10 Mar 2010 – “Science and its Sceptics”, Policy Network

This was a breakfast meeting and debate organised by the think-tank Policy Network, as part of its series on the politics of climate change, which continues. The talk and debate was about scepticism over climate change.

The speaker was Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum and ex-director of the British Antarctic Survey. Anthony Giddens responded, and this was followed by a Q&A session open to the room. The event is described on Policy Network’s website as follows:

“The relationship between the science of climate change and the politics of a climate change is currently an uneasy one. As the recent furore over misrepresented scientific data is debated by the political mainstream, the time is right to reflect upon how this relationship could be strengthened and made more effective in order not to undermine the fragile consensus for emissions reduction programmes across the world. How can we construct flexible public policy mechanisms that allow for the evolution of scientific analysis, whilst not harming the political dimension to overcoming climate change?”


Chris Rapley, director of the Science Museum. Professor Rapley is well known as an expert in climate change science and was previously director of the British Antarctic Survey. He is also a fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and was awarded the CBE in 2003.

Anthony Giddens,
former LSE director and author of The Politics of Climate Change (respondent)

Roger Liddle,
chair of Policy Network (chair)

Notes from the meeting

Chris Rapley – (head of the Science Museum) made a short speech, details as follows:

CR objects to the appropriation of the word “sceptic” by those questioning the reality of man-made climate change. All scientists should be sceptical.

The recent events around climate change science have been like a slow-motion car crash. CR wanted
to talk about 3 areas:

  1. The current situation regarding climate science
  2. The nature of belief
  3. The role of science

1. The current situation of climate science

In 1997 Nature magazine had an editorial about climate science. It said that the bigger problem was not the scientific ignorance of politicians but the political ineptitude of scientists.

There are several asymmetries between scientists and climate “sceptics”.

i) The number of scientists that can talk authoritatively about the big picture of climate change is very small. Science is usually a reductionist enterprise. The usual response of a scientist when asked about the big picture is to struggle and retreat.
You need both bredth and depth of knowledge to talk authoritatively about the big picture of climate science. The number of scientists that have such breadth and depth of knowledge is hugely exceeded by the number of people who are climate sceptics.

ii) A scientist’s position of authority stems from an honest dispassionate appraisal of facts. However, in a debate the winner is usually the one with the best rhetoric; a witty quip will often win an argument. There is an asymmetry in the capacity to win hearts and minds. Scientists argue based on evidence and scientific “truth” as honed by scientific debate, their opponents use mud-wrestling tactics.

iii) Disenfranchisement due to the technicality of the issue. A sceptic can quote a paper and say that the paper is cast iron proof that man-made climate change is not as bad as the IPCC says. It’s very unlikely that anyone in the audience will have read the paper. And for the scientist to refute this takes too long and may go off topic. CR gave an actual example of this.

2. Belief

CR used to think that scientists did not believe, they concluded. He does not think this any more. However, he does think that scientists believe in a more privileged manner than others are able to. If a subject is beyond their field of knowledge they can go to other experts. The scientist will believe the other expert because of their trust in the person’s integrity and competence.
[I think that what CR is getting at is that everyone, including scientists, build up their views based on beliefs. But scientists have more skill and training in their subject than the general population, so they are better able to choose who to believe, because they know who is credible and who is not.]

In Nature on 21st January, Dan Cahern wrote an article “Fixing the communications favour”. The thrust of the article was that people tend to believe in whatever keeps them in favour with the group to which they want to belong. People are unwilling to go outside of what they think those they look up to want them to believe.

If someone believes in the free market and that government should keep out of directing people’s lives as far as possible, then they may tend to oppose top down climate change solutions.

In a presentation CR showed a slide of Norman Tebbit saying 4 things: 1. Control the population 2. Nuclear power is good 3. Don’t let the UN control the planet and 4. Control UK immigration.

Then he showed a slide of James Lovelock saying exactly the same 4 things.

CR suggested to be careful with language so as to not inflame passions.

3. The role of science

Dan Sarowitz has written 2 good articles “Curing the climate backlash” and “Tomorrow never knows”, on 4th March and 7th January.

Some points from these articles:

i) The best thing that happened to earthquake research was the realisation that they could not predict when earthquakes were going to occur. The focus then shifted onto ways in which to make society more resilient to earthquakes. The worst thing that happened to climate change research was the expectation that given bigger computers and more money they could create models which could predict the climate. This was hubris.

ii) Science has been sleepwalking into an area which it should not have entered. There are two tasks involved in climate change. One is to improve understanding, the other is to compel people to act. By moving from task 1 to task 2 the scientists have been asking for trouble. People have responded in a powerful way. [NB There was an interesting counter to this later on, when CR talked about James Lovelock’s visit to the Hadley centre. Lovelock had visited the Hadley centre and talked to many of the scientists there. Each one told him about their speciality, melting glaciers, changing vegetation etc. But it was as if they were talking about another planet. This was how they reduced their cognitive dissonance about these issues. These scientists knew more about the critical problems of climate change than anyone, but it was not changing their behaviour. My own view is that I have no problem at all in scientists acting as activists and trying to change policy. But I also understand why most of them do not do this and will never do this, we should not expect them to, it’s not their core role.]

Tony Giddens responded as follows:

AG had recently had a conversation with Nigel Lawson. It’s interesting the extent to which Nigel Lawson agrees with James Lovelock, apart from the major disagreement about how serious climate change is. It is amazing how people can look at exactly the same data and reach opposite conclusions.

Scientists do not know about politics. We need to talk to people with different points of view – more dialogue is needed. The peer review process tends to produce conformity. As Lovelock says, science does not proceed by consensus. Scientists must be prepared to give up their beliefs.

There is a major problem in getting the public to understand the nature of uncertainty and probability. The public tends to confuse probability with doubt. This makes climate change science easy to attack. The public are very bad at thinking about risk. If you address a risk sufficiently well so it does not develop into a problem then the public think there was no risk – an example of that was SARS.

The blogosphere is new, it has a big role in these issues. The blogosphere can bring into the debate many opinions which have no authority behind them. It is anonymous, people can say things that they would not say face to face. It is much easier to attack than to build up. For example, Michael Mann, the author of the “hockey stick” graph, has received thousands of hate mails.

The IPCC should – and is – considering reform. It should issue smaller reports on specific subjects at more frequent intervals rather than one gigantic report every 5 years. By setting up one giant report as the authority of all authorities, it leaves itself open to one mistake bringing the whole report into question.

Further notes from the question and answer session

When talking about scientists talking about science, CR mentioned that the scientist’s first job is doing science, this is a full time job. CR has read a book on public speaking for scientists by Jane Gregory, it is 20 years old. One of the first bits of advice is that as a scientist speaking to the public, you will be looked down upon by your fellow scientists! It is the “tall poppy” syndrome.
Generally only Nobel prize winning level scientists are given a free pass. CR said that things have probably changed a bit since then, but only a bit.

CR finished by giving an overview of the big picture of climate science. For the last 2 million years, CO2 has cycled between 180ppm during ice ages and 280ppm during inter-glacial periods. The change between these two is the difference between having 2km of ice over Birmingham and now. We have already put enough CO2 in the air to raise the concentration to 387ppm – a 100ppm increase. We should expect some big changes from this. When Lovelock first looked into the climate system, he said that we should expect to see the signal of man-made warming emerge from the noise of weather, somewhere between the 1990’s and the 2030’s. The IPCC say that the signal of man-made warming emerged sometime around 2000. This is a clue that the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to greenhouse gas is towards the top end of estimates.

Notes for my contribution:

  • I read an article recently  http://www.nature.com/climate/2010/1002/full/climate.2010.06.html that was a warning that the climate model temperature projections from models used in AR5 to be published in 2013 would probably have larger uncertainty ranges than the model output from AR4 in 2007.
  • The reason given for the likely increase in the uncertainty range is that the new models will contain more detail about the response of elements in the Earth system like vegetation and ice sheets that was not included in the earlier models.
  • I use models all the time in my work and it is common practice and it’s common sense, that as models improve, the uncertainty range of the output should get smaller not larger.
  • The only way to explain an increase in the uncertainty range is if the uncertainty range in AR4 was actually from the range of model output, rather than being an estimate of the uncertainty in the response of the Earth’s climate. Any work done to estimate probabilities of temperature rise which uses climate model uncertainty ranges is making an assumption that the model output is an accurate reflection of the uncertainty in the response of the climate system, but this assumption is unsafe.
  • I think that climate sceptics have picked up on the fact that the climate models are at an early stage of development. But they’ve drawn the wrong conclusion – if the models are unreliable we should be more worried not less worried.
  • My practical suggestion for responding to the sceptics is to get the military more involved. They could make more statements about how climate change is a big national security issue. This would make it harder for climate sceptics to argue that it is not an important issue.
  • There is an alternative to using models which is to estimate the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gas purely on paleoclimate data. This is much safer than using models, because you’ll never know for sure that your model contains all the real world feedbacks.  James Hansen has used paleoclimate data to estimate the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gas and he came up with the answer that the sensitivity is about twice what climate model output says. Shouldn’t we base climate change policy on the possibility that Hansen is right?

In the meeting I did not raise the point about greater involvement of the military in the meeting. I did put across the other points about modelling and uncertainty, and both AR and CR agreed.

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