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Climate Change Bias and the Ethics of Science

Mal Fletcher
Posted 16 May 2014
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The ethics of scientists - particularly within climate science - have again been called into question with the news that some journal editors may have suppressed findings on the rate of global warming because the data is considered 'less than helpful' to their cause.

A front page report in The Times today showed how research by the University of Reading has been rejected by one of the world's leading academic journals. One of the authors of the study says that he suspects intolerance on dissenting views is behind the blocking of his research.

Professor Lennart Bengtsson's data challenges the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which insists that if the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was allowed to double there would be a temperature rise of up to 4.5C.

The team behind the research believe that the world's climate is not as sensitive to these gases as has been claimed by the IPCC.

In 2009, the University of East Anglia, a leading climate research centre, rejected the findings of several experts after a reviewer declared their work 'harmful'.

As a result, critics of mainstream thinking on climate change felt their views were being ignored in the lead-up to the important - but arguably, in the end, ineffectual - Copenhagen climate conference.

Science today is treated with a respect bordering on reverence. We treat the prognostications of certain eminent scientists as being almost inviolable.

Science has become an important tool for helping us to understand the complex and often seemingly inexplicable world in which we live. In our desire to reach clarity on difficult questions and to prove ourselves responsible global citizens, we are perhaps inclined to rush to judgment on the basis of news reports and the scientific journals that feed them.

In the process, we may ignore the fact that science is as much about questions as it is about certainties, and often more so. It is about posing questions and challenging existing models in order to arrive at better, well-tested paradigms.

We also overlook the fact that science is a pursuit undertaken by human beings, with all the frailties they bring to any process. Scientists are just as prone to obsess over status or material gain as the rest of us and to use their skills for essentially self-centred ends.

The fact that this story featured on page one of The Times reflects the wider public search for a 'New Ethic' in all the areas of public life that will affect our future, including politics, economics, business and science. (I wrote more about this in Fascinating Times.)

As they seek to square the rapid advance of science with maintaining a humane society, a generation of young adults have made unlikely cult heroes of ethicists such as Harvard academic Michael Sandel.

Ethics will represent a growth industry for the next decade and more, as companies and civic leaders grapple with ever more complex moral questions.

We must continue to encourage science in its quest to understand our universe and to suggest answers to intractable problems affecting us and our environment.

We must not, however, allow scientists to invest in nudge marketing, or worse, outright social conditioning in order to align public perceptions with unproven personal convictions.

We must not tolerate scientific journals that use our respect for science and the technologies it produces as a platform from which to present as absolute truth what is still open to debate within the scientific community.

If global warming science is to be taken seriously, by politicians, businesses and the wider the public, its practitioners and spokespeople must release all research findings irrespective of where they seem to point.

Millions are spent on global warming research projects and millions more are at stake in pursuing their findings, as politicians set regulations to which businesses and individuals must adjust, often at considerable cost.

What's more, the money committed today to developing and adopting climate change measures is money belonging to our children.

We must be ruthless when it comes to holding the scientific community accountable, so that personal prejudices and professional reputations are not placed above ethics.

Whatever your view on global warming and its causes, I feel certain you'll agree that this is too important an issue to approach with anything less than the highest levels of integrity, on all sides of the debate.

What’s your view?

Are we too trusting of what scientists say on issues like climate change?



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Thanks Mal for helping us see the US gun laws issue from an ethical perspective. Our right to possess guns (or any other right, for that matter) is surely insignificant when compared to our responsibility to preserve life.
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