A network of 171 individual blogs is identified, with three blogs in particular found to be the most central: Climate Audit, JoNova and Watts Up With That. These blogs predominantly focus on the scientific element of the climate debate, providing either a direct scientifically-based challenge to mainstream climate science, or a critique of the conduct of the climate science system. This overt scientific framing, as opposed to explicitly highlighting differences in values, politics, or ideological worldview, appears to be an important contributory factor in the positioning of the most central blogs. It is suggested that these central blogs are key protagonists in a process of attempted expert knowledge de-legitimisation and contestation, acting not only as translators between scientific research and lay audiences, but, in their reinterpretation of existing climate science knowledge claims, are acting themselves as alternative public sites of expertise for a climate sceptical audience.
I’ll acknowledge my bias right-away. Given that I started this blog because I was frustrated by the largely scientifically incorrect information being presented on many “climate sceptical” blogs, I am somewhat surprised that a serious study is implying that these blogs play some kind of scientific role. Having said that, it may well be that this is how they present themselves, so I guess one cannot argue that they don’t, it’s simply that the science is mostly demonstrably incorrect, or – in my opinion – cherry-picked to suit some particular bias. Just because Anthony Watts regularly promotes studies that show low climate sensitivity, or Andrew Montford continually mentions uncertainty, doesn’t mean that they’re being scientifically credible.
Having said the above, the conclusions of the paper do hint at these factors. For example, it says,
First, it suggests that the blogosphere is still preoccupied with framing climate change as an active scientific controversy. Whilst multitude scientific uncertainties regarding climate systems still exist, fundamental
components of climate science such as the relationship between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increases are no longer considered contentious within the academic literature.
I’ll also add that the paper does illustrate something that I think is quite interesting. An aspect of this topic that – I think – needs debate are the various policy options, not the science. The science can certainly be discussed, and there is still uncertainty about certain aspects, but it is broadly accepted. So, why do these sites focus on the science (which isn’t really up for debate) and not on policy (which – in my view – is up for debate)? Is it because if one broadly accepts the science, it means that we should be taking some of the more unpalatable policy options more seriously?
So, this paper may well have some interesting results and may well discuss the credibility of the science on these sites, but I still find this kind of work a little confusing. I started writing this post a while ago and when I started I wasn’t all that positively inclined towards this paper. However, having thought about it for a while, it’s quite possibly/likely that I just don’t really understand it. I also seem to butt-heads on Twitter with some people (Warren Pearce for example ;-) ) when this topic comes up. So, I thought I might change the tone of this post a little, and explain my issues in the hope that it might clarify my position slightly, and might also give others a chance to explain where I might be going wrong.
Essentially we’re talking about sites that present themselves as science sites. Now there are certain things in science that can be shown to be incorrect and, in my opinion, much of what is presented on some of these sites satisfies this condition. They may use scientific language and may make all sorts of statements about science being about evidence and not opinion, but just try and have a serious discussion there about the science they’re presenting and you’ll almost certainly get short shrift (unless you choose to agree with what’s being presented). Of course, these sites may play some kind of role in keeping actual scientists honest and may ensure that scientists are more careful in what they present. This, however, is normally to combat the kind of nit-picking arguments that are often presented on these sites, and any positive benefit we get is heavily out-weighed – in my opinion – by the damage that these sites do by mis-representing the scientific evidence. So, seeing research that seems to give scientific credibility to these sites is a little frustrating.
So, that explains my issues with some of what I see of this type of work. However, as I said above, maybe (quite possibly) I just don’t understand it well enough. There’s also almost certainly much more that I haven’t seen. However, maybe someone who understands this better than I do can explain, for example, what motivates this type of work. What are people trying to understand? Why are they studying the “sceptical blogosphere”? Also, why have they so easily bought into the sceptical narrative? Many of these sites regard themselves as the true sceptics, but – in my opinion – they really aren’t. Why have serious researchers allowed these sites to dictate the narrative? Also, what assumptions do people who work in this area make? Do they assume that they need to remain objective? Are they not allowed to have a view as to whether or not the science presented on these sites is credible? Would that be seen as biased if they did? Do they actually not realise that much of the science being presented on these sites is flawed? Do they think there is no such thing as an objective truth? Is it something else altogether? Any insights would be gratefully accepted.
So, this post may seem a little confused. That’s probably because it is. I would certainly really like to understand better what’s motivating some of the social science research in this area and what it is that this research is trying to understand. I could add that maybe it would help if people in this area also understood better why some – like myself – seem frustrated by some of what’s being done in this area, but maybe they do and it’s just me that’s confused :-)