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Way off balance: science and the mainstream media

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Has there been a communication breakdown between science and the media and, if so, is the damage terminal? In the concluding instalment of our series, Stephan Lewandowsky and Steve…

When a relationship goes off course, it can be hard to refocus attention. Digitalnative

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Has there been a communication breakdown between science and the media and, if so, is the damage terminal? In the concluding instalment of our series, Stephan Lewandowsky and Steve Sherwood take the pulse of a troubled relationship.

Some marriages are made in heaven, others end in divorce. And then there are those that drag on until both partners have One Foot in the Grave.

What about the marriage between science and the media?

Few would think it was made in heaven. And parts of the media probably deserve to be divorced for reasons that have already been discussed on The Conversation.

That leaves most of science and much of the media in an uneasy and never-ending alliance much like the Mildrews. There is considerable mutual misunderstanding but somehow there is never more than one foot in the grave.

What contributes to the uneasy relationship between science and the media?

Volumes could be written on this issue, and here we focus on only one factor; namely, the implications of the different conversational “frames” that apply in science and in the media.

Science proceeds in a frame of scepticism. Scepticism means we are prepared to give up ideas that are unsupported by evidence. In graduate school we learn to distinguish carefully between what is supported by evidence and what we merely suspect. Scientists operate in an environment of deliberation and rigorous mutual cross-checking.

Only those ideas that survive peer review are published in journals. Some have likened peer review to a gladiator being thrown into a den of lions: only the very fittest survive.

By contrast, most commentators in the media are not held to the same standard: they have not had the habit of caution and scepticism beaten into them by their Ph.D. supervisor. Some editors may pursue an agenda, and most journalists count on people to forget and move on quickly. The media thrive on conflict, and at least tacitly believe conflicting opinions usually have equal validity – quite the opposite of science, which is built on the weeding out of bad ideas.

These diverging conversational frames can produce perverse results in public discussions of science.

There are several core belief systems with which journalists approach their work, but a common approach is to present “every side” of the story irrespective of how likely it is to be true and irrespective of the credibility of the source.

A scientific expert is no more privileged to be heard than, say, the representative of an industry whose profits are imperilled by scientific findings. The public, after all, should be able to weigh those two opposing positions appropriately.

What could possibly be the problem with that?

An analogy helps to show what can go wrong. Suppose your doctors and your plumber volunteer differing medical advice. Every doctor you ask urges you to have surgery to save your life. But your plumber learns of this and tells you everything is fine except you should perhaps smoke a little more to lose some weight.

Most of us would ignore the plumber and follow the doctor’s advice.

But what if we learned what was going on only through the media? First off, they would probably present the two views on a nearly equal footing, perhaps by arranging a debate between the doctor and the plumber.

If that sounds far-fetched, remember that Australia’s Channel 7 recently dragged a connoisseur of cat palmistry in front of the camera to opine about climate change. Yes, this actually happened …

In principle the public may be able to decide whether the plumber is credible. But what if people are told only that each individual has some (unspecified) professional qualification? Or are not told that doctor bills might put and end to the patient’s plans to replumb the bathroom?

Or that the doctor’s opinions were sought, while the plumber jumped in on his own? Alas, with the exception of The Conversation, which insists on competence as well as declarations of vested interests, the Australian media routinely fail to reveal relevant background.

But there is another problem.

While the media tends to treat all views as equal regardless of who holds them, huge disparities lurk in the background and tilt the tables. The forces of scepticism are still at work, but only for the expert.

If the doctor commits an error in any way, you can sue for malpractice. But the plumber’s plumbing license is at no risk whatsoever, no matter how outrageous his medical advice. And the cat palmist can say anything he wants about any field of science because he is accountable to no-one.

This creates the strange phenomenon of asymmetric warfare: while the media grant equal time to both sides, they tend to hone in on errors by members of mainstream science, however minor, while leaving egregious misstatements by others unexamined.

For example, an incorrect citation buried in one IPCC report as to the year by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to melt made global headlines, notwithstanding the fact those glaciers are melting, with potentially adverse consequences for millions of people, and that the error was irrelevant to the broader debate.

At the same time, Australian mainstream media continue to give space and airtime to climate contrarians with little if any mention of their serial errors, which dwarf the sole typo of the IPCC into utter insignificance.

Science can thus suffer a “double-whammy” in the media: first, media often “balance” scientists with people whose opposing views arise out of incompetence or vested interest, without providing the background information necessary for the public to adjudicate between the individuals. Second, while the media scrutinise scientists (as they should!), there is often little or no accountability of the plumbers and cat palmists.

This means doubt can be cast on just about any scientific conclusion, whether relating to HIV and AIDS, the dangers of mobile phones or immunisations, the dangers of smoking or a host of others.

The net result is that the media can fail a country, as they have failed Australia in the case of climate change.

What can be done about this?

On the side of science, there is every reason for scientists to speak plainly.

On the side of the media, there must be recognition that not all opinions have equal merit, but that all opinions deserve equal scrutiny so that they can be presented in their proper context.

Those issues are best illustrated by the conclusions of a recent BBC Trust review of the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s science coverage: “The BBC needs to continue to be careful when reporting on science to make a distinction between an opinion and a fact."

“When there is a consensus of opinion on scientific matters, providing an opposite view without consideration of ‘due weight’ can lead to ‘false balance’, meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is.”

The report also determined that: “For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability to do so suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story …”

Not all opinions have equal merit, and if opinions are balanced without first being equally scrutinised, the public – by which we mean everyone – is misled.

This is the fourteenth – and final – part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.

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89 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. Warwick Brown

    Retired

    I suggest that most of the problems you see are caused by your own obsessions with 'climate science'. Apart from the controversies caused by the entering into this debate of other scientists ('climate' and otherwise) plus mathematicians and statisticians - not all are plumbers arguing against cardiologists judgements - where, apart from 'climate science' is all the controversy? Yes, we had the immunisation scandals and the recent social psychology frauds but they were created and dealt with by scientists.

    What other scientific field has calls for censorship like this? Why hasn't 'Climate Science' settled the questions? The media? And it is not lack of PR skills by anyone. That is obvious from the emails themselves.

    So, my question is if not for 'climate science' where is the problem between science and the media?

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    1. Dejan Tesic, PhD

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Warwick Brown

      There hasn't been anything comparable in terms of organised and sustained attack on the field, as is the case in climate science. That speaks volumes of the kind and the strength of the vested interests that feel under attack from climate science. There are people who believe that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, that vaccines are bad for you - yet those do not seem to have the level of motivation and the funding for a sustained battle with medical science that could even compare to what's been happening with climate science in recent years. And, yes, why do you put climate science and climate in inverted commas?

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Warwick Brown

      There are plenty of examples. The ones that spring immediately to mind are the homeopathy treatments of medical conditions, which includes a recent manslaughter charge against a prominant pseudoscientist in Western Australia.

      Another example is nutrition, which is plauged with opinions and pseudoscience and the actual valid science has a hard time breaking through.

      Climate science is the most egregious though. We aren't just messing things up now, we are messing up the world for thousands of years and countless generations. For the media to create confusion like this, when there are no scientific organisations or scientists with any level of credibility who disagree with man made climate change, is just dispicable.

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    3. Warwick Brown

      Retired

      In reply to Dejan Tesic, PhD

      "why do you put climate science and climate in inverted commas?"

      Apart from me doing this to highlight the exact questions, in each case there is a reason why I deliberately did it on this occasion. "Climate" seems to now be as relative a term in this debate as is "weather" depending on which expert is writing about it, often using it to criticise some opposition. Witness the interchange, by both sides, of terms such as cold/heat/drought/flood. "Climate Science" is treated the same way by myself…

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  2. Doug Cotton

    IT Manager

    "Science means we are prepared to give up ideas ..."

    Are you? Does that paper by nine authors which showed the lower troposphere is not warming (as they knew and revealed they knew in Climategate 2) lead you to give up ideas of carbon dioxide causing warming? It should.

    So many have been sucked in by the IPCC suggestion that 30 year trends are all we need look at.

    Just suppose for one moment there really is a 60 year cycle and that the cooling periods (roughly) 1880-1910 then 1940-1970 had been…

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    1. Veil Veilradio

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Cotton

      I think this series of 14 articles on the state of science has been thinly disguised propaganda.
      Australians simply do not trust scientific authorities anymore, because you have been caught in deliberate lies.
      What is the agenda? Perhaps a jury should look into the loyalties and oaths made to foreign powers by the men who have the top jobs in government science. And are teaching in our universities.
      Treason is a very serious crime.
      A masonic judge might save you, given the feeling in the community, I doubt a jury will.

      I could give proof of the treasonous loyalties of many leading scientists in Australia, including one's that have contributed to this series of articles. If so desired.

      Or perhaps we should simply open the debate on whether the actual individuals in the scientific establishment should be vetted before being given power. Not an unfair or unreasonable debate ,since we are being asked to trust their word implicitly.

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    2. Veil Veilradio

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Veil Veilradio

      In addition I saw a comment in the autism article get deleted, because the person asked why mercury was injected into their baby via vaccines. It's a little insensitive of the Conversation to silence someone who has already suffered at the hands of science personally, for simply asking a reasonable question.
      Mercury does cause brain damage. The article was addressing the rise in autism, and expressing dismay at the cause.
      The AMA claims they no longer inject mercury into babies, but don't admit it causes harm. But oddly enough still inject mercury into babies anyhow. Via HepB vaccines.
      Is this being truthful? Is this a valid point for someone to bring up in the Conversation without censure?
      And if not, why not?

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    3. Steven Andree

      Student

      In reply to Veil Veilradio

      Clearly need to balance this argument... if you people spent more time reading the literature than listening to the news you would understand that the IPCC climate modelling predictions are not based on 30 years of data; in fact it goes back much longer. The observation that in the last 30 years there has been a warming has been concluded from many models observing a difference in the background levels. There will always be variances in the data you observe from these studies and as scientists that…

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    4. Grendelus Malleolus

      Senior Nerd

      In reply to Veil Veilradio

      "Australians simply do not trust scientific authorities anymore, because you have been caught in deliberate lies."

      Demonstrably incorrect.

      In Australia the Reader's digest conduct an annual survey of people that are trusted most and professions that are trusted the most.

      Of the top 10 people trusted - 7 were scientists and Dr Fiona Stanley was at number one (the top four were all scientists).

      Scientists ranked at number 15 as a trusted profession and various science-based medicine professions…

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    5. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Doug Cotton

      If Mr Cotton would show some intellectual integrity by giving up just one of his "ideas" in relation to climate science which been demonstrably shown to be false (such as - it's caused by Jupier, It's caused by nuclear testing releasing more thermal energy from the core and GHGs produce net cooling) he might have a leg to stand on.

      He hasn't. He doesn't.

      He also continues to malign me and my comments (and where I have made an error I have admitted it) but hasn't the integrity to reflect on his…

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  3. Chris Fellows

    Senior Lecturer in Chemistry

    I wonder how much experience you have with peer review, Stephan and Steve. I have soundly criticised papers as fatally flawed to see them come to me for review from another journal unchanged, then see them appear in yet another journal a year later with the same flaws uncorrected.

    It is a terrible, terrible mistake to equate acceptance of Anthropogenic Global Warming with "respect for science". Still worse to equate a particular policy response to AGW with "respect for science".

    http://chrisfellows.blogspot.com/2008/11/in-which-i-place-myself-beyond-pale-of.html

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    1. Michael J. I. Brown

      ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Monash University

      In reply to Chris Fellows

      Flawed papers do appear in the literature, but such papers don't have happy lives.

      If the flawed paper makes significant claims, then scientists will try to reproduce the results, fail to do so, and write rebuttals.

      If the flawed paper makes modest claims, it is likely to be ignored if scientists cannot reproduce the results or can see obvious flaws in the methodology.

      With regards to "respect for science", many of the current attacks on climate science appear to be strongly motivated by the conclusions scientists are reaching, not by concerns about methodology.

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    2. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Michael J. I. Brown

      "many of the current attacks on climate science appear to be strongly motivated by the conclusions scientists are reaching, not by concerns about methodology."

      That is completely wrong.

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  4. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Well, this brought the trolls out from under thire bridges, didn't it?

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    1. Warwick Brown

      Retired

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      You have a nerve calling me a troll - putting comments which are "inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion".

      You might not like any opposing points of view adressed to the topic but you have a hide to try and dismiss them with such am attempted put-down. I resent it because it was nothing like the supposed output of a troll. I suggest that it is a comment like yours that cause such inflammatory responses in others. You might own a topic (or even a web site) and if it is closed, just say so. If you claim to be open to legitimate comment DO it.

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  5. John Barker
    John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

    A thoughtful article, Stephan, that touches on most of the main issues.

    Most of the responses below demonstrate the problem of the "antsymmetric warfare" (in the war of ideas, presumably): These responses, along with many that I have seen in this series, have no place in TheConversation- they are are opinions, certainly, but not of the kind that forms acceptable discourse in the institutions that support this site- they are essentially unsubstantiated opinions, or irrelevant to the main discourse…

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    1. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to John Barker

      I agree entirely and there is a serious risk in allowing those inane and vacuous comments to infest a stream. I also agree that RC is very good in that respect, as is Skepticalscience.

      I have discussed this issue with TC staff and they are also very aware of the problem, but like me, they are sensitive to excessive interference and censorship. There is a very fine line between preserving standards and exclusion of dissenting views--although by the time people mumble about 'masonic judges' we've…

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    2. Paul Dalgarno

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      We're continuing to work on the way we deal with comments on stories but, yes, we're definitely not about censoring and excessive interference. As Stephan notes above, there are some options already in terms of our crowd-sourcing approach to moderation.

      In particular, there's a "report abuse" function that people can – and do – use when someone strays into antsy troll mode. That then alerts the section editor who can deal with the issue.

      I'd urge all readers to do this as and when they think it necessary.

      There are a couple of voices that grate on everyone's nerves, who keep appearing and trolling for all they're worth and who – I'd have to guess – get perverse pleasure from winding people up.

      If something's unconstructive or off-topic, vote it as such – at present this will mark that comment's "score" down, which is something at least. In time this feature will be developed and made better.

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    3. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Paul Dalgarno

      Indeed. Maybe eventually the unconstructive comments can be moved into a 'borehole' so they don't obstruct the substantive discussions this site is meant to elicit? Crowd sourcing is a good solution if 'freeping' can be prevented.

      But I think ultimately you will find that some people will just have to be shown the door. They are the ones that know as little about their own conduct as they know about anything else. That's my prediction, anyhow.

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    4. Rod Lamberts

      Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

      In reply to Paul Dalgarno

      I say don't even rate them. Just ignore them.

      The same few people appear whenever there's even the remotest possibility of banging on with their same boring lines and wild conspiracy theories. Anyone following science-related pieces on TC knows exactly who I mean.

      Yaaaaaaaaaawn....

      Ignore them, deny them oxygen. Without attention they are nothing.

      We should hope they are like Tinkerbell and they will fade if we don't believe in them any more...

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    5. Chris Fellows

      Senior Lecturer in Chemistry

      In reply to Rod Lamberts

      Sheesh, and you wonder why there is a communication problem?

      Calling people names and hoping they will go away if you ignore them is not a strategy. :(

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    6. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Rod Lamberts

      agree. but stepping over them to read substantive comments is an annoyance and turns many readers off from commenting--as I hear every day.

      so there is a net loss to the community because there _are_ a lot of valuable thoughts out there that are not being voiced because of the overall quality of a thread.

      i couldn't care less about the conspirologist nutters but if they discourage valuable content then that is an issue we need to be concerned with.

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    7. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Rod Lamberts

      Rod- I wish that ignoring them would deter them. In my experience this doesn't happen- they seem to have endless energy for trolling. Besides, as I said before, their very presence discourages sincere new-comers. For a year or so I would refer people with ideas to the afore-said site that I've left, until I started getting feedback from these people to the effect that I seemed to be keeping very odd company- that reflected on my judgement.

      I suspect that some of these trolls perceive the crowd-sourcing efforts as a measure of their success- any attention is good as far as they are concerned.

      There are plenty of lessons in history where fair-minded citizens allowed extremists to form a critical mass and were then overwhelmed by them- please don't let TC become a training-ground for these anti-democrats.

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    8. Rod Lamberts

      Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

      In reply to John Barker

      Fair calls, John/ Stephan

      It's tough to know what to do, and there's no single strategy that will work all 'round. Two things are for certain though:

      1) these folks feed off any-and-all energy. If you agree, they have a new confederate. If you disagree, you 'prove' their points (whatever those may be). Correcting them doesn't work. Attacking them doesn't work. So maybe take the middle path...

      2) confronting these folks by refuting their arguments logically and with substantial evidence makes no…

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    9. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Rod Lamberts

      indeed. one slight disagreement: 'attacking' may not work, but _exposing_ them for who they are is crucial.

      concerning data on damage, i've got one study completed and another one to be analyzed. Unpublished as yet, so take it with a grain of salt, but the results are as Beth Loftus would expect--malleable memories subject to distortion by post-event information.

      all that said, it obviously _is_ possible to have a serious discussion on TC, as we do right now.

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    10. Chris Fellows

      Senior Lecturer in Chemistry

      In reply to Rod Lamberts

      "Confronting these folks by refuting their arguments logically and with substantial evidence makes no difference to them. It simply never works."

      But, I think it can make a big difference to the silent onlookers who are reading and not commenting. Just slagging off at people and not addressing their arguments is not very convincing to the viewers at home. Please, please, bring on some logical refutation.

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    11. Grendelus Malleolus

      Senior Nerd

      In reply to Chris Fellows

      Chris - that has been largely my view where trolls are concerned. While they might not respond to logic, other readers may get the point.

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    12. Rod Lamberts

      Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University

      In reply to Chris Fellows

      Fair point about onlookers, Chris. This is indeed a tricky landscape to navigate...

      But I like Stephan's reminder - we are currently having a real conversation on the TC about important, relevant matters and seeking to exchange ideas and evidence. Which I would say is another strategy: lead by example

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    13. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Chris Fellows

      the difficulty with that is that the logical refutation will be met with "look over there: another shiny object!" and then there will be another long-debunked myth put forward, which in turn will be patiently debunked, only to be followed by another colorful bauble.

      the sum total of that is the appearance of a debate where there is none. there are just some trolls generating noise.

      that said, the triage is tricky and not always obvious to those not familiar with the subject matter. that's what makes the situation so pernicious, because journalists cannot be expected to tell the difference between nonsense and true science at first glance.

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    14. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Rod Lamberts

      agree. make sure to add "this has been debunked 3245 times before" so onlookers know what's going on.

      remember, all this nonsense is just recycled junk and does nothing other than to take up valuable time and space--and that is the important message to get across to the public.

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    15. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Stephan- WE are having a serious discussion- or meta-discussion- about the troll-problem- which means that once again the trolls have succeeded in knocking a discourse off-course with a hit-and-run.

      You mention triage- I think that this is a good model. Undoubtedly there will be some mis-judgements, but that doesn't mean death- a suspected troll can appeal and be re-instated. In my experience most trolls are pretty obvious.

      With reference to our substantive discourse- matching the signal to the public recipients is a significant challenge, but it becomes almost impossible if the signal-to-noise ratio is increased by uncontrolled trolls.

      What have we got to lose by having high standards? Or are we concerned that we might become the next taget for Jones, Bolt and the "revenge journals"?

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    16. Veil Veilradio

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Barker

      It seems my comment has stirred up a hornet's nest. I cannot name names without giving mine, and whilst at this stage a charge of libel against me, seems the only way I can bring this in front of a jury.I shall have to make sure I have all my ducks in a row before proceeding.
      If I am just a troll why not simply say on record you have made no oaths to foreign powers.
      These of course include masonic oaths. Oaths to the pope or to a world socialist group.
      I'd welcome the opportunity to either refute on a person to person basis the claim or apologise, as the case may be

      I find it amusing seeing democracy being a justification for censorship.I'm sure by eliminating all opposition you can achieve democracy very quickly.

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    17. Veil Veilradio

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Veil Veilradio

      I have just received a threatening phone call. Would you consider that trolling?
      Shame on you

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    18. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Chris Fellows

      I agree Chris, as I have posted here http://theconversation.edu.au/there-is-a-real-climategate-out-there-4428#comments

      /
      I would remind you of the great comment from Edward Burke

      "In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing."

      I cannot stand by and do nothing while egregious misrepresentations of science, pseduo skepticism sowing the seeds of doubt (rather than positive inquiry) and out& out of denial of an important issue impacting the future of our civilisation remain unchecked
      /

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    19. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Would you show the door to correspondents who use outrageous generalisations and insulting and politically driven terminology such as "thuggery of the Murdoch hate media " which adds nothing of value to the intellectual debate? Of course you wouldn't, because that's the type of terminology you use. So what you are really talking about is acting as censor to any comments you disagree with. If you agree with the writer, they can say whatever they like no matter how rude, irrelevant or unsubstantiated.

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    20. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Veil Veilradio

      Veil,

      It is very difficult for people to take your claims seriously when the people involved in this discussion have no basis for understanding your allegations, which is the first step in having any hope of others agreeing with you.

      Although I think the word troll is bandied around too much these days (and often pejoratively, so that the flip side of trolling is ignored) I suggest you take my previous point into consideration.

      My suggestion to other forum users is that perhaps you, or someone…

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  6. Chris Lloyd

    Professor of Business Statistics, Melbourne Business School at University of Melbourne

    "Only those ideas that survive peer review are published in journals. Some have likened peer review to a gladiator being thrown into a den of lions: only the very fittest survive."

    I am not a troll or a climate sceptic. Climate data has been well and truly subjected to appropriate statistical scrutiny. But I am afraid that the statement above is naive. Researchers, particularly in the area of psychology, can produce statistically significant results from almost any experiment - see (http://www.google.com.au/url?q=http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm%3Fabstract_id%3D1850704&sa=U&ei=mpfNTqr-DaKUiQeczZXyDg&ved=0CBYQFjAC&usg=AFQjCNFu8pNDHQPwaA6x4jUZyIrmCm-Ntg)

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    1. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Chris Lloyd

      Chris, interesting point. Some considerations in reply
      1. i maintain that peer review is incredibly ruthless. i can send you a few dozen rejection letters if you want that confirmed.

      2. the paper you cite is interesting and actually makes the point i just made--one of their recommendations is that reviewers insist on _less_ perfection in the data!

      3. their considerations are not new and well taken. Other work you may find interesting is e.g. Wagenmakers, E.-J. A practical solution to the pervasive…

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  7. Carol Chenco
    Carol Chenco is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Research Officer

    Great - the same people 'pushing their own barrows' have come out to comment on this article. The main problem with this article is that it won't reach 'the public'. I suggest reading Naomi Oreskes book - The Merchants of Doubt, then you'll find out about the dedicated approaches by industry and their supporters to thwart and distort the science, beginning with the denial of the global tobacco companies about the link between smoking and cancer. According to Naomi's writings, these free market fundamentalists peddle 'doubt' - sounds familiar!

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  8. Scott Brown

    logged in via Twitter

    Call me naive, but I don't think the problem's quite as bad as they make out. Of course it's true that if you do dumb things to your data, you'll report dumb results.

    But I'm not sure that anyone in psychology has ever made a real contribution based on a single hypothesis test. For example, the attentional blink wouldn't be the massive research topic that it currently is, if the basic phenomenon didn't replicate every single time. Same for Stroop, Eriksen, visual search, .... .

    The point I'm making is just the one Michael Brown made above: bad papers that are modest are ignored; bad papers that are ambitious are later destroyed

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  9. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Is it possible to make a comment on the article that doesn’t actually pertain to the climate debate?

    As a former science journalist I can say that, as with most marriages, the fault between science and media lies on both sides. Very often scientists make poor communicators, either doing their best to ignore the media or else treating it with disdain and a certain amount of arrogance.

    This can result from a continuum of attitudes ranging from naiveté (“Do you think people really care what genes…

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    1. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Mat, I agree entirely, and I don't think I laid the blame entirely on the media. I have come across everything you describe above among colleagues. However, I have also observed dramatic changes over the last few years whereby universities and academics are becoming far less reticent to engage with (and in) the media. The Conversation is an invaluable part of that, in particular given the rather pathological media landscape in this country (which affects everyone but scientists in particular at the moment).

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    2. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Unfortunately the last few years correlates strongly with a decline in the quality of graduates. Perhaps those who are supposed to be educating the students are too busy elsewhere?

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    3. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to James Doogue

      James Doogue criticies people on this thread for using "outrageous generalistions" and then says this???

      That strikes me as a case of the pot calling the kettle black

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  10. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor at Wound CRC

    I too regret that this extremely important debate gets lost when looked at through the lens of climate change.

    A discussion of science and science policy in Nature ended with this comment "Engagement is different; a tribal disdain for the social sciences still holds sway in the laboratory, as does a haughty disregard for the views and demands of the general public. Both outlooks need to be jettisoned if science is to contribute and thrive in this new world"

    Nature, Wednesday 23 November 2011
    http://www.nature.com/news/science-s-attitudes-must-reflect-a-world-in-crisis-1.9419
    Nature 479: 447 (24 November 2011) doi:10.1038/479447a

    Scientists, of which I am one, really need to get our minds around this issue and learn to communicate in the real world.

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  11. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    "Australian mainstream media continue to give space and airtime to climate contrarians with little if any mention of their serial errors ..."

    It's mainly Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair, isn't it? Getting upset about a couple of controversialists seems a little precious. Switch on the TV, or open a newspaper, and you'll almost never encounter AGW skepticism.

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  12. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    I'd just make the point that he media doesn't give much exposure to 'skeptical' views. If you open most newspapers or turn on the TV, most coverage will accept the AGW hypothesis. So I'm not sure about the 'science vs media' dilemma that Professor Lewandowsky describes.

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  13. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    There is a new paper out by Andreas Schmittner (a reputable climate scientist I believe), which suggests that climate sensitivity may not be as bad as feared - his model would suggest warming at the lower rather than the higher end of the IPCC estimates.

    This is in an area where climate science is, indeed, uncertain, although the concensus estimates are higher.

    There is a good link to the article and a fairly baalanced commentary here

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21212-co2-may-not-warm-the-planet-as-much-as-thought.html

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    1. Doug Cotton

      IT Manager

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      A totally unrealistic method to assess climate sensitivity. The paper "determines" this by comparing temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in the ice age with those in the present age. Data like this does not prove what caused what.

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    2. Doug Cotton

      IT Manager

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Mark Harrigan commented:

      "Anyone who claims that GHGs can cause cooling doesn't use physics"

      Physics says:

      1. Just like any gas molecules, GHG molecules can acquire thermal energy by diffusion

      2. The molecules from which they acquire thermal energy (eg oxygen and nitrogen) lose an equivalent amount of thermal energy.

      3. Losing thermal energy equates to cooling.

      4. Unlike oxygen and nitrogen molecules, GHG molecules can radiate thermal energy

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    3. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Doug Cotton

      This is like arguing that having more of something that increases the retention of another quanity will, in fact, bring about less of that other quantity - it is just plain nonsense.

      Again Mr Cotton fails to address the evidence. Satellite data clearly showing that since GHGs started rising above their historical average levels - it has been MEASURED that less thermal radiation is escaping into space. Less themral energy escaping into space means more thermal energy is retained on the planet which…

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    4. Doug Cotton

      IT Manager

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      "This is kindergarten stuff" says Dr Harrigan who is as gullible as kindergarten kids in believing that radiation which goes back to the surface not only warms the surface, but has such magical properties that it can then stop the surface getting cooler again, even though physics says that the propensity to lose heat increases with the fourth power of the absolute temperature. Just as well the incident solar radiation which is far stronger creates thermal energy which is somehow different and so…

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    5. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Doug Cotton

      Again you confuse temperature with energy but not matter.

      You still don't get it though. The point is that every bit of radiation from GHGs ditrected towards the planet helps to maintain it a higher temperature, The more that is reflected back, the higher that equilibrium temperature.

      What you are misssing in your little series is two things.

      1) IF there were no incident radiation then the planet would indeed eventually cool - GHGs would only slow the rate of cooling compared to if they did…

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    6. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Doug Cotton

      Doug Cotton still doesn't get it! Amazing!

      The point is that every bit of radiation from GHGs directed towards the planet helps to maintain it a higher temperature, The more that is reflected back, the higher that equilibrium temperature.

      What he is missing in his little series is two things.

      1) IF there were no incident radiation then the planet would indeed eventually cool - GHGs would only slow the rate of cooling compared to if they did not exist (hence the progression in the limit to zero…

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  14. John Barker
    John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

    Mark says
    "Alas I fear it will be misrepresented and little understanding will be shown that a single paper, whilst relevant, does not of itself overturn the overall science."

    Indeed, based on past performance, the probability of misrepresentation by the media is likely to be high. However, this should not deter us- "keep on message" is the mesage- and the message is the principles used by scientists- essentially peer-reviewed empiricism.

    Perhaps more scientists need to add the challenge to the commentariat that they subject themselves to similar standards of scrutiny.

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to John Barker

      Thanks John - perhaps we need the conversation and the universities to fund a sort of "Science Media Watch".

      Stephan could be our host (or we could recruit the redoubtable Jonathan Holmes) and it could be a regular public (and hopefully humourous) skewering of the consumer media's mistreatment of science and science reporting (and also extolling the virtues good reporting when it is done).

      Then there are always the chaser lads - if the roasting they gave to Monckton is any indication (a must see on You Tube if you haven't) then they might be up for the task.

      I think Scientists as a community need to be much more on the front foot on this.

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    2. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Agree. We need to constantly expose what is being done to scientists--and by implication, everyone.

      Of course, we are not the only group targeted for distortion and misrepresentation: Anyone or anything that is inconvenient will receive the same bully treatment, and it is the basic thuggery of the Murdoch hate media that must be stopped. At the moment, we simply do not--and cannot--have a functioning democracy while those thugs are out of control.

      Lest anyone think "thugs" is too strong, consider this http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/nov/24/sienna-miller-jk-rowling-leveson. Precisely the same type of thing is happening on a daily basis in Australia.

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    3. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      The problem isn't the lobbying, it's the human resources to do this. However, leave it with me, i might make a point of this at http://2012conf.asc.asn.au/ . Crowd-sourcing can do wonders with only a moderate amount of support.

      So yes, a media science watch center with several pro bono law firms attached to it might help. I suspect the current media inquiry will result in a slightly more affirmative watchdog (they'll trade the feather duster for a slight growl at least) and in the long run this might help restore a bit of reality to the media coverage provided people are willing to make use of it and have the time and funds to do so.

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    4. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Understand - I'd cheerfully be a crowd-sourced volunteer - or more if it helped.

      I do understand a little bit of the science and can turn a phrase or two

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    5. John Barker
      John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      I'm happy to volunteer to assist in any way. We need clear guidelines for action, which I would prefer to be pretty strict- ie make publication of a response just a bit short of a peer-reviewed paper! Heed the old radiocomms dictum: "the wider the window, the more the dirt flies in". Trolling is a threat to democracy and a threat to our profession..

      A few other observations: I think that "Science" needs to seek advice from some successful media marketing and advertising people. Ultimately, our "products…

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    6. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to John Barker

      sounds good. re ACMA routine, i am working on that, initial contacts with a pro bono lawyer have been established. watch this space for more, we might as well put a piece on TC as this moves forward.

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    7. Michael Kottek

      Greyhound Trainer

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Professor,

      It is hard to see how lawyering up is going to help anything.

      If your aim is to convince the public, I doubt very much that the cause will benefit from sooling ACMA on to 'unfair' broadcasters; still if it makes you academics feel better, it could at least provide a little entertainment.

      I can't help but think that a whole lot more of no regrets measures would havebeen taken over the last decade or so, had the IPCC not sexed things up so much. I do hope expressing such an opinion would't be unfair: but how would I know?

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    8. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to John Barker

      This is amusing: http://blogs.news.com.au/couriermail/andrewbolt/index.php/couriermail/comments/silence_the_sceptics_the_academics_cry/

      I suppose convicted racists might find it difficult to differentiate between freedom of speech and freedom to lie, distort, slander, and bully. The distinction may be subtle, but funnily enough, many parents manage to raise children who do understand it. And most leave primary school with a working knowledge of that distinction.

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    9. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      I'm actually a bit chuffed :) I have left a comment so we will see if it is moderated out of existence or not.

      I have made it clear here that my suggestion of a "Science Media Watch" was not to silecne anyone - but rather to provide a voice for real science which is often so egregiously misrepresented in the media. On my reading that is how you Stephan, and others, interpreted it.

      I notice Bolt didn't allude to that - he was careful to quote out of context so as to imply what was being advocated was censorship of dissent. Naturally I was VERY surprised by this approach.

      A person called Michael alerted Mr Bolt. I should like to thank him for doing so as I am conscious of the wonder Oscar Wilde quote - "the only thing worse than being talked about is not bing talked about" :)

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    10. Stephan Lewandowsky

      Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Comrade, consider yourself lucky; you are now part of yet another 'climategate' which will put the 223rd final nail into the coffin of global warming, science as a whole, freedom of speech, and democracy. Clearly we were discussing the World Government, weren't we?

      I suppose on second thought we might have achieved greater impact if we had conspired in silence and emailed each other, and if those emails had then been hacked and released on a Russian server.

      Perhaps we should go off-public for the plotting of our next step towards a future in which our Communist Wind Turbines seek control over the thoughts of all boltbots?

      Wanna bet that this comment will pop up again out of context somewhere? The good thing is that most people are actually, you know, normal.

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    11. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      "pro bono lawyer"

      Law works in the opposite way to climate science; with climate science you get very little for a lot of funding.

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    12. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      "Lie, distort, slander and bully" is exactly what you do when you refer to anyone as a 'climate denier', or 'denier'.

      'The Conversation' doesn't need to put so much effort into excluding those comments you feel are unworthy for publication. All you need to do is ask the correspondent one question each time they submit a comment:

      "Do you believe it is scientifically proven that human CO2 emissions are causing catastrophic climate change and we need to reduce emissions to zero in the very near future to avoid irreversible climate disaster?"

      If they answer "YES" print their comment.

      If they answer "NO" delete their comment.

      Then you will have the ideal site you yearn for. The ABC is half way there, the Labor Party and Greens have achieved that position, so I am sure 'The Conversation' can manage it.

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    13. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Stephan Lewandowsky

      Well, they did allow my comment through. It was this
      -------------------------
      Well done for misrepresentation out of Context Mr Bolt.

      If you look at the entire thread it is not about silencing anyone.

      It was in a response to a suggestion to create a sort of “Media Watch” for science reporting.

      In order to provide some balance to the often poor reporting of science in the Media.

      You know, on important issues like Vaccines, HIV, evolution and climate change - things where public policy responses (where evryone opinion counts) should be informed by evidence (where no one’s opinion counts - only the facts)?

      Given that I know you like to make sure the truth is always told I am surprised you would have a problem with this??

      -------------------------------------

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    14. Matthew Albrecht

      Postdoctoral Researcher at Curtin University

      In reply to James Doogue

      I fail to see the justification for the feigned moral outrage associated with the word "denier". Do they not deny that CO2, as generated by humans, has a significant warming effect? If they do deny, then they're denying it's true and the appropriate noun in this situation is "denier". That this argument was brought up by the pinnacle of feigned moral outrage Mr Pyne, tells me a lot about the people who so defensively use this argument. Frankly, I'd be proud to be called a denier of a number of things I don't think are real, like unicorns and witches etc without getting my knickers in a twist whenever somebody directed the appropriate noun towards me.

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    15. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      I don't think your sanguine description of a "Media Watch" for "science reporting" is "not about silencing anyone" is accurate. Consider this email from Barry Pittock of the CSIRO:

      > >>At 16:19 17/04/03 +1000, Barrie.Pittock@XXXX wrote:
      > >>>Dear all,
      > >>>
      > >>>I just want to throw in some thoughts re appropriate responses to
      > >>>all this - probably obvious to some of you, but clearly different
      > >>>from some views expressed. This is not solely a reply to Phil
      > >>>Jones, as I have read…

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    16. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Anthony Cox

      I don't care a hoot for what you think Mr Cox.

      I know what I intended by my statement.

      It was quite clear. I was not proposing silencing anyone.

      And using the Media Watch analogy clarifies it.

      Given the continued dumbing down of the commercial media in this country and the often total misrepresentation of science, I am proposing that a voice be given to the scientific community - along the lines of Media Watch - to counter misinformation (like that spread by pseudo skeptics and media trolls - you all know who you are)

      Media Watch don't silence anyone - they hold members of the media accountable for their (often) total misrepresentation of a situation which is a breach of the public trust necessary for the media to serve a functioning democracy.

      That fact that you fail to appreciate this speaks volumes

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    17. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      "I don't care a hoot for what you think Mr Cox."

      You are a hoot Mark.

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    18. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Anthony Cox

      And Clive Hamilton makes a cogent moral case for their moral equivalence Mr Cox.

      Whilst you or I may not agree with his conclusions as one refers to a situation which certainly happened and the other to one which is future and therefore uncertain, it is still a valid concern.

      To deny what the science is telling us about the possible consequences of a potential significant change in our global climate that threatens the lives of billions is, I would suggest, morally reprehensible.

      It is people…

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    19. Anthony Cox

      logged in via email @optusnet.com.au

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Hamilton makes no cogent case at all and you have no doubt at all, not about anything or any aspect of AGW; that is not scientific, that is ideological.

      And how does this apply to AGW science which shrouds itself in secrecy, patronage and elitism?

      "REAL skepticism is about POSITIVE inquiry and critical thinking"

      What does that even mean? I think you are a post-modernist; no doubt Kuhn and Focault are your heroes.

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    20. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Anthony Cox

      Well, we can disagree about the cogency of his case, even if we might actually agree that the parallel may not be valid.

      As for the rest of your statement. With due respect, you have no absolutely no idea about my views on a whole variety of things - yet you presume to judge without inquiry. Further evidence for my contention about your pseduo skeptical behaviours really.

      Apparently the fact that AGW is required to rest on published science translates into "secrecy, patronage and elitism" - but we will let that slide - no doubt you will next be telling me that the interests of fossil fuels are a text book case in openness and transparency??

      And for the record - I detest post modernism and have posted many times on other threads attacking such deconcsturctionism wherever I find it.

      I try to follow an intersubecjtive reality based on shared empiricism. I would encourage others to do the same

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  15. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    We like to believe that we live in a free and open society but the reality is otherwise. Like the other Western democracies Australia is a Murdochracy (Big Money buys truth, public perception and votes) and a Lobbyocracy (Big Money buys politicians and policy). Endless examples can be given of this Big Money perversion of truth and democracy and how truth and therefore science are sidelined by the Big Money Agenda.

    Even a taxpayer-funded organization like the ABC can fall into a "consensus" position…

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    1. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Gideon Polya

      Excellent letter Gideon and well made points. Lewendowsky is in the same department at UWA which shelters our failed past Premier Carmen Lawrence (was never elected as Premier), who had a fortuitous memory loss. Perhaps a selective memory is a prerequisite in their field?

      The type of society Lewandowsky yearns for is one which would stop the publication of material from dissenters such as Magellan, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, Darwin and just about any innovator in medical science such as our own Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

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  16. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    Don't know if this will be acceptable to the policy here but I hope it is taken in a humorous light
    It is intended as a Parody
    ----------------------------

    Tovarich!

    I, Kram Nagirrah, Agent 86, have just received vital news!

    It appears those running dog capitalist evil coal mongering big energy anti-environment one percenters have placed spies in our midst!

    These spies threaten to derail our secret plans to achieve total word dominance through our (stealth) takeover of the world's governments…

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  17. John Barker
    John Barker is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University

    Another perspective on trolls:

    For some time I've been thinking about "The Free-Rider Problem", aka "The n-Person Prisoner's Dilemma". The basic concept is simple- a group of people contribute to providing a resource on the assumption that all who use the resource will also contribute. As the cheapest way to run the resource is to trust users to "pay up", an opportunity for personal gain arises from breaching that trust. The easiest example to think of is public transport which isn't heavily policed…

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  18. Chris Plant

    Engineer

    Mark Harrigan,

    There is no Law of Radiative Balance and your response to Doug Cotton is nonsense. It is the that began with of the original paper by Trenberth et al and should have been laughed out of court then and there.

    There is however the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, arguably the most fundamental law we have yet discovered about how this Universe runs.

    The 2nd Law and the Greenhouse Theory are mutually contradictory. They cannot both be true.

    What I find extraordinary is how anyone can discuss temperature, heat, and heat transfer without reference to the discipline of Thermodynamics. I suspect it because they either never studied it or never understood it. For if they did they would find Greenhouse Theory untterly risible and would also understand the severe limitations and potentials of the various renewable energy sources and tyr to work within those realities - like engineers do!

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  19. Douglas Cotton

    logged in via Facebook

    Indeed "science" itself may have been the one off balance and some of the media on track.

    The good news (now based on material published this year) is that, not only is the climate heading for level or even slightly declining temperatures in the very near future, but also the greenhouse theory has now been proven incorrect by a team of eight highly qualified and experienced experts whose work has been published this year in the book "Slaying the Sky Dragon."

    Yes, it's true! Humans have no significant…

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  20. Randy FRame

    IT sys admin

    Funny, but this is just another "Global Warming" justification dressed as a discussion on "roles of the media and scientists". Equate global warming dissenters with "cat palmistry" readers, make the case that there is "consensus" and "peer review" that makes global warming infallible, without mentioning ONE other example of science and the media having "problems". I ask anybody who reads this to respond: what is this article really about? Sly, very sly....

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