There seem to have been a number of articles and posts recently that have mentioned public trust in climate scientists. There was Tamsin Edwards’s article in the Guardian. After criticising John Cook’s consensus study in a comment on Ben Pile’s article on the Making Science Public blog, Mike Hulme released a chapter of his book on climategate. I then found a post on the CFACT website, called restore climate science integrity please. I appreciate that the last is from a conservative think-tank, so maybe not that surprising, but I am getting a sense that some are arguing that climate scientists should work to regain trust.
I should say, firstly, that it’s not clear that the general public do distrust climate scientists. I know that some claim this, but it’s not obviously true. The other issue is where this lack of trust has come from. The typical claim is is that it’s a consequence of the climategate emails. These were emails stolen/leacked/hacked from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia. One issue is that judging people by emails that they had never intended to be public can be tricky. Context is important and one should, in my opinion at least, be willing to consider that they’re being taken out of context. I’ve read quite a number of the emails and some (Mike Mann’s nature trick, and Kevin Trenberth’s missing heat) just seem to be people discussing science without defining their terminology well (as one might expect in an email).
There may be a few emails that suggest that some are not behaving as professionally as they should, but even these could be being taken out of context and they only involve a few individuals. Claiming that this shows that climate scientists, in general, cannot be trusted seems absurd. There are thousands of climate scientists worldwide, so you can’t tar them all with the same brush just because a few might not be behaving properly. They are human and it would be surprising if all behaviour was completely above board. I should add, though, that there have been no formal investigations that have found anything wrong with the behaviour of climate scientists. So, even if a few emails do seem suspicious, noone has actually been found “guilty” of doing anything wrong.
The other thing that is often said about climate science is that it’s suspicious because climate scientists seem to focus only on CO2 and not on other possibilities. The idea being that this is unscientific as they should be considering everything. The problem with this argument is that it is indeed very difficult to explain why the energy in the climate system continues to increase at the rate of 4 Hiroshima bombs per second without invoking the influence of an increased atmospheric CO2 concentration. Scientists have considered alternatives and the evidence suggests that the prime driver of global warming (increasing energy in the climate system) is continually increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations driven by our use of fossil fuels. It is clear that our climate can vary through natural processes but what’s of interest is global warming driven climate change, hence (given that global warming is driven by CO2) scientists are focusing on how increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations will influence our climate.
So, as far as I can tell there is no real evidence that climate scientists have done anything to merit having lost the trust of the public (assuming that they have). If they have, it’s probably more because various media outlets keep telling people that climate scientists can’t be trusted, rather than because climate scientists have done anything specifically wrong (see Dana’s recent Guardian article and this post by Open Parachute). Given this, I find it odd that credible people like Mike Hulme and Tamsin Edwards would be suggesting that climate scientists should do something to regain trust. Why? If they’ve done nothing wrong (or, at least, nothing different from any other field of science) why should they do anything special to regain any lost trust? Clearly they should be engaging with the public and policy makers and should be aiming to explain the science as clearly and thoroughly as possible. I just don’t understand why they should be doing anything special.
Again, I’m reasonably new to the whole climate science “debate” and I may well have missed something, but it does seem that if there is a general distrust of climate scientists it’s not because they’ve done anything wrong; it’s more likely because various media outlets keep telling people not to trust them. Actively trying to address the trust issue would seem, to me at least, to be pandering to those who are actively trying to hijack the debate. I suspect most would agree that we shouldn’t give in to hijackers. It may seem a bit ironic coming from someone blogging anonymously, but I think that more climate scientists should grow a bit more of a backbone and stand up for their discipline. It’s time – in my view – that they started pointing out (more forcefully maybe) that the climate science experts are the climate scientists themselves. If you want to understand climate science and what we’re likely to face in the future, talk to professional climate scientists. If you want to hear what makes you feel good, fine, go and talk to pseudo-sceptics who’ll tell you not to trust climate scientists.