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Ocean study criticism shows benefits of scientific method

Errors in a recent ocean warming study illustrate global warming's complexity. They also show the depths to which climate science deniers will stoop to dismiss or downplay evidence for human-caused climate change.

The study by researchers from the U.S., China, France, and Germany concluded, "ocean warming is at the high end of previous estimates" and global warming might be advancing faster than scientists thought. British researcher Nic Lewis, who has a math and physics background, found discrepancies, which he noted on a skeptic's blog. The scientists acknowledged the errors and offered a correction to the study, published in Nature.

The controversy illustrates how the scientific method works. Studies are often amended or overturned as new information becomes available or as inconsistencies or errors are pointed out.

Study co-author Ralph Keeling, a geosciences professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, noted, "The overall conclusion that oceans are trapping more and more heat mirrors other studies and is not inaccurate, but the margin of error in the study is larger than originally thought."

Some climate science deniers have seized on the error to imply it discredits the mountains of evidence for human-caused climate change amassed by scientists from around the world for close to 200 years -- evidence accepted by every legitimate scientific academy and institution and every government except the current U.S. administration.

Those who understand science haven't taken such a hard line. Even Lewis, who's skeptical about climate models and warming rate predictions, said the study's methodology is "novel, and certainly worthy of publication" and that the errors were "serious (but surely inadvertent)." He criticized Nature for not scrutinizing the study better, and mainstream media for extensive, "unquestioning" coverage.

News media don't always get it right on science-related issues. Journalists aren't always well versed in science, and often lack time to examine issues with the depth they merit. Communicating complex ideas and distilling entire studies into eye-catching headlines and brief stories can lead to misinformation and limited understanding.

Lack of science literacy is a problem in journalism and society in general. Science is a useful tool, but it's not perfect. With the ocean study, the method worked as it should. Scientists raised questions, developed hypotheses, conducted research and presented findings. Then another expert found discrepancies. This led to corrections and a stronger understanding of the methodology and its applications, and of ocean warming.

Many people aren't familiar with the precise definitions of scientific terms, and this can lead to misunderstanding. We see comments that human-caused climate change is just a "theory," so we should question or dismiss it. But in science, a theory is based on one or more tested hypotheses. When research and experiments confirm that the hypotheses accurately describe and predict real-world occurrences, a theory is developed. We have the theory of gravity and the theory of evolution. As science, understanding and technologies evolve, theories are sometimes revised and occasionally disproven or discarded.

Global warming theories are based on a wide range of research and knowledge, from the physics of the greenhouse effect to science regarding ocean currents, the carbon cycle, wind patterns and feedback loops. There may be some uncertainty about warming rates and consequences, but there's no doubt the world is heating because of human activity -- mostly through burning fossil fuels and damaging or destroying carbon sinks like forests and wetlands -- and that the consequences are already severe and will worsen if we fail to act decisively.

We also know our activities have already locked in a certain amount of unpreventable warming, so we don't have time to delay if we want a healthy future -- or a future at all -- for our young people and those yet to be born.

Healthy skepticism is good. Criticism of the ocean study led to greater understanding and strengthening of the methodology and analysis. But denying the massive amounts of evidence and even the legitimacy of science leaves us with what? Personal beliefs? Ignoring what's in front of us to maintain the status quo? Practicing "business as usual"?

Those would all put us on a path to disaster.

We must work together to support the science we have to help us learn to live within planetary boundaries.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Image: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr

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