Friday, June 11, 2010

Public opinion and the crisis of climate science

Only a few weeks ago, we had the 'public trust' debate here on klimazwiebel.Today, spiegel-online posts a remake of the New York Times article by Jon Krosnick from Stanford university from June 8th about a new opinion poll on climate after climategate. According to this survey, 'the public' is far from having lost trust in climate science. Krosnick includes in the presentation of his results a severe critic of the previous surveys (which had stated a dramatic loss of trust in climate science after climategate etc). However, instead of going into the details of this new survey and its results, I want to discuss the role of these surveys for the self-conception of climate science.

I think it tells a lot about the (lack of) self confidence of a science that its identity relies not on the robustness of its data and the quality of its scientific debates, but ever more on so-called 'political' factors. Just like politicians, (some) climate scientists permanently seem to have an eye on these surveys and make them part of their strategies. 'The public' (which is a pretty imaginary quantity) becomes an integral part of the presentation of scientific results and of science itself. This is true for all sides in this debate,  by the way. It is not something imposed on climate science, but it seems to be a part of the very nature of this science itself. Dealing with uncertainties, the harsh conditions of post-normal science etc may be part of the problem. But what does it tell about a science when climate scientists act like politicians in an election campaign, preparing for a final public vote on the reality of climate change? In my opinion, this is not a crisis of the public; instead, this indeed profound 'politicization'  is a signal of a deep crisis of climate science itself. The crisis is not out there, in the public - it is inside science.


Bart Verheggen said...

I think this totally misses the mark.

The interest in surveys has nothing to do with a lack of confidence in the scientific quality.

This interest comes from some scientists who are concerned about the large gap between scientific understanding and public perception of the issue.

Georg Hoffmann said...

So when a social scientist investigates the trust in the latest concepts of the universe by string theorecians or the trust in evolutionary biology then this demonstrates that the string theoreticians and the biologist suffer a lack of confidence in what they are doing? Astonishing.

Such polls however might be more interesting for politicians. You help the banks or not, you help East Germany or not, you modernize energy production in your coutry or not. The pay off is all four years so it might be interesting to know how much people approve what you are doing and the reasons why.

Werner Krauss said...

Barth & Georg,
might you reconsider your arguments for example in the light of the hockey stick debate, climategate, Himalayagate, the recent IPCC debate etc? Do you remember the mutual accusations as alarmists, skeptics, eco-dictators, deniers, gatekeepers and McCarthyism? All in the name of protecting, warning, educating the public? In the name of a public as presented in opinion polls? Is it really too far fetched when I argue that climate scientists on all sides use 'the public' as a crutch? And that they got so used to it that they can hardly walk anymore without?

judith said...

Judith Curry

I agree with Werner. In the CRU emails, there was much concern about the press and misinforming the public. I agree that this is either a misperception on the part of the scientists that this actually "matters" or it is a crutch to justify things that aren't otherwise easy to justify

wflamme said...

"According to this survey, 'the public' is far from having lost trust in climate science."

And so strong the trust it is that 'the public' refuses to behave according to their very insight until being paid (back) by 'the gouvernment'.

Surveys, I love them.

Georg Hoffmann said...

I read two or three of theses mails. Sorry, I cant reply. So this is your data base for your conclusion of how "climate scientists" in general/majority think, feel, worry about polls?
Well add at least one little sample to your data base. I don't give a damn about polls.

Furthermore didnt you (as usual) not answer on my question. When an US evolutionary biologist worries about polls on public understanding of his field of research, does that demonstrate that he is in reality profoundly doubting the validity of his/her conclusions and that he lost self confidence as a scientist?

So in conclusion I doubt that your sample (Mails of Mr X) is significant for climate scientists as such and that worrying about polls means doubting in his own results/data/conclusions and finally in his oxn scien.

Just in case that this point got already forgotten: The constitution of democratic states didnt obviate democratic rights to climate scientists. So it might happen that these scientists write about these a priori not forbidden political opinions in "private" mails and worry about something.

I worry for example if Mertesacker/Friedrich is really the best choice for the german central defense. Still I am confident in my scientific results.

Zajko said...

Would it be presumptuous to say that climate scientists in general are aware of the policy implications of their science? That the majority see global warming as a serious problem, that is going to require a certain level of public concern, acceptance, or consent to address?
Is this part of what you (Werner) call the crisis in climate science? Should we expect less (or more) of scientists - namely, to stick to "the science" and ignore what is happening in the public and political domains?

Especially in light of recent events, I find it almost impossible (and undesirable) to consider climate science outside its political and public context. Sure, this runs the risk of equating science with politics, which would make the distinction between the two useless and deprive science of its authority (and the "public's trust"). However, I think the politicization of climate science is most disturbing if one embraces the (ultimately impossible) ideal of a an autonomous and objective science. Relax this ideal, in light of a long list of similar experiences in the use of science (and scientists) for policy, and I think the situation ends up looking a lot more ordinary.
I'm still struggling with whether it is best to pursue that ideal of a climate science that is, to the greatest extent possible, objective and autonomous from the policy domain, or whether we need a dramatically new way of thinking about the relationship between science, politics, and the public.

Werner Krauss said...

the database question: just take the great debates in general: there is always the question of the public involved - it was a common argument that through climategate people lost trust in climate science; here on klimazwiebel we had a long discussion on how to reestablish public trust. Same before with hockey stick - critics of the hockey stick were blamed to endanger the climate consensus etc.

'When an US evolutionary biologist worries about polls on public understanding of his field of research, does that demonstrate that he is in reality profoundly doubting the validity of his/her conclusions and that he lost self confidence as a scientist?'

No, of course not. But when he starts to prove that for example creationism is more scientific than evolutionism (or the other way round), and he goes on to interpret all case studies in the light of this question, then he has a problem. That's what happened to a certain degree in climate science. Sometimes (my interpretation, of course) climate scientists appear to be no longer primarily interested in the dynamics of climate, but only in making a point for example the skeptic / alarmist debate.

I am also concerned about Friedrich / Mertesacker, but I think Germany will win the World Cup anyway. But this is, as usual, a result of interpretative anthropology.

Georg Hoffmann said...

"just take the great debates in general"

Do me a favor and visit the AGU or EGU next time. All these discussion on hockey stick and whatever you heard about have by far not such a prominent place as you might think. There are 99% of the climate scientist they do not know klimazwiebel (or primaklima for that matter) they do not know Judith Curry and many do not even knwo that there is climateaudit. They even dont know Werner Krauss.
All these "making a point against " is a) a small part of the climate scientist b) a small part of the time of even the persons implicated and c) not different from what (I come back to that) a evolutionary scientist does when preparing for a public debate with a creationist in the US (there are many).

Your vision of an entire scientific community obsessed by some talking points dictated by climate scetics is plain wrong. That is just the fun part of the live of very few.

judith said...

I agree that the polls are pretty meaningless, and that most climate researchers pay no attention to the polls or the blogs. But there is definitely a group of climate researchers who interface with policy makers that are concerned with such issues, the CRU emails abound with examples. And it is these researchers that are the "public face" of climate research.

Georg Hoffmann said...

With "media presence" it's a little bit like with tax benefits. Allways the others have much more.
At the end you have a climate sceptic like Claude Allegre (zero publications in climate research) showing up 3 times per week in main TV shows at prime time complaining that he is deprived from media access. Funny.

Werner Krauss said...

@Zajko 7
Those are all good questions, Zajko, and I have no real answers. Instead of generalizing the problem - science, politics, society - it is maybe useful to focus on the specific case. Maybe there is no general rule. What happened exactly when anthropogenic climate change was made public? And how did concerned scientists raise alarm? Did Al Gore invent the apocalyptic discourse, or did climate scientists offer him those metaphors of doom (I guess they did)? Which role does climate science assume in the political process (for example the 2 degree limit etc), and what are the consequences for both science and politics? All of these questions are important and partly discussed here on klimazwiebel. Climate change is not 'mirrored' by climate science, but it is constructed in a specific way. It is somewhere in this process when scientific knowledge, political process and media overlap, and control gets lost or unintended consequences mess things up.
If that makes any sense...

Werner Krauss said...

I actually attended already various conferences with climate scientists, and I do agree completely with your statement that these 'big' questions are hardly a topic there. Or only in the keynotes. Thus, I maybe shouldn't have addressed climate science in general.
On the other hand, it is of no help to belittle these debates (only the fun part for a few); there is a lot at stake, for both society and science. And that most of the brave researchers and scientists in their daily work have no interest in the 'high politics' of their discipline - this can be interpreted in many ways; critical ones, too. Why are they not interested? Shouldn't they be interested? As scientists and citizens?
Someone once wrote here on klimazwiebel that the 'political' climate indeed has an influence on the work of graduate students and post docs. It would be interesting to learn more about this.

Georg Hoffmann said...

The "big" questions with the huuuuge social impact are not that which you hear about in the media.
There is hardly a more overestimated question as the one of the hockeystick in the entire debate. Eduardo explained here already that as more the shaft of the hockey stick is wiggly as higher is climate sensitivity.
Or another look on this,+2008.pdf
where exactly estimates of climate sensitivity based on data for the last millenium are the less certain.

In summary, if finally climate sensitivity is the key quantity to estimate the importance of climate change in the future than there is hardly any reason to fight about the last millenium. My feeling is the big questions are not the big questions.

Olaf said...

Long before I became a scientist, I read Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "Die Physiker" in high school. I can still recommend this classic theatre play with its key message that ALL science is political. Long before climate science became a discipline on its own.

eduardo said...

I would agree that 99% of climate scientist do their job without even thinking on policy implications or opinion polls. But there is indeed a minority for which this is not the case.
Let us take this final paragraph from a paper that estimates future sea-level rise:

'To limit global sea-level rise to a maximum of 1 m in the long run (i.e., beyond 2100), as proposed recently as a policy goal (26),deep emissions reductions will be required.Likely they would have to be deeper than those needed to limit global warming to 2 °C, the policy goal now supported by many countries. Our
analysis further suggests that emissions reductions need to come early in this century to be effective.'

For a purely scientific paper, its closing paragraph is full of politics. Why should a ' geophysical scientist' want to limit future sea-level rise? why is the statement that the 2K-limit policy, supported my many countries (actually quite arguable - a politic statement and quite arguable) is needed in a geo-scientific paper ?

The content of the paper may be right or wrong, but it is clear that the authors want to convey a message to policy makers and public opinion. Is this justifiable ?Probably the answer depends on one's view about what science should be . In my opinion, it is not justifiable.

ghost said...

It is from the Vermeer/Rahmstorf paper, isn't it? I can say it, I am a layman. Haha.

Actually, I like Prof Rahmstorfs statements against deliberate misstatements in the media. A little bit too aggressive, but okay, there are honest. Also I agree with him, one should not compare climate scientist with Stalinists... (last time I mention it, sorry)

However, I agree with you. In the comments to the paper Prof Rahmstorf mentioned, it was right in time for the Copenhagen summit. (besides a lot of the description, how they did the paper) It really looks like the last paragraph was directly targeted to this conference.

I also did not like some comments of Prof Mann of the kind: the last paragraph is bad because it could be used by "skeptics" to spin. His concern is certainly justified, there are enough examples. BUT, If "skeptics" spin bullshit from it, it have to be dealt in blogs or similar medias, IMHO. It must not belong to the scientific discourse

In my view, a paper should be a scientific paper.(*) Based on the results of many studies and their analysis, political opinions can be formulated by politicians but also by scientists. I think, I described the idea of the IPCC report. I think so...

(*) I believe here was a discussion about "soft statements" in papers some months ago. I think, it is okay to make such statements to show the motivation and importance of the research... but your quotation, I would say, is different.

Bart Verheggen said...

Perhaps me and Georg Hoffmann misunderstood what was written in the headline post, because both of us seemed to have interpreted it as meaning that the confidence *into the scientific quality* was influenced by surveys, which it is clearly not.

However, Werner Krauss has now clarified that he meant confidence *in the public understanding of science*. Did I understand that correctly?

Than I think we agree, s that is pretty much what I meant when I wrote "This interest (in public surveys) comes from some scientists who are concerned about the large gap between scientific understanding and public perception of the issue."

Georg Hoffmann said...

I agree that these sentences (even if they were correct in a "political" sence) have nothing to do in a scientific paper. They are like a decoration in a rokoko building. A bit useless.

However, in a report such as the IPCC that might be an important conclusion for policy makers (if true and the actual results of the paper are robust) for example in Part II. Furthermore the possibility (or speculation) that a scientist writes an article having in his mind a politician as a potential reader is more ridiculous than really dangerous.

At the end it's only the science that really matters, not the decoration.

eduardo said...

@ 16

The identification was indeed quick. I didnt want to personalize the discussion on specific names, though. We have unfortunately too much of that.

Although those particular paragraph in a paper are probably not read by many lay persons, I think in general that they convinced. or are liked as in your case- by persons that do not need them any more. They just agree.
However, they put off a lot of others that might be still convinced, or with whom one might engage in some useful discussion. So, as Georg said such paragraphs are useless and a bit damaging as well, even for the own cause.
This is one of the things that still puzzles me.

Toby said...

"But what does it tell about a science when climate scientists act like politicians in an election campaign, preparing for a final public vote on the reality of climate change?"

Clearly, this post is intended to just another boring attack on climate science.

I do NOT see climate scientists on Meet the Press, writing pieces in the Huffington Post and zealously meeting constituents. In fact, you see denialists, who are mostly media creatures anyway, doing that far more commonly.

So this post is actually a good example of what it is accusing climate scientists of doing - using media platforms to advance its case!

ghost said...

I hope it fits here:

Times retracts an older, wrong (nice word, isn't it?) story of Jonathan Leake about the IPCC.

I think, shortly after the publication of the hacked emails, many wrong articles were written. The IPCC was bashed without thinking, because there was a weakness (even imaginary) now.

I hope more will come. I always thought the crazy bashing will have a good effect. Maybe that can be a start for a sober debate.

PS: Well done, Sunday Times. Integrity is more than short time publishing success.

Marco said...

"Well done, Sunday Times" ? It required a PCC complaint to actually retract the story. They did not want to correct the original story, because they already had published two comments...

You may want to read the complaint by Simon Lewis, and then ask yourself again why it took five months.

Hans von Storch said...

One reason for the divergence of positions (Werner as a social scientist and observer; Georg as a natural scientist an d a person involved in the science) may be related to the fact that both are right - from the outside, Werner is confronted with the activity of a visible and dominant minority (the Stephen Schneiders of the world), while from the inside, Georg, describes a scientific community which is occupied with detailed scientific problems and issues (the Georg Hoffmanns of the world). Both describe reality, but different ones. Which is more relevant for society? I guess it is Werner's.

Werner Krauss said...

@Hans #24 and Georg #14

Thanks, Hans, I agree that our different backgrounds might be a source of divergence.
However, Georg, I am slightly confused. You told me that in reality the big questions are not really relevant in everyday climate science. To convince me of this you posted a link to an article about climate sensitivity by Knutti and Hegerl. But this article exactly starts with the following 'big question':
'The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly as a result of anthropogenic carbon emissions, and damaging impacts are expected to increase with warming. To prevent these and limit long-term global surface warming to, for example, 2 °C, a level of stabilization or of peak atmospheric CO2 concentrations
needs to be set.'

Isn't it this proof of my suggestion that exactly the big questions frame and direct many of the everyday research activities? Are there really a few loudspeakers on the one side and busy climate researchers on the other one, both completely separated? I don't think so.

ghost said...


hm, true, but at least it is a first step. Now, the other wrong stories have to be clarified.

@Dennis Bray
you own us a clarification, too. You spread the Leakes wrong story here without checking. What do you learn from this ? However, do not be too hard with yourself, you are not the only one here. I think, it is a bit irresponsible. What do you think? Is this a problem of the Internet and the fast food times today? All information can be spread fast, can be multiplied easily without costs. Wrong or not, it is not important. So, it is very important to be skeptical ;).

Another particularly bad example is this:

I found a nice video about Prof Stephen Schneider at Copenhagen.
please watch the first and second editions. What would you have said, seeing only the edited video? The last video is really fun.

Dennis Bray said...

@ Marco

Sorry Marco, I have no idea what you are talking about. 'Wrong story?''Hard on myself?' 'Irresponsible?'

Marco said...


Wrong person. "ghost" called you out on repeating the now-withdrawn story Jonathan Leake wrote.
Which you did here:

eduardo said...

@ 26


I must confess that I didnt read the story by Leak in detail, but I would warn jumping to conclusions about the correctness of the IPCC report in this point. One may argue about the what exactly had been cited and how, etc , etc. But one can also simply have a look at the IPCC simulations for the Amazon region included in the IPCC AR4, Chapter 10 . Figure 10.2 shows the projections for precipitation changes as simulated by the suite of models for scenario A1B. It turns out the the IPCC models do not agree on the the sign of the simulated precipitation in the Amazon basin. This can be be seen more clearly in the figures in the supplementary information here for the individual models: ECHAM5 (the model from the Max-Planck-Institute in Hamburg) simulates an increase in annual precipitation for the Amazon basin, HadCM3 (the model from the UK Hadley Centre) simulates a strong decrease.
Now, one can gloss over this and just focus on how to score political points. Or one can go to the immediate sources - and these figures are indeed the immediate sources- and recognize that we have so far no clue about how precipitation will evolve in the Amazon basin in the future. Perhaps the next generation of models will agree, but even acknowledging that AGW may be a fact and on-going and so on, it is not possible to say now how endangered the Amazon basin will be. I think that it also legitimate to express doubts about whether or not this suite of models is really adequate to answer these questions.

If one looks also at the other hydrological variables in Fig 10.2 in the main chapter 10, it can be seen that the models do not agree on evaporation and run-off either...

Shouldn't this information have made it to the summary for policy makers, for instance ?

Marco said...

I'm sure you can point to the 40% being in the SPM. Yes?

Fact is, it isn't in the SPM. The section of the IPCC report discussing the 40% makes it clear that the Amazon is very sensitive to precipitation, as field work has shown.

Sorry for the snark, but I find it rather disingenious to complain about something not being in the SPM in response to something which isn't in the SPM.

eduardo said...

@ 30

Marco, I was not referring particularly to the Leak story, but, in a more general sense, what is the information that policy makers would need in this case ? I have the impression we both would agree. Something like this maybe?: the Amazon basin is very sensitive to precipitation changes; however, present models do not agree about future precipitation changes in this region.

We have other examples of this inconsistency between the WGII and WG1 reports. African precipitation is another case, where the area of model disagreement covers almost the whole continent. We have in the WGII report statements based on just one or two models, and in the WGI report we can see the clear disagreement among the whole model suite. This is not optimal.

Marco said...

Eduardo, the statement on the Amazon in WGII does not refer to precipitation models at all.

Funnily enough, both HADCM3 and ECHAM5 *agree* that there will be less precipitation and more evaporation in especially East-Amazonia, which is also the part of the Amazon that Nepstad et al focused on. And if we look at soil moisture, the two models agree even more on what will happen in the Amazonias. There are some other models that disagree with the two you mentioned, but at the very least the multi-model average is quite clear.

eduardo said...

Marco, are we looking at the same results?



It seems to me that the sign of the projected precipitation, evaporation and runoff changes over the Amazon is opposite in both models. Also, for these variables the whole South America is not stippled, meaning that models do not agree

Marco said...

Eduardo, this is Amazonia:

Overlay that on the two models, and you'll see that they agree on significant parts, in particular on soil moisture and also in East Amazonia, which is (I repeat myself), the main area that Nepstad investigated.

Yes, there are big differences between the models for South America. But for Amazonia the differences isn't near as big as you try to portray. And as Nepstad has shown, the Amazon rainforest, and particularly East Amazonia, is very sensitive to small changes in precipitation (well, actually to soil moisture).

eduardo said...

Our readers can judge for themselves if ECHAM5 and HadCM3 agree on the simulation of future precipitation changes here (red is diminishing precipitation, blue is increasing precipitation)

Hans von Storch said...

Eduardo/35 - maybe not all read such maps, as those you have us provided with, in the same way.

Obviously, in your two diagrams there are areas where the colors are identical, and others, where they are not. We, as climate scientists used to think statistically, identify the two diagrams as consistent with two independent realizations (which does not mean that they actually are independent, but we have no evidence that they are not).

The argument goes like this - if we take the first few characteristic patterns of (here:) precipitation and weight them randomly (according to their usual statistics) we get realistic looking patterns - which may look like the two Eduardo has shown (I have not done the analysis, so I am guessing to some extent based on my experience).
Of course there are some areas where the signs of two model precipitation coincide, but that is to be expected in such a random set-up.
Thus comparing two diagrams makes little sense when this is not associated with some assessment of the sample-variability of such maps (ideally: a statistical test, but often implicitly done).