THE VINE JANUARY 7, 2010
Charles Homans has a great piece in the Columbia Journalism Review this month asking why so many TV weathermen—a wildly disproportionate number of them, in fact—refuse to believe in man-made climate change. One possibility is that many of them mistakenly think that climate science is just like predicting the weather, and if the latter's such a crapshoot, the former must be, too:
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.
This is the one explanation that everyone who has mulled the question seems to agree on—and indeed, when I spoke with meteorologists who were skeptical of or uncertain about the scientific consensus, it was the one thing they all brought up. “Meteorologists know our models,” Brian Neudorff, a meteorologist at WROC in Rochester, New York, told me. “There’s a lot of error and bias. We’ll use five different models and come back with five different things. So when we hear that climatological models are saying this, how accurate are they?”
On the other hand, models are hardly the sole reason to think that putting more carbon in the air will warm the planet. You can just look at the array of evidence (from ice cores, from coral, etc.) that rising carbon concentrations have caused big temperature shifts in the past. You can note that no other factor—not the sun, not volcanoes, not cosmic rays—can explain the warming we've seen over the past century. So why are meteorologists, of all people, disproportionately likely to ignore all this? Here's a guess:
The AMS had succeeded in making many weathercasters into responsible authorities in their own wheelhouse, but somewhere along the way that narrow professional authority had been misconstrued as a sort of all-purpose scientific legitimacy. It had bolstered meteorologists’ sense of their expertise outside of their own discipline, without necessarily improving the expertise itself. Most scientists are loath to speak to subjects outside of their own field, and with good reason—you wouldn’t expect a dentist to know much about, say, the geological strata of the Grand Canyon. But meteorologists, 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.
This is a good thing if you see yourself as a science communicator, someone who sifts the good information from the bad—but it becomes a problem when you start to see scientific authority springing from your own haphazardly informed intuition, as many of the skeptic weathercasters do. Among the certified meteorologists Wilson surveyed in 2008, 79 percent considered it appropriate to educate their communities about climate change. Few of them, however, had taken the steps necessary to fully educate themselves about it. When asked which source of information on climate change they most trusted, 22 percent named the AMS. But the next most popular answer, with 16 percent, was “no one.” The third was “myself.”
That seems a little uncharitable to me, but I don't really have a better answer. Anyway, the whole article's worth reading—it's an interesting look at an odd scientific subculture.