Climate science – establishment versus sceptic

Some sceptics think climate scientists portray them as monsters. Flickr/Gideon Burton

The scientific community is polarised on the matter of climate change. On one hand there are those within what might be called the climate research establishment. They should know what they are talking about, and generally support in public the thesis of dangerous global warming.

On the other hand there are those – mainly from other disciplines or from the various ranks of amateur scientists, but nevertheless also including a fair number of quite respectable climate scientists – who for one reason or another are sceptical about climate change. They openly maintain that the whole concept of dangerous man-made global warming is probably nonsense.

The scientists in the middle tend to say very little. At least in public.

The problem for the scientific community is that this polarisation is seriously threatening the public’s perception of the professionalism of scientists in general.

Setting aside the issue of who is right in the debate, it seems that some of the more vocal of climate researchers have fallen into a mode of open and almost vicious denigration of climate sceptics (“deniers” is the rather offensive popular terminology of the day).

They insist that only researchers directly within the climate-change community are capable of giving authoritative advice; and they insist that one can find true and reputable science only in peer-reviewed climate literature.

There are also reports of highly unscientific practices – for instance, that outsiders and known sceptics are denied access to important data on which climate science is based.

Sceptics on the other hand have in many cases been too personal in their attacks on climate science and climate scientists. They have made full use of the various sceptical climate weblogs to get around the discipline of peer review.

A lot of their scientific arguments are “hairy” to say the least; and in general they have not been greatly constrained by the checks and balances built into the normal scientific system.

Some of them just like being a nuisance.

All this is discussed extensively and publicly on the web. There are arguments to explain and justify the less flavoursome attitudes of either side.

But whatever one might think of the rights and wrongs of the business, the fact remains that a situation has developed which is reminiscent in many ways of religion in the Middle Ages.

The priests of that time opposed translation of the scriptures from Latin into the local languages. Only people fully trained in the theology of the time were capable of interpreting the scriptures correctly, they said. It would, they said, be highly dangerous to allow non-trained people to have direct access to the Word of God because the chances were high that they would get it wrong.

And the priests of the time were not exactly backward in applying their peculiarly nasty forms of denigration on those who thought otherwise about the matter.

Suffice it to say that, despite their strong whip hand (there was no internet at the time!) they ultimately lost both the battle and much of their public support.

All of which leads to the following.

Since the research establishment is presumably the more “grown-up and sophisticated” of the two sides in the debate – it certainly has by far the lion’s share of resources and public access – it seems appropriate to expect the establishment to take the first steps in any attempt to bridge the divide between the sides.

One of the steps might be to formally recognise that not all climate sceptics are rogues and vagabonds.

We should remember that it is probably more of a rule than an exception for new ideas in any particular field of research to come from the outside. We should also remember that some weblog sceptics have access to a quite remarkable store of unpaid and enthusiastic scientific labour.

Perhaps however, the very first step should be for climate scientists to make a conscious effort to read some of the documentation appearing in the more respectable sceptic weblogs: Climate Audit and Whats Up With That for instance.

Climate researchers need to develop a first-hand appreciation of the mind-set of the sceptics, and thereby understand how best to engage with them, to take advantage of their ideas (and perhaps of their access to unpaid enthusiasts!), and to be positive and helpful when identifying errors in some of the more extreme ideas.