Between Science, Media and Sceptics: Do we have a chance?

Very recently, Klaus Hasselmann wrote an excellent piece in Nature Geoscience; The Climate Change Game (2010. 3: 511-512, doi:10.1038/ngeo919).

It’s well worth a read, but I’ll sum it up here regardless.

In his piece, Hasselmann suggests that there are three major players, all with their own personal and professional objectives – climate scientists, the media and climate sceptics. Here, he comments on one of the major points that I often find myself arguing with “sceptics”; that it is exceedingly unlikely that scientists could successfully make claims that are false – with many others also analysing the data, soon these errors would soon be discovered ultimately, this would be vary damaging, professionally, to those scientists caught out, without potential benefit great enough to merit such an absurd risk.

However, with climate science a slow process, the sceptics have a wonderful window for providing gossip for the media that is both entertaining and useful for industries at risk from climate-related policies. This includes exploiting the few minor mistakes in the IPCC reports as well as the much hyped “Climategate” saga. Both, of course, prove to be non-events (only held onto, in my experience, by the most bizarre conspiracy theorists), but as we saw with Copenhagen, where damaging enough.

What I found most interesting, and by far the most important message in Klaus Hasselmann’s piece, is that, to date, much of the education and defence (in the face of scepticism) by the scientific community has been ineffective. For instance, Klaus argues that uncertainties should feature more prominently, as to counter the misunderstanding of scientific uncertainties, such as “the probability that most of the measured warming during the past 100 years was caused by human activities is so high (well above 90%), that politicians, whose job it is to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, should work on the premise that it is a fact.” It’s your everyday risk management approach.

Another point mentioned is that too much emphasis is based on problems and the predictions, but compatibly little attention is given to how affordable and obtainable a low-carbon future actually is. Arguably Barry Brook discusses this extensively and in great detail (I’ve also mentioned this in minor detail a number of time, especially in the Innovation series and in this recent post). All the doom-and-gloom talk actually assists the sceptics with inducing paralysis. Klaus argues (as I did in the recent piece linked above) that scientists have an unrealised opportunity for collaboration with private enterprise – where a number of business leaders can see great potential for growth and profit in reducing their dependency on fossil fuels. Where the media have different objectives as the scientists and thus drawn to sensationalism to sell their service, science can utilise private enterprise to demonstrate real industry leadership and potential for change – this obviously will also be beneficial to economy (something denial always runs back to in defence).

As like anyone who has entered this blogosphere, initially inspired by the hope of providing a scientific basis, I too grew to realise that almost all the resistance comes not from casual readers, hoping for clarity, but from a small group with strongly held views that are contrary to the vast majority of scientific evidence and observations of the real world. Soon, you find that such individuals employ the tricks discussed by Dr. Glikson in The art of denial. This eventually leads to either industry/political motivation or all-out lunacy. The latter being ignored, as Hasselmann also argues, science cannot really debate within a political frame, just as political views cannot argue with much scientific rigour. However, they can, and must, work together with all their cards exposed to find the best answers for future planning. This will include interest as well as science.

Hasselmann makes the point that science has so far failed to be much of an effective advisor, which is urgently required. I couldn’t agree more. I would also go on to say that if we are to successfully move through this next phase, the most significant change is going to be within our species rather than how we attempt to manage the world around us. Our energy supply is the most noticeable change ahead, however, I would expect that this is only one of many changes; such as how we’re distributed, how we exploit natural resources, how we move around the world and probably the most radical – how we communicate.

The rules of yesteryear are quickly becoming outdated as are the expectations of living space, resource availability and our perception of the impact that we have on the world. We need a fresh perspective in facing a world as we’ve never known it, which is on our door step.


9 thoughts on “Between Science, Media and Sceptics: Do we have a chance?

  1. I’m afraid that one of the rules of yesteryear that has to be rewritten is for scientists themselves. Both I and my husband were public servants who spent our lives dealing with the laws governing our respective spheres. One of the most galling things was having to do “media training” to learn to deal with reporters trying to make a story run their way. (The training is quite unpleasant.) Politicians have to do it, union officials have to do it, industry leaders have to do it – learn to get your message through without distortion.

    The climate science can’t just rely on the few talented or brave scientists who go out and “do” media. If Dr Jones had responded to *that* question with something like “Oh, what a shame! If you’d asked me about 1994 onwards I would say definitely yes. For the question you’ve asked, the answer is almost, but not yet.” He wouldn’t like doing it, but that’s the way to go. And it’s not something that comes naturally, let alone easily, to many people.

    Scientists are used to dealing with other scientists, students and bureaucrats who look to them for sciency talk. Reporters need to be treated differently. Without reporters to transfer the message accurately to ordinary punters, science cannot get its message out at all.


    1. Chance find – was just scrolling through the recent papers online and found it – really good piece and a breathe of fresh air after the insane conversation I had been entertaining with a denier.
      I really liked your piece on the oceans btw!


  2. I’ve just reread this and one thing stood out. Scientists can advise governments that their judgement of 90% certainty is strong enough that it should be treated as a fact.

    For both politicians and the public, this can very easily be related to insurance talk. “If you build your house there, it’s 90% certain that it will be flooded once every five years. Either you pay a (much) higher premium or we can’t insure you against flood damage. OR If you have a car accident and you are intoxicated at the time, we will never cover these costs – we’re perfectly happy to cover you for other risks of driving, but not this one, not even if you pay an extra premium.”

    People *do* understand these kinds of risks, or if they don’t understand them, they accept that this is the way the world works.


    1. Exactly – like as I mentioned in yesterday’s post and tried relentlessly to explain to Pete – it’s sensible risk management. Not everyone needs to know the finer details of climate science – I admit that it’s not my field. But I understand enough of it and why the experts are concerned and also enough about the changes in field closer to home.
      I guess that’s why I posted Klaus’s quote twice – it’s an excellent example of how we should be discussing climate change in a meaningful way that avoids the smear campaign typical of denial.


    1. Interesting article. You’re right though – it’s going to come from people how see opportunity and not so much the government meeting the challenge.
      I’m wary of bio-fuels though. It’s like how Pete wants coal to be converted to petrol. If we can reduce our reliance on internal combustion engines, we’ll do much better.


  3. The ethanol thing’s not a goer. Even the farmers aren’t that impressed. I think a lot of them would be interested in biochar or other carbon sequestration from crop residues though.


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