iOS app Android app More

If Attacking Al Gore Was a Movie, It Would be Say Anything

Oddly, if the goal is to slam Al Gore, it often seems as if standards of serious discussion suddenly vanish. Even scientific information -- which you'd think people would be inclined to wield cautiously -- gets treated as if it's putty.

That was on full display with this Washington Post op-ed by Slate's Emily Yoffe yesterday. The blogosphere has already done great work taking it apart, but because I think we need to discourage such cavalier treatment of complex science, I'm going to pile on.

The broad point Yoffe is trying to make is that we shouldn't be "terrified" all the time about global warming -- and that those who are trying to terrify us (Gore, allegedly) are probably shooting themselves in the foot. As a general statement, there's some truth to this. I myself have been making this argument, along with a colleague, in a public talk on science communication that (among other things) tries to dissuade environmentalists from framing global warming as a "Pandora's box" all the time.

Sadly, though, Yoffe makes this point by messing up the science in much worse ways than alleged global warming "alarmists" do. In fact, she garbles the basic distinction between climate and weather--climate science 101, essentially. Yoffe writes:

Since I hate the heat, even I was alarmed by the recent headline: "NASA Warns of 110-Degrees for Atlanta, Chicago, DC in Summer." But I regained my cool when I realized the forecast was for close to the end of the century. Thanks to all the heat-mongering, it's supposed to be a sign I'm in denial because I refuse to trust a weather prediction for August 2080, when no one can offer me one for August 2008 (or 2007 for that matter).

There is so much hubris in the certainty about the models of the future that I'm oddly reassured. We've seen how hubristic predictions about complicated, unpredictable events have a way of bringing the predictors low.

The precise weather in any given place and time is not predictable more than a week or perhaps two weeks in advance -- we know this. Chaos, butterflies, yada yada.

The climate, however, is the sum total of weather, and much of this is very predictable. Yoffe's example unintentionally shows this: We can in fact say a great deal about August of 2007 or 2008. We can't predict precise local temperatures, but we know the month on average is going to be hotter than December of 2007 or 2008 (in the Northern hemisphere, anyway). The seasons are predictable, as are many other things about the climate -- including the influence of the greenhouse effect upon it. Because of human enhancement of that effect, we know that the global average temperature is going to be hotter in the future.

But Yoffe isn't finished -- she must also sound off about global warming and hurricanes:

Now, Gore and others say that Katrina was a product of global warming and that we can expect more and bigger storms. But there is actually brisk scientific debate over the role global warming plays -- if any -- in the creation of hurricanes.

First, Gore doesn't say Katrina is a "product of global warming" -- in congressional testimony he plainly disavowed the nonsensical idea that a single storm can be causally attributed in this way.

Yoffe, meanwhile, doesn't even seem to grasp what this whole debate is about. It's not whether there will be "more" storms (scientists don't know one way or another at this point) or whether they will be "bigger." And it most certainly isn't about "the creation of hurricanes" (what scientists call storm "genesis"). Hurricanes will always exist; the question is what they'll be like once they spin up. The current science suggests they will probably be more intense on average, and rainier -- and they will very likely surf atop higher seas. It's not alarmism to point that out.

If I'm being a bit hard on Emily Yoffe, it's because there's a larger point here. Yoffe's piece strikes me as indicative of how some aspects of the Washington journalism culture treat scientific information. A lot of the time, what's prized in that world is the ability to make a clever argument -- to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

When you apply this approach to science, however, there's an utter mismatch. In science, "conventional wisdom" is a consensus perspective that has withstood repeated expert attempts to unseat it. In this context, being "counterintuitive" -- especially when one is doing so well outside of the traditional channels of scientific discourse -- usually amounts to little more than being just plain wrong.