Politics & Policy

A Lesson from a Hurricane

Hurricane Irene ought to, but won’t, shed light on our prejudices about science.

The favored liberal Democratic narrative — we’ve seen it trotted out against Rick Perry in the past two weeks — goes like this: Democrats are the party of the Enlightenment. They believe in science and facts. They know that Darwin was correct about the origin of species, and that human beings are responsible for potentially catastrophic global warming through production of carbon dioxide. Republicans, on the other hand, are the pre-modern party of superstition, religious explanations for natural phenomena, and global-warming denial.

Governor Perry played to type when he told a young questioner that “evolution” was “a theory that’s out there,” but “it’s got some gaps in it.” That’s why, he said, “in Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.” Well, he’s right that the theory has some gaps in it, but it remains the best explanation yet propounded to explain biological changes. He’s wrong, embarrassingly enough, about Texas. They don’t teach creationism in the public schools.

#ad#But Perry’s critics, who’ve been eager to lump his skepticism about man-made global warming into the same category as his openness to creationism, look equally foolish. Again and again, those who believe in anthropogenic global warming declare that “the science is settled.” But science is never settled. At the heart of the scientific method is openness to data and testing. And while creationism cannot be said to be an alternative scientific theory to evolution (because it cannot be tested), there are countless competing theories for observed changes in global temperatures over the past century. And there are many reputable scientists who dispute that carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are wholly responsible for those changes.

There are even more scientists who agree that carbon dioxide is warming the planet but firmly oppose the hysteria and catastrophism of Al Gore and his acolytes, who demand dramatic (and hopelessly unrealistic) changes in our way of life to counter it.

Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at MIT, observed in 2009 that “the globally averaged temperature anomaly (GATA) is always changing. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes down, and occasionally — such as for the last dozen years or so — it does little that can be discerned. Claims that climate change is accelerating are bizarre.” Professor Lindzen was referring to the inconvenient fact that there has been no increase in global temperature since 1998. This is utterly inconsistent with the computer models that predicted steady and relentless warming if we did not radically reduce carbon emissions. The famous “hockey stick” graph offered by University of Massachusetts professor Michael Mann, which became the emblem of global-warming panic, has been shown to be a fraud (see Technology Review, Oct. 15, 2004).

Speaking of computer models, consider the recent attempt to predict Hurricane Irene’s path and strength. The New York Times’s Henry Fountain analyzed the meteorologists’ failure to predict the storm’s strength. “Forecasters had expected that a spinning band of clouds near its center, called the inner eyewall, would collapse and be replaced by an outer band that would then slowly contract. Such ‘eyewall replacement cycles’ have been known to cause hurricanes to strengthen. While its eyewall did collapse, Irene never completed the cycle.” A hurricane expert consulted by Fountain noted that the Hurricane Center had done well in predicting the path of the storm. “But it was not surprising that the strength forecasts were off — the accuracy of such forecasts has hardly improved over the past several decades.”

This is not to mock or castigate meteorologists. There are so many factors that influence storms — wind shear, ocean temperatures, fluid dynamics, drier air masses that drift into a storm’s path, and other things. It’s difficult to predict a storm’s intensity. It’s hard to predict next week’s weather.

It’s even harder to predict the overall direction of global climate. In addition to the factors named above, global climate is affected by solar radiation cycles, La Niña and El Niño, the Pacific Decadal and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillations, the amount of algae in the seas, and seismic activity, among other things. Yes, most climate scientists believe that anthropogenic global warming is happening, but the rate, the degree, and the effects are all still very much in dispute.

The pro-science posture then, is to recognize the limitations of what we can currently predict, and to remain open to evidence. Shrieking your insistence that the “science is settled” only demonstrates an unscientific and dogmatic orthodoxy.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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