18 December 2009

Lost Trust

The image above is from the Washington Post today in a story reporting the results of a new poll on climate change. The poll shows that the biggest change in public opinion from April 2009 to last week has been in President Obama's approval rating on his handling of the climate issue and in public trust of scientists, and these finding hold across the political spectrum in different degrees. Interestingly, and consistent with past polls, public support for action on greenhouse gases remains very strong. Here is an excerpt from the story:

There's also rising public doubt and growing political polarization about what scientists have to say on the environment, and a widespread perception that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is happening.

But for all the challenges American policymakers have to overcome, nearly two-thirds of people surveyed say the federal government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars and factories in an effort to curb global warming.
What lesson to take here? First, if climate science is perceived to be deeply politicized it will probably lead to a loss of public trust. How long this will last and what might be done to recover the lost trust remains to be seen. I suspect that continued efforts to participate in overt or covert political advocacy are just not going to help in recovering this trust, and may do exactly the opposite.

The leadership of the climate science community has thus far shown no ability to differentiate between taking care of the integrity of its institutions in terms of building credibility and legitimacy, and advocating for action on climate change, emphasizing the latter almost exclusively. I would guess that many climate scientists will respond to this poll by complaining about the stupidity of the public and the efforts of disinformation campaigns, rather than looking to get their own house in order. If so, they may be in for a rough ride in opinion polls for some time to come.

More broadly, public support for action remains an untapped reservoir. The problem of course is, what action? Those being discussed in Copenhagen don't seem to be the ones.


  1. Roger, I think your analysis is right on here. There seems to be an inflection point, at which new possibilities might emerge, along with new views of the problem.

    For example, instead of an atmospheric problem, we could begin to see it in a wider way as a problem with the biosphere's carbon cycle.

    There are potentials there that have not been well recognized.

  2. It is not just distrust of climate science, but the recoil from the politicization of environmental science in general.

  3. The results are hardly surprising, albeit the size of the swing in a mere six months is unsettling.

    A bigger problem that that you've identified is that the credibility of science as a whole will have been eroded. If the public distrusts us on climate change, why should they believe us on vaccine safety, safety of genetically modified foods, evolution, or a dozen other important issues?

    And I think you've correctly identified the biggest problem. If one reads some of the highest traffic scientific blogs, one encounters over and over again the word 'framing' -- much of the scientific community is convinced that there's nothing wrong with how we operate, we just don't dumb it down in the right way. In this, they've simply copied a page from the political Left, which is similarly convinced that the Right cons people into voting against their own best interests, and that all they need to do is figure out how to pitch their message better.

    One final and puzzling issue: while there's a hugely active conservative blogosphere out there, and while scientists are by no means uniformly left of center, there is effectively no conservative scientific blogging. Megasites like scienceblogs.com range from the moderate left to the raving loony left. The nearest we come of a conservative scientific blogosphere are the skeptic sites, and those guys are mostly not professional scientists (that's not a put down at all, by the way). What I think would really help the debate on climate, and on other issues, would be scientific voices who can identify for the public the issues on which there really is true consensus (e.g. the anthropogenic origins of our present high levels of atmospheric CO2), while dissenting in the areas where the science has become politicized or is controversial.

    In short, science in the last 10 years has become far too identified with the political left in America, and it's now suffering when there is a movement of public sentiment away from the left, as there is in spades at present.

  4. As I said in an earlier post the growth of public skepticism is due to the pursuit of flawed agendas.

    Who trusts politicians after the Iraq invasion? Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is now met by public derision.

    Who trusts the bankers after the Credit Crunch? The bank bail out has deeply damaged people's faith in the financial markets.

    Who trusts scientists after Climategate? Advocacy has damaged people's faith in science.

  5. -3-RWP

    This might help to explain what you are seeing:


  6. If those polled by WaPo were more inclined to venture outside the lame stream media, they might find even more reason to doubt the climate orthodoxy. Here’s one example from today:

    “a study published in the NZ Journal of Science back in 1980 reveals weather stations at the heart of NIWA's claims of massive warming were shown to be unreliable and untrustworthy by a senior Met Office climate scientist 30 years ago.”

    Click here and read the rest.

    Click here for some basic climate change science.

  7. Roger:

    Something that almost everyone missed: that poll sampled not all scientists, but only AAAS members. As such, it's horribly flawed; most scientists are not members of AAAS, and those who are, are, in my experience, not at all representative of scientists in general. I don't know a single one of my colleagues who currently is a member of AAAS; my wife was, while it came with a cheap subscription to Science; now we get it online, she's let her subscription drop.

  8. "The leadership of the climate science community..."

    And that there is exactly the problem. Science should not have leadership positions. What is the purpose of leadership positions in feilds of science? The only purpose I could see would they would be referee's, and referees will always have shortcoming and bias. Science is about putting information out, checking it, and seeing what is left, and you do not need leaders to do that. When people (media proclaimed, and governments funded them as) placed CRU, NASA and other institutions into 'leadership' positions, they took away the ability of scientists to publish papers critical of those institutions.

  9. For many in the general public, greenhouse gas has become synonymous with pollution. (Sen. Graham was quoted yesterday as being against carbon pollution.) If you ask people if they want clean air and clean water, they say yes. If you ask them if they'd be willing to sacrifice millions of jobs for measures that will make no difference to the environment, they'd say no. If you asked them if they were in favor of an environment that would allow for better agricultural yeilds, less poverty, higher productivity and a higher standard of living, they'd say yes.

    It's all how you frame the question. ;)

  10. 1. I think it is very early days to be measuring the impact of the IPCC science controversy.
    2. I am wondering if we aren't seeing a general erosion of trust in our institutions - including the polls ;-}

    For one set of examples (scroll down).

    As to science, I found this fascinating paper that resonated with my belief that scientists, especially in medicine, were trotting out new discoveries of what was good or bad for you every year only to have a new deal the next year. I had thought previously that it was a publish or perish phenomenon.


    The teaser.

    There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims [6-8]. However, this should not be surprising. It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false.

    This was focused on medicine, but the corollaries from this thought provoking paper seem very applicable to CO2 centric AGW claims.
    My current thinking is that the central network of AGW proponents have fallen to one or more of corollaries 1, and 3-6.

  11. They should be asking Americans if they are willing to pay $7/gallon for gasoline etc like the Europeans do. The answer the pollster will get is resounding no. After they learn that 60% will be "deniers"

  12. I just saw a headline on TV that said: "Santa linked to childhood obesity" -- my eyes nearly rolled out of my head. In the social sciences the "answer" always depends on who the client is. Bench sciences like Physics and Chemistry don't tend suffer this same problem. Climate Science has been damaged by clear signs of "who's the client" behavior. The only way for them to recover their reputation is through complete and total transparency going forward. To achieve this, they need to clear the decks of the gatekeepers and embrace reforms. Instead, I see Mann et al defending the very practices that have led to disaster.

  13. #10: The days of IPCC are over, there is no need "to be measuring the impact of the IPCC science controversy".

  14. The (until now) 26 pages of comments on Mann's editorial in the same WaPo yesterday confirm the above poll. Reading the comments I imagine Mann wished he had never made this editorial and, like Jones, would have gone very quiet. But I guess he's too arrogant, ignorant, desilusional (pick your preference) to understand the current, changed, situation.

  15. Douglass and Christy have an article at American Thinker about the corrupt, unethical behavior of Santer and ICJ. The stink from the rotting corpse of climate science would gag a maggot.

  16. CopenFailure was a rather ugly, violent, disorganized, and disagreeable event. Ugly, violent, disorganized and disagreeable events generally are unproductive.

    Cap and Trade is the world’s most complex and world’s most expensive solution to a perceived problem that in fact does not solve the perceived problem.

    One can quickly conclude that the collection of groups in charge are unproductive and have no idea that the simplest, least expensive solution, that actually solves the problem, is the solution that one seeks.

    One needs to also ponder the question of WHY the groups attending CopenFailure are so violent, disorganized, and disagreeable. Are they violent, disorganized, and disagreeable because they seek a solution? Or are they violent, disorganized, and disagreeable because seeking a solution is really not the agenda?

    When you analyze the differing groups attending CopenFailure, many, many of the groups have scope-of -agenda that are not about Climate. Climate is merely a topic they have decided to cling to in hopes they can use Climate to further their sub agenda.

    The acme of failure, and a warning flag worth noting, was when these groups had to decide on how to divide up the theoretical revenue generated by Cap and Trade. That the theoretical revenue was going to be redistributed (another warning sign) and the high and mighty suddenly became bankers extraordinaire. Odd how it suddenly changed from save the planet to show me the money.

    Hunter S. Thompson probably summed up CopenFailure years ago when he stated: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“.