Posted by: Barry Bickmore | October 3, 2010

“Why Don’t You Bash Al Gore?”

Since I took the plunge and started publicly criticizing certain climate change contrarians, notably certain Utah politicians and Christopher Monckton, people on the other side of the fence have often asked, “Why don’t you criticize Al Gore for all his misrepresentations?”  The implication is that I, and others like me, are being intellectually dishonest by selectively criticizing only those who are pushing for doing nothing about climate change, while ignoring “alarmists” who exaggerate.

If you really want to fathom why scientists like me typically don’t get all worked up about Al Gore, you have to understand a couple things from the outset.

1. Scientists expect journalists and popularizers to get a few things wrong when explaining scientific work.

Most scientific work is pretty specialized, technical stuff.  It isn’t easy to take something like that and boil it down for popular consumption without glossing over a few important points.  The problem becomes worse when we try to explain our work in simplified terms to a journalist or popularizer, who will then try to boil it down even more for the masses. Boiling down technical information is a tricky balancing act, and it often takes an expert to tell when simplification crosses the line into blatant error.

The most extreme example I know of is the time a geophysicist colleague of mine was interviewed by a reporter from the student newspaper.  He told the reporter how he uses seismic waves to figure out what is under the surface of the Earth, e.g., he can locate features like the Moho, which marks the transition between the crust and mantle.  My friend went on to explain that bats use a similar strategy to locate bugs like mosquitos, except that bats use sound waves instead of seismic waves.  When the article came out, it included a “quotation” in which my friend supposedly said that he could use seismic waves to find a mosquito at the Moho.

The upshot is that scientists are usually pretty resigned to the fact that the popular media is going to botch some of the details, so we’re generally happy if they get the overall gist right.

2. Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”, is not that bad, frankly.

Yes, there are a couple errors.  Yes, in a few cases he focuses on “worst-case scenarios,” rather than communicating the full range of risk.  But the fact is that he got the most important points right, and the problems aren’t that serious from the perspective of most scientists who have examined the movie.  Tim Lambert collected reactions from a number of scientists about a list of nine alleged errors in the movie, for example.  While they didn’t always agree about the status of individual “errors,” there was general agreement that the list was too long.  In most cases, it was questionable whether they were really errors at all.

In the cases where Gore presented “worst-case scenarios” instead of depicting the full range of risk, try to look at it from the perspective of the scientists involved.  The vast majority of scientists are saying, “Human-induced climate change is very likely to be a very big problem, and somewhat likely to be a very, very big problem.”  Are they supposed to get all worked up when a popularizer like Gore goes around saying it will be a very, very big problem?  The reaction of most scientists has been exactly what it should be.  “Well, maybe he overstated his case somewhat, but he got the gist right.”

Now, contrast this with someone like Christopher Monckton, who goes about proclaiming that climate change is a “non-problem,” and to support his case he completely misrepresents the scientific literature he cites.  Whom do you think scientists are going to want to spend their time criticizing?

And no, I didn’t vote for Gore.

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Responses

  1. There is always a difference between being more-or-less right and explaining it optimally especially for a broad audience. The latter is often harder than the former.

    When I saw AIT:
    1) The only thing I hadn’t heard of was was the data from submarines in the Arctic Ocean.

    2) I certainly picked up on a few of the issues ,where I thought he could have been more precise, or an extra sentence or two would have helped (like explaining the reason why CO2 rise lags temperature rise during an ice-age termination, and why that is irrelevant to AGW). I thought he could have clearer about sea-level rise, but that easily gets complicated.

    3) But, having several years earlier, heard a local Nobel physicist talk at a small local meeting, and use a set of slides whose first half might as well have been Gore’s, it was rather clear that Gore was getting his science from scientists, not the other way around. Good communication of science to a broad audience is much harder than precise communication of results to experts.

    See Burton Richter, “Gambling with the Future, from 2004..

  2. Monckton and the other deniers are calling just about every climate expert and every international scientific body a bunch of ignorants and liars. Gore is presenting the consensus view. The burden of proof is on Monckton and the deniers they are failing miserably.

    I also did not vote for Gore nor Bush. There have been only two candidates from the two major parties that I have ever voted for: Reagan in 1984 and Obama in 2008. I regret the vote for Reagan and I am still not sure how I feel about Obama so far.

  3. My reaction to Gore vs. Monckton is to remember Isaac Asimov’s article “The Relativity of Wrong”. I also took it up at my blog http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/2010/01/successive-approximations.html

    The thing is, in looking at Monckton’s errors, you have work to do to figure out what he thinks he’s talking about. His sea ice things are so divorced from what an honest (even if also incorrect) approach would give that it becomes a guessing game. Whatever it is he’s trying to do, honest description of the science is not there. So he presents that sea ice is ‘fine’, by cherry picking 3 years that misrepresent the 30 year trend.

    Gore’s errors are of a different caliber entirely. At one point in Inconvenient Truth he talks of the albedo of sea ice vs. ocean. The sea ice albedo was correct — for fresh dry snow, and the ocean albedo was correct — for an overhead sun. In the arctic summer, though, the sun isn’t overhead, and the snow is not fresh and dry. So he’s wrong. But, this doesn’t affect the fundamental conclusion — ocean is darker than ice, and thence the arctic will be absorbing more energy as ice pack declines (and, indeed, the ice pack is declining).

    I’ve done a few posts on ‘unreliable sources’, most recently Steve Goddard. It works out that all, so far, have been on folks from the group(s) inclined to say that sea ice is ‘recovering’ or ‘just fine’. I went looking for some who were saying that Antarctica would all melt next week or year. In the early 90s, that was not hard to find. But now … I came up empty. (If anyone else knows of a source saying such things, do forward comment to me.)

  4. Well, the average criticism of AIT has nothing to do with error nitpicks. It has to do with politics. There is a class of partisan who won’t even consider arguments in favor of AGW because Al Gore (acting as a reporter – filmmaker) belongs to the other party.


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