Talking Climate Scepticism: Changing the Language of Science

It seems that the science community is finally ready to address “scepticism” appropriately, but so far this has deniers celebrating.

Last week, in Between Science, Media and Sceptics: Do we have a chance? and Honesty, Climate Change and Forgotten Rewards: Meeting a Changing World, I discussed this requirement for re-evaluating just how science is communicated to the public – especially with topics as politically sensitive as climate change. Since the release of the forth IPCC report, we’ve seen a massive movement against science, which has employed countless tactics to confuse and misinform the public, all to stir up and induce paralysis, in a time where change is requires. As an excellent example, this whole strange affair has rightly been associated in Australia to the rise and fall of Kevin Rudd.

The InterAcademy Council (IAC) has just released this review of the IPCC, providing with it numerous suggestions to improve upon what amounted to weaknesses within the politically motivated public arena (another review here, by Gareth Renowden). The hope of these suggestions is to provide a fifth report that is as scientifically compelling (if not more so) as the former reports, but also avoids as many errors, inconsistencies (ie. addressing scientific uncertainties) and ambiguity (to a lay audience) as humanly possible. As we saw with Climategate – one sentence out of millions can lead to a novel of doubt. If we are to be effective in addressing climate change and changing energy sources to maintain our standard of living into the foreseeable future, we need to reduce the room available for Misinformers to exploit for business-as-usual promotion.

I would suggest also a public summery version of the report, which draws heavily on the technically rich full report, but only to a level that is necessary to inform a general reader (but also direct the reader to the technical explanation within the full report, if further information is required). But that’s just my suggestion.

With the style of the IAC review, however, I anticipate people like Jo Nova will soon report a “win for the sceptics”, as she has done in Head of Australian Science Academy issues decree from Pagan Chieftans of Science. Here, Jo has found in the The Australian, an article titled Humans affect climate change. That The Australian publish Andrew Bolt is, in my opinion, a detrimental mark on the paper’s credibility, but that’s beside the point (this article isn’t so bad).

The article points out that the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) has put it’s experts up against anthropogenic climate change (ACC) sceptics, which Nova retorts with, “They finally admit (by inference) that there is a debate. Since we amateurs are beating them in the debates and asking questions they can’t answer…”

Of course there is a debate, as the IAC review also states, “an increasingly intense public debate about the science of climate change…”

The key word here which cannot be overlooked is that the debate is a public debate, rather than scientific in nature. If it were a scientific debate, you would see greater engagement between the participants and stimulating discussions amounting from that. The reason that answers cannot be provided is because the rules applied to both sides are uneven (see Dr. Gliskon’s argument regarding this here). To further illustrate this, Jo later mocks the AAS for attempting to produce a document to clear up common misconceptions (which again stresses the opening point to this post and the call for improved scientific communication) and later she writes, “explain why you are right. Present any evidence. Convince us.”

However, anyone familiar with Jo Nova is also aware of her Skeptics Handbook as well as John Cook’s reply, A Scientific Guide to the ‘Skeptics Handbook’, which Jo, bizarrely, concludes failed to address her questions (I compare both handbooks here). If anything, I feel that Jo has provided an excellent example as to how science has been fallen short in communicating ACC with the general public and allowed people like herself to confuse and misinform in a way that cannot, by scientific debate, be addressed, which returns us to the IAC review.

From the review:

“Operating under the public microscope the way IPCC does requires strong leadership, the continued and enthusiastic participation of distinguished scientists, an ability to adapt, and a commitment to openness if the value of these assessments to society is to be maintained,” said Harold T. Shapiro, president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in the United States and chair of the committee.

At no other time has effective science communication been more imperative to meeting the challenges that face our future and as such, it’s good to hear that many establishments are beginning to discuss how to avoid misinformation from corrupting the general message. The first aspect, however unfortunate it is, is to accept the reality of Misinformers – which, as Jo Nova demonstrates, they will celebrate in being acknowledged. As Dr. Glikson discusses and both Jo Nova and Christopher Monckton demonstrate, a public debate cannot follow because one side of the debate is restricted by rigorous rules and the other just doesn’t care about (or understand) the science. What needs to happen is a shake-up on how science and scientists are seen in the general public, how the work is done (ie. to clear up what the peer-view process is, funding etc) and what the conclusions drawn through investigation actually mean (as I discussed late week – we need to explain uncertainty better and on what basis the a scientific consensus can be drawn etc). There is little doubt remaining that non-medical sciences can expect the same level of trust as the local GP, for instance and whatever “ivory tower” that may exists needs to be demolished.

Clearing up the confusion over what climate science is telling us begins with clearing up what science is. Jo Nova doesn’t call to be convinced by the results (although she may not be aware of this), but rather the legitimacy of climate science itself.


2 thoughts on “Talking Climate Scepticism: Changing the Language of Science

  1. Tim, it would be very interesting to US readers as to the “rise and fall of Kevin Rudd and the connection to climate change science. If you post more on this, I will put a link or republish on Ekos2. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned; hopefully not the wrong ones.


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