TOPIC GUIDE: Scepticism and Science

"Scepticism is crucial to debates about climate change"

PUBLISHED: 30 Aug 2010

AUTHOR: Shome Shubhodeep & Tony Gilland

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The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore, former Vice-President of the United States, for ‘their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change’ [Ref: Nobel Prize]. However, the IPCC’s acclaimed Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) that led to the Nobel Prize [Ref: IPCC] subsequently came under severe criticism for bias, factual errors and its reliance on ‘grey literature’ in 2010 [Ref: Guardian]. This itself followed the 2009 media storm that erupted around leaked emails from a pre-eminent climate institute – the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the UK – which appeared to suggest that scientists had been manipulating or hiding data [Ref: Guardian], some of which underpinned the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph used by Al Gore in his documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and that took pride of place in the IPCC’s influential Third Assessment Report (AR3) of 2001 [Ref: Guardian]. Those sceptical about the IPCC’s science were quick to brandish ‘Climategate’ as evidence of collusion by scientists wanting to pressurise the international community into following a green agenda [Ref: BBC News]. The reputation of climate science was further damaged in January 2010 when the IPCC was forced to recant a projection that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 [Ref: BBC News].

However, despite the ‘febrile mood’ that developed in the midst of ‘climate-gate’, the impact of the scandals has given some room for reflection [Ref: BBC]. The UK Government’s chief scientific advisor John Beddington called for greater openness, arguing that ‘science grows and improves in the light of criticism’ and that it is unhealthy to ‘dismiss proper scepticism’ [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. Other commentators have concluded that scientists need to be more candid about the degrees of uncertainty in climate change predictions. An influential review of the processes of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Council, commissioned in response to the controversies, congratulates the IPCC on its achievements to-date but warns of the need for tighter procedures; most notably with regard to the ‘characterisation of uncertainty’ [Ref: InterAcademy Council]. Others, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, are alarmed by the way in which they believe climate change sceptics have exaggerated the significance of a small number of errors to derail action on climate change [Ref: Guardian]. American economist Jeffrey Sachs accuses climate-change sceptics of being ‘recycled critics of controls on tobacco and acid rain’ seeking to discredit the scientific process [Ref: Guardian]. In the midst of emotive accusations and counter-accusations, how should we come to a decision about the way forward on climate-change policies and, crucially, what role should scepticism play?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Is the scientific community guilty of alarmism?
India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has labelled the tendency of the IPCC to highlight catastrophic scenarios ‘climate evangelism’ [Ref: Times of India]. Others accuse scientists of deliberately scaremongering. By emphasising hurricanes, floods, droughts and disappearing Islands they effectively frighten governments and the public into action. On this view, scepticism is vital to hold scientists to account and to make sure difficult questions are asked. Incidents such as the ‘Himalayan blunder’ or ‘Climategate’ have severely dented the credibility of the scientific community by creating the impression of a lack of openness to healthy criticism and alternative ideas. Even Lord Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, admitted that the case for man-made climate change has been exaggerated as well as oversimplified by a section of scientists. Nevertheless, he and a majority of scientists as well as world governments reiterate that the science of man-made climate change is accurate and sound. An open letter by U.S. scientists declared: ‘The significance of IPCC errors has been greatly exaggerated by many sensationalist accounts’ [Ref: Open Letter from Scientists]. Furthermore, three separate inquiries have largely cleared the UEA scientists of allegations of misconduct or fraud, leading to accusations of it being climate change sceptics that are truly misleading the public [Ref: Guardian].

Scepticism or denial?
Climate scientists and sympathetic commentators have been quick to turn the tables. In response to ‘Climategate’, sceptics are depicted as focusing on bureaucratic errors and small technicalities to create gaps in otherwise incontrovertible science [Ref: Guardian]. Historically, critics of ‘climate sceptics’ have accused detractors of a narrow right-wing libertarian agenda and ties with big business interested in downplaying the significance of human-induced global warming [Ref: Guardian]. More substantially, others have sought to draw a line between legitimate scepticism and what they regard as flagrant denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence for the need to reduce carbon emissions significantly. In this vein, the journalist Johann Hari accuses climate change sceptics of adopting a ‘faith-based position’ [Ref: Independent].

‘On the word of no one’
The motto of the preeminent 350-year-old UK scientific institution the Royal Society proclaims: ‘Nullis in Verba’ (translated: on the word of no one) [Ref: The Royal Society]. What constitutes legitimate scepticism in discussions about climate change is at the heart of this debate and is one in which the Royal Society itself is embroiled, following complaints from 43 of its Fellows that its latest report – ‘Climate Change Controversies’ – failed to draw a line between fact and conjecture [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. Elsewhere, German climatologist Hans von Storch and sociologist Nico Stehr have written that self-censorship is blighting the scientific community and has made it deaf to new insights competing with current explanatory models of climate change [Ref: Spiegel Online]. It has become exceedingly difficult, they claim, for sceptical scientists to disagree or challenge sensationalist accounts of climate change. British sociologist Frank Furedi critiques the ‘highly charged, intemperate rhetoric’ deployed against sceptics, arguing that scepticism is still ‘the highest of duties’ and is underpinned by the belief that the truth is difficult to discover [Ref: spiked]. Others counter that sceptics present a fantastical story of a large number of decent, hard-working, conscientious researchers seeking to conspire in an unprecedented manner [Ref: Guardian]. Furthermore, they argue sceptics take advantage of the fact that the worst effects of climate change will not be manifest for several decades and that they misrepresent the scientific process in the cause of espousing inaction. To present the public with the complexities of every scientific debate, it is argued, would downplay the scientific community’s responsibility for providing society with the clearest answers possible [Ref: Spiegel Online].

A more honest debate?
The collapse of the Copenhagen summit in late 2009 indicates that the debate about climate change is as much a political one as it is scientific [Ref: Guardian]. Professor of Climate Change Mike Hulme warns of the need for a more honest debate. According to Hulme ‘political arguments masquerade as arguments about science’ whilst ‘legitimate differences about ideologies and values are reduced to trading blows about the ‘right’ numbers’ [Ref: chinadialogue]. Climate change is thus not simply a scientific problem but also a social, economic and political one. Sceptics say the science is too uncertain to justify the huge costs of the radical measures being advocated to mitigate possible damage; measures that could fundamentally alter the global economy for an eventuality that may or may not come true. Others are vehement that ignoring the mountain of evidence is simply too risky a proposition, and that the result of stalling could spell human misery on an unprecedented scale. Even the self-styled ‘Sceptical Environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg, has recently declared climate change to be ‘one of the chief concerns facing the world’ [Ref: Guardian]. How to take the climate change debate forward requires us to grapple with these vexed questions about the role that science has to play, and the place for scepticism in the decision making process.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Robin McKie versus Benny Peiser

Guardian 7 February 2010

In praise of scepticism

Justin Rowlatt BBC 17 December 2009


Why scepticism is still the ‘highest of duties’

Frank Furedi spiked 26 April 2010

Breed Controversy

Jug Suraiya Times of India 16 December 2009

A space for climate change sceptics

Benny Paiser OpenDemocracy 9 May 2005

How Global Warming Research is creating a climate of fear

Hans von Storch and Nico Stehr Spiegel Online 25 January 2005


Don’t hound the climate scientists

Rajendra Pachauri Guardian 26 March 2010

IPCC errors: facts and spin

RealClimate 14 February 2010

Is Climate Change for real?

Amit Bhattacharya Times of India 14 December 2009

How I wish that the global warming deniers were right

Johann Hari Independent 4 December 2009


Tree ring circus

Steve Milloy Washington Times 12 May 2010

Heated debate

Mike Hulme chinadialogue 11 May 2010

Up in the air

Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker 12 April 2010

Open Letter from US scientists on the IPCC

Open Letter from Scientists 13 March 2010

Spare us the scares

Bjorn Lomborg Times of India 27 February 2010

The FP Guide to Climate Skeptics

Christina Larson Foreign Policy 26 February 2010

Reason over emotion

Ashok Ganguly Telegraph (India) 24 February 2010

Real scientists are climate skeptics

Earth Institute Columbia University 8 December 2009

‘Show your working’: What ‘ClimateGate’ means

Mike Hulme and Jerome Ravetz BBC 1 December 2009

A climate scientist who engages sceptics

New York Times 27 November 2009

Death denial

George Monbiot Outlook India 4 November 2009

In praise of scepticism

Clive James BBC 23 October 2009


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

‘No malpractice’ by climate unit

BBC News 14 April 2010


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