Tobacco and climate change: no difference.

Many scientists are perplexed why we have lost the so-called ‘media war on science’ given that the evidence of climate change and its human origin is so extensive and considered unambiguous within the best scientific circles. Have a listen to this fascinating session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the peak US scientific association which also produces science magazine):


The four speakers recorded by Robyn Williams at the ABC Science Show give fascinating perspective on why this has happened despite the fact that the science behind climate change is so solid.  Four major points emerge from their analysis:

1. Climate change is diffusing away from the scientific community and into general society.

“Conservative think-tanks, obviously with corporate support that we’ll hear about, have greatly amplified the work of contrarian scientists. They’ve recently been joined by conservative media, Limbaugh, Fox, conservative politicians, Inhofe, most Republicans these days with the exception of Lindsey Graham, and especially the blogosphere in waging an all-out war in climate change science. We can add undermining climate change policy to the policy impacts that we started out with of conservative think-tanks” (Riley Dunlap).

2. Scientists need to be more sceptical about those new studies coming out saying ‘well, it’s not so bad’.

“For the mass media we’re in time for a new era of coverage. If you decide to cover the ideological think-tanks at all after the American Enterprise Institute has already announced publicly that they’ll pay $10,000 for any scientist who will write something that says ‘hey, it isn’t so bad, this is why I’m sceptical’, if you want to cover them at all, what is worth covering is the tactics that these right-wing think-tanks are using. If you really want to report the conflict like a good journalist: ‘On the one hand this, on the other hand that’, the true other side, the scientifically credible other side on global warming issues is not that it’s not happening but that either it’s as bad as the IPCC says or else it’s worse.” (William Freudenburg)

3. There is a considerable gap between scientific knowledge and public perception.

I think we know that one reason for sure is that the balanced framework that so many journalists rely on unduly weighs outlier views. So we’ve talked about that a lot already, but it seems to me there is an important point for this audience which is how scientists think about the problem. Actually most scientists, it seems to me, don’t spend most of their time really worrying about the balance framework in the media, what they worry about more, or what they invoke if you ask them why the public are confused, is what we historians and sociologists would call the deficit model. That is to say, we tend to assume that the public are confused because they have a deficit of scientific knowledge, education and cognitive skills. That is to say that they’re scientifically illiterate.

So if the problem is a deficit, then the remedy for it is a surfeit. (Naomi Oreskes)

4. There’s no such thing as a good scientist who isn’t a sceptic.

I changed my opinion in 1970 from cooling to warming, published it first, it’s one of my proudest moments in science because we found, as the evidence accumulated, that there were a number of reasons, it’s all explained in chapter one of “Science as a Contact Sport”, and I still have to hear things from those famous climate professors, the ones that publish all the papers in the referee journals, professors Limbaugh and Will, you know, about how… ‘Oh Schneider, he’s just an environmentalist for all temperatures’, it’s a great line! (Stephen Schneider)

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