Has ‘Climategate’ Damaged Science in the Public Eye? If So, What is to be Done?

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Published on February 23rd, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

We put those questions to three of The Nature Conservancy’s hundreds of scientists (and all three bloggers for Cool Green Science) — here are their responses:

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Jonathan Hoekstra, managing director for the Conservancy’s climate change program: Yes — unbecoming language by some individual scientists created a perception of bias and misconduct, which in turn has contributed to eroding public trust and confidence in the conclusions put forward by the larger science community.

So what should we do about it? I think it was a mistake for the science and environmental community to lean so heavily on scientific consensus as the justification for climate action. Consensus doesn’t actually prove anything other than that a bunch of people agree about something. We’ve now seen how easy it is to sow un-consensus without changing the underlying science in any way.

What we should have done from the beginning, and need to start doing now, is paying attention to the actual SCIENCE about climate change — to the incontrovertible evidence of warming and change, to the rapidly mounting evidence that people are behind it, to assessments of the risks we face, and to the scientific uncertainties that still need to be examined and resolved.

There will be questions and different perspectives on some of the science — especially the parts that remain uncertain — but at least the discussion would be about the substance of evidence instead of spinning around on rhetoric, innuendo, and “gotcha” shenanigans.

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Rob McDonald, vanguard scientist with the Conservancy’s Conservation Strategies division: One of the things that has surprised me most about the discussion of ‘Climategate’ is how quick scientists have been to express anger or disgust at the offending UK scientists.

Some of that anger is certainly appropriate — there’s a recognition that these scientists were so convinced of the rightness of a certain interpretation of the world that they let their ideology trump the facts to some extent. But have some pity and perspective, guys! No data was falsified and there is no grand conspiracy, just a few scientists who were so aggressive in promoting their beliefs that they lost sight of what it means to be a scientist. I dare say that if looked at 10,000 emails from any scientist, you could find one sentence that, while perhaps not as damning as ‘Climategate,’ certainly would be embarrassing if published.

The bigger problem is that there is little understanding outside academia of what the scientific process is really about. The media tends to talk about scientists as a unified block, some wise panel that makes a conclusion after looking at all the data in the world at once. This makes those who are politically prone to disbelieve in climate change prone to dream of some conspiracy, for in principle the “wise panel” might be mistaken or corrupt.

In reality, the scientific endeavor is hundreds of thousands of individuals all looking to discover the truth about their own certain field and gain some fame. Individual scientific papers are sometimes wrong, and sometimes individual scientists persist in a belief long after the weight of evidence has undercut the foundations of that belief. But there is a strong incentive for the scientific community to catch that error.

Picture for a second that there was some solid proof out there that climate change was not a big a problem as the evidence now suggests it is. The scientist that uncovered that evidence would win fame and a professorship at any university he or she wanted and perhaps a Nobel Prize. While individual scientists make mistakes, the system tends toward truth.

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Dave Mehlman, director of the Conservancy’s migratory bird program: I think that the public perception of science was already in bad shape before ‘Climategate.’ Therefore, ‘Climategate’ et seq. has made a bad situation worse.

The public generally does not understand the scientific process nor the give and take among the scientific community — we are seen as basically advocacy disguised with complicated language. Unfortunately, this is not a good thing when it comes to ongoing climate change and actually getting our society to do something about it.

What can done? This will be extremely difficult to solve; public trust and confidence is rapidly lost, but takes forever to earn. I think the scientific community will have to be honest with its critics, both legitimate and not, and supply whatever information is requested. We have to present our data and analyses clearly and succinctly, but we must be careful not to over-interpret it too much nor cast everything related to climate change in an exclusively negative light. Finally, we and our organizations will have to practice what we preach: if we want society to change, we’ll have to lead by example.

(Image credit: Lisa Brewster/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Opinions expressed here and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. For more information about our editorial policy and legal terms of use, see our About This Blog page.

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