Standing Up for Science

Scientists must communicate — and not just with each other


May 5, 2017

By Kate Lajtha, Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Science

Kate Lajtha

Those of us who have devoted our scientific careers to the environmental sciences have been watching recent political conversations about environmental protection and scientific funding with mixed emotions, at best. It isn’t just that potential funding sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy or National Aeronautics and Space Administration, might be hard-hit or eliminated completely; it is that much of what we have discovered and what we teach our students is being dismissed by politicians as being untrue.

For example, statements by the director of the EPA about the relationship between rising carbon-dioxide levels and global climate change are at odds with broad scientific consensus expressed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and even his own agency.

Of immediate concern is that environmental science as a discipline is under attack and that results from decades of environmental and climate science research are in danger of being ignored. Progress on environmental protection is being reversed. It is no longer 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed unanimously by the Senate under a Republican president.

It is also concerning that scientific consensus appears to be dismissed, not just by politicians, but by much of the general public as well. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that slightly less than half of Americans believe that climate is changing and that climate change is mostly due to human activity. That contrasts starkly with the well over 90 percent of Earth system scientists who find the evidence linking human activity and climate change to be overwhelming. Moreover, far fewer Americans in the poll (39 percent) had “a lot” of trust in information from climate scientists. Why is there so little trust in results from the scientific process?

A recent paper in the journal Foreign Affairs (“How America Lost Faith in Expertise” by Tom Nichols) laments that the death of belief in the concept of expertise is widespread in America. In part, this trend is fueled by the ability of everyone to Google and find both credible and highly deceptive information on almost any subject. It can be hard to tell the difference. The line between layman and expert can be blurred through what is otherwise highly beneficial access to information by anyone with an internet connection.

Although it is tempting to blame the discord between scientific consensus and political or public opinion on the internet or on social and cultural dynamics, it is perhaps time for those of us who are scientists, and consider ourselves experts, to shoulder some of the blame and re-examine how we do business. We can look to universities to increase ways in which they engage with the public to help bridge the divide. Oregon State University, as a land grant university, has well-developed Extension programs that translate scientific advances to stakeholders who need results from relevant research.

But we can do better. We must change our approach to and involvement in science education, especially for non-science majors. As educators we must master language that makes sense to non-scientists, and all of us should get better at outreach and science translation to the general public. We need to take a pause from our grant proposals and papers to write op-eds, attend workshops on science communication and seek out invitations to speak to non-peer audiences and governmental representatives.

The days when basic-science researchers only talk among themselves are likely over — and that is a good thing.

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CATEGORIES: Print Issues Spring-2017 Utility Categories Terra Blog


4 thoughts on “Standing Up for Science

  1. Dear Editor Houtman,

    As an OSU alumni with an advanced degree from the same Crop and Soil Science department of which Dr Lajtha is employed, I can no longer sit quietly and not respond to her editorial lamenting the disconnect between the lay public and ‘scientists’ regarding the man made global warming theory.

    First of all, is she implying that she is losing climate research funding due to the new administration and if so why is she researching this topic and not how to produce a better crop, sustain a cropping system or reduce farm inputs etc.? Why are the climate grants so deep into other sciences and not all going to climate related departments per se?

    She mentions an assumed scientific consensus of which any scientist worth their salt knows consensus is an anathema to science itself. There should always be a debate in science and her quest to interact with the lay public will eventually find her meeting well-informed citizens who dare search for their own answers in what she claims ‘highly deceptive information’ of the Internet. She should be aware that there are numerous science based web sites that actually show climate data (not matching model data), natural variability observations and promote debate anything climate. Hence, the debate is not over and will continue.

    I don’t know where she got her ‘90% of earth system scientists’ regarding the link to man and climate. Many earth scientists have quit science journal editorial boards because the group think journal insisted on propagating the AGW meme. Politically one would think this is a left vs right argument but even very liberal and well respected scientists (Nobel Laureate Ivar Giaever, physicist Freeman Dyson and father of the Gaia hypothesis Dr James Loveland) don’t believe in the man-made claim either.

    Dr Lajtha mentions writing op-eds, attending workshops and to seek out invitations to speak. This is her absolute right to do but should this be done as a citizen or in a professional capacity? If done in a professional capacity it comes off as activism, at least in most taxpayer’s eyes.

    My advice to Dr Lajtha is to communicate with scientists that actually don’t agree with her before she starts talking down to a potentially well informed public regarding this unfortunately divisive topic.

    Richard Mead
    Clovis, CA

  2. Reply from Kate Lajtha:

    I thank Mr. Mead for his willingness to engage in a discussion on my editorial in Biogeochemistry and the short opinion piece in Terra. I am always happy to have a collegial debate, not just on the science of environmental subjects such as climate change, but also on the role of scientists in society.

    I would like to reply to many of the points in his letter. He asks a good question: Why am I not changing my research to crop production or farming practices, given that climate research funding is at risk? The answer is that I am a soil scientist, not an agronomist, so I am unqualified to do plant breeding or crop research. My expertise is in factors that affect soil carbon sequestration, including land management and temperature. My research has shown the direct links between elevated temperatures and increased respiration of soil organic matter. As Mr. Mead knows, soil organic matter is vital to soil health and both natural system and farmland health, and thus my research is very relevant to crop systems, my department, and the citizens of Oregon. Climate-change grants have been obtained by researchers in many OSU departments, because climate science is highly interdisciplinary. Climate funding has gone to oceanography and chemistry (for ocean-acidification research), sociology (for climate-adaptation and perception research), and biology (how will organisms behave under different future climate scenarios), among many other programs.

    Mr. Mead states that “consensus is an anathema to science itself.” I would argue that for most scientists, consensus does not mean unanimity, and consensus is actually very useful in many cases. For example, both scientists and the public generally agree that the Earth is round and not flat, and that the Earth orbits around the sun and not vice versa, and that continental drift explains movement of land masses, and thus we don’t need to waste time on re-examining the data. I would argue that when scientists can ever generally agree on something, it is worth listening to. We are trained to disagree with the status quo and tend to get funding if we can demonstrate that the hypotheses of other researchers might be false. As Faye Flam writes in Bloomberg View1 about scientific consensus, “Yes, collective missteps happen. But if anything, history shows how hard it is to get scientists to agree in the first place.”

    That the vast majority of scientists find the evidence in support of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to be overwhelming has been demonstrated in a large number of rigorous studies (see Cook et al. 20162 for a terrific analysis of the 97% number, which is also explained by NASA3). As Mr. Mead correctly points out though, there are scientists who disagree with the 97%. For example, Mr. Mead mentions Ivar Giaever, a physicist who earned a Nobel Prize for work on tunnelling phenomena in superconductors but has never studied atmospheric physics or the Earth’s climate system. He also mentions physicist Freeman Dyson who recently told Scientific American,4 “I know a lot about nuclear weapons and nothing about climate change,” and mentioned that he does believe that climate change will be significant in the future while pointing out problems with models and data, all of which are points well-taken and are being explored by climate scientists. Mr. Mead also mentions James Lovelock (not Loveland) who spent well over 50 years of his career sounding the alarm over human-caused climate change and believed in the models and data that demonstrated the role of greenhouse gases in temperature increases. It is true, however, that in a recent interview in The Guardian5 at age 97 he stated that “I’m not sure the whole thing isn’t crazy, this climate change” while asserting that he is quite certain that robots will be in charge of the Earth in the very near future.

    Mr. Mead brings up a very good point that is worth all of us mulling over. When should scientists speak to the public about their specific scientific research? When should scientists speak about scientific consensus of their peers? And when should scientists use their expertise to step into policy debates? He is quite right that, as a professor at a land grant institution, I should be held accountable to taxpayers as well as to my university. Because I feel that I have some expertise in this field and am highly qualified to evaluate the science behind different statements about climate research and the scientific process on different websites, I have chosen to speak in different forums to the public. But I welcome honest and collegial debate on this subject, as well as on environmental science in general and my own research.

    1https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-05-22/why-scientific-consensus-is-worth-taking-seriously

    2Cook, J., N. Oreskes, P. T. Doran, W. R. L. Anderegg, B. Verheggen, E. W. Maibach, J. S. Carlton, S. Lewandowsky, A. G. Skuce, S. A. Green, D. Nuccitelli, P. Jacobs, M. Richardson, B. Winkler, R. Painting, and K. Rice. 2016. Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11:048002.

    3https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/)

    4https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/news-blog/freeman-dyson-and-the-irresistible-2009-04-30/

    5https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/30/james-lovelock-interview-by-end-of-century-robots-will-have-taken-over

  3. Thank you Dr. Lajtha. Your response was cordial and balanced.

    A few points if I may…..

    The 97% “consensus” study, Cook et al. (2013) you refer to was proven to have methodology so flawed that well known climate scientists have publicly spoken out against it.

    There’s an actual list of 97 articles that refute this claim located at
    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/12/19/97-articles-refuting-the-97-consensus-on-global-warming/

    You informing me that climate science is highly inter-disciplinary helps prove my point how climate grants have spread to so many non-climate departments and away from the actual climate science itself.

    The consensus retort was good but rudimentary. The earth revolving around the sun is a scientific fact, not theory or hypothesis. If the global warming theory is indeed now a fact, then how much climate change is man’s vs. natural variability? This AGW fact should be able to discern exactly man’s contribution but we both know there is no algorithm here.

    As for organic matter, I am fully aware of its role and also understand that there is more carbon in plants and soils than the atmosphere itself (2000 B tons vs 850 B tons, respectfully), but please remember the role of CO2 as the gas of life whereby the average plant needs more than 150 ppm to exist, is not a pollutant and has been higher in concentration in earth’s history and did not correlate to temperature other than actually lagging after the earth warmed. This is particularly true the last 160M years.

    Finally to besmirch distinguished scientists because of their age or for not being an official climate scientist per se is a little demeaning. In hindsight, my original letter should have initially introduced Dr Judith Curry (a heroine of mine), Dr Willie Soon, Dr Roy Spencer, Dr Richard Lindzen and many other ‘climate scientists’ who are articulate in discussing climate and willing to debate anyone on the AGW side, of which no one is interested in doing so to date.

    You and I can debate this interesting topic until the end of our hopefully long lives at which point, one of us will be correct. What’s really sad is this issue has spilled over into policy and beyond debate even thru IPCC’s conflicted eyes. With a $20T debt left to our kids and grandkids and a third world desperately seeking a way out of poverty, it’s only humane to rely on an energy source that is the densest of any (carbon) for now. If we want the third world to cut ‘evil’ CO2 emissions, we will have to help them get rich by using the same energy source we have used for a more than century.

    This is my final salvo in the debate volley but perhaps it will help folks sitting on the fence to become informed and take a stand, either way.

    Thank you for your time.

    Richard Mead

  4. The “Perspectives,” “Standing Up for Science” and “The War on Science,” authored, respectively, by Profs. Kate Lajtha and Jane Lubchenco, eloquently express the unique importance of the scientific enterprise today and also the imperative for more public speaking out for science by scientists and non-scientists alike.
    It was entirely appropriate for Prof. Lajtha to cite one of the worst problems facing science in America today, the appointment of Scott Pruitt to be the Administrator of the EPA. On March 10, Pruitt was quoted: “I would not agree that it’s [carbon dioxide] a primary contributor to the global warming.” My views relating Pruitt to infamous historical figures who attempted to block the advance of science were published in the Eugene Register-Guard on March 14.

    Leo W. Quirk
    Corvallis
    (541) 758-2067

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