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Posted at 7:50 PM ET, 01/22/2008

Climate Corner: Myth-tery Science Theater 2008

By Steve Scolnik

One of the major myths of the climate change saga comes in for some major debunking at a session Wednesday of the 20th Conference on Climate Variability and Change, which is meeting in conjunction with the 88th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) this week in New Orleans. It didn't make the top-10 list of a major global warming skeptic, but a favorite theme of climate science fiction, both literary and political, is that the same people who predicted an ice age in the 1970s are now the ones promoting the global warming story. This argument is even favored by some meteorologists.

The cooling myth turns out to be wrong on multiple levels. First of all, even if the premise were true, it would be perfectly consistent with the scientific method:

  • Make an hypothesis: The earth is cooling.
  • Collect and analyze data: It's not.
  • Refine the hypothesis: The earth is warming.
  • Repeat until done.

Stephen H. Schneider, a veteran climate scientist (also the apparent coiner of the term "mediarology"), was interviewed last year on this subject on The Weather Channel's Forecast Earth series. I'm quoting from memory, so this hasn't been subjected to the usual rigorous fact-checking of the Googling monkeys here in the Climate Corner, but the gist of what he said was, "We were wrong. We thought there could be a cooling, but we did some more analysis and found out that was not the case. That's how science works."

The fact is that the cooling notion was promoted mainly by the popular press, most notably a famous article in Newsweek. With all due respect to the hard-working and well-intentioned journalists at the subsidiary of the owner of this space, it's not a scientific journal.

The distorting role of the popular press in this issue is rigorously supported by an analysis of peer-reviewed scientific papers published during the period in question. The authors of the study being presented at the AMS meeting, climatologists from the NOAA National Center for Climatic Data, conclude:

There is an enduring popular myth that in the 1970s the substantial majority of scientific opinion was predicting "global cooling" in the form of an "imminent" ice age. This myth is invoked by global warming skeptics to assert that current work on global warming represents a flip-flop by scientists and must therefore be invalid. While there were some lay articles and books published during this era that inappropriately blurred timescales to give the impression that a new ice age could occur in a matter of a decade or so, global cooling was never a widely accepted climate change paradigm among scientists working in the field. Indeed, our search of the peer-reviewed literature from 1965 to 1979 only turned up two articles projecting cooling while 13 times as many articles projected warming.

For some more analysis of the cooling myth, see the review by the scientists at the RealClimate blog and follow their links for additional reading, including the ice-age chapter from the highly-recommended book, The Discovery of Global Warming.

(A tip of the wind vane to frequent site visitor jtf for providing the link to the conference paper.)

By Steve Scolnik  | January 22, 2008; 7:50 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Media  
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