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.