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Why sources matter in a climate of ignorance

Joel Rindelaub explains why it's so important for those weighing on climate science to be transparent about their funding sources and conflicts of interest 

In an article recently published by Newshub, Magic Talk host Peter Williams challenged readers to tell him that so-called climate expert Dr Willie Soon doesn't know what he's talking about. 

With all due respect, Mr Williams: Willie Soon does not know what he is talking about.

Not only does Soon propagate material that misrepresents our current understanding of science, he has also displayed ethically dubious behaviour while doing so.

Let’s start with Soon’s credentials. As opposed to what Williams’ column would imply, Soon is not an astrophysicist. In fact, he is not even an employee of Harvard. Soon is a part-time scientist at the Smithsonian Institute, where even his employers have distanced themselves from his radical views, releasing a statement that supports human-induced climate change .

The Smithsonian Institute is not the only establishment to support the scientific consensus on climate change. Nearly 200 scientific organisations worldwide hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.

In his research, Soon has published articles that have been criticised by scientists for their methodology and misuse of data. Additionally, he has accepted more than $1.2 million USD from the fossil fuel industry for his research while simultaneously withholding this funding information in many of his research publications. The failure to disclose funding sources and potential conflicts of interest is an egregious breach of scientific integrity and ethical guidelines, and it calls into question the validity of the motives for his work.

But we shouldn’t waste all of our time on Soon. The opinion of a single scientist does not constitute a consensus much like the results from a single scientific paper does not represent an absolute certainty.

While it may feel good to listen to your uncle, or your nana, or your favourite radio host, they do not have the same credibility as trained scientists that cite the relevant peer-reviewed literature.

Instead, we must look at the data from the collection of peer-reviewed scientific literature to gain a more complete understanding of an issue at hand. In the case of climate change, we have thousands of papers that tell us humans are driving the climate. From nearly 12,000 papers published on global climate from 1991-2011, less than 1 percent of the articles reject the man-made global warming hypothesis. What’s more, the relative expertise of those that remain unconvinced of the human impact on climate is substantially lower than those that accept it.

The Newshub piece goes on to highlight recycled talking points from climate deniers that call into question the effects of the earth’s natural geological cycle and the power of the sun. Here is what we know:

1. The earth is warming at a rate unprecedented in recorded history, roughly 10 times faster than the rate of ice age recovery. The rate of warming is predicted to double over the next century.

2. The variations in the solar output have a very small impact on the global climate. If the sun were responsible for the current trend, we would expect all layers of the atmosphere to warm. Instead, the bottom layer is warming while the upper layer is cooling, due to greenhouse gases trapping heat near the surface.

Using doubt to spark a non-existent scientific debate is not a new phenomenon. As science inherently includes uncertainty, attacking the reliability of results is a tactic that has been used time and time again to denounce research findings, most notably with the link between tobacco use and health risks.

Starting in the 1950s, the tobacco industry successfully used propaganda and skepticism from self-convened institutes, like the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, to create the appearance of scientific disagreement on the health effects of smoking. This was wildly successful, and it is a strategy now being used decades later by the fossil fuel industry for similar gain. For example, oil giant ExxonMobil has known about their impact on the climate since the 1970s, yet they enrolled some of the exact same tobacco “scientists” from the ‘50s to help deny it!

My point here is that sources matter. While it may feel good to listen to your uncle, or your nana, or your favourite radio host, they do not have the same credibility as trained scientists that cite the relevant peer-reviewed literature.

As Stuff has recently acknowledged in their decision to refuse airtime to climate change deniers, the media has a responsibility to provide credible material for public dissemination. While questioning the world around us is most certainly encouraged, we must ensure that unwarranted distrust doesn’t fuel a climate of ignorance and inaccuracy.

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