ac090817cBy Claire and Nerilie

Last week I posted about some new research carried out by Nerilie Abram, from the Research School of Earth Sciences at ANU. While the research itself is definitely worth a read (if you have access to Nature Geoscience, check it out here), what I personally found most interesting was the response to this paper seen across comments sections in news articles and blog posts on the internet.

It turns out, climate science is personally offensive to some people.

As much as I was enjoying (in a disbelieving kind of way) trying to follow the avalanche of comments from people across the internet, Nerilie was actually dealing with personal communications from a number of people in response to her paper.

I asked her to provide her opinions on the reaction her paper received. This is what she wrote…

“Publishing a scientific result that gets world-wide media attention is a very eye opening experience on the extreme range of attitudes towards the work that we do. I think that this is particularly true for scientists working in the field of climate change; the perception of chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc. may still suffer from the stereotypes of lab-coat wearing, bearded old male boffins, but their scientific discoveries are generally viewed as clever but complicated, and too difficult for the average Joe to understand.  Not so when it comes to climate science where breakthroughs in our knowledge are frequently met by non-experts with claims that they are just plain wrong, and sometimes even personal hostility. It’s no wonder that these days the psychology of climate change has become a legitimate research field in its own right.

One of my favorite examples for its sheer irony was a blog post that had the title “Dumbest Headline Ever? Dumbest Study Ever?”. This piece in one sentence talks about the “insidious implication that the Antarctic has reached some imaginary tipping point”, and in the next statement says, “No kidding?  You mean the higher the temps above 0 deg C the more melt there will be?  Shocking discovery!” I agree not so shocking, but also not so much of an imaginary threshold (or tipping point) then? In another sentence the writer summises “Of course, the ice surrounding the Antarctic isn’t at the highest melt point in 1000 years.  In fact, the melting on the whole is decreasing, consistently and web-UCScalendar-2012-strawman-macleodsignificantly.  The lowest total extent registered was 20 years ago.” The evidence they present to back this up is a 34 year long satellite record of the extent of the seasonally forming sea ice (floating ice) around Antarctica. Completely different, in time-scale and environment, to our new 1000 year record of summer melting of land-based ice on the Antarctic Peninsula where we have been able to show exactly how unusual the current levels of melting are. The final conclusion of this blog about our research was “Globally this knowledge has no value”.

It’s interesting to contemplate the timescale and effort involved in the actual science compared to the discussion of it in public forums. The research that was published represents the efforts of the last 5 years of my career. To get to this point I’ve spent a couple of months living in a tent on an Antarctic ice cap, I’ve spent uncountable hours working in a freezer at -20oC and even more innumerable hours looking at the data and reading vast amounts of past scientific literature on the topic. Then comes the intensive months and months to write up the research, trying to think of any and every possible way that I could have misinterpreted the data, and testing how robust the conclusions are, then finally pressing the “submit” button to send the work off to a journal where it will be scrutinized by other scientists with expertise in the topic, and hopefully finally accepted for publication. This isn’t just some crazy idea that I dreamt up last week. By contrast the blog mentioned above was posted on the same day that the scientific paper was made public, although it was clearly written without the author actually reading the research paper. And yet in less than 24 hours the author of this blog was confident to simply write off the findings as the “dumbest study ever”.

The intersection between science communication and social media is a rapidly evolving one. I see it as kind of an extension of the issue that climate scientists were discussing widely a few years ago, where reporters felt compelled to find an alternate, opposing voice to every piece of research they covered. What this did was to give the impression that scientific opinion on climate change was spilt 50:50, rather than there being an overwhelming consensus amongst climate scientists on the big picture concepts which are now irrefutable (where the scientific debate now lies is in understanding the precise details of how and how quickly changes will happen in different parts of the world). What we see today is a globally connected world, where everyone can instantaneously have a voice on any topic; be it through writing blogs, social media or posting reader comments on online news reports. In this arena there is no requirement for any level of training, ethics or background knowledge to express an opinion that can be read by millions. A particularly tragic example of the fast-paced, opinionated world we now live in played out in the same week as our research was published; following the Boston bombings the online community, in their frenzy to be involved in the police investigation, wrongly named an innocent person who’s identify was quickly broadcast through social media around the world. The concepts of “freedom of speech for all” and “experts doing what they are trained to do” are perhaps competing ideas in today’s online world, but hopefully the majority of people are able to tell the difference.

In truth the response to my research paper has spanned the whole range – from personally threatening emails through to sincere thanks and praise for the work I’m doing. Some of the most gratifying responses have come from the contact that I have since had with scientific advisors for the Australian and US governments. So despite the online opinions of some individuals, at least the scientific findings are being noticed by places were there can be a push for action to address climate change.  It may feel like slow, baby steps forward, but the scientific puzzle pieces that are building the climate change picture are coming together, and the arguments of vocal individuals who feel threaten by the scientific evidence seem to be becoming more like school yard name calling than informed debate.”