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When Scientists Take to the Streets It’s Time to Listen Up

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"When Scientists Take to the Streets It’s Time to Listen Up"


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Scientists have begun to speak out about climate change. afagen/flickr

Dr Michael Brown, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow exposes the tactics used by purveyors of “non-science” to attack climate change research. This is a repost from The Conversation.

It takes a lot to get scientists out of their offices and marching on Parliament.

But in recent weeks that’s exactly what some of Australia’s top researchers have taken to doing.

Former Governor of Victoria and scientist David de Kretser brought an open letter to Parliament House last week and just today the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies (FASTS) has launched its Respect the Science campaign from the same location.

The Federation claims that attacks on climate scientists are “undermining the national building work of all scientists.”

The Conversation has also hosted an open letter from dozens of concerned scientists trying to get the message across that human-induced climate change is a real threat.

So what is it that has got our science community so riled up?

It might be something to do with the death threats many climate scientists have been receiving. CEO of FASTS Anna Maria Arabia was on the wrong end of one just this morning.

But for many, it’s simply the tactics of “the other side” of the climate change debate that has spurred on their public demonstrations.

When the forces of non-science are this strong, it’s time for scientists to respond.

Cherries and missing ingredients

Those denying the science of climate change present arguments that appear scientific, with measurements, theories, statistics and jargon.

But many of those denying anthropogenic climate change are not truly doing science.

Science tries to provide the simplest explanation for a wealth of measurements in the natural world.

Non-science, on the other hand, cherry-picks evidence. A classic example is only plotting a few years of temperature records, rather than the past 150 years.

When non-science tries to describe all the observations, it requires contrived explanations as it attempts to avoid the simplest scientific explanation. Ian Plimer invokes underwater volcanoes to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the numbers required are vast compared to the actual number of volcanoes.

Purveyors of non-science charge that thousands of scientists are ignorant of basic science.

This would be shocking, if it were not patently false.

A central claim of climate change denial is that the physics of thermodynamics is in conflict with climate models. Even a quick Google search reveals that this claim has been refuted many times.

So why is this false claim continually repeated?

I can only speculate. Perhaps it is now a negative political catchphrase, which is repeated often so it can be confused with truth.

Practitioners of non-science loudly proclaim that climate models cannot be trusted, as they are missing key components.

When subjected to scrutiny, these supposed key ingredients are often speculative and not backed by robust evidence. To include speculative theories in climate models would only make the models less trustworthy, not more so.

The medium, message and messenger

The practitioners of non-science claim peer review is used to enforce groupthink. This is not the case.

Most scientists review as thoroughly and impartially as possible because peer review is central to the health of science.

Many scientists will recall reviewing papers where they doubted the conclusions but accepted the paper, as there were no obvious flaws in the method, data and theory used.

Both sides of the climate debate communicate to the public via the media, and this is at the crux of recent activism on the part of Australian scientists.

Science uses media to communicate results from science journals to the public and policy makers. Non-science uses the media as its principal means of communicating its conclusions. But often, both get equal play.

Press releases, popular articles, books, letters, websites and think tank reports do not undergo peer review. Conclusions may not be backed up by sound methodology, accurate data and appropriate use of theories.

Personal attacks, rhetorical flourishes, witticisms and point scoring make good copy, but do not alter the basic science.

If the media is the only means being used to present supposed scientific results, there are good reasons to be suspicious.

Letters signed by esteemed scientists can highlight that an issue is important. But there are millions of scientists, so it is not surprising each side can muster hundreds of signatories.

Think tanks are often present in the climate debate, but these organisations are often ideologically driven and associated with particular political beliefs.

At best, think tanks present science that is consistent with their political beliefs. At worst, think tanks commission reports and books that are politically motivated non-science.

A sceptical view of think tanks is probably better justified than a sceptical view of climate science.

It’s all a mistake

Non-science claims science is not to be trusted.

To back this claim they provide examples of where there have been paradigm shifts in science; relativity, dinosaur extinction, plate tectonics and the causes of ulcers.

But there are stark differences between these paradigm shifts and the current climate debate.

When paradigm shifts have occurred, often the evidence for the prevailing theory had been weak.

Paradigm shifts have also been accompanied by robust evidence contrary to the prevailing theory. For example, relativity was preceded by precision measurements of the constant speed of light.

In contrast, those denying climate change only use weak evidence.

Classic non-science evidence includes plots where temperature appears to vary along with something other than carbon dioxide. Such plots can be suspect.

If one generates large numbers of plots, one can find apparent correlations between two unrelated quantities.

For example, the increasing number of HIV infections has been accompanied by an increasing number of personal computers. Only a fool would suggest one directly causes the other.

In contrast to randomly generating plots, climate science makes predictions for the relationship between carbon dioxide levels, air temperature and sea level rise.

Observations are then used to test these predictions and significant discrepancies are always investigated.

This is how good science is done.

If it takes a march to the halls of government to highlight the different between good science and non-science, then that is what the scientific community must do.

Acknowledgement: I was inspired to write this article by the discussion threads that follow climate change articles in “The Conversation,” where many of the tactics of non-science are on display.

Dr Michael Brown


Below are earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Jeffrey Davis

That CO2 can cause large damage to the climate IS the paradigm shift. The hidebound old fogey view is that it can’t.

July 2 at 9:35am

Wayne Basta

I like that poster. “Fewer sound bites. More Science!”

July 2 at 10:04am

Molly Whipple Douthett

Cherry pie?

July 2 at 1:56pm


Time to go aggressive after the denial machine and force the MSM to tackle the coverage – awareness of everything CC.

July 2 at 2:28pm


“We have to do a better job of helping the scientific community to get their facts out. We must mount an agressive program to go after the deniers, countering their untruths.” Tim Wirth, ex US Senator http://www.ens-newswire.co​m/ens/jun2011/2011-06-23-0​1.html.

July 2 at 2:38pm

Bailey Struss

One way to do it is to take advantage of the social media. Those with FB accounts can invite other climate knowledgeable people, and post articles and discuss (everyone then gets to read the articles and interaction and more likely to join it?).

July 5 at 12:35pm

Ted Gleichman

It is striking — and critically important — that a mainstream liberal Democrat like former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth is now willing to go public so bluntly. It puts him (and UN Foundation chair Ted Turner) right there with Al Gore, politically.

I ran into Senator Wirth in an elevator at the Denver Art Museum a year ago, and introduced him to my guests by explaining one of lesser-known but most important victories of his career:

When President Ronald Reagan attempted to completely eliminate the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in 1981, Senator Wirth was able to persuade Congress to keep half the funding alive.

This national laboratory, renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), has proved critical over the last 30 years in providing much of the best scientific investigation toward the cost-effectiveness of wind, the development of solar photovoltaics and solar thermal, and growth in other technologies.

Without Senator Wirth’s leadership in 1981, the United States (and the world) would be even further behind on our mandatory conversion to renewables.

(Thanks, Prokaryotes, for bringing us this important article!)

July 5 at 3:13pm


False climate change data a Crime Against Humanity http://climateprogress.net​/climate/climate-science/1​00-false-climate-change-da​ta-a-crime-against-humanit​y.html.

July 2 at 3:04pm

Carl-Johan Rosén

Let´s hope that Rossi and his E-cats realy are working.

July 2 at 4:36pm

Celia Schorr

I agree it’s time for scientists (and all of us) to hit the streets. I sent the message below to several climate groups two years ago – - posting it again, since it’s still relevant, and not much has changed (except the CO2 ppm):

TO: UCS, The Climate Project, Repower America, various science blogs.
RE: Time for scientists to become activists – a few ideas.

I understand that scientists don’t like getting into policy and advocacy, but the urgency of the climate crisis is still being ignored. The media and the public are inured to images of scientists testifying on the hill, or holding press conferences, or appearing in documentaries. The public and media need to be shaken up by an unexpected image: that of hundreds or thousands of scientists descending on Washington. The message: We’re scared as hell, and you should be, too. Wake up!
Three ideas come to mind:
1 Scientists March on Washington.
2 Scientists flood the Capital – lobby day(s).
3 Off the wall idea:

Remember Lucy in the Peanuts cartoons? I’m thinking of a 21st century, high-tech version of her little psychiatrist’s booth. “The scientist is in.” The booth would be set up outside the capital, easily accessible by the media, congressional staffers, members of congress. It’s staffed every day by at least two scientists and a staffer, as well as tons of information. The scientists would ideally be experts in climate-related disciplines, and would have some messaging and media training. The idea is that these scientists have taken time off work, paid their own airfare and lodging, to fill a shift(s) at the booth. (Their air mile emissions are worth spending if it helps wake up the nation to the need to act.)

Maybe combine #1 and #2, or #2 and #3?

Yes, all of these actions will bring out the deniers. But that’s the point of having all those climate scientists available (and of giving them messaging and media training)!

- Celia

July 2 at 7:40pm

Rafik Mohamed Benmounah

god save us

July 3 at 8:58pm

Alec Forbes

Really, why would God save us? We’ve completely f#*%ed up the most amazing ‘creation’ evident anywhere in the universe, a life-giving planet. What it comes down to is what He has to say when we’re all standing there gawking at the dead remnants of it.

July 5 at 1:54pm

Pepper Gayle Wynn

I absolutely agree. Science is proving that it’s humans that are creating the climiate change and we much take resposibility. Our world did very well until humans came to change things. Yes, there were climate changes before we came in, but this one is ours to claim and to change.

July 5 at 2:45pm

Ted Gleichman

One of the most telling points about the climate crisis to me is that the people who know the most are the most engaged, concerned — and even terrified. (And appropriately so.)

For those of us who see community-based solutions as the key to enhancing mitigation and working for adaptive survival, I believe we should make regular efforts to incorporate local climate scientists into that mix. This would:
– bolster the effectiveness of our community work;.
– help to protect the scientists and their funding; and.
– help the scientists to engage more deeply with the community and the media.

There are many science-based issues where mediocre media summaries lead to disproportionate concern among those whom one friend gently characterizes as “low-information voters.” (This is often true with medical issues, where percentages and proportions are rarely adequately explained in the MSM.)

We all know how the well-funded denier distortions have muddled climate-crisis media coverage into exactly the opposite scenario:
Huge numbers of low-information voters are inadequately concerned.

I have come to believe that — although denier distortions must be called out and fought, consistently and universally — the more fruitful near-term efforts are to organize among those who DO understand the depths of the crisis. And climate scientists need to be at the center of our work.

July 5 at 2:55pm

Tom Looney

“terrified” is a good point—I find it easy to “educate” the Rush Limbaugh Crowd (their distortions of science facts “facts” funded by the Koch Brothers and their ilk) by pointing out the many online videos and white papers on the US Military’s multi-faceted effort to mitigate climate risks, with their mantra being: “energy security equals national security”. As a non-aligned independent, I find weaknesses in the science/environmental communities by their failure to insist on including an economic vision aligned with this multi-trillion dollar market over the next three decades (and beyond, but at age 52 I’ll limit my worries to 20 years out!) I like the expression, “you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” Done right, energy economics could be a force multiplier for the U.S……OUR MOON SHOT!

July 6 at 9:32pm

Bob Shivley

Read “Hot … living through the next fifty years.” by Mark Hertsgaard. I particularly felt heartened reading the chapter on Seattle and Ron Sims. There is a community doing very positive things about Global warming and addressing the economics of the challenge. By the way I think it was on Diane Rehm radio show where GW was being discussed and this person mentioned how many corporations have quietly created the position of CSO… Chief Sustainability Officer(s).

July 7 at 8:05pm

Mary M Branning

Murdock is trying to take over UK media. Murdock media empire is the largest spreader of denier manure. Screw him by signing this petition: http://www.avaaz.org/en/mu​rdoch_messages_2/?rc=fb&pv​=42.

July 5 at 2:57pm

Pat Kaae

Murdoch is pure evil. British Tabloid Hacks Into Murdered Girl’s Phone Shocking Britain. The News of the World – owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has been at the centre of an ongoing celebrity phone hacking.

July 5 at 6:24pm

Pat Kaae

No Shame at all. News of the World hacked into Milly’s voicemails after she went missing, publishing at least one story based on the information gleaned. Making matters worse, Mulcaire allegedly deleted some of the messages to free up Milly’s mailbox for more incoming calls, in the process interfering with a police investigation.

July 5 at 6:25pm

Marlo Ann Kraus

“If one generates large numbers of plots, one can find apparent correlations between two unrelated quantities.
For example, the increasing number of HIV infections has been accompanied by an increasing number of personal computers. Only a fool would suggest one directly causes the other (Dr. Michael Brown).” Never underestimate the prevalence of foolishness! Correlation does not equal cause and effect.

July 5 at 3:25pm

Paul Cadario

Bad science will drive out good science if good scientists let it.

July 5 at 4:10pm

Rafik Mohamed Benmounah

yes u r right

July 5 at 4:34pm

Lee Adams

It’s about corporate power. Money talks. Go after the politicians and threaten them.

July 5 at 7:16pm

Deborah Tennesen

Global warming is caused by the quarks in the Atom bomb, which was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There was no known way to control these quarks, which Professor Albert Einstein knew and he begged President Truman NOT to drop the bomb. Einstein did not work on the Manhattan Project, but his colleague, Bore did. Quarks are responsible for heating up the Planet, but the troubling part is since they cannot be contained, they proliferate. Imagine all the extra Nuclear Testing done in the Desserts of America, Arizona, California and Nevada. Our Planet cannot be exposed to any more Nuclear material, and the worst is, they had the Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima Japan, when the earthquake hit, then the sunnami. Global warming is REAL!

July 5 at 10:30pm

Arlena Bora

Thanks to Australia for taking a step forward. Too bad the US is still dragging it’s heels.

July 6 at 1:20pm

Laurel Harris Durenberger

Thanks for sharing this Tommy!

July 6 at 7:54pm

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