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back to article Nobel Prize winner demands more honesty from peers in green debate

Scientists hoping to educate the public about environmental concerns could do themselves and the public a favor by abandoning hyperbolic scare tactics in favor of straightforward talk, according to a prominent scientist. Steve Chu, the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, chastised some …

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Silver badge

But

Intellectual honesty doesn't get grant money, tenure or incite public angst. All of which are necessary to maintain the "scientists" in a manner to which they have become accustomed.

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Black Helicopters

@Eddy Ito

Those crazy "scientists", getting accustomed to living in the manner of working hard for a wage that is far from commensurate with the years of study and depth of expertise they possess. I'm always hearing from scientists of my aquaintance of the difficulties they have in choosing between having a third swimming-pool dug for the backyard of their mansion or purchasing another ferarri.

Lobbyists, marketeers and the others who are paid to muddy the waters around serious scientific issues in order to protect the public from having to understand them and think seriously about choosing their clients' products, why those people are the ones who are really making the hard cash in this game. And part of their job is co-ordinating responses to any online news story with the slightest reference to environmental science to keep those waters good and muddy.

You're singing the lobbyist's song there, Eddy, whether they are paying you for the job or not. Just remember- if they're not paying you then you're doing their job for free and they're laughing at you.

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Alert

Also

Not only is the money better if you proclaim worse things are going to happen - the money is generally zero if you try to research something that isn't part of the accepted doctrine, which tends to reinforce the existing ideas.

This probably goes some way to explaining the rate at which new research is delivered which follows the existing concepts, but with ever worse predictions presented ever more strongly. Which in the normal course of things shouldn't happen - long term effects shouldn't allow regular reporting of dramatically worse outcomes!

I suspect if there wasn't money involved in making the climate change/green computing/renewable energy/etc. arguments they wouldn't be half as popular with most of their proponents...

It probably doesn't help that much of the work being done in the field relies on computer models, which are notoriously inaccurate - it's very rare that reality ever behaves the same as any model will merely reflect the creators ideas rather than actual reality. Luckily many of the models cover timescales which mean no-one will remember they were wrong as & when the opportunity exists.

There there's the misrepresentation of probability as definite evidence that something will happen, when the reality is it *might* happen. Or might not.

And the misrepresentation of evidence, mostly in the media - the old hammer/nail proverb kicks in very quickly in this field; everything is due to 'climate change' rather than other possibilities being looked at e.g. geological. Or those pictures of melting/calving ice you see on the news, which are something that happens anyway. Or that something like bad weather happened in the past. Or that in chaotic systems things might happen at something other than regular intervals.

And then there's the little issue of the arrogance of assuming that anything bad is automatically man-made, or that the current state of the climate is the ideal state that should be maintained forever, or that certain events are unique.

There's also a degree of dishonestly in this request for honesty. Suggesting that you should only listen to one set of arguments (expressed as 'a firmer stance against lobbyists') doesn't lend itself to creating an honest debate.

The example given is the building industry, but if anything this is one of the areas where debate *is* needed - many 'obvious' energy/money saving ideas take a long time to recoup the initial investment assuming they ever do. And many ideas cause problems when introduced - the improvement in draft proofing caused a decrease in ventilation, which in turn needs engineering around, which costs money, energy and again is likely to cause further problems. And then there's the minor problem of most buildings already being in existence, and the wonderful energy saving ideas not exactly being suitable for retrofit in all cases...

Maybe one day a truly honest debate might happen.

But I suspect now the whole issue has become deeply political, and in addition a source of tax revenue I think honest debate is increasingly unlikely.

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Bronze badge

Unfortunately.

The vested interests with money in keeping the status quo are not limited to just stating the science. Not to mention the fact that most people, when presented with an emotional appeal that's a load of bullshit and a dry, scientific analysis of the facts will almost invariably agree with the emotional appeal. Just look at the whole "Creationism" (a.k.a. "Intelligent Design") lies being successfully spread around.

People don't want facts. They want sound bites. And the scientists who cater to that understand more about social psychology than those who are more honest about their findings. Yes, it makes them no better than their despicable opponents, but at least they then have a half a chance at getting SOME message out, rather than getting drowned out by the usual "nothing to see here" crowd.

Until society rewards honesty, I think we'll be stuck with the current level of hyperbole. Unfortunately, I don't see society rewarding honesty very soon. There's too much money to be made in hyperbole, and even more in deceit.

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Boffin

honesty?

It would sure help to get the story's facts straight for a start. The BC pines are dying not from "warming", but rather from a bark beetle infestation. Such infestations have happened in the past, and will happen again in the future; causation by "warming" is far from evident.

Other widespread recent warming claims cover only the time period during which data has been collected by satellites -- a 35-year stretch of data. Of course this ends up being reported as "...(most)est in history."!

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Unhappy

But it won't be heard

If it's not publishable as a scary sound bite, the media will never pick it up -- because it won't attract eyeballs.

This story itself is no exception.

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Flame

Nice Smear.

Scientists hoping to educate the public about environmental concerns could do themselves and the public a favor by abandoning hyperbolic smear tactics in favor of straightforward talk, according to a prominent scientist.

An anonymous poster chastised Steve Chu for calling his peers liars instead of simply publishing honest studies. By calling his opponents liars for stating gloomy but possible outcomes, he's really telling them to shut up. This does little to help the public understand the "green debate".

Rather than trying to shut up opposition, the Chu should be clear about what his data indicates. For example, instead of denying the possibility of extreme change in conditions, he should present his own time frame and let the public decide if he's being paid off by big oil, automobile makers or the tobacco industry.

Really, the man's statement is that insulting. Shame on you Chu!

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Silver badge

Green debate is just procrastination

There are plenty of obvious reasons why we should all learn to ride a bicycle and take up physically constructive skills like fixing, rather than buying, things.

The longer we keep discussing scientific issues and policies, the longer we have to still drive our cars to work, buy cheap unrepairable goods, eat food with high transportation costs, and watch TV.

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Alien

Anon...

"Lobbyists, marketeers and the others who are paid to muddy the waters "

You forgot to mention the "scientists" who are also paid to muddy waters. The only difference between the two groups of scientists is religion. Some side with money while others preach because they know the truth in their hearts and all must be converted. Regardless, both have sold their soul because science is a statistical game and money probably can't give it a heart.

Either way the ones who get quoted, you know when the article starts with "scientists say" followed by hock and awe, are from A, the group with the "don't worry, be happy" spiel, or B, the "apocalypse now in the biblical sense" dogma. Top it all off with your typical, elitist, "I must translate for the hoi polloi" reporter who doesn't understand half of what they write and all that is left is 95% crap. As always the odds are that it's never that good and it isn't that bad. Keep singing for the choir anon, the disaffected masses couldn't care less.

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Pretty bubbles in the air

The problem is that the scientists themselves are not a neutral party - due to the state funded nature of science these days, it is in the interest of environmental scientists to turn up the hysteria. By accepting government money, science becomes just another lobbying group.

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Anonymous Coward

Science is the new catholic church

Most of science is plain bunkum nowadays, especially when it comes to environmental sciences and pharmaceuticals for health care.

Scientists just get paid to tow the corporate line, truth has gone out the window to spin. Sure they will be right a few times, but so is the magic eight ball.

Every time they are wrong, falsify, over state or over emphasis figures they just make a mockery of the term science. They are just priests in lab coats nowadays, quite sad really. Sure, they will stumble across things, but without proper application of truth the results become quite tarnished.

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Bronze badge

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/39473

Says it all really.

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Silver badge

Statistics...

Don't forget that a large proportion of the public is "numerically illiterate" and don't understand percentages, fractions or odds of any form. These are the kind of people who see "0% fat" on something and consider that it's therefore good for them... the fact that it contains "100% sugar" is just beyond their comprehension.

As a result of this and herd/celebrity worship mentality, you can only get your message across if you shout the loudest or shout in a way that the general public at large understand.

Many scientists (and others) make the all too common mistake that the truth will out itself somehow...

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Stop

cRazY

Wow. Maybe it's b/c I'm from the States, but most of this doesn't even make sense to me. I'll just address a few concerns. Firstly, science is based on statistics. A consensus is NOT unanimous, ever. At least not in science. And one cannot simply brush aside the mounting and absolutely undeniable evidence that SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. Whatever that may be is up for some, though admittedly very little, debate. Which brings me to my next point, which is that money is supposed to go proportionately to mainstream ideas. That is, the general consensus of scientists' ideas, with extremely rare exception (namely medecine). This is the very foundation of science and is the reason why it is absolutely ludicrous that all the major media in this/my country, the good ol' US of A, seem to present all the ideas as somehow equal. They put extremists and radicals and people who generally have no idea what they're talking about instead of down-to-earth, hard working people who are doing the actual nitty-gritty research. Anyway, that is simply not how science works, and I believe this is what the man (used in the literal, not figurtive sense) means when asking for honesty. But what do I know, I'm only a freshman physics major at ISU.

I would however, urge all of you to take a look at this most excellent and thought-provoking of posts on the Dot Earth blog over at the NYT (for those who may not know, the New York Times, one of three of the most prestigious publications in my country and the best for politics).

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/20/climate-consensus-busted/

enjoy! ;)

ps - republicans would be the more "conservative," free market types and democrats the more socialist. any questions? email me at jamesb2147@gmail.com

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Paris Hilton

@Sean

"I'm from the States, but most of this doesn't even make sense to me. I'll just address a few concerns. Firstly, science is based on statistics."

Oh, yes. Obvious. The last remark links closely to the first.

Whereas we on the old continent used to believe that statistics are the worst lies (and at times true and helpful), on the other side of the ocean there is no science without statistics. I see. We know.

Literature review, bonkers. Theories? Bonkers. Statistics? Science!

No, sorry, no personal offense intended. Only sick of a rather virulent virus these days, when statistics is perceived as main ingredient to science. To me, I am not from the States, it is but a tool, to be used sparsely, and in the proper dosis.

Paris, because she is learning to use the correct dosis as well ...

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Anonymous Coward

Not surprising really

Let's face it, 86% of the worlds population believe there is an invisible super being who tells them what to do and that they will go to a happy place when they die. They believe that because somebody who may or may not have existed was reported to say so a few hundred/thousand years ago. So, there isn't a lot of hope for genuine scientific fact in any debate is there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups - for religious belief stats - wikipedia, but gives the idea).

Anonymous because, if 86% of the worlds population are delusion fantasists and possibly borderline schizophrenic, the newspapers tell me those sort of people might kill me because I point it out to them (!?).

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Boffin

Small Question

Is the Steven Chu mentioned in the article one of the three Nobel prize

winners in physics for the year 1997 ?

http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1997/

The nomination for the Nobel prize mentions "for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light", so his work would not be especially related with geophysics or meterology. Was Chu's comment a general one on the communication

of science, namely that scientist should avoid helping the media to push scare stories

by transforming probability (possibly very low) into certainty ? Would that apply

as well to mobile phones or Wifi giving cancer, MMR vaccines turning children

autistic, small doses of radioactivity or passive smoke causing cancer, etc... ?

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Bronze badge

Bunkum?

No , science is not bunkum nowadays or at any other time but the way it is often presented by the media and others is bunkum.Chu is correct in asserting that more honesty and less hype should be used in presenting scientific opinions about climate change etc, lets face it the public can only hear so many potential disaster scenarios before they relegate to a mental classification of `boring´and cease to pay attention any more.

In order to gain the attention of the masses it is necessary to present the ongoing information as each new facet of our imminent destruction ( or not ) as something of import and interest, just running around shouting `we're all doomed, doomed I tell you´ is only interesting once or twice, after that it is just repetition and ceases to gain anybody's notice. Maybe someone should produce a TV program that will demonstrate how climate change could change your lifestyle or affect your culinary skills or the death of soap operas as we know them if it can incorporate all of these things, sport, cooking, lifestyle and soap opera into a reality show it will run for years and keep us all informed at the same time.

Can you imagine Eastenders showing the entire population of the Queen Vic having to move to higher ground because London is flooding due to rising sea levels? At the end of the day, although it is important to all of us as to whether or not global climate change is real and that we can actually do something about it, it is day after day quite boring.

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Anonymous Coward

Complex Estimates

The problem, in part, is not necessarily intellectual honesty, but understanding the data. I can remember many briefings at the USEPA where most of the discussion focused on the caveats of a particular pesticide risk assessment, which included detailed statistical analyses. And these were briefings to environmental professionals. Climate models are much more complex than the things I had to deal with. Average Joe citizen would have difficulty with most caveated forecasts because most people rarely think in those terms.

Michael F. Branagan

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Happy

YAY

YAY for a scientist of some stature saying that scientists should endeavor to tell the truth. It would seem obvious but then many seem to have lost sight of this simple notion.

YAY for El Reg for reporting that he did. Headlines predicting the end of the world draw more attention, so it's nice to see an exception.

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Anonymous Coward

@ Ole Juul

WHY do we all need to ride bicycles? Methinks your concerns are with people's lifestyles themselves, rather than any environmental impact of them.

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Unhappy

@Nice Smear

"he should present his own time frame and let the public decide if he's being paid off by big oil, automobile makers or the tobacco industry."

I believe statements like this are part of the problem. Whenever a guy criticizes in ANY way scientists who talk about global warming, he's accused of being paid off by "big oil". No matter who he is, what prizes he got, what university he works for, how famous it is, it does not matter. Whatever he says is then written off as biased.

It's like saying that if anybody criticizes the Bush administration, he must be a terrorist and put in Gitmo. Scientists do not all have the same opinion, and that is the only way science can go forward. We should encourage scientists who challenge the mainstream opinion, not ridicule them!

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Not lifestyle problem?

@AC "Methinks your concerns are with people's lifestyles themselves, rather than any environmental impact of them."

I'm not sure why you said that. My point was that any environmental impact will involve a lifestyle change and that we need to focus on that instead of being nags and backseat drivers for the scientific community. Why bicycles? That was just an example, but perhaps you re not aware that it is practical for most people to ride 10 or more miles to work on a bicycle, and in urban centres they will get there before a car will. That is an unrivaled difference in resourse consumption. The problem is that most of us have chosen, or are forced into, an unsustainable lifestyle. Regardless of any global warming issues, our resource usage is beyound what we (the planet) can afford. If you don't want to ride a bike, it's OK to walk. Older people who can't walk so well usually find bicycles to be easier however. If you live too far from work then that was just bad planning then wasn't it?

Any solution to our real or imagined planetary woes is going to involve a very large change in lifestyle... voluntary, unavoidable, or both. Global warming or not. I fear, however, that unless they can sustain themselves on the backs of others, our grandchildren may be unable to even afford bicycles, let alone flying cars and private space rockets. Their focus might well be on real productivity rather than leisure activity and transportation toys like private cars. Unfortunately most people are content to argue about it and just wait and see. Pass me the remote will ya?

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@MondoMan

According to the naturalists on a CBC Radio show I caught on holiday in Beautiful BC, the current explosion in the beetle infestation is because the population has historically been controlled by winter cold. Get the temp below -35C for a couple of weeks (something Canadian winters have historically amply provided) and most of the little buggers peg out. Recent winters have not been cold enough for long enough.

Sounds to me like 'warming' is a reasonable hypothesis as to the cause of the infestation.

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Black Helicopters

Bollocks ....

Scientists say this, the models say that, lobbyists say what they're paid to say, politicians say whatever, while the media adds more sauce to the dish. I rely on my own memory, upon whatever historical data I can find that has not been tampered with and observation. I've seen the trees fruit earlier each year now, for at least 10 years. They are not loosing their leaves until much later. I've seen creatures who used to hibernate stay with us all year - which could be a real problem if winter starts again with a bang - And don't get me started on the bloody insects, clouds of gnats, mosquitoes and a particularly nasty little b'stard that for the last four years has been after my ass - I seem to be hyper allergic to this little sh*t and needed hospital treatment for it. This may be natural (for anyone who might remember, Pete Lovedays Brown Paper Wrapper, a chilling deposition on what he believes is coming next), it may be artificial, but I do know that it is happening. For those who don't follow the solar news, we are entering another 'active' sunspot cycle which will peak (surprisingly) sometime in 2012 bringing with it possible disruptions to telecommunications and power distribution. All doom and gloom ? Well, Life Insurance companies might have a hard time of it, but to be honest, all I can see is; no matter what the future will hold, we all will be paying for it - with interest. Period.

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Hysteria?

I see a lot of people posting here talking about climate change hysteria. Hysteria? Hysteria is people fighting over the last bottle of water.

The truth? SUV sales are down and hybrid sales are up.

If you call that hysteria, then you're just as guilty of spreading doom scenario's. Facts please.

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@Eddy Ito

That's another common tactic to keep the waters stirred up.

State it is just "a basis of faith" means that the religious (who believe that God would not allow something so bad to happen to His People) can ignore it as "just another wacky faith like the moonies".

Media and common consumption doesn't want to know what the truth is if it takes longer than a headline to say it. Those who would prefer to disbelieve it say things that are technically true but ignore any option that doesn't make it work for them (e.g. "models are wrong" or "we don't understand it all" are *technically* true but the inference that this means we are over-reacting isn't there: we could be missing out something that makes it WORSE).

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My problem with this is...

firstly, he's sort of right. Scientists should always be honest in their opinions, however it can be very difficult to keep objectivity central when the majority of material that you must reference supports one viewpoint. On the other hand, people are incredibly bad with statistics. No doubt if scientists said that there was a 50-90% risk of Greenland melting instead of 90%, more than one paper would have a headline of "40% less chance of Greenland melting", I'd say that Greenland melting was pretty bad, therefore 50% is still completely unacceptable risk. For an example look at the quite recent reports that showed that if you have smoked cannabis once in your life you have a 20% greater risk of mental illness. This 20% increases the total risk to about 0.05% if I remember correctly.

While some scientists maybe motivated by money, my experience of researchers tells me that this is a minority. If you want a good job you write papers and get them published. Because of this, if you have evidence to back it up, you'll get a better reaction with a controversial opinion to make yourself stand out, not if you just backup the mainstream, and yet there is a wealth of evidence to support what the MAJORITY of scientists have been saying about climate change.

In my opinion, it's very easy to bash them as soon as one or two people oppose the mainstream, especially if the mainstream doesn't fit in with your lifestyle. The majority of people I see complaining about climate change being a pack of lies are people who also say "I'm not going to give up my car for lies" or "I don't need different bulbs for lies" or "I'm not going to give up my holidays abroad for lies". If someone does bash the scientists then it seems all these people come out of the closet and use it as justification that they the MAJORITY of scientists are wrong, all corrupt, and strangely, their personal viewpoint is correct. This is exacerbated further by the fact that many people seem to see academics as toffs, or as arrogant, or as conceited. There are a few, but they've all done 5 years work at least, and worked their way up the pay ladder as have you. If anything they are disadvantaged for starting on the lowest pay-grade later in life, and for the most part academics are the complete opposite of the public view.

Writing academic material requires good writing, controversial views or new ideas, and evidence and cross-referencing. Claiming that the vast literature on the subject is wrong and you are right is arrogant, selfish, and bloody stupid - especially when Chu isn't even saying they're wrong, just too sensationalist. In general, there is a very small pool of scientists who do TV and radio interviews, and yes, they should be clearer about their evidence, but the media is as to blame as the scientists. [/rant]

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End global warmingcooling

Hasn't the Earth's temperature remained constant (or even decreased) for the past twenty years? If so, how could global "warming" be causing pines to die?

> The BC pines are dying not from "warming",

> but rather from a bark beetle infestation

That makes a lot more sense. Geez. In an article about global warming FUD, The Register helps to spread global warming FUD! Let's all burn our cars!! DEATH TO TECHNOLOGY!!!

Eliminate global warmingcooling.

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Intellectual honesty!!!!!

Common, we are not into facts. We want hype. Who cares if it's true or biased. Just fill our brains with the Gospel of the Goreacle and the Church of the Global Warming.

We believe you brother Gore, tell us anything and we will follow you anywhere.

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@Chuck Clark

How about a little intellectual honesty from you?

You want to believe that it is all a hoax and ANYTHING that helps you do so is Gospel True. Anything that doesn't help you do so is ravings of a looney.

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@Ole Juul

It seems that you have forgotten that not everyone lives in an urban center. I personally travel about 20 miles to work daily. If I were to use a path safe for bicycles that would increase to about 25 miles. I have a shorter than average commute for the area I work in. You may say this is poor planning, but my response would be that it would be even more uninsightful to sacrifice physical security for the convenience of the workers in the area I work in.

What you are proposing encourages dense urban centers, as well as a disconnect between those centers. While this is great for the flora and fauna that would thrive in the uninhabited wilderness, it is also great for the crime, poverty, and disease that would thrive in the urban areas.

IF anthro-climate change IS actually a serious problem (which IS still up for debate), then solutions that allow us to remain an intact civilization would be preferable to reverting as far back as we could. I prefer modern medicine and the ability to comment on El Reg to saying "ook! ook?" and dying at 19, tyvm.

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Academics and Pines

@Shakje: Thanks for posting that. I can't beleive how we view academics nowadays, atleast in North America. We, and the media, tend to think of going to school as being a waste of time unless it can get you more money. What a bunch of hicks we are over here.

@Anony Mous (and others): I live in the middle of the BC forest and have been watchin the biota for the last 40 years. Just to muddy the waters on the point of the pines, let me point out that there is a symbiotic relationship between the beetles and a certain fungus. It's not so easy to seperate organisms once you start to look closer. Unfortunately mycology is just too abstract for most people and the real world just doesn't translate that well to TV. There is also a beleif in the botanical community that the current problems began many years ago (~100) when we started to control forest fires. Once you meddle with an organism as large and as complex as a forest, there is no knowing how things will turn out. Whatever the factors, there is still no getting around that 80% of the trees where I live are no longer green. It's not a pretty sight and it's obvious that when it comes to forest fires, we are *really* in trouble now! I'm certainly getting an extra pump to protect the house.

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Unhappy

@Anony Mous

As posted above, the pine beetles would be kept in check by a long cold winter, of the kind Canada is famous for but isn't seeing quite so regularly anymore. Admittedly monoculture tree farming plays a significant part, but regardless all that is needed is a good old fashioned cold snap. I live in British Columbia, and it breaks my heart to go traveling. You can drive for hours here without seeing a building. And you never get out of sight of multi square kilometer patches of red pine trees. They turn red after the beetles have done their business and moved on, so you know that there are plenty more about to die since the beetles are still active in what is left of the green trees. Forest fires were getting bad enough before the pine beetle problem became widespread, it will be a serious nightmare now with all the standing dead wood. But with the collapsed economy in the USA, no more building houses, and the long standing protectionist tariffs on our lumber exports, we can't really sell them anymore anyway. So on to coal bed methane then...

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Regular people can't cope with "percentage likelihoods"

Most people are idiots about any sorts of things that involve a rate, or a relation, or a percentage chance, or a payoff calculation.

They hear that "X is proven better than Y" and they've got to have X. Even if the difference was miniscule. And don't even try asking them what the statistical significance of the study was. ("Small sample size" is when they cut up biscuits and put them on a tray for you to try in the supermarket.)

The Onion said something similar in this one: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/29351

I know people don't understand math because they play the lottery.

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