Scientists and the Media
The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) in Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost higher education institution. Unsurprisingly, Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology are the specialities here.
(Glaciology Prof. Doug Benn with colleagues heading for field trip to Longyearbyen glaciers – and me at the start of the trip with them.)
I was glad to have the chance to meet up with some of the experts. As well as Gunnar Sand, mentioned in a previous post as Director of the Longyearbyen CO2 Lab, I had the chance to talk to Professor Hanne Christiansen
an expert on permafrost and head of Arctic Geology at UNIS,
(on the staircase outside her office at UNIS)
and Professor Doug Benn pictured in the last entry heading up to the glaciers with two junior colleages.
As well as Arctic permafrost and glaciers (more on both later)I was interested to hear their views on climate change in general and the role of the media in particular. I was not surprised to encounter some wariness from scientists working out on the field towards journalists in view of the huge dimensions the controversy over climate has taken on in the media. Let me just share a statement from Doug Benn, who runs a field project in the Himalayas as well as his work in the Arctic, on the debate – and fuss – over the wrong figure in the IPCC report and the ensuing lack of confidence in the IPCC and even climate science in general. Doug stresses the procedure by which the error got into the report shows up serious deficits, but he also sees a lot of responsibility for what followed with the media.
“The whole impact of that whole debate was amplified both in terms of the disaster scenarios and the credibility of the IPCC by the way that media covered that particular issue. And in fact what happens is that science carries on on a much more level keel. Science is not undergoing the same mood swings that the media went through on that. The majority of scientists are plugging away, gathering good data on environmental changes that are going on, quietly publishing their results in journals, and slowly a view emerges. And so I do think it would be good if the media could correct its tendencies to go for the sensation, and of course there’s a long tradition in the media that anything that’s new and exciting is going to get prominence. But actually that does not serve science well. Mostly science proceeds by slow, careful steps and gradually pictures emerge and it takes us a long time to make up our minds about what’s happening in particular systems. Now over the whole issue of climate change and the global impact of climate change both governments and the media and indeed environmental organisations have been rather impatient, and they want definitive statements about what’s happening, we want action, we want decisions made now. And the way science works is not really compatible with that. I think the headlong rush into declaring global warming as a global disaster has been rash. This is not to say we don’t face environmental challenges, but simply that the rush has been unfortunate and actually we still need to do good science, to think critically about things. And as soon as you replace critical investigation with belief and dogma, you’re no longer doing science. Science needs the media, but it does have rather an uneasy relation with it because of these things I’ve been talking about. “
Thanks for taking the time to share those thoughts, Doug.
DateJune 7, 2010 | 9:27 am