Steven Koonin: Climate Science Needs a Serious Overhaul

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Unsettled" by Steven E. Koonin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is the state of climate science worse than the state of the climate itself? How could it be made more useful?

According to Steven Koonin, climate science is in big trouble. He argues that climate science is frequently misconstrued, and he attempts to diagnose the root of this problem and propose a remedy.

Continue reading to learn Koonin’s suggestions for repairing climate science.

Steven Koonin on Climate Science

According to Steven Koonin, climate science is knowingly misrepresented by several parties out of their own self-interest. These parties include the media, politicians, and climate scientists themselves.

Koonin argues that, despite the grim state of climate science, it’s possible to improve scientific reports on climate change and their portrayal to the general public. In particular, he proposes concrete strategies for making climate science more transparent and accessible to the layperson.

To begin, Koonin advocates third-party review of climate reports themselves—specifically, the US’s NCA reports and the UN’s IPCC reports. In order to strengthen confidence in these reports and expose possible flaws, Koonin recommends a “Red Team review,” in which an external group of scientists scrutinizes the reports and presents possible counterarguments to their findings. Such a review, Koonin notes, is common practice in national security reports, so it has precedent in other consequential fields.

(Shortform note: In addition to Red Team reviews, government proposals are also subjected to several other reviews as the proposal nears completion. For instance, Blue Team reviews occur around the outline phase, making sure that the outline is complete and doesn’t have any obvious flaws. Next, a Pink Team review examines a more fleshed-out document, looking for factual errors and red flags not found in the previous review. Traditionally, the Red Team review only occurs after these previous reviews.)

With respect to climate reports, Koonin argues they have two features that justify a Red Team review. First, climate reports are written under the auspices of self-interested governments, which suggests that bias could infiltrate them; a Red Team review could help mitigate this concern. Second, unlike papers published in academic journals, the NCA and IPCC reports aren’t reviewed by a referee who can require changes—although referees do review the reports, the original authors have the authority to overrule referees’ comments. So, a Red Team review could help check the authors’ unrestrained authority.

(Shortform note: While Koonin’s concern about authors’ unchecked authority is valid, similar concerns have been voiced about the anonymous referees of academic journals; some argue that anonymity leaves referees free to make arbitrary requests without accountability. Nonetheless, anonymous review remains the norm in academic publishing, though the British Medical Journal abandoned the practice in 1999.)

Beyond improving climate reports themselves, Koonin also suggests ways to increase public understanding of climate science. Because most laypeople learn about climate change from the media, Koonin argues that they need to learn to distinguish between reliable and unreliable climate reporting. He lists various warning signs indicating that a particular climate story in the media is unreliable:

  • Referring to climate scientists as “deniers” on the one hand, or “alarmists” on the other, suggests a drift into propaganda.
  • Conflating climate and weather illustrates a basic misunderstanding of climate science.
  • Reproducing statistics without context reveals a desire to persuade rather than inform.
  • Failing to provide hard data at all shows little concern for precision and accuracy.

By heeding these warning signs, Koonin suggests that the public can better determine whether a media report is reliable. 

(Shortform note: To supplement Koonin’s warning signs, experts offer several other ways to tell whether a scientific story is reliable. For example, be wary of emotionally loaded language, which can suggest a lack of objectivity. Additionally, examine the studies cited in the story to see whether they’re in reputable, peer-reviewed journals.)

Steven Koonin: Climate Science Needs a Serious Overhaul

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven E. Koonin's "Unsettled" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Unsettled summary:

  • That humans are only partially to blame for the warming climate
  • Why the proposed solutions to climate change are unlikely to succeed
  • Alternative responses to climate change and how to improve understanding

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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