Credibility in a Bewildered World

My apologies that I’ve been so quiet the past few weeks. I’ve been hard at work at a presentation I’ll be making at PowerShift Canada, a youth climate change conference in Ottawa from October 23-26. A big thank you to Steve Easterbrook, a regular reader here, who has contacts at PowerShift and basically got me this gig.

I’ve decided to post my script here (there will be a PowerPoint presentation in the background too), and ask for any and all suggestions to make it as good as possible. The workshop is an hour and a quarter, and I’m trying to involve the audience as much as possible. I’ll have citations for all the stats on the slides.

Welcome everyone, I hope you’re having a good time at the conference. You’re here with me because what you read in the newspaper and what your friends tell you about climate change might not be what’s really going on in the scientific literature. Feel free to ask questions anytime, but we will have a more open discussion session at the end.

My name is Kate, and I run the website, which deals with climate change in the context of sociology, credibility, and logic. I’ll finally be able to leave high school at the end of this year, and then I hope to go and study climatology. Until then, I’m channeling all my scientific energy into studying other aspects of climate change. For example….

“Humans are not affecting the climate.” What percentage of American adults would you expect to agree with this statement? (take some guesses from the audience) The answer is 39%. It’s still less than half, but it’s quite a significant minority, especially given how publishing climatologists would answer this question. How many of them would you expect to say yes? (take some more guesses) The real answer is 3%. And if you start writing down names of these scientists, you’ll find that it’s the same people over and over.

Now, the idea that “scientists argue a lot about whether or not humans are causing global warming”. I want these rows (roughly 42% of the audience – I’ll do some quick math beforehand) to stand up. This represents the portion of American adults who agree with that statement. Now everyone sit down. This represents the portion of peer-reviewed scientific articles that argue with the idea that humans are causing climate change. It’s virtually zero. It’s not exactly zero, the odd one does get through, but in this study of over a thousand papers, they didn’t find a single one. It’s so statistically insignificant that we can be pretty sure that no, this debate does not exist in the academic literature.

Do these numbers surprise you? Why? (take some feedback from the audience) I’d like to take this opportunity to show you a video I made in the summer, about the level of scientific agreement on this issue. It has some of the stats I already quoted, but also some new ones. (don’t worry – this video, as well as five others, will be on YouTube soon enough and I’ll embed them here!)

So, as we can see, there is quite a discrepancy between what scientists know about climate change and what the public knows. The scientists are about as sure as scientists can get. But the public isn’t sure, and they’re not even sure if the scientists are sure. So obviously there’s some major miscommunication going on here, somewhere.

There are a lot of factors which led to this, but I believe that one of the main ones is that people are not assessing the credibility of the arguments they hear. Now, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to assess everything they heard on coherence alone – how accurate it is, whether it’s right or wrong. But most of us aren’t scientists, and even scientists can’t specialize in every area. So if we tried to do all the math ourselves, we’d probably make some big mistakes, which could even lead us to a totally wrong conclusion. It’s usually more accurate for us to base our knowledge on what the most credible sources say.

(at this point I’ll ask for five volunteers, and give them signs: 1) some guy named Joe, 2) Al Gore, 3) Dr Andrew Weaver, 4) Science magazine, 5) NASA. I’ll ask them to put themselves in order of least credible to most credible, with help from the audience if they need it. We’ll have a little discussion about why they chose the spots they did.)

This is the way I structure my credibility spectrum. At the very bottom is the individual – some guy named Joe, or you, or me. People who don’t have any scientific training.

Above that I have the professional, such as Al Gore. These are people that do have scientific training, but didn’t use it to become a scientist – they decided to be a high school teacher, or a politician, or a journalist instead. Depending on how long ago they got their training, and how specialized it was, they may or may not be a reliable source.

Above that I have the publishing scientist, such as Dr Andrew Weaver, who has scientific training in the specific area we’re considering – in this case, climate change. They used it to become a scientist, and they’re publishing their work.

Then I have peer-reviewed articles, in places like Science magazine. These studies are almost always written by publishing scientists, and then they’re examined by a whole bunch of other publishing scientists before publication. That way, almost all mistakes are fixed, and any studies that are totally bogus are just thrown out.

At the very top are scientific organizations, such as NASA. These organizations base all of their statements off of multiple peer-reviewed articles, which have stood up to criticism after their publication. Places like NASA also have huge reputations, so they don’t want to say anything that’ll make them look stupid afterwards.

This is why I wouldn’t let my biology teacher do neurosurgery on me. Yes, I’m sure that he knows a lot about the brain, but until he’s been certified by a higher authority, until he goes through med school and residency, I’m not going to let him cut open my head.

But this is also why I don’t pay attention to people on YouTube who say that climate change is natural, or nonexistent, or a global conspiracy. For example, this guy says, “Climate change is natural. Think of the ice age…That happened NATURALLY. The earth goes through phases of warming and cooling. If any hippies want to solve the over population problem then they’re more than welcome to throw themselves off a bridge.” Now, this guy has a basic logical fallacy in his argument – that something happened naturally before, so therefore it must be natural this time. There hasn’t even been a chance for it to happen unnaturally until now! That’s akin to saying that forest fires can be caused by lightning, so therefore they can’t be caused by arson. Also, he seems to think that there was only ever one ice age, which just goes to show that he’s not very well-phrased in the topics he’s talking about. So why should we trust him?

This guy is even more articulate. He says, “global warming and cap and trade is a scam the earth has been cooling for the last 9 years record ice levels in Antarctica and the arctic is at the 1979-2000 mean there is no tipping point we will continue to cool until the sun comes out of this very deep minimum carbon dioxide is very good for the planet, plants love carbon dioxide they breathe it in and exhale oxygen how can a trace gas 0.038% cause warming….think about it” What? This guy can’t even form a coherent sentence, why should we even bother looking up any of his scientific statements?

If you really believe that you have the magic bullet which will knock down the opinions of the entire scientific community, then write it up, submit it to a journal, and get it published. Then people will listen. That’s normal scientific practice. That’s how theories are created and abandoned. So why are you wasting your time on YouTube, if you really believe what you’re saying?

Now, we unconsciously assess credibility when the topic at hand is obviously scientific. If your friend says that plants absorb carbon monoxide, but the Environment Canada website says they absorb carbon dioxide, it’s not too hard to decide which one to trust. You won’t even stop to wonder if maybe Environment Canada is run by socialists. You’ll just say to your friend, “You’re wrong. It says right here.”

But the credibility spectrum falls apart if the matter at hand is one of personal opinion. I mean, who cares what scientists think about the relative merits of Ignatieff and Harper, or whether Britney Spears is a good singer? You can debate each other and try to change each other’s mind, but there is no correct answer, so nobody’s credentials really matter. And the really sad thing is that climate change is starting to get lumped into this category of “personal opinion”.

Climate change isn’t a personal opinion. It’s purely based on physics and math. Would you go into physics class and decide that you just weren’t going to accept Newton’s laws of motion, no matter what your teacher told you? Would you go to chemistry class and say that solubility was a personal opinion and everyone had a right to believe whatever they wanted about it?

I correspond a lot with people who run websites similar to mine, and there’s a sentiment that comes up now and again. It says, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Now, when you read the newspaper, where would you expect to find articles which have to do with personal opinion? (ask the audience, I’m looking for the answer “editorials”) And where would you expect science stories to be? (science section, world news) But in the newspapers I read, almost all the articles about climate change are in the editorials, implying that they’re personal opinions. If somebody writes about the state of the Arctic sea ice, it goes into the editorials. If somebody writes about projections for future climate change, it goes into the editorials. And framing these stories as personal opinions seem to imply that they’re inherently biased, that there’s another equally valid side to the story, so you shouldn’t take them too seriously.

The other place that climate change stories often end up is in the Environment section, if your newspaper is lucky enough to have such a section. This is only really appropriate if you’re talking about how climate change will affect species and ecosystems. But most of the time, that’s not what we’re talking about! We’re talking about sea level rise and agricultural security and vector-borne diseases and resource wars. Printing these stories in the Environment section lumps them in as “just another environmental problem” like pesticide use or panda bears, which most people aren’t too bothered about. But climate change isn’t just about saving the polar bears. It’s about saving the people. It’s far, far more than an environmental issue.

The media also likes to frame climate change as a controversy. This makes sense when you realize that journalism is a business like any other. Their ultimate goal is not to provide perfectly accurate and objective information absolutely all the time. Their ultimate goal is making money and keeping the business alive!

And a controversy really sells. For example, would you rather pick up a newspaper with the headline “Another Study Confirms What Everyone Already Knew”, or “Scientists Locked in Epic Battle over Question of Global Warming”? We are naturally drawn to controversy. It’s so much more interesting to readers.

But as soon as you frame an issue as a controversy, you’re implying that the two sides are fairly equal, so you have to present them equally – otherwise you’ll be accused of bias. Now, I want everyone expect these people (roughly 3% of audience) to go to this side of the room. These people go to the other side. These are the two sides of the climate change debate that a majority of newspaper articles are giving equal time to. It’s all very well to want to be fair and balanced, but when you’re giving this side as much air time as this side, how fair is that? Being objective does not always mean being neutral.

There’s also something more worrying going on. One of the sides of this “debate” was, to some extent, deliberately constructed. You didn’t see people yelling and screaming about global warming being fake until the late 1980s, when governments first started to sit up and take notice. All the developing countries drafted bills to reduce emissions. Brian Mulroney, Margaret Thatcher, and George Bush Sr were all in on it. We were all set to go.

But the fossil fuel companies weren’t too happy about this. So they decided that, even if they couldn’t refute the science, they could at least confuse the public about the issue so legislation would be delayed. One of the earliest examples of this came in 1991, when three fossil fuel companies formed the Information Council on the Environment. Their objective, in their own words, was “to reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)” and “to supply alternative facts that suggest global warming will be good”. So they went ahead to achieve that, with a $500 000 advertising campaign with slogans such as, “Some say the Earth was warming. Some said the Earth was flat”; “Who told you the Earth was warming…Chicken Little?”; and “How much are you willing to pay to solve a problem that may not exist?”

Some fossil fuel companies launched their own advertising campaigns, but many others, wary that the public wouldn’t trust them, decided to fund conservative think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Science & Environmental Policy Project. Since 1998, ExxonMobil alone has spent $20 million funding these think tanks.

Organizations such as these not only make statements like “there’s error in the temperature measurements, therefore we have no idea whether or not the Earth is warming”, among absolutely everything else they can possibly think of to spread doubt on global warming……they have also said that secondhand smoke does not cause cancer and that we shouldn’t ban the chemicals which cause ozone depletion. Do you see a pattern?

I don’t mind that they’re political advocacy groups. They can have any ideology they want, because ideology is a personal opinion. But when they’re willing to deny or twist science to suit their convenience, and the convenience of their stakeholders, my patience ends.

But these organizations also know that they are not seen as too credible or impartial in the eyes of the public. So they employ scientists to work for them. For example, in 2006, the American Enterprise Institute offered $10 000 to anyone who wrote a document challenging the findings of the IPCC.

In fact, among books which are skeptical of climate change or environmental issues, 92% of the authors are affiliated with these conservative think tanks.

These are not the only examples of how the widespread public doubt about climate change has been deliberately constructed. If you’re interested in more, you should read the book Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan. It doesn’t deal with science, but rather with PR and political tactics, so you don’t need a PhD to assess it.

These stories make credibility even more important, because there are people out there who are trying to deceive you. They’re almost all professionals, but they employ just enough publishing scientists to make themselves look credible, and they influence just enough of the general public to make their statements look grassroots. And it’s worked. We’ve lost 20 years in the fight against climate change. And that’s far too long.

That’s why you should always, always Google the names of anyone who says that climate change is fake, because they have such a lousy track record. You’re more than welcome to also Google the names of people who say climate change is real, but I have yet to find anything incriminating about them.

The climate change “debate” is nearly always posed as being between two sides, whether or not they’re framed as equal. However, is it even structured as sides? Or is it structured as a spectrum?

This is a graphic which was created by another climate change blogger, Michael Tobis, who would fit into the category of “publishing scientist” – he’s an engineer who builds climate models.

“Most informed opinion” means “what’s actually going on in the science”. And it all says that, if we do nothing about climate change, there will be anywhere from a slight cost to a catastrophe.

Over here is the IPCC, which is the compilation document often used as a basis for policy. As we can see, a majority of the informed opinion thinks that things will turn out worse than the IPCC says. This is largely because an IPCC report takes so long to create that, by the time it’s out, it’s already out of date.

Then we have about three scientists over here. And, over here, we have the Heartland Institute and all of those other conservative think tanks, whose motives are pretty questionable.

Here’s the interesting part – the debate in the US Press (which we can probably extrapolate to the Canadian press) focuses on the think tanks as one extreme, and the IPCC as the other extreme. Anything more dramatic than the IPCC is considered unreasonable. So a full two-thirds of scientific opinion is not reported, whereas political advocacy groups – which are funded by fossil fuel companies and have a history of denying science – are reported.

Luckily, over the years, people have learned that the media isn’t always accurate, and can’t always be trusted. But in this case, people often take their skepticism of the media in the wrong direction. What percentage of American adults think that the media exaggerates the problem of global warming? (audience guesses) 41%. So 41% of the public thinks that the media should move more in this direction, at which point they wouldn’t be reporting science at all.

All this talk about a controversy, and all this framing of science as a personal opinion, has led to the public totally forgetting about credibility. So people start taking arguments at face value and assessing them based on coherence – the very thing we warned about at the beginning.

Do you know what percentage of Americans think that they generally understand the issue of climate change? (audience guesses) 80%.

If I was asked that question, I would say that no, I don’t understand the issue of climate change. I haven’t studied statistics, so I can’t analyze temperature trends. I haven’t done any courses in thermodynamics, so I can’t prove to you that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I’ve only done a few months of calculus, so I can’t assess the reliability of computer models. What I do know is who to trust, and where to look for answers.

That’s why it really worries me that 80% of the public sees themselves as credible sources on this issue. I really doubt that 80% of Americans are scientists specializing in climate change! But the public paradigm has been shifted, to the point where people are encouraged to believe whatever they want.

So how do we change this? I think it’s really quite simple. We need to educate the public on everything I’ve just told you. They don’t need to know anything about climate science. They just need to know what to look out for, and who to trust. And once the public realizes that the media is incredibly inaccurate in their framing of climate change, they will demand better journalism.

If we want to avoid the worst of climate change – if we want to keep our coastal cities, if we want to avoid resource wars, if we want agriculture to remain viable in the subtropics – we need major action right away. Not just you and me riding our bikes and recycling. That’s not enough. We need major international action. But because we live in a democracy, this will only happen when the public realizes that climate change is a threat, that it is not controversial, and that the math and physics involved are not matters of personal opinion. And people will only realize this if we show them how.

Update (14/10/09): Wow, thank you so much for all your helpful suggestions! I addressed most of the issues you raised, including the second YouTube comment. Some issues make more sense with the slide, eg “Humans are not affecting the climate” sounds like a declarative statement until you see that it’s in a speech bubble coming out of the mouth of an angry stick person. The exact phrasing of the speech will probably change too, as I’m hoping to turn this script into point form notes as I get more familiar with it. Thanks again, keep them coming!


56 thoughts on “Credibility in a Bewildered World

  1. Good presentation Kate, please post the slides when you get a chance.

    Do you think Tobis’ graphic belongs? I know why you want to use it, but it comes off as a bit unprofessional in this presentation where you have lots of hard statistics.

    The graph is basically showing that 65-75% of professionals are to the right of the IPCC. But this is just the view of one professional on the views of other professionals. Can this graph be backed up or further reinforced somehow?

    [To my knowledge, no hard data exists in this “spectrum” approach, except for the Anaans study which never passed peer review. I think it’s a great graphic representation by someone who’s knowledgeable about their colleagues, and I’m trying to keep the presentation relatively lighthearted (eg I include a lot of cartoons and stick people yelling). It fits with the slides that I have. -Kate]

  2. [applause slowly fades]

    Excellent! Good storyline, and good contents.

    I especially liked this one:
    “This is why I wouldn’t let my biology teacher do neurosurgery on me. Yes, I’m sure that he knows a lot about the brain, but until he’s been certified by a higher authority, until he goes through med school and residency, I’m not going to let him cut open my head.”

    You could extend this by introducing the concept of risk. It’s not about first providing proof before tackling the problem; it’s about rational risk assessment in the face of uncertainty (which is partly unavoidable anyway). People are used to think about health issues in terms of risk (in the absence of absolute proof), which is why I think it’s a good analogy.

    When you talk about the youtube guy who trumps the short term cooling trends, I think you should address the issues that you bring up through his words. The fact that his sentence is not coherent may not persuade everybody of the wrongness of his arguments. Also remember that falsehoods live on in the mind even by bringing them up and rebutting them. The shortness of time periods that this guy uses for his conclusions are basically a confusion of weather and climate. That’s a very common mistake, but also one that is easily shown to be wrong; there’re plenty of useful analogies on the web.

    When you bring up conspiracy theories, it may be worth pointing out how incredibly silly they are. Like, how could you get thousands of scientists to support a theory they presumably know to be wrong, just because they all want to take your SUV away? Or, as if the government needs another alibi to raise taxes, so they invent a fake problem (about which they consequently have to persuade all the scientists to buy into).

    Most criticisms of the consensus view of climate science suffer from a lack of context: they miss the forest for the trees. Or, as I like to say it, they claim gravity is falsified by pointing to a bird flying in the sky. It just doesn’t fly. A good example may be some of the reactions to the recent Yamal story (“global warming is based on a massive lie”, see eg the RC link in the hey ya mal post). This is the most defining characteristic of ‘criticisms’ of climate science if you ask me, and as such is worth pointing out.

    I assembled some more ways on how to decide who to trust here:

    Finally, a useful resource is Oreskes “How do we know we’re not wrong”, both as a book chapter ( and video-slides ( If anything, this could provide some useful information to address the inevitable question/comment along the lines “But science doesn’t work by consensus. The 3% may be right. See the example of Galileo.”

  3. Oh, lets’ already put in one possible reply to the inevitable question/comment I brought up about Galileo: ” they laughed at Galileo, but they also laughed at Bozo the clown”. Not sure who it’s from; last read it again at James Annan’s blog)

  4. Kate, one of the interesting things about this talk (and this blog) is the meta-ness of the topic. “Credibility in a bewildered world” – it’s the perennial question of epistemology, what to believe, and it takes on many interesting forms today, with the complexity of the issues which people are supposed to decide about, and all the new scientific concepts like “cognitive bias” and “decision theory”. You may indeed become a climatologist. But another possibility is that you’ll become an epistemologist!

    [How much math is there in epistemology? I need to do something with math or my head will implode. Perhaps I could minor in it. -Kate]

  5. Excellent post. I hope the presentation goes well.

    There are a few journalists in the UK who could really do with listening to something like this.

  6. Great stuff Kate.

    I really loved the Lightning/Arson image and the brain surgery one.

    Now how do we get the 39% to read this. Or the 80% who think they already understand

  7. Excellent work, Kate. I think this will be a great presentation.

    I had to do a ppt presentation as part of a job application. I talked to my brother, who gives talks about multimedia in Canada and the states, and he told me….

    1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
    2. Tell them.
    3. Tell them what you just told them.

    In other words, quick introduction, the talk, then a summary. For the introduction I’m not referring to the general thesis slide that has Intro, Methods etc, but instead a few bullet points on what you will cover in this talk, what the take-away message will be.

    Anyway, good luck with the talk. It’ll be good as it sounds like you’re putting a lot of time into it. Let us know how the presentation goes and how the audience reacted.

    (btw, I did get the job)

  8. How many people will be in the audience? If it’s too many, audience interaction may be difficult. I don’t know, you can probably manage.

    “but in this study of over a thousand papers”
    What study? Will there be an accompanying slide?

    “So if we tried to do all the math ourselves, we’d probably make some big mistakes, which could even lead us to a totally wrong conclusion.”
    Not to mention that we simply don’t have that kind of time.

    “Above that I have the professional, such as Al Gore.”
    If you change “I have” to “we have”, this could come across as a more moving statement. It’s not just your opinion, it’s OUR opinion.

    “Places like NASA also have huge reputations, so they don’t want to say anything that’ll make them look stupid afterwards.”
    You could elaborate more on this. I like the way Greg Craven put it: something like, “NANA must be really sure that they’re correct to be willing to stake their reputation on it.”

    “That’s akin to saying that forest fires can be caused by lightning, so therefore they can’t be caused by arson.”
    I really like this sentence. This is a great illustrative technique that incorporates both logical fallacies and doesn’t require actually explaining what they are.

    “This guy can’t even form a coherent sentence, why should we even bother looking up any of his scientific statements?”
    Ad hominem. Most people probably won’t care, but I still don’t like it.

    I agree with Bart that a few rebuttals to major points could be useful. It doesn’t really fit in with the theme of your presentation, but it could still be useful.

    Very good presentation overall.

  9. You are ruining my paradigm that we are doomed. Stop this high-functioning and persuasive madness, for the sake of my fatalistic attitude. ;o)



  10. Bart,

    Carl Sagan made the Galileo/Bozo the Clown analogy.

    One of my concerns with the Oreskes slides is that she links Katrina and hurricanes to global warming but that link is tenuous at the moment. See:

    Vecchi, G.A., Swanson, K.L., & Soden, B.J. (2008). Whither hurricane activity?. Science, 322, 687-689.

    for a nice summary of Atlantic hurricanes and SST.

    PDF at:

  11. That’s a great presentation! I wish I could be there to see it, but unfortunately I’m in Florida at another meeting. Still, I did discover that there’s a PowerShift Orlando meeting that weekend too, so I might still get to do some PowerShifting after all.

    One comment for you: the audience at PowerShift is likely to be largely already committed to action on climate change. Your theme will be very well received, but at the end you might want to add some more concrete suggestions about what next. What action can the people in this audience take to help overcome the problems you describe? I remember being terribly disappointed with Al Gore’s movie because after a powerful message throughout the movie, the followup resources were all on the level of “change your lightbulbs”. I think you could tack onto the end a little bit about your personal story (how you got blogging in the first place, and any sense you have of how your blog is helping). And invite the audience to brainstorm other ways of overcoming the communication gap.

    [Oh, and on the topic of what you should study at University, I have lots of suggestions for you. Most of them include math ;-) ]

  12. Kate: well done. I hope your audience is receptive.

    I think the quote “They laughed at Galileo. But they also laughed at Bozo the clown.” comes from Carl Sagan (I’m not sure).

    Here are some thoughts — just some suggestions.

    When you say (very early in the presentation):

    “Humans are not affecting the climate.” What percentage of American adults would you expect to agree with this statement?

    Until you get to the 2nd sentence, it sounds like you’re making a declaration rather than quoting a survey question (and of course people can’t see the quote marks when you’re speaking). I would suggest:

    What percentage of American adults would you expect to agree with this statement: “Humans are not affecting the climate.”

    You say:

    Now, the idea that “scientists argue a lot about whether or not humans are causing global warming”.

    Maybe it’s because my mother was an English teacher, but it struck me that this is not a sentence. Try

    Now consider the idea that “scientists argue a lot about whether or not humans are causing global warming”

    Later you say (referring to the journal Science):

    Then I have peer-reviewed articles, in places like Science magazine. These studies are almost always written by publishing scientists …

    Isn’t that a tautology? If I publish an article in Science, then of course I’m a publishing scientist.

    You say:

    … not very well-phrased in the topics he’s talking about …

    I think that should be:

    … not very well-versed in the topics he’s talking about …

  13. You are confusing credibility and expertise. Most people would trust Joe over a politician.

    [Not all politicians – just the ones who studied science. Note the part that says, “These people have scientific training, but they chose not to become scientists.” -Kate]

  14. Kate,

    Some years ago my sister gave me the job of doing a reading at her marriage ceremony. My father, a college professor, gave me some advice. He told me that eye contact was important. So at one point I look up at the crowd, and on looking down I found that I didn’t have the first clue as to where I had stopped speaking. I spent ten seconds trying to find my place. They seemed like the longest ten seconds in my life. This was a bit of a surprise. That is I was surprised by my own reaction. The fix, in my experience, has been to do more of the same. The adrenaline is a help in making a public talk. A rehersal in front of one of your classes, could help, if that is feasible. Oh, and if you are reading from a text, keep a finger on your place.

    The presentation looks very good. I second Michael, in that I think making reference to authors & published sources, verbally and by means of slides, can only add to your credibility. I would go ahead and use Mr Tobin’s graph with a comment acknowledging that it is one man’s opinion, and one woman’s. The additional point that using the example of our skeptical friend who can’t be bothered to “form a coherent sentance” is ad hominen attack, is one that I agree with. To make the implication that skeptics as a whole are not only wrong but also dim witted is a mistake. I recently had a youtube chat with a fellow who responded to my statement that NASA satelite data did not support the idea that the sun was responsible for all, or even most of warming in the last thirty years, by saying that NASA had faked the moon landing and so was not to be trusted. The fact that I was not surprised (I have been waiting to run into this arguement) isn’t evidence that this sort of thing is as common in the world at large as it is on the internet. ‘Tis to be hoped.

    Best wishes,


  15. Dano,

    Kate does make it hard to bemoan the apathy of kids these days :-p


    You should really nurture your passion for writing and explaining science to a general audience as you go through the oft dry and insular world of academia. The world has a plethora of great scientists, but perilously few great science communicators.

  16. Very impressive. I won’t restate what other have said, but I think you make some very strong points that aren’t brought up as much as they should be in the climate change movement.

    Good luck with your talk. I’d definitely be there if I didn’t live on the opposite side of the continent.

    PS: Could you do a presentation on getting people with cool contacts to read your blog? :)

  17. You might also be interested in the site, which visually maps out the connections between Exxon, various organizations, and their spokespeople. It’s by Greenpeace, so it may or may not be accurate, but it’s in line with what you’re saying.

  18. Kate asked “How much math is there in epistemology?”

    There’s none in classical epistemology, which is more about asking “what is this thing we call ‘knowledge’?” and “do I know anything at all?”

    But statistics and probability theory are a sort of quantitative epistemology, especially the parts about hypothesis testing. Try reading Judea Pearl’s book on causality, and you’ll find plenty of mathematics.

  19. Doesn’t matter what training they have. The politician part will rule people’s evaluations of their credibility. So they will trust Joe over Al Gore, and any other scientist who becomes a politician. What is Al Gore’s scientific training again?

    [He took some courses with Roger Revelle in his undergrad. Even though he went on to get his degree in political science, a few very specialized courses in this area is far more training than most graduates of a general BSc degree would receive. -Kate]

  20. Kate…

    I think this is a terrific analysis, and the comments so far are right on the money. I love how you’re framing the issue for your audience.

    I would make a few suggestions. If you print off a hard copy, it should be double or triple spaced to make it easier to read, and you should use a 16 or 18 point font. That’s how we did things in J-school…

    But I’m not sure how it would work with so many pages… on television or radio, you’re just reading intros, and not longish speeches. So see what works best for you.

    I don’t like always pointing to One Blue Marble, but I think one incredibly important issue in Canada is that Environment Canada has been muzzled by Harper’s government. I wrote about it here, and tried to do something about it here.

    Andrew Weaver sent me a note saying that he couldn’t agree more with my assessment… one of the reasons the media is failing Canada is that our best minds are being excluded from the debate. It’s a cynical, calculated ploy that is working very well.

  21. To prevent the very common problem that Bluetwinky mentioned (“I spent ten seconds trying to find my place.” -after looking back at the written out speech-), I would highly recommend to use point form notes (as you are indeed planning to do based on your update).

    Besides the fact that it prevents (or at least diminshes) the problem of looking through your text where you left off, it also makes that you to talk more – and more spontaeously- to your audience (rather than reading from your paper).

    [Unless you’re part of the 1% of people who stutters, as I am – reading off a script is significantly easier than any kind of spontaneous public speaking. -Kate]

  22. One further point, in light of the polarizing rhetoric regarding Al Gore, it occured to me that it might be better not even to mention his name. I am of the opinion that all the many personal attacks on Mr. Gore are largely baseless. However any possible down side to putting him up on the credibility board could be answered many fold by mentioning the behaviour of his opponents. Men like James Inhofe answer the need in an overwhelming manner.

    Amongst the scientists who have suported and indeed discovered the science, that is the basis of our concerns, you could mention the many eminent men of science. People such as Jean-Baptiste Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callendar, Gilbert Plass, Charles Keeling, & Jule G. Charney. The history of the theory is a who’s who of modern science. Whereas the opposition are not so favored. It is not a conclusive reason from primary evidence but rehtorically it is very effective. The more you can pile on the better, to my way of looking at things. Anything that helps refute the idea that this issue was something cooked up by a small number of people in recent times will be a help.

    It might be helpfull to put off questions to the end of the presentation. You never know who you are going to run into. That is, if some one is going to be willfully disruptive, interacting with them after you get your message across would be better. At the end of the day this is very much dependent on the size of the crowd, and who is in it. The main thing is to clearly communicate your point. I had a boss once who had a rehtorical trick he liked to use. He would bark at people, “What’s your point?” If that taught me anything, it is that it is more than usefull to have a pithy take-away to give people. Such as: you’re being lied to, and I am going to prove it to you. Or the truth is important and I am going to tell you how to get at it.


  23. Glad you promoted me into the “publishing” category, Kate! I admit I am a marginal case!

    At first glance, (I haven’t read it yet, just scanned it and noticed my name) this article looks to be a real tour de force. I am concerned it is too long for most readers, and might have been best divided into sections.

    When I was invited to be a Grist contributor, I offered to write a 2000 word piece every month. David (the editor) said he’d much prefer 500 words every week! (Yes you cannot say as much in four 500 word pieces as in one 2000 word piece, but your readership will be much larger!)

  24. Well, I read it, and I take back my concerns. My first scan didn’t reveal it was the text of a talk. If your slides are done right it should and you manage the audience participation effectively it will be a very effective talk.

    My main concern now is that I’m not sure the various public-opinion percentages will stick in people’s minds. There’s perhaps a bit too many of them. I suggest you limit that trick to the most important examples.

  25. Kate, for some reason your post, in conjunction with your comment policy, put me in mind of the famous quote by Sir Arthur Eddington re fishing. Here is is:

    “Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment.

    Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:

    (1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
    (2) All sea-creatures have gills.

    These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it. In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it.

    The casting of the net corresponds to observation; for knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science. An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The icthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of icthyological knowledge. In short, “what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.”

    Or-to translate the analogy-“If you are not simply guessing, you are claiming a knowledge of the physical universe discovered in some other way than by the methods of physical science, and admittedly unverifiable by such methods. You are a metaphysician. Bah!” ”

    Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882 – 1944): Source: The Philosophy of Physical Science, The University of Michigan Press, 1958.

    [Peer review certainly isn’t perfect, as we all know, but it’s a heck of a lot better than a blind man trying to sort out fish species by snorkeling. -Kate]

  26. I’ll join the chorus that you’ve set out a good script. Good enough that if I didn’t know you were in HS, and you had said you were a few years out of college, I’d have bought the claim.

    My 2 cents towards an even better talk: A few places, you’ve marked spots for audience responses. The responses you’ve marked are indeed likely, or even almost certain. Still, that’s almost certain. If you still have time, think about what you will do if (when) somebody in the audience yells out ‘You Liar’, or otherwise doesn’t act as you expect. This is pretty high order consideration, but if you have a chance, it’s worthwhile.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t worry a bit about a stutter or stammer. I have a bit of a stammer (think Bob Newhart in character). If not a stammer outright, then I speak much slower as I feel stress than I ordinarily do, or than most people do. I am, nevertheless, or because of it, one of the better public speakers in my corner of the universe. Slowing down turns out to be a plus for non-native speakers of English, or for people who are otherwise going to have more difficulty following my arguments. The stammer, well, it’s not an act. Either people don’t notice it (because it’s natural) or it makes me sound a bit more human (vs. rifling off the polysyllabics at high speed). Or something else. However it is that it works out, the fact that I’m not a perfectly fluid speaker seems to work out to an advantage. So don’t worry about it yourself. Strive to be understandable, of course. But, past that, be yourself.

    In vein of the comment about losing your place in a scripted presentation … a) once you’re more practiced, bullet points are a better idea than detailed scripts b) a story from an actor. (I spent a little bit of time, eons ago, in community theater.) Story goes this way. An actor was playing Hamlet. He had reached the ‘to be or not to be’ speech. Unfortunately, as it came his turn to speak, he completely lost where they were in the play. So he didn’t know what his next lines were. Rather than guess randomly, or look around desperately for someone to throw him a line, he adopted an intense expression (usually a safe thing for Hamlet to do) and tried to run through everything that he could remember happening up to that point, and all the details that would accord with who was on the stage and how they were dispersed. After this rather lengthy pause, he hit on the right answer and declaimed “To be, or not to be …”. It was the performance that got his best reviews — even though he really didn’t know where he was in the play.

    Long way of saying, be yourself. You’re young enough still to be figuring out what that is. But be yourself. Stammer, get lost, etc., that happens. Real people realize this. Be yourself, if an oops happens, it happens; proceed as yourself.

    Digressing over to math-heavy majors: If you’re interested in more ideas, drop me an email. One of my favorites, not least because it is what I graduated with my BS in, is Applied Mathematics. Lots of room to choose what it is that you’d like to apply your math to. Plus, a requirement that you spend some time getting good at doing your math (oh no Farmer Jones, don’t throw me in to the briar patch!).

    [I think a lot of the reason I stutter is because my brain works too quickly. As I’m speaking, I’m already planning out what I’m going to say about three sentences ahead. And then my brain gets confused with all of the different words and then my mouth gets confused too. That’s why reading off a script makes it easier, as I don’t have to think about what’s coming next, it’s right there, already planned out for me.

    It was a lot worse this summer, for no apparent reason, I tend to react to physiological changes so perhaps it was my weird sleep habits (going to work early every second morning, sleeping in on the alternate days). It was pretty hard to speak at all. Say the sound “k” – you’ll feel the back of your throat momentarily close and open. Now say it again, but a lot harder, and stop at the point where your throat closes. Keep it closed. You shouldn’t be able to breathe in or out. That’s what a complete blockage is like – and in severe stuttering, you get that on every second or third word. Every muscle in your body is pushing to get the word past your throat but the harder you try the more impossible it is. So you stop. And you take a breath. And you try again. And as soon as you start to speak again your throat locks shut again.

    Luckily, right when school started all of that difficulty stopped, and I was back to my very mild transitional stutter. Like I said, probably physiological, changes in routine or something – in any case it’s the first time I’ve had a really difficult time speaking since I was about twelve. So I really doubt it’ll bother me much for the presentation.

    On the subject of math – always a good subject – calculus has been fun, somewhat anti-climatic. For the past few years I’d heard the word “derivative” tossed around. It had sort of an aura of mystery and intrigue around it. And then I found out what it meant and I was like, “Oh, is that all?” It was really kind of a letdown. But the questions are a lot harder than pre-calculus ever was, which is fantastic, pre-cal was always too easy. Now I actually have to use my brain and it feels great.

    Applied math could be very interesting, I have some family members in that field. I would want to apply it to something earth-sciences related. I love dealing with math and logic and problem solving, but I also love studying the outdoors and the reasons for why things are the way they are in the ecosystems and landscapes we live in.

    My plan is to do a BSc in physical geography, with lots of physics and math. That could lead me into climatology or into lots of other related fields. I feel very strongly drawn towards either climate modeling or studying radiative forcings (that chapter of the IPCC was my favourite). Climate change is just absolutely fascinating and will be a very important area of study for the years to come. However, that could always change….I’ve seen so many people change their career paths multiple times in university, some of them quite radically.

    Well that was a nice little ramble for late at night! -Kate]

  27. I had the pleasure of attending Kate’s talk at Powershift this weekend, and for me, it was one of the highlights.

    For the benefit of mt, (and off the top of my head) this is what has stuck in my mind, 30 hours later:

    3% of publishing climatologists agree: humans are not affecting the climate. That’s all. (although I was surprised it was even as much as 3%)

    The credibility spectrum exercise

    A spectacularly stupid youtube comment example. (Yeah, that’s what you get when your source is a guy named Joe.)

    A marvelous video rebuttal of the ‘no global warming in ten years’ nonsense, thanks to Peter Sinclair (is that name right?)

    Something happened naturally before, so it can’t be caused by us now; Kate’s analogy to forest fires

    80% of Americans say that they understand climate change. (Made me think, as do so many things these days, of the Dunning Kruger effect)

    Kate didn’t like the framing of climate change as an environmental issue. (I strongly agree with that sentiment. It is way bigger than just the environment. Should be front page news – especially us being a month away from COP15)

    Who is Andrew Weaver? (He got name checked a few times. Now I’m on the internet, I should go look him up.)

    Some information on who pushes climate denial. Think tanks, etc.

    Take home message: learn how to identify a credible source, stop paying so much attention to the least credible, dig a little deeper to see who is behind a story, and maybe we can get something done.

    Also from memory: there was some discussion afterward about what makes a credible think tank. Fair enough question, as there were more than a few of those at Powershift. I’m afraid Q and As from other sessions have all blended together in my mind now, but that’s the one that I remember.

    I think one of the reasons this talk was such a stand out is that it answered a really important question. That is, how do you say to someone: “What you believe about climate change is incorrect; you have been fooled.”? The answer may be that you don’t need to say that at all. A presentation like this would, one hopes, prompt many people to reach that conclusion on their own.

    So an excellent talk, confidently and competently delivered. I almost wish it were mandatory for the editorial board of the Winnipeg Free Press and the National Post. Or if not them, their readers.

    Now, where’s that rss button?

    [Thanks pip – are you the recent PhD graduate who stayed after the presentation to chat? I’m glad you enjoyed the talk, I’ll be writing lots about the conference in the coming week. Andrew Weaver is a climate modeler from UVic, an IPCC lead author, and the author of a great book called “Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World”. The RSS feed is in the sidebar, “Entries RSS”. -Kate]

  28. I’d like to make a comment on the credibility of institutions such as NASA, IPCC, and universities. Before we assess their credibility, we should look at their sourses of funding. I don’t have exact numbers, but I suspect that the bulk of their funding comes from government sourses. Issues compete with each other over government funding. The more that climate scientists can convince people that greenhouse gasses are a potential problem, the more funding they will get to fund research. This creates a perverse incentive. Their jobs and careers are literally at stake. I don’t think that this source of bias should be ignored.
    With regard to think tanks, I do not associate myself with any you have mentioned, however I did do a check on the Heritage foundation and found that in 2007, they had an operating revenue of $48.7 million of which only $2.2 million came from corporations.
    I will mention a libertarian think tank that I have donated to(I don’t belong to any special interest btw). They advocate free markets. They don’t deny human caused climate change, but take the position that it has been overblown, and seem to advocate a laissez faire approach to dealing with it.
    I will mention that in 2008, 77% of their funding came from individuals, such as myself. 2% came from corporations. Here is a link

    [When scientific organizations are competing for funding, what matters is not the issue at hand as much as how they’re studying it. Dr Andrew Weaver says that scientists would get more grant money if they said that climate change was still an uncertain idea that needed more research. And scientists’ salaries don’t really depend on grant money. Most of them are profs, so their salaries depend on being good teachers. The grant money goes towards hiring students and buying equipment. And there is never, ever a shortage of scientific topics to study, so none of their jobs are at stake. -Kate]

  29. Let us assume that climate change is in fact a real problem. That does not justify the use of govermental power to solve the problem. After all, governmental programs set up to solve problems have a long history of failure. There are many examples, IMF, World Bank, FEMA, war in Iraq, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Central Banks, and the list goes on and on. For the most part, these institutions have made the problems that they were set up to solve worse. I see no reason why some sort of international agreement to regulate business in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissons would be any different. An agreement will serve the interests of special interests and the political elite. The rhetoric of course will be to save the environment.

    [How else do you suggest we stop it? -Kate]

  30. Thanks Kate for your comments and allowing mine.

    It is my understanding that professors are hired primarily for research. Teaching is tertiary. It is true that there is not a shortage of scientific topics to study. However, the nature of climate science makes it easy to construct an argument for funding, whether it is a problem or not. It is an extremely complex science that has large potential consequences that affect everyone on earth. The government has a finite amount to spend on research. The issues that are perceived by politicians to be the most important will get the most funding. For any science that is funded this way, I would expect that there would be a bias (intentional or not) in the scientific community.
    I agree with Dr Andrew Weaver’s statement that you noted above. If an issue was certain, then there would be no need to study it.
    Let me be clear, I am not denying that humans have some impact on global climate. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the IPCC and accept their claim that the world will warm by 0.2C per decade, and that sea levels will rise 80cm in the next 90yrs.
    However, I believe the consequences of these changes have been exaggerated.

    An article on gives an example of what I am talking about.

    Note how the situation is described in the article. Statements such as: Climate change is “severe and so sweeping that only urgent, global action” can head it off, or: the U.N. head said the world was “on the verge of a catastrophe if we do not act.”
    These statements seem to parallel other scare tactics that are used to justify massive government interventions. The threat of terrorism was overblown in order to justify the Iraq war and the patriot act. The recent “economic crisis” was overblown in order to justify bank bailouts, auto bailouts, and massive government “stimulus” spending. All in the name of protecting us from terrorists, saving the economy, and saving the environment.
    If climate change is indeed a problem, I do not believe there is an easy fix. Having politicians writing up thousands of pages of rules and regulations affecting billions of people is likely to do more harm than good. That option should be a last resort.
    Instead, I would suggest the promotion of institutions that would create wealth and allow people (especially poor people) to adapt to change. There are lots of good ideas, but I will mention two. Many of the world’s poor are condemned to poverty because they have insecure property rights (something we take for granted in Canada). Fernando de Soto has an excellent documentary called “The Power of the Poor” which gives a good introduction to the subject. (
    I would also suggest that there are far too many immigration restrictions throughout the world. If there are areas that are becoming inhospitable because of climate change, then we shouldn’t have artificial restrictions that prevent people from leaving those areas. Finally, I would encourage open debate on the subject, and fair mindedness in argument whatever position you have.
    These are not perfect solutions in any sense; however I do not believe that there is a neat and tidy solution to the problem unfortunately.
    Btw props on the website.

    [I see how the political implications of climate change would encourage more scientists to study it, but I don’t see how it would skew the conclusions of the research. This post explains how science starts with the evidence and only then forms a conclusion. The means justify the ends. So when applications for a grant come in, they don’t say what the conclusion to their research is (otherwise they’d be rejected outright for confirmation bias). The government doesn’t know the ends, so they have to dish out the grants based on the means. As the government has no way to favour one conclusion over another, these grants don’t lead to tunnel vision in the scientific community. In fact, I think encouraging research in climate science would make it more objective, as more people would be scrutinizing the findings.

    Consequences of climate change……even if CNN is exaggerating, that doesn’t mean that the scientists are. We shouldn’t blame scientists for faulty journalism covering their work. Go to the original study and see whether or not it makes claims it can’t back up. It shouldn’t, and scientists generally don’t.

    It’s also something of a logical fallacy to say that something is exaggerated simply because it is doom-and-gloom. The two cannot simply be equated. Keep in mind that the last time the Earth’s climate changed at this rate was 55 million years ago, so our society doesn’t really have a collective sense of what is and is not exaggerated. Only people familiar with historical climate changes do. And they nearly always wiped out most of the Earth’s species, from just a few degrees of temperature change. We have no reason to believe that this climate change will be any less devastating.

    I’m not saying that CNN is or is not exaggerating (though it wouldn’t surprise me – the media likes to make anything sound extreme). I’m saying that, first, what CNN says really doesn’t matter for the advancement of science, and shouldn’t matter for policy but it often can. And second, just because it says scary things doesn’t mean it’s exaggerated. Check out this study, which is fully peer-reviewed, and says nothing it can’t back up. But it’s still very scary.

    Thanks for stopping in, it’s great to have new readers who don’t go on about how global warming is a hoax and I am a tyrannical Communist. -Kate]

  31. Hey Kate
    I hope you find this discussion to be constructive. I am sorry to hear about the inflammatory remarks in your blog.

    Let me reply to your post.
    CNN was not making the statements I pointed out. They were statements made by the United Nations scientific panel. CNN was just reporting what they said. I am not saying that their statements are exaggerated because they are gloom-and-doom. I am suggesting they are exaggerated because they are inconsistent with their predictions of warming and sea level rise. A rise of 0.2C per decade, I see as a potential problem that should be monitored. Even if sea level rose 0.5cm per year, that would still give people in low lying areas many years to vacate. Those predictions are inconsistent with their rhetoric. That is further enforced by the statement made in the IPCC report that “”Globally, the potential for food production is expect to increase with increases in average temperature over a range of 1-3 degrees centigrade, but above this it is projected to decrease.” This statement implies that the potential for food production is expected to increase for the next 50 to 150 years based on the IPCC’s estimate for temperature increase. This prediction is inconsistent with mass species extinction or wide spread catastrophe.
    Another statement made by the IPCC is: “Nearly all European regions are anticipated to be negatively affected by some future impacts of climate change”. Read this statement and focus on the word “some”. I cannot imagine any substantial positive or negative change to the world in which this statement would not be true. If you were to replace the word “negatively” with “positively”, that statement would be equally true.

    Here are a couple links for the IPCC where I took those quotes.

    When it comes to funding, we have to recognize the strong bias that government funding has. Politicians will tend to fund research that is more likely to justify an increase in government control over the economy. This source of bias is a primary reason why the Cato Institute and some other organizations refuse any funding from the government.
    Politicians want more control because they can then give subsidies, special treatment, etc to favored industries or special interest groups. In return, these special interest groups finance the campaigns of the politician, thereby increasing his/her chance of re-election.
    It may have occurred to you that oil and gas companies have started coming out in favor of measures by government to combat climate change. They lobby government to do this. I don’t think this is just a PR stunt. When government writes the new rules on energy and are ready to spend billions in clean energy, guess who will be the first in line to take advantage of this new spending and rules. Most likely, the existing energy giants like Exxon. In return, these companies will finance the campaigns of the politicians who wrote the new rules. The energy companies are financing the campaigns of the politicians who in turn finance the environmental research that justifies the new rules……with taxpayer money of course. It follows that the politicians then get lauded by the public for “saving the environment”. This is a partial reason why all large governmental institutions inevitably fail.
    This is one reason why I would classify government funding as most likely to bias research, followed by corporations, unions, and other special interest groups. The least likely source of income to bias research would be funding from individuals.
    In your previous post, you provided me with a paper “The Age of Consequences”, which I am in the process of reading. It was written by CSIS. Their source of funding:
    Government: 13%
    Corporate: 43%
    Individuals: 9%
    Compare that to Cato:
    Government: 0%
    Corporate: 2%
    Individuals: 77%

    Here is a link:

    It would be an interesting exercise to make this kind of comparison for think tanks and institutions all across the political spectrum.

    [A note about the IPCC – their projections are almost always conservative, as they don’t understand all parts of the system well enough to include them in the models. For example, on the topic of sea level rise, their projections only include thermal expansion. Melting ice isn’t taken into account, but chances are that melting ice will make up a large part of sea level rise. They just don’t understand when and how the ice will melt well enough to include it in the models. This important distinction, unfortunately, was buried in a footnote in the AR4. But everyone at the UN knows that sea level rise will be greater than what can be quantified ahead of time. So their statements really do match up with their science. Read more about the IPCC here.

    And a couple of questions……how can the government know ahead of time which scientific reports are going to be beneficial to their politics? And why, given this opportunity for a lot of government spending and control (seeing as the scientific community is as sure as it’s going to get – see my video), isn’t the government doing anything? In the US, where the bulk of scientific research occurs, there is no legislation to fight climate change. Canada is a similar story – and our PM is actively trying to ignore climate change. Perhaps governments have a bias towards spending and control, but I would argue that their bias for not wanting to face a huge problem (which involves all kinds of hard work, political battling, and opportunities to anger the electorate) is even greater. -Kate]

  32. Hey Kate, I won’t try to argue science because I have not spent the required hours studying the science to form a good argument either way.
    However, I will elaborate on government funding, which is a problem in more areas of science than just climate research. When a politician (actually often his/her appointees) spends (taxpayer) money on science research, they have two goals: First is to convince the public that their money is being spent wisely (or at least not horribly wasted). This is a constraint on how imprudent a politician can be. Second is to achieve their political ends. When science is funded in order to achieve political ends, then the science becomes the means. They will try to achieve this to the point where they don’t violate the first goal. I do not know the details of how these decisions are made. That would vary from politician to politician. However a successful politician is one who is skillful at deceiving the public.
    Why hasn’t much been done? There are various reasons. First of all, issues in politics progress very slowly. Change in the climate (no pun intended) of opinion can precede political practice by decades. That is a historical observation. Another reason for little action by governments is because there have been other more “politically profitable” issues. The war on terror and economic problems has been the issues the public has been most concerned about for many years. Politicians need public support for change, not just scientific support.
    Now there has been public support for action on the climate change issue.
    In America’s case the Republican Party has been in power for 8 years prior to the recent Democratic victory. The people who elected them to power generally didn’t favor doing much about climate change. So doing something would not have been favorable within the party. In other words, the Republican congressman could have pushed for climate change action in order to gain more spending power and control over the economy, but in the process would have risked losing his seat in congress at the next election. In addition, I will not be naïve enough to claim that the energy industry does not lobby for inaction on the issue as well. After all, they would prefer either the status quo, unless the action taken has special favors and subsidies for the existing companies. That is why they lobby and support the campaigns of politicians all across the political spectrum.
    The situation in Canada has been similar, but with the added complication that there has been minority governments for a while now which makes it even more difficult for government to pass legislation (I don’t consider this a bad thing).
    I have a good friend who is taking their masters in Environmental Science at the University of Waterloo who pointed out the cozy relationship between the Conservative party and the energy companies involved in the (heavily polluting from my understanding) tar sands projects. This enlightens me that there is something that the government ought to do on this issue. That is to eliminate all subsidies, tax breaks/incentives, etc to pollution intensive industry. I think you would undoubtedly agree with me there, but don’t hold your breath.
    Now if climate change becomes the hot button topic of the day, be assured that the politicians will be prepared to take advantage of the situation, and their positions and solutions will be supported by lots of government (and corporate/special interest) funded research.
    Copenhagen 2009 should be interesting.

  33. “Do you know what percentage of Americans think that they generally understand the issue of climate change? (audience guesses) 80%.”

    Kate, could you tell me the source for that number? Thanks!

    [Go to, scroll down to “Gallup Poll, March 6-9, 2008”. For the question “Next, thinking about the issue of global warming, sometimes called the ‘greenhouse effect,’ how well do you feel you understand this issue — would you say very well, fairly well, not very well, or not at all?”, 21% said very well and 59% said fairly well – I synthesized this into one figure for my presentation. Hope this helps. -Kate]

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