Science - February 23, 2012

17 million climate experts

The climate debate is back in the headlines. It t is not just the science but the debate itself that is under fire.

The focus is on think tanks that spread doubt, the influence of vested interests and the bias of researchers. In itself, a public debate of this kind is a good idea, says Michel Handgraaf, who researches communication on environmental issues. But the quality could be better. ‘It sometimes sounds like the criticism of the Dutch national football team nowadays.'
‘I think it's good that we hold a ‘meta-debate' on issues such as external funding. If there is openness in all directions, third parties can draw the right conclusions. If you look one level lower in the scientific discussion, you see just two parties that draw the opposite conclusions and are then convinced that the others are cheats.
‘Scientists can contribute themselves too. If, for example, you emphasize exactly where the doubts still lie, you make clear that we are sure about a lot of things. Don't just mention the uncertain details, but outline the big picture, on which there is much less doubt.
‘The media can do their bit by generalizing less and being less sensational. By not condemning all scientists if two in a thousand make a mistake. The urge to simplify is annoying. Researchers don´t work so hard for no reason: science is complicated. If you always want to sum it up in one sound bite, it doesn't always make sense anymore. It is starting to sound like the criticism of the Dutch football team nowadays. Everyone knows better, but very few people actually know anything about it.
Meanwhile, we must not forget that environmental problems are incredibly difficult for people. Three tricky aspects come together here. Firstly, there is often a trade-off between now and later. We know from psychology and economics that people are short-sighted about this. Secondly, you are faced with options that are very positive for yourself and a little bit negative for the world as a whole. A good example would be owning an enormous Hummer. And lastly, there is the uncertainty. People cannot cope with uncertainty at all well. That is why sowing doubt is so crippling.'

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