SciBlogs

Archive March 2010

Climate scientist Phil Jones exonerated Ken Perrott Mar 31

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The UK Parliament Science and Technology Committee has released its report into “climategate” – some of the issues surrounding the release of stolen emails from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit.

It effectively exonerates Phil Jones from  charges of withholding data and questionable scientific ethics.

The text of the press release is below and the committee’s report [PDF] provides detailed responses on each of the issues raised in its investigation.


CLIMATE SCIENCE MUST BECOME MORE TRANSPARENT SAY MPs

The Science and Technology Committee today publishes its report on the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. The Committee calls for the climate science community to become more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies.

Phil Willis MP, Committee Chair, said:

“Climate science is a matter of global importance. On the basis of the science, governments across the world will be spending trillions of pounds on climate change mitigation. The quality of the science therefore has to be irreproachable. What this inquiry revealed was that climate scientists need to take steps to make available all the data that support their work and full methodological workings, including their computer codes. Had both been available, many of the problems at CRU could have been avoided.”

The focus on Professor Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced. On the accusations relating to Professor Jones’s refusal to share raw data and computer codes, the Committee considers that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community but that those practices need to change.

On the much cited phrases in the leaked e-mails–”trick” and “hiding the decline”–the Committee considers that they were colloquial terms used in private e-mails and the balance of evidence is that they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead.

Insofar as the Committee was able to consider accusations of dishonesty against CRU, the Committee considers that there is no case to answer.

The Committee found no reason in this inquiry to challenge the scientific consensus as expressed by Professor Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, that “global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity”. But this was not an inquiry into the science produced by CRU and it will be for the Scientific Appraisal Panel, announced by the University on 22 March, to determine whether the work of CRU has been soundly built.

On the mishandling of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, the Committee considers that much of the responsibility should lie with the University, not CRU. The leaked e-mails appear to show a culture of non-disclosure at CRU and instances where information may have been deleted to avoid disclosure, particularly to climate change sceptics. The failure of the University to grasp fully the potential damage this could do and did was regrettable. The University needs to re-assess how it can support academics whose expertise in FoI requests is limited.

via UK Parliament – S&T PN32/100331.

Download the full report: ’The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.’

YouTube – ‘Climategate’ row scientist cleared of wrongdoing.

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See also:
The rickety bandwagon of climate change denial
Climategate inquiry: no proof of fraud, better disclosure called for

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The origins of science? Ken Perrott Mar 31

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Have a look at this short video for a humorous explanation of the origins of science. Then listen to this podcast of Professor AC Graylings version.   (Download AC Grayling on ’Atheism, Secularism, Humanism: Three Zones of Argument’). A little more serious – but fascinating.

YouTube – Mr. Deity And The Equation.

I mentioned Grayling’s talk in my post Are science and religion compatible? It was presented at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne a few weeks back.

While the convention will be out on DVD eventually it’s possible to catch up with some of the lectures as audio files on-line. The ones I have seen recently are those by Taslima Nasrin, Peter Singer on ’Ethics Without Religion’ and John Perkins (’The cost of Religious Delusion: Islam and Terrorism’). The All in the Mind podcast is also providing audio of a number of presentations. The first of two parts (2010-03-27 A matter of mind-sets? Religion and science – Part 1 of 2) includes talks by PZ Myers, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins.

Thanks to the ABC religion blogs Questions of Faith:  The 2010 Global Atheist Convention – Embranglement.

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The rickety bandwagon of climate change denial Ken Perrott Mar 30

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OK, this cartoon is lampooning extremest attitudes within the US Republican Party. But I think it is also very relevant to this whole “climategate” hysteria.

Relevant because some of the most extreme pronouncements from climate change deniers do smack of McCarthyism. To be honest they also remind me of the campaigns against scientists and intellectuals launched by Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

Have a brief look at some of the pronouncement in denier blogs and twitter tweets. The description of climate change science as a conspiracy. The accusations that honest scientists have lied, hidden and distorted data and interfered with scientific publication processes. And all on an international scale. The huge and authoritative IPCC reviews are being discarded unread as rubbish and lies.

The accusations that these honest scientists are criminals, that they should be prosecuted. Some of these bloggers and tweeters want immediate  punishment – they can’t wait for a trial, let alone an investigation.

And as for the official investigation of charges of violation of freedom of information laws, let alone scientific ethics, these critics scream “whitewash” beforehand. Justice and truth is the last thing they want.

Persecuting climate scientists

The label “McCarthyism” is so obvious, down to McCarthy’s tactics of persecution of victims and hearings. US Senator James Inhofe is actually demanding criminal investigation of climate scientists. He has even named 17 US and UK climate scientists he wants to prosecute.

Michael Mann, one of the US climate scientists Inhofe wishes to imprison or otherwise punish, has warned about the climate denier hysteria:

“I think the following quote characterises the situation best: ‘Continuous research by our best scientists … may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumours, gossip, and vilification.’ The quote wasn’t made during the last few months. It was made by US president Harry S Truman in 1948, in response to politically motivated attacks against scientists associated with the dark era of McCarthyism.”

Mann added:

“I fear that is precisely the sort of atmosphere that is being created, and sure, it impacts research. The more time scientists have to spend fending off these sorts of attacks and dealing with this sort of nonsense, the less time is available to them to actually do science, and to push the forefront of our knowledge forward. Perhaps that is the intent?”

He is right to warn us about the nature of the current anti-science hysteria.

But I think the cartoon also conveys an important point. These days McCarthyism (and Stalinism, Maoism and Pol Potism) is a sign of weakness. It is an extremely weak and rickety bandwagon to jump on to. These extremists sail so close to the wind that they will inevitably be exposed. Their whole edifice will collapse.

I suspect this collapse will become more and more obvious as we get the results from the current investigations into the “climategate” issue. It is likely that any real unethical or illegal activity found will be no greater than interference with freedom of information requests. And these may relate only to emails rather than data. After the dust is settle, after any real inappropriate behaviour has been dealt with, many people are going to look ridiculous.

Demand transparency from deniers

I only hope that we can spend some time investigating these people. What has been their attitude towards revealing their own sources of funding and treatment of data? How have they responding to information requests? How have they behaved ethically toward reporting scientific facts, let alone reporting the behavior of honest scientists?

Some of these people are journalists. Others bloggers. The there are the denier organisations and their websites. Should we place any trust in such people in the future?

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Are religious scientists worried about their brethren? Ken Perrott Mar 29

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There were two public statements on science recently which seem to have disappeared into a vacuum. They were the ‘Public Statement Concerning Science and Christian Faith’ by New Zealand Religious Scientists and ‘A message to the Christian communities of New Zealand from scientists in their midst.’

I am not interested in the first statement. It’s basically a sour-grapes response to the recent visit of Richard Dawkins to New Zealand. I would think that those disagreeing with Dawkins’ religious views would attempt to ignore him. After all, he was on a promotion tour for his book The Greatest show on Earthwhich is not about religion. Bringing up the religion question only provides him a platform to pontificate on the subject. Mind you, these sorts of criticisms do help build the public interest in Dawkins’ lectures, which are always crowded. This, and the inevitable book sales, must be a good thing for the public understanding of science. So, in a sense, I am all for such irrelevant statements.

Are Christians “ignoring” science?

The second statement also seems to have been provoked by Dawkins’ vist. The Anglicantaonga website claims it was “made in the light” of his local lectures, coverage in newspapers and TV programmes. However, the statement itself limits its comment on Dawkins to just one sentence.

My interest in this second statement is that it is aimed at New Zealand Christians and seems to be expressing concerns about the attitude of many Christians towards science. It notes:

We work within a secularised society which holds science in higher esteem than it does the Christian intellectual tradition, yet often takes note of that science only when it is convenient.

And

“We note with deep concern the denial of rational thought which is taking place in both society and Church in relation to gathering environmental and ecological crises.”

And finally:

“We earnestly ask the Christian communities of New Zealand to respect and affirm the work of scientists, and to act prudently and courageously on their conclusions, in the light of Christian faith and values.”

So the authors of the statement appear concerned but it is all rather vague. I expect vagueness from theological pronouncements – I often feel that trying to understand them is a bit like jelly wrestling. Perhaps one has to read between the lines here – a bit like Soviet times when western Soviet watchers attempted to understand Kremlin power struggles by reading between the lines of Pravda editorials.

However, he statement does convey the sense of a crisis within NZ’s Christian communities regarding acceptance of science. I wouldn’t have thought that was immediately obvious, nothing seems to have changed lately. However the signatories “speak as professional scientists who hold orthodox Christian faith” so there concern may be specifically about “orthodox Christians,” or perhaps “conservative Christians.”

Another strange thing is the refusal to be specific about “environmental and ecological crises” where Christians are denying rational thought. Perhaps they mean climate change – but why not be specific?

Certainly conservative Christian have been guilty of this. One has only to read the local conservative Christian blogs to see how eagerly they have jumped onto the hysterical “climategate” bandwagon and campaigned against our local climate scientists. But isn’t this a feature of their conservatism rather than their religion? I am sure, though, that some of them can justify their conservative using biblical quotes.

Signatories divided?

Probably the statement’s vagueness results from an unwillingness to do a detailed washing of their dirty linen in public. Another reason may be that it is the result of a committee of 11 Christians with different views and different concepts of science. For example, two of the signatories are Neil Bloom and Jeff Tallon. Having heard both of these speak on the nature of science I would have thought their views would be diametrically opposed. Most working scientists would agree with the physicist Jeff Tallon’s description of the scientific method (when he leaves his god out of it). But they wouldn’t agree with the engineer Neil Broom.

Broom is well known as an intelligent design (ID) activist and author of the book How Blind Is the Watchmaker?: Nature’s Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science. The father of ID, Phillip Johnson, gave the book a glowing review describing it as ’in the tradition of my own Darwin on Trial and Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box.’ (Reviews on the Amazon site are far less complimentary). Broom is a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (ISCID) a web site formed by ID guru William Dembski which presents itself as an ID ’think tank.’ (Although this is possibly defunct now as the web site shows no activity for several years).

Naturalistic science straitjacket myth.

Neil Broom strongly argues that science is restricted by it’s “naturalistic rules.” It is not permitted to consider “supernatural” mechanisms and therefore is incapable of truly understanding reality. This artificial description conflicts strongly with the actual way science is done in practice, but is a popular criticism of science by ID proponents. Their Wedge Document, for example, argues for the overthrow of such modern “naturalistic” or “materialist” science and its replacement by a “theistic science” (see The wedge undermines Christianity). Their motives are obvious – to remove from science the requirements for evidence and testing and hence provide “scientific” endorsement of religious myths.

I think Tallon and Broom must have also had problems over including a reference to evolutionary science in their statement.  “We, with contemporary theologians, affirm that historic Christian faith is compatible with an evolutionary unfolding of life.” The vagueness probably results from trying to accommodate most Christian scientists’ clear acceptance of evolutionary science together with the fact that Bloom is one of the three signatories of the notorious “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism” evolution denier list.

The actual list of signatories on the two statements is also interesting. There is a common core of 9 people on both statements. Two extra signed the “Message to Chrsitian Communities” which is described as a production of the Wellington Theological Consortium. This is made up of the Booth College of Mission, the Catholic Education Centre, the Wellington Pacific Bible College and the Wellington Theological Institute (Wellington Anglican Diocese). A separate 5 others signed the other statement. Why the difference?

Liberal Christians need clarity

I guess most of the signatories have their hearts in the right place. If there are problems with the attitudes of conservative Christians to science and scientific findings they are right to be concerned. And there is certainly a problem with their attitudes towards the science of climate change, and, in some cases, evolutionary science. But vague statements like this won’t solve these problems. Especially as they are compromised by the need to accommodate the anti-scientific attitudes of at least one of the signatories.

I think progressive, liberal and pro-science Christians should stop compromising with their anti-science brethren. They should openly and specifically challenge anti-science attitudes.

Why not clearly say that the sympathy many Christians have for creationisms/ID, and the accompanying hostility towards evolutionary science, is not acceptable in modern institutions?

Why not take issue with the hysterical and childish campaign to discredit climate scientists that some conservative Christians have willingly promoted?

Why not clearly challenge the anti-science arguments about  “naturalistic’ or “materialistic” straitjackets on science? These attitudes are even promoted by many mainstream theologians and this helps push rank and file Christians into the arms of conservative and reactionary elements. While this continues how can Christians overcome their suspicion of science.

After all, if you can portray scientists as purposely avoiding the study of reality objectively you can then make wild and hysterical claims countering the findings of those scientists.

See also: Who are the ’dissenters from Darwinism’?

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The climate change denial industry Ken Perrott Mar 26

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Book review: The climate denial industry and climate science – a brief history of attacks on climate science, climate scientists and the IPCC by Cindy Baxter
Publisher: Greenpeace International (24 March, 2010)
Number of pages: 25
Publishers description: This report describes 20 years of organised attacks on climate science, scientists and the IPCC. It sets out some of the key moments in this campaign of denial started by the fossil fuel industry, and traces them to their sources.
Download Document

Anyone interested in the current “climategate” clamour will find the report interesting. It’s a must read. It’s brief (25 pages) and available as a free pdf download.

Dealing in Doubt has just been released by Greenpeace international. The report provides a brief history of attacks on climate science, climate scientists and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It starts with the 1990s, describing the prehistory of the organisations involved (campaigning against the science on the dangers of tobacco) and the formation of the denial networks. And the history is described up until the last few weeks.

Even little old New Zealand gets a mention:

“The campaign has made it to New Zealand, where the Business Roundtable has regularly hosted a slew of denial tours, from Fred Singer in the early ‘90’s to Lord Lawson as recently as 2007134. The New Zealand government’s international stance on climate change is one of the weakest in the industrialised world.

The New Zealand and Australian deniers have joined forces with Canadian deniers to form the International Climate Science Coalition. The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, formed in 2006, has given international fame to a small group of retired colonels and scientists, who managed to get the Heartland Institute to pay for them to attend conferences, and were supported, in part, by Heartland to go to the Bali climate negotiations in 2008.”

It’s heavily referenced for any reader who wants to dig deeper. The resources listed include useful blogs and some excellent books.

There are lots of details in this report but it still only skims over the surface of the climate denjial networks and their funding. I would love someone to dig deeper into the New Zealand situation. To reveal the links between the ACT Party, The Climate Science Coalition, the Climate Conversation Group , and the Centre for Political Research. These organisations certainly coordinated their activity recently in attacking New Zealand NIWA scientists. They will also be  linked to the usual overseas conservative organisations like The Heartland Insitute and conservative media like The American Thinker, and Quadrant.

But this report is a great start.

See also:
Dealing in doubt: 20 years of attacks on climate science
Greenpeace Says Climate Denialism a 20—Year Industry

Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony

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Can science answer moral questions? Ken Perrott Mar 25

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Here’s a great TED talk by Sam Harris. He is well known for his best selling books The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and its follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation. But he has recently been researching the neuroscience of morality and ethics. Sam has a a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.

Harris has a new book coming out in November – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It should be fascinating.

A fact-based morality

He is certainly in good form in this video. He argues for a fact-based morality which enables moral logic and decisions. This conflicts with ideas of moral relativism and god-given morality, or “objective morality.”

I think his arguments are important. Science has made important progress in researching the evolutionary origins of moral intuitions and their role in today’s morality. But very few people have argued for recognition of a fact-base morality, an objectively-based morality, underpinning moral logical and a sense of universal moral truth. This is not the same as the objective morality” arguments of religious apologists or divine command morality theory of conservative Christians. I have argued before that these are just covers for a morality based on arbitrary will and obedience. That it leads to justification for some of the worst forms of  moral relativism (see Human Morality I: Religious confusion, II: Objective morality, III: Moral intuition, IV: Role of religion and V: The secular conscience).

Anyway, watch the video. I am sure you will find it interesting and stimulating.

See also: Sam Harris on science and morality by Russell Blackford

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Periodic Table of of science blogs Ken Perrott Mar 23

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David Bradley of Sciencebase has put together an interesting Periodic Table of science bloggers. It was complied on a “first come, first served” basis and is, of course, restricted in numbers (currently 103). But a useful resource for anyone interested in browsing through science blogs they may not be familiar with.

There’s even a couple of Kiwi science blogs in the Table! See if you can find them.

Reminds me a bit of the periodic table for wines (see I want one of these!)!


Thanks to Periodic Table of David Bradley Sciencebase.

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Creationism, climate change and scientific denialism Ken Perrott Mar 22

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Strange how one keeps coming across familiar people. Last week I was shocked to read Andrew Bolt’s article on the Global Atheist Convention (see Speakers true love of hatred). He wasn’t there and those of us that were recognised his article as full of distortions, misinformation and lies. Then I realised he is one of Australia’s most active climate change deniers (no, in his case not a sceptic – a denier). And now I find him quoted by the creationist/intelligent design (ID) Discovery Institute in a nasty little article attacking science (see Climategate: a Word of Advice to the Scientists).

From Bolt’s perspective “the tide is turning, and fast,” against science. “There will soon be an accounting – and the mood and the money for it. The reputation of science – and of many scientists – will be damaged severely.” He is of course talking about “climategate” – or more specifically he is attempting to use the “climategate” hysteria to build an anti-science sentiment. And the Discovery Institute laps this up. They claim “there will be an accounting for this fraud” and  they “understand now that this is war.”

And, of course they have a conspiracy: “A cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media concubines have conspired to lie about global warming.” And a call to action:

“What can we do? Criminal prosecution of scientists who manipulate data would be a good start. Scientists who fake data and manipulate peer review to advance their agenda are no different than corporate executives who manipulate stock prices or lawyers who tamper with juries. Ultimately, perhaps massive defunding of organized science, and a new system of support for research that demands utter transparency and maximal accommodation of debate, may be the only way to defend ourselves from an utterly corrupt scientific elite.

It may well be that the public will be forced to protect itself from organized science, as we now protect ourselves from organized crime.”

So there you have it. Remind you of anyone. Hitler? Stalin? Joe McCarthy? Mao Zedong? Pol Pot?

Given their track record we know they aren’t at all concerned about “manipulation of data,” and “peer review.” Or really desirous of “transparency and maximal accommodation of debate.” Just look at the lack of transparency and debate on their web sites and blogs. Look at their distortion of evolutionary science. As an independent reviewer just try to get review copies of books written by their authors.  Look at the nasty film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” they promoted which attacks science and scientists.

No, they are interested in attacking and discrediting science. In fact their manifesto, the Wedge Document actually calls for the replacement of modern science by a “theistic science.”

Several writers have recently commented that the creationist/ID lobby is attempting to join forces with the climate change denial (see  Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets and Creationism and Global Warming Denial: Anti-Science’s Kissing Cousins?“) . But anyone who has followed the creationist/ID attacks on evolutionary science will be aware they have from time to time come out on the side of other denial lobbies, like climate change, stem cell research and HIV/AIDS advice. Not surprising, really, because these denial lobbies have several common characteristics.

The nature of scientific denialism was discussed by Diethem and McKee in a recent paper (Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?). It focused on public health issues,the denial that smoking is a danger to health,  but does describe some useful features common to all forms of scientific denial.

It lists the following 5 characteristics common to most forms of scientific denialism:

1: Conspiracy theories: “When the overwhelming body of scientific opinion believes that something is true, it is argued that this is not because  those scientists have independently studied the evidence and reached the same conclusion. It is because they have engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. The peer review process is seen as a tool by which the conspirators suppress dissent, rather than as a means of weeding out papers and grant applications unsupported by evidence or lacking logical thought.”

2: Fake experts: “These are individuals who purport to be experts in a particular area but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge.” And: “The use of fake experts is often complemented by denigration of established experts and researchers, with accusations and innuendo that seek to discredit their work and cast doubt on their motivations.”

3: Cherry picking: “selectivity, drawing on isolated papers that challenge the dominant consensus or highlighting the flaws in the weakest papers among those that support it as a means of discrediting the entire field.” And: “Denialists are usually not deterred by the extreme isolation of their theories, but rather see it as the indication of their intellectual courage against the dominant orthodoxy and the accompanying political correctness, often comparing themselves to Galileo.”

4: Impossible expectations of what research can deliver: “For example, those denying the reality of climate change point to the absence of accurate temperature records from before the invention of the thermometer. Others use the intrinsic uncertainty of mathematical models to reject them entirely as a means of understanding a phenomenon.”

5: Misrepresentation and logical fallacies: “Logical fallacies include the use of red herrings, or deliberate attempts to change the argument and straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented to make it easier to refute.” And: “Other fallacies used by denialists are false analogy, exemplified by the argument against evolution that, as the universe and a watch are both extremely complex, the universe must have been created by the equivalent of a watchmaker and the excluded middle fallacy (either passive smoking causes a wide range of specified diseases or causes none at all, so doubt about an association with one disease, such as breast cancer, is regarded as sufficient to reject an association with any disease).”

All sounds so familiar!

Thanks to  AQVIVA» Blogarkiv » The 5 characteristics of scientific denialism.

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Open Letter from U.S. Scientists on the IPCC Ken Perrott Mar 19

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Recently an Open Letter was sent by US scientists to federal agencies expressing concern about the current “climategate” hysteria and attitudes towards the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The over 250 signatories included both IPCC and non-IPCC authors and professionals from related disciplines including physical, biological and social scientists (see Open Letter from U.S. Scientists on the IPCC).

The letter is certainly informative. It conveys the signatories’ concerns about the current attacks on climate scientists. But it also gives a useful history and description of the IPCC review process and puts the whole question of recently disclosed report errors into its correct context. It endorses the public right to know the risks involved in climate change and the need for restoring confidence in the review process. The letter proposes specific ideas for improving the review process, providing for more rapid acknowledgment and correction of inevitable errors and correcting misconceptions about IPCC conclusions.

The letter declares:

“It is our intention in offering this open letter to bring the focus back to credible science, rather than invented hyperbole.”

It provides a brief history and outline of the IPCC review process:

“The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the IPCC in 1988 to provide policy makers regularly with balanced assessments of the state of knowledge on climate change.  In so doing, they created an open intergovernmental organization in which scientists, policy analysts, engineers, and resource managers from all over the world were asked to collaborate.  At present, more than 150 countries including the United States participate in the IPCC.  IPCC publishes an assessment report approximately every six years.  The most recent Fourth Assessment, approved by member countries and released in 2007, contained three volumes: The Physical Science Basis (Working Group I); Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Working Group II) and Mitigation of Climate Change (Working Group III) and a Synthesis Report.  More than 44 writing teams and 450 lead authors contributed to the Fourth Assessment — authors who have been selected on the basis of their expertise in consultation with all member countries and who were assisted by another 800 scientists and analysts who served as contributing authors on specific topics.  Authors donated their time gratis, and the entire process was supported by four Technical Support Units (TSUs) that employ 5 to 10 people each.”

And it acknowledges:

It was hard not to notice the extraordinary commotion that erupted around errors that were eventually found in the AR4. ” . . .  “In any case, it is essential to emphasize that none of these interventions alter the key finding from the AR4 that human beings are very likely changing the climate, with far-reaching impacts in the long run.”

“The heated debates that have emerged around these instances have even led some to question the quality and integrity of the IPCC.  Recent events have made it clear that the quality control procedures of the IPCC are not watertight, but claims of widespread and deliberate manipulation of scientific data and fundamental conclusions in the AR4 are not supported by the facts.  We also strongly contest the impression that the main conclusions of the report are based on dubious sources”

It concludes:

“the IPCC procedures are transparent and thorough, even though they are not infallible.  Nonetheless, we are confident that no single scholar or small group of scholars can manipulate the process to include or to exclude a specific line of research; authors of that research can (and are fully encouraged to) participate in the review process.  Moreover, the work of every scientist, regardless of whether it supports or rejects the premise of human-induced climate change, is subject to inclusion in the reports.  The work is included or rejected for consideration based on its scientific merit.”

After proposing procedures to improve the future work of the IPCC the letter concludes:

“The significance of IPCC errors has been greatly exaggerated by many sensationalist accounts, but that is no reason to avoid implementing procedures to make the assessment process even better. The public has a right to know the risks of climate change as scientists currently understand them. We are dedicated to working with our colleagues and government in furthering that task.”

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Are science and religion compatible? Ken Perrott Mar 17

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“Science and Religion” seems to be a popular topic for debate on the internet these days. Even in New Zealand Richard Dawkins‘ recent visit encouraged 14 religious scientists, historians and theologians to produce their own statement on the subject (see ‘Public Statement Concerning Science and Christian Faith’ by New Zealand Religious Scientists).

That particular statement seems to be a “sour grapes” response to the public interest in Dawkins’ visit. It has little substance and resorts to straw mannery in its attacks on “Professor Dawkins’ scientism.”(That word “scientism” is a dead give away, isn’t it?) So far, I don’t think it has elicited any response or interest (except from comments on the RichardDawkins.net site which seems to be the only place reporting it).

Of far more substance were two presentations made at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne last Saturday. Given by AC Grayling and PZ Myers these covered the science – religion issue in very different but complimentary ways – both in substance and style. They are both extremely informative and entertaining speakers – each in their own way.

Science and religion evolved from ignorance

Grayling’s approach was to question the appropriateness even of the phrase “science and religion.” These things are just so different this phrase is misleading. It was a bit like saying “marmalade and bicycle!”

As for compatibility of science and religion the fact remains that religion has often seen itself in competition with science. One has only to think of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and Galileo Galilei, who was imprisoned by the inquisition, over their support for Copernican ideas of the universe.

Today the concept of compatibility is being promoted by religious apologists because of the respect this might confer on them. Humanity widely recognises the success of the scientific method in understanding reality and religion tries to bask in that respect by claiming some sort of relationship with science.

Grayling agreed that religion can get something out of science, beside the reflected glory. For example, science can investigate the phenomenon of religious experience through study of neural correlates in the brain.  But religion cannot offer anything to science. It’s methodology of revelation, claims of  ultimate truth and disrespect for evidence is in sharp contrast to that of science. Science does not claim to have all the answers. It’s methods rely on evidence from reality and testing against that reality. And the ideas of science are always amenable to change as new evidence is acquired.

Science works to satisfy humanity’s requirement for knowledge, while religion can only respond to humanity’s requirement for stories.

I liked Grayling’s reject of a common claim made these days by religious apologists – that science has its origins in religion, specifically Christianity. He compared this to the naive creationist assertion that evolution describes humans as evolving from monkeys.

No, science did not evolve from religion. Far from it. Both religion and science (like humans and monkeys) did evolve though from a common ancestor – ignorance. The evolved separately because they took different directions.

We can imagine how early in human social evolution we developed methods of trial and error as we learned to use agriculture and to navigate. This apporoach put us on a scientific path. On the other hand we also became preoccupied with taboos, spirits and superstition, often expressed in our early animism. From these religion evolved.

Grayling is a quiet but authoritative lecturer. He certainly kept the audience entranced. One Aussie journalist described him as having rock star status.

Religious beliefs independent of science

We all expected Myers to be somewhat scandalous, and certainly forthright. He didn’t disappoint but he also proved to be very entertaining, often having us in fits of laughter. But he had a serious message – and it got through to the very appreciative audience.

Myers demolished the argument that religion is proven to be compatible with science because some well known scientists are also enthusiastic Christians. Of course people can be scientists and Christians (or Buddhists, or Atheists, etc.). That is an obvious fact about our ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time – it says nothing about true compatibility. He presented the example of a multiple murderer in the US who was also a devout Christian. Being a Christian and a multiple murderer at the same time is obviously possible – but that says nothing about cause and effect. It would be silly to draw conclusions about the criminality of Christians from such examples. It’s like saying atheists are immoral because Stalin was an atheist, or Christians are immoral because Hitler was a Catholic. Silly.

PZ discussed at some length the example of Ken Miller, a well known US evolutionary scientist who is also a devout Catholic. He admires Miller’s scientific work and particularly his educational role in the struggle against creationism/intelligent design. This work is invaluable.

However, when Miller attempts to justify his religious beliefs in scientific terms he makes big mistakes. Particularly blatant is the attempt to find a mechanism for his god’s involvement in the world through a mechanism of quantum uncertainty.

Myers made clear that he does not feel hostility to religious people. He did not go along with people who claimed that religion makes people evil – far from it. Many religious people are humane, caring people. However, he does feel that religion makes one “stupid.” It interferes with our ability to understand the real world.

Science is important because the world is often counter-intuitive. It often does not behave the way our brain would like it to. We have to overcome superstition and bias to0 understand the world as it really is. This understanding is important to humanity – how else are we to solve the problems we currently face?

This is obviously an on-going debate. There have been some interesting internet articles on the discussion, particularly on the concept of “accommodationism” and the argument that scientists should not criticise religion. It’s a fascinating debate – but one has to be able to recognise the straw men.

Did I mention I attended the Global Atheist Convention? Best international conference I have even been to. Great speakers. Met some of my science heroes.

Look forward to videos of the presentations on DVD, if not on-line.

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