There’s been a lengthy Twitter exchange about the Harvey et al. paper. In case you don’t remember, it was a paper essentially arguing that those blogs that tend to be dismissive of the risks associated with anthropogenic global warming (AGW) tend to also regard Arctic sea ice as often in recovery and tend to promote views suggesting that polar bears are not under threat because of retreating summer Arctic sea ice. In the latter case, they also tend to use a single source who promotes views that are at odds with those of experts who study polar bears.
The Twitter discussion involved, amongst others, myself, Bart Verheggen (one of the authors of Harvey et al.), Roger Pielke Jr, and Jean Goodwin, a Professor of Communication. The criticism varied from Harvey et al. being an attempt to delegitimise a scientific colleague, to it lacking intellectual hospitality, to it violating scientific norms, to it being a pointless attempt to address misinformation, to it potentially backfiring.
I’m not actually a fan of the tone of Harvey et al. I think they could have presented it in a way that may have resulted in less backlash (admittedly, it may also have resulted in less publicity). However, this does not change that it presents information that I would regard as broadly true. It does seem clear that there is a subset of blogs that use short-term variability in Arctic sea ice extent to argue that it is recovering. Similarly, the same subset tend to argue that polar bears are not threatened by retreating summer Arctic sea ice and use a single source to justify these claims. Although this source has a background in a related field, they appear to have little, if any, relevant formal expertise when it comes to polar bears, but present themselves as being an expert and promote views that are at odds with those of recognised experts in this field.
In my opinion, it’s important to recognise these “truths” even if one disagrees with the manner in which they’ve been presented. If one continually criticises attempts to address misinformation because of the tone of the presentation, then it will be hard not to interpret this as defending misinformation. Even if that isn’t the intent, it will probably still be used to some to suggest that it is.
As far as the possibility that something may backfire, it is worth people thinking about how their presentation will be received, but that something may not be received as one might hope is not really a reason to avoid presenting it. If anything, scientists shouldn’t really let the societal implications of their research influence what they publish (other than always being very careful, especially if the implications are potentially serious).
I think scientists (well, myself at least) look at this whole issue in quite a simple way. Maybe there are ways to present things that are effective at influencing public opinion. Maybe there are things we should simply avoid doing because they might be ineffective, or might backfire. Sometimes, however, it’s simply worth addressing misinformation even if doing so achieves little, and might – on occasion – backfire by giving undue attention to those presenting misinformation.
One could also argue that those criticising Harvey et al. because it might be ineffective and might backfire, should also consider that the same applies to their criticism. How people perceive attempts to address misinformation will also be influenced by the criticism that these attempts receive. The “truth” should matter, irrespective of the manner in which it is presented.