Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Data on Ice

A recent book review in American Scientist is interesting for what it reveals about the global climate change crowd. It covers the autobiographical account of Paul Mayweski, a scientist widely regarded for his work in climate change, concerning his work in analyzing core samples of ice from Greenland.

Mayewski begins his story with his training, which is when he became conscious of the political importance of his work(!) By his own account Mayewski sat in a weather station in Antartica as a graduate student and dreamed about how the work that he was doing would have tremendous social relevance. From the beginning his aim was not just to become a good scientist, recognised by peers within his own field. He was "driven by the hope" that he could make what he was doing "have a practical value for all humanity". That a student in an obscure science in the middle of Antartica was thinking in those terms speaks volumes about Mayewski. Indeed, his book is in large part a manifesto for making science socially important.

Consider the reality of the scientific work that Mayewski is now doing: He examines ice core samples from ice sheets over Greenland and other places. Since the ice was deposited over thousands of years the impurities within the ice can provide information about the atmosphere in the past. This data can be added to what else is known about past climate changes and could serve to help develop a comprehensive theory or model of climate change that would have real value as a means of predicting future climate.

While Mayweski has had great success in collecting data and detailing the history of past climates, the data has not been enough to allow for the discovery of the desired weather model. A more modest scientist would be content to conclude that the task of providing answers that drive national policies and the like is beyond his grasp, but this modest course is not for Mayweski.

Instead, he attempts to make his data relevant to his political needs. Mayweski strains to make the case for why his work in ancient climate change has lessons for society today. He speculates at length about how climate changes he charts in the ice core samples would have affected ancient civilizations. Then he tries to make the case that the same is in store for us. In doing this Mayewski stretches his science far too thin.

Mayweksi is really not able to say what caused the climate changes he observes in the ice nor is he able to say what, if anything, man has to do with the current climate, Nevertheless, he goes on to say that if climate change did occur in the modern age, well, it would be really bad, which adds an alarmist flavor to his writing. He spurs us on to do something but is unable to tell us what is likely to help with any certainty. The implication is that we should be following the agenda set by the global warming crowd, but he fails to provide us with the science that upholds that agenda.

The reviewer, Martin Seigert, another climate change person, tipped his hand in the first paragraph of his review.

The science of climate change is a funny business. Some people (Paul Mayewski, for example) prove it happens, show the impact it has had in the past, and use this information to judge the future. Nonetheless, others (President George W. Bush, for example) remain reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of what global climate change has meant for society in the past and will mean in the future. There is clearly an information transfer problem.

The reviewer makes it political right off the bat by taking a gratuituous swipe at the President. Bush has never denied the climate change has occurred in the past, nor has he denied that it will occur in the future. What he has done is ask whether or not climate change over the past 100 years is really due to human activity. He has questioned the accuracy of predictions made about climate change in the immediate future, and he has asked if changes in human activity will really have any effect on future climate. Neither Mayweski nor anyone else has been able to answer these questions, but that does not stop him from using tales of climate change disaster to stir up the political pot.

The reviewer makes the unintentionally comical observation that Mayewski's book "does not appear to be pushing any preconceived agenda." This after having praised Mayewski's openly political and social aspirations. He fails to see that political passion kills the dispassionate stance that good scientists must take.