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Climate change science, the consensus, and a matter of trust

February 15, 2014

In yesterday’s Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli returns to a familiar theme; contrarian attacks on the consensus among climate scientists regarding the anthropogenic cause of climate change. (MP Graham Stringer and CNN Crossfire get the 97% consensus on human-caused global warming wrong).

He’s right to keep hammering the issue, although I suspect it’s more of a problem in the US than elsewhere (the UK’s problem is more likely apathy, frankly – although the current flooding is providing something of the proverbial shot in the arm. How long that lasts is another matter).

There is, however, a broader issue, of which the manufactured ‘dissent’ is but a part. The issue is trust. As information (of varying quality) becomes ever more ubiquitous, we are constantly assaulted with stories of greed, corruption, mendacity and deceit. At no time in history have we ever been so well informed – and simultaneously so badly informed. It is the paradox created by the internet and 24-hour news; information becomes like sewage – you can find items of value, but only if you’re prepared to wade through the sewers.

This constant flow – largely of bad news – destroys trust. We can’t trust politicians because each government in turn reveals its own brand of amorality and expediency. We can’t trust our food because we no longer know quite what we’re buying. We can’t trust banks or financial advisors. We can’t trust energy suppliers. We can’t trust the public sector because much of it is farmed out to private contractors, who then decimate the service and its quality in order to boost profits. We can’t trust hospitals to make us well rather than kill us, or give us something horrid to take home (I got MRSA after an op as a kind of ‘buy one, get one free’ offer I couldn’t refuse). We can’t trust the churches in case the priests are fiddling with our kids. We can’t trust immigrants, foreigners, the media, plutocrats, landlords, the judiciary, police, teachers, firemen…you name it, (and if you try hard enough and know your way around Google), you can find reasons to distrust pretty much anyone or anything.

This is a world governed more and more by distrust, by suspicion, by anxiety and confusion. It is no wonder that so many of us give in to conspiracy theories; we may ridicule the more extreme forms of tin-foil hattery nonsense, but every day we will discover some new, and all too real, conspiracy designed to benefit a few, inevitably at the expense of the many. The most startling example in modern times is probably the way the Iraq war was instigated by a small cadre of politicians who just outright lied to the public, the UN, even misrepresenting their own intelligence services. A clearer conspiracy one would be hard to find – except, for example, the collusion between Lawson’s GWPF, his son Dominic, Matt Ridley, Owen Paterson and Peter Lilley – front men for a blatant conspiracy funded by fossil fuel interests whose clear and obvious objective is to deceive the public? (The US equivalent – as ever, more in your face as Americans tend to be – is the outright purchase of congressmen and senators at the expense of democracy itself).

Trust is a hard commodity to come by these days. It is also very hard to recover when it is lost, so the constant attacks on the probity and ethics of climate scientists must be seen in that light; doing constant damage to the public’s innate trust that is hard to repair, even though the grounds for distrust are manufactured by the very people we should trust the least.

*****

One of the things I find most attractive about the scientific method is that it doesn’t require me to ‘trust’ scientists. Instead, there’s a more amenable and logical way to approach the issue – trust the work, the process, peer-review, the results and the repeatability of experiments. Not without some irony, we can also trust the competitive nature of science, for no scientist with an eye to his or her own success, to their place in the history of science, to the long-term value of their work and its merit, will subscribe to a theory or cite the work of others, if there is a reasonable chance that citation is wrong, that subscription is worthless.

It would be a very foolish scientist who would spend his career pursuing research founded on a house of cards, ready to collapse at any moment. In this respect, science is essentially self-validating – given enough time and data, the wrong-headed science must fall by the wayside, and it will be the scientists themselves throwing out the trash. Of note is that the competitive nature of science leads most scientists to seek to prove others wrong, not merely – as contrarians would have it – of agreeing with a theory because it cements funding. (Also of note, many of the 3% of contrarian climate scientists are retired, holding emeritus positions and requiring little or no funding at all). Perhaps at the end of one’s career, when original ideas no longer flow so fast or furiously, there is less to lose backing a three-legged horse – particularly if by doing so one can remain in the public eye when the sell-by date on one’s credible research is long past).

At the root of climate change denial is a notion – sometimes overt, often just implied – that all climate scientists (the 97%) are wrong, or worse still, conniving with each other to protect their professional self-interest. One way to attack the science is to insinuate that the 97% is a fiction, but dismissing the various studies (Oreskes (twice), Doran, Anderegg & Prall, Cook and Nuccitelli) doesn’t do what deniers seem to think. Even were all those studies found to be in error, this would mean only that the studies did not demonstrate the claimed consensus. What this would not mean is that the opposite was proven; the only way for deniers to prove there isn’t a consensus is to poll climate scientists and submit the results. Needless to say, this poll has never been conducted, for the simple reason that we all know in advance what the results would be. With deniers being so very keen to demonstrate a lack of consensus, it’s notable that they have no evidence whatever to support their claim.

Attacks on the consensus among climate scientists are designed to destroy trust – in the scientists and their claims of cohesive support for the theory of climate change, and in those who champion both the consensual opinions of scientists, but also – and more importantly – the consensual nature of the research, for nobody is bothering to research ‘alternative’ theories except the 3% working out of the deep trench they’ve dug for themselves and don’t have the courage or integrity to climb out of.

Meanwhile, we members of the public are left with a simple choice. Either we trust scientists or we don’t. Either we accept that they know their stuff, or we don’t. Either we concede they are better informed than us, or we don’t. I have never found it demeaning or belittling to concede that some people are more intelligent or skilled than I am, are better educated or informed, or exert more authority over their subjects than I’m ever going to.

There will always be exceptions, but I suggest we have no good reason to distrust climate science. To believe scientists are untrustworthy is not a measure of intelligence, but a damning example of our own culpability, our willingness to believe what suits us in preference to the facts, and of bad habits we have acquired without really noticing.

To distrust climate science and those who formulate it is not rational behaviour; it is a betrayal of the intelligence we could bring to bear if only we could set aside the credulous motives we have for believing the irrational and the self-serving over the discomfort of discovery. Climate change may not be palatable, but either we address it voluntarily (like adults) or pretend it isn’t happening and hide under the bed, in which case we’ll be forced to address it under rather less optimum conditions where our options have been severely limited by the effects of our recalcitrance.

In the end, we must all decide who we can trust. A good starting place would be to trust ourselves and our ability to discriminate between truth and lies, between honest brokerage and rank demagoguery. If we cannot bring ourselves to make the distinctions, we could end up not even trusting ourselves.

(See also: Climate Change Denial: Who can you trust when you don’t trust yourself?).

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2014 3:16 pm

    A really good analysis of trust and the behaviour of those who wish to undermine it.

    Yesterday, along with many others, I complained to the BBC about Thursday’s appearance of Lord Lawson on the Today Prog, As part of my complaint I pointed out the the secretly funded “Think Tank”, GWPF could use some of their generous funding to research their ideas and prove AGW and it’s link to CC wrong. Should they be successful they would become world famous over night!

    If people like Lawson are to be allowed to air their opinions, it would be nice to hear them being asked why they don’t do their own research.

  2. February 15, 2014 7:19 pm

    This is an excellent and well-thought post. On my blog I have written a bit about information literacy, the internet, global warming, and the scientific method. You might find it useful.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 15, 2014 7:38 pm

    Hi Bob – nice to meet up with you outside of CiF. I agree entirely with your point about the lack of substance to Lawson’s position, as it is with contrarians generally. To better understand how little actual science they’ve managed to develop over several decades, the NIPCC report makes it abundantly clear the paucity of their scientific arguments. That Lawson and others actually endorsed it just makes matters much worse – and perhaps in less serious context, it would be rather hilarious. Still, as I’ve said frequently, the only way to challenge existing science (of any kind) is with better science, and that’s exactly what the contrarians have failed to produce.

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    February 15, 2014 7:41 pm

    UnofficialFactChecker: Thanks for the comment. Your blog is very interesting, and I liked (and identified with) your personal introduction so much I have to repeat it here; “Being a generalist, I am a librarian, or vice versa. That means I know a little about a lot and a lot about a little. So bear in mind that there is only so far I can take you. I will introduce you to the experts, and after that you can learn as much as you can from them. I love being the dumbest guy in the room.”
    To other readers: this blog is worth a visit. (I’ve added a link to your place in my blog roll)

  5. February 16, 2014 9:44 am

    Great piece G. We continue to sleepwalk into oblivion….

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