Getting to know our faceless scientists Opinion Article

Sep 27, 2013 - 11:00am

This article was first published in Climate Spectator on 27 September 2013. 

Corey Watts
Regional Projects Manager, The Climate Institute

It seems people want to know what scientists really think, and they want to know from the horse’s mouth.

Last week and ahead of the release of the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), The Climate Institute conducted a  video vox pop of around 20 climate scientists – from honours students to professors, in Sydney and Melbourne. We asked what keeps them up at night, and what they thought it would take to reach across the gap between scientific and public opinion on climate change.

We have done these types of videos before, most recently asking people on the street what they think about climate change as part of our Climate of the Nation public polling work in June. These kinds of videos get views, but mostly among those who are already concerned about the climate.

So when we asked scientists to talk about what they think ahead of the IPCC report, we figured the videos would circulate mainly in that sphere.We were wrong.Turns out that while the public hears from scientists via the media all the time, they don’t often hear them in their own voices, unscripted, talking about what matters to them. And they want to.

Certainly, it is hard to dehumanise a group of strangers, especially if what they do and say is outside of our experience. It is harder to dismiss the view of someone we like and respect; someone who is a real person.

We’ve had an unusually high number of hits on the videos since they were posted on Monday. 

We often hear how climate scientists have been on the receiving end of sordid, spiteful, personal attacks by hardcore climate-change deniers, and, sadly, many have. In this case, so far so good: some viewers have even taken to writing to the people in the videos; reaching out to them; sympathising with them; encouraging them.

You will excuse us if we are surprised – though very pleasantly – by the response to the videos so far. We know from our research that most people trust the climate science and the scientists who labour to produce it. But when asked mostly they can say 'CSIRO', not a particular field of science, or an individual.

There is a sharp disconnection between scientists and the community at large.But what if we got to know scientists as people, as friends, even? Certainly, it is hard to dehumanise a group of strangers, especially if what they do and say is outside of our experience. It is harder to dismiss the view of someone we like and respect; someone who is a real person.

When we first approached scientists about our videos, many were hesitant, even those with media experience, perhaps because of it.But there was no right or wrong answer to our questions, so they went for it and many no doubt surprised themselves. They talked about their work and motivation with gusto. Their fascination with what makes the climate tick was equalled only by their concern for what climate change means, for everyone.

Ultimately, like most people, climate scientists want to tell their kids they helped to make the world better.They also just wish that people could see past the stereotypes and understand science and its method a little better.

So, when thousands of scientists finally agree on something as big and complex as climate change and what drives it, you know that they’ve really thrashed that one out. It is not a conclusion reached in a weekend; it has been hotly debated and scrutinised and tested for decades, by scientists working all over the world.

Now, science is as sure that we are driving rapid, risky climate change as it is that smoking causes cancer and that what goes up must come down. If a scientist were to topple the theory of gravity, they would win a stack of Nobel prizes. Nobody has. 

The veracity of science lies in the forge of debate, with ideas constantly continuously tested and retested. Out of that fire comes a solid agreement. If a pilot told you it was too risky to get aboard an aeroplane with faulty wiring, you would listen.

If 97 out of 100 oncologists told you you had cancer and you need treatment, you would probably listen to them too. That is the proportion of climate scientists who agree humanity is driving climate change.

It’s high time we got to know our scientists and past time we acted on their advice

Corey Watts

Corey Watts is the Manager of Policy and Science Projects at The Climate Institute. He works with scientists, communicators, and policymakers to promote public literacy in climate science, understand climate risks for Australian life and society, and help ensure public policy matches the science of climate change. Hailing from Western Australia, Corey studied biology at Murdoch University and later earnt a Master’s in environmental history and policy from the University of Melbourne. He has worked in environmental science, research, and policy development. 

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