Do You Trust Scientists?


Photo via Todd Neff

Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently did the written-word equivalent of throwing his hands up in the air over the growing chasm between actual climate science and the public's understanding of it. One of his key points is that science has grown so specialized that scientists in different disciplines are rarely even able to fully grasp one another's work--much less us laymen. As a result, their findings can seem so complicated that it essentially amounts to a form of gibberish to the public--and whether or not you accept their findings comes down to an issue of trust. Here's an excerpt of the column over at the Guardian:

the problem is compounded by complexity. Arthur C Clarke remarked that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". He might have added that any sufficiently advanced expertise is indistinguishable from gobbledegook. Scientific specialisation is now so extreme that even people studying neighbouring subjects within the same discipline can no longer understand each other. The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing, to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence.
I see evidence of this principle every day on the comment boards here--every day people claim that the data has been "manipulated", "lost", is "slapdash" or "fraudulent". Never mind that huge swaths of data collected by scientists is available all over the web, much of which has been collected here at RealClimate--a website curated by scientists from NASA, NCAR and others! When I point that out, some commenters have simply said--oh, RealClimate is a sham.

Really? Why? Would you know the difference between a "manipulated" ice-core data set and an authentic one anyways? Of course not. I wouldn't. But when a group of respected scientists, whose work has been reviewed by their peers, work to make available to the public hard data and findings on climate, I'm inclined to think they've got better things to do than make it up. Monbiot is right that the key issue is trust--either you trust that the thousands of climate scientists who collect data and review one another's findings are providing the sound data, or you don't. There will always be people who don't--and never will.

The people that sincerely view 'Climate Gate' as ironclad evidence that global warming is a big hoax, and who believe that the IPCC is some sort of nefarious cabal--though they don't understand the complex science supporting global warming, they will never be convinced to acknowledge it by any sort of scientific finding. They've likely made up their minds to oppose the notion of climate change for ideological reasons, and until there's incontrovertible, physical evidence that's easily observed first-hand (or maybe until Glenn Beck says it's real) little can be done.

Monbiot makes calls to bring more transparency to the scientific culture (ie, opening up the exclusionary scientific journal system, etc) in general as well, and I agree with him. This could help generate trust. But Monbiot feels even this will only do so much. He concludes:

Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don't want to know, nothing and no one will reach them. There goes my life's work.
Now, I want to end by saying that those knee deep in the climate conversation can get too easily discouraged--the paranoid folks out there who don't trust scientists are in the minority, by a long shot. And just because they yell the loudest on the comment boards doesn't mean that they somehow represent the everyman (though that's the impression they sometimes attempt to create). Though climate science has taken a PR hit over some recent errors, most people still trust scientists (as many as 74% in one poll)--and I still trust most people to resume viewing scientists' work rationally. And as Joe Romm points out in Climate Progress, it's not like scientists need to persuade 100% of the people to help prevent catastrophic global warming anyways--there's always going to be some lunatic fringe.

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Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects