Debating climate science

I’m currently working on the pilot for an exciting new undergrad course at Imperial which uses science policy issues to challenge students to think about a range of areas of scientific research (not just their degree stream) and put this in some social, political, ethical, epistemological and cultural context. The topic we’ve picked for the pilot is climate change, so we kicked things off this week with a keynote lecture from Brian Hoskins (EDIT 31/1: listen to a podcast of the lecture) Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, and one of the most striking things he said was that he tries to avoid agreeing to take part in debates.

I don’t think he was necessarily against either scientific discussion or democratic engagement. It was more than he didn’t feel climate science could be communicated well via a structure which pits one extreme view up against another. He happened to use the example of the Today Programme putting Nigel Lawson up against a climate scientist and coincidentally, Lawson popped up on Today the following morning. This was a debate on shale gas and he was debating Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, not a Professor of Meteorology, but in many respects it’s a good example of the problem Sir Brian was flagging up. You can have a listen to the interview yourself on the BBC’s website. The interviewer didn’t challenge Lawson’s views as much as many would have wanted, but perhaps you agree that this is appropriate (the Daily Express seem to). Perhaps more straightforwardly, Today could have challenged Lawson on the motivations of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (see this report of a recent campaign on this, and an older post by Bob Ward). Which they did not. My personal position is that providing that sort of context, if not an outright challenge to Lawson, would be basic active journalism. I also think it makes him a slightly suspect choice, though I’m sure some people might say the same about Juniper.

The issue of “false balance” – where a marginal view is put up against scientific consensus as if they were equivalent – is something the BBC has been accused of before (recent BMJ editorial on this). Although it is also worth stressing that empirical research undertaken at Imperial College last year found that, if anything, the problem was lack of context, number and diversity of voices in science reports. Too often there simply weren’t enough people interviewed for balance to be an issue (old post from me when the report was published outlining this). With this in mind, I thought it was odd that although Today did also produce a longer package which gave more context and several other voices, this was broadcast over an hour before. Why not put this with the Lawson/ Juniper interview?

This isn’t just a UK issue (although it might be an English Language one). Earlier this week the Knight Science Journalism Tracker summed up US and Australian coverage of a similar story which they dubbed “the fracking duel“, noting the appeal of an apparent fight for the news business.

On the topic of how and if we can debate climate science, it’s probably worth reading Naomi Oreskes’ recent oped for the LA Times – “The verdict is in on climate change” – where she argues for leadership not debate when it comes to climate change, suggesting it’s unfair to expect the public to make up their own minds. You might also be interested in a recent interview with climate scientist Micheal Mann where he warns that “Scientists have to recognise that they are in a street fight”. I don’t think what Mann suggests is the same as the issue of being set up in a polarised debate, but his view is something to think about along side the others.

A version of this is cross-posted to the Imperial Horizon’s blog. Something I left off there, but worth flagging up is that I noticed Brian Hoskins’ name in the list of attendees at the ‘Chemistry Club’ exclusive networking events for corporate lobbyists (see Guardian datablog). At least when the Today Programme invite Nigel Lawson to debate a Fellow of the Royal Society, we can all listen in.


12 thoughts on “Debating climate science

  1. devonseaglass

    The term ‘scientific consensus’ is something you should think about, in a broad way, unrestricted to climate change, as it seems to need more definition and elaboration.

    1. alice Post author

      I have a degree in the history, philosophy and social studies of science, so “scientific consensus” is a term I’ve thought about rather a lot…

      But yes, I agree it is a term worth unpacking. It just have use as a shorthand, which is how it is used above, but like many shorthands there is a danger if we take it as simply true in itself without sometimes taking the time to unpack it.

      1. devonseaglass

        In my mind it is a nonsense to claim there is a ‘scientific consensus’. Science would be unable to make any progress if a consensus was deemed of value. It is of no value of course, except in the view of people who want the reassurance of a ‘religion’. If something, for example, ‘anthropogenic global warming’, needs and relies on a consensus, it is unproven and subject for further investigation. End of rant!

        1. alice Post author

          Maybe, but then maybe it’s a useful phrase too. I don’t think the word would be used otherwise, I think. For me, it can capture something useful as I dont think we ever have full proof of anything (indeed, to imagine so would be “unscientific” or at least a very, very old idea of “scientific”).

  2. Peter Clarke

    At least the BBC could put up two scientists with opposing views on the topic, Lawson has no knowledge, no qualifications and no purpose (outside his own agenda) in this debate.

    1. alice Post author

      Maybe. Their earlier package did include scientist voices. I think people like Lawson should be included on programmes like Today. I don’t think they should be allowed simple space for self promotion – they should be contextualized and challenged. Though I’d say that about scientists too.

  3. Bishop Hill

    Your suggestion that Lawson and Juniper’s motivations should be examined seems a bit odd to me. After all, in a five minute slot, do we really want to spend four of them discussing what is, when all is said and done, a logical fallacy (the motivational fallacy)?

    1. alice Post author

      Maybe 5 mins is too short. But then why pick them as the voices on the topic if they are problematic. I don’t think questions about economics and ideologies behind someone’s ideas are “a logical fallacy”, I think it’s important context. But then I tend to come to analysis of such debates from a more political/ sociological point of view than pure philosophy, which I have to say I find a bit moribund in this context.

  4. Pingback: Debating climate science | through the looking glass | Secularity

  5. Richard J

    As a retired IC Earth Scientist, I estimate climate ‘science’ as 98% politics, with 2% science. My views on the ‘science’ are private but not particularly complimentary. In this respect further research is welcomed and essential, but paradigms must be challenged, therefore scepticism is highly justified.

  6. Pingback: Imperial Horizons-Follow the Imperial Horizons pilot programme. Climate change in the media: need a new tune?

  7. Pingback: Finding new stories for climate science | through the looking glass

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