A question of trust

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It isn't enough to explain the facts of climate change very, very clearly. Building public trust requires researchers to change their practices.

Despite the scandals over leaked e-mails at the University of East Anglia, UK, and flawed data in the most recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific evidence for global warming remains strong. The question, then, is to what extent have the controversies eroded the public's trust in climate science or, worse, in the scientists themselves?

There has undoubtedly been some slippage. But a closer look at the data across multiple polls shows that, broadly speaking, the public trusts scientists, believes in global warming and wants governments to do something about it (see page 24). The public seems to have done what the mainstream media could not: it has kept the scandals in perspective. The scathing verbal attacks on climate science and scientists are actually coming from a relative handful of critics, and they do not reflect a broader resurgence of scepticism.

Yet few climate scientists are likely to take satisfaction in this news. For them, the real measure of public trust is the level of political engagement on global warming: if people truly believe the science, then why have so few of them demanded action of their governments? Why is the world still at loggerheads over climate change?

The problem is that people assess information from any number of sources, not just scientists. And people — politicians included — make decisions on the basis of self-interest and their own hopes, fears and values, which will not necessarily match what many researchers deem self-evident.

“Researchers must learn to see themselves as public figures and honest brokers.”

The scientific community must recognize that the issues surrounding climate change resonate with the public and politicians on many different levels. Facts do matter. Scientists must continue to engage the public in plain language whenever possible, laying out the evidence for climate change in a clear and compelling way. And they must provide policy-makers in both the public and private sectors with accurate, credible and timely information (see page 30). But, given the complexity of that evidence, and the many uncertainties that remain, scientists will be only as persuasive as they are trusted — which means that preserving and cultivating the public's trust must be the scientific community's top priority.

As the recent controversies have made abundantly clear, individual researchers must learn to see themselves as public figures and honest brokers. In particular, they must recognize that questionable data management and improper restrictions on the release of data — or on the details of how those data were processed — undermine both public confidence and scientific integrity by impeding independent expert assessment.

More generally, scientists, institutions and funding agencies must increase transparency wherever possible. When engaging the public, the kind of uncertainties and internal debates that scientists struggle with on a daily basis should be played up, not down (see page 31). Likewise, neither the IPCC nor national governments should endorse regional studies that overstate scientists' ability to forecast the local effects of climate change on short timescales.

Finally, scientists must steer clear of hype and rein in exaggerations about the threat of global warming. Those who seek to sow doubt about the solid and widespread evidence for global warming must be countered with facts as a matter of course. But legitimate fears and scientific scepticism must be welcomed into the discussion.

The science isn't complete and never will be, but it is sufficiently robust that broad conclusions cannot be undermined by questions about any given datum point. From this perspective, the fact that climate scientists can't predict exactly how bad the impacts might be could well be the best argument for action.


  1. Report this comment #11553

    Miklos Zagoni said:

    Re: "the scientific evidence for global warming remains strong."

    Yes, but the cause is challenged. A recent article in a British journal shows that there exists a stable stationary value for the Earth's greenhouse effect, and proves that its empirical value, calculated on different independent atmospheric databases, is fluctuating around that theoretical equilibrium value.

    Yours sincerely,
    Miklos Zagoni, physicst

  2. Report this comment #11555

    Daniel Kirk-Davidoff said:

    The paper referenced above (if it's the one by Miskolczi in Energy and Environment) is discussed here:

  3. Report this comment #11556

    Miklos Zagoni said:

    Daniel, Thanks for your comment. But your reference is old, and I cannot see there any discussion, only a far-disproved theoretical statement. I have given a link to a recent empirical paper. The real novelty, the existence of a stabil empirical equilibrium value for the Earth atmosphere, is alive.

    I am open to any real discussion.

    Best regards,
    Miklos Zagoni

  4. Report this comment #11561

    Andrew Ekstrom said:

    As a graduate student in Systems Engineering and Environmental Science, I have become more and skeptical about the research process and the data analysis that most articles and research receives. I often get into trouble in my Env Sci classes because I read the data analysis part of articles first. In my stats classes, the text books made statements like, ?Scientists like to use method ?X? to analyze data. This is an incorrect approach because?? It wasn?t until I started reading journal articles in my Env Sci classes, where method ?X? was used, that I realized how poorly most research is performed. In my Systems Engineering classes, we learn how to design and analyze robust, comprehensive experiments. Many of our homework assignments involve analyzing data and reporting our findings. Usually, the data comes from our professor?s consulting jobs. The result of their analysis usually shows that the experts at <blank> company did not do a good job of designing and analyzing their data.
    It is my opinion that many scientists need to take a few classes in applied statistics. Something I do when I get bored is to look at and read journal articles that contain the raw data. I go back and reanalyze their data and usually come to the conclusion that the authors improperly analyzed data or did a poor job of design their experiments. I have yet to find a single article, out of the 30+ articles I looked at, where the authors came to the same conclusions I did when analyzing their data. For the most egregious errors, I ask my professors to analyze the data and methods in case I missed something. So far, I haven?t. When I write to the authors and editors of those journals, no one wants to do anything about it. As a result, I do not trust ANY article I read that does not have the data attached to the article. Furthermore, if they improperly analyzed their data, I do not trust the article either.

  5. Report this comment #11562

    Mark Fletcher said:

    "... the fact that climate scientists can't predict exactly how bad the impacts might be could well be the best argument for action."

    Yes, but what action? There seems to be a consensus that warming is occurring and that much of it is caused by humans. However, it is almost always assumed that the appropriate action is to immediately reduce carbon emissions.

    Transparency on this issue would start with admitting that the proposed reductions in emissions are predicted to have no significant effect on global temperature (fractions of a degree by 2100) and will reduce economic growth by many trillions of dollars in the same period. Contrast this fact with the standard, misleading statements about billions of tons of carbon emissions avoided with only a small (fraction of a percent) reduction in GDP. Notice how the careful choice of data exaggerates the benefits and hides the cost.

    If carbon emissions are to be reduced it should be done in the most transparent way, with an explicit carbon tax on energy, rather than hiding the costs through emissions permits. This option also removes the well-documented opportunities for politicians to benefit themselves through giving permits to their supporters.

    Finally, serious alternatives to emission controls should be debated, such as preparing to adapt to whatever climate changes occur by maximizing development generally, e.g. by trying to achieve the Millenium Development Goals, and specifically in areas that are likely to be significant in a warmer climate, such as tropical diseases, food and water supplies and coastal habitation. Note that these proposals are likely to generate significant opposition because they champion free market economic development to reduce poverty and develop the capacity for adaptation, while many of the strongest supporters of emission controls are ideologically opposed to free market economic development.

  6. Report this comment #11574

    John Meaney said:

    @ Andrew Ekstrom – Although I wish you weren't correct, I recall a letter published right here in Nature some years back, probably about ten years ago. Paraphased colloquially, it went something like this:

    "Dear Scientists, We believe your knowledge of statistics sucks, and you've no idea what statistical signficance is. Lots of love, The Association of American Statisticians."

    It was a lot more polite, but that was the gist of it... I know of at least one Oxford mathematician who agreed. As a physics undergraduate, I had less interest in statistics than any other topic, and I fear I wasn't the only one.

  7. Report this comment #11592

    Fred Moolten said:

    In communicating with the public, it is clearly important, as this Editorial suggests, to acknowledge uncertainty and controversy within climate science, but it is equally important to distinguish controversies within the legitimate climate science literature, based on observational data and their analysis, from controversies outside the context of the literature, among bloggers, media commentators, and even scientists themselves. Some of the above commentary in fact appears to include the latter category. Within the data-derived literature, the basic principles of warming driven primarily by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity are now well documented from a large multiplicity of independent sources. The exact magnitude remains uncertain, however, with "climate sensitivity" (temperature response to CO2 doubling) occupying a broad range of estimates from about 2 to 4.5 deg C. Although either extreme would threaten substantial adverse effects over time, the higher value portends earlier and more severe damage than the lower value. All values within this range reflect a combined effect of the warming potential inherent in CO2 itself plus the positive feedbacks resulting from CO2-driven warming. Relevant to an earlier comment, the most potent feedback is the increase in atmospheric water vapor predicted from basic principles of physics, and now well confirmed from multiple sources, including studies by Soden, Held, Dessler, and others. The effect of water vapor precludes any plausible stabilizing influence that was postulated a few years ago to entail a reduction in water vapor consequent to a warming effect of CO2.

    The public, in essence, should be aware of the uncertainties, but also of the "certainties" associated with current evidence, where certainty in science can never reach 100 percent, but can approach that value on the basis of the type of accrued evidence that is currently available.

  8. Report this comment #11640

    Miklos Zagoni said:

    @ Fred Moolten – Please try to imagine a situation where two opposite powers work. One that you discribe: an opporunity for positive water vapor feedback from Clausius-Clapeyron; and another, coming from the limit of the available incoming energy of the system. In the reference I gave it is shown that (under certaint conditions that on the Earth hold) these two are able to maintain an equilibrium. Please note that reduction of the total amount of water vapor is not the only degree of freedom for the system. There are others: the vertical and meridional distribution of vapor in the air, and also the ground and air temperature distributions. The system knows the physics and will find its best way of dynamic compensation in the hydrological cycle to fulfill its energetic constraints. -- All in all, the paper I refer claims to prove that the Earth's atmosphere maintains a stable time-stationary greenhouse effect.

  9. Report this comment #11644

    John Paul Villforth said:

    It is nice to finally find a place to discuss climate issues without getting bogged down in name calling, etc. One of the items I have yet to see or hear addressed is what the history of past climate change can show us. A number of years ago there was a video television documentary of sorts broadcast in the UK in which a number of scientists that were studying and analyzing ice cores from Antarctica, and I believe Greenland. One of the important things that they pointed out was that in the past, CO2 changes in the atmosphere did not drive climate change or temperature. The records evidently show that CO2 changes lag temperature change, in some cases in the past, by hundreds of years. So, before the 1970's, when CO2 was first proposed as a greenhouse gas that might mitigate the then fear of another ice age, CO2 was never thought to drive climate change. The ice core records evidently show that carbon dioxide changes follow temperature change, not cause temperature change.
    Two of the other things the documentary pointed out was a comparison of the quantity of carbon dioxide getting into the atmosphere compared to man-made sources of carbon dioxide. Natural sources are factors of 100 or more on a yearly basis compared to all man-made activities, both now and in the past. The other item was a comparison of sunspot activity and atmospheric temperature change. The remarkable thing was that when the two charts were superimposed upon each other, they were a remarkably close fit. One thing I ask people is what they think drives climate change and many believe it is actually the sun.

  10. Report this comment #11646

    Mason Kelsey said:

    It would be beneficial to divide any discussion about Long Term Climate Changes to three categories: 1. Verification of Change, 2. Determination of Cause of Change, and 3. What Can or Should be Approrpiate Reaction by Humans? Confusing those very different categories just bogs us down into ideological camps.

    Getting the public involved is essential because in democratic societies the public must support whatever is done or whether anything should be or can be done. Even if a society has an autocratic government it must depend on the attitudes of the public to facility any actions it takes. The public can act to brake any actions determined to be beneficial if it has not bought into the plan. How can it contribute to any plan if it is not aware of its benefits? And how can it bear the cost of actions if the public doesn't agree that the actions are necessary?

    I would like to see far more dialog between the scientific community and the public in all issues that impinge on the public. The scientific community has an educational role in society that it tends to neglect. I am pleased that Nature supports building public trust.

  11. Report this comment #11652

    Gary Kerbaugh said:

    Mr. Villforth, you are quite correct that CO2 has lagged behind temperature change in most major temperature shifts of the past for which we have that information. Al Gore made a mistake when he suggested that the similarity of the graphs was evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. However, neither is it evidence against the greenhouse effect of CO2; there simply were no "unnatural" sources of CO2 in most past climate shifts. In fact, the similarity of the graphs is ominous, portending non-linearity. Rising CO2 will raise temperatures, producing more CO2 in a feedback loop.

    The relative size of human CO2 emissions compared to natural ones is also unimportant. At equilibrium, the naturally emitted CO2 is being absorbed as fast as it is being produced, which is not true for CO2 that humans produce. In fact, the above feedback loop suggests that the environment will magnify the effects of human emissions.

    Finally, with regard to the sunspots graph, read Peter Laut, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016%2FS1364-6826%2803%2900041-5. That graph was produced by such bad statistics and physics that it might just as well have been made up.

  12. Report this comment #11672

    Jonathan Katz said:

    There are several distinct issues here: 1. Is climate warming? 2. If so, are anthropogenic greenhouse gases a significant contributing factor? 3. Is warming likely to be harmful to humanity? 4. If the answers to 1 and 3 are yes, what, if anything, should be done about it?

    There is abundant evidence that the answer to 1 is yes. The answer to 2 is hard to quantify (the models differ by more than a factor of two), but the answer is very likely yes, at least qualitatively. The answer to 3 is unknown, and very plausibly no (making 4 moot).

    Past periods of warming were good for humanity (as in the Late Medieval Climatic Maximum 800--1300). Past episodes of cooling (as the Little Ice Age 1300--1800) were harmful, causing widespread famine and contraction of human habitation. One of the strongest arguments of the reality of warming has been the lengthening of growing seasons and the poleward march of climatic zones. How can this be bad? There is no evidence that warming over the last 150 years has led to more frequent droughts, severe storms, spread of tropical diseases (many of which retreated to the tropics during that period) or other harmful effects. For good physics reasons (advective, rather than radiative, heat transport when solar heating is strong), greenhouse gases make cold weather and climate milder, but do not make hot weather and climate hotter.

    Jonathan Katz
    Professor of Physics
    Washington University
    St. Louis, Mo. 63130

  13. Report this comment #11680

    Peter Salonius said:
    We are warned in this editorial that: " researchers must learn to see themselves as public figures and honest brokers [and] recognize that questionable data management ............. ? undermine both public confidence and scientific integrity......"

    We now have evidence that the APPARENT unusually rapid climate warming during the three decades after the early 1970s was in large measure CREATED by a consistent program of eliminating data from high altitudes and high latitudes so that as time marched on global temperatures were increasingly driven by warm records from the few low altitude and low latitude stations remaining. See VIDEO interview with the researcher who discovered the pattern of selectively eliminating cold temperature stations from the global record at:


    Peter Salonius
    email petersalonius@hotmail.com

  14. Report this comment #11686

    Peter Salonius said:

    It has come to my attention that the web site I posted earlier today, featuring a VIDEO interview with the researcher who discovered the pattern of selectively eliminating cold temperature stations from the global record ------------ may no longer be be functional. The following YOUTUBE interview does indeed carry this important interview:


    Peter Salonius

    email petersalonius@hotmail.com

  15. Report this comment #11703

    Ron Broberg said:

    Re: Peter Salonius

    The idea that eliminating cold stations necessarily leads to a warming trend is logically fallacious. This claim and similar ones are reviewed here:

  16. Report this comment #11707

    Fred Moolten said:

    Although the result is probably inadvertent, the commentary in this thread illustrates the challenge posed by the Editorial for those hoping to communicate climate change science to the public. The literature now harbors compelling evidence that we are warming the planet, with both current and future adverse consequences, but with some uncertainty regarding details. Some comments above imply that these conclusions are unwarranted. Given human fallibility, that argument might be justified by those thoroughly familiar with the evidence in the literature, and capable of offering a contradictory set of data capable of withstanding objective scrutiny. The literature is an appropriate place for this, but comments in a thread such as this one can never resolve such issues, and can create a misleading impression of controversy where little is justified. For this reason, I believe that if Katz and Salonius visit the literature, they will find their assertions adequately refuted, but in any case, that is the forum for the assertions. I apply the same standard to Miklos Zagoni, but with respect for his gracious tone and appreciation for his loyalty to the theorizing of his friend Ferenc Miskolczi.

  17. Report this comment #11709

    Miklos Zagoni said:

    @ Fred Moolten
    In the paper I referred you can find a new but coherent picture of the greenhouse effect. I can summarize it in three theses. A) Under the specific conditions of Earth-like planetary atmospheres (having sufficient GHG-reservoirs, like the oceans), there exists a theoretically predictable constant value for the greenhouse effect; B) this constant can be derived from the structure of the infrared fluxes alone, without any explicit knowledge of the given concentrations of GHG?s in the air; and C) the actual greenhouse effect, calculated on different independent observed atmospheric data archives, is very close to that constant. Therefore, the recent warming trend happens in the effective (and not in the greenhouse) temperature. I hope the literature will discuss deeply these assertions.
    Re 'theorizing': let me quote the final sentence of the paper: "These empirical results could well be challenged by a comparable empirical method."
    If you said Though this be madness, yet there is method in it, I would agree.

  18. Report this comment #11896

    Terry Oldberg said:

    The editorial repeats the canard that a theory is "scientific" if built by "scientists." It would follow that, as the IPCC's theory of anthropogenic global warming was built by "scientists," a member of the public had reason to place his/her trust in this theory.

    Actually, whether a theory was or was not built by "scientists" is irrelevant. By the definition of "scientific," a model is "scientific" if and only if tested without being falsified by the observational data. Under the scientific method of inquiry, belief in a theory is not based upon trust in "scientists" but rather in thorough, successful testing of this theory.

    It is a precondition for testing a theory that this theory shall be falsifiable. The IPCC's climate models do not meet this precondition. Thus, contrary the editorial's implication there is a complete lack of scientific support for the IPCC's advice to policy makers.

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