Reclaiming skepticism: Scientists fight back against climate change deniers.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
June 26 2011 7:04 AM

Reclaiming Skepticism

Scientists fight back against climate change deniers.

Article from Financial Times
Earth. Click image to expand.

Emily Shuckburgh spends much of her time wrapped up against the cold on the far side of the world, measuring atmospheric and ocean eddies for the British Antarctic Survey. But over the past few months she has been rolling up her sleeves and travelling across the UK to confront the public heat over climate change.

With support from Living With Environmental Change, a partnership between government departments and funding agencies, she has run a series of focus groups exploring people's views on media coverage of science. She endorses projects such as oldweather.org, an attempt to engage the public directly in analysing historical sea temperature data. On secondment to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, she has also been posting videos on YouTube and engaging with "sceptics" via blogs.

"It's quite clear there has been a breakdown of trust between scientists and the public, and it's important that we try to articulate more clearly what our processes are," she says. "I've been working hard to find ways to communicate our findings. A lot of climate science is difficult and counter-intuitive. We really have to put more effort into explaining our work and making it understandable and relevant."

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Shuckburgh is in the vanguard of a new generation fighting back against those who reject mainstream science, actively taking on criticism in fields from genetically modified food and nuclear power to vaccination and animal testing. The weapon of choice has been the internet. Both sides use websites, e-mails and Twitter to inform and unite previously isolated individuals. The tactics deployed by the "sceptics" range from overwhelming Freedom of Information requests on climate scientists to financially crippling libel lawsuits against critics of alternative medicine.

No controversy has been more high profile than global warming, where public suspicion has been stoked by the alleged manipulation of temperature records exposed in the leaked "Climategate" e-mails from the University of East Anglia, and questions over the reliability of the predictions in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. It is a debate in which the very word "sceptic" has formed part of the battle, seized as their own by those who question global warming.

"Scepticism is a major part of science, and it's a shame it has been appropriated," says Shuckburgh. "That leads to a lot of confusion. If we could reclaim the word … that would be progress." She could be a poster-child for the findings of Sir Muir Russell's report on Climategate, which rejected any suggestion of lack of rigour or dishonesty by the researchers. Instead it called on scientists generally to be more open in the way research is conducted, make their results and models available to other interest groups, and engage with critics in the blogosphere.

Many feel much more still needs to be done. Writing in a blog about scepticism in New Scientist in February, Sir John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, warned: "It is time the scientific community became proactive in challenging misuse of scientific evidence. We must make evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable. In a world of global communication, we cannot afford to speak only to ourselves."

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, argues: "The key problem has been not so much what people accept about science but whether they trust the researchers ... Scientists are not very good at framing the unknowns in ways that are meaningful to the decision-making process. Too often when you are trying to bring your research into the policymaking domain, uncertainty can be used as [an] excuse for inaction. Some have downplayed uncertainties not because they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes but because they are afraid they would be amplified by those who have vested interests in resisting potential policy responses. We need to get better at explaining uncertainties."

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At London's Grange Hotel in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral earlier this month, Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, looked content as he shared a platform with a dozen health and development ministers. They had just concluded a meeting which generated $4.3bn in additional donations for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, designed to buy and distribute vaccines to children in the world's poorest countries.

Outside the building, a group of protesters gathered to raise their concerns over the safety of vaccines, reflecting discredited claims first made in 1998 by Dr Andrew Wakefield of a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella jab, which triggered a slump in child immunisation by concerned parents in the UK and the US. Inside, when a journalist raised the issue, Gates politely but curtly dismissed the concerns with the words: "I don't know if there is any medical question that has been more studied."

In February, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he had been still more blunt when asked to comment on the link between autism and vaccines. "It's an absolute lie that has killed thousands of kids. Because the mothers who heard that lie, many of them didn't have their kids take either pertussis [whooping cough] or measles vaccine, and their children are dead today. And so the people who go and engage in those antivaccine efforts, you know, they, they kill children."