An erosion of trust

Published online on June 30, 2010, in Nature.

Many climate researchers worry that scepticism about global warming is on the rise. Jeff Tollefson investigates the basis for that concern and what scientists are doing about it.

Last November, a catchy music video popped up on YouTube and attracted thousands of fans. Called ‘Hide the Decline’, the video featured a caricature of climate researcher Michael Mann admitting that he had committed fraud while creating his famous ‘hockey-stick’ graph of temperatures over the past millennium. Accompanied by a kitten playing the guitar, the cartoon image of Mann joyfully sings, “Making up data the old hard way, fudging the numbers day by day.”

The video wasn’t funny to the real Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. A lawyer wrote to the group responsible for it, threatening to sue them for defamation and for using a copyrighted image. The video was promptly taken down and a new version — without the copyrighted photo — appeared on YouTube.

Mann has grown weary of dealing with the various groups that are criticizing him. “In reality, these groups are guilty over and over again of defamation, slander and libel, but that is far more difficult to fight legally,” Mann says. “Even if you were to prevail, you would have invested potentially several years of your career, and frankly those of us who love doing science are not willing to do that.”

Mann isn’t alone in wondering how to respond to the wave of attacks that followed November’s leak of e-mails from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. Beyond the satire and vitriol appearing on blogs, researchers have endured threatening phone messages and other forms of harassment. And they’re frustrated that governments have yet to mobilize in the face of solid evidence for global warming. All of this has spread fear among climate scientists that they are losing the war over public opinion, just a few years after a swell of support followed the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Geneva, Switzerland, which garnered a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

However, polling data suggest that the situation is not as dire as many researchers suspect. Studies in the United States and the United Kingdom show that belief in global warming has dropped in recent years, but a majority of people still trust climate scientists. There are also signs that public support for actions on global warming have grown in recent months.

Still, scientists and scientific societies have decided that they need to fight back against the proliferating misinformation. They are using novel approaches to get their message across, such as trying to humanize climate scientists. “We’re trying to see if we can inoculate against some of the distrust in climate scientists,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, head of the climate-science education group at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is seeking to make individual scientists more accessible by introducing them to the media and the public.

But will these efforts work? And are they even necessary? Better communication never hurts, but some social scientists say that it won’t be nearly enough to resolve the problems facing climate experts.

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