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Lately I’ve noticed something odd happening in the world of science. For the first time in my lifetime, scientists are under attack.

Simon Lamb

This is geologist Simon Lamb’s opening statement in the introduction to the documentary Thin Ice The Inside Story of Climate Science. His statement is followed with sound bites from individuals who question the science of climate change:

“It’s junk science, and it’s part of a massive international science fraud.”

“There is no scientific basis whatsoever.”

“This is a fraud and a scam and a hoax.”

NASA reports that “97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities”. In other words, a small proportion of scientists working in the area disagree. Dr Lamb wondered if there was any truth to arguments being made against human-induced climate change, so he did what scientists do – he looked for evidence to test their claims.

Nature of science

Asking questions is fundamental to the process of science. New questions and new ideas are what keep scientific research growing. Scientists use evidence that has been systematically gathered to support or refute existing ideas or claims.

Science, society and culture

Scientists seek to build knowledge about the natural world. This knowledge is produced within a larger society and culture. Cultural elements such as politics, economics, power structures, religion and philosophy can – and do – affect the direction of scientific research and the acceptance of scientific findings. Conflict can come about if new evidence means the revision of existing ideas and beliefs.

This is not a new phenomenon brought about by climate change, and Dr Lamb isn’t the first scientist to ponder claims of dishonesty and disrepute about his profession. History has many scientific and social conflicts.

There have been many famous cases of scientists clashing with the wider society in which they lived. Four hundred years ago, the Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei to deny the heliocentric model of the cosmos – the model in which the planets revolve around the Sun rather than the Sun and planets revolving around Earth (‘helios’ means Sun, and ‘centric’ is the centre). The model had initially been put forward by another famous scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus, in 1543.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution also caused controversy, but not all of it came from the religious or social views of the time. Fellow scientists felt Darwin did not have enough evidence to back up his claims.

In 1992, 359 years after his trial, Galileo received a pardon from Pope John Paul II. Wider acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory came more quickly. Fifty years after his theory was published, genetic inheritance was discovered. Subsequent scientific research and observation have provided such a range of evidence that most – but not all – people accept evolution as an explanation for new and changing life forms.

Cigarettes, science and scepticism

The tobacco industry is a more contemporary example of societal conflicts with science. This time, the clash did not come from religious or philosophical arguments but from economics and politics. In the 1950s, compelling scientific evidence linked smoking with respiratory and cardiac disease. Rather than deny this evidence, the tobacco industry chose to counter these findings with research of their own.

Scientists, by their very nature, are sceptical. The tobacco industry tapped into this scepticism and funded research projects that questioned the health effects of smoking. They also paid for and widely publicised research that contradicted findings about health risks. Critics accused the tobacco industry of working to squash the unfavourable medical evidence – and create doubt and controversy around the health risks.

After decades of robust research – and public denials from tobacco companies – few people doubt that smoking causes lung and heart diseases, but knowing that you might be damaging your health in the long term isn’t always enough to get people to stop smoking!

Climate change, controversy and the nature of science

Today, climate scientists are being challenged by those who doubt or deny that climate change is caused by human activities. As with evolution and health risks from tobacco, opposition comes from within the science community as well as from social or political structures. After all, it is the role of science to question, to support or disprove evidence and to revise science knowledge accordingly, but it is a small group of scientists who dispute the role of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

Opposition exists, but dealing with opposition in a systematic and evidenced-based manner is one of the hallmarks of science.

Useful links

Greenhouse effect explains the natural warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. Most scientists agree that the rise in greenhouse gas production is linked to human activities.

The Science Made Simple video Greenhouse gases provides a simple and concise explanation of greenhouse gases and how they function.

Climate Feedback is a global network of scientists that fact checks climate change news by providing feedback on the scientific accuracy of the online media articles.

NASA’s Climate change: How do we know? page presents evidence that changes over the last century are very likely due to human influence.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi has a concise evidence summary and infographic that describe the human health impacts of climate change for New Zealand.

Acknowledgement

Thin Ice – The Inside Story of Climate Science, a David Sington/Simon Lamb film, looks at what’s really happening with global warming by filming scientists at work in the Arctic, the Antarctic and around the world. It gives a 56-minute view of the range of human activity and scientific work being undertaken to understand the world’s changing climate. The result is a unique exploration of the science behind global warming and an intimate portrait of a global community of researchers racing to understand our planet’s changing climate.

The Science Learning Hub has produced a series of articles using short video resources produced by the Thin Ice team. The film itself is available by emailing thiniceclimate@vuw.ac.nz. It is recommended viewing to give students context for the Hub’s articles and the videos they contain. The link for streaming is available free of charge. The DVD is also available to New Zealand schools for $20 to cover costs.

Learn more at www.thiniceclimate.org.

 

    Published 31 March 2017 Referencing Hub articles