Two meteorologists say that climate scientists are "overplaying" the climate threat (which they concede is real and urgent).

Another scientist responds that, yeah, we shouldn’t overplay the threat, but the threat is real and urgent.

As so often with this immeasurably vapid debate, the slightest bit of scrutiny reveals that there is very little substantive difference in what the scientists in question believe. Two larger points:

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The disagreement is almost entirely over tone — whether the appropriate number of caveats and hedges are attached, whether the adjectives are overly emotive, whether the precise degree of probability is made clear. But all that begs the question: for what purpose? Some scientists seem to assume that the rules of language governing communication within science should also govern communication from scientists to the public. But why? Plenty of things can strike scientists as imprecise, or biased one way or another, or mixed with values, and still be basically accurate, in the sense of containing no overt falsehoods. If scientists want to dispassionately report the results of science, they can do so through the IPCC or the NAS or scientific journals or whatnot. If they’re going to enter the public realm, then they become public citizens, and are perfectly within their rights to use all the age-old rhetorical devices that help messages rise above the background informational buzz.

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For instance, plenty of articles about the threat of nuclear war in foreign policy journals during the Cold War were technical and boring as hell. But when people concerned about the threat took it to the public, a big part of the message was, hey, look how bad it would be if this happened. That meant images and stories about the horrific ravages of nuclear war. Techno-scientific rigor wasn’t really the point. The point was to raise awareness and alarm about the threat.

Secondly, while there’s little difference between what the scientists believe, articles like the former leave the public with the impression that there’s some big split among scientists. They confuse and distract the public, and draw focus away from ways to address the problem. That rather puts the lie to the meteorologists’ alleged concern about “crying wolf” and “losing credibility.” They are doing more than anyone to damage the credibility of the scientific community. They are the ones providing “ammunition” to the delayers and deniers.

But they don’t care. Why? Because they know contrarian messages on climate change are an easy way to get their names in the papers. Hell, Kevin Vranes’ one passing blog post on how climate scientists fear they’ve “oversold” the science made him a celebrity. He shows up in the press with numbing regularity now.

Anyone who advances this “crying wolf” storyline is guaranteed a lot of attention. That’s fine if they want to take advantage, but to do so while professing concern about the integrity of climate science is a little rich.

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