Climate Change: Science or Science Fiction

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

The politics of global warming is very curious. It is a unique instance where a political argument is wrapped in the cloak of science, while at the same time violating the most important rules of scientific research.

Science is the pursuit of knowledge through testing, observation and the systematization of facts, principles and methods. Progress is made by proposing a hypothesis to explain or understand certain phenomena, and then testing the hypothesis against reality. A particular hypothesis is considered superior to others when, through testing, it is shown to have more explanatory power than competing theories and when other scientists can reproduce the results.

If a theory predicts that A but not B or C will occur under certain conditions, but instead, B and sometimes C result, then the theory has problems. The more a hypothesis's predictions prove inconsistent with, or diametrically opposed to, the results that occur during testing or that are observed in the field the less likely the hypothesis is to be correct.

However, the theory that humans are causing global warming does not work this way. No matter what the climate phenomenon, if it can in someway be presented as being unusual by global warming alarmists, it is argued to be "further evidence of global warming," even if it contradicts earlier "evidence" pointed to by the same people.

What effects will result from human caused climate change seem to depend on which scientist one consults and which model is used. In the realm of climate change research, different models looking at the same phenomenon using the same principles of atmospheric physics, often produce dramatically varied results. Thus one model says we can expect the polar ice sheets to melt, while another predicts the coming of the next ice age. One model will forecast long-term drought in the southwest, whereas another model predicts increased precipitation.

In 1990, for example, Congress requested a National Assessment of the regional impacts of climate change on the U.S., in order to inform and shape U.S. climate policy. Yet the report delivered to Congress in 2000 was a contradictory mess. It relied on two models - the Canadian Centre and the United Kingdom's Hadley Centre - which repeatedly disagreed. The Canadian model forecasted less rain in the Southeast, while the Hadley model predicted more rain. The Canadian model predicted increased, more severe droughts in the Midwest, while the Hadley model forecasted fewer, less severe droughts. The Canadian model predicted that water levels in the Great Lakes by will fall by up to 5 feet, while the Hadley model predicted increased Great Lakes levels of about 1 foot. And while the Canadian model forecasted more spring flooding in the West, the Hadley model projected fewer floods.

In fairness to the majority of the scientists doing climate change research, often it is not their research that is faulty, but the political uses to which that research is bent. For instance, the bureaucrats that wrote the overview of the National Assessment repeatedly made claims that were not supported by the underlying research. In response, the lead authors of the health section stated; "the health section of the overview ... is not consistent with the findings, conclusions, and text of the Health Sector Working Group. Many statements in the overview ... have a rather extreme/alarmist tone and do not ... fairly reflect the scientific literature, the historical record, or the output of the extant models."

Scientists are not to blame when politicians twist their words to fit political ends or when the press makes errors while trying to simplify their findings. They are responsible, however, when they do not speak up to correct the record. All too often, the researchers stay silent. Could this be because the same bureaucrats who mislead the public concerning a particular study's findings, are often also in charge of the scientists' funding?

In order to formulate an adequate response to the threats posed by global warming, it is critical that the research involved conform to the scientific method: formulate a hypothesis including expected results of a testing regime, run the test and check the results against reality and competing theories. If either the original results do not conform to or contradict those predicted at the outset, or repetitions of the test produce different results, then the hypothesis merits serious rethinking if not outright rejection.

Unfortunately the theory of global warming does not work this way. Accordingly, it is not science, but science fiction with none of its charm or allure.