RealClimate’s Gavin Schmidt was recently moved to highlight a “misrepresentation” on the part of Dr. Richard S. Lindzen. The particulars of this protest have to do with Lindzen strongly implying to a public audience that data fed to climate models have been “manipulated’ so as to produce results in keeping with an extra-scientific narrative theme. Dr. Lindzen’s particular multi-decade track record of publicly casting aspersions and innuendo on virtually all branches of science connected with climate change invites us to wonder whether it’s time the public was offered some substantional assistance, better than specific corrections to single lapses on the part not only of Dr. Lindzen but also of others he typifies.
Lindzen’s static perception of climate research and public policy– unchanged for at least 20 years– is a metaphor for the effect he and others have helped produce in the arenas of public perception and public policy, where we find stasis leading to a burgeoning C02 concentration in the atmosphere even as we remain substantially deadlocked over mitigation efforts in important places such as the United States.
Also in stasis is the scientific community’s response to personalities such as Lindzen. As in the example most recently provided at RealClimate, the notion of “correction” is heavily rooted in a scientific context. It ignores the fact that correcting misperception in the public mind is very difficult and frequently impossible. It ignores the fact that it is key to avoid allowing bad information to take root in the brains of a susceptible public.
Scientists following the discussion thread about Lindzen’s “manipulation” accusation were mollified by Lindzen’s obscurely placed and highly qualified apology for this wrong accusation. Unfortunately this serves as an archetype for the general problem of erasing errors etched into the public mind: the “manipulation” slide is still publicly available as of this writing at one of Britain’s most influential newspapers.
Nothing important to the public was accomplished with Lindzen’s apology.
In short, the significance of this latest in a seemingly endless series of corrections rises above complaints about individual personalities and specific errors; Dr. Lindzen and his extra-curricular work offer a case study of a weakness in public discourse that needs to be authoritatively addressed, yet is not.
Lindzen has been extremely active in communicating his feelings about climate research to the public. He can be found talking to a substantial audience on the radio in Australia, offering his opinions to conferences sponsored by ideological thinktanks, writing for populist publications and offering the same words in journals nominally intended for an academic audience.
As an illustration of just how far astray an audience may be led by a man whose credibility is boosted by being introduced as an MIT professor and how important a few words said or unsaid may be, here is Dr. Lindzen in his own words, speaking on a radio program accessible to most of the population of Australia:
If C02 caused warming, how could human production of C02 be catastrophic, when nature produces what, 32 times as much as human beings; 97% of C02 in the world is naturally produced.
Well, yeah, you’re, you’re addressing the issue of how can one regard something essential to life as a pollutant, and, uh, I don’t know the answer to that, it seems absurd but on the other hand you can get many people to sign on to government control of uh, dihydrogen oxide, ah because they don’t know it’s water.
That’s it. I mean just taking the maths of it, I mean you’re, you’re an eminent scientist; is it true that the proportion of the Earth’s annual production of C02 is about 3% produced by human beings and 97% roughly produced by nature?
Well that’s correct, that’s correct; the (talkover) argument often is presented that the natural part is in balance and our contribution is imbalancing, unbalancing the system and so that’s leading to a rise. Uh, that’s an arguably possible situation but in point of fact there’s limited evidence of that and the merest uh misunderstanding of the 97% could easily overbalance man’s contribution but to be honest that is not an issue that is known at present and I would argue it’s not even the central issue.
Listeners absorbing Dr. Lindzen’s prevarication will be helping make public policy; Lindzen’s audience includes many Australians who will dutifully vote for a future government that may or may not neuter the carbon taxation program so recently passed in that country. Edge effects count; if Lindzen succeeds in diminishing the importance of the CO2 problem in enough minds then Australia will take a leap backwards that will in turn steer public policy in other countries.
Lindzen’s various appearances as Alan Jones’ guest typify his public role in climate science: Lindzen is introduced as a scientist, speaks in the role of a scientist yet does not communicate the true state of the science of which he speaks. Lindzen instead conveys impressions of science intended to support ideological convictions divorced from scientific concerns, bracing the strength of his persuasion with his credentials as a scientist.
The RealClimate posting on Lindzen’s latest misrepresentation generated a substantial stream of commentary. One of those comments inquires to the effect of “why do journalists and others continue to rely on people such as Lindzen when it’s well known by other experts in his domain that his advice to the public is suspect?”
The answer to that may be that for journalists and many others there’s no immediately visible difference between personalities as AGU past president Rafael Bras versus Richard Lindzen; both are accomplished researchers in the field of Earth systems dynamics, both enjoy accolades from peers for their work, both sport CV features that at a glance are indistinguishable to the layperson’s eye. We’re relying on these people for expertise even as expertise cannot be reliably proxied; because we’re seeking information from both Bras and Lindzen on matters we don’t understand ipso facto we can’t tell the difference between one or the other.
Where members of the public must choose between information sources or lawmakers must pick expert testimony on the urgency of dealing with C02, Lindzen’s example has shown how important it is that we receive some form of guidance on the reliability of our choices. This help must necessarily come from quarters uniquely suited for this evaluation, ideally that of a body of experts practicing in the same broad scientific domain.
Universities are not suited for this task of judgement; misleading testimony to lawmakers and the general public is not research misconduct and falls outside of the purview of conduct involved in maintaining good grace of tenure.
Professional societies on the other hand are squarely appropriate for offering assistance to the public in the matter of choosing information sources for creating good public policy. The applicable example in this case is the American Geophysical Union. The AGU long ago transcended the boundary separating the narrow functions of journal publication and conducting meetings. Today the AGU can be found offering advice to scientists on how to communicate with policymakers, directly interacting with lawmakers and making public comments on the individual character of particular AGU members. Clearly the AGU sees a role for itself in shaping the impact of science on public policy as well as holding members to standards of personal and scientific integrity.
Even as professional societies have branched beyond matters purely scientific, so far we in the public have received little or no guidance from suitably authoritative sources on what constitutes truly useful advice about CO2 and climate change; professional societies have remained aloof from the public beyond making general statements on the urgent nature of C02 mitigation. Probably the nearest we’ve seen to a direct statement of this kind is AGU President Michael McPhaden’s recent remarks on an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal in February.
Crucially, in his reply to the Wall Street Journal McPhaden fails to directly call to account a key signatory of that letter, Richard Lindzen, an AGU Fellow himself and one who has repeatedly traduced the reputations of other AGU Fellows as part of his work on shaping public policy. This is rather confusing. While in sum the AGU’s position on climate change is that never have we faced a situation fraught with such powerful implications, requiring so much expertise to address and at the same time so vulnerable to misuse of professional reputation, still the AGU is strangely silent when confronted with a member who is acting squarely against all the AGU tells us.
We may see that punctilious observation by professional societies of the line between doing science and interaction with the public is outmoded and in any case no longer is in practice. AGU has emphatically pronounced on the requirement for members to behave well as public citizens. Taking into account his track record of advice to lawmakers and the general public it’s been amply demonstrated that regardless of his reputation as an arguably brilliant scientific researcher Lindzen nonetheless serves as an archetypal example of a scientist who feels no compunction against trading on his reputation and associations as a researcher to foster malformed thinking in the mind of the public. We in the general public very much need the help of professional societies in picking where to obtain the least slanted and most useful information required for solving what we’re told by the same societies is an absolutely dire problem.
Will we obtain this help? We don’t know and can’t say but hope for an answer soon.