I’m not so sure about the letter on climate change (“Climate Change and the Integrity of Science“) in last week’s Science.
The current environment for talking about climate change is pretty vitriolic, in large part due to the release of those less-than-flattering climatologist emails a few weeks. It’s hard to deny that there’s been not just an anti-climate change sentiment rising, but a bit of an even more dangerous anti-science feeling too. I’ll point to the stuff going down at UVA, but I probably don’t have to.
So on the one hand, I like what these guys did in Science. Get a bunch of well-respected scientists together, write up a piece about how science is never 100% certain about anything (which is, after all, rather the point), and give a message of solidarity saying that capital-S Science is agreed and we need to do something.
On the other hand (the larger, more sensible hand), this is not the way to do it. Who’s the audience here? It’s not capital-S Science. We (“we” here being scientists) know all this. That’s why we got all those guys to co-author it. But that’s who these guys wrote that letter to.
I’ll give you a hint who the audience is: they don’t get access to the subscription-only articles in Science. They don’t want to try to follow the academese used in scientific publications (it’s not so bad in this article, but it’s still there). And you certainly won’t be winning over any of the intended audience with the article’s examples of uncertain theories that scientists are pretty comfortable calling facts: the age of the Earth, the Big Bang, the theory of evolution. Really? Those are the examples you pick? The same population who already don’t believe in evolution, Big Bang, whatever…those are the guys we’re trying to have a conversation with. Wanna make an argument that scientific uncertainties are present in facts? Don’t use ideas your audience is already fundamentally opposed to. Use something like gravity. Everyone knows shit falls down. So when you tell them, “Hey, we’re not certain exactly how or why shit falls down, but in all the centuries we’ve been watching we’re pretty sure shit fall down” they’ll get the message. They’ll also get an appreciation for how science actually works that most folks simply don’t have.
So really, who are we talking to here? Because I don’t think there’s a one hand and another hand to this. I think what ended up happening was that a whole big list of co-authors they rounded up did a whole lot of nothing.