When scientists take to the streets it’s time to listen up
Posted on 20 June 2011 by John Cook
CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Dr Michael Brown exposes the tactics used by purveyors of “non-science” to attack climate change research.
It takes a lot to get scientists out of their offices and marching on Parliament.
But in recent weeks that’s exactly what some of Australia’s top researchers have taken to doing.
Former Governor of Victoria and scientist David de Kretser brought an open letter to Parliament House last week and just today the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies (FASTS) has launched its Respect the Science campaign from the same location.
The Federation claims that attacks on climate scientists are “undermining the national building work of all scientists.”
The Conversation has also hosted an open letter from dozens of concerned scientists trying to get the message across that human-induced climate change is a real threat.
So what is it that has got our science community so riled up?
But for many, it’s simply the tactics of “the other side” of the climate change debate that has spurred on their public demonstrations.
When the forces of non-science are this strong, it’s time for scientists to respond.
Cherries and missing ingredients
Those denying the science of climate change present arguments that appear scientific, with measurements, theories, statistics and jargon.
But many of those denying climate change are not truly doing science.
Science tries to provide the simplest explanation for a wealth of measurements in the natural world.
Non-science, on the other hand, cherry-picks evidence. A classic example is only plotting a few years of temperature records, rather than the past 150 years.
When non-science tries to describe all the observations, it requires contrived explanations as it attempts to avoid the simplest scientific explanation. Ian Plimer invokes underwater volcanoes to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the numbers required are vast compared to the actual number of volcanoes.
Purveyors of non-science charge that thousands of scientists are ignorant of basic science.
This would be shocking, if it were not patently false.
So why is this false claim continually repeated?
I can only speculate. Perhaps it is now a negative political catchphrase, which is repeated often so it can be confused with truth.
Practitioners of non-science loudly proclaim that climate models cannot be trusted, as they are missing key components.
When subjected to scrutiny, these supposed key ingredients are often speculative and not backed by robust evidence. To include speculative theories in climate models would only make the models less trustworthy, not more so.
The medium, message and messenger
The practitioners of non-science claim peer review is used to enforce groupthink. This is not the case.
Most scientists review as thoroughly and impartially as possible because peer review is central to the health of science.
Many scientists will recall reviewing papers where they doubted the conclusions but accepted the paper, as there were no obvious flaws in the method, data and theory used.
Both sides of the climate debate communicate to the public via the media, and this is at the crux of recent activism on the part of Australian scientists.
Science uses media to communicate results from science journals to the public and policy makers. Non-science uses the media as its principal means of communicating its conclusions. But often, both get equal play.
Press releases, popular articles, books, letters, websites and think tank reports do not undergo peer review. Conclusions may not be backed up by sound methodology, accurate data and appropriate use of theories.
Personal attacks, rhetorical flourishes, witticisms and point scoring make good copy, but do not alter the basic science.
If the media is the only means being used to present supposed scientific results, there are good reasons to be suspicious.
Letters signed by esteemed scientists can highlight that an issue is important. But there are millions of scientists, so it is not surprising each side can muster hundreds of signatories.
Think tanks are often present in the climate debate, but these organisations are often ideologically driven and associated with particular political beliefs.
At best, think tanks present science that is consistent with their political beliefs. At worst, think tanks commission reports and books that are politically motivated non-science.
A sceptical view of think tanks is probably better justified than a sceptical view of climate science.
It’s all a mistake
Non-science claims science is not to be trusted.
To back this claim they provide examples of where there have been paradigm shifts in science; relativity, dinosaur extinction, plate tectonics and the causes of ulcers.
But there are stark differences between these paradigm shifts and the current climate debate.
When paradigm shifts have occurred, often the evidence for the prevailing theory had been weak.
Paradigm shifts have also been accompanied by robust evidence contrary to the prevailing theory. For example, relativity was preceded by precision measurements of the constant speed of light.
In contrast, those denying climate change only use weak evidence.
Classic non-science evidence includes plots where temperature appears to vary along with something other than carbon dioxide. Such plots can be suspect.
If one generates large numbers of plots, one can find apparent correlations between two unrelated quantities.
For example, the increasing number of HIV infections has been accompanied by an increasing number of personal computers. Only a fool would suggest one directly causes the other.
In contrast to randomly generating plots, climate science makes predictions for the relationship between carbon dioxide levels, air temperature and sea level rise.
Observations are then be used to test these predictions and significant discrepancies are always investigated.
This is how good science is done.
If it takes a march to the halls of government to highlight the different between good science and non-science, then that is what the scientific community must do.
Acknowledgement: I was inspired to write this article by the discussion threads that follow climate change articles in “The Conversation”, where many of the tactics of non-science are on display.