Off the Cuff: Patrick Michaels and Judith Curry, climatologists, acclaimed authors and experts on climate change


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Patrick Michael participated in a climatology debate in Finney Chapel this past Wednesday.

Laura Paddock

Patrick J. Michaels is the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, a contributing writer and reviewer of the United Nations Association of State Climatologists and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Judith Curry is a professor and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and currently serves as president and co-owner of Climate Forecast Applications Network LLC. The two sat down with the Review to discuss scientific skeptics, political discourse and the state of science change.

Would you agree with the idea that global warming is a scientific conspiracy? Why or why not?

Patrick Michaels: Hell no.

Judith Curry: It’s an ill-posed question for a scientist. The temperatures are warming; nobody disputes that. People question to what extent humans are causing it.

PM: I think people on the right often see conspiracies where there’s just normal human behavior. Science is not a straightforward proposition. Scientists are subject to all kinds of pressures, and I’ll probably talk about some of those tonight, but it doesn’t proceed in an orderly, linear fashion. … scientists tend to believe, as communities, in certain overarching structures.

American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn actually coined the modern use of the word paradigm and the term paradigm shift, and scientists tend to hold onto ideas for a long time until the weight of evidence against a given paradigm becomes overwhelming; but first, as Kuhn wrote, the evidence is often ignored. And that’s not a conspiracy, that’s just normal human behavior. [Turns to Judith.] Do you agree with that?

JC: There’s no conspiracy involved. People disagree. It’s a complex problem. People disagree.

PM: It doesn’t mean that scientists don’t behave badly and collude. We saw that in the Climategate emails; there is no doubt about that. I knew that was going on at the time. We can debate the morality of whoever it was who released them. They didn’t surprise me. Did they surprise you?

JC: Not really. I mean, [I] knew all that was going on.

Dr. Curry, scientists are taught to be skeptics, not blind followers; however, you have been accused of being a “climate heretic” for engaging with the climate change skeptic community. How do you respond to these kinds of accusations, and in what ways would you consider yourself a climate change skeptic, if at all?

JC: OK, I’m a scientist, OK? And one of the norms of science is to be skeptical, to challenge everything, so I’m behaving like a scientist, but when you start labeling people as a skeptic, a denier, whatever, you’re making a political statement, you’re not making a scientific statement. All of those labels, they’re political. They don’t mean anything to me. I’m a scientist and I am doing my job, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t challenge the existing assumptions and try to find holes in them and try to come up with alternative explanations. I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise.

Dr. Michaels, you have given numerous talks at various conservative think tank events. What do you think of the role your scientific opinion plays in the political discourse?

PM: [Scoffs.] I wish I thought it played a great deal. We live in a society where our elected officials and our appointed officials like to say that their regulations are based on uses and italics and quotes and bold science. Well, oftentimes they’re based on rhetoric in response to certain scientific findings, or they may be based upon scientific compilations that — for reasons that have nothing to do with conspiracy and everything to do with the fact that scientists are people working in environments like universities — may have some systematic problems.

People like to claim that they’re sciencebased, but most of the people who made those claims wouldn’t know what science was if it hit them on the side of the head. Secondly, the understanding of the nature of science and its diversity does not really enter into the fore in Washington. It’s who wants to do what, OK?

JC: They pick their experts and they pick their evidence to support what they want to do. And their opposition picks their experts and their sets of evidence and then they argue and then either you get gridlock, or someone gets the majority and wins. … They’re mostly interested in pontificating and not listening to what you have to say. They might want to try and catch you, but they’re not really trying to listen to what you have to say.

PM: Let’s try this. If they actually cared, they wouldn’t be walking in and out, checking their Blackberries, blah, blah, blah, while you’re making an expository statement trying to explain your view on science. No, they’re getting texts from their staff: “Ask him ‘A.’ Ask her ‘B.’ Ha ha ha. That’ll get ‘em!”

JC: The interface is broken between climate science and policy. Governments, both nationally and internationally, have forced science to focus only on dangerous human, anthropogenic climate change. Not really to understand how the system works, but only to look at how humans cause climate change.

As a result, we don’t really understand the rest of the climate system and how much is natural variability versus human cause. That’s really been based on U.N. policies, government policies, and where the funding goes. As a result, there’s a whole lot of things we don’t understand about the climate.

But scientists have done their part, because they’re only looking at one thing, and they become highly confident about that one thing when they’re not looking at the big picture. … You’ve got this interplay between science and the policymakers and it’s very unhealthy. So it’s led us to policies that don’t make sense and that lead us to being between a rock and hard place.

PM: Have you ever heard the statement “If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail?” Well, thing is, right now the hammer is carbon dioxide. Go back, maybe fifteen, twenty years, and the hammer might have been acid rain. And it’s kind of funny, if you want to know what the hammer du jour is, and the hammer du jour is always used for political purposes. Try and look on a decadal scale at what the vogue was that killed the dinosaurs. For example, right now, climate change killed the dinosaurs. If you go back, I remember, in the late 1980s, ozone depletion killed the dinosaurs. Before that, it might have been acid precipitation. Those are hammers looking for nails.