Global warming – why can’t scientists agree?

Professor Grant Guilford, Dean of Science at Auckland University, has a very worthwhile article about journalism, law and science, showing how our expectations of each area muddle the debate about global warming.

It is more difficult to answer why, in the face of broad scientific consensus about global warming, the public remains confused.

This disconnection between scientific knowledge and public opinion is not restricted to global warming. There is broad scientific consensus on a number of issues where public opinion is far more divided. Scientists generally agree, for example, that genetically modified food does not pose a food-safety risk; the application of 1080 poison helps protect native flora and fauna; and that vaccinations are important for the health of our children.

…another explanation is that journalists, in their quest for objectivity, strive to report “both sides of the story”. Unfortunately, this admirable ethos results in a systematic over-reporting of dissenting views. It can be very difficult for the media to determine whether a dissenting opinion is specious and should be ignored or is a legitimate challenge to orthodoxy that should be reported.

…consensus is not the same as unanimity.

In contrast to the courtroom, new evidence continually arrives during the conduct of scientific debates. Where science and law do agree, however, is that when a verdict is “beyond reasonable doubt”, such as with global warming, it is time to act.

It’s time to act. That’s what the science tells us to do. Act now to mitigate the risk inherent in our current behaviour.

It sucks being asked to change our behaviour. All sorts of rationalisations and temper tantrums erupt. Even for a rational frog like me. Too bad. Either we adapt our behaviour or we risk joining the fossils.

Despite the title, it is clear from his post that Professor Guilford thinks that the scientists do agree – it’s the public that struggles to seperate the wheat from the chaffe in the global warming debate.

28 Comments Posted

  1. Why should scientists agree on anything? There are very few indisputable facts in life, and even the basket containing those is constantly changing. We have to move on, nevertheless, ideally based on the best evidence available at the time. Here’s the catch, though: the best evidence is not always available, due to intellectual property rights, restricted access, and vested interests. With regard to climate change, I was able to access quite a lot of evidence (being privileged by having access to quite expensive journals and literature, and able to spend a good portion of my life doing research); with 1080, I wasn’t successful in finding a lot of evidence either way, so I maintain a healthy scepticism, and object from a principled, philosophical point of view (1080 for me has the hallmarks of a “final solution”, and I don’t like “final solutions”). With genetically modified organism the main problem I see is private property rights. This is why those organisms get developed, and this is my problem with them. Again: from a principled philosophical point of view, there should not be a patent on organisms. No one owns life, full stop.
    And this is probably what Prof Guilford did not get: usually, the questions that are debated in public are multidimensional, with the scientific perspective being only one piece of the puzzle. There might be no objection to cruelty from a biological point of view – after all, what neighbour’s cat does to poor mice looks pretty cruel to me – but whether or not it can be scientifically justified, cruely is objectionable from a humanistic perspective. GE food is objectionable from that perspective and a socio-economic perspective, even if there might not be any justifiable objections from a human health perspective.
    With climate change, the evidence is overwhelming in my view, but whether or not this is accurate: I would do the things proposed to curb climate change anyway: being more energy efficient, polluting the air less, limiting growth of GDP – as there are a multitude of benefits to be had climate change occurring or not.
    Seriously: even if we don’t believe in climate change – what’s the downside of acting as if?

  2. The pro camp have a new weapon.
    They are saying that the likelyhood that global warming is not caused by humans is becoming more difficult to justify.

  3. The most interesting aspect of this article is that it isn’t the scientists who are disagreeing.

    It is the debate as framed by the media that shows this. The fact is that if they represented both sides with some passing semblance of proportionality, we’d scarcely recall any news from the few who have alternative theories.

    The groups most culpable in terms of creating public confusion are the media who have to take responsibility for KNOWING enough to tell when they’re being sold a line of pigsh!t, The professional shills who front for any product, toxic or not, with their explicit goal of manufacturing doubt and delivering pigsh!t. The Porkers who pay them and produce it. The ideologues who care only that it leads(left) or doesn’t lead(right) to government action, and the public which dutifully consumes everything and anything and is profoundly uninterested of putting forth the minimal effort to learn the truth as this would greatly distract them from the important things like the Footy.

    The scientists almost all know the truth about the warming. Some have questions about attribution, agreement is not as strong on that, but most agree that it is us as well. To hear the popular press, the “times-online” mob, you’d think that this isn’t true. It doesn’t help that they don’t accurately reproduce quotations of the scientists they report on.

    I don’t know who exists to hold such organizations to standards of accuracy. The people they write about might have legal recourse, but it doesn’t pay to get into arguments with people who measure their ink purchases in tank trucks.

    At the end of the day, it is our media and our education system which is letting us down. We have developed a popular press and a public which has NO capacity to deal with science or the scientific method much less the public policy implications of that science.

    Which is why it is going to get warmer and we aren’t going to get with the program until it is much too late.


  4. I think that understanding how the arguments about climate change have become so polarised probably helps explain why so many of the public are confused about the subject.

    The types of arguments we are seeing about climate change are not unique. Often when science starts to impinge on the interests of the non-scientific community intense arguments follow. Take for example the arguments with creationists about evolution, or the denial of the health risks of smoking by the tobacco companies, to give just two examples.

    What usually happens is that scientists decide they have found something which the wider community needs to know about (climate change, the risks of smoking, origins of life and so on). As soon as the science is brought into the wider arena, there is an inevitable reaction from the people or groups who feel threatened in some way by the science.

    It pays to realise that many debates or arguments in society are not settled by reasoned discussions which scientists are used to. Rather, people take one side of an argument or the other and fight it out until the bitter end. So when the scientist puts forward some ideas which threaten certain groups, there is often an out of proportion reaction. This often results in the scientists digging their heels in, and in no time the debate has become extremely polarised., with neither side prepared to give an inch of ground. At this stage you in fact have two arguments going on; on one hand you have rational arguments amongst scientists, and on the other hand you have the polarised debate in the wider community.

    It is not surprising that when debate becomes so polarised, as we see with the case of climate change, many of the public are confused.


    Excellent title in the revealed circumstances adroitly blogged about this day by Kiwi scientist Ken Perrott regarding the UK Guardian’s update and inquiries pertaining the Institute of Physics submission to the UK Parliamentary Committee, referenced in the first instance above. BY OM if recall correctly.

    An excellent read, and so very instructive to all good folks and bad in these matters.. 🙂

  6. In my opinion the global warming debate will be up in the air for now, changing our behavior will only work for so long since everyone is different and have their own unique opinions.

  7. Scott
    You mean the smallpox vaccine never worked?
    And my flu vaccine doesn’t work either? Even though I have not had a flu for the last fifteen years?

    By the way I am a strong advocate of blind funding of public research. The double blind test is the most potent discovery of modern medicine and should be applied to funding of public science.
    If someone asked to research the pollution of waterways had no idea who was providing the money they would do better work and their work would be more readily accepted.

  8. The problem with “Scientific Knowledge” is that it often doesn’t exist and is assumed to exist.

    For instance the only vaccination statistically proven effective is the Polio one and guess what, it is the only one given orally.

    Monsanto is able to present scientific research to FSANZ when it seeks approval for GE to enter our food chain based on sample sizes as low as ONE. I am sorry to say that the scientist would not be allowed to publish in a scientific journal or be granted a phd with this sort of research. Neutral researchers are unfunded generally and unable to get hold of the GE organisms to test and therefore our Scientific Knowledge points in one direction.

  9. G/F @ Posted March 4, 2010 at 9:01 AM

    Excuse my prematurity. I guess I’ll make the connections as and when, whereas you as you say have held the interest for quite a while. No abuse (to use OM’s word) intended. OTOH I was looking for the smiler and did not find it.

  10. Well done, Owen — there being neither surprise nor shock in the heretofore comment of yourn. How could such a deplorable matter arise? Agh, I know: that you ask readers suffer unto theregister’s shrill coverage.

    Whatever happened at the Washington Post? Good targeting..yes?

  11. gee, I feel I’ve said enough here for one day, but before taking off awhile I’d like say that “balance” in reportage would surely require sound weighting. To present views, preferably with sound evidence in support, of as near equal weight as possible.

    Without this the journalism would be inviting criticism. Becoming the message, as it were, rather than messenger.

  12. Owen asks the $64000 question,

    “why is the public confused?”

    You could write a treatise on it!

  13. tomfarmer – the question of access across farmland has interested me for a long time, having watched the Federated Farmers and that Act bully-boy-on-a-horse spread mis-information and threats to the public. I thought at the time, “Paper roads are for the public” and it remains the case, according to the author of the piece I quoted from. The secret to success for anyone wanting to take advantage of the walkways is a GPS. You’re obliged to stay on the road and that’ll do it for you. My guess is that farmers know full-well that they are acting illegally by obstructing them for their own ends. There is enormous opportunity here, I believe, for making points.

  14. Tomfarmer
    If you bothered to open the link to the story you would see that I have written none of those words.
    They are the opening paragraphs of a two or three page story.
    Nothing to do with me.
    The only words I wrote are:
    On the other hand
    3 pages more.

    You should learn to target your abuse.

  15. Yep, McTap, I agree Guilford uses poor analogies. The issues with GE are far wider than just food safety, although the “consensus” on food safety is not what he claims. There is a paucity of evidence that GM crops provide greater yields; there is the issue of the threat of GE to biodiversity; there is the issue of who controls our food supply.

    No-one disputes 1080 “helps protect native flora and fauna” – the main issues there are non-target species toxicity and animal welfare concerns.

  16. So much simultaneous activity that once again I find myself following on my last comment with a distinct change of subject (tho not topic)..

    To wit, one Owen McShane, challenges with a surprise – IOP has 36,000 physicists in the UK! – and a shocker — The IOP says the enquiry should be broadened to examine possible “departure from objective scientific practice, for example, manipulation of the publication and peer review system or allowing pre-formed conclusions to override scientific objectivity.”

    OM’s ‘possible’, the IOP’s (submission I guess) objectivity. Did you start the quote in the wrong place, OM, or is apologetic refrain for shrillness now a part of your style?

    BTW how would the IOP respond to one Douglas Keenan doing unto their data what he did unto an obliging Prof Jones’s team. Could to think of it would that influence in any way whatsover their submission writer’s verbiage. Opinions matter. Judgementally.. wouldn’t you say?

  17. I think Guilford creates further confusion by mixing the ‘debate’ re climate change, where the lobbists, status quo and financial incentives are against a ‘concensus’, with GE and 1080, where the the lobbists, status quo and financial incentives are for a concensus.

    And if he understood my above point, he would also understand why the public are so confused about climate change.

    PS – there is real and legitimate skepticism re 1080 and GE – open up the debate re agresearch and GE grasses, or potential long term ecological consequences of a poison that kills everything and you will see.

  18. I thought the topic was “why is the public confused?”
    The Dean of Science gives one opinion but it seems that the Institute of Physicists suggests another set of reasons.

    The public has reason to be concerned if the scientific process is seriously flawed because science is a process – not a collection of facts or theories.

  19. FRom the link, Toad, thank you, Starting from the headline “Leaked climate change emails scientist ‘hid’ data flaws” on down, the article is full of misrepresentations. To start with, the data in question (and presumably it’s flaws) were not hidden by anyone, but rather had been put on the CRU server in 2007 response to a FOI request. Hardly ‘hidden’. Exactly contrary to the truth of the matter[further link to East Anglia – tom], the article incorrectly asserted that ‘Jones withheld the information requested under freedom of information laws’.

    These data assumed a much greater importance later in 2007 when they were used for a completely unsubstantiated claim of ‘fabrication’ and ‘fraud’ against Wei-Chyung Wang (a co-author on the paper) at SUNY Albany by a certain Douglas Keenan. These charges were found by the university to be baseless in 2009 and the matter was dropped.

    Totally clear.

    Though one is able to perceive possible and IMO justifiable sensitivity about just who ought be privy to such data.

    G/F: do I take it the Furrower mentioned above is alluding to some exegesis or other such biblical scholarly verbiage known to your goodself in regard to paper roads/public roads and sticking to the bounds thereof.. ? 😉


    The Institute of Physics recently submitted a response to a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee call for evidence in relation to its inquiry into the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

    The Institute’s statement, which has been published both on the Institute’s website and the Committee’s, has been interpreted by some individuals to imply that it does not support the scientific evidence that the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is contributing to global warming.

    That is not the case. The Institute’s position on climate change is clear: the basic science is well enough understood to be sure that our climate is changing – and that we need to take action now to mitigate that change.

    More information about IOP’s views

    The Institute’s response to the Committee inquiry was approved by its Science Board, a formal committee of the Institute with delegated authority from its trustees to oversee its policy work.

    It reflected our belief that the open exchange of data, procedures and materials is fundamental to the scientific process. From the information already in the public domain it appears that these principles have been put at risk in the present case, and that this has undermined the trust that is placed in the scientific process.

    These comments, focused on the scientific process, should not be interpreted to mean that the Institute believes that the science itself is flawed.

  21. On the other hand:
    The story opens:
    UK Physicists on Climategate – Intolerance, sub prime stats, wider enquiry needed
    By Andrew Orlowski •

    The body representing 36,000 UK physicists has called for a wider enquiry into the Climategate affair, saying it raises issues of scientific corruption. The Institute of Physics doesn’t pull any punches in the submission, one of around 50 presented to the Commons Select Committee enquiry into the Climategate archive. The committee holds its only oral hearing later today.

    The IOP says the enquiry should be broadened to examine possible “departure from objective scientific practice, for example, manipulation of the publication and peer review system or allowing pre-formed conclusions to override scientific objectivity.”

    It deplores the climate scientists’ “intolerance to challenge” and the “suppression of proxy results for recent decades that do not agree with contemporary instrumental temperature measurements.”

    3 pages more.

  22. Well done for finding this Frog, it’s shame that was run on the Auckland U. website and not as an op ed’ in the Herald, I wonder if Guilford approached them?

    The other problem with journalistic balance is that all the intransigents need to do is create doubt – just asking the CSC what they think about something gives them the false aura of legitimacy they require to do that.

    (Readers may have already seen it but Bill McKibben has an interesting article in the same vein here: )

  23. There is a lengthy but interesting commentary here by climatologist Gavin Schmidt on some (unusually for The Guardian) shonky journalism on the stolen CRU emails and the information they provided.

    I agree that the journalistic concept of “balance” is a part of the problem. But I would also suggest that journalists who have no training in scientific concepts attempting to write about science is also a factor.

    Hence the Daily Mail wrongly interprets Phil Jones’ assertion that global warming since 1995 has not been demonstrated to a 95% statisitical significance level, and headlines its story “There has been no global warming since 1995”.

  24. Apart from the vested interests who are actively campaigning to confuse the issues, we have to ask ourselves if Global warming is such a big issue how come Copenhagen was such a disaster ? !

    I am sure that that is exactly what the general public is doing.

    Copenhagen may well have put any real action on Global warming back 5 years and if the science is correct (which it is) we don’t actually have even 1 year !

    The pseudo democracy America is going to keep running on the Canadian Tar sands, because they can’t face any alternative to rampant consumerism and every politician knows it !

    No Obama painting your roof white won’t make a difference (unless you live at one of the poles and that could happen)

    Get ready for the warm weather people !

  25. Paper roads are there for the walking on and if you’ve a GPS, you can’t go wrong.

    “A paper road is a genuine public road”, says Liam Hehir in this week’s Straight Furrow, NewsViews.
    “Users of paper roads have to stick to them. No detours to avoid fences and to find gates. Regrettably, pointing this out can be a bit of an own-goal. It is as illegal to obstruct a paper road with with buildings, crops or fences as it is to obstruct a normal road.”

    Lots of potential there for making your thoughts known on the farm. 🙂

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