BEMIDJI, Minn. (Dec. 14, 2009) —As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss climate change, Dr. David Bahr, associate professor of physics at Bemidji State University, and other members of the American Physical Society are trying to convince that organization’s leaders to adopt a more objective approach to interpreting global climate change research.
Bahr joined 160 scientists, including one Nobelist and 12 members of the National Academies, in signing a petition earlier this year that led the APS to reconsider the wording of its 2007 Statement on Climate Change. Bahr objects to the wording of the APS statement, in part because it describes the link between human activity and global climate change as “incontrovertible,” which suggests that the science is beyond debate.
“I don’t think too many scientists would disagree that global climate change is a hypothesis that has a high confidence level, as high as 90 percent or better,” says Bahr, an ardent supporter of efforts to curb human activities that may affect global climate change. “But it’s not conclusive and it’s not absolute. There’s some uncertainty involved in it.”
Even so, Bahr applauds the efforts of Bemidji State and other institutions seeking ways to become more environmentally sustainable.
“We simply have to do what we can to make sure that global climate change isn’t being exacerbated by our activities,” says Bahr, who noted that rapid, dramatic changes to the climate could adversely impact the world’s future.
The American Physical Society is one of several major scientific communities that have published official statements on climate change to help guide public debate. The APS statement is currently before a committee for review after the society’s leaders rejected a proposal to completely re-write the statement.
“This issue involves something other than global climate change, although global climate change is kind of the trigger,” says Bahr, who has been an APS member since 1994. “It’s about the prostituting of science.”
Bahr and other APS members argue that the best science allows room for disagreement and creates opportunities to explore divergent ideas. The Earth, he notes, is a complex system and many factors come into play in how its atmosphere evolves and what might cause cataclysmic changes.
What bothers Bahr and some other APS members is that the society’s leaders adopted the climate change statement without broad-based input from its members. The society also based its conclusions on just two major scientific sources, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is now believed to have relied on allegedly corrupt research results from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Researchers at that university have recently came under scrutiny after hackers disseminated e-mails suggesting that global warming trends may have been exaggerated.
“It calls the entire question of global climate change back into question,” says Bahr. “That’s unfortunate.”
Bahr says that the politicization of science is becoming more pervasive in the scientific community, not just at it relates to global warming. When science takes an intolerant position on an issue and forbids dissenting opinions, Bahr says science becomes dogma or, worse yet, a religion. The result is that the scientific community loses its credibility with the public.
Bahr and other APS members are also critical of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society. The association sent a letter to the U.S. Senate in October reasserting that “greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver” of climate change. Bahr and some other APS members allege that the AAAS sent the letter pretending to represent the broad-based opinion of its members and members of its sister societies. Bahr says the AAAS has shown little tolerance for dissident views while wielding significant power in influencing public opinion.
“It hasn’t been established that human activity conclusively is causing what we’re seeing happen with the Earth’s climate,” says Bahr, who hopes the controversy does not dampen enthusiasm to protect the environment.
Bahr notes that the risks for future generations are too great not to err on the side of caution in taking preventative measures. He’s concerned, however, that the APS and others are making claims in ways that may damage the credibility of scientists as objective and reliably authoritative sources of factual information.
“We have more impact as scientists as long as we present science impassively and objectively,” says Bahr. “Our role is to do the science and present our results. And although scientists should be socially and politically engaged, perhaps, political activism should not be mistaken for science.”