Originally published as Opening up climate science can cut off the skeptics as a guest post on the Guardian‘s Lay Scientist blog.
It’s not uncommon to find lists of scientists who hold alternative viewpoints being promoted by those who disagree with established scientific theories. Minority groups use these lists as part of the ‘proof’ that the vast body of evidence in support of a theory is somehow wrong, or to imply a greater amount of controversy or confusion within academia over a topic than there is in reality.
In my belief, this comes from the mistaken view that the scientific community need to agree on a single world view for a theory to have a solid grounding. After all, most people’s education of science is of established principles in a school textbook, which are then examined in
a situation where there is usually a single correct answer. This, in turn, leaves those outside of the community to see even a small division of belief on controversial theories as evidence that the leading explanation does not hold up to scrutiny.
Of course, this isn’t true: those in academia are constantly debating and modifying their ideas over time as new evidence comes to light, and those who hold minority viewpoints are valued for their opinion, but only when they can provide evidence for their stance, not for their ability to sign a petition.
The body of science is like a branching tree of concepts and theories: those at the trunk of the tree are concepts for which there is little debate, such as the existence of gravity or that the world is round, while the periphery of the tree is where the research happens, where new ideas develop and grow or die, and as the evidence gets stronger so the branch thickens.
In contrast, issues are presented to the public as if they are black or white. Headlines often read as if scientists have proved or disproved a whole subject in a single study. In reality, topics are sets of theories that evolve over time with the advancement of knowledge. The important thing to understand, though, is that the core of the research is generally a constant; it’s the fine details that keep developing and moving forward.
Of course, sometimes, a result will shatter preconceived ideas, but this is incredibly uncommon. When it does happen, it is also normally the result that will define an individual’s career, not something to be covered up. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity eventually superseded the concept of the luminiferous aether.
If we want people to respect the scientific community and understand its own confidence in its output, we have to also accept that it’s not the individual scientists or skeptics who hold weight. We need to tear down the ivory towers of the past and remove the walls dividing the public and academia. Journals need to be open, and in complex cases, such as the evidence for climate change, we need to provide the skills and tools that people need to discover the answers for themselves. If we ask them to to accept our viewpoints just because we are the experts, we have already lost. We would be no different than anyone who stands on a pedestal and proclaims the truth.
Climate change is a massively complex topic and it is often assumed that dissemination of the body of evidence is beyond the understanding of the public. Professor Andy Parker, who is leading the ATLAS project in Cambridge, recently stated “[We should] give the public a bit more credit, they may not have the mathematical training, but they have the desire, interest and logic to understand”. If Andy believes he can explain the theories behind something as complex and abstract as subatomic particle physics to a lay audience, we should take note.
Scientific inquiry will not always provide the right answers first but, unlike other methods, it will eventually get there even if it has to admit its mistakes. There is plenty that we don’t know yet, but what we do know is that, given the same resources, tools and time, there is no reason for the public to disagree with the established consensus.