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Last Updated: Friday, 1 December 2006, 17:14 GMT
Sceptics: Cards on the table please!
Richard Black
VIEWPOINT
Richard Black

"Climate sceptics" would do society a favour, argues our environment correspondent Richard Black, if they would open their claims to scrutiny that science is biased against them.

Road block. Image: PA
To slag off those holding an opposite point of view as idiots, frauds, careerists or worse is not taking the world anywhere constructive
Another week, another article written on the science of climate change; another invitation for a barrage of email abuse from the great open prairies of the internet, where ardent catastrophist does battle with equally ardent sceptic and the humble journalist is skewered on the horns of both.

An ex-colleague of mine used to groan in frustration at the playground language which has now, unfortunately, become almost routine in exchanges on climate issues.

His point was that most people involved in the field were trying to do their honest best; to assume otherwise, and to slag off those holding an opposite point of view as idiots, frauds, careerists or worse was not taking the world anywhere constructive.

While sharing his frustrations, I can understand the passions involved.

If you accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus view of climate science, humankind is involved in an unprecedented and highly risky experiment with the only ecosphere it has, and climate sceptics are simply vandals laying a tree trunk across the train tracks which society must traverse to escape its fiery grave.

It is as though the apple tree, rather than the fruits, were rotten

If you dissent from the consensus, you take the view that public opinion and much of politics has embarked on a wild decarbonising goose chase which will break economies, restrict personal movement and distract resources from other important societal challenges.

When this fundamental divide erupts in parliaments, in media, in alehouse arguments, that is fair enough; much of society works, for better or worse, on the basis of airing disagreements and having a good old rant, with your ability to shout loudly outweighing the intrinsic merit of your argument.

It is not, however, the way that science should be.

Strange fruit

Of all the accusations made by the diverse community of climate sceptics, the most damaging by far is that the institutions of science have become biased against research which questions the IPCC consensus, or which builds alternative explanations for the warming we have seen over the last century or so, and the other physical trends which go along with it.

George Bush and Tony Blair. Image: Getty
Politicians can be out of step with one another on climate issues
Here, in the internet prairie, we find comments such as: "Science has become as blatantly biased in the direction of tragedy as television. But, given the way we fund and reward science and scientists, it was inevitable."

We find the IPCC criticised along the lines that it is "...an artfully constructed presentation of just the science that supports the fear of human-induced climate change. It is as one sided as a legal brief, which it resembles."

We find blanket condemnations such as: "We know that one's career and income are closely related to one's position on global warming."

These, aimed at the heart of science, are serious accusations. It is as though the apple tree, rather than the fruits, were rotten.

Inclusive process

Now, if political parties hear only the arguments they want to hear, that is the way of the world.

If two politicians look at the same evidence and come honestly to opposing conclusions, that is also the way of the world; after all, finance ministers have been conducting experiments with economies since governments existed, and still there is no universally agreed blueprint for building an economy which brings happiness to the citizenry.

Equally, it is entirely natural that some media organisations which traditionally plough a slanted furrow should find suitable angles on climate issues.

Scientist. Image: Getty
Journals are meant to publish the best research irrespective of whether it accepts that the sky is blue, or finds it could really be green
That one newspaper, say, should commission articles on climate science from people with a vested interest in business as usual, while another censors columns which are not lurid enough for its catastrophe-driven climate theology, should not surprise anyone.

No, it is the accusations of scientific bias which hit hardest.

Science is supposed to be evidence-based, open, inclusive.

Journals are meant to publish the best research irrespective of whether it accepts that the sky is blue, or finds it could really be green. Scientific conferences should showcase the full panoply of thought in a given field; the societal remit of consensus bodies such as the IPCC is to consider all the evidence, not just the convenient bits.

So the accusations that all is not well at the heart of climate science, and that censorship is rife in organisations which award research grants, the editorial boards of journals and the committees of the IPCC, should be examined seriously.

Open door

As we come up to the release of the fourth IPCC assessment report, the first for half a decade and undoubtedly the major event of next year in climate terms, the issues raised by the loose and diverse community of sceptics will become doubly prominent.

For that reason, we on the BBC News website will be spending some time over the coming months looking at these issues; and the allegations against science come first.

I may be crazy to ask this given my already bulging inbox, but here goes. If you have evidence of research grants turned down because of a clash with the prevailing consensus, of instances where journals or conference organisers or consensus bodies have rejected "inconvenient" findings, please send it to us; my email address is at the bottom of this article.

Sun over traffic queue. Image: AFP/Getty
An alternative climate theory cites changes in the Sun's ouput
(But please use send us your comments for general thoughts on this article, as usual.)

For our part - the Science and Nature team on this website - we undertake to deal with what you send in seriously.

For your part, I ask for two things. Firstly, focus on science, and leave to one side, for all the reasons given above, issues concerning possible bias in politics, the media or the wider spheres of society.

Secondly, be selective. "Evidence" does not mean links to blogs, websites, other news articles, or vague rambling condemnations of science and scientists; it means some sort of documentary proof. Fewer and better leads will make our initial sifting much more effective.

I don't expect this exercise to change the tone of wider climate discourse one iota. Sceptics and catastrophists will still make their arguments, I'm sure, with the full armouries of vim and vitriol at their disposal; emails of abuse will still reverberate around the blogosphere.

But if research is being skewed and distorted, we ought to know, because good climate science is the key to good climate policy.

If it is not, then the most damaging accusation raised by the sceptical community will have been laid to rest.

Richard.Black-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website




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