I have written before about how climate change deniers never retract an argument, no matter how thoroughly debunked and discredited it has become. By contrast, climate scientists admit their mistakes, which can make them seem less credible than the hyper-confident advocates of inaction.
Doubt-mongering also works because we think science is about facts – cold, hard, definite facts. If someone tells us that things are uncertain, we think that means that the science is muddled. This is a mistake. There are always uncertainties in any live science, because science is a process of discovery. Scientists do not sit still once a question is answered; they immediately formulate the next one. If you ask them what they are doing, they won’t tell you about the work they finished last week or last year, and certainly not what they did last decade. They will tell you about the new and uncertain things they are working on now. Yes, we know that smoking causes cancer, but we still don’t fully understand the mechanism by which that happens. Yes, we know that smokers die early, but if a particular smoker dies early, we may not be able to say with certainty how much smoking contributed to that early death. And so on.
There is much that is laudable about the way scientists communicate their ideas – cautiously, with reference to evidence, and so on – but it is also easy to see how public relations people looking to discredit scientific conclusions can use quirks in scientific communication to their advantage.
Thankfully, it does seem that climate scientists are becoming more savvy about media relations, and are increasingly making the point that choosing to do nothing while even more evidence is accumulated is a reckless strategy. We cannot wait for all aspects of the science to be settled; rather, we need to start taking precautionary action now, before the worst impacts of climate change become measurable.
A case in point is Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver’s libel suit against The National Post, which alleges that they misrepresented his views, in the wake of the University of East Anglia email scandal. The paper misinterpreted his criticisms of elements of the IPCC process as evidence that he had rejected the key elements of climate science. It is good to see him being active in pointing out that miscategorization.