Thursday, March 25, 2010

Looking at the Data on Climate Change

The current issue of the Economist has a useful review of the data on climate change, including this clear illustration of the greenhouse effect:
The review starts with this observation on the different ways scientists and skeptics look at the data:
In any complex scientific picture of the world there will be gaps, misperceptions and mistakes. Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down. When it comes to climate, academic scientists are jigsaw types, dissenters from their view house-of-cards-ists.
Skeptics tend to pick at particular data:
The doubters tend to focus on specific bits of empirical evidence, not on the whole picture. This is worthwhile—facts do need to be well grounded—but it can make the doubts seem more fundamental than they are. People often assume that data are simple, graspable and trustworthy, whereas theory is complex, recondite and slippery, and so give the former priority. In the case of climate change, as in much of science, the reverse is at least as fair a picture. Data are vexatious; theory is quite straightforward. Constructing a set of data that tells you about the temperature of the Earth over time is much harder than putting together the basic theoretical story of how the temperature should be changing, given what else is known about the universe in general.
The piece goes through the data, focusing on the area that skeptics complain about the most, and concludes that the uncertainties are not reason to stand idly by:
The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large, and in some of which it is very dangerous indeed. The doubters are right that uncertainties are rife in climate science. They are wrong when they present that as a reason for inaction.

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