Two books published on climate change in the last month provide an interesting contrast. Both of them are by eminent Australian scientists. They are of similar length and both appear at first sight rigorously footnoted.
There, however, the similarities end. One of the books is written by a retired expert in the field on which he is writing. Although the scope of the book necessarily takes him outside his field of expertise he has consulted widely with the leading Australian, in many cases world, experts in the areas he covers. Most of his references are to peer reviewed papers, usually in the most respected journals. An earlier edition is widely used as a text-book by academics with expertise in the field.
The other author has never published anything in a peer reviewed journal relating to the vast bulk of the topics covered. He is happy to reference a graph so fraudulent even its author withdrew it as deceptive. He cites as evidence a writer for a UK tabloid who has a history of promoting fraud across numerous fields of science. He repeatedly understates the number of scientists involved in the work he criticises, and attributes qualifications that do not exist to those who support his case. Claims that have been thoroughly debunked are treated as gospel. Personal abuse is hurled at those who do not agree with him. Most of the peer reviewed references come from a single journal whose professional standing is so low it is not carried by the International Scientific Index.
If you’ve been following the debate anywhere other than The Australian or Quadrant, I doubt you needed to follow the links to recognise the second book as being Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth. You probably haven’t however, heard about the first book, Climate Change, The Science Impacts and Solutions by A. Barrie Pittock. Interesting, no?
Part of the reason Pittock, former head of CSIRO’s Climate Impact Group, hasn’t got a single mention on Google News is that what he is saying has been said so often before. There are hordes of books that represent the science on Climate Change. Most are not as rigorous as Pittock’s or lack an Australian angle, but the publication of a quality text-book that can also be used by lay people isn’t really news.
Apparently the publication of a farrago of cherry-picking, distortion and outright lies is — at least if it happens to support the political views of the editors of certain media outlets. Obviously this says something very sad about the state of the media today, particularly our national daily publication.
However, it’s only possible because the public awareness and understanding of science is so poor. It’s not just that Plimer can get away with frankly absurd factual claims without getting laughed at by all readers — science is now so broad it’s hard to expect people to keep track of every field.
Unfortunately the processes of science are equally poorly understood. Just knowing Nature or Science are rather more rigorous in their acceptance of papers than Energy and Environment would help people avoid some embarrassing missteps.
Moreover, the myth that a scientist eminent in one field is capable of overturning decades of knowledge carefully built up in another depends in part on the perception that modern science is dominated by a few people per field. Recently some commentators on Crikey’s Pollbludger blog seemed to be seriously arguing that Australian scientists weren’t interested in running for parliament because none of those they’d heard of are.
In fact Australia has tens of thousands of research scientists even with one of the lowest per capita rates in the developed world. When someone claims an entire field of science is built on lies they’re not picking a fight with a handful of individuals, but with thousands working directly in the field and many more whose work touches on the area. Plimer knows this — his prestige comes from once heading a University department. Most of his readers, on the other hand, are probably not aware of just how many people are being accused of dishonesty or gross incompetence. It’s this ignorance that drives the different responses to Plimer and Pittock’s books.