Wetenschap - 9 september 2010

‘Climate science doesn’t offer absolute truths’

Joris Tielens

The IPCC, the UN climate panel, needs to be more professionally organized and allow sceptics more space, concludes the InterAcademy Council (IAC), which has investigated the IPCC’s way of working. Will this restore confidence in climate science? Doubt is part of science, says Professor of Communication Science Cees van Woerkum.

'Every scientist has the problem of self-referentiality. That means you have a bias towards certain data because of a particular perspective on the issue, without being aware of this yourself. That is a very natural process, and you can compensate for it by organizing external reviews well. So that there is always someone who takes a look at things from outside. There is room for improvement to the way this is organized at the IPCC, and the IAC report has some good suggestions on that. Such as a more professional organization, a more frequent rotation of the chairmanship, and more emphasis on the authority of the reviewer.
'Another good proposal by the IAC is that uncertainties and disagreements between climate scientists should be mentioned more often. In doing this, the IPCC should take good care about how the message to the outside world is worded. Many people, including policymakers, expect science to come up with certainties. And the media keep that idea going. But that is not the way science works. Scientific research uses consistent methods to obtain data that come close to the truth, but they remain approximations with a degree of probability. There is no alternative but to give the public and policymakers a more realistic picture of how science works.
'More openness about procedures and authors can be useful here. But scientists themselves also have an ethical obligation to make sure their results are properly understood and used. They cannot just leave that to the media, but are themselves responsible for providing scientifically sound and yet comprehensible accounts of their research.
'Confidence in climate science has been severely dented and it will take years to restore it. There will always be critics, and that is as it should be. As long as the public is capable of seeing that scientific data collected by a large group of scientists in a consistent manner is worth more than the scepticism of a one person.'