2011-01-17 01:18:09Stick to your guns, climate scientists
John Hartz
John Hartz

Is there a way to get the following essay (published in New Scientist magazine) posted on SkS?

Stick to your guns, climate scientists

Researchers should not be apologising for their errors when they could win hearts and minds by patient explanation, argues Evelyn Fox Keller

IF NOTHING else, December's Cancún climate conference demonstrated, once again, just how dependent international negotiations are on the American political process. In this respect, the US Senate's failure to pass a climate bill last summer was a colossal setback, and we need to understand how this could have happened.

One major factor is that public confidence in climate scientists and their science is at an all-time low. This loss of confidence is a direct result of a long-standing campaign to discredit them, initially mounted and funded by business interests and libertarian-conservative organisations.

The campaign made good use of strategies honed by the tobacco industry and soon recruited an army of "sceptics": some opposed to government regulation per se, some resistant to claims to intellectual authority (especially scientific), and some mobilised by a version of everyone's right to an opinion.

The upshot is that internet sites, radio and TV channels now transmit "contrarian" attacks on climate scientists on a daily basis. Even responsible newspapers seeking "balance" contribute to the false impression that climate scientists are deeply divided about the danger and relevance of human activity to global warming. Not knowing who or what to believe, the natural response of the public is to do nothing.

"Climategate" may well have brought tensions to a breaking point. The term was coined to describe the scandals erupting, first, from the theft and release of some scientists' private emails, and second, from the exposure of an error in a report by a subcommittee of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate scientists were charged with mounting a "hoax" and engaging in "fraud" and "conspiracy", and bombarded with threats. The researchers were - and are - thunderstruck: nothing in their training prepares them for the vitriol of such attacks.

Until recently, the main response has been to take refuge in peer review and to blame scientific illiteracy. But with the escalation of attacks, some now feel the need to engage with their critics, admit mistakes, and open up their data. As a result, the media reports that researchers have been learning a little humility and trying harder to stay clear of policy advocacy. This response, they claimed, indicated a new willingness to engage with critics, as if this was a step towards more democratic relations between science and society.

I am not sure. I am all in favour of greater engagement with the public, but propitiation is not engagement, and self-criticism must not obscure the fact that these "revelations" are not evidence of misconduct but of the human nature of scientific inquiry. Nor must it obscure the fact that their own confidence in their findings on climate remains unshaken.

If they are to be blamed at all it is for adhering to an image of science as capable of delivering absolute (and value-free) truth: an image most scholars recognise as indefensible, and one that, among themselves, most researchers accept as unrealistic. They well recognise that, however rigorous their practice, the knowledge they produce falls short of infallibility, certainty, and value-neutrality. Furthermore, confidence in their findings does not depend on such unattainable ideals, but on the constant scrutiny, mutual criticism, and peer review to which they are subject.

Climate science is especially prone to uncertainty, but what mainly distinguishes it from other sciences is the gravity of its social implications. That this science has become so politicised is probably inevitable. Because its findings so conspicuously affect the body politic, climate science might be said to be inherently political.

Yet the notion that scientific knowledge should be politically neutral persists, posing a deep dilemma by suggesting that engaging in public controversy could compromise their claim to scientific objectivity and undermine their credibility.

On the contrary, I say that researchers have a responsibility to so engage. Discussions of scientific responsibility often centre on questions of scientific integrity. But researchers are also under an obligation to the public who have placed their trust in them - by their implicit contract with the state, which by funding them makes the product of their labour a public good.

For as long as the scientific knowledge they produce remains under their control, they are its custodians, responsible for its safe delivery into public hands. They have an obligation to convey the results of their expertise to those likely to be affected by the implications of those results.

They need to redouble their efforts to make their arguments, their doubts, and the reasons for both their confidence and their concerns intelligible to the non-specialist citizen. They need to combat, piece by piece, the misrepresentations brought in support of attacks on their scientific integrity, and to show readers why the popular accounts and even the naming of "Climategate" are so misleading. And they need to explain why the expectations of science on which these accounts are based are similarly misleading. Doing so is rarely as difficult as they assume: disagreement, uncertainty and distortion are familiar territory to most readers who, even without specialist technical expertise, are capable of the discrimination needed to establish trust.

What I am proposing is far from a solution. But if it encourages climate scientists to take the lead in breaking the current impasse, both because they are best equipped to take on the task, and because their responsibility as scientists obliges them to do so, it is at least a start.

Scientists also have obligations incurred by the trust the public has invested in them

Evelyn Fox Keller is emeritus professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2011-01-17 02:28:06
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

2 possibilities I can think of:

1.  Write it up as a blog post

2.  Contact the professor to see if she'd be interested in writing it up herself as a guest post on SkS