Morgan: Poles Apart

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Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal, Poles Apart : The Great Climate Change Debate. Random House New Zealand, 2009. 288 pages.

Can you trust the advice of an economist or financial adviser when it comes to the science of climate change? After all, we even suspect their advice on economic matters these days.

That might be a natural reaction to the new book Poles Apart by Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal. Gareth is a well-known New Zealand economist and investment portfolio manager. John McCrystal is a Wellington writer and researcher.

Surely they can’t offer anything useful on climate change? Well, strangely they can.

But what about their obvious prejudices? They certainly start as sceptics of human caused global warming and appear sympathetic to critics (referring to them as their “friends”) of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments. They even label scientists who propose anthropogenic causes of climate change as "Alarmist" – without the quote marks! While the critics get away with the more neutral, many would say positive, "Sceptic" label.

With these attitudes can we trust what they say? Well, actually we can.

That’s because of the process they used. They admit their ignorance in this area – describing themselves as a "pair of climate dummies." But, recognising its importance, they consulted the experts – on both sides of the debate. And this was no minor exercise, as it required significant time and money. The Morgan Family Charity invested $500,000 in the process. Two panels – one of 10 "Sceptics," the other of 11 "Alarmists" were used. The authors also recognise the special support of three local climate scientists from the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University. Dr Dave Lowe, Adjunct Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, Dr Lionel Carter, Professor of Marine Geology and Dr Peter Barrett, Professor of Geology served as "a consultancy on basic (and not so basic) science and a sounding board for our misguided ideas and interpretations." Morgan and McCrystal make much of the material used available on their Poles Apart website associated with the book.

It is this process, rather than the status of the authors, which makes this book so important. It presents to the layperson quite a thorough discussion of the science of climate change. This comes "warts and all" – with all the qualifications and criticisms. But it’s very readable. They make the science accessible, even interesting. They give an idea of how the science is done, the methodologies used. I feel this helps bring this science to life.

Science behind climate change

And as well as being interesting this information is useful to the layperson seeking information on the subject. Poles Apart deals with questions like: "Is there warming?" "Is the temperature variation natural?" "Is temperature change cause by CO2?" "What does the historical record show?", etc. There is more coverage of the evidence presented by "Alarmists" than by "Sceptics" but that is, I think, unavoidable given the science. As they say "in more recent times, much of the effort expended under the aegis of climate scepticism has been directed toward raising doubt rather than testing veracity."

And they do give some in-depth consideration of the "five tests" used by geologist Bob Carter from Queensland University (and often quoted by climate change deniers in New Zealand) to disprove anthropogenic climate change. Their conclusion – "straw man testing."

The approach of Poles Apart is quite unusual for science books which, after all, are usually written by experts in the field. Morgan and McCrystal compare themselves to a jury of rational men and women who, despite their lack of expertise, must decide an issue using the evidence provided by experts. Perhaps not a desirable procedure for scientists but one that will appeal to many who find themselves in the position of those jurors.

So after all this what did Morgan and McCrystal conclude? After all the time and money invested in listening to the expert (sometimes contradictory) submissions and consulting their sounding board of local experts, do they think humans are contributing to climate change? Their conclusion comes on the last page:

On the balance of evidence, observations of the natural world would support a coherent theory of why increased concentrations of greenhouse gases due to human activity will produce significant global warming, in which case policy initiatives to address global warming and its consequences were worth evaluating.

And at last, after surviving what I felt was the disparaging labelling used throughout the book:

Alarmists were right, and we shouldn’t call them alarmists any more — or at least, not all of them! And further, it has to be said that only a few of the Sceptics are actually sceptics: too many are mere gadflies and deniers.

Public communication of science

The authors raise two important issues about science communication and the public opinion of science that I think need addressing.

Like any group of professional experts dealing with complicated and abstract ideas it’s easy for scientists to ignore the public. To use precise but specialised language and to concentrate on communicating with colleagues. Morgan and McCrystal compare this to the high priests of a religion who carry out their worship with their backs to the congregation and use a language that only a "tiny, educated elite" understand. Continuing the analogy the book points out the four IPCC assessment reports "may as well have been written in Latin for all the use they are to the layperson." They warn that climate scientists and the IPCC must confront this problem because the issue has become so political and is of such importance to humanity’s future:

Under these circumstances, only the science, clearly explained and made available to anyone who is interested, has the power to change hearts and (far more importantly) minds. Yet not enough has been done to address the knowledge gap that exists between the scientific elite and the rest of us, and this gulf ultimately threatens the entire IPCC mission.

So true! Scientists must, and many do, turn around and speak clearly to the public – especially on such important issues. And this may not always be easy because, especially on such topics, scientists can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. When they make the science more accessible the unavoidable omission of many qualifications normally involved in the scientific process can lead to unwarranted criticism and attacks. Especially from political or ideological motivated opponents who wish to distort or discredit the science.

However, let me say that I think Poles Apart makes an important contribution to the public communication of science. Sure, the authors are not scientific experts but experts informed and helped them. In a real sense those scientists who informed and helped Morgan and McCrystal have made an important contribution to the popular understanding of the science of climate change. In this case "the priests turned to face the congregation."

Scientific peer review

A final niggle about the presentation of the scientific peer review process in this book. Morgan and McCrystal seem to argue against peer review – or at least that "a slavish insistence on publication in peer-reviewed journals" may "seriously skew" the data supporting the conclusion of anthropogenic global warming. They base this on the fact that most "prestigious" journals like Science and Nature may reject over 90% of submitted papers. They seem to assume that scientists always submit to "prestigious" journals and may give up before working their way down to the lower ranked journals.

However, in this case the authors must have ignored their experts as any scientist would have told them that they submit to appropriate rather than "prestigious" journals. For example, have a glance at the references listed in The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report from the Working Group "The Physical Science Basis", Chapter 3 "Observations Surface and Atmospheric Climate Change." Of about 900 references only 30 are from Nature and 41 from Science. This is only about 8% of the total – I don’t think this justifies any claim of data-skewing by the publication policies of "prestigious" journals.

For most journals a "rejection" may just be a request for improvement of language or logic, inclusion of more data or removal of superfluous data, etc. Most credible scientific papers are published after revision.

Silencing the shouting

Poles Apart is an important book because it does go beyond the shouting. The shouting has occurred because scientific findings on climate change raises questions about human attitudes and lifestyles. There are feelings of judgement and guilt and therefore subjective reactions. Attempts to rationalise away the problems and justify personal positions. We can recognise the same denial tendencies as we see in reactions to evolutionary science and the scientific investigation of human consciousness. (It’s interesting that climate change denial is common among creationists and religious fundamentalists). Only good science communication can overcome this shouting.

Despite my niggles, I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It does fulfil the authors’ aim of "an interested layperson’s guide." There is a good and fair coverage of the science behind climate change. And the style is very readable, even at times displaying a wry humour. (They were joking when they referred to economics as "a deeply respectable and empirical science" weren’t they?)

Despite the cynical portrayal of the scientific process, or even because of this, Poles Apart will communicate to a wider audience and improve public understanding of the science of climate change.

And that’s important.

-- Notes by KP

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