When the science is so clear, why is the argument so clouded?

Too much focus on balance doesn’t present the true picture. AAP

While the evidence for climate change continues to strengthen, public acceptance of the science keeps declining. Closing the gap could be a question of better communication.

At the commencement of the Garnaut Climate Change Review, I faced the question that confronts all who are not climate scientists and who are required for one reason or another to take a position on the climate science: how do we know if propositions put forward by some climate scientists are right?

By the time I concluded the Review in September 2008, I had read a fair bit of climate science, published by people, including some “sceptics”, with genuine credentials and records of publication in professionally reputed scientific journals. I was exposed to more of the literature through the work of a conscientious team in the Review’s secretariat, and of scientists advising me in various ways.

Few who contributed to the real climate science doubted that the average temperatures on earth were rising, and that this reflected the increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of human activity.

This view was supported by the learned academies in all of the countries of scientific achievement and the overwhelming majority of specialists in the core disciplines contributing to climate science.

As I noted in the Review, there is no genuinely scientific dissent from the main propositions of the physics of climate change that increased concentrations of greenhouse gases raise the earth’s temperature by calculable amounts. The premise on which I worked through the 2008 Review was that the main propositions of the mainstream science were right “on a balance of probabilities”.

When I came update my Review of the science for a paper released on March 10 this year, it was clear that the new evidence strongly confirmed the mainstream science.

Yet, over the same three year period, between work for the 2008 Review and the Update, some polling evidence suggests that an increasing proportion of the public doubts the mainstream science.

There are many factors contributing to this increase in dissent. But two of the more important are communications based.

Mainstream media has often sought to provide balance between people who base their views on the mainstream science and people who don’t - if you like, between scientific authority, and unscientific opinion. That is a very strange sort of balance.

It is a balance of numbers of words and not a balance of scientific authority.

This, in turn, may exacerbate the second communication issue: scholarly reticence. In the field of climate change science, I wonder whether we are seeing the effects of a professional reticence about stepping too far in front of received wisdom in one stride.

In bringing together the best of scholarly thought and the techniques of conventional journalism, _The Conversation _is well placed to make a vital contribution to bridging the gap between scientific and public knowledge.

This Foundation Essay is part of a series of articles to mark the launch of The Conversation. Others in the series are:

Better connecting the university to the public debate by Glyn Davis

A better formula for science communication By Peter Doherty

What’s the point of universities? It’s the ideas, stupid By Patrick McCaughey

The science of reporting climate change By Brian McNair

How universities learnt a lesson in humility — and are all the better for it By John Keane

The modern university must reinvent itself to survive By Simon Marginson