Climate Science Deniers Get a 'Safe Space' in Santa Fe

02/05/2017 10:05 pm ET

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is hosting a climate conference this week in Santa Fe. Its website says, "contributions based on conventional and non-conventional views on climate change and variability are welcome..." 

Fair enough. Different opinions are good when discussions are fair, open, and honest. I had high hopes for the 2011 Santa Fe meeting. However, several of that year's "non-conventional" participants did not abide by the norms of science.

Among the more colorful attendees was Christopher Monckton, who prefers the title  "Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley". He likes to be called "Lord".  He says he's a "non-voting member" of the House of Lords, but that body has ordered him to cease and desist (there's no such thing, they say). According to George Monbiot of The Guardian, "He has a degree in classics and a diploma in journalism and, as far as I can tell, no further [scientific] qualifications." 

Monckton believes that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a global conspiracy of scientists cooperating with the UN. According to Monbiot (who has a scientific degree), Monckton's views are "a mixture of cherry-picking, downright misrepresentation and pseudo-scientific gibberish." It's no coincidence that some US politicians also think climate change is a hoax. Monckton has testified before Congress.

Monckton claims that the UN  "expunged" from historical temperature records all evidence for the "medieval warm period" (MWP) during which he says the entire planet was "up to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than now". Scientific data show, however, that the MWP was only regional.  European and northern Atlantic temperatures show it.  Elsewhere, not so much. 

Author Mark Boslough attempts to explain the scientific method to denier Christopher Monckton at the 2011 Santa Fe conference
Author Mark Boslough attempts to explain the scientific method to denier Christopher Monckton at the 2011 Santa Fe conference.

Motivated by our desire for fact-based scientific debate, and armed with  historical and current temperature data, oceanographer Lloyd Keigwin and I submitted an abstract to the 2011 conference. 

We planned to explain how isotope data are converted to temperature and to emphasize the importance of context when discussing global warming.  Lloyd’s paper, "The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period in the Sargasso Sea" revealed a local MWP and rapid recent warming. Ironically, the modern thermometer data was removed by climate science deniers when they reprinted his graph. When claiming climate fraud, some "non-conventional" conference attendees have used the doctored version--cleansed of the very data that disproves their own claims that temperatures are lower now. A copy of the sanitized graph was even used in an ExxonMobil advertisement (just entered into the congressional record during Tillerson's confirmation hearing). 

The conference chair replied, "this Conference is not a suitable forum for [the] type of presentations described in [the] submitted abstract. We would accept a paper that spoke to the science, the measurements, the interpretation, but not simply an attempted refutation of someone else’s assertions..."  In other words, scientists are not allowed to use their own data to correct deniers' misrepresentations of it. 

The chair also critiqued another abstract for using the word “contrarian”, warning that, "designations like ‘contrarians, skeptics, deniers, etc.’ may be offensive to some scientists present.” I removed the offending word, and that abstract was accepted. 

Despite this experience, I support conferences that encourage unconventional views. I'll participate this week even though I reject certain policies. First, scientific conferences aren't appropriate forums for non-scientists to attack scientists, politicize science, or promote conspiracy theories. Second, no idea, group, or individual should be immune from scientific criticism. Finally, the notion of a scientific "safe space"--where words like "denier" and "contrarian" cannot even be uttered for fear of hurt feelings--is political correctness run amok. What's next? Coloring books and Play-Doh? We are grow ups. Science is not the right profession for those who cannot tolerate criticism.

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