece in the climate change puzzle”. I also argued as such in a couple of newspaper commentary pieces in the lead up to the IPCC report release in 2013.

But if the hiatus is so unsurprising, then why did it precipitate a blizzard of high-profile research papers? Who decided it was a new and exciting avenue of research that should be covered in depth?  Of course, this discussion was being influenced and directed from multiple locations, including sceptic blogs, the mainstream media, and scientists, as well as these high profile journals.

I believe that the predominance of discussion within these prestigious publications, whether through editorials or expert comment or research articles, was an important driver of this research agenda and started a bandwagon rolling. Perhaps the hiatus was a bandwagon worth setting rolling and by studying it’s characteristics, we will elucidate important aspects of the climate system. But it’s not clear at all who decided as such and why.

The new paper instead attributes this research direction to contrarian ‘seepage’. Hence, the hiatus provide us with an interesting case study of internal and external power in and on the scientific academy. While we like to think of scientific research as a democratic institution with no clear governance, it is clearly a deeply flawed idea. Within science, the capacity to influence is clearly not equitably distributed – a Professor has greater influence than an Honours student. There are clearly also important sites of power outside of science – publishing houses, government ideologies, society’s whims and interests, amongst others.

Science, amongst other academic pursuits, invests deeply in the process of exclusion. We erect and fortify barriers that exclude other forms of knowledge, and that resist this ‘seepage’. We insist of a dichotomy between true science and pseudo-science.  True science is conducted by trained scientists and is peer reviewed, while pseudo-science is not and can be dismissed.

This new hiatus paper raises some excellent questions about the intellectual legitimacy of the concerted research focus on the hiatus. I agree that the uncritical acceptance of our interests in the hiatus is problematic. What happens when a single editorial group has the power to encourage large groups of researchers to lurch into new directions? Or what happens to our own research agendas when we respond so emphatically to contrarian memes?

The new paper goes on to recommend strategies to help climate scientists stay strong and resist seepage.  I disagree. As a climate scientist working in Australia it can be easy to feel as though we are under attack. A senior colleague of mine has been called a prostitute. She has been told her children should be taken away from her. My mentor has received death threats. I have been called morally bankrupt, a liar, a hypocrite, a Nazi. As a community, we often respond to this besiegement by pushing back, by proclaiming our greater expertise and shouting our relevancy louder.

Climate science represents a new type of science, where the stakes are high and everything is highly politicised. Climate change is no longer a purely scientific problem, it is as much a social problem as a physical one. And just as the climate system is in flux, so to is climate science.  Societal expectations of science and its boundaries are changing. Our academy is now, more than ever, expected to be a responsive, public institution.

We can resist this ‘seepage’ or alternatively, we can respond. I do not suggest we react and throw open science, fundamentally altering our production of knowledge. Rather, we can recognise that science provides society with one important form of guidance for decision-making and that this “contract” with society is important. We can recognise the value of both multiple sources of knowledge and the value of scientific knowledge derived from non-experts. We can recognise and reward scientists for engaging with the public. We can explicitly ask society what questions it wants science to answer.

Personally, I’m not that interested in the hiatus (and not simply because I’m amongst the minority of climate scientist who have failed to achieve a high profile hiatus paper).  In 10 years, the hiatus might be an interesting phenomenon worthy of thorough investigation, which could reveal important model biases or physical process. But for now, while we are still experiencing it, I think we can provide society with limited insight into the hiatus.

This new paper asking why we interested in the hiatus is very much needed. This gives us a chance to step back and think about who drives our research agenda. Our lab managers? Our funding bodies? Our powerful journals? Our contract with society? Or our response to murky contrarian influences?  However, the hiatus itself does not indicate that we need to be wary of seepage. Rather, climate science has far more to gain than to lose by rejecting strict boundaries and arbitrary dichotomies of expert and non-expert.

* I’m basing this on the excellent executive summary, as there are currently some problems with the link to the full paper, which I look forward to reading in detail.

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7 thoughts on “Embracing scientific boundaries in flux 

  1. Have to think about this post and the article more. Thanks. That is why one reads blogs.

    Two first thoughts. It could be that the interest in the deviations from the average trend or projection are more than just seepage or glossy journals.

    I remember when I saw the first papers on this topic that I was surprised you could study such a minimal deviation. I had never expected that our observations, assimilation methods and models would be good enough to study something that small. We had a global warming of more than 0.6°C over many decades before science claimed with some certainty that this may have been man made. That some scientists dare to say sometime about deviations of 0.1 or maximally 0.2°C over just a decade is remarkable. It shows how far climatology has progressed and how good our observational systems are. Even if it turns out that this was too optimistic, it is quite something that we are now so good that some think we can study this. I can imagine that the first papers have stimulated scientists to also start looking at this possibility where they would before not have thought that you could study this. (This could be why the extra fast warming period before 1998 was studied less, people just did not think it possible, except for studying El Nino.)

    A second reason why people are more interested in natural variability would be that in impact studies you have a problematic break between historical data and the projections. As a consequence we have started working on decadal climate prediction. This is also again because something like that is nowadays possible. We hope. Framing your work as decadal climate prediction is the scientific version of writing an article about the non-existent hiatus for a science glossy.

  2. As long as variability on politically relevant time scales exceeds the radiative forcing temperature increase, those with more emotional and ideological than intellectual capital vested in policy outcomes and agendas will continue to disparage their opponents.

    In the last year I’ve had to deal with rejections of coauthorship citing Oreskes & Conway’s accusations of my being “anti-science ” predicated on their uniquely elliptical interpretation of criticisms of a one dimensional model of global cooling published in Nature and elsewhere 30 years ago.

    Then as now, the shrillest rhetoric stems from reinforcement within cliques that have convinced themselves that they have a precautionary duty to depict as existential threats predicted by metaphysical systems– doesn’t anybody recall Oreskes 1994 Science paper drawing an unsubtle philosophical distinction between models and the things they are supposed to represent ?

  3. Hi Sophie

    Interesting thoughts, I particularly like your comment that “climate science has far more to gain than to lose by rejecting strict boundaries and arbitrary dichotomies of expert and non-expert”.

    Here’s my thoughts on the “seepage” paper – https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/guest-post-climate-variability-research-did-the-sceptics-make-us-do-it/ I’m not particularly convinced that there really is much of an influence – as Victor says, there are other purely scientific drivers of interest in variability. However, if there is something in this “seepage” idea, I agree with you that it’s not necessarily a bad thing anyway.

    • Thanks for your interest and taking the time to respond. I think this really nicely demonstrates that interest in a research avenue is rarely kicked off by a single factor. Thanks again!

  4. I would track the interest – both in the scientific community and the laity – back to Phil Jones’ BBC Interview in which he indicated that global warming since 1995 was only just statistically significant. Unintentionally Prof Jones set the cat amidst the pidgeons.

    From there the reality of the extended pause began to attract attention. Santer was quoted as saying that there was nothing to see until 17 years worth of records had been amassed added to the interest when that 17 year horizon was reached in 2013.

    The deviation of the satellite temperature record from the projections of the majority of the climate model also would have been troubling to responsible climate scientists.

    There is no need to invoke “seepage” from denialist ideation: competent scientists – in the complete absence of climate scepticism – would have noticed that there was something odd about the temperature record. They would have noticed that the posited feedbacks seemed to have stopped.

    When the data begins to deviate from the models and the theory which underlies them competent scientists, well aware that climate science is in its infancy, would circle back to examine why there was this deviation. Was the data wrong? Were the models somehow incomplete or emphasizing the wrong thing? And what about the theory? CO2 is certainly a greenhouse gas but is it as important as the theory suggests it is? Are there other things which should be considered? Is natural variability properly accounted for in the CO2 driven theory of climate change? These are questions which remain open and which curious scientists will want to examine.

    At the policy level, the pause has called the more catastrophic end of the temperature rise into question. Which, in turn, calls into question the more heroic proposals for mitigation. Again, this would happen in any policy discussion even absent skeptics. It is, or should be, how evidence driven policy works.

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