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AGW catastrophism Climate Change Culture Global Warming History Omniclimate Policy Politics Science Skepticism

'How Bold Predictions Hurt Science'

UPDATE: Read also Richard Gallagher’s “Authors of our own misfortune

How many expert assurances or warnings must turn out to be conspicuously wrong for the authority of science and scientists to be diminished?“: that’s the ominous conclusion of a beautifully no-holds-barred article today:

Promises, Promises – Ill-judged predictions and projections can be embarrassing at best and, at worst, damaging to the authority of science and science policy. by Stuart Blackman – The Scientist, Vol 23, Issue 11, Page 28

The article is full of interesting quotes. Excerpts:

  • It doesn’t take anything so extreme as scientific fraud to scupper what may have seemed, at the time, to be a well-grounded scientific prediction. At its most enthusiastic, science has always been prone to promise rather more, and sooner, than it has managed to deliver
  • Scientists have a strong incentive to make bold predictions—namely, to obtain funding, influence, and high-profile publications. But […] unfulfilled predictions […] can be a blow for patients, policy makers, and for the reputation of science itself
  • [The 1995 Varmus NIH expert panel concluded that] ‘overzealous representation of clinical gene therapy has [led to] misrepresentation [that] threatens confidence in the field and will inevitably lead to disappointment in both medical and lay communities
  • says Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University, UK. ‘Every research proposal these days […] has got to include an [impact]  statement […] basically requiring scientists to make promises, and to exaggerate those promises.
  • As British fertility expert Robert Winston told the BBC in 2005: ‘We tend often to really have rather too much overconfidence. We may exaggerate, simply because […] we need support […] We can go about persuading people a bit too vigorously sometimes.
  • Predictions can also create a sense of haste and urgency that can impede cool, calm reflection on how to proceed at the policy level. [Nik Brown, co-director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit, University of York, UK] says it can create a pressure to legislate before experts properly understand a new research path and its potential.
  • Research [by Joan Haran, Cesagen Research Fellow at Cardiff University, UK shows that] ‘Because of the high esteem in which scientists are held, it becomes very hard to mount a critique of their promises,‘ […] Scientists defending their corner is understandable, says Haran, but it should be recognized that it can be at the expense of healthy skepticism.
  • Predictions can also create a sense of haste and urgency that can impede cool, calm reflection on how to proceed at the policy level. [Brown] says it can create a pressure to legislate before experts properly understand a new research path and its potential. [Sociologist Christine Hauskeller, Senior Research Fellow at the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter, UK adds that] this is not only a waste of financial and legal resources […] but it serves to narrow social and scientific possibilities
  • Hilary Rose [professor emerita of the sociology of science at the University of Bradford, UK and Gresham College London] believes that an overemphasis on certain research trajectories, and overoptimistic expectations of what they can deliver, can obscure political and social solutions to problems

Parts of the article are specific to climate science.

The last line in a “Some famous (and infamous) predictions” table classifies as “Right or Wrong? PENDING” this 2007 “prediction

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report projects that global surface air temperatures will increase by between 1.1 and 6.4°C over preindustrial levels by the end of the century

A speech at the Copenhagen Climate Conference of February 2009 by the then Danish Prime Minister is mentioned as example of “politicians [trying to] ‘fob off responsibility to scientists’

[Don’t] provide us with too many moving targets, because it is already a very, very complicated process,‘ he said. ‘I need fixed targets and certain figures, and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.‘ Such demands, says [Dan Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University], can tempt scientists into providing simplistic and unqualified extrapolations from the current state of knowledge to possible future scenarios.

Is it time to design guidelines to “predict responsibly” then? These are Blackman’s suggestions:

  1. Avoid simple timelines: “try to communicate the complexities of the process rather than make a specific prediction”
  2. Learn from history: “heed the lessons of past predictions and promises”
  3. State the caveats: “inform the public also of the current limitations”
  4. Remember what you don’t know: “scientists know a lot less about technology and innovation and political context”
Categories
catastrophism Climate Change CO2 Emissions Culture Data Dissent Freedom GHG Global Warming Omniclimate

At The UK Hadley Centre, They Know Something Nobody Else Knows…

…or alternatively, somebody has just used giant amounts of computing power to provide the UK Government’s Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ) with antiscientific numbers on alleged future climate “forecast”, “predictions” or “projections” (pick your preferred choice…).

What’s happening? Since last Sunday, there has been a curious slow-feeding of news about an upcoming “UK Climate Impact Projections” document prepared by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Defra, “which is trying to plan for future changes brought about by global warming“.

Even more curious is the fact that as of today neither the Hadley Centre’s website nor DEFRA’s make any mention of such document. Full results are expected by June 18, so we will have to rely on news reports in the meanwhile.

Google News shows articles from The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times (and again), Sky News, Daily Mail, Southern Daily Echo, with mentions of 41C in London, vineyards all around, a Mediterranean climate in Devon and a list of expected temperatures at county level.

Since there is no original document to read, those news reports must have been based mostly on each other, and hopefully at least one on some sort of “hidden” press release. And in fact, there is at least one section that appears in most articles pretty much unchanged:

Some may question how the Met Office can make predictions a lifetime into the future, when it struggles to produce forecasts for the next few months. However, climate change impacts are predicted to be so strong that, over decades, they are easier to predict than short-term changes.

There are positive and negative aspects to the text above. Whoever wrote it, they had to face the fact that the time when multidecadal climate projections would be left unchallenged, has ended some time ago. Therefore they had to imagine what climate skeptics would question, and come up with some sort of an answer. Trouble is, the answer is no good at all.

  1. They are admitting that the state of the climate in the long term is uncertain
  2. There is a misuse of the word “predictions” (see below)
  3. The author tries to convey the idea that future climate is easier to forecast, the stronger the “climate change impacts”. But this means that not even the people at the Hadley Centre are confident in the projections computed in anything but the worst possible scenario (every other scenario having weaker climate change impacts, is by definition more of a struggle to predict)

Perhaps more importantly, the trouble with long-term climate predictions is not just due to their intrinsic temporal timeframe, spanning decades. Even admitting that as a possibilty (and I have my strong doubts about it), still the problem of how to go from planet-wide analyses to a regional level has not been solved. And by regions I am talking “continents”.

How did anybody at the Hadley Centre manage to compute anything meaningful at the level of Yorkshire or East Anglia? Is there anything they have not told us, a major breakthrough in climate science that will be revealed to the masses by Thursday next?

Or have they just computed and published figures that have no basis in Science?

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Another antiscientific aspect is in the use of words. I am not talking about the journalists…those are forever going to mix up “prediction” and “projection”. What is wrong is when scientists, or in any case people that should know better, add to the confusion by mixing those words up.

Look at the “answer” text above (that we can assume having been written by somebody at the Hadley Centre or Defra, the only people with access to the original document): “impacts are PREDICTED“.

Sky’s weather presenter Lucy Verasamy says: “These PREDICTIONS“.

A Met Office spokesman says: “These FORECASTS“, “Our PREDICTIONS“.

Myles Allen, head of climate dynamics at Cambridge University, is quoted: “Cities in the Midlands and south, ARE GOING to start experiencing some increasingly uncomfortable summers.

There might be very few things I understand about climate, but one there is: whoever speaks of PREDICTIONS or FORECASTS concerning the climate many decades in the future, they have failed to understand an extremely important aspect of climatology.