Climate denialism as anti-politics

Today in an email forum for science communication professionals, a member cited an article by Guardian art critic and Turner Prize jurist Jonathan Jones. The piece discusses the London Science Museum‘s current climate change exhibition, and an opinion poll conducted by the museum on the imminent Copenhagen Summit.

The following is based on my contribution to the forum discussion…

Jonathan Jones’ piece raises some interesting questions, and also much conjecture as to why climate sceptics and deniers have so much influence when the scientific evidence is firmly stacked against their contrarian arguments.

For what little it’s worth, I put this down partly to a general arsiness in public opinion which fosters, and in turn is being encouraged by, an anti-political and therefore anti-democratic culture. Perversely, this anti-politics has grown alongside the facilitation of mass debate afforded by the Interwebs. Technology now provides everyone with an opportunity to publish their opinions, and potentially reach a global audience at very little financial cost to themselves. But this is often at the expense of accountability.

Newspaper website comments pages, for example, encourage sloppy, ya-boo thinking, and in turn lazy writing designed to encourage ‘lively’ debate. Being a former writer for the Grauniad’s Comment is Free website, I speak from bitter personal experience and a deep sense of guilt. Journalists can sometimes be their own worst enemy.

There is these days an all-too-common engaging of mouth before brain. Now this is fine when it’s restricted to blogs read by no more than three old men and a dog with anger management issues, but we can surely do without it in public. I’ve cited The Guardian as a typical offender, but there others, including the BBC’s “spEak You’re bRanes” (aka “Have Your Say”). Even the Telegraph and Times are at it now. Let’s not mention the Daily Mail (oops!).

I too can appreciate hearing what Joe Public has to say about the parlous state of the world, but if we’re to have a proper debate, it has to be structured. Jonathan Jones talks of “lousy faked-up events in museums”. Those hardworking and grossly underpaid souls who work in science museums may take personal offence at Jones’ comments, but surely he has a point, even if he unfairly singles out museums for a verbal kicking.

As for the climate change debate specifically, there is in my view a lack of vision and leadership on the part of the science community, which in public is overly fearful of appearing partisan. This reticence to speak and act outside the peer-review process, which leaves the outreach stuff to science communication ‘experts’ who may or may not have a clue what they’re doing, provides ample space for PR-savvy climate denialists to dominate the scene.

There are of course exceptions to this rule, but far too few of them. To my mind we need more Jim Hansens and David Nutts – – i.e., people unafraid to speak out, even at the risk of going over the top and subsequently having to partially retract statements of personal opinion. I would say that the public have more respect for errant but honest individuals with a gob on them, than scientists and spinners whom they perceive to be scheming behind the scenes. I stress the word “perceive”, as this ClimateGate business is so much crap.

Talking of ordure, the other day I received a press release from an American PR firm, announcing that the anti-environmentalist lobby group CFACT is sending to Copenhagen a delegation of 10 “climate policy experts”. This is the kind of thing we’re up against, and our quite frankly pathetic response is to go on the defensive and fret over Phil Jones’ email manner.