Regaining trust?

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.

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48 Responses to Regaining trust?

  1. Fragmeister says:

    I see a trend, if not a strategy, from the “skeptic” side. If they keep saying trust needs to be regained, the disinterested part of the population will just see the headline and think climate scientists can’t be trusted. Most people never bother to look beyond the first couple of paragraphs so the real story can be put in paragraph 10.

    I think this ‘strategy’ is common amongst “skeptics” of all kinds: they will say ‘how can we trust scientists if they keep X from us?’ Even when X is in the available literature. If you ask me, it’s another sign that their argument is being lost.

  2. Yes, you’re probably right. Maybe the best thing is just to ignore this until it’s clear that the pseudo-sceptics are wrong and we can move on to have the discussions we really need to be having. The other is to fight back and make the case that climate scientists have done nothing to deserve losing trust and that they, therefore, should not be expected to do anything to regain this (if it has indeed been lost). Actually trying to do something to regain trust will, I think, have no positive effect. Pseudo-sceptics will probably simply respond by saying “see, we told you they couldn’t be trusted”.

  3. These scientists-types need to stop beating their wives. Once they do that, they can regain the trust of the public. (sarc///)

  4. I guess you’re referring to the “interview” style in which you ask someone when they stopped beating their wife 🙂

  5. toby52 says:

    As MIchael Mann recently pointed out (very wittily) at an AGU conference, even one of his loudest critics, Sarah Palin, agreed that personal e-mails intended only to be read by the recipient could be easily misconstrued. She admitted this when her own e-mails written as Governor of Alaska were sought by lawyers.

  6. Yes, I watched his talk and remember enjoying that particular comparison.

  7. toby52 says:

    Riffing on my last post, it will be interesting if Mann’s lawyers proceed to retrieve e-mails to and from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in order to prove conspiracy and malice in his libel action. Who those e-mails might be from and what they might say could be fascinating…. if they have not been thoroughly expunged. But what would CEI have to hide? Surely there is “trust” in conservative think-tanks and what they say? 🙂

  8. I do not think that just ignoring will do the trick. Posts like this are necessary.

    On the question of trust, I really like the BBC 2002 Reith lecture series, A question of trust. Maybe I will write my own post on trust after listening to this lecture again.

    For the visual learners, this is a great video about ClimateGate, if only for the British accent.

  9. Thanks, Victor. I was probably insufficiently precise. What I was meaning was that climate scientist could ignore it in their professional capacity. They shouldn’t change their professional behaviour to satisfy the demands of pseudo-sceptics. However, pointing this out in the media and on blogs is, as you say, worthwhile. If anything, what I would like is to see more journalists actually investigating this properly and making a stronger case in the media.

    I may have heard those Reith lectures, but I should have another listen.

  10. Paul Matthews says:

    I suppose it helps for every blog to have its USP. Yours seems to be the ability to give your opinion on some topic you know nothing about, without checking any of the facts.

    Here’s how a scientist would approach the question. The first thing she’d do is check whether or not trust in climate scientists is declining. That’s what Emily Shuckburgh did, and you can read her report here, under the headline DISTRUST OF CLIMATE SCIENTISTS IS GROWING

    She found that about 1/3 of the public trust climate scientists and about 1/3 don’t.
    Trust in environmental groups and climate scientists shows a steady decline (fig 2), suggesting that climategate is not the major factor. There are other papers and reports on this also.

  11. Thanks Paul, back to your normal style. What you say has some merit. On the other hand, I can simply write my thoughts on a blog, make clear what’s my opinion, what I’m uncertain of, what I’m more certain of and let those who know more correct me in the comments. Admittedly, not all comments will be constructive, but not much I can do about that.

    Furthermore, if you’d actually read the post (or tried to understand it, if you did read it) you’d notice that I made no claim as to whether or not there was a distrust of climate scientists and made no claim as to whether or not it was growing, falling, or remaining stable.

    In the same way that each blog has its USP, commentators also have their standard practices. Yours seems to be to write comments that indicate that you either didn’t actually read the post or, if you did, didn’t understand it. At least I know what to expect 🙂

  12. Let’s have a study fight. Here is mine.

    Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming has increased by 13 percentage points over the past two and a half years, from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent in September 2012.

    I find it more amazing that Wotts, not being a climate scientist and only looking at the topic since April, understands climate science magnitudes better as Watts, who studied meteorology and is blogging about climate for many years and still makes the same rooky mistakes and repeats the same debunked talk points over and over again. Makes one wonder if Watts wants to understand climate.

  13. Thanks, Victor. We could indeed have some kind of study-off, but what Paul seems to have missed is that the point of the post wasn’t whether or not climate scientists were trusted – it was whether or not any distrust was warranted and whether or not they should acknowledge this and do something about it.

  14. Watts wants to create a climate, not understand the climate.

  15. bg says:

    Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. The right-wing, conservative deniers, their fellow travelers and media echo chamber have conducted a massive, coordinated campaign against climate science and climate scientists of LDD/MI/DI (what I call Lies, Deceit an Distortions/Mis-Information/Dis-Inforamtion), theft of e-mails, etc.. The media has been an unindicted co-conspirator in this campaign, because it acts like stenographers, gives false balance between facts and fiction, and treats everything as ‘he said, she said,’ with no regard for truth. All of this has successfully caused the public to lose trust in climate science and scientists.

    Now they say that climate scientists need to ‘regain trust’ that they so determinedly destroyed. How do I answer that while following your guidelines of remaining civil?

  16. Yes, your brief summary is roughly my understanding of what happened (while acknowledging that there may be details about which I’m unaware). In a sense, the guidelines are aimed at me more than at my commentators, so there is some leeway, but I do appreciate an attempt at civility, while understanding how hard that can sometimes be 🙂

  17. John, that’s very good. Took me a while to work it out 🙂

  18. bg says:

    I do admire you and your adherence to your guidelines.

    However, I find these right wing deniers to be in-your-face bullies, perhaps only intellectual, as opposed to physical (I did call one of my bosses an intellectual bully a long time ago. Not the best career enhancing move, but I just got tired of constantly being pushed around). But in the US, at least, there are enough right-wing, government-hating, conspiratorial crazies running around with guns, that it is only a matter of time before some conspiracy nut acts out these denier hysterics and becomes physical.

  19. There is amazing intellectual bullying going on and, I agree, that there is a real risk that someone may actually become physical. I can’t claim that I’m blogging anonymously because I’m genuinely worried about my safety, but one reason is certainly that I wouldn’t be surprised if people starting emailing my work to complain about me if I wasn’t anonymous. So it seems remaining anonymous is likely to be simpler than not being anonymous.

  20. As far as intellectual bullying goes, I’ve just had a Twitter discussion with Richard Tol and Paul Matthews in which I was told I don’t have the intellect to be a physicist and in which Richard Tol claims to know many physicists who are smarter than me and therefore doesn’t believe I am one. Not sure if that’s strictly intellectual bullying, but certainly not the most complimentary exchange I’ve ever had 🙂 Plus I (I presume this blog) apparently lacks anything like a scientific approach. Oh well, can’t please everyone I guess.

  21. BBD says:

    Tol was totally out of order. But he’s come out of the recent spat looking very bad and he knows it. Now he’s resorting to schoolboy taunts.

  22. In the case of Tol, I’ve largely come to expect it and so it doesn’t really bother me too much. It reflects more poorly on him than on me and if he’s happy with that, fine with me 🙂

  23. BBD says:

    The upside to all this is that RT’s antics get noticed. RT’s membership of the “academic council” of Lawson’s climate misinformation lobby organisation the GWPF gets the wider notice it deserves. Eyebrows are raised.

  24. bg says:

    well, i’ve got a phd in physics, probably means i’m also not smart enough to talk with them. but…. there is a big difference between being smart and wise…

  25. BBD says:

    The song remains the same:

    Doubt is our product…

  26. BBD says:

    Trust in environmental groups and climate scientists shows a steady decline (fig 2), suggesting that climategate is not the major factor.

    No. “Climategate” was but one more confected, fake controversy created by contrarians (the clue is in the name they gave their creation) in a campaign stretching back at least to the inception of the IPCC and arguably beyond.

    If – and it is arguable – there is any decline in public trust, then it is a direct consequence of this long-term attempt to undermine both the science and the scientists.

    The conflation of “environmentalism” with climate science is another little trick the contrarians have played.

  27. Intellect is a physical property. Most people aren’t tall enough to play professional basketball. Most people aren’t smart enough to study physics. You cannot judge people on the cards they were dealt, only on how they played them.

  28. Richard, sure, I guess I agree with that and I guess what you’re trying to say is that just because I don’t have the intellectual ability to be a physicist that doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on me. You either have it or you don’t. It’s not a judgement simply a statement of “fact”. Normally, however, it would be regarded as impolite to actually point this out. Possibly one could argue that politely pointing out that someone should maybe not be blogging about science if they don’t have the intellect to do so, is trying to give some friendly advice. So, maybe, in your own special way, you’re really just trying to be helpful. If so, not the way I would have done it, but thank you nonetheless.

    I will add, however, that despite my lack of intellect I do have a PhD in Physics and have been publishing research papers for 20 years. Somehow, I’ve got away with it, imposter syndrome and all. Of course I can’t prove this without identifying who I am and I don’t really feel like doing so at this stage. Despite your best intentions, I think I will just carry on for a while longer and maybe let others decide for themselves the value of what I write. One might argue that an economist is not necessarily the best person to judge the scientific credibility of someone else but I, of course, would never make such a suggestion.

  29. Either you have 20 years of experience and your naivety is pathological, or your experience is far less extensive.

  30. Thanks, Richard. First it was a lack of intellect, now it’s naivety. Hmm, wonder what’s coming next. Seriously though, if you really think that what I write is nonsense and has no intellectual value and that I’m naive and inexperienced, what the devil are you doing commenting here? Why are you wasting your time?

  31. BBD says:

    You [Wotts] were among those who showed him up, so now he is trying – and failing – to delegitimise you.

    Richard, please accept some well-meaning advice from a veteran of games-people-play.


  32. toby52 says:

    Don’t distract Richard, because he is not going to ake your advice.
    He has a libel suit against a fellow economist he may like to concentrate on.

  33. I was unaware of that. Interesting. I’m not really sure what else to say, for various reasons.

  34. Hmm. The r in Tol appears to be silent.

  35. BBD says:

    Well, there you go. RT has form.

  36. John says:

    Did you see Richard Tol’s poll on WUWT. Sadly Richard’s was not dealt the intelligence required to put together a good survey. Maybe next time he can take lessons from John Cook. So the results should be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, it is interesting that Dana came out bottom of the poll, he’s considered the most nasty. I’m not aware of anything Dana has done to deserve that but the poll did come after weeks of concerted effort by Watts to discredit him. It may be an example of how these blogs can influence it’s followers opinion of scientist. Maybe a poll done by some better equipped intellectually, to conduct polls, could look at how these ‘campaigns’ on WUWT opinion of the targeted scientists.

  37. I wrote a post about. I could have excused it being poorly designed and badly thought out if it had been funny. I just found it rather odd. I can’t really see what it achieved and I can’t see how setting up such a poll makes any kind of positive contribution to discussions about global warming and climate change. But, then again, each to their own.

  38. A strange accident on a post about trust. Trust is easily lost and hard to gain.

    Prof Dr Richard Tol, this childish behaviour is not good for your academic reputation. Why would anyone invest time to read an article from someone who behaves like this and does not give a trustworthy impression? I feel Wotts deserves an apology.

  39. bg says:

    Childish or churlish or both?

  40. Jp says:

    I’m sorry Wotts, I’ll have to disagree with your response to Paul Matthews when you say, “What you say has some merit.” It’s got no merit whatsoever _ it’s just dumb.

    He comes in full of hubris, telling you that you know nothing about the topic and pointing out how you should approach the question and yet his entire post is totally nonsensical and illogical.

    He says that the first thing you should do is “check whether or not trust in climate scientists is declining.” Nonsense. It doesn’t matter a rat’s arse whether trust is declining or increasing or whether it’s a 1/3 or 1/2.

    The first question to ask, from a scientific point of view and in relation to the integrity of the science, is whether that lack of trust is justified and what evidence is there to show that there is a problem, just like you’ve done, Wotts. If there is a problem with how the science is conducted, it’s a matter for the wider scientific community to rectify. If there isn’t, then this distrust is a political issue which has to dealt with by examining “denialism” and all its murky underpinnings: the role and reach of the media; the various protagonists, including academics, in the denial movement and their association with the fossil fuel loby etc.etc.

    Apart from stuff taken out of context, like climategate, which has spread like wildfire all over the web and elsewhere, and which excites the more gullible, no real evidence has been presented that there is a problem with the science underpinning climatology. And let’s not ignore the Hockey Stick; another beat-up designed to confuse and excite the dummies.

    Before a denier takes me to task and asks to back up my opinions with hard science, I have to declare that I’m just a layman with no qualifications (not even a diploma in Origami) and that what I say is merely logic as I see it plus second hand or third hand readings of what others with more expertise have said. So, deniers, if you have a problem take it up with the real experts. Which, of course, is the very core of the issue: laypeople(is that a word?), non-experts and other Dunning-Kruger types not only questioning the science but the integrity of the scientists without any logical or factual basis to do so.

    Since the topic of intelligence has been brought up as an aside, I will say that I may not be all that intelligent, but I’m smugly satisfied that I’m intelligent enough to pick the right side _ and it ain’t with the deniers.

    Back to Paul Matthews, he also says, “Trust in environmental groups and climate scientists shows a steady decline (fig 2), suggesting that climategate is not the major factor.” It doesn’t have to suggest that at all; I would suggest that the degree of distrust is proportional to the amount and reach of denier disinformation out there and taking account of lag factors involved in the spreading of the garbage there is no reason to believe that climategate is not _ still _ one of the major factors involved. But to know for sure, you’d have to survey every denier out there and ask them to rank the various topics/talking points and how much skepticism they attribute to each.

    I see that Richard “up-himself” Toll is engaging in juvenile taunts of the “nahnahnahnahnah …. I’m smarter than you!!” kind. What a pathetic idiot. He also says you’re naive _ how has he demonstrated that? I would have thought that a highly intelligent person can always substantiate his opinions.

    I want to also say to you, Wotts, BBD, and others who are engaged in efforts to counter denialist disinformation here and elsewhere, that I _ and I’m sure countless others who are not educated and informed enough to contribute _ really appreciate your efforts.

  41. They’re the ones who created distrust of climate scientists in the first place by falsely accusing them of fraud. So they’re to ones who should come forward and apologize for creating a damaging fake controversy that casts doubt on what is the most urgent crisis of our time. After doing so, they should get out of the way of a needed rapid response.

  42. “it’s not clear that the general public do distrust climate scientists.”

    Quite the contrary, it’s clear that they’re trusted. When asked who the public trusts for their climate science information, climate scientists always come in at #1, around 70 to 75% trust. The other 25 to 30% doubtless being deniers and Fox News viewers. There’s just no evidence behind this ‘climate scientists have lost public trust’ notion. It’s a misconception based on paying waaaaaaay too much attention to deniers.

  43. Thanks, Jp. I probably gave Paul a bit too much credit, TBH. When I wrote what he said had merit, I was really meaning that one should probably check things before writing, rather than suggesting that his whole comment had merit – but it does rather come across as me agreeing with the substance of his comment. I hadn’t seen the document linked-to before but having looked at it now, it doesn’t really quite say what he claims it does, but, as you point out that really wasn’t the point anyway.

  44. Indeed, that’s certainly my view. However, I would even settle for serious journalists and decent politicians simply ignoring those promoting minority views that go against the scientific evidence. That would be a massive step forward, in my opinion.

  45. Thanks, Dana. I didn’t know enough about studies of public trust to make a statement either way, but it certainly seems that there is no real merit to the claims that climate scientists have lost public trust. I agree completely with the latter part of your comment. There is far too much attention paid to pseudo-sceptics. I was going to add something to this post about that, but it was getting rather long, so I decided against it. It’s why I found Warren Pearce’s recent Guardian article frustrating because it appears to be suggesting the exact opposite of what I would regard as sensible. Rather than arguing that pseudo-sceptics should be given more of a platform, we should be arguing that they should be marginalised and that we focus on those who actually understand climate science, the climate scientists themselves.

  46. Watts posted a link to the poll, so doubtless most of the respondents came from WUWT. Hence it’s not exactly shocking that Joe Romm and I were voted ‘most nasty’. Basically Tol succeeded in proving that WUWT readers hate me and love Watts. Shocking! Then he tried to argue his poll proved that I’m “polarizing”, and Tamsin appeared to buy into it, suggesting it proved she’s the least “polarizing”. Here “polarizing” is defined as “deniers either hate you or love you.”

  47. It was a problem with both Warren’s and Tamsin’s articles. I think they’re focusing way too much on deniers who are just a fringe minority group. Granted they’re a loud group, but they’re really being given a disproportionate amount of attention. Most people have never heard of WUWT, don’t pay attention to James Inhofe, and trust climate scientists when it comes to climate science. Most people also just aren’t aware of the expert consensus on AGW.

  48. > Intellect is a physical property.

    You mean, like a weight?

    “Intellect” is not even a property, Richard.

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