Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Scientific Evidence Faces Mediation

By Ian Lowe

Uncertainty in science enables misconceptions to perpetuate in courts and the media, but there is now a process for dealing with conflicting advice from scientific experts.

Recent events have caused me to reflect on the way courts, politics and the media use science. At the Perth Writers’ Festival, the program scheduled me to do a session with Dorothy Rowe, author of Why We Lie. She comes from a psychological background and makes the point that we usually lie to other people when telling the truth would be uncomfortable, either for us or the person we are talking to. If a friend looks unwell, or the clothes they are wearing are unflattering, or we know their spouse is having an affair, we are likely to dissemble rather than be bluntly honest. Not many of us would say to a friend: “You look terrible” or “Those clothes just don’t suit you”.

Rowe’s more interesting point is that we lie to ourselves for the same reason. We prefer not to face the truth when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

So we had a very interesting discussion about denial of climate change. Since accepting the science leads inevitably to the conclusion that our governments need to act, those who are ideologically hostile to government action are desperate to find some rationalisation to deny the science. Accepting the science also leads to the necessity for us all to live less wastefully, so those who find that idea distasteful are equally enthusiastic in their denial.

Some intelligent people now recite the litany of statements that are true but irrelevant (e.g. carbon dioxide comprises only 0.04% of the atmosphere; humans only account for a fraction of the natural carbon cycle) or just wrong (e.g. volcanoes release more carbon dioxide than human activities; the Earth is cooling rather than warming). The ABC’s Media Watch revealed that some radio shock-jocks are not just repeating this sort of nonsense but portraying it as “science” – while the regulator, charged with ensuring that broadcasting does not deliberately mislead the public, does nothing about it.

In another Perth session, chaired by former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, we grappled with the problem of uncertainty and the use of science by politicians. Decision-makers ask experts for advice and expect a yes or no answer, and are unhappy if the expert says “maybe”. But in the real world of complex systems, there is always uncertainty.

Science will always be a work in progress. There are things we know for certain, and these sometimes have the status of “laws” that cannot be broken (e.g. “there are always losses in converting energy from one form to another”). There are statements of knowledge from experiment or observation (e.g. “carbon dioxide molecules absorb infrared radiation” leads to the conclusion that increasing the atmospheric concentration will reduce the rate of heat radiating into space).

But science cannot tell us with certainty the consequences of future changes. Will 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide trigger runaway warming, or might 450 ppm still be safe? It can’t even tell us with certainty all the consequences of the changes we have already made.

Some reputable researchers think we have already passed a critical tipping point that makes accelerating change inevitable, while others are not convinced. Sensible politicians err on the side of caution when they are uncertain. But the problem is that an honest statement of uncertainty can appear less convincing than a bald assertion. So “junk science” can prevail in courts and the public media.

The New South Wales Land and Environment Court now has a process for dealing with conflicting advice from scientific experts. Where there is disagreement, the court can require the scientists to meet with a mediator and produce an agreed statement of what is known, what is uncertain and what evidence exists for the two contending interpretations. That at least ensures that the court has a clear picture.

I told a Perth reporter that we should also have a process for holding advisers to account. If I were a financial adviser and my analysis caused you to lose your life savings, you would be entitled to seek redress. Similarly if my advice causes the loss of precious ecological assets, the community should be able to hold me to account.

We don’t have a process for checking serious environmental problems against the advice justifying development.