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One more for the denialists

A new study is out, and the denialists of human-generated climate change are going to love it. Basically the authors of the study in question were puzzled by the level of public doubt and scepticism regarding anthropogenic climate change (ACC). As they saw it there was a “striking agreement” among scientists on the causes and process of climate change, yet somehow that consensus was not reflected in public opinion, with many people backing scientists who question the link between humans and climate change.

So this study set out to evaluate the merit of those scientists both for and against the tenets of ACC. By investigating the credibility of dissenting researchers relative to that of agreeing researchers, the authors hoped to establish which group was most trustworthy. From their analysis of 1 372 climate researchers and their publication and citation records they found that (i) 97%-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

In essence the thrust of the paper is pretty straightforward: If you’re going to listen to anyone, choose an expert. It makes sense to trust the guy (or gal) who has done the most research, who has been cited the most frequently, and who has been the most widely read and critiqued. Surely you’d choose to listen to those with the most impressive credentials, the ones most likely to be called the “experts” — and according to this study those guys are the ones linking climate change to human activities.

Studies such as these are not new, though this is the first to conduct such a large-scale quantitative assessment of those actively studying climate change. And it’s refreshing to have a set of findings so concise and clear cut. The authors show quite clearly that in terms of expertise, prominence, and experience, “[that of] climate researchers convinced by the evidence of ACC vastly overshadows that of the climate-change sceptics and contrarians”.

If you are concerned about their methodology, I urge you to read their paper. However, for the denialists among us, I suspect that no matter how rigorous their study and methodology, the findings still won’t be enough. They will continue to split hairs, under the impression that doing so undermines the entire body of research underpinning ACC. I’m sure they will also point to the fact that this study looks at the scientists, not the science, and as such it misses the point of their criticisms.

But I think that this is the value of the study in question. It establishes the scientific worth of those researching climate change, and differentiates between those worthy of being listened to, and those we should ignore. The study comes at a time where the public has been bombarded with information and research to such an extent that it is no longer able to differentiate between what is valuable and what is dribble. It is also a time where anyone can publish anything, and increasingly we are faced with a crisis of authenticity and credibility, where it’s increasingly difficult to ascertain the value of the information we receive. This problem is compounded when it comes to issues such as ACC where the research is so particular and so complex that it is beyond most people. It’s no wonder, then, that we are so confused about who to listen to, and what to believe.

And I think this is where a lot of the scepticism and doubt comes from. It’s not so much that people believe one side over the other, but rather that they don’t trust either side. They aren’t willing to involve themselves in something that seems so undecided and messy. It would be one thing if accepting ACC meant making a small donation, or making only small changes, but the fact that it requires so much of us makes choosing to accept it in the current social climate even more daunting. It’s far easier to take no sides, and do nothing — though in this case it means that things carry on down the same path.

This study, then, speaks to the level of doubt and scepticism in society at a time when our faith in science itself is shaky. Aware that stats can be so easily played with, that graphs are always up for interpretation, and that science is not always black and white, it’s refreshing to have a piece of research that says clearly “these are the people you should be listening to”. I hope it will be enough to convince a few more people. Though I suspect it will merely preach to the converted, and make denialists even more adamant.


  • Mike is a young environmentalist. He is also very interested in issues relating to consumerism, consumption, and the capitalist system in Africa. Mike also has his a worm farm, rides a bike to work, and doesn't own a television. He loves reading, going for long runs, and is humbly learning to surf.