June 25, 2015, by Andrew Gibson

Circling the Square (by Paul Matthews)

I’ve been attending a two-day meeting at Nottingham, Circling the Square, organised by Reiner Grundmann and colleagues from the Institute for Science and Society at Nottingham. This follows a successful similar meeting last year. The conference has its own blog, where video, audio and text from the meeting are gradually being uploaded.

The themes of the meeting were science and its links with policy, with the public and with the media. Many aspects of science were discussed, including for example drugs policy, where ex-Government Advisor David Nutt gave a keynote talk that contained some interesting points but rather over-stated his case with some dubious claims. But I will concentrate here on the climate-related aspects of the meeting. Whereas some social science conferences on these topics are little more than echo chambers for activists, this is certainly not the case with this meeting, which included a broad range of views.

Mike Hulme – “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”

Mike Hulme (UEA) is the author of (amongst many other publications) an interesting bookWhy we disagree about climate change.

On Tuesday morning, he gave an hour-long keynote talk on “Scientists speaking with one voice: panacea or pathology?”, discussing issues around the consensus debate on climate change. He asked whether consensus messaging is normal or useful in science, and whether figures such as 97% actually mean anything. He noted that the ‘high degree of consensus’ was used in the first IPCC assessment (1990), arising from group deliberations, and that more recently this had been picked up by what he called the ‘consensus entrepreneurs’ and ‘consensus defenders’.

He discussed possible motivations for the consensus, including shoring up authority, providing a foundation for policy, and closing down dissent, before describing the so-called linear model, or “the plan” (Sarewitz), or “gateway belief”, which states that establishing a scientific consensus with the public will lead to public support and policy action. He mentioned a recent paper by Van der Linden et al that claimed to find evidence to support this. But bizarrely, their own data in fact does not support the hypothesis at all – their measure of support for action only rose marginally from 75.2 to 76.9, as noted by Dan Kahan, who had previously pointed out that a decade or so of consensus messaging has had no impact.

He also quoted from a paper “Should we aim for consensus?” by Beatty and Moore (2010): “Requirement of unanimity is pernicious” and “the authority of a scientific body is not undermined by questioning, but depends on it”. A key point he made was that consensus is insufficient – far more important than the numerical value of any consensus is the character and integrity of the scientists.

Here is his conclusions slide (HT Mike Schafer)

The ensuing Q&A session discussed whether consensus messengers were mainly from other fields, whether climate scientists had overstated the case, and whether consensus messaging could fail because of the romantic appeal of the underdog.

“Science advice” panel

The remaining sessions were in the form of ‘panels’ where a group of three or four people give very short introductory talks around a theme, followed by a substantial discussion session involving audience and panel members.

The first panel session was on “Science advice” and opened with some words of wisdom from Miles Parker, who had worked at DEFRA. He said that scientific advisors needed to ‘understand their interlocutors’, something that scientists were not really trained to do. ‘If you want to advise, first listen’. Perhaps David Nutt could have benefited from this.
Also on this panel was climate scientist Hans von Storch. He emphasized that scientists have their own values and preferences, and tend to think of their own fields as being particularly significant, and that scientists should be more aware of their own cultural background and ways of thinking. His text has been posted on the conference website.

“Science, uncertainty and science advocacy” panel

On Monday afternoon, Judith Curry was on a panel on the topic of “Science, uncertainty and science advocacy”. Her introductory statement can be seen at her blog. She defined advocacy as “forceful persuasion”, making an analogy with lawyers. She said she was concerned that too many scientists, and too many professional societies, were indulging in advocacy. She also complained that she herself had been (falsely in her view) accused of advocacy. She felt that many climate scientists have done a poor job of assessing uncertainty, and understated it. She pointed out that there is really no code of conduct for scientists communicating with the public, and this had resulted in irresponsible behaviour by some.

On the same panel, Conrad Brunk made some similar points: science is increasingly being used for advocacy, and there is a tendency to downplay uncertainty. Scientists talk to the public in a different way from how they talk to each other, and this can make them vulnerable to criticism.

Daniel Sarewitz made some interesting points about uncertainty. He said that uncertainty is easy to define if you have a large sample of data points, but this is not the case for ‘wicked problems’ such as GM and climate. For example, he said that statements such as “there’s a 10% chance of 6C of warming this century” really have no meaning. He suggested that in such cases we should not use the word “uncertainty”, but should talk about “disagreement” instead.

“Science and the media” panel

This was followed by a panel session on “Science and the media” including Leo Hickman, formerly of the Guardian, now at Carbon Brief, who discussed the role of the advocating journalist, saying that this was valid as long as it was transparent. He also addressed the issue of poorly worded press releases (this was also discussed last year, particularly by David Colquhoun). He proposed that it was important for the scientists themselves to take control over press releases and sign them off personally, rather than relying on University press offices.

Mike Schäfer (Zurich) also spoke about the problems with press releases – according to one investigation, 40% of university press releases contain exaggeration. He also raised concern about possible increasing segmentation, with people selecting their own preferred media source now that so many different sources are available.

“Science and the civil society” panel

On Tuesday after Mike Hulme’s talk there was a session on “Science and civil society” that included Ben Pile. He described a ‘bubble’ of interactions between governments, academia, NGOs and business, from which he said the public was excluded. He criticised NGOs, saying that they were sometimes incorrectly seen as representing the public, and that this amounted to a ‘democratic deficit’. He showed data indicating decreasing hunger and mortality, together with increasing food production and GDP in developing countries such as Bangladesh, and said that statistics showed that climate was well down on the list of risk factors for developing countries – thus challenging the “climate change predominantly affects the poor” narrative.

In the ensuing discussion, Peter Webster mentioned the substantial drop in deaths from storms, which can be attributed to greatly improved weather forecasts. Ben’s controversial remarks about NGOs went unchallenged until, near the end of the discussion, panel member Maurice Frankel (famous for his role in the FoI campaign) said that he didn’t see a problem with NGOs, as they countered the view of the industry lobby.

It was interesting and encouraging to see Ben Pile and co-panellist Stevianna de Saillechatting amicably afterwards, despite being at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their views on environmental activism and green NGOs.

Thanks to Reiner Grundmann and colleagues for organising a very interesting meeting (and apologies to all those panellists I haven’t mentioned).


This article was originally published on The IPCC Report blog

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