Climate pushback #2 (of 2)

After the jump, excerpts from a few more readers with thoughts to add, in response to this and this, about the notorious famed "hockey stick" chart and the general state of the climate-change debate.

 I'll let these speak for themselves -- and also let them wrap up the discussion in this space for the time being.

But a note about a point that could use re-assertion What attracted me to Richard Muller's book "Physics for Future Presidents" and still does, despite varied complaints about parts of its argument, is that it tries to do something that too few experts and specialists bother with. It attempts to explain the way scientists approach complex issues of public policy. How they weigh evidence. What they're skeptical of and convinced by. How they think about data that never perfectly fits -- and how they try to discern general trends even when particular details are messy. I was using this in contrast to a George Will column breezily asserting that a decade of flat temperatures (a claim that itself is disputed, to put it mildly) said something significant about longer-term climactic trends.

How many other experts even try to do this? Explaining their manner of thinking -- which is more valuable than their judgment on any particular point? Rather than simply asserting that they are right on the basis of their expertise. Historians Richard Neustadt and Ernest May -- both unfortunately now dead, both men I admired greatly when taking their classes -- notably did so in their book Thinking in Time, which tried to explain how historical analogies could inform --  mislead. I have not yet read Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think, but the title is certainly promising in this sense. I have read The Art and Science of Politics, by Harold Varmus, and it's a fine example of this approach. Atul Gawande's justly celebrated New Yorker report (on why medical costs were so much higher in one Texas city than another) was great because he applied his knowledge as a physician to explain how other doctors did their work. The Galbraiths -- John Kenneth, and now his son James, especially with Predator State -- earned the suspicion (and envy) of many fellow economists by trying to explain what was right and wrong about economic reasoning to lay readers. To avoid the risk of offending by omission, I'll stop here (rather than talking about lawyers, engineers, biologists, teachers, etc.

The entire purpose of Richard Muller's book was to convey how people trained in the hard sciences make their way through the contradictory signals from the real political world. That is worth noting, no matter what you think about his view on the "hockey stick."

Reader comments after the jump.

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From a Canadian scientist

Since you posted regarding the now-infamous Mann et al. "Hockey Stick", I thought I'd forward you the summary of the report "Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years" written by the National Academies. [Here]

This report was compiled at the request of Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) in order to clarify the issues surrounding climate change and the Hockey Stick flap.  To summarize that report, let me simply quote from a AAAS Newsletter:

"At Chairman Boehlert's request, the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed this issue. In a report released on June 22, entitled Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, the Academy concluded that, while Mann's statistical procedures weren't optimal, the procedure did not unduly distort his conclusions, which the Academy reinforced. "The basic conclusion of Mann et al. was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years." Due to the degree of uncertainty in the temperature estimates from many centuries ago, the Academy did not support Mann's specific claims that the 1990s was the hottest decade and 1998 the hottest year in the past millennium."

ClimateChart1.jpg

Obviously, the Hockey Stick episode did nothing to help the climate science community's case.   That said, the Mann study wasn't very far off the mark.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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