I was invited to speak at a Contemporary Climate meeting in Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences. It was really nice to talk face-to-face with people about some of the topics I find interesting. We covered aspects of blogging and social media, science communication online, deficit model thinking, consensus messaging, whether scientists should advocate, and also whether or not things have changed in the last few years. We also briefly discussed whether or not more people should get involved publicly. I do have somewhat mixed views about this, because it can be a rather toxic environment. However, I also think that more scientists engaging publicly might have a positive impact, as long as people are careful about how they get involved.
One reason I think this, is that I suspect we’re going to see more and more examples of people suggesting that the reason why we haven’t developed effective climate policy is because climate scientists have got climate change wrong. The problem with this kind of thing is that it both misunderstand science and the role of scientists. Scientists do have some obligation to communicate publicly so as to explain their research, and its significance, to the public and to policy makers. However, it’s not their role to do so in a way that somehow convinces people to accept the information and that then leads to the development of some kind of effective policy (however that might be defined). Others should really have the responsibility of determining the significance of the information and then motivating for some kind of associated policy.
Also, our scientific understanding is constantly evolving. Our understanding of climate change today is, of course, somewhat different to what it was in the past. However, this doesn’t mean that our past understanding was wrong. It would be less certain, and there would be aspects that weren’t understood that are now. There may well be some aspects where our understanding today is so different that we might regard our previous understanding as being wrong. Typically, though, this would have been reflected in our confidence in that particular aspect of the issue. We’d only really regard science as having got something wrong if a major part of our understanding turned out to be completely flawed, or if many things we didn’t expect to happen actually do occur.
I’m not really trying to say that science never gets anything wrong. However, the way we develop understanding involves a process in which our understanding evolves and, often, includes getting some things wrong before some kind of truth emerges. Our confidence in our scientific understanding develops over time, and this is a perfectly natural part of the scientific process. We can’t really expect our understanding of a complex topic to emerge rapidly. Implying that scientists got climate change wrong, when our understanding was mostly evolving as expected, just seems sub-optimal.
So, one reason I think it would be good if more scientists were involved publicly is because I think it would be useful if more people were talking about how science actually works, rather than simply presenting supposedly interesting results wrapped up in certainty. It’s a messy process that involves humans. It’s not perfect. Sometimes scientists are more confident in their results than they should be. Sometimes scientists reject new results that later turn out to be correct. Scientists can be biased, self-interested, and can behave in ways that might not be ideal. However, as a process, science is remarkably good at developing understanding of the world around us. In some sense, it’s this messy nature that is its strength. It can give us some confidence that scientists have hashed out the various different ideas and that the understanding that’s emerged has at least survived some robust challenges.