Sceptics face yawning credibility gap

By Bryan Walker 23/06/2010


We know that the vast majority of climate scientists support the explanation of anthropogenic climate change set out by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. That majority is now quantified in the first study of its kind published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Expert credibility in climate change.

’Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97—98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.’

The study explains the criteria by which these conclusions were reached, paying particular attention to the question of expertise, where weight was given to the number of climate publications of researchers and to their citation levels.

’We show that the expertise and prominence, two integral components of overall expert credibility, of climate researchers convinced by the evidence of ACC vastly overshadows that of the climate change skeptics and contrarians. This divide is even starker when considering the top researchers in each group.’

The team of four has obviously put a good deal of time into the study which was contributed for publication by Stephen Schneider (pictured). Why bother, one might ask.  Surely it’s all too apparent. It may be to readers of Hot Topic but the study notes that considerable and even growing public doubt remains about the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement about the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in climate change. The vocal minority of researchers and other critics who contest the conclusions of the mainstream scientific assessment has received large amounts of media attention and wields significant influence in the societal debate about climate change impacts and policy.

An analysis such as the study offers has not been conducted before, and the writers observe that it can help inform future ACC discussions. Translated into common parlance I guess that means they hope this will put paid to the idea still abroad, in at least the American media, that denial of anthropogenic climate change retains a respectable level of scientific credibility.

That may be optimistic. Journalism in general still has difficulty getting its head around the reality of mainstream climate science. The idea that there is a realistic alternative shows remarkable persistence. When I was writing occasional columns for my local paper, the Waikato Times, I discovered that my attempts to explain aspects of the current science eventually came up against an anxiety that the paper was not presenting a balanced picture. There was finally talk of pairing my column with another which would meet the paper’s obligation to offer its readers more than one opinion. I protested that I was representing mainstream science and asked why the paper should feel that needed to be balanced. I made that my last contribution and escaped the indignity of a balancing viewpoint. It seemed fairly clear that the East Anglia emails and the baseless attacks on the IPCC report by the likes of Jonathan Leake were enough to unsettle the journalists with whom I was dealing and bring back to life concerns which I thought had long been laid to rest.

One nevertheless hopes that  surveys and appraisals such as this one in a highly regarded journal will make a difference to media perception and help establish in the public mind the seriousness of the scientific understanding and predictions. It seems inconceivable that we should continue much longer refusing to face the reality.  But I’ve been thinking that for four years now.