Contested Science: a case study



For complex issues such as global climate change, there are many opportunities for scientists to take issue with the findings of their colleagues. They can disagree about the procedures for gathering data, the completeness or coverage of the data, how the data are analysed and interpreted, and then finally the conclusions. The assumptions that shape a particular piece of research and inform the kind of questions that will be asked can be no less contentious than the quality of the data gathered.

Disputes within the scientific community can be extensively reported by the media: for instance in the early years of this century, the ‘hockey stick’ reconstruction (see below, first published by Professor Michael Mann and colleagues in Nature in 1998) became the target for a sustained (and at times, vitriolic) attack that had a high public profile in the US. This is not altogether surprising. It is a potent image – and has become, for some, an icon of what we are doing to the climate. Equally, we should bear in mind the political circumstances of the day.

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Shortly after he took office in 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it would harm the US economy. Given the link between fossil fuels, CO2emissions and economic activity, this is a legitimate concern; it may well be shared (privately) by other world leaders. Nevertheless, rejection of this landmark agreement to curb CO2 emissions from industrialised countries set the tone for the Bush Administration. It was widely seen as hostile to any mandatory cutbacks in CO2 emissions, and open to the influence of sceptical scientific opinion on global warming – either directly or through the activities of various business-backed lobby groups.

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Perhaps one of the main reasons that people are inclined to dispute the evidence for human-instigated climatic change, and in particular global warming, is because the data and predictions based upon them represent a relatively short time period: records for direct temperature measurements (using thermometers), only cover the last 150 years or so. This can easily be critiqued as a poor baseline – what if the records are simply reflecting a ‘natural’ cycle of global cooling and warming that takes place at the millennial scale, rather than within living memory?

The problems of calculating future risks based on limited modern data are well recognised within marine biology, where the term ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’ has developed to account for the lack of concern some modern fisheries have shown about fish stocks – the argument being that stocks do not seem that depleted compared to a few decades ago. However, when the situation is examined from a deeper-time perspective using historical and archaeological evidence (as we will do in chapter 6) and the problem of over-fishing is apparent.