Posts Tagged ‘media’

Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?

March 9, 2011

There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change. I’ve discussed the communication conundrum a few times as well, and assigned blame to various quarters, e.g

The media:

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints.


Most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language.

Though of course both statements in isolation miss the broader point, which is that

there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc.

Enough self-quotation. Discussions are raging at Keith’s, Eli’s (check out John Fleck’s comments), mt’s, Stoat, with very interesting discussions in the comments sections.


John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and it’s their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.

To which many journalists would understandably reply: Exchange “scientists” by “journalists” as well while you’re at it. And both would be right.

John Fleck points out that, apart from egregious examples that exist e.g. in the opinionsphere journalism,

the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely – climate change – are doing a creditable job.

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press “significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change,” but that what Boykoff calls the “prestige press” (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a “false balance” problem, Boykoff’s most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he’s got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the “false balance” thing.

William puts the lion’s share of responsibility with the public:

But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertainment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.

There’s something to that. Over the years, even the evening news and the weather forecast have changed in its narrative and appearance so as to be more about entertainment than about information. Election debates. Blogs. People want entertainment and they want it now. Gimme a quick fix, quick. Next, what’s next? There’s no time for learning or reflection.

Jonathan Gilligan has a similar line of thought as William, putting the responsibility on the public to consume the information they chose to:

There are lots of great books by scientists and journalists, so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?

Yes, there’s bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can’t trust the general public to figure out what’s trustworthy, then it’s game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.

While rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) isn’t the type of medium that we can expect to cover slowly unraveling stories in any depth. But even deadline news journalism is usually put in a certain context, where such issues can be touched upon. And there’s also background journalism, science journalism, and other kinds of communication (by scientists, journalists or whomever) that could rise to the occasion.

Which gets us to the point that it’s really about. Quoting mt:

the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”

IPCC troubles in context: Some good Dutch media coverage

September 3, 2010

One of Holland’s quality newspapers, the Volkskrant, had some excellent coverage of the IAC’s review of the IPCC process. Below is my translation of (part of) an editorial column (discussed in Dutch in an earlier post):

In a way it was inevitable that the UN climate panel IPCC got cornered earlier this year when some mistakes were discovered in its reports. The IPCC, as a volunteer organization with a small staff, could no longer cope with the societal polarization which was the consequence of the unwelcome message of global warming and climate change. Thus, professionalization is required.


The mistakes and glitches which were discovered in the IPCC’s 2007 report were the result of clumsiness and sloppiness. They did not undermine the knowledge that the climate is changing.

I would add that most IPCC mistakes were minor or even imaginary, and most were in working group 2 about (regional) effects of climate change; they did not concern the physics of climate and why it is changing. (See  e.g. my commentary on the 2035 – 2350 glacier mistake, which is the only serious mistake, even if it is in a relatively insignificant and hardly read portion of the whole report. The Dutch area-under-sea-level slip was mostly clumsy.)

In spite of this it caused a wave of distrust, which suggests that climate science and IPCC as its flag bearer had a problem with their public image.

With not a little help from large quarters of the media. And of course human psychology to rather not believe things that you don’t want to be true.

On the one hand climate scientists are expected to keep themselves to the facts only. At the same time their results and understanding are also arguments in the societal discussions about climate change. But as soon as they participate in this discussion accusations of bias come up.

A more professional IPCC should not only work on the internal weaknesses and make and present itself as scientifically solid as possible. It will also have to make clear that its work has political implications, but that that doesn’t mean that it’s engaged in doing politics.

The last portion (my bold) should be self-evident, but since in reality many people and media chose to paint it as the opposite, it is unfortunately necessary to point out the obvious.

Climate skepticism comes in many shades of grey

June 26, 2010

It has long puzzled me why so many people don’t accept the science. There is a tremendous difference in opinion about climate change amongst the lay public as compared to in the scientific community. I’m hardly alone in pondering the question of why (see e.g. this insightful post). It’s clearly an important issue if we are to increase the public’s understanding of climate change. Of course it is only to be expected that some people are skeptical: Naturally there is a spectrum of opinions. But that does not explain why that spectrum is so dramatically different between different groups of people (the lay public and the professional scientists in this case). To name a few plausible reasons:

  • Ideology can be a strong driver of how people view the science: Mitigation of climate change is seen as threatening by many libertarians, because they associate mitigation with government intervention, which they oppose.
  • Psychology can also be very powerful: To some it feels good to be the underdog and get celebrated by anonymous fans on the internet and phoned up routinely by newspapers, TV and other media (that counts for the ‘spokespeople’ only). Many people have a psychological predisposition to side with the underdog (that counts for their fans). The mitigation challenge is very great indeed, which means that it is psychologically favorable to downplay the problem (so as not to get depressed or feeling guilty about everything you do and don’t do). Recently I hear more often that people side with skeptics because they are ‘nicer’. A little odd, but if that plays a major role with presidential elections, than it’s only to be expected that it also plays a role in trusting scientists (or not).
  • Still others suffer from what I call professional deformation: Some well educated people from other disciplines view the science through the lenses of their own specialty, which, if they’re unable to take a bit of a helicopter-view of the situation, could skew their vision.
  • And of course some are just confused. With not a little help from the media, who, in an effort to provide ‘balance’, bias the coverage towards the “skeptical” compared to the mainstream view.
  • Then there are organized efforts at muddying the waters, which bear a resemblance to tactics used by e.g. the tobacco lobby. It is based on manufacturing doubt amongst the public regarding science that produces “inconvenient” results. This mainly applies to certain thinktanks and a few handfuls of individuals, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the media and public perception of the issues. The ‘tactics’ used are in more widespread use, whether consciously or not.

“Old skepticism”

This last category, organized denial and anti-science, could perhaps be seen as the “old skepticism”. It has its roots in history, notably the tobacco wars. It then spilled over to denying environmental issues, such as problems associated with DDT, asbestos, CFC’s, and now CO2. Fred Singer is one of the godfathers of this movement. Recognizing this historical context is important in understanding the nature and tactics of the resistance against science. But it also bears a risk.

Too often, anyone who disagrees with the scientific consensus is called an oil shill, or compared with the tobacco apologists. In most cases, these comparisons are totally off base (at least on the individual level) and counterproductive. Even though it is an important context, overusing this categorization for individuals can easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Not everyone who is skeptical of AGW is in the pay of big oil or is consciously mimicking the tobacco strategies. If someone says that I’ve overused it in the past as well: Guilty as charged.

“New skepticism”

In the previous post I discussed a potential new form of skepticism, which according to some resemble “citizen scientists”. They are usually well educated and skilled people, who investigate specific issues of climate science (hockeysticks, anyone?) in more detail, and find them wanting. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s getting problematic if they conflate these details with what is known about the bigger picture, or if they started out with a deep suspicion that the science as a whole is faulty (e.g. for reasons such as stated above).

The more contempt they show for science, the more they argue the big picture of what’s known, the more they rage against emission reductions and talk about ‘world communist governments’ and other paranoid ideas like that, the less serious I take their criticism. Because to me, these are not characteristics of sincere skepticism; to the contrary.

Who to believe?

February 8, 2009


Amidst all the different information about climate change, how is a layperson going to know who is right? There are a few clues one could follow, that don’t require any specialized knowledge.


-          Seeing the forest for the trees. Nitpicking on small details, and then claiming or insinuating that this challenges the foundation of a whole scientific field. Over-interpreting the significance of a specific finding. This is by far the most prevalent style of argument that one has to watch out for. It usually goes something like “This particular study proves that global warming isn’t due to greenhouse gases”. People tend to forget that observing a bird in the sky doesn’t disprove gravity.

-     Consensus matters. If you get a second opinion on your health condition, and it confirms what your specialist said in the first place, your trust in the diagnosis probably increases. Now imagine that you collect the interpretations of medical professionals all over the world, and by and large they their conclusions converge to the same broad picture. This happens to be how the IPCC comes to its conclusions. If the professionals do their work seriously, than the existence of a consensus amongst them is absolutely relevant (though of course it is not absolute proof). The only way in which you can ignore a consensus as being irrelevant, is if you can somehow show that the professionals are all lying or incompetent. (See the next clue for what that brings you into.) Oreskes has an excellent presentation on this.

-          Beware of conspiracy theories. The consensus wouldn’t matter if somehow all those scientists had bought into the same conspiracy of wanting to take away your SUV. (Don’t laugh, there are many people who seem to think this way.)

-          Timescales. Climate is defined as the average weather over 30 years. (Year-to-year variability usually averages out over 30 years). Weather and climate are very frequently confused in the popular debate.

-          Spatial scales. Combined with the previous one, an example would be: “It was a very cold winter in the US this year (so global warming is a farce)”. This is also used the other way around: “It was a very warm winter in the US this year (so global warming is getting worse)”. Both are equally silly conclusions.

-          Logic. Some of the most heard ‘skeptical’ arguments don’t stand up to basic logic, and no knowledge of climate is needed to see that. Example: “Climate has always changed, so it is not caused by humans.” It wasn’t in the past, but that’s no evidence that it isn’t now. Try that line of argument in a court of law against a pyromaniac, by saying that forest fires have always happened naturally; it won’t fly.

-          Confusion of cause and effect. A consensus emerged as a result of the strength of the accumulated evidence, not the other way around. Activists may try to persuade you to trade in your SUV for a Prius because they’re worried about climate change; not the other way around. A tricky one is temperature and CO2: They influence each other both ways. (see also here

-          Think in terms of likelihood. How likely is the previous proposition of a mass conspiracy amongst stubborn scientists? How likely is it that scientists have for decades overlooked this little finding that supposedly shakes the foundations of a relatively well established science?

-          Think in terms of risk. What if we take measures against global warming and it turns out less bad than expected? What if we don’t take measures against global warming and it turns out worse than expected? (False positive and false negative, respectively. See also this comment at RealClimate) 

-          Check for consistency. If someone sais (rightfully) that one particular event (e.g. Kathrina) is not proof of man-made climate change, but then claims that the current cold winter is proof against, you should raise your eyebrows.

-          Expertise. In gauging the credibility of a source, their expertise is important to consider. When it concerns your health, you usually trust a doctor’s opinion more than that of a software engineer. It is not unreasonable to trust a climate scientist more than a doctor when it concerns climate. Of course this is not proof, but there is a difference in likelihood of them knowing what they’re talking about.

-          Motive. The credibility of a source also depends on their motives, both on economic and ideological grounds, for telling you a certain side of the story. What vested interests, if any, are there to the different sides of the story? In a worldview where government interference is deeply hated, could it be tempting to distort evidence that could possibly lead to calls for government action? In a worldview where societal problems are preferably tackled by government, does it make any sense to make up a phony problem to call for government action? I don’t know anyone who wants government action on a phony problem just for the sake of it. Don’t underestimate the power of ideology, but always include a sanity check. See also here and here.


This list is not exhaustive, so if you have other pointers to add to make sense of the public debate on climate change, please share them in a comment. Similar issues of weeding through sources have been discussed in a number of thoughtful posts here, e.g. this one on cherry picking. Other good discussions here, here and here.


Ideally, you would critically assess the evidence for each position to form a well founded opinion on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). In the absence of time to do so, you need to take some shortcuts to assess the flood of information about the topic. None of the clues discussed here constitute proof for or against AGW, but applying multiple clues simultaneously to gauge the credibility of a source can be helpful to ‘distinguish the chaff from the grain’ (het kaf van het koren te scheiden, as we say in Dutch).


Anything but CO2

July 31, 2008

(Nederlandse versie hier)

When I ask my wife what kind of tea she wants, she often replies “anything but green”. (I have gradually learned to then refrain from saying that green tea is good for you). Likewise, an honest “skeptic” would reply to the question what causes global warming, “anything but CO2”. After all, that seems to be the red line in their thinking. Whereas liking green tea or not is a matter of taste, attributing part of the current climate change to CO2 is a matter of science (and that’s a different cup of tea alltogether).



Real skepticism is central to science; after all, science works on the basis of evidence, and the evidence has to withstand critical investigation. However, continuously raising doubt about scientific understanding, which has long been established as true beyond reasonable doubt, is not always useful to science. Especially not when in order to do so, scientific shortcuts are taken (i.e. cherrypicking of data, ignoring basic physics, logical fallacies, etc). People who do the latter are what I call “skeptics”. In quotation marks, because their actual attitude has nothing to do with skepticism. They typically are totally uncritical in accepting any theory that puts the blame for global warming on something different than CO2 (preferably something natural, like the sun). And they are often irrational in pushing aside the multiple lines of evidence in support of the enhanced greenhouse effect.

That of course gave rise to a whole range of other names for so-called “skeptics”, which better describe their attitude. But the fact is that in the public discussion they are still best known as “skeptics”, which is why I use that name. Besides, some other names that have been suggested, such as denier, can be offensive because of their association wiith some black pages of history. Contrarians, denialists, delayers, are other terms being used. But what’s in the name.

Scientific “skeptics”

Of course it’s not all black and white. Someone who is critical of certain aspects of climate science, can actually contribute a great deal to the field. As long as (s)he adheres to the scientific method and does not go into a knee-jerk “anything but CO2” mode. Some scientists, who were once skeptical, now turned “skeptical”, and their scientific opinion seems to be set in stone, unchangeable by evidence to the contrary. Many more scientists who were once skeptical have over time become convinced by the accumulating evidence for human induced climate change. And of course there are still scientists who are sincerely skeptical. However, they are at least as rare as the “skeptics”.

Ideological “skeptics”

There are a number of vocal “skeptics” out there who don’t appear to be the least interested in increasing scientific understanding, but rather in promoting a political agenda. They distort and abuse the science in order to use it as an argument for inaction. They are often linked to right-wing think-tanks and some of them were also involved in trying to halt anti-smoking regulation by arguing that negative health effects of smoking were not proven. Any public statement they make about science is accompanied by a statement in favor of laissez faire politics. Their opinion about climate science seems to be driven by their political opinion, rather than vice versa.

Unfortunately, they have been hugely successful in stalling meaningful regulation, despite their relatively small number. Through their anything-but-CO2 attitude, they have made themselves irrelevant to the scientific discussion. However, we keep hearing from them via the media, who provide them with a platform to sprout their disinformation, as if they have anything useful to say about climate science. Wouldn’t it be better if reporting about science reflects the current scientific knowledge? Would it make sense to keep hearing that there is no causal relation between smoking and health (despite mounting evidence to the contrary)?

Ideological “skepctics” are cheating. It would be better if they backed up their political opinion with their real arguments, rather than presenting pseudo-scientific nonsense as as reason. If there were no greenhouse effect, there would be no life on Earth. Deal with it.

Alles behalve CO2

July 31, 2008

(English version here)


Wanneer ik mijn vrouw vraag wat voor soort thee ze wil, is het antwoord vaak “als het maar geen groene thee is”. Een eerlijke “scepticus” zou de vraag wat de oorzaak is van de huidige opwarming beantwoorden met “als het maar niet CO2 is”. Dat lijkt in ieder geval de rode draad in hun redenering te zijn. Of je van groene thee houd is een kwestie van smaak, maar in hoeverre CO2 aan klimaatverandering bijdraagt is een kwestie van wetenschap.


Sceptische houding

Een sceptische houding is belangrijk voor wetenschap. De wetenschappelijke bewijsvoering moet tenslotte de toets der kritiek kunnen doorstaan. Aan de andere kant, het continue in twijfel te trekken van zaken die al lang een hoge mate van zekerheid hebben bereikt, is niet altijd nuttig. Zeker niet als daarbij wetenschappelijke bochten worden afgesneden (bv het selectief gebruiken en weglaten van observaties, het terzijde leggen van basis natuurkunde, logische fouten in redeneringen). Mensen die dat wel doen noem ik “sceptici”. Tussen aanhalingstekens, omdat hun houding in feite niks met scepticisme te maken heeft. Normaal gesproken zijn ze totaal onkritisch t.o.v. theorieën die klimaatverandering door natuurlijke factoren proberen te verklaren. En vaak zijn ze volkomen irrationeel in het naast zich neer leggen van de vele aanwijzingen die duiden op een versterkt broeikaseffect en de menselijke hand daarin. Het is daarom niet verwonderlijk dat er een hoop andere namen in omloop zijn (meest in het Engels) om deze “sceptici” beter te beschrijven. Maar in de publieke discussie worden ze nog altijd “sceptici” genoemd, en daarom gebruik ik die term ook.


Wetenschappelijke “sceptici”

Er is natuurlijk een groot grijs gebied. Iemand die kritisch is t.o.v. bepaalde aspecten van klimaatwetenschap kan er juist een belangrijke bijdrage aan geven. Zo lang ze maar wetenschappelijk correct werken en niet in een “alles behalve CO2” houding springen. Sommige wetenschappers die vroeger sceptisch waren, zijn nu “sceptisch” geworden, en hun wetenschappelijke mening lijkt onwrikbaar, niet in het minst beïnvloed door aanwijzingen voor het tegengestelde. Anderzijds zijn vele wetenschappers die vroeger sceptisch waren, intussen overtuigd geraakt door de opeenstapeling van aanwijzingen voor menselijke invloed op het klimaat. En natuurlijk zijn er ook nog wetenschappers die oprecht sceptisch zijn. Maar die zijn minstens net zo zeldzaam als de “sceptici”.


Ideologische “sceptici”

Er zijn een aantal luidruchtige “sceptici”, die niet in het minst geïnteresseerd lijken te zijn in het bijdragen aan wetenschappelijke kennis, maar des te meer in het promoten van een politieke agenda. Zij verdraaien en misbruiken de wetenschap om het te gebruiken als argument om niks te doen. Vaak zijn ze aan rechtse denktanks (meest in de VS) gelieerd, en sommigen van hen waren ook al betrokken bij de campagnes om twijfel te zaaien over de gezondheidseffecten van roken een paar decennia geleden. Die natuurlijk bedoeld waren om de politieke besluitvorming over maatregelen tegen roken te beïnvloeden. Elke publieke uiting over klimaatverandering wordt verbonden aan het propageren van een laissez faire politiek op het gebied van energie. Het lijkt er sterk op dat hun mening over klimaatwetenschap gestuurd wordt door hun politieke mening, i.p.v. andersom.


Jammergenoeg zijn ze heel succesvol geweest in het vertragen van zinvolle regelgeving, ondanks hun relatief kleine aantal. Hun starre “allesbehalve CO2” houding heeft hen irrelevant gemaakt voor de wetenschappelijke discussie. Maar toch blijven we van ze horen via de media, die hen een podium geven om hun disinformatie te verspreiden, alsof ze iets zinnigs te zeggen hebben over klimaatwetenschap. Zou het niet beter zijn als de berichtgeving over wetenschap een afspiegeling zou zijn van de wetenschappelijke kennis? Zou het zinvol zijn om nog steeds te lezen en te horen dat er geen oorzakelijk verband is tussen roken en gezondheid (al zijn er legio aanwijzingen voor het tegengestelde)?


De ideologische “sceptici” spelen vals. Ze zouden hun politieke mening met hun echte redenen moeten staven, niet met pseudo-wetenschappelijke onzin. Als er geen broeikaseffect zou zijn, was er geen leven op aarde. Deal with it.

“Klimaatsceptici” raken ver verwijderd van de werkelijkheid

July 22, 2008


Dit is een antwoord op een bericht over Fred Singer in Milieufocus en de Telegraaf. Het is als column verschenen in Milieufocus (membership required).

(English version here)


De gedachte dat CO2 nauwelijks invloed heeft op het klimaat, zoals door Fred Singer wordt beweerd, is onhoudbaar. Dergelijke zogenaamd kritische standpunten mogen het dan goed doen in de media, in de wetenschappelijke discussie doen ze niet meer mee. Ze zijn namelijk allang ontkracht.


Er worden in de journalistiek tegenwoordig niet meer veel woorden vuil gemaakt aan claims dat roken geen schadelijke gezondheidseffecten heeft (iets wat Singer in het verleden heeft gepropageerd). Of aan claims dat CFK’s de ozonlaag niet aantasten (ook dat beweerde Singer). Het is hoog tijd dat de media ook een wetenschapsgetrouwe beeldvorming over klimaatverandering laten zien.


CO2 en opwarming: hypothese of feit?

Het is al meer dan 100 jaar bekend dat CO2 infraroodstraling absorbeert, en dus een opwarmend effect heeft. Dankzij dit effect heeft de aarde een leefbare temperatuur, en is het op Venus kokend heet. Natuurlijk zijn er onzekerheden in de klimaatwetenschap, maar de kennis is wel degelijk een paar stations verder dan Singer en een handjevol andere (ex-) wetenschappers beweren.


Het temperatuurverloop van de afgelopen 100 jaar wordt door klimaatmodellen goed gereproduceerd. Ook de afgelopen 10 jaar wijken daarbij niet significant af, al moet worden opgemerkt dat het temperatuurverloop over tijdschalen van een decennium (of minder), sterk wordt beïnvloed door het veranderlijke weer, grote vulkaanuitbarstingen, en de El Niño (1998) / La Niña (2007) cyclus.


Er zijn een aantal zaken waar de wetenschap een hoge mate van zekerheid over heeft bereikt:

-       Over de afgelopen ~100 jaar is het klimaat op aarde significant warmer geworden, met de grootste stijging in temperatuur vanaf ongeveer 1975.

-       De concentratie van CO2 en ander broeikasgassen is door menselijk handelen verhoogd.

-       Basale natuurkunde en vele waarnemingen duiden op een oorzakelijk verband.

-       Verdere stijging van broeikasgassen zal tot meer opwarming leiden.


Andere factoren

Natuurlijk zijn er ook andere factoren naast broeikasgassen die het klimaat kunnen beïnvloeden, bijvoorbeeld aërosolen, landgebruik, en zonneactiviteit. De zon wordt vaak aangegrepen door “sceptici” als de hoofdoorzaak van de huidige opwarming. Maar hoewel de toename in zonneactiviteit in de eerste helft van de 20ste eeuw inderdaad heeft bijgedragen aan de opwarming, is de zonneactiviteit (en afgeleiden daarvan zoals kosmische straling) sinds de jaren zestig constant gebleven. De sterke temperatuurstijging vanaf 1975 kan daar dus niet mee verklaard worden.


Een eventuele alternatieve verklaring voor de huidige klimaatverandering kan niet zo maar alle beschikbare kennis en waarnemingen naast zich neer leggen: het moet die met elkaar integreren tot een totaalbeeld. Het infrarood absorberend vermogen van broeikasgassen valt niet te ontkennen door naar de zon te wijzen. Je ontkent ook de zwaartekracht niet als je een vogel ziet vliegen.



De zeespiegel stijgt nu sneller dan in het verleden (vóór 1900) en ook sneller dan voorspeld door klimaatmodellen. Het eventueel (mechanisch) versneld afsmelten van landijs is een onderzoeksgebied waar nog veel kennis ontbreekt. Maar de onzekerheid hierover stemt niet tot geruststelling, want de risico’s van een substantiële zeespiegelstijging zijn groot. Velen van de grote miljoenensteden bevinden zich in nabijheid van de zee op geringe hoogte.



Singers ongefundeerde mening over CO2 is niet relevant voor de energiediscussie. Net zo min als zijn mening over roken relevant is voor de discussie over het rookverbod. Over politieke opties, bijvoorbeeld op het gebied van energiepolitiek, verschillen de meningen. En verschillende meningen moeten gehoord worden. Maar laat dan wetenschappelijk aantoonbare onwaarheden achterwege. Die dragen namelijk niet bij aan de discussie. Integendeel.

Wetenschappelijk debat en de media

July 14, 2008

(For the English version go here)

Wetenschappelijke conferenties en tijdschriften zijn de plaatsen waar het wetenschappelijke debat plaatsvindt (en dus niet in de krant of op televisie of op internet). Het aandeel “skeptische” argumenten in deze wetenschappelijke fora is heel erg klein ten opzichte van de grote meerderheid aan argumenten (en bewijsvoering) die in lijn zijn met de consensus dat het klimaat aan het veranderen is (grotendeels) door toedoen van menselijke activiteit. Zijn klimaatwetenschappers het over alles eens dan? Valt er niks meer te discussiëren? Natuurlijk wel. Maar het debat gaat over heel specifieke onderwerpen, en de uiteindelijke “uitkomst” heeft meestal weinig tot geen invloed op de wetenschappelijke consensus (zie bv. deze Engelstalige realclimate post). Een nieuw resultaat moet nog steeds de natuurwetten gehoorzamen, en moet consistent zijn met de enorme hoeveelheid aan waarnemingen en bewijsvoering die al beschikbaar zijn. Het zien vliegen van een vogel is geen bewijs voor het niet bestaan van zwaartekracht. Die simpele waarheid wordt vaak over het hoofd gezien. De uitdrukking “het debat is over” refereert aan het “debat” of de huidige opwarming voornamelijk door menselijke activiteit is veroorzaakt. Dat debat is inderdaad (al lang) over, tenminste in de wetenschappelijke sfeer. Er zijn nog volop interessante details om over te discussiëren, maar die zullen het algemene beeld nauwelijks beïnvloeden.

Rol van de media

De populaire media geven vaak een vertekend beeld van het wetenschappelijke debat door extreme meningen die maar door een heel kleine minderheid van wetenschappers wordt aangehangen gelijke ruimte of tijd te geven als de gangbare opvatting. Dat komt overeen met het presenteren van creationisme als theorie met evenveel wetenschappelijke geldigheid als evolutie. Of altijd als er een discussie over roken (en eventuele regelgeving) is, iemand laten vertellen dat roken helemaal niet zo ongezond is als wel beweerd wordt. Waarschijnlijk voelt het eerlijk aan voor journalisten om een gelijk platform te bieden aan tegengestelde meningen, maar het geeft een verkeerd beeld van het huidige wetenschappelijke denken. het publiek wordt verkeerd voorgelicht, soms met een verhoogd risico als gevolg. Dat is het geval in het voorbeeld over roken, maar ook bij klimaatverandering. Een controverse creëren buiten de wetenschappelijke wereld en die dan presenteren als een wetenschappelijke controverse is misleidend. Een goed overzicht van deze zogenaamde “valse objectiviteit” wordt gegeven op Stephen Schneider’s website.


Publiek debat

Er worden talloze debatten en panel discussies georganiseerd over echte en zogenaamde controverses. Zo zijn er nog steeds regelmatig debatten tussen creationisten en wetenschappers die de evolutieleer verdedigen (vooral in de VS). Debatten over klimaatverandering zijn er ook talloze. Hoe nuttig zijn dergelijke debatten? Vaak resulteren ze bij de toeschouwers in de indruk dat de wetenschap nog heel erg verdeeld is. Of nog erger, halen ze echte en pseudo-wetenschap door elkaar. Deze gevolgen van een debat zijn heel nuttig voor (en natuurlijk het doel van) de aanhangers van de minderheidstheorie: Onzekerheid en twijfel over de wetenschappelijke consensus vergroot hun geloofwaardigheid.


Twijfel: verdeel en heers

Als de bedoeling van bepaalde “skeptici” is om serieuze maatregelen te vertragen of zelfs te voorkomen, dan is twijfel zaaien over de realiteit van door de mens veroorzaakte klimaatverandering een heel effectieve strategie. Die strategie is ook bewust gekozen, gemodelleerd naar het voorbeeld van de tabakslobby. Niet alleen is de strategie hetzelfde, dezelfde mensen spelen een sleutelrol in beide (en nog andere) discussies (zie bv. de fantastische uiteenzetting van Oreskes in deze video presentatie). Publieke debatten en de zogenaamde “gebalanceerde” journalistiek doen het hier heel goed bij. De publieke discussie is met veel succes geponeerd in termen van bewijs en onzekerheid. Terwijl als basis voor (politieke) besluitvorming het concept risico veel zinvoller is. Voor een lange tijd werden maatregelen tegen roken tegengegaan door te hameren op de onzekerheid en afwezigheid van bewijs over de gezondheidseffecten. Die redenering verloor zijn effect toen mensen begonnen in te zien dat met de opeenstapeling van aanwijzingen het toch wel heel onwaarschijnlijk is dat roken geen invloed heeft op je gezondheid. Eenzelfde inzicht in de risico’s is nodig voor klimaatverandering. Absolute zekerheid is niet noodzakelijk als basis voor maatregelen; een rationele risicoanalyse daarentegen wel.

Scientific debate and the media

May 21, 2008

(Voor Nederlandse versie klik hier)

Scientific conferences and journals provide the stage where scientific debate among scientists is generally held (i.e. not the newspaper or the television or the internet). The proportion of so-called “skeptical” arguments in the scientific venues is very tiny compared to the overwhelming majority of arguments broadly in line with the consensus view that human activity is altering the climate. Don’t scientists debate anything in the field of climate science anymore then? Of course they do. But those debates generally cover very specific topics, the outcome of which will not dramatically change the consensus view, if at all (see e.g. this realclimate post). Any new finding still has to obey the laws of physics, and has to be consistent with the massive body of observations and evidence already available. Observing a bird in the air doesn’t disprove gravity. The statement that “the debate is over” refers to the “debate” whether current climate change is predominantly due to human activity and whether it poses a problem that needs addressing. That “debate” is over indeed, at least in the scientific arena. There are plenty of interesting tidbits left to debate, but they will not likely change the big picture.

Role of the media

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints. That’s like discussing creationism as being a scientific theory of equal merit as evolution. Or to have someone make the case that smoking is not bad for your health at all, when smoking laws are being discussed. Perhaps it feels fair to provide those minority viewpoints with an equal sized platform to communicate their viewpoints, but it gives a false picture of the current scientific thinking on the subject. In doing so, the media do a disservice to their audience. And in some cases they even endanger their audience, as in the example about smoking, and also in the case of climate change. “Teaching the controversy” only makes sense when there really is a scientific controversy. Creating a controversy outside of the science arena and then presenting it as a scientific controversy is deceptive. See for a nice review of this “false objectivity of balance” Stephen Schneider’s website.


Public debate

There are numerous debates and panel discussions organized everywhere about real and apparent controversies. For example, debates between believers in creationism and defenders of the scientific theory of evolution have been common. Debates about climate change also abound. How useful are these debates? They often result in the audience being confused: Many of them have no clue as to who was right or wrong. Many of them will leave the debate with the impression that the science is not settled at all (or they will confuse pseudo-science and real science). This consequence of the debate is often very useful for the defenders of the (scientific) minority view: Uncertainty and doubt about the scientific consensus provides the minority view with more traction.



If the objective of certain “skeptics” is to delay serious mitigation (emission reduction) measures, sowing doubt about the reality of anthropogenic climate change is a very effective strategy. Public debates and so-called “balanced” reporting in the media serve this purpose very well. They have successfully framed the public debate in concepts such as proof and uncertainty. Whereas for a policy basis, the concept of risk is much more useful. For a long time the tobacco industry successfully delayed actions against smoking with the claim that adverse health effects were not proven. That statement may or may not still be true, dependent on your criteria as to what constitutes proof. But the reasoning lost its effect when people started to realize that the probability of there not being any effect was becoming very small with all the information available, and that the health risks were very substantial indeed. We need a similar realization about climate change. Absolute certainty is not required as a basis for action; rational risk assessment is.


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