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Tackling recent controversies about climate change data requires a robust partnership between the natural and social sciences.

The natural and social sciences have never been comfortable bedfellows. Physicists and chemists have long distrusted the apparent lack of 'hard facts' in what they too often dismiss as the 'soft sciences'.

Conversely, social scientists can be equally dismissive of excessive claims to objectivity by their colleagues in the natural sciences.

Until recently, the climate change debate — and the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in particular — appeared to offer a model for how, in the right conditions, the two sides can work together effectively. While natural scientists have established the nature of the problem, social scientists have mapped both the likely implications and possible responses.

But the crisis that has gripped the climate change community over the past few months has revealed that gaps still remain between the two communities, especially in presenting a united communications front for countering increasingly vocal sceptics.  

Natural scientists have much to gain from the way social scientists can help them interpret both the process of science and the way that this is perceived by the public, and this has important lessons not just for climate change but also for the wider debate about embedding science into development policy.

The need for transparency

The crisis has certainly underlined the need for more transparent scientific procedures. Also that a greater willingness is required to accept that, even if these procedures are not as formal and rigid as many scientists claim (at least in public), it does not necessarily undermine their legitimacy.

That, for example, was a key lesson to emerge from the public exposure of private emails between climate scientists at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, and their colleagues around the world, which revealed a more human side to scientific practice (see Lessons about science from 'Climategate').

More recently, the climate community has been rocked by accusations of exaggerating statements about the rate at which glaciers in northern India are melting (see Glacier dispute reveals holes in research). Here, too, scientists have already made a convincing case that isolated misleading statements do not invalidate the overall consensus either on the reality of climate change or on the urgency needed to mitigate its likely impact.

But the damage has been done. Having built both its credibility and its authority on claims to objective analysis, the IPCC has become highly vulnerable to any charge undermining these (see A changing climate for the IPCC). And this, in turn, has severely dented public support for political action.

A different light

The challenge now is how to reverse this trend, In both the email exposure and the glacier cases, the climate change community's initial response has been to emphasise the need for more rigorous peer review of its conclusions.

But this focuses on the wrong end of the problem. As Stephen Schneider, a leading US climatologist, told the annual meeting of the American Association of Science (AAAS) in San Diego earlier this week (18–22 February), a close analysis of the thousands of references used in the most recent IPCC assessment could expose "20 to 30" scientific errors — but that would still not undermine its main conclusions reached through the combined work of many thousands of scientists.

More useful would be a greater willingness to accept that the natural sciences are themselves social activities and can accommodate occasional erroneous data without damaging the robustness of their conclusions.

The main task lies not in changing the IPCC's behaviour but in encouraging the public to view the organisation and its messages in a different light. And this is an area where social scientists have more to offer than natural scientists are often prepared to admit.

Climate sceptics get 'scientific'

Other speakers at the AAAS meeting described how industrial lobbyists and conservative political groups in the United States are deliberately playing up uncertainties in the science of climate change to generate public support. This represents a change in strategy from the direct political attacks on environmental regulations during the 1980s.

Indeed one speaker, Naomi Oreskes — a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego — argued that such groups were being "more scientific" in their approach to swaying public opinion. Aggressive advertising campaigns attacking climate scientists, for example, show a better understanding of how voters decide on complex issues than the "boring websites" that scientists often use to respond.

There is growing evidence that such campaigns are effective in reducing public support in the developed world for action to combat climate change. And this in turn risks undermining efforts to provide the developing world with the resources needed to meet the many challenges that such change will bring.

Climate scientists must become more sophisticated in how they communicate to reverse this trend. Not only does their science need to be robust, but so too does their understanding of why society reacts to it in the way that it does. And for that, the input of the social and political sciences is essential.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net