Climate Scientists Weigh-in on Scientific Disagreement and Public Trust

A guest post by Kirk Englehardt, Director of Research Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology

A new report by the Pew Research Center explores many ways scientists engage with the public – and why.

The study is based on a survey of more than 3,700 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It reveals that scientists who study areas that are regularly debated in the media are more likely to engage in public outreach than those working in less controversial areas. They’re also more likely to speak with reporters and blog about their research.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon addresses 2014 UN Climate Change Conference delegates in Lima, Peru. Photo credit: H.E. Mr. Sam K. Kutesa, President of the UN General Assembly (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

It’s no surprise that, among those surveyed, earth scientists are the most publicly engaged. Included in the group are climate scientists, who spend a lot of time communicating about one of the most hotly debated topics of our time. (Pardon the pun.)

Healthy skepticism and professional debate are needed in order for good science to happen. Many times these discussions take place at scientific conferences or through the peer-review process.

With climate change, however, a daily debate is taking place in full public view. The disputes are not always professional, facts are not always correct and the participants are not always scientists.

So, how does scientific disagreement influence public trust? I asked a number of prominent climate scientists this question, and here is what they shared:

(Access the full interview for each scientist by clicking on his/her name.)

“Disagreement has always been a part of science. However, I find now that in the era of ‘arm-chair’ science – many people just don’t understand the scientific process, the peer-review process, etc. They see things more like a legal system and reasonable doubt. If there is reasonable doubt or slight uncertainty, they think the basic scientific premise is flawed. Science doesn’t work that way. There is uncertainty in an 80% chance of rain, but you will probably grab an umbrella.” Dr. Marshall Shepherd, University of Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences      

“Real skepticism – rigorously testing the claims of other scientists, demanding independent replication of results, requiring increasingly extraordinary evidence for increasingly extraordinary claims – is critical to the proper functioning of science. But this should not be conflated with what all-to-often is passed off as skepticism yet is nothing short of contrarianism and, in its extreme form, denialism, or the indiscriminate rejection of the findings of mainstream science for ideological or other non-scientific reasons. That is the opposite of skepticism, and it has no place the world of legitimate science.” Dr. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University

“For a scientific topic that has policy relevance, the science tends to get politicized, which acts to polarize scientists and the public. The most pernicious development in the climate science ‘wars’ is name-calling on both sides – denier, anti-science, fraud. On a complex topic like climate change, there is broad range of perspectives and attempting to label individuals into two groups diminishes opportunities for actual thinking and collaboration.” Dr. Judith Curry, Professor and former Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology

There are certainly groups who never read the other side’s case. There are many who have opinions locked in and no amount of evidence will sway them. So those are not the ones I try to reach: rather it is the uninformed masses that matter.” Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientists in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research

“As scientists, we know how unusual it is to have a consensus about anything. We are trained to disagree–and let’s be honest, we enjoy it too! There is little more invigorating to a scientist than good argument about some intricacy or nuance of the climate system. And I’d probably die of shock the day I got a peer review back from a journal that says ‘Fantastic paper! Accept without any revisions!’

Because of that, accusations that we have, in so many words, “drunk the consensus Kool-Aid,” often cause us to bristle and object. No scientist likes to be categorized as a mindless worshiper in the church of Al Gore, let alone be named as the high priestess (as some of my emails have suggested).” Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University

“The public must understand that scientists live and breathe uncertainty every day, and I believe it is our job to showcase that aspect of the scientific method when given the opportunity. That said, the fact that we do broadly agree on some key facts concerning issues of societal relevance, like climate change, should not be obscured, nor dismissed, in service of particular ideologies.” Dr. Kim Cobb, Professor of Climate Science and Geochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology

“It is important for the general public to realize that the best and brightest scientists know that we are changing the climate. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that we don’t know everything with absolute certainty. We cannot tell what the temperature of the Earth will be in 100 years, and we don’t know how high the seas will rise. Let’s acknowledge that and instead ask, how do we make informed decisions in an area where knowledge is imperfect?” Dr. John Abraham, Professor of Thermal Sciences at the University of St. Thomas

To read more from these prominent climate scientists, please check out the full 12-part series: Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature.

————

Citations:

Pew Research Center, February 15, 2015, “How Scientists Engage the Public.” [cited 2015 February 17]. Available from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/02/15/how-scientists-engage-public/

Englehardt K. 2014. Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature – Series Conclusion. [cited 2015 February 17]. Available from: http://www.scilogs.com/the-leap/climate-change-communication-taking-the-temperature-series-conclusion/

About the Author:

Kirk EnglehardtKirk Englehardt (@kirkenglehardt) is Director of Research Communication and Marketing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He blogs about strategic communication for academia and science at ‘The Leap’ on the Scilogs.com Network.

One thought on “Climate Scientists Weigh-in on Scientific Disagreement and Public Trust

  1. Stacey Brown

    I think sometimes we forget that scientist are humans and we feel that because they are in this position of power that they are always right about everything. As soon as they are found to be wrong we act as if we can’t trust them and sometimes the public will attack them because of their personal opinion. It’s nice to read about scientist saying hey sometimes we are wrong and its okay for us to be wrong.

    Reply

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