After a prominent New Zealand radio host claimed that the science of man-made climate change was not yet settled – and used dodgy sources to do so – Joel Rindelaub, research fellow at the University of Auckland issued a rebuttal titled ‘Why Sources Matter in a Climate of Ignorance’. “While it may feel good to listen to your uncle, or your nana, or your favourite radio host,” Rindelaub wrote, they do not have the same credibility as trained scientists that cite the relevant peer-reviewed literature.” Lillian Hanly spoke to Rindelaub about his piece and the so-called ‘climate of ignorance’.

Joel Rindelaub is a Research Fellow in Chemical Science at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in applications of analytical chemistry and forensic science.

Lillian Hanley: Why did you decide to write this piece?

Joel Rindelaub: I do a bit of freelance journalism like this and usually what happens is I will read something that will strike emotion or get me interested in a rebuttal, basically just something that angers me, for example, anti-vaxxers, or basically anything that is out there that is erroneous scientifically. I have specifically been seeing it recently with climate change, and I read this opinion piece by Peter Williams and that just got me to dig a little bit deeper. I also write things if I generally don’t know anything about it because I like to research the peer-reviewed literature and see what science knows at this point and just go from there.

LH: Not everyone can go and read peer-reviewed science literature all the time…

JR: That is another issue with the peer-reviewed literature is that a lot of it is behind a paywall. So it is publically funded by taxpayers, yet taxpayers don’t have access to it, and even if they do a lot of times people are not going to want to read super dry five- or ten-page papers that they are not experts in. Scientists need to do a better job of communicating what they do and being able to break it down into a readable format for the public.

LH: Let’s go back to this article you wrote. So the opinion piece you saw was somebody challenging people to say what the supposed climate expert was saying was wrong?

JR: That is correct. So Peter Williams challenged the readers to say ‘Tell me this Doctor Willie Soon is wrong’. And I immediately went ‘With all due respect, he has no idea what he is talking about’.

LH: Who is Willie Soon?

JR: He is a scientist at the Smithsonian Institute which has a partnership with Harvard. He doesn’t work for Harvard and he is not an astrophysicist, but he has published a few climate-related papers and in these papers he has not disclosed his funding sources which is a breach of scientific integrity. And a lot of these journals actually say it in their ethical guidelines that you are required to disclose any sort of conflicts of interest or where your funding is coming from because an important part of science is if there is any perceived bias.

LH: To me, not a science expert, not a climate expert, there seems like a chain of issues here. Firstly, that he is published at all when you say he might not be an expert on certain matters, secondly, he doesn’t disclose the funding, thirdly, you get people in the news media taking this information as if it is accurate?

JR: Correct. Basically when it comes to scientific consensus you don’t look at the opinion of one person, and one single paper does not mean an absolute certainty. What you need to do is look at the whole collection of the literature and break that down to understand what exactly scientists think on a given topic. Yet, what people will do is instead of overall using their logic to break down our current understanding they will often times just read or use something that validates their own opinions which is dangerous and can actually propagate misinformation.

LH: Is this an issue of the kind of age we are in where people don’t have time to read lots of things or don’t necessarily think critically about the information we are being given?

JR: That certainly contributes. In today’s society we have access to more information than ever before. For instance, social media is a way where a lot of people get their information and those sources are probably the lowest on any sort of ranking of credibility. What compounds this issue is that a lot of social media platforms like Facebook, for instance, will try to gear or tailor information towards your interests to keep you clicking on their website. And that is also an issue with climate denial because they are just going to keep funnelling in the kinds of information that you want to hear, encapsulating yourself in a bubble and not really becoming open-minded or exposed to different viewpoints.

LH: Climate denialists are a very small group of people that claim there is little or no person-made climate change…

JR: There are a lot of different justifications people use, suggesting that the climate has been changing for millennia, then there are other ideas that the sun is driving the climate, that humans could never have an impact. The idea here is that those are not based on the science that we currently know and that is something that people like to propagate for whatever reason. There have been actual studies that have shown that a lot of the funding for these deniers have come from the fossil fuel industry because they have a bottom line.

LH: Twenty years ago we might not have had that information, it might still have been something that we could have questioned?

JR: I would say yes, there was less certainty.

LH: And now, there is much more peer-reviewed literature and much more certainty. At what point can you say okay we know now for sure?

JR: So that is something that the International Panel on Climate Change tries to assess every four years. They try to quantitate and put a figure on our certainty of human’s impact. And I think with the latest report they had something like 97 percent certainty that just the warming in the last fifty years alone was because of human influence. I would also like to mention, as we are talking about levels of certainty and when we first understood that greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide could influence the climate: back at the turn of the twentieth century, Nobel Prize winner Svante Arrhenius actually did a calculation that showed that if we increase C02 we are going to warm the climate, and this was way before anyone had even considered the impact from the fossil fuel industry. So this is something humans have known about for over one hundred years.

LH: So why are we still talking about this? Why is this still an issue that people are denying?

JR: Well it comes down to a lot of factors and that is information, what do people know, how do they get their sources of information, and then where are those sources coming from. Basically, what it comes down to is you have got to follow the money and who is funding these climate deniers and what are their interests.

LH: What else can we do, what can the everyday person do to find out more, to understand better so we can take action?

JR: Basically, you want to find the most credible sources you can. So looking at something on Facebook or Instagram probably are not going to be the best sources. You need to recognise what is legitimate and that is usually that cites the peer-reviewed literature. So a primary source as well as a trusted conveyer of that information as well, usually that will be someone that has a Ph.D. or reports on this type of science. Be open-minded is the take-home conclusion, if you come across information you disagree with don’t immediately refute it without fact-checking it first.

LH: Does it go both ways as well? Because if someone is fairly certain that climate change is happening and then you hear this Willie Soon guy on the radio and there is this possibility that maybe it isn’t us.

JR: That is exactly what scientists do. If you have information that refutes us we are all about it, we want to read it because that is interesting to us as we want to learn and we want to challenge our understanding of the world. So absolutely if Willie Soon publishes a paper I am going to read it to understand what is methodology was, what his conclusions were, and how credible the sources are. So yes, scientists are always looking for people to challenge them, that is part of the job.

This interview was originally aired on The Wire. To hear the audio and download this interview click here.

See Also:

How will climate change impact Aotearoa? ▶

Q+A: What do atoms reveal about human behaviour? Can we end the silence on science?