Here’s a story that’s been all over the online news this week: the Wall Street Journal published a piece, signed by 16 scientists, about how climate change isn’t cause for concern.
So obviously there’s some nonsense in there, that plenty of people have already picked up on. For example, quite what CO2 being colourless has to do with anything, who knows. There’s a set of anecdotes and little in the way of facts discussed (it would have been nice to have seen the reference to the UN climate projections visualised or quantified, at least).
Next, a group of climate scientists got annoyed and wrote this letter to the editor.
This seems to have been met with hurrahs by many, but when I read it, it drives me crazy.
They open with the argument that the original 16 scientists don’t have the right credentials to be heard:
Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.
This is such a dangerous path to take, such an incredibly poor way to engage in public science debate. These things shouldn’t be decided by wheeling out experts in white coats and arguing over their “reputations”. I realise not everyone can read every piece of research out there, and we do need experts to summarise things for us, but the debate should be about summarising this research and providing links and references for anyone who wants to read more or check the arguments presented.
Instead, we now have a perfect example of public science debate descending into this: let’s debate the credentials of some experts, try to win on that ground, and then hope people just accept whatever they say as fact. The original article did a bit of that with their 16 signatories, and the respondents just got baited into working at that level.
It drives me crazy.
It happens with all science, but climate science feels like one of the worst areas for this. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a highly political issue, and so heavily debated in public. Perhaps the random element of the weather provides extra opportunity to dig out facts to support whatever you want to say.
Back to the letter – it gets worse:
Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused.
Since when did we need to do research on how many scientists believe in whether something is true or not? I thought science was supposed to be about the evidence, the observable facts of the matter? Not how many people believe in something? What the hell kind of research is this? Why are they quoting it here? [It's so bogus that it doesn't really matter, but they also don't even back it up with a reference]
Often, this debating approach can be blamed on journalists or others using scientists to make their points; but this is a letter direct from scientists. They have nobody to blame for this one.
If you’re a scientist talking about science publicly, please, we deserve better.