RealClimate, Quark Soup and the Climate Blog Wars

One of my favorite blogs is David Appell’s Quark Soup. I started reading it a year ago, when he was doing yeoman’s work on Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick’s effort to debunk Mann, Bradley and Hughes’ “hockey stick” paleoclimatic reconstruction.

I’m hooked on the comments section of David’s blog. But I’m beginning to think it’s a less-than-useful addiction, in ways that may shed some light on the continuously unpleasant and ultimately unresolvable nature of what I (apparently somewhat unoriginally) have come to call “the climate wars.” I think the climate comment wars in David’s blog also may highlight an interesting problem that is endemic to the arena, which the climate scientists over at the new RealClimate blog already appear to be confronting.

(More below the fold.)

It generally goes something like this. David posts a bit of science news about climate change, one of the regular skeptic posters throws down some challenging gantlet, frequently based on either an element of natural variability or a trend over some carefully chosen period of time or place that makes it look like the planet’s getting colder, one of the regular mainstream science defenders points out how the skeptic cherry-picked the data. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This has offered a useful exercise for me. I’m not a climate scientist, just a humble scribe, so time and again these arguments have sent me diving into the journals, trying to understand what’s been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Time after time, of course, the literature supports the climate science against the skeptics’ assaults. But nothing is ever settled. Ultimately, I’ve come to realize that the debates are more like time in the weight room than going out and riding the bike – they’re useful in laying down a functional base, but ultimately not terribly satisfying. The reason is my new hobby horse, Sarewitz’s scientization of political debate. Because these arguments aren’t really about climate science at all. They’re really political debates with science as stalking horse.

This is the hall of mirrors the climate scientists over at RealClimate have entered. They’re clearly smart people, and I am certain they are not doing this naively. They argue in their introductory message that their purpose is provide quickly the sort of response to skeptic bunk that is ordinarily done in a more ponderous fashion:

Many scientists participate in efforts to educate the public and to rebut or debunk rather fanciful claims or outright mis-representations by writing in popular magazines such as EOS and New Scientist or in the Comments section of journals. However, this takes time to put together, and by the time it?s out, mainstream attention has often moved elsewhere. Since these rebuttals appear in the peer-reviewed literature, these efforts (in the long run) are useful. However, a faster response would sometimes be helpful in ensuring that the context of breaking stories is more widely distributed at the time.

As someone who has made a hobby doing this as a climate science amateur, it’s good to see the professionals in the game. But I wonder to what end?

Here is what I hope: Today, when I Google a significant climate paper, one of the first hits is almost invariably a discussion of the paper’s conclusions from CO2 Science Magazine, an ExxonMobile-funded operation. I think it would be terrific if a discussion on RealClimate was also there on the first page of Google. Then someone trying to understand could have ready access to the mainstream science side of the argument.

Here is what I fear: No one’s really trying to understand. That’s a corollary of the point Sarewitz is making, and that’s what I’ve come to realize I’m seeing in the comments in David’s blog.