Tag Archives: uncertainty

Science and the greens

I’ve written a piece with Adam Corner about science and the green movement.

It’s a complex issue with many components, characters, ideas and histories to weave through. Although I have a lot of sympathy when people, like Fred Pearce, worry the green movement is too often “turning up on the wrong side of the scientific argument”, I also think we should be careful of marginalising the political contribution the green movement can offer. Scientists and members of the green movement – where they don’t already overlap – should be listening to each other more.

You can read the full piece at the New Left Project, or here’s an extract:

It’s not just their scepticism of science and technology, which gets the greens into trouble with the scientific community; it’s their overconfidence in it too. In the wake of the 2009 “Climategate” hack, Mike Hulme wrote a piece for the Guardian complaining that climate camp activists misunderstood science as they tried to use it for political advocacy. Citing an example of a banner claiming protestors were “armed only with peer-reviewed science”, Hulme stressed they were armed with much more than that. The Climate Camp protest reflected a powerful vision of politics and economic justice, and should be open about that. Using phrases like “as demanded by the science” only emasculates public debate.

It is important to see that Climate Camp slogan in its political context too though. The campaigners were responding to concerns that they were dangerous; they wanted to suggest they were armed with something other than sticks. The actual banner has a set of ellipses as well as the word “only” between “armed” and “peer reviewed”. Read in such light, we could even see this as a relatively humble cultural reference to science, applied for its timidity, not ferocity. Moreover, why not stand behind some science? Especially as there are so many others quick to try to diminish the strength of scientific voices in this debate. We appreciate this may sound at odds with our earlier emphasis on the political nature of science and technology, but it is possible to be aware that science won’t win a battle outright, and still say it is part of the argument. We think our environmental policy decisions can cope with the small degree of nuance required to draw on science whilst also putting it in a social context. We think our environmental policy needs to be able to do this.

Steven Yearley suggests environmental NGOs were initially wary about campaigning on climate change; they were looking for concrete successes and this topic just looked like one designed to provoke and sustain controversy. Looking at recent campaigns, we might be excused for thinking some have returned to a rather 80s focus on saving animals and battling corporate corruption. It’s all bees, oil spills, gas bills and aircraft noise, with the complex, abstract and contested topic of climate change hiding in background. Maybe the climate science will come out from behind the polar bear pictures with the publication of the fifth IPCC report, or maybe not. Sense About Scienceare working on questions of the public understanding of uncertainty. Arguably this is a worthwhile, scientific and sensible thing to do, but considering the well documented well-funded and well-organised campaigns to spread doubt in climate science (the so-called “Merchants of Doubt”), it’s understandable many are concerned about such an approach. One person’s open and healthy acceptance of uncertainty is another’s “dragging heels with inaction”, or even stirring trouble. Uncertainty, like many aspects of environmental policy, can be rhetorically deployed to a range of ends.

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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.