Friday, 26 November 2010

Freedom of Information and Science

First published in the Times Higher Education magazine 25th November 2010. This is a joint article with Alice Bell.

The idea that "information" should be freely available has become a central feature of what, in the 21st century, we expect from a well-functioning democracy. Words such as "openness" and "transparency" litter the rhetoric of public policy discourse. They are also characteristics that for many define good science.
Why, then, has Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, a key tool in facilitating openness and transparency, developed such an uncomfortable relationship with UK scientific research? Were researchers "asleep at the wheel" when FoI came calling? Or, to turn the question around, was FoI legislation ready for science?
The UK's Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 2000 and came into force on 1 January 2005, aims to ensure that public bodies are publicly accountable. It legally obliges public authorities to provide information in response to FoI requests within 20 days.

Although some would argue that it is still not used widely enough, FoI seems to have been embraced by at least some parts of the British public, with about 30,000 requests for information flooding in each year. The majority of these requests are aimed at local and national government - with perhaps the most famous example being the publication of MPs' expenses in 2009 after a protracted legal battle fought by journalists and FoI campaigners, although ultimately, the information was leaked.

However, universities can be the target of FoI legislation too, as demonstrated by the illegal release of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia last year, which revealed controversial correspondence between researchers on the subject of FoI requests for climate change data.
In another high-profile clash between FoI campaigners and academia in April this year, Queen's University Belfast was ordered by the Information Commissioner to hand over 40 years' worth of research data on tree rings after a three-year campaign by a climate sceptic.

At East Anglia, a seemingly endless series of inquiries has established that none of the more outlandish allegations made against the staff was true: data were not fabricated and there was no "smoking gun" that proved climate change to be a lie. But as even the staunchest supporters of the beleaguered research team at the CRU have had to admit, the way in which FoI requests were dealt with was unsatisfactory. The Independent Climate Change Email Review found this summer that the scientists did show "a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper defence of openness", particularly around FoI.

According to Fred Pearce, the environmental journalist who covered the story in most detail, an important lesson emerged from the debris of the "Climategate" debacle: science simply was not ready for FoI legislation.
"Science as a community did not see that the FoI laws would impact on science. Like many of us, they thought it was designed to uncover self-serving Whitehall secrets and our own personal files (held by public bodies). I regard the failure to see what was coming down the track as a real failure of the science community."

Similarly, an event on FoI and academia held last year by the Research Information Network noted "lethargy" when it came to researchers' approach to the legislation - not only in terms of their reactions to outside requests, but also in making use of FoI in their own work (see box, below).

At the root of all this is a profound question about the nature of scientific knowledge itself. Is a request for "information" a productive way of opening up scientific knowledge?

The sort of knowledge that can be easily extracted using FoI requests is far-reaching but also inherently limited to information that is explicit. Numbers, calculations, reference lists - and, of course, emails - can all be placed squarely in the public domain. With enough of this type of explicit information, some aspects of the scientific process can be recreated. If you have someone's raw data, you know the calculations they made and you can see their results, you are in a position to confirm or challenge their conclusions. But to what extent does this fully capture scientific knowledge?

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, argues that scientific knowledge is built on more than mere data, computer codes or theories.

"With complex issues like climate change, sophisticated forms of expert knowledge assessment are necessary to weigh conflicting, incomplete or ambiguous evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a good example of this. Of necessity, such assessment is discursive and deliberative, and cannot be captured in data, theory or even in formalised recorded words. Here, FoI - if it is being used to reveal the foundations and construction of knowledge - reaches its limits. If scientific knowledge is to continue to warrant public trust, then expert deliberations, eg, the IPCC, should be made public events."

Hulme - who has publicly criticised the CRU researchers involved in the Climategate affair - is clearly not suggesting that the norms of scientific research provide a means of wriggling out of accountability. But at a fundamental level, the nature of scientific "knowledge" seems at odds with the "information" that can be revealed through FoI requests. FoI legislation can skim the surface of knowledge and cream off information - but to get at the heart of a scientific dispute requires scientific expertise.

Anyone can audit a list of expenses. Only someone with the right knowledge can settle a technical dispute in a satisfactory way. Expecting FoI requests to be able to arbitrate between competing knowledge claims is no more plausible than asking the social services to use FoI to uncover instances of "bad parenting" - it's the wrong tool for the job.

At a very practical level, FoI also seems unsuited to the current institutional culture of scientific research. Many scientists are uneasy about sharing their precious intellectual resources unless it is on their own terms - not least for fear that they will be misrepresented.

"I think there's certainly a tension, in that scientists see freeing their information rather differently to how FoI works," says Martin Griffiths, national coordinator for science journalism training at the Royal Statistical Society. "FoI goes beyond just the data and allows the release of correspondence between scientists. These may not make much sense to outsiders and lead to the kind of language problems we saw in Climategate - with (the word) 'tricks' (being used) and so on - that are everyday parts of science being blown out of proportion."

Gabrielle Bourke, a researcher at University College London's Constitution Unit, makes a similar point about the tensions between academic work and FoI.

"The ways in which scientists go about their work, such as peer review, don't necessarily sit very well with the FoI policy," she says. "The usual way is not to hand over your data before you have done work on it."
Martin Robbins, a science writer, posted a provocative blog post in April arguing that he "couldn't see why academic data should be covered by the FoI Act". He railed against the idea that because the public have paid for research, they should have access to it.

"We actually haven't paid for it," he wrote. "The public pay for research to be done. They do not pay for peer review, or publication, or data archiving, or indeed any sort of public dissemination of information except where it's explicitly set out in the funded proposal."

In addition, while most research is publicly funded, not all of it is - and the FoI legislation does not apply to research funded through private channels. This means industry lobbyists or other groups can use FoI as a tactic to delay publicly funded research programmes.

A great deal has already been written about the motivations of the army of bloggers who bombarded the University of East Anglia with FoI requests. Were these part of a genuine desire to find, use and share information, or designed to mess researchers around and stop them from getting on with other work?
Legislation designed to make publicly funded research open and accountable may be abused to suppress particular pieces of work - potentially for political ends. This problem was perhaps made most evident in the controversy surrounding the US' Data Quality Act. And at the University of East Anglia, it certainly seemed as if some of the FoI requests satisfied the Information Commissioner's definition of "vexatious", although other (apparently legitimate) requests do also appear to have been ignored by the scientists.

Of course, many public bodies could construct a compelling argument for why they should be exempted from the demands of FoI, but there does seem to be something special about the academic case, because of the nature of scientific knowledge. However, because the academic community did not spot the possible implications of FoI for scientific activity when the legislation was written, says Pearce, "we now have law that is so badly drafted it makes no distinction between the needs of scientific discourse and the demands of angry bloggers".

UCL's Bourke notes that in the US, there is a set of exceptions for universities, which came into effect in 1999 after a consultation process in which the universities participated.
"Maybe UK academics and academic organisations just need to have a conversation about FoI," she suggests. "Just because there is a tension doesn't mean universities and FoI can't be reconciled. Indeed, there are lots of movements to open data."

To return to the question of whether science was prepared for FoI or the other way around, the answer seems to sit somewhere in the middle. At a minimum, the bodies controlling publicly funded science were not engaged enough with the policy process. In 1999, while UK academics were ignoring FoI legislation, their US counterparts were helping to improve theirs. Since then, there is evidence that even in the political domain, FoI is not the silver bullet that its proponents envisaged.

In a review of the impact of FoI legislation on UK governance, Ben Worthy, also from UCL's Constitution Unit, argues that while FoI has achieved the core objectives of increasing transparency and accountability, it has not increased public participation in governance issues. According to Worthy, FoI is simply not a powerful enough tool to tackle the complex, deep-rooted issues that prevent increased participation, understanding or trust.

While his argument is aimed at governance, the logic applies just as well to science.
FoI legislation alone cannot be a panacea for public trust in science. A meaningful relationship between science and the world beyond the ivory tower is unlikely to be predicated on the superficial level of transparency achieved by FoI requests. At best, they will act as a useful audit of data, uncovering the odd mistake or oversight. But left alone, there is a danger that public engagement with the scientific process will be reduced to an exchange of mutually distrustful FoI correspondence, or a rather limited interaction between the public and the university PR office.

Science needs to learn to live with FoI, regardless of whether it can deliver a meaningful assessment of scientific knowledge to the public. But the key challenge is for scientists to find ways of increasing openness that are more proactive and less confrontational than the FoI process (see box, below). Dialogue-based processes of deliberation and interaction are more powerful ways to build trust between scientists and the public, and the questions that can be asked can go deeper than an acrimonious audit of a model or dataset.
The role of the public in shaping the work scientists do is critical - public engagement is vital to ensure scientific programmes are not only technically sound, but socially beneficial.

So public engagement with science is worth fighting for, but accessing science through FoI legislation is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome for scientists or the public.

According to a review of FoI legislation in Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1987, its introduction led to greater scrutiny of ministers' expenses rather than of their management of economic policy. Are we more interested in reading scientists' emails or in shaping the values that guide their work?

AC (and Alice Bell)

Climate change scepticism is about more than just science

First published in the Environment Section of the Guardian 23rd November 2010.

A coalition of leading US climate scientists this week launched a new rapid response website aimed at closing the gap between scientific knowledge and public opinion on climate change. For those who have become exasperated rebutting the endless stream of disinformation that frustratingly still characterises the climate change debate, it seems like an idea that is long overdue.

Fronted by the embattled Prof John Abraham, the website will provide direct access to climate science expertise through a network of scientists. But the premise underlying the initiative – that climate change scepticism will be reduced through a clearer presentation of the facts – is problematic. Why? Because climate change scepticism is only superficially about science.

The basic question of human impact on the climate is no longer seriously debated in the scientific literature. Science being science, there will always be uncertainties. But if the credibility of a scientific conclusion can be judged from the weight of evidence that supports it, then climate change is a fact. The problem is that seemingly objective facts are surprisingly malleable – especially when they are perceived to have implications for policy or behaviour.

Several decades of social psychological research have shown that on any number of topics – from capital punishment, to gun control, to nanotechnologies – people squeeze new evidence through powerful social and cultural filters. Pouring facts into this filter system does not necessarily produce consensus – and it can even cause attitudes to polarise.

So it is no surprise that the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have acted as a lighting rod for disagreement. For an individual who supports co-ordinated international action to tackle climate change, what could be more compelling than a consensus statement from an international body of independent scientists? For someone inclined to perceive international regulations as a threat to trade and industry, an international report that speaks of consensus is likely to set alarm bells ringing. The facts are the same in both cases: the interpretation very different.

As Mike Hulme showed in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, many of the arguments that rage around climate science are not really about climate change at all: they are disputes about personal values, regulation, economic growth or the acceptable level of government intervention in our lives. Climate change just happens to cut to the heart of these red hot issues – and so it is used as a vehicle for thrashing out ancient disputes.

The gap between scientific knowledge on climate change and public attitudes is unlikely to be closed by opening up a new front of climate science dissemination. Previous experience with scientific topics such as GM crops suggests that turning up the volume on the science will not necessarily lead to greater public acceptance of climate change. So what is the alternative?

First, we have to accept that climate change scepticism is not primarily about the science. The fact that more than half of the incoming Republican politicians in the US mid-term elections dispute climate change illustrates this perfectly. These people were not driven by their rejection of climate change science to become Republicans – their conservative views have coloured their interpretation of the science, which they see as threatening to their ideology.

Second, our methods for engaging the public need to move away from the one-way dissemination of information, and towards more participatory approaches. Providing opportunities for people to deliberate with each other about climate change allows the reasons for disagreement to come to the fore. If these reasons are based on values, cultural world-views or ideology, then it makes sense to get these disagreements out into the open rather than obscuring them by fighting political battles using the language of science.

The rapid response website is an attempt to draw a line under a year marked by accusations and acrimony, and as a channel for climate scientists to provide information to the media and the public it should be welcomed. But while dispelling myths about climate change is a valuable public service to offer, the truth about climate scepticism is that it is not just a dispute over the science. The challenge for scientists and communicators is to find ways of engaging the public where the real reasons for disagreement can take centre stage – only then can the debate move forward.


Geoengineering is a dilemma for scientists

First published in the Environment Section of the Guardian 10th November 2010

For two days the hallowed halls of the Royal Society in London have been filled with uncomfortable-looking climate scientists. But this is not another "climategate" inquiry, it's a meeting on geo-engineering – proposals to deploy global-scale technologies to control the planet's climate.

For the most part, these technologies don't yet exist. But as time ticks by and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, scientists are starting to take geo-engineering seriously. Proposals range from sunlight-reflecting mirrors in space to machines that can scrub carbon dioxide from the air to the seeding of algal blooms in the oceans, which suck carbon dioxide down to the sea bed and keep it there.

The level of scientific uncertainty around geo-engineering is formidable: fears of unintended side effects and irreversible interventions loom large in researchers' minds. Scientists being scientists, they're keen to plug the gaps in their knowledge – but they don't look all that happy about it.

The problem is that proposals to geo-engineer the climate come loaded with social and ethical concerns. Is it acceptable to intentionally intervene in the volatile climate system? How would it be governed? What would prevent the abuse of climate-controlling technologies, and whose hand would be on the global thermostat?
The growing number of scientists working on different aspects of geo-engineering research – from climate modelling, to lab experiments with reflective particles that could be injected into the stratosphere – are anxious to emphasise that they are not geo-engineering cheerleaders. They simply want to understand the pros and cons of different technologies, in case the day came when they might be needed, a day they hope will never come.

The Royal Society itself has taken great care to indicate that it does not advocate geo-engineering – and certainly not in the place of deep global cuts in greenhouse gases. But it does advocate research on geo-engineering, and that's where the dilemma for many scientists kicks in.

On the one hand, it is clearly prudent to understand more about geo-engineering – the worst of all scenarios would involve a government deploying a technology without knowing what its effects would be. Initial evidence suggests that spraying the skies with reflective particles of sulphate would have a major impact on patterns of rainfall. Surely it is better to know this sooner rather than later?

On the other hand, conducting research on geo-engineering is one of the main factors that will make the deployment of the technologies more likely. Most scientists are deeply sceptical about the use of such "remedial" action on global warming. But scientists won't be the ones to decide whether the technology is used. So are they unwittingly clearing the path for future deployment?

Of course, research should help to rule out the craziest of the geo-engineering proposals. Basic research might mean certain dangerous ideas are rejected - and already there is evidence that fertilising the oceans would be a highly risky undertaking. This is valuable knowledge. But there is a danger that the very fact that research is taking place will send out a signal to politicians: there is an alternative to cutting carbon.

For some, the process is eerily reminiscent of the race to develop nuclear weapons in the 1940s. While it might seem alarmist to compare geo-engineering to the quest for nuclear capability, the parallels are striking: both involve novel, uncertain and hugely powerful technologies deployed for the purposes of defence against a threat, both are mired in ethical controversy, and both have an undercurrent of inevitability driving them along.
The Manhattan Project co-opted science to advance military aims. Preventing dangerous climate change is a much nobler endeavour, but the social and ethical implications of geo-engineering the climate are so profound that the scientists involved are caught in an unenviable dilemma. Can this research exist independently of deployment, or is their work ushering in an era of climate intervention that they openly caution against?


Sunday, 17 October 2010

Spending cuts will create a climate of denial

Climate change is a threat. But what sort of threat?

Generally, climate change is described as a threat to our environment and natural resources. With increased stress on already straining global resource systems, the effects of climate change on our natural environment will be measured in reduced crop yields and water shortages.

Climate change is sometimes framed as a threat to our economic prosperity. The Stern report famously argued that in order to maintain economic growth in the face of rapid climatic changes, 1% of global GDP should be spent on climate mitigation now in order to prevent much more being spent later. Although other economists are far less optimistic about the prospect of infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources, it is now widely acknowledged that tackling climate change will have a significant financial cost.
But while the effects of climate change pose very real, measurable threats to our natural world and our economic systems, tackling climate change will also mean facing up to a less tangible but no less profound threat: the threat of climate change to our identity and self esteem.

In a paper published in the British Journal of Social Psychology last month, Paul Sparks and colleagues from the University of Sussex reported two experiments that suggest that climate change doesn’t only threaten the physical world – it threatens our mental world too.

In the first experiment, Sparks and his co-authors asked students from the University of Sussex to read six short pieces of ‘threatening’ text about climate change taken from newspapers and books. They then indicated their level of agreement with 15 statements that reflected various types of climate change denial – from denial of the severity of the problem, to denial of self-involvement.

Half of the group also completed a task designed to affirm people’s sense of their own kindness by writing a list of kind and compassionate behaviour that they have engaged in recently. The group who had completed the self-affirmation task reported a higher level of self-involvement – that is, the people who felt better about themselves were less likely to deny their personal responsibility for climate change.

In the second experiment, the researchers used a similar method but measured people’s willingness to recycle. The self-affirmed group expressed stronger intentions to increase the amount they recycled in the next month, suggesting that people’s motivation to engage in a specific pro-environmental behaviour is partly attributable to how they feel about themselves – or in other words, how well they are able to cope with the psychological threat of climate change.

It has long been known that people who feel better about themselves are more easily able to deal with threats. For people who do not feel self-affirmed, denial of the reality of the problem – or their role in solving it – is a common response. Paul Sparks’ research helps to explain why climate denial persists despite the evidence for climate change being overwhelming: it poses a psychological threat that we are often ill-equipped to deal with.
If we are to face up to challenge of climate change with a proportionate response, we will need every resource we can lay our hands on. Unfortunately, with the deepest and most extreme public sector cuts for a generation just around the corner, the national mood can hardly be described as ‘self-affirmed’.

On top of our reduced capacity to respond to climate change due to less public money being made available, are we also sapping our precious psychological resources by piling on the pressure to our collective self esteem?


Saturday, 2 October 2010

No Pressure: Why the 10:10 film was a disastrous piece of climate change communication

No Pressure & climate communication: what does the research say?

Imagine you were part of a highly successful environmental campaign group, that had spent the best part of the last year enthusiastically building a broad coalition of organisations – from schools, to local councils, to football teams – committed to cutting their carbon footprint. How might you choose to mark such a successful 10 months?

An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…

But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin.

That the video was panned by the usual suspects is unsurprising. Delingpole spluttered that “the environmental movement has revealed the snarling, wicked, homicidal misanthropy beneath its cloak of gentle, bunny-hugging righteousness.” But while Delingpole’s wilfully literal misreading of the video is unremarkable, there is a genuine reason for concern: as a piece of climate change communication, it is disastrous.
At the most general level, the video fails to address basic principles of communication. What is the message? Who are the audience? The video literally doesn’t make any sense – if it is aimed at supporters, what are we supposed to take from it? And if it is aimed at those who oppose the 10:10 campaign – or more pertinently, are not yet aware of or interested in it – then what is the video hoping to achieve?

Beyond these general faults, many of the pitfalls of communicating climate change are gleefully skipped into. It is now well established that using shock tactics to pressure people into caring about climate change is of limited use: while fear of a negative outcome (e.g. lung cancer) can be an effective way of promoting behavioural changes (e.g. giving up smoking), the link between the threat and the behaviour must be personal and direct. Typically, climate change is perceived as neither a direct nor a personal threat – and so shocking people into doing their recycling is probably not the way to go.

We also know that while ‘peer pressure’ can be a remarkably effective way of promoting and spreading environmentally friendly behaviour, this is a process of social comparison that cannot be controlled by ‘outsiders’ to an individual’s social group. People make their comparisons to people who are ‘like them’ – people that they respect, admire, or empathise with in some way. Observing other people engaging in pro-environmental behaviour is a fantastic way of generating a positive social norm. Blowing them up for failing to get with the programme is not…

Of course, its easy to be critical of any attempt to engage the public with climate change – it is a formidable challenge finding the right way of encouraging people to embrace low-carbon lifestyles. But gradually, social scientists and climate change communicators are starting to piece together good evidence on how to effectively communicate climate change. The recent report by the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG), a network of climate communication academics and practitioners, set out seven principles for communicating climate change to mass audiences:

  1. Move Beyond Social Marketing
  2. Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
  3. Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ — as well as the benefits — that these will entail. Narratives that focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely to be unconvincing.
    1. Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
    2. Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may provide.
    3. Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a response to climate change.
  4. Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate change.
  5. Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks
  6. Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on language alone
  7. Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action
The 10:10 film may yet prove to be a success in terms of the level of attention that is paid to campaign – once people scratch the surface, they will find that exploding children are not actually a part of the plan, and that the aims of the 10:10 campaign are both reasonable and fair. But the danger is that more people will be persuaded that the pastiche of environmentalism that James Delingpole promotes is real.

At such a crucial juncture for campaigning on climate change, with public scepticism higher than a year ago, international negotiations tying themselves into a knot, and the British government taking enormous chunks out of the budget for tackling climate change, don’t those in the public eye have a responsibility to do a better job with their climate change communications?


Saturday, 4 September 2010

Climategate: passing judgment on peer review

This is a reprint of a piece I wrote for the Times Higher Education magazine last month, which was the cover story for 22nd July.

With the benefit of hindsight, the firestorm of controversy created by "Climategate" - the illegal release of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the end of 2009 - had been brewing for a very long time. In the highly politicised world of climate science, the accusative chorus of sceptical voices and the increasingly exasperated statements of defence from beleaguered climate scientists had become a deafening cacophony.

Initial media reports talked excitedly of the emails as a "smoking gun" showing climate change to be an elaborate hoax, but these were quickly exposed as completely unfounded. A House of Commons inquiry in March found no evidence of systematic deception by CRU researchers. A science panel led by Lord Oxburgh found no evidence of scientific malpractice. And finally on 7 July, after many months of gathering information, the independent inquiry led by Sir Muir Russell reported its long-awaited findings.
The inquiry examined the conduct of the scientists at the CRU and concluded that their rigour and honesty were not in doubt. Concerns were raised over the openness of CRU researchers (and university officials), and reforms of practices and procedures were identified. No evidence of subversion of the peer review or editorial process was unearthed, but the report did include a lengthy reflection on Climategate's implications for peer review by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet. Horton argued that much of the confusion about what took place at the CRU stemmed from a misunderstanding of what the peer review process can - and cannot - do.

Drawing on Horton's analysis, the Russell report concluded: "Many who are far from the reality of the peer review process would like to believe that peer review is a firewall between truth on the one hand and error or dishonesty on the other. It is not. It is a means of sieving out evident error, currently unacceptable practices, repetition of previously published work without acknowledgement, and trivial contributions that add little to knowledge."

Reacting to the unedifying sight of science's sock drawer emptied on to the floor, however, many commentators have sought to pass judgement on peer review. The processes and practices of science are now in the dock, and non-scientists observing the private correspondence of the peers behind the peer review have found it difficult to escape the conclusion that science is not what it seems.
But for Harry Collins, distinguished research professor of sociology at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, who has for decades studied scientific practices, Climategate told him nothing he did not know already.

"The message that a lot of people seem to have taken from Climategate is far more damaging than it ought to be, because the normal to and fro of scientific practice looks like that. Most of what happened in Climategate was business as usual. People have a misconception of what science is because they are exposed to hero worship about science - stories about Newton, stories about Einstein - it's a sort of fairy tale. But it's disadvantageous to scientists to have science presented in this way, because politicians and journalists ask them for exact answers. Even if science is exact, it's exact only in the long term."

According to Collins, the romantic idealisation of science as a neat and tidy linear path towards greater knowledge is a myth. Science is often messy, sometimes sloppy, and always more complicated than it seems. Tensions can easily arise. Policymakers schooled in the canonical view of science (and battling an electoral cycle that privileges rapid responses over considered contemplation) face enormous pressures to transform the uncertainties of science into political soundbites. Confronted with a politically filtered version of science - clear, certain and precise - it is no surprise that people sense a scandal when things do not turn out to be quite as they expected.

Scientific objectivity goes no further than the circles of expertise that comprise fields of scientific endeavour. Of course, there are any number of "facts" to be objectively recorded in the natural world through experiment or observation. In climate science, the facts unambiguously point to the influence of human activity on the climate. But as the science and environmental journalist David Adam has suggested, the process by which scientists judge each other's work as fit for publication has always been where objective science dashes on the rocks of subjective human opinion. Short of automating the peer review process, the human fallibility of peer reviewers is simply unavoidable.

Arguments such as these are potent fuel for the fire of sceptical claims that climate science has become a self-regarding consensus machine, fine-tuned to keep out the outliers and reinforce the status quo. Three inquiries into Climategate have found no evidence that this is the case. But sceptics have been eager to use the emails as a vehicle for attacking climate science and climate scientists' behaviour nonetheless.
Some have even sought to broaden their criticism to science in general. A.W. Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science, has grandly suggested that peer review achieves very little for society and is "not up to the job". The response of some high-profile environmental commentators has also been surprisingly visceral. Pre-empting all the inquiries, the campaigner and writer George Monbiot called for Phil Jones, who was then head of the CRU, to resign (a call he much later retracted).

The science journalist Fred Pearce - despite doing an enormous amount of work in challenging the initial media response to Climategate - has repeatedly criticised CRU researchers. "I think the emails raise questions about conflicts of interest apparently tolerated in science that would surely not be tolerated in most other professions," he said. In one email, Phil Jones expresses a desire to "keep out" two papers critical of his work from the Fourth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The papers were not, in fact, excluded. But according to Pearce, "Phil Jones seemed to relish the chance to 'go to town' against those questioning his work."

In fact, it is common practice for journal editors to send papers challenging a body of work to the author responsible for that work - as experts in increasingly atomised fields, they are often in the best position to review it. The process hinges on honesty: faulty methodology is a reason to reject a paper; a personal dislike of another scientist, however, is clearly out of bounds. The appropriate criteria for making peer review judgements about another's work could - in some circumstances - include inferences about the author. "If some group of activists invent a journal, peer review it themselves, and have no intention of doing the job honestly, then of course this is relevant," states Collins, "but you'd have to set out the reasons - not just make up your mind."

Robert Evans - a colleague of Collins' at Cardiff and an expert in the sociology of knowledge and expertise - points out that these criteria are not fixed and may vary from discipline to discipline. "It depends what kind of publishing culture there is - in some fields, journals publish what are really quite daft ideas, because they feel that people have the right to take these ideas down in public; whereas in other fields, a lot of that work is done in private, in the selection process."

Of course, it is precisely these private selection processes that have come under scrutiny. There's no doubt that science up close bears little resemblance to the brave and noble empiricism of Newton and Einstein. But to claim - as Pearce and others have repeatedly - that the CRU email exchanges revealed some previously unacknowledged fault with the scientific method is hyperbole. "It might have been a good thing," suggests Evans. "Maybe all people found out was what science was actually like. It only seems as if scientists were behaving badly if you had a very idealised view of what scientists were like in the first place."

It's a strange kind of defence - innocence by appeal to mass guilt - but if Collins and Evans' analysis of what science is "really" like is accurate, then it is important to consider the implications. An uncomfortable light has been shone into the inner chambers of science's castle, and outside observers have not been impressed by what has been revealed. So is there an argument for radical reform of the institutional culture of science?
There is a movement in science towards publicly accessible data, and the archiving of databases is now common practice in many subjects. The digitisation of data and the ubiquity of the internet have ushered in a new level of expectation around public access to information - not only in science, but in global society more generally. Reflecting this, the aftermath of Climategate has seen repeated calls for climate scientists' raw data to be made available to the general public.

"I think people should be open about their data and about their methods wherever possible," says Ben Goldacre, the doctor, columnist and author of Bad Science. "If someone is making a public claim about a conclusion they have drawn from a piece of scientific research, they should be ready to be meticulous about showing their work. If someone doesn't, I find it hard to take them seriously."
The move towards open access is not only reasonable but inevitable. But for highly politicised areas of science such as climate change, there may be hidden dangers. "I'm not sure it would solve things in the way people would like," says Evans, "because the data themselves would still need to be analysed in the context of the scientific theories that give them meaning."

Collins is even more direct: "That would be a complete disaster. Analysing data and making sense of it is a very subtle business. Analysing data and getting something out of it is very easy - you can get out of it more or less what you want. There are an infinite number of ways to analyse data, and it would take an infinite amount of time to track down all the things that had gone wrong. If you allow that to happen, then you are saying goodbye to your science."

As with much of the Climategate debate, there is more at stake than climate change data. Although the perceived integrity of climate science seems to need a shot in the arm, it cannot come at the cost of a functioning scientific community. "Scientists would spend their whole lives trying to pick apart what other people had done, and the science would just grind to a halt," Collins suggests.
Throwing open complex climate science databases without due caution could amount to sacrificing climate change data on the altar of public opinion. Faced with dozens of well-publicised and smartly presented pseudo-analyses of climate change data, who other than the climate scientists themselves would be capable of sorting the wheat from the chaff?

Perhaps the answer is "citizen scientists". The notion that science should seek actively to engage with non-scientists is increasingly popular. At its best, public engagement with science can help shape the values that guide scientific enquiry, construct scientific knowledge and contribute to decisions about science funding. By determining the social and ethical implications of science, engaging with citizens can enhance the role of science in society. The movement towards more public engagement is a hugely positive development.
But are the legions of bloggers and auditors - often, but not always, ideologically motivated to find fault (real or imagined) with climate science data - really fulfilling the role of citizen scientists? Alice Bell, a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London, has argued that successful citizen-science projects work because they offer collaborative relationships between scientists and the public - not an adversarial auditing of data on the assumption that scientists are dishonest. The bottom line is that open access can never be a panacea for a crisis of institutional trust.

Open access is based on the premise that there are those outside the inner circle of peer reviewers who are competent enough to provide a second opinion on the science. This is indisputably true. But while talk of throwing open the lab doors might be rhetorically satisfying, it would provide only an illusion of democracy. Certainly there are non-academics competent enough with statistics to find errors in a piece of published science. Correcting errors in science would be a valuable service for an auditor to offer. But if several auditors reached conflicting conclusions, then somehow a judgement would have to be made about their respective competence. And who should make that judgement? Presumably a group of suitably qualified, honest individuals with a proven track record in a relevant discipline - in other words, peer review.
Any argument for reform must contain more than just a critique of the existing system - it must also hold out the possibility of something better. Would broadening the group of people who are assigned the task of fact verification resolve the problems of peer review? Sadly, there is very little in the way of guidance for answering this question, as very few systematic studies have been conducted into the merits of peer review. Although its flaws are well documented (and have been for many years), critiques typically focus on the fact that peer review is not perfect, but struggle to identify serious alternatives.

Harry Collins' suggestions for reform include removing the anonymity of reviewers and ring-fencing a proportion of journal space for papers that generate significant controversy among reviewers (as these papers hold an interest of their own). In the Russell report, Richard Horton suggests that "the best one might hope for the future of peer review is to be able to foster an environment of continuous critique of research papers before and after publication".

There is no question that science needs to be proactive in engaging the public. There may be some role for Freedom of Information legislation to play in bringing this about. But processes of dialogue and participatory engagement seem much more promising ways for scientists and the public to interact. Citizens' juries and deliberative workshops are two tried-and-tested methods for achieving this aim.
Perhaps if any good is to come of the Climategate controversy, it will be a renewed interest in smoothing the rough edges of peer review and a greater awareness of the necessary fallibility of the scientific publishing process. However, no one seems to have any suggestions for a serious alternative. For now, like Winston Churchill's famous description of democracy, peer review is the worst option - except for all the others that have been tried.


Monday, 28 June 2010

Climate change: the merchants of doubt will soon run out of steam

First published on

Last week saw the release of three university-led nationally representative surveys on public attitudes towards climate change – two in the US (1, 2) and one in the UK. In line with previous surveys from the last few years, the UK poll shows four consistent findings:
  • A large majority of people think the climate is changing (78%)
  • A large majority of people are concerned about this (71%)
  • A large majority support the use of tax revenue to fund low-carbon policies such as investment in renewables (68%)
  • A large majority of people say they are willing to reduce the amount of energy they use in order to tackle climate change (65%)
If this doesn’t sound like the findings you saw reported, or your impression of public attitudes towards climate change, then go and look up the results which are publicly available. The picture in the US is slightly different, but not drastically so, with large majorities agreeing that climate change is happening and expressing support for developing low-carbon energy infrastructure.

But what about belief in whether humans are causing climate change? Isn’t that the crucial measure of scepticism?

Intriguingly, given that the public are frequently portrayed as teetering on the brink of abandoning climate change altogether, one of the US polls recorded an increase in the number of people who believe that human activity is changing the climate (the other had no previous survey to compare with, but found that 75% acknowledged human influence on the climate).

True, the number of people who agree that climate change is largely the result of human activity is significantly lower (in the UK and the US) than it was three years ago. But given the four consistent findings outlined above, the big question has to be ‘so what’?

Consider the BBC poll conducted in February, routinely cited as the most damaging of the public opinion polls in the UK. The statistic that was widely reported and repeated was that only 26% of the public agreed that:
“Climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made”
Seems pretty damning doesn’t it? But a further 38% agreed that:
“Climate change is happening, but not yet proven to be largely man-made”
Even in the BBC poll, at the height of everything-gate, a healthy majority accepted that the climate was changing. In the very same poll, only 11% reported being any less concerned about the risks of climate change. The BBC results are completely consistent with the fact that a majority of people are concerned about climate change – anthropogenic or not – and want something done about it.

That significant numbers of people feel confused about whether human influence is responsible for climate change is unsurprising – a great deal of effort has been expended in trying to confuse them. The parallels between the strategies of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and the tactics of ideologically driven climate sceptics today are now well documented. The tobacco companies knew that if they could create enough uncertainty around the link between smoking and lung cancer, then people would continue to consume their product. But as opinion poll after opinion poll comes in, it is starting to look like the link between belief in human-caused climate change and support for low carbon policies is nowhere near as direct.

There is no escaping the fact that there is a major disparity between the level of certainty expressed by climate scientists and by the general public about the basic facts of climate change. It seems counter-intuitive that people dispute anthropogenic climate change, but are willing to modify their behaviour to prevent it. It seems bizarre that 73% of the BBC poll respondents who had heard about ‘climategate’ and IPCC glaciers error claimed that their views about climate change had not been altered. But this is what the polls are telling us.
The merchants of doubt will soon run out of steam – for all the uncertainty they can generate about human impact on the climate, public support for mitigating climate change remains high.


Pickles’ ‘big society’ recycling scheme is a nudge in the wrong direction

First published on

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free, the Communities Minister Eric Pickles has made some bold claims about ‘human nature’ in introducing the coalition’s household recycling policy. Under the new policy, householders will be rewarded for recycling with points that can be cashed in at ‘local businesses’ such as Marks and Spencer and Cineworld. Bravely summarising decades of behavioural research in just two sentences, Pickles states that:
“There are some basic truths about human nature that the previous government found hard to grasp. If you want people to do something, then it’s always much more effective to give them support and encouragement – a nudge in the right direction – than to tell them what to do and then punish them if they don’t obey.”
He later goes on to claim:
“What’s really important about this scheme is that it treats people like adults. There’s no compulsion to participate, no penalties for opting out. It works because there’s a clear incentive to get involved. You put something in, you get something back. This is the Big Society in action.”
Unfortunately, the one basic truth about human nature that Pickles overlooks is the one that seems most essential for the Big Society: people respond to what others around them are doing, and don’t just behave in a rational, individually beneficial way. If they did, far less people would play the lottery.
Much more important than any individual-level cost/benefit analysis of whether to recycle is whether a particular behaviour is seen as socially acceptable. In several psychological studies, the power of social norms has been demonstrated for environmental behaviours like recycling and home energy management. In a famous example, American researchers showed that energy-hungry households reduced their energy consumption when they had access to information about the average usage in their area. They saw their high-energy use as socially undesirable, and fell into line.
Nobody wants to be seen as the gas guzzler in a neighbourhood full of waste-watchers, so reward or punishment schemes may be missing the point if they are aimed at individuals rather than tapping into the huge potential of social comparisons to generate behaviour change. People are more likely to compete to out-do each other than they are for a few pounds off their supermarket bill, and another recent psychological study showed how important people think it is to be ‘seen to be green’. Shoppers were willing to pay a premium for products with an environmental advantage – although only if they thought that other people were watching.
But there are also deeper reasons for not creating a direct link between recycling rates and financial rewards. Studies by Tim Kasser have shown that people who are highly materialistic are the least likely to act in a pro-environmental way. Paying people to recycle promotes the very value (material gain) that is likely to inhibit more ambitious changes in behaviour, or support for policies that may in fact cost people money in low-carbon taxes.
In short, Pickles’ Big Society recycling plan has no societal component, promotes the environmentally and socially antagonistic value of individual material gain as a reason for recycling, and amounts to paying people to put out their rubbish. Is that the best the Big Society can do?


Monday, 31 May 2010

Is there a “new politics” ...? and what can it do for climate change?

The month of May for the UK has been dominated by the general election and arguments about the dawn of a so called “new politics.” Certainly the election results had a different look than the UK parliament has seen for a long time. A hung parliament, a new Green Party MP catch the eye as does the “new” and “historic” they tell us, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats coalition doing a policy debate, sync and regenerate exercise under the watchful gaze of the media.

And so it has gone on…this politics, that sure feels different (if you weren’t a voter in the 1970’s at least) but which hasn't proved itself yet - like a home appliance with a novel Dyson look that comes with an earnestly proffered 5 year guarantee. Post election developments fill the news agenda and the claims continue from No 10, Westminster and from some journos that we are in the grip of a New Politics of cooperation.

Do people like politicians working together? An interesting quirk of the election this time was "The Worm" the instant reaction graph that showed approval of undecided voters as the leader debates ran realtime and The Worm turned favourably for Clegg when he talked about "working together" - Obama in the US and Kevin Rudd in Australia similarly won the approval of The Worm with the same sentiments in leaders debates.  

The question being asked now in the UK is what kind of working together is it? Is it a New Politics of progressive consensus building that will empower government ministers, backbench MP's, public servants and citizens or is it the old style horse trading with a layer of double gloss - blue and yellow stripes – colours for a political marriage that will fade, crack and split beyond the flashbulb honeymoon. New arrangements yes but is it a new culture? Some watching on as Cameron and Clegg share a platform will give an instinctive answer this question, others will pick through the queens speech and sit on their judgment. 

However you look at this it is a sharply relevant question for action on climate change, because primarily of the policy that comes out of the coalition. It is yet also a basic conundrum of politics to which the climate change challenge more than any other needs forward progress. We need stronger consensus building, better working together to meet the challenge of climate change and straight up vested interest horse trading - the Old politics - won't do it, the lack of progress from Copenhagen showed that. 

Nick Clegg is in the public gaze the embodiment of this so called “new politics” (ahead of David Laws still yet as things stand!) and his fate will probably reveal whether May has seen begun a genuinely new phase of progressive politics. And there are 2 persons whose fortunes may reveal how positive or not this new political context will be for action on climate change.

Lib Dem Chris Huhne the new energy and climate change secretary was one of  David Cameron's first coalition ministers to venture into the news agenda. He told us "There are a whole series of compromises which have been struck in this agreement which I think are obviously unpleasant for each of the parties"

A refreshingly honest characterisation of cabinet and coalition politics you could say. He expressed these sentiments in the context of his explanation of the coalition policy on Nuclear power; New nuclear power stations will be built if they are funded by the private sector and Lib Dems can continue to hold to their election manifesto position of disagreeing with nuclear power generation. Huhne reconciles himself to this policy by speaking loud the belief that the private sector hasn't and probably won’t be able to build  nuclear without state support - refreshing or regressive change? Ed Miliband Labour ex energy and climate change minister came up with the memorable line Huhne in his job was like “putting a vegan in charge of MacDonald’s.”

Caroline Lucas is the First Green Party MP in the Uk parliament, cheered on by many sympathizers outside and in her constituency, how can she make a difference in Parliament? Will the coalitions new politics permeate the whole of Westminster’s benches or if she wants to be more than a pressure group with a Westminster head office should Lucas roll up her sleeves harder and faster for a old style fight. Lucas provides the answer that she will be going after change on her own terms

"I passionately hope it is possible to demonstrate that you don't have to get your hands filthy in terms of doing politics."

 Climate Change has been hungry for a taste of some new politics for a long time and if a progressive partnership ethos is to burst through the left right binary and horse trading Lucas as principled advocate and Huhne as government green light monitor will have to put a shift in, get noticed by us  and most importantly be allowed get things done - if they don’t it may tell us that the new politics is old and the latest dawn for big strides on climate change is false


Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Why Fishermen believe in climate change (and everyone else believes in overfishing)

(Originally published by Adam Corner at 

 How much of what is recorded as scepticism about the scientific reality of climate change is in fact a desire for it not to be true – or at the very least, for it not to be as bad as the scientists and politicians say? This is a question that cannot easily be answered. When people are motivated not to believe something, they are also motivated not to acknowledge that their non-belief is anything other than rational. But two fishy tales shed some light on one type of climate change scepticism, and highlight an enormous challenge for climate change communicators: how do you persuade someone to believe something that they really don’t want to believe?

Fishy Tale 1

Last month in Doha, delegates at the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted against a ban on fishing bluefin tuna. The decision was widely condemned by environmental groups, and in The Guardian, George Monbiot described the refusal to acknowledge the critically endangered state of the bluefin tuna as:

“Olympic-class denial, a flat refusal to look reality in the face.”

Even the most casual follower of Guardian etiquette knows what happens next – when a writer uses the ‘d’ word, the comment threads fill up with red-faced, indignant micro-treatises on the inappropriateness and offensiveness of the term ‘denial’. But on this occasion, the comments were broadly supportive of Monbiot’s stance. Yes, agreed some of the very same posters who usually follow his pieces with streams of bile (hello CheshireRed), overfishing of the bluefin tuna was a serious problem and should be stopped.

Fishy Tale 2

Bottomfeeder’, by Taras Grescoe is a book about the overfishing and ultimate demise of many of the world’s fisheries. Combining barely-believable statistics about the collapse of once abundant oceanic ecosystems (some estimates put European fish populations at 5% of their first-recorded levels) and interviews with countless fishermen and traders in ports and harbours around the world, Grescoe builds up a bewildering picture of the world’s seas.

While the evidence is anecdotal rather than statistical, it is striking just how many of the fishermen (and it is primarily men) that Grescoe speaks to are adamant that climate change is warming their seas and driving away their catch. Their intuition that the seas are warming is supported by sea temperature data – but by far and away the biggest impact on the number of fish they are pulling out of the sea is intensive overfishing. Far fewer of Grescoe’s interviewees acknowledge this – blaming seals, foreigners, and global warming before conceding that perhaps their methods of fishing might be having an effect.

Why fishermen believe in climate change (and everyone else believes in overfishing)

So, notorious Guardian message board climate denier CheshireRed solemnly supports the protestors who seek to prevent overfishing of the bluefin tuna, and accepts that those who are responsible for the overfishing are in denial about the cause of the problem – but does not support measures to curb greenhouse gases which would (presumably) impact on his behaviour. Conversely, the fishermen responsible for overfishing happily accept climate change but doubt that their actions have any impact on the state of the world’s fisheries.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that CheshireRed (and his message board buddies) are not sea fishermen, with a vested interest in underplaying the impact of overfishing. However, like most of us in the developed world they have a personal stake in climate change being shown to be a scam – it would eliminate the need to change our high-consuming lifestyles. Some people – for economic or ideological reasons – have a more formal desire to reject the science of climate change.

Perhaps we need to start asking some more subtle questions about belief in climate change. Combating the increasing level of climate change scepticism is high on most campaigners’ priority lists. But without a sensible grasp of the reasons for scepticism, an awful lot of effort could be expended without any discernible effect. We urgently need a typology of scepticism.


Sunday, 4 April 2010

April 2010 - Going green to be seen

First published in the Ethical living section of the Guardian Environment website

For most people, there is nothing quite as interesting as other people. We are incredibly well attuned to what others are doing and thinking – especially if they might be thinking about us. The choices we make speak volumes about our likes, our hates, our personalities and our social status. New research published yesterday suggests that our environmental choices are no different. Over and above the financial or environmental benefits of making low-carbon choices, we value the boost in social status this can provide – what's important is that we are seen to be going green.

Across three studies, Vladas Griskevicius and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota examined the conditions under which people selected the "green" option when provided with a choice between a regular and environmentally beneficial product. Some participants read a story about social status and "moving up in the world" before making their choice. Displaying a phenomenon known as "competitive altruism", these people opted to "self-sacrifice" and chose the environmentally friendly product, even though it was of inferior quality.

The authors of the study argued that what these participants lost in product functionality, they gained in social status. Voluntarily engaging in altruistic behaviour sends a powerful signal that you are caring and compassionate enough to take a hit for the team – and that you have the resources to act pro-socially. Previous research has shown that we take our cues for what is "normal" from those around us, and it seems that we're even prepared to "self-sacrifice" to boost our social standing. Combine these two findings and you have a powerful tool for promoting pro-environmental behaviour. As the long decarbonisation of the transport system begins, will people start competing over the efficiency rather than the acceleration of their cars?

Interestingly, participants in the study only displayed competitive altruism when they thought that others would be made aware of their choice – or when the green products were highly priced (signalling high status wealth). Coupled with the recent finding that individuals in an experiment who bought green goodies subsequently displayed more selfish behaviour, does this undermine the seemingly selfless nature of altruistic, pro-environmental behaviour?

The study certainly provides a window on the psychological basis of greenwash. When people make a consumer decision they buy into the idea of the product as much as the product itself. Unfortunately, the "idea" of sustainability can be a remarkably effective way of shifting patently unsustainable goods, and left to their own devices, people will compete to outdo each other on whatever criteria happen to be around. Flying to an eco-trek in Peru? I'll take two please.

Confronted with a problem like climate change, our consumption-based economy responds in the only way it knows how – by selling sustainability like it sells soap. But while a desire to be "seen to be green" clearly leaves us vulnerable to the dubious motives of commercial marketing campaigns (not to mention some ribbing down the pub), harnessing the primal urge for social status is critical for promoting pro-environmental behaviours that are more substance than spin. We may currently compete through demonstrations of conspicuous material consumption, but material goods are simply a marker for social status. It's the social status that's important – and the markers we use to signify it can easily change.

Griskevicius and his colleagues suggest that visible signs, tags and badges are an important aid for signalling to others that a particular behaviour is not just common, but desirable. Several studies in America have found that rates of recycling were boosted when householders were asked to make a public commitment to recycle, rather than just get on with it quietly.

But paying attention to the social aspects of how and why people take action to protect the environment goes far deeper than displaying a pro-recycling window sticker. Many environmental messages focus on what others should be doing, but time might be better spent setting a positive example and letting the social status that comes with altruistic behaviour do the hard work.

No one likes to be told what to do, but few of us can resist the temptation to get one over on the Joneses. And if what the Joneses are doing happens to be good for the environment, then being green to be seen might not be such a bad thing after all.

Photo by Michael Meiklejohn

Thursday, 25 March 2010

March 2010 - Translating Science

Earlier this year the Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University published a guide to The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. My favourite bit is a table of 'words with different meanings to scientists and the general public'. Here are some of them (science term first, followed by non-science interpretation):

Uncertainty = Not knowing

Error = Wrong, Incorrect

Bias = Unfair and deliberate distortion

Positive Trend = A good trend

Positive Feedback = Constructive criticism

Theory = A hunch, opinion, speculation

Manipulation = Exploitation

Values = Ethics, money

Scheme = Conspiracy

While this is probably something of a caricature of how people interpret these words, there's an important message in here for climate change communication - don't assume that people interpret specialist terminology in the same way you do!

Friday, 19 March 2010

March 2010 - Climate sceptics give scepticism a bad name

>>>>Originally published in the Guardian Environment Blog on 22/02/10

In January a group of self-declared "sceptics" hit the headlines with an attention-grabbing publicity stunt. If you instinctively interpret that sentence as a reference to the battle-scarred topic of climate change, then it is a mark of how successfully those opposed to the scientific consensus on climate change have appropriated the term sceptic".

In fact, the event in question is the mass homeopathy "overdose" staged by the Merseyside Skeptics. Do the Merseyside Skeptics (and hundreds of other groups like them) share much common ground with the army of Freedom of Information requesters currently swarming around climate science databases? Or could it be that climate change sceptics are giving wider scepticism a bad name?

Over the past three months climate change scepticism seems to have reached new levels. The Guardian's investigation into the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia has shone a rather uncomfortable light into the sock-drawer of science. But it has revealed nothing that challenges the fact that the climate is changing – or that human activity is responsible. Trust has been diminished, embarrassing exchanges have been revealed, but the clunking wheels of the anti-climate change lobby have gone into overdrive, falsely claiming that the case for human-caused climate change has been discredited.

Climate change sceptics often position themselves as the antidote to the hysterical, exaggerated claims of climate scientists and environmentalists, adopting the tools and language of "rational enquiry". But something is missing from this picture - where are the voices of the truly sceptical thinkers that the climate sceptics claim to represent?

The website of the long-running US magazine Skeptic describes scepticism as a method rather than a position, and one that is embodied in the scientific method. A search of the magazine's online archives reveals not one article disputing the science of climate change. However, there are several debunking unsubstantiated claims that climate change sceptics have made. The not-for-profit organisation UK Skeptics is even less welcoming to climate sceptics, with a helpful note stating:

We are nothing to do with opposition, activist, or denialist groups who wrongly refer to themselves as 'skeptics' because they adopt a position of non-belief (eg global warming skeptics, vaccine skeptics, etc).

The distinction between scepticism and non-belief is a crucial one. While scepticism is healthy, non-belief in the face of overwhelming evidence is the antipathy of scepticism. Recent climate scepticism has been characterised by a visceral mistrust of science, scientific institutions and scientific governance. Never mind that the case for climate change has been painstakingly pieced together over decades – climate change sceptics are busy writing it off on the basis of a few inconsistencies.

But embarrassingly for climate change sceptics, the people who have thought longest and hardest about what it means to be a truly sceptical thinker seem in a hurry to distance themselves from their fellow sceptics. Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptics group that organised the homeopathy overdose is clear about the legitimacy of climate change sceptics: "In our view, climate change sceptics are not sceptics. A sceptic looks at the available evidence and makes a decision, and for homeopathy the evidence is that it doesn't work. But the sceptical position on climate change is that it is happening."

John Jackson, from UK Skeptics, agreed, added: "Terms like "climate change sceptic" are very damaging to scepticism - basically because this is not what scepticism is. We often get people calling us, referring to themselves as climate sceptics, but we argue with them. We accept global warming because the evidence is overwhelming."

With trust in climate change and climate science rapidly dwindling, statements such as these could become incredibly powerful. Here are groups of intelligent, rational, scientifically literate, independent and sceptical thinkers, directly contradicting the view of the so-called climate sceptics. Debate continues about whether "denier" is an appropriate term for those who oppose the climate science consensus. But it seems clear that "sceptic" is no better – the sceptics themselves reject the climate contrarians' claim to their title.

Along with preachy eco-warriors and morally bankrupt politicians, climate scientists are in danger of being added to the list of sources that aren't trusted to communicate climate change. Perhaps it is time for the silent army of rational thinkers to stand up for the science. They could be the one authoritative group that could argue the climate change case – and all from a position of scepticism.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

February 2010: Talking the Walk on climate change

The influential think tank Green Alliance today launched a report aimed at helping politicians communicate more effectively with the electorate about climate change. Written by experts in the field of climate change communication, there are a wide range of views on display. Unfortunately, the authors are in agreement on only one thing: the way that climate change is currently communicated is not really working.

At first glance, advice on how to ‘communicate’ climate change sounds like nothing more than marketing speak – window dressing to disguise an unpopular message. But the perspectives in the Green Alliance report make clear that communicating about climate change goes much deeper than an ‘eco’ prefix. As public support for strong action on climate change becomes more fragile by the day, the way that climate change is presented is more important than ever.

One reason that climate change communication matters is because people are experts at reading between the lines. Senior political figures routinely (and accurately) refer to climate change as the greatest threat facing society. But, as Ian Christie argues in the Green Alliance report, the public often receive very mixed messages from Government. Putting on an extra jumper just doesn’t seem to square with the scale of the problem. People are not stupid. They can tell that either climate change is the greatest threat facing society or putting on an extra jumper is an appropriate response – both can’t be true. As Christie puts it, “If things are as bad as they are said to be, where are the emergency measures?”

Similarly, the campaign strategist Chris Rose argues that attempts at engaging the public on climate change suffer from a lack of clear, visual evidence that ‘something is being done’. While the British government can legitimately claim to be world-leading in terms of legislation and policy for a low-carbon future, much of the good work that has already happened has been invisible – changes to the emissions trading market and improvements in the fuel mix used to generate electricity. What is missing is high profile, high impact pictures of ordinary communities and their shiny new (cooperatively owned) wind turbine.

George Marshall, of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) suggests that who delivers a message about climate change can be as important as what they say. Politicians, environmentalists and journalists are consistently rated among the least trusted figures in society – yet they routinely dominate the public narrative on climate change. The people who are rated as most trustworthy are those that are ‘like us’. Unsurprisingly, we are far more likely to listen to our friends and our peers than a preachy eco-warrior or a morally bankrupt politician.

COIN is currently working with thousands of members of Trade Unions in England to develop a story about climate change that makes sense from a union perspective. Historically, the Trade Union movement has been a voice for the disempowered – so what role is there for Trade Unionism in empowering those under threat from climate change? Projects like these are vital for transferring ownership of climate change away from the eco-classes and the angry, red-faced sceptics. A trusted colleague using terms we understand and examples that resonate with our lives can make climate change seem less like a threat and more like a shared challenge – but it’s got to come from the right person.

Of course, there’s no hiding the fact that some actions are simply incompatible with a low-carbon future. Building a new runway at Heathrow is a clear signal to the public that there’s nothing to worry about – that climate change takes second place to economic growth. People are very sensitive to hypocrisy and inconsistency, and those hesitating about whether to make changes in their personal lives will only be put off by powerfully symbolic policies such as these. No amount of clever communication can make a new runway a sustainable transport policy, and rightly so. Communicating climate change more effectively means finding ways of making the topic of climate change more easily accessible to everyone – not employing greenwash to mask a lie.

The long, slow process of decarbonising the energy supply and reducing energy demand has already begun, and before long, oil scarcity and energy security will force our hand. Future generations may look back in bewilderment at our procrastination. But of all the barriers to a low-carbon future, it would be a dark irony if an inability to communicate climate change beyond the usual suspects was the most difficult to overcome.


Thursday, 21 January 2010

January 2010: Do you believe in climate change?

First published at

Do you believe in climate change?

It is an increasingly familiar formula – a climate poll is released, the results are interpreted and analysed, and both sides claim victory. The initial analyses are inevitably the ones that scream ‘controversy’, while more considered accounts emerge at a later date. But while the polls may tell us something about public opinion, what do they tell us about climate change?

The celebrated philosopher of language Paul Grice formulated a now famous set of rules, or ‘maxims’ to explain how people make inferences. According to Grice, sentences and conversations obey a simple set of rules that allow us to make sense of what people are saying (e.g. be informative, be relevant, say as much – but only as much – as you need). For example, if you were to receive a reference letter supporting an application for an administrative post that stated ‘Chris is polite and punctual’ but omitted to mention his administrative skills, what would you infer? Nothing negative was said about Chris, but from what wasn’t said, you infer that Chris might not be the best man for the job. Grice’s maxims dictate that if there was something else positive to say about Chris, you would say it – as it would be relevant and informative. The writer of the letter knows this, and so does the reader. Grice’s legacy is that there is an enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes when we read, speak or write a sentence. We are experts at reading between the lines.

What, then, is the implication of repeatedly asking the public, in opinion poll after opinion poll, whether they believe in climate change? Our internal inference-making machine tells us that this must be a relevant question to ask – as otherwise people would not be asking it. Almost by definition, opinion polls concern ‘controversial’ topics. Questions where there is consensus about the answer simply don’t get posed over and over again – which is why no-one solicits our opinions on whether smoking causes lung cancer. But despite an unequivocal statement of consensus from the scientific community that human activity is exacerbating and accelerating climate change, we are regularly pestered for our endorsement of this fact. The very act of asking the public whether they believe in climate change presupposes that this is a question that does not have a settled answer.

Of course, there are many questions about climate change that do not have a settled answer. What is a ‘safe’ level at which to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? How many climate change refugees will there be in 2050? Scientists, politicians and demographers can make attempts to quantify answers to these questions, but there is not an absolute consensus. Therefore, while most of us have no particular expertise with which to answer them, they seem reasonable questions to ask. Our answers might be implausible, inaccurate or mis-informed – but at least they are questions which have not already been comprehensively answered.

For sure, there is a steady and respectable stream of academic research that seeks to understand what the public know about climate change, and how attitudes towards it are changing. Typically, this sort of research is aimed at documenting the gap between public and scientific opinion on climate change. It seeks to understand why people are sceptical about climate change, and proposes strategies for increasing people’s environmental awareness and behaviour. This kind of research is an essential tool for increasing public engagement with climate change, although too often its findings are fed into the denial industry’s fact-mangling machines. Research expressing concern about an increase in scepticism is trumpeted as ‘more evidence’ that climate change is a scam – or the researchers involved are accused of “blurring the lines between research and activism”.

It is precisely this sleight of hand that makes the reporting of climate change opinion polls so problematic. First, the public are badgered for their opinion about the climate change ‘controversy’. Their responses are then used as evidence of this controversy – but what gets lost is that these are two very different controversies. The first is false and entirely manufactured – there is no scientific controversy about whether human activity causes climate change. The second is genuine but no less manufactured – there is substantial controversy about whether people believe in climate change (although, as this article makes clear there is still a clear majority of people who understand that climate change is occurring). But is it any surprise that there is controversy when the Daily Telegraph publishes wilfully misleading articles asking “Are you a climate sceptic? Does the current cold snap have any bearing on the climate change debate?” The Telegraph team understand perfectly well the distinction between weather and climate, but they choose to blur the lines to stoke the fires of climate change denial. Just posing the question presupposes that the answer is in dispute. Manufactured evidence of public uncertainty is splattered like mud over climate change research, so that even the clearest statements of scientific fact become obscured by the dubious wisdom of message board lynch mobs.

There is much to be said about the motivations for conducting non-academic research into public opinion on climate change. Some of it is undoubtedly well-meaning, but polls commissioned by newspapers are only looking for one thing: controversy. That isn’t to say that news outlets wouldn’t be happy with the ‘controversial’ finding that 100% of people accept climate change is real. But most of the time, the controversy is found by contrasting public opinion with the claims of the IPCC, or government policy. Of course, the extent to which people support a particular policy on climate change is a completely legitimate and necessary question to ask. Politics is a popularity contest – but science is not. This is the second major distinction that is routinely blurred in discussions of attitudes towards climate change: scepticism about climate change (the process), and dispute over its implications.

What climate change will mean for our lives – for society – is completely up for grabs. Here, disputes divide down long-running ideological lines. Some distrust the very concept of a global political agreement – and perhaps with good reason. Political agreements have a habit of being ineffective and inequitable. But the fact that there is rampant distrust of politics and politicians cannot be a reason to be sceptical about climate change. How much of the reported public scepticism towards climate change is in fact simply a good old fashioned rejection of political/corporate sincerity, coupled with an unwillingness to accept lifestyle changes?

Academic research is well placed to answer these sorts of questions, and is starting to do exactly that. But the headline screaming ‘scepticism on the increase’ tells us very little – other than that whether or not climate change is ‘real’ is a question that doesn’t have a settled answer. There is no controversy about whether human activity causes climate change. So why are we still asking the question?