Wednesday, August 22, 2012

James Hansen and Science, Not At All

James Hansen is an important person. He is responsible for maintaining the official temperature data set on behalf of the United States – one of the key global records available. He is head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, located above the diner used in most episodes of Seinfeld.

His view of science is that the science should be used in the service of political activism when the scientists believe that they have no choice but to do so. This is the view endorsed by Paul Feyerabend, who took an approach to science which suggest that the boundary between science as a form of logical reasoning based on evidence and polemics needs to be blurred, since what matters in scientific understanding in the service of social aims. Using a variety of examples, he suggests that they have in common the fact that all common prescriptive rules of science are violated in these cases and that the progress of science itself would have been impeded had it not been for the anarchistic view of science promoted.

One of Feyerabend examples is the Copernican revolution. Feyerabend was a radical and he sanction the introduction of theories that are inconsistent with well-established facts if it leads to an advancement of understanding. Feyerabend also advocated that science should also be subjected to democratic control: not only should the subjects that are investigated by scientists be determined by popular election, scientific assumptions and conclusions should also be supervised by committees of lay people.

Hansen is a key player in the IPCC, where science is “adjusted” to fit policy and governmental strategy by civil servants from around the world through the process of word by word, comma by comma review of the “Summary for Policy Makers” documents produced by the UN body. As a scientist he contributed to the major chapters of the IPCC reports and has “knuckled under” to this lay people review of assumptions and conclusions: he tacitly support policy driven evidence.

As a scientist he is happy to adjust data from direct observation. Indeed, he has made such significant adjustments that almost all of the changes in temperature are due to adjustments rather than actual observation (see here). His most recent claim – that climate change is responsible for extreme weather events and that these are a sign that the climate is in a precarious state due almost entirely to human actions – use several sleights of hand: (a) carefully selecting data (1955-1999) leaving out the much hotter 1930’s and cooler 2000’s; (b) ignoring the fact that levels of CO2 are falling in the US rather than rising; (c) just looking at the Northern hemisphere and ignoring the Southern hemisphere; (d) ignoring the fact that there has been no significant warming in the period since 2000, which is why they cut the data analysis at 1999; and (e) he ignores the fact that neither tornadoes nor hurricanes have shown any increase recently - only smaller tornadoes show an increase, due to reporting bias thanks to easily affordable and accessible technology.  NOAA’s SPC  reports that July 2012 seems to be at a record low for tornadoes; and (f) neglecting to outline the contribution he himself has made to increasing the impact of climate change through his adjustments to the official record - Watts et al 2012 suggest surface station data may be biased warmer over the last 30 years.

His outcries have been widely criticized by scientists still working on the idea that science is fundamentally about testing a theory (man made CO2 emissions are causing temperature changes which in turn threaten communities is a theory) with observational evidence drawn from direct observations.

One of his concerns is the development of the Alberta oil sands, which he refers to as “tar sands”. He has said that “if Canada proceeds [with oil sands development] then it is game over for the climate”. His argument is that oil from the oil sands is CO2 intensive and that emissions would need to be reduced dramatically in order to avoid the "apocalyptic" future of an inhabitable planet with sea levels destroying coastal cities and global temperatures rising to the point of killing off large portions of the earth's species.  

Canada is responsible for less than 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions. The Asia Pacific region emit the most carbon dioxide, it also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions growth rate of any region. Most developed countries saw their carbon dioxide emissions decline between 2006 and 2010 as industrial production slowed. Oil sands account for 6.5% of Canada’s emissions or 0.1% of total emissions. Even when production reaches full load in 2018-2020 at 3 million barrels a day, emissions will not reach 1% of global emissions and oil sands emissions will be  dwarfed by emissions from Asia. In fact, as Gary Lamphier has pointed out (here), China alone is adding “one Canada’s” worth of emissions each year.

Hansen was talking explicitly about climate, not water or biodiversity. So what is the science of this claim that oil sands development in Canada is “game over” for the climate. This strikes me as especially odd, given Hansen’s envy of China. He has said “I have the impression that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles. At the same time China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly”.

Hansen has made other strange claims, such as the probability that sea levels would rise by 75 meters (246 feet) if no action was taken, which is based on some bizarre calculation and assumptions built into a model by Hansen himself.

Several have suggested that the kind of science Hansen now favours – manipulating evidence so as to fit a social case for change, making claims not supported by evidence or many peers and using public platforms to argue for political change by referring to the imperative to do so from “science” – crosses the boundary between science and action. What those suggesting that he is incompetent (see here) need to realize is that he is following a particular view of science developed by Feyerabend – in fact, he is the poster-boy for this view of science. Is he doing the kind of science we teach in schools, colleges and universities – not at all. Should he be in charge of one of the world’s most important data sets – not at all. Should he be paid public money to campaign for public policy in the name of science – not at all. But get used to it. There are a lot more James Hansen’s about.

No comments: