Ripples of excitement and indignation are spreading across the Internet following the releases of a deliberately provocative TV show and well-timed book. Both chalk up climate change to natural causes such as cosmic rays. Science aside, the ripples show us something about the public’s level of scientific involvement.
The book, by Nigel Calder and Henrik Svensmark, suggests that cosmic rays – not carbon dioxide – are responsible for changes in the Earth’s temperature. The argument is that cosmic rays bombard the atmosphere with high-energy particles that induce cloud formation. Clouds reflect sunlight, so when the Earth gets more cosmic rays it’s likely to cool. Regardless of how big a carbon-dioxide blanket we may have thrown up into the atmosphere.
The folks at RealClimate do a pretty thorough job of countering this argument (briefly: no trend in cosmic-ray arrival over the last half-century; plenty of other causes of cloud formation; and the relationship holds only if you factor out upper- and middle-atmosphere clouds and concentrate on low clouds).
Still, read the comments on a BBC news blog for a glimpse of how the public feels. Comments are fairly equally divided between people who believe the IPCC and people who are still in denial. Many post long, impassioned treatises.
A few points recur:
1. as consensus about climate change grows, skeptics take increasing pride in their position
2. arguments in favor of doing something about climate change are often emotional calls to restore dignity to the Earth – making them suspect in the eyes of skeptics, who see themselves as pragmatic and canny
3. all opponents are characterized as cherry-picking their examples
4. people seem to believe there is some simple way to present the evidence, and they don’t understand why it hasn’t been made available
5. people don’t believe they misunderstand the science; they believe the media has misrepresented it
It’s science’s very democratic nature that’s at fault here. The public does at least understand that science is an ongoing argument and that the truth can be arrived at by level-headed inspection of the evidence. The problem seems to be that people don’t expect the evidence to be so complicated.
When a pattern is presented simply – like the hockey stick graph – some people get the nagging sense it has been manipulated to look that way. Explanations for why data manipulations are justifiable lead back to the complaint that it shouldn’t be so complicated and that the real, simple answer is being concealed. Even worse – bogus manipulations can be camouflaged in similar justifications, leaving the rest of us at a loss for whom to believe (skim the RealClimate article for a typically bewildering example).
I suppose we can take some comfort that the public is so clearly interested in this sort of science. But I’m disturbed by the way science-journalism-for-profit finds itself at odds with their readers’ best interests. A Danish professor bubbling with enthusiasm for cosmic rays is a quaint news story. It’s not right to present it as a nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change, just to increase circulation. Nigel Calder, as a past editor of New Scientist, ought to know better.
Sadly, capitalism seems to have won out already: Amazon suggests five similar titles that, for between $11 and $33 (eligible for free shipping) will reassure you that global warming isn’t your fault, and it’s everybody else who’s crazy.