Time to end the double standard on climate science

(Originally posted Friday 25 March, 2011)

Diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my knee, this week I am going off to an orthopaedic specialist for treatment.

No one will be surprised at my intention because that’s what orthopaedic doctors do – they deal expertly with joints and bones ailments.

Understandably, you might have wondered at my reasoning had I planned to see a cardiac consultant or neurosurgeon about my knee.

Because even though all are medically qualified, as health consumers we have grown used to the specialisation of our medical science and the great advances in knowledge and our quality of life that have resulted from doctors specialising.

And yet, curiously, that respect for the intellectual integrity and capacity of specialist science is not something we accord to scientific specialists beyond the medical profession.

How different might it be currently with the essential but largely unproductive debate about climate change and carbon pricing, if people accorded climate scientists the same respect for ‘knowing their stuff’ that they give orthopaedic or cardiac surgeons?

There would be much stronger motivation to do something to address the problem if most people perceived there was agreement among the experts about what caused it.

And yet despite there being strong agreement among the real climate experts- the climate systems scientists – it is at this point that many in the community throw out the window their respect for the virtues of scientific specialisation.

With 99% of the leading climate scientists internationally saying that humans are changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and that it is contributing to global warming, the impacts of which could be catastrophic – for too many the reaction is let’s get an opinion from someone who will tell us it’s not true.

And so in the political and media scramble to air diversity of scientific opinion on climate issues, all manner of experts, none of them specialist in climate science, are reined into the debate to have their two cents worth – and the result is public confusion informed by perspectives which at best are taken out of context or worst are straight out nonsense.

And if that is not enough, then there is the gaggle of contrarian newspaper columnists, eccentric buffoons, and lobby groups representing vested interests that also have an “expert view” to contribute, virtually none of it founded on years of research, education and training in the relevant sciences.

It’s unimaginable that one would seek an expert view about a crook knee from a medically unqualified newspaper columnist or industry lobby – and yet with climate change that is exactly what we do!

That the anti-science perspectives have so much traction in the community, at least in America and Australia, is a sad reflection of more than a generation of dumbing down of our political discussion.

That slide in the quality of our democratic debate has been more than matched by a corresponding growth in scientific illiteracy with an insufficient emphasis being given to the sciences in the basic schooling of our nation.

In recent years the outcome is to be seen in the rise of the radical remedies of tea party populists, the irrational prejudices of the anti-science movement, and in the idealistic platitudes of the inner urban left.

When the orthopaedic surgeon makes an assessment about my knee he or she will draw on years of specialist knowledge and accumulated experience as well as specific empirical data like my x-rays.

Climate scientists warning of the risks of global warming are doing no less in their field and we will give ourselves a fighting chance of dealing with the problem if we stop wasting time and take on board their expert advice.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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