Meteorologists on climate

2010-06-16

in Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Charles Homans has a piece on why so many television meteorologists are climate change deniers. He cites the particular case of John Coleman, whose opposition to mainstream climate science was motivated more by personal animosity than by any doubts about their empirical methods:

Coleman wasn’t arguing against the integrity of a particular conclusion based on careful original research — something that would have constituted useful scientific skepticism. Instead, he went after the motives of the scientists themselves. Climate researchers, he wrote, “look askance at the rest of us, certain of their superiority. They respect government and disrespect business, particularly big business. They are environmentalists above all else.”

Coleman’s 2007 essay was picked up by right-wing news sites, with his experience as a weatherman used as a justification for taking his position seriously.

The issue of meteorologists making decrees on climate goes back to the basic question of what constitutes expertise and whose views – if anyone’s – we should pay special attention to when making up our minds. Apparently, the majority of professional meteorologists in the United States reject the mainstream science of climate change:

Twenty-nine percent of the 121 meteorologists who replied agreed with Coleman—not that global warming was unproven, or unlikely, but that it was a scam. Just 24 percent of them believed that humans were responsible for most of the change in climate over the past half century—half were sure this wasn’t true, and another quarter were “neutral” on the issue.

Despite how climate science and meteorology are very different fields, the Yale Project on Climate Change found that 66% of Americans listed television meteorologists as a credible source of information on climate change. It’s not surprising – though it is certainly regrettable – that this helps keep the general public confused about the issue.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 16, 2010 at 6:55 pm

“Meteorology has a deceptively close relationship with climatology: both disciplines study the same general subject, the behavior of the atmosphere, but they ask very different questions about it. Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.”

Tristan June 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm

I find this terribly interesting. On the one hand, I feel motivated to find some business interest behind all this skepticism. And that surely plays some role – but I think the workplace situation of meteorologists is key:

“…[M]eteorologists, by virtue of typically being the only people with any science background at their stations, are under the opposite pressure—to be conversant in anything and everything scientific. ”

It appears to me that what’s going on is a bit of a power play – their scientific training in meteorology makes them good at articulating skeptical questions about predictability, and disagreeing (if you can do so effectively) always makes you look smarter than agreeing.

I think the business interest side comes in at this point – if it was in the short term interest of capitalism to mitigate against climate change, then meteorologists who are climate skeptics would have their views pushed aside – stations would hire or regularly consult other scientists or science analysts to stress the importance of mitigating climate change, and economists like Krugman would be on constantly talking about how climate change legislation will be good for the economy.

I think we make a mistake when we say “the problem is that X holds a view” which is contrary to the scientific consensus on climate change. Most people don’t do a lot of research – they generally believe what is told them. I mean, how many people the United States believe the earth is 5000 years old? You can blame them as individuals, but it’s far more useful to look at the institutions that produce this ignorance – and the reasons why those institutions flourish.

I suppose this means I now agree with Milan when he says that we need better scientific teaching in high schools. Unfortunately, I doubt this can be achieved independently of a more systematic re-orientation of institutions and power. The interesting thing is we have pretty good models – I think Canada is better than the United States, and Europe tends to be better than Canada.

I think the same kinds of deception and institutionalized ignorance produced in the public on the topic of climate change are produced on geo-strategic interests more broadly. For instance, look at the middle east – it is perfectly possible to be critical of Israel in Europe, in the mainstream press it is somewhat possible in Canada, and it is nearly perfectly impossible in the United States. This analogy is not perfect – it is certainly possible to find good climate science in the mainstream press – but the difference in proportion of good science is what matters.

Klem June 17, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Wow there seems to be a lot of bewilderment and lots of very thoughtful reasoning why meteorologists and climatologists do not agree. No one seems to want to include the possibility that perhaps the meteorologist might be correct… No can’t go there, goes against the religion. Nope. Can’t hear you La La La La.

Milan June 17, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Klem,

Please have a look at my climate science summary and page for waverers.

Tristan June 17, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Klem,

“No one seems to want to include the possibility that perhaps the meteorologist might be correct”

Yes, my religion includes privileging the views of scientists who study something over those who don’t study it. If your religion that doesn’t include this, it’s a bad religion.

. July 2, 2010 at 4:50 pm

In today’s weather forecast, we’ll be seeing high-pressure areas of climate skepticism

by Ashley Braun
1 Jul 2010 3:53 PM

Sure, Americans may trust scientists slightly more than weathercasters, but few people actually know a scientist. On the other hand, pretty much everyone knows their trusty TV weathercaster, that cheery presence who tells them whether or not to leave the umbrella at home this weekend.

It’s too bad, then, that three-quarters of all weatherfolk don’t buy human-caused climate change, because they are the most visible, perceived “experts” on the issue. This despite the fact that barely half of all weathercasters can boast even an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science. As Randy Rieland notes, this confusion between weatherperson and climate expert is not a trend we’re hot to see continue.

So who are some of these active meteorologists forecasting that climate change is as unlikely as a Texas snowstorm on the Fourth of July?

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