Straight Talk on Earth-Watching from IPCC Pioneer Jerry Mahlman

As an energy writer I am often frustrated that the low hanging fruit of energy innovations — such as carbon capture and storage — are not being seized, or at least not at the pace that the science suggests is needed to avert major climate impacts in my lifetime. Despite the seeming flood of climate science being reported by the media these days, climate scientists feel a similar frustration that they are not being given the tools they need to really flesh out the climate picture and nail down the myriad uncertainties in climate models. I ran smack into this frustration interviewing Jerry Mahlman, a senior climatologist who created one of the first global climate models and helped to bring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to life.

In my Q&A with Mahlman, which ran today on Earthzine, he decried the sorry state of the Earth observing systems needed to track climate change. As Mahlman, a climate modeler, puts it, “The world must think that we climate modelers are essentially infallible simply because nobody seems to be interested in checking us out by looking at an appropriate and proper dataset. We don’t think of ourselves as infallible but what we’re getting is NASA and NOAA providing pretty seriously inept observational systems.”

The National Academy of Sciences agrees with Mahlman. The scientific body, usually circumspect in its advice to Congress, issued a report last year warning that the U.S. Earth observation satellite programs are “in disarray.”

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4 thoughts on “Straight Talk on Earth-Watching from IPCC Pioneer Jerry Mahlman

  1. Greetings, Peter

    Mahlman: Journalists are realizing that climate scientists don’t have political agendas. We’re militantly careful not to let our ideologies get in the way. The reporters see this and their respect for us has really jumped up. I get more and more calls from writers and reporters that are digging for the facts and trying to get the science straight so they can communicate it on to other people, which I assume is your job at the moment, right?

    I wonder what your response to this would be, Peter. It seems to me it’s very important that we maintain spheres of disinterested judgment in scientific, academic, judicial (but not, say, journalistic) domains.

    However, these spheres are best protected by recognizing their proper limits. It seems to me that a fair general observation on society today is that too many people in too much of their activity want to claim the status of neutrality, which I think corrupts our appreciation of what disinterestedness is or can be. Once we get, for example, obviously and nobly (it’s generally a good thing) political animals, like journalists, professing to be engaged in disinterested judgment, they end up creating a cynicism in the world (when people see how journalists aren’t “fair and balanced”, or that the very idea of “fair and balanced” is itself inherently political, the ideology of a certain class…) that then laughs at any and all claims of disinterested analysis thus eroding what is essential to a free society.

    Now of course it is the very idea of science that it should pursue truths that can be shown to be true regardless of politics. However, we know that the funding and organization of science is anything but apolitical. To say that climate scientists don’t have political agendas seems to me a serious stretching of the truth. Isn’t it better to admit one’s inevitably political side in order to better protect those domains where we really need disinterested judgment, a code of fair play? What will be the reputation of “science” if what these highly publicized and politicized climate modelers profess to be settled turns out not?

  2. Good points John. I have never been a fan of the idea of ‘objectivity’ as a ideal for journalism, because to some people it suggests an attempt to remove the passion from our profession. I believe in journalism’s role as a watchdog, and watchdogs must sometimes bark and bite. I also dislike notions of neutrality and balance, which suggest that the journalist must somehow accept all points of view as equally valid — regardless of their merits. This is, at the very least, unrealistic. Especially in a world with as many voices as ours.

    What I prefer is the ideal of independence — disinterested in the best sense of the word — and the notion that we should attempt to pursue the truth with a methodology that is as objective as possible. To borrow from the statement of principles developed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which I use in teaching journalism, “The method is objective, not the journalist.”

    My guess is that Mahlman believes in an analogous ideal: That he and his fellow climate scientists are pursuing truth through observation of evidence and experimentation and are calling it like they see it when it comes to climate change.

    For the record, I answered his question in the affirmative. I could have elaborated, because getting the science straight and communicating that to my readers is only part of my job. The primary job that I set for myself when I began freelancing 8 years ago (and continue to pursue through Carbon Nation) is to help people understand climate solutions and thus to contribute to more informed choices. Alas, Earthzine did not hire me to have a philosophical discussion among equals with Dr. Mahlman, but rather to draw out his ideas in a Q&A format.

  3. Thanks for the response, Peter; it has helped me get into a useful reflection on disinterestedness as an anthropological phenomenon, something that as you say one can’t get into when you’re interviewing a guy. This is the beauty of blogs: all the discussion that’s by any standard fit to print. Keeps us off the streets and out of trouble. I don’t know if what follows will be of interest to this blog, but feel free to ignore or delete.

    I like “The method is objective, not the journalist.” though I’d quibble a little with the wording, since I wouldn’t highlight the value of any particular method. The more strict or formalized one’s method, the more it falls apart as the marketplace absorbs its logics and learns to play with it, manipulate or discount it. I’d highlight the value of transparency and accountablility as the counterpart to the passionate journalist. We’ve all seen, for example, how the idealized methods for appearing “balanced” are readily manipulated today.

    What I want is a journalist who doesn’t hide behind myths of objectivity but shows us what kind of necessary leaps of faith – choice of signs, political preferences – he’s making. All I ask is that he be transparent and accountable, i.e. that he become something of an icon for others to follow, or exchange, or not as they see fit. I’d much rather see a return to an openly partisan press – and maybe this is what the internet is giving us – where we value journalists for their fair-mindedness and openness in face of politicized realities, than the present ideal of “fair and balanced” which, when institutionalized, has become a way of mutually-accrediting “liberal” elites to determine who is mainstream, i.e. reasonably left or right, and who or what is beyond the pale, and thus to hide their selectivity and politics as normative.

    And that’s a restraint on innovation, on competition and entrepreneurialism in ideas. To be partisan, in the best sense, is to take an intelligent gamble on the future we can build together, if we share some faith. And to sell people accordingly, in this day and age, generally takes real work and intelligence, not simple propaganda or a myth about being fair to everyone. The mob, as they say, is smarter.

    But to return to the climate modellers: while I know nothing about the guy you interviewed, and while I know the models rely on certain data that are not in much dispute on certain levels of understanding, the larger questions, and proposed solutions, that they deal with are to do with complex systems and (chaos) theories that are by their very nature open-ended. We can really only ever offer hypotheses about what the system will be like in, say, 20 years.

    And what’s wrong to admitting you are in the business of offering mere hypotheses but nonetheless encouraging action based on them, on reasonable arguments for mitigating risks we can’t yet be sure we are taking? Well, it seems to me that the problem is that it entails admitting you’re inevitably somewhat political, instead of hiding behind a traditional myth of scientific objectivity.

    Yet I’d argue we can only really be disinterested in respect to certain stages of the scientific process, especially when we are modelling the future of highly complex systems we are a long way from fully understanding. To respect the practise of science as the event-driven process it is, we have to admit where leaps of faith come into play at stages in the event. I don’t think scientists need fear losing credibility if they admit as much.

    Yet the fear is there. In the popular culture we have all kinds of simple minds writing best sellers pitting “reason” against “faith” and not appreciating how the two need to go together, finding their respective places in the stages of our unfolding events, events being the anthropological basis of human society and its renewal in history. “Disinterestedness” is not some abstract metaphysical reality, universally applicable, but a state of mind or judgment or legal/scientific process that is proper to certain spheres or moments of society that have a particular and important role in mediating certain stages in the events of human discovery.

    To argue that the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis becomes the foundation belief for something akin to a “religion”, as the anthropological thinker is wont to claim, as he observes the human scene in its recurring humanity, should not be taken as diminishing science or reason, since organizing around some sign of the sacred is something all humans, whether traditionally religious or secular, must always and forever do. It’s what makes us human, not animal. Furthermore, all religions have, in varying degrees, reason and truth about them, just not the final answer. What’s more, what’s appealing about today’s religion of global warming is that it is genuinely guaranteed by scientific bona fides and this is what makes it truly global or universal, open to everyone.

    What’s more it is the religious need or desire to believe that provides the means for all kind of pragmatic activities, co-operation, and discoveries. When you, Peter, talk about your interest in “climate solutions”, my ears perk up. This is the productive potential of the scientific hypothesis, whether the latter turns out true or not. But, I wonder, are humans today really in need of believing that “the science is settled” in order to take action, or could they put their faith in a more subtle understanding of the human need to pursue creative solutions on faith, when we know that we can’t know where everything is heading or will end up?

    I’d bet that at this point in time that if climate modellers were more open about the hypothetical side of their activities, which is inevitably and I think quite rightly tied to all kinds of political agendas, they would strengthen and make more respectable their commitment to acting on good faith in a coming climate crisis. And the reason I think this is because I assume that a greater understanding of the open-ended anthropology underlying all human acitivities, including science, will enhance human productivity. In other words, complementing the scientific church of global warming with an emphasis on the sacredness of the accountable and transparent individual thinker/reporter, empowers both forms of “religiosity” and makes the system as a whole work.

    In any case, following some hypothesis about the future with religious zeal is sooner or later necessary for a humanity that periodically needs to renew itself or culture; a leap of faith can have many positive consequences for humanity, even if the hypothesis justifying it turns out to be wrong.

    In other words, we need to have faith in our sacred humanity, and not blindly accept the “fair and balanced” (hidden) religion that all (other) religions, or religion in general, are dangerous. Religiousness is part of our humanity because it has always been necessary to keep us post-ape creatures from ripping ourselves apart. We gave up what was, for our forebears, an eroding animal pecking order, when we discovered, in an event of human creation, that a new kind of social organization around a sacred sign and centre became our only way out of conflict.


  4. John wrote:

    I’d much rather see a return to an openly partisan press – and maybe this is what the internet is giving us – where we value journalists for their fair-mindedness and openness in face of politicized realities, than the present ideal of “fair and balanced” which, when institutionalized, has become a way of mutually-accrediting “liberal” elites to determine who is mainstream, i.e. reasonably left or right, and who or what is beyond the pale, and thus to hide their selectivity and politics as normative.

    What can I say? You move me!

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