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Climate Science as a Game of Telephone

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Joe Carter
First Things
Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Remember this game you played as a kid: The first player whispers a sentence to the next player and each player successively whispers what that player believes they heard to the next. The last player announces the statement to the entire group, which invariably has changed in a quite amusing ways from the original. When kids play this game its called “Telephone”; when climate scientist play this game its called “peer-reviewed research.”

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was “speculation” and was not supported by any formal research. If confirmed it would be one of the most serious failures yet seen in climate research. The IPCC was set up precisely to ensure that world leaders had the best possible scientific advice on climate change.

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Professor Murari Lal, who oversaw the chapter on glaciers in the IPCC report, said he would recommend that the claim about glaciers be dropped: “If Hasnain says officially that he never asserted this, or that it is a wrong presumption, than I will recommend that the assertion about Himalayan glaciers be removed from future IPCC assessments.”

The IPCC’s reliance on Hasnain’s 1999 interview has been highlighted by Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist. Pearce said he rang Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine. Pearce said: “Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.

“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers. not the whole massif.”

[ . . .]

Some scientists have questioned how the IPCC could have allowed such a mistake into print. Perhaps the most likely reason was lack of expertise. Lal himself admits he knows little about glaciers. “I am not an expert on glaciers.and I have not visited the region so I have to rely on credible published research. The comments in the WWF report were made by a respected Indian scientist and it was reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about,” he said.

Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, has previously dismissed criticism of the Himalayas claim as “voodoo science”.

Read the whole thing, for the entire article is stunning. The fact that this type of mistake could be made in the first place is disconcerting. But for the IPCC chairman—who obviously knew nothing about the veracity of the claim about the Himalayan glacier—to say that any criticism is “voodoo science” is a level of hubris that can only come from a bureaucrat. If the IPCC can’t even be trusted on the simple issues how are we to trust them when they make claims about complex, controversial matters?

This article was posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 4:32 am





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