Ocean study crit­i­cism shows ben­e­fits of sci­en­tific method

Wiarton Echo - - FORUM -


Col­umn rrors in a re­cent ocean warm­ing study il­lus­trate global warm­ing’s com­plex­ity. They also show the depths to which cli­mate sci­ence de­niers will stoop to dis­miss or down­play ev­i­dence for hu­man-caused cli­mate change.

The study by re­searchers from the U.S., China, France and Ger­many con­cluded, “ocean warm­ing is at the high end of previous es­ti­mates” and global warm­ing might be ad­vanc­ing faster than sci­en­tists thought. Bri­tish re­searcher Nic Lewis, who has a math and physics back­ground, found dis­crep­an­cies, which he noted on a skep­tic’s blog. The sci­en­tists ac­knowl­edged the er­rors and of­fered a cor­rec­tion to the study, pub­lished in Na­ture.

The con­tro­versy il­lus­trates how the sci­en­tific method works. Stud­ies are of­ten amended or over­turned as new in­for­ma­tion be­comes avail­able or as in­con­sis­ten­cies or er­rors are pointed out.

Study co-au­thor Ralph Keel­ing, a geo­sciences pro­fes­sor at Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy in Cal­i­for­nia, noted, “The over­all con­clu­sion that oceans are trap­ping more and more heat mir­rors other stud­ies and is not in­ac­cu­rate, but the mar­gin of er­ror in the study is larger than orig­i­nally thought.”

Some cli­mate sci­ence de­niers have seized on the er­ror to im­ply it dis­cred­its the moun­tains of ev­i­dence for hu­man-caused cli­mate change amassed by sci­en­tists from around the world for close to 200 years ev­i­dence ac­cepted by ev­ery le­git­i­mate sci­en­tific academy and in­sti­tu­tion and ev­ery gov­ern­ment ex­cept the cur­rent U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Those who un­der­stand sci­ence haven’t taken such a hard line. Even Lewis, who’s skep­ti­cal about cli­mate mod­els and warm­ing rate pre­dic­tions, said the study’s method­ol­ogy is “novel, and cer­tainly wor­thy of pub­li­ca­tion” and that the er­rors were “se­ri­ous (but surely in­ad­ver­tent).” He crit­i­cized Na­ture for not scru­ti­niz­ing the study bet­ter, and main­stream me­dia for ex­ten­sive, “un­ques­tion­ing” cov­er­age.

News me­dia don’t al­ways get it right on sci­ence-re­lated is­sues. Jour­nal­ists aren’t al­ways well versed in sci­ence, and of­ten lack time to ex­am­ine is­sues with the depth they merit. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing com­plex ideas and dis­till­ing en­tire stud­ies into eye-catch­ing head­lines and brief sto­ries can lead to mis­in­for­ma­tion and lim­ited un­der­stand­ing.

Lack of sci­ence lit­er­acy is a prob­lem in jour­nal­ism and so­ci­ety in gen­eral. Sci­ence is a use­ful tool, but it’s not per­fect. With the ocean study, the method worked as it should. Sci­en­tists raised ques­tions, devel­oped hy­pothe­ses, con­ducted re­search and pre­sented find­ings. Then an­other ex­pert found dis­crep­an­cies. This led to cor­rec­tions and a stronger un­der­stand­ing of the method­ol­ogy and its ap­pli­ca­tions, and of ocean warm­ing.

Many peo­ple aren’t fa­mil­iar with the pre­cise def­i­ni­tions of sci­en­tific terms, and this can lead to mis­un­der­stand­ing. We see com­ments that hu­man-caused cli­mate change is just a “the­ory,” so we should ques­tion or dis­miss it. But in sci­ence, a the­ory is based on one or more tested hy­pothe­ses. When re­search and ex­per­i­ments con­firm that the hy­pothe­ses ac­cu­rately de­scribe and pre­dict real-world oc­cur­rences, a the­ory is devel­oped. We have the the­ory of grav­ity and the the­ory of evo­lu­tion. As sci­ence, un­der­stand­ing and tech­nolo­gies evolve, the­o­ries are some­times re­vised and oc­ca­sion­ally dis­proven or dis­carded.

Global warm­ing the­o­ries are based on a wide range of re­search and knowl­edge, from the physics of the green­house ef­fect to sci­ence re­gard­ing ocean cur­rents, the car­bon cy­cle, wind pat­terns and feed­back loops. There may be some un­cer­tainty about warm­ing rates and con­se­quences, but there’s no doubt the world is heat­ing be­cause of hu­man ac­tiv­ity - mostly through burn­ing fos­sil fu­els and dam­ag­ing or de­stroy­ing car­bon sinks like forests and wet­lands - and that the con­se­quences are al­ready se­vere and will worsen if we fail to act de­ci­sively.

We also know our ac­tiv­i­ties have al­ready locked in a cer­tain amount of un­pre­ventable warm­ing, so we don’t have time to de­lay if we want a healthy fu­ture - or a fu­ture at all - for our young peo­ple and those yet to be born.

Healthy skep­ti­cism is good. Crit­i­cism of the ocean study led to greater un­der­stand­ing and strength­en­ing of the method­ol­ogy and anal­y­sis. But deny­ing the mas­sive amounts of ev­i­dence and even the le­git­i­macy of sci­ence leaves us with what? Per­sonal be­liefs? Ig­nor­ing what’s in front of us to main­tain the sta­tus quo? Prac­tic­ing “busi­ness as usual”?

Those would all put us on a path to dis­as­ter.

We must work to­gether to sup­port the sci­ence we have to help us learn to live within plan­e­tary bound­aries.

David Suzuki is a sci­en­tist, broad­caster, au­thor and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion. Writ­ten with con­tri­bu­tions from David Suzuki Foun­da­tion Se­nior Edi­tor Ian Han­ing­ton. Learn more at www.david­suzuki.org

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