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J Henry Fair

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Scientists

Posted: 09/10/2012 3:39 pm

Recently I went to a party with eminent scientists, mostly geologists and climatologists, from a major institute. A gathering of scientists is my dream scenario: Go from conversation to conversation with people who actually have some answers, and no small talk. They are a cautious lot by nature, always couching their answers in qualifiers, the result of the rigorous scrutiny and criticism of any proclamation they might make, by both their peers and the larger world. But they are passionate and curious and honest and make good company.

The Peter Gleick affair had just transpired, in which a well-known scientist had, with the help of a bit of misrepresentation, acquired documents confirming that a certain think tank was heavily supported by climate-change-denial industries and was instituting a plan to infiltrate schools with a curriculum of climate-change refutation. The public exposure of these documents caused the think tank to lose donors and called into question their tax-exempt status.

Scientists endure many years of education, and the value their work, their ethics, and their reputations highly. Their neutrality and objectivity are vital to them. They cherish a rather charming belief that every added bit of knowledge brings us that much closer to answers and truth.

The assembled group at the party was almost universally opposed to Gleick's actions, arguing that the trust and faith of the public in science and scientists would be undermined, that this was not the way to win the battle for hearts and minds about climate change, and that his actions were unethical.

Here's the thing: We have been fighting the war for public (and legislative) opinion on climate change for 20 years, and we are losing. In that time, the science has become more certain, yet the number of people who believe it has decreased. We need to change our game.

The climate-change-denial industry has outspent, outmaneuvered, and totally overwhelmed the forces of sanity. And though it's hard to justify deception, given the tactics of the deniers, we must use every weapon at hand, because we are fighting for our children's lives.

As for the credibility of science in the eyes of the public, that has long gone, thanks to the tactics of the hard right. It's not another core sample or discovery of melting ice that will change public opinion and get them to force our governments to act. It's fear.

It took the drought and vicious heat this summer to convince much of the doubting public of the reality of climate change. Of course, come winter, they will forget.

 

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