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Brian Cox: scientists giving false sense of debate on climate change

By Karl Mathiesen (The Guardian) - September 3, 2014

Scientists are doing the public a disservice in their attempts to communicate certainty in climate change science, often giving a “false sense of debate” by being overly precise, says broadcaster and physicist Professor Brian Cox.

Climate scientists are 95% certain that humans are the main cause of the current global warming the world is experiencing. But Cox said this level of accuracy had been manipulated by “nonsensical”, politically-motivated climate sceptics.

“I think we do a disservice to the public. If you look down the [camera] lens and see your head of department or your PhD supervisor, whoever it might be, then you’ll start being scientifically precise and you’ll mislead the public. Because you’ll give them a false sense of debate,” he told an audience at a fundraiser for the Society of Biology.

He said scientists could say with total confidence that climate science was uncontroversial and the current predictions for warming were the best advice available.

“The scientific view at the time is the best, there’s nothing you can do that’s better than that. So there’s an absolutism. It’s absolutely the best advice,” he said.

Cox, a physicist who works on the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs boson was discovered, said that 95% certainty in science is effectively total.

“We had it with the Large Hadron Collider and people were saying: “Is it going to destroy the world?” Well of course it bloody isn’t. But [in scientific terms] we’re putting a confidence level on that statement … at the 95% confidence level, but you don’t want to go there,” he said.

“What I think about climate change actually is it’s obviously true and clearly true to all of us who look at the debate that goes on.”

Cox told the Guardian that climate sceptics had exploited the misconception that there was doubt about climate change in order to push a political agenda. “It can be a way in for people who have an agenda that’s not scientific.

“You’re allowed to say, well I think we should do nothing. That’s a policy choice. But what you’re not allowed to do is to claim there’s a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models. It’s nonsensical to say ‘we know better’, you can’t know better.”

He said the strategy of challenging the science of climate change was dangerous because it promoted the idea that science was political and up for debate. This weakens the position of science as a reliable basis for deciding how to respond to the world, he said.

“I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial. We can trace back through history the times when knowledge was considered to be controversial. And that’s what we are actually saying when we talk about climate change. We’re saying that there’s something inherently problematic with knowledge.

“Don’t undermine the science just because you don’t like the economics. That’s a dangerous slope, because the problem of course is you’re not undermining just that, you’re undermining the basis of rational decision-making in society.”