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Climate scientists seek to calm storm of doubt

February 4, 2010

INDIAIf the scientific evidence for manmade global warming is so compelling, why do so many people still have their doubts?

Why do politicians and the media often discuss global warming with such certainty, ignoring the scientists’ carefully worded caveats?

And how much harder will it be to persuade the sceptics after the uproar over whether scientists exaggerated unreliable evidence or colluded to withhold information to strengthen their case?

Those tricky questions were raised at a sometimes fractious news conference in London to discuss the future of climate science.

Three leading British scientists told reporters the science behind anthropogenic global warming was “overwhelming”, but admitted they are struggling to get their message across to a sometimes doubtful public.

“We have a very confused public out there about climate change and science,” said Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Met Office. “We’ve got a real issue about communicating science in a very clear way that different levels of the public can understand. ”

The problem, the panel suggested, lies not in the raw data but in how the information becomes garbled between the researchers and the public.

The executive summaries of lengthy scientific reports that are presented to politicians tend to iron out the experts’ nuances and uncertainties. Media reports can then further simplify and exaggerate the evidence, the panel said.

“Uncertainty tends to get lost in the headline,” said Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Director, Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London.

Confusion over the difference between long-term climate patterns and short-term weather has further muddied the waters, they said. If parts of the world had a particularly cold winter or a rainy summer, why should anyone believe the evidence behind manmade global warming, doubters ask.

That sort of confusion can only be addressed by getting basic scientific messages across to the public more clearly, Slingo added.

“(We must) expose the fundamental science behind climate change, which is very robust actually,” she said.

The scientists said they must also regain the public’s trust after damaging headlines about hacked emails from the University of East Anglia’s climate research unit and the reliability of evidence used by the United Nation’s climate change body in its key report on the topic.

Hoskins said the IPCC’s mistaken claim that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 should not be allowed to undermine the  rest of the U.N. panel’s work or the broader evidence for climate change.

“Just because you have a miscarriage of justice, it doesn’t mean you throw away the whole legal system,” Hoskins told the briefing at the Science Media Centre, part of the historic Royal Institution, the world’s oldest independent research body.

The questions grew tougher when none of the panel members agreed to discuss the leaked email row, dubbed “Climategate”. One reporter from a national newspaper said the scientists had failed to explain why internet forums are full of people who just don’t believe the science behind manmade global warming.

“Call me naïve, but I came here today expecting a confident fightback from climate science and I haven’t heard that,” the reporter said. “You are not addressing head on and robustly the issue of perception in the way you need to do.”

The panellists refused to budge, however. They would not talk about the leaked emails until an inquiry reports its findings.

They also refused to say if the IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri should resign over the glacier claim.

They wanted to stick firmly to the science and said they would always be willing to examine any credible evidence from climate change sceptics.

“I’m sorry if you feel it is not adequate, but it is where the scientific community has to be. We just simply have to do the research and bring the scientific evidence to the table,” said Professor Alan Thorpe, a climate scientist who is also chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council.

Comments

‘They wanted to stick firmly to the science and said they would always be willing to examine any credible evidence from climate change sceptics.’ They don’t get it do they? They are the ones who need to produce some credible evidence.

‘“I’m sorry if you feel it is not adequate, but it is where the scientific community has to be. We just simply have to do the research and bring the scientific evidence to the table,” said Professor Alan Thorpe’. Exactly – proper, genuine, solid, not-made-up evidence that stands up to scrutiny. The world is waiting. Perhaps it got deleted by Prof Jones at the CRU along with his raw data. Or his pseudo-scientific buddies in New Zealand might have done it who likewise conveniently ‘lost’ their workings when challenged to give an account of their figures.

Posted by MCJasper | Report as abusive
 

I agree, reluctantly, with the scientists. They have to stick strictly with the science and not the politics, economics, ethics, or anything else. It is clear that there are very sophisticated people who comb every word, looking for a soft spot to attack. They must come out and have press conferences, news releases, etc. that clearly explain the science in layman’s language. See “Thinking Critically About Science” http://www.vivanewmexico.com/blog and join the conversation.

Posted by Jimalakirti | Report as abusive
 

> scientists had failed to explain why internet forums
> are full of people who just don’t believe the science
> behind manmade global warming.

Who says they’re full of _people_? Try taking a long chunk from most of the “disbelieve” posts and pasting it into Google — usually it’s plagiarized and multiple copies are widely pasted. There are a lot fewer _people_ writing in disbelief.

Why are there so many _copies_ of the stuff? Same reason 95 percent of email is copies of stuff — it costs nothing to put it out there.

Try it yourself. Much of what’s posted appears one or two thousand times in a Google search, repeated over and over.

Posted by mxzypltk | Report as abusive
 

This is what happens when you are expected to play by the rules of two different games at the same time while your opponent is only playing one of them. Scientists are expected to reply in keeping with scientific norms and yet defend themselves against political attacks.

While clearly, it has to be SOMEBODY’s role to respond to the political thrust and parry, it is not clear that any institutions related to science are able to do so.

It is unethical for a scientist to do so. Science must be value neutral or it cannot be trusted. But, of course, it is also unethical for a scientist NOT to do so. If the world is at risk and is not acting in a way that indicates the risk is well understood, it is obvious that the scientist is ethically bound to emphasize that risk until the understanding appears adequate. Thus no scientist should study anything of potential consequence as there is no behavior that can be construed as ethical.

One notes that this does not apply to economists for some reason that escapes me at present.

We need someone to represent science in the political sphere.

Posted by mtobis | Report as abusive
 

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