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Global Warming Denialism and Science Communication

June 9, 2010

As I wrote earlier, scientists have a bit of a PR problem in communicating their science to the public. In the most recent issue of Nature, Naomi Oreskes and Erick Conway highlight the problem with respect to climate change (sorry, it’s behind a paywall, but I will quote them at length):

[…] opinion polls have repeatedly shown that large numbers of US citizens — and many in Canada, Australia and some parts of Europe — disbelieve the scientific conclusions. A December 2009 Angus Reid poll found that only 44% of Americans agreed that “global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities”. There has been essentially no change in public acceptance of the scientific conclusions since the 1980s, with the public continually muddling the facts — believing, for example, that the ozone hole is the main cause of climate change.

In a recent book, these same authors showed how much of this public doubt was sewn in the later part of the 20th century by a few right-wing scientists who also worked to obscure the connection between tobacco and cancer and between CFC’s and ozone depletion.

What is particularly important to understand is how the industry used the trappings of science to make its case. It created the Council for Tobacco Research (originally the Tobacco Industry Research Council, but it dropped ‘industry’ on advice from a public-relations firm), along with various newsletters, journals and institutes, to publish claims. And it recruited scientists to speak up for this work, because it was obvious that tobacco-industry executives would lack credibility — although often the scientists had little or no expertise in medicine, oncology or epidemiology.

This strategy of creating a ‘scientific Potemkin village’ was applied to global warming too. During the period that we scrutinize in our book, the Marshall Institute didn’t create its own journal, but it did produce reports with the trappings of scientific argument — such as graphs, charts and references — that were not published in the independent peer-reviewed literature. At least one of these reports — read and taken seriously by the administration of former US president George H. W. Bush — misrepresented the science by presenting only part of the story. NASA climate modeller James Hansen and his team had demonstrated in the peer-reviewed literature that historic temperature records could be best explained by a combination of solar irradiance, volcanic dust, and anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The Marshall Institute report included only a single piece of Hansen’s graph, using the fragment to make it seem as if there was a poor link between carbon dioxide and climate warming, and to argue — against Hansen’s analysis — that the real culprit was the Sun.

Of greatest interest to me, however, was the identification of several of the problems scientists have in combating this type of approach.

One reason that the public is confused is that people have been trying to confuse them, in large part by intentionally waging campaigns of doubt against climate science. Doubt-mongering is an old strategy. It works because if people think the science is contentious, they are unlikely to support public policies that rely on that science[…]

[Those scientists] who engage in discussion discover a frustrating situation. Whatever facts one supplies, the sceptics continue to challenge them or offer alternative explanations. One cannot call one’s opponent a liar because it just seems desperate and ad hominem. Nor does it work to debate their points, because that feeds into the ‘controversy’ framework: the sceptics say there is a debate, you say there isn’t — voilà, they have proved their point.

The authors also point out some suggestions, some of which I agree with whole-heartedly, and others that are a bit more complicated:

For too long, the scientific community has subscribed to the idea that the ‘real work’ of science takes place in the lab or in the field, and that taking the time to communicate broadly doesn’t count. This assumption needs to be rethought, and the academic reward systems changed to encourage outreach. Contrarians do take the time and, given their tiny numbers, have had an enormous effect. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was much more common for scientists to write books aimed at the educated public; this tradition could be revived.

No argument here. Right now, tenure, promotion and pay grade at large research universities are largely based on grants and peer-reviewed publications. Having a few positions that are dedicated to public outreach, and are based on popular science publications and community education would be invaluble.

Scientists have much to learn about making their messages clearer. Honesty and objectivity are cardinal values in science, which leads scientists to be admirably frank about the ambiguities and uncertainties in their enterprise. But these values also frequently lead scientists to begin with caveats — outlining what they don’t know before proceeding to what they do — a classic example of what journalists call ‘burying the lead’.

A few weeks ago, 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences wrote a letter in response to recent attacks on climate scientists. The Academicians began by noting that “science never absolutely proves anything”, and went on to explain that “when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of ‘well-established theories’ and are often spoken of as ‘facts’”. Although this care and nuance is intellectually scrupulous and admirable, being so philosophical about the ‘factual’ nature of climate change doesn’t serve public communication.

This reminds me of the “just a theory” argument of evolution-deniers. The way that scientists use the word “theory” and the way that scientists use the word “theory” are drastically different, and this was deliberately used by the opposition to obscure the solid state of the fact of evolution. As a scientist, I do have qualms about over-stating certainty, but at the same time, I recognize that we need to speak differently to a general audience than we do with our scientific peers. I don’t mean talking down to the public, but rather changing our vocabulary so that we’re actually communicating what we intend to communicate.

The authors also make several other good points about scientists knowing their history and journalists stating their sources (often the “experts” on the anti-science side are scientists but in completely unrelated fields), but unfortunately, these are suggestions for when we’re called to debate, which is something we want to avoid anyway.

The article ends on a simultaneously optimistic and ominous note, and I’ll leave you with that

Of the many cases of doubt-mongering that we have studied, most ended for the better. At a certain point, the companies manufacturing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), admitted their link to ozone depletion and did the right thing by committing to phasing them out. The public is now firmly convinced of the link between cigarettes and cancer. Inductive reasoning implies that the same should happen with climate change: the consensus scientific view will eventually win public opinion. But in the meantime irreversible damage is being done — to the planet, and to the credibility of science.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. wilbert permalink
    June 10, 2010 1:02 pm

    ” At a certain point, the companies manufacturing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), admitted their link to ozone depletion and did the right thing by committing to phasing them out.”
    Can you provide some documentation? I did not find any. Thank you.

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