Image credit: The Age
From my post on why consensus matters in climate science to my follow up on why blogging is not science, it's common for climate skeptic commenters to claim that any reference to the majority of expert scientific opinion on climate change is simply an "appeal to authority". The thrust of their argument is that everybody, whether they have formal training in climate science or not, is equally well qualified to judge the quality of the debate based on reason, evidence, and their own intellect. In some ways, it's an appealingly democratic sentiment. But it's a false one. And on this, at least, it seems arch climate skeptic Viscount Monckton would agree with me. For the uninitiated, Lord Monckton is the chap who recently claimed to have been a key influence on moving Margaret Thatcher to the climate skeptic camp, and whose climate change presentation was recently picked apart piece-by-piece and source-by-source by Dr John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. Dr Abraham not only analyzed each of the sources of Viscount Monckton's data, but he also checked with the authors of those sources to make sure his own interpretation was correct. (The presentation is no longer available on YouTube, but is fully viewable via this link.)
Lord Monckton has now taken the time to respond to Dr Abraham's presentation, claiming to show that some of Abraham's assertions were incorrect, and Dr Abraham has, in turn, responded to Viscount Monckton's response with another of his own. (Yes, this really could go on for a long time!)
But while the details of the debate will, sadly, rage on forever, it was one minor point in Viscount Monckton's response that I think is worthy of note, and worthy of remembering next time we hear the argument that consensus in climate science is worth nothing:
"Here's the thing. All of the sciences are becoming increasingly specialized. So most scientists -- the snake-like Abraham and, a fortiori, the accident-prone Monbiot among them -- have no more expertise in predicting or even understanding the strange behavior of the complex, non-linear, chaotic object that is the Earth's climate than the man on the Clapham omnibus."
It's an odd point for Lord Monckton, who I believe is a trained journalist with a degree in classics, to be making. Is he saying that he is in a better position to talk climate science than Dr Abraham? (Dr Abraham's own response, incidentally, lays out his credentials when it comes to researching and teaching heat transfer, radiative heat transfer, fluid mechanics, and numerical simulation—all of which are important topics in the field of climate science.) Is Viscount Monckton arguing that George Monbiot, a journalist who makes no claim to being a climate scientist, should not write about climate science?
I really don't intend this post to be a snide "gotcha" post against climate skeptics. Heaven knows that there is enough heated rhetoric out there. But it is vital that we establish who we, whether we are bloggers, journalists, members of the public, activists or politicians, listen to when it comes to expert scientific opinion. Yes, we all have a right, maybe even an obligation, to take part in the public debate. Yes, we may even have strong opinions about the way science is conducted. But we should never kid ourselves that writing articles or giving speeches amounts to science. It does not.
It almost sounds like Viscount Monckton might be agreeing with me. I look forward to his next (first?) peer-reviewed contribution to the climate debate.