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Should Climate Scientists Speak Up Or Shut Up?

'Our job is not to objectively document the earth's decline.'

31/05/2017 8:01 PM AEST | Updated 31/05/2017 8:02 PM AEST
Sarah Myhre Twitter
Sarah went to Vancouver recently and all she got was this lovely selfie.

In science, objectivity is crucial. It's all about what the science says, not what scientists think.

But what if certain people don't like what the science says? What if -- despite being poorly qualified to evaluate it -- these people twist the science to suit their own agenda? What if they reject peer-reviewed science outright and seed doubt in the minds of others?

What should a scientist do then to protect the integrity of their work?

This is the dilemma facing every climate scientist in the world in 2017, and they pretty much have two choices. The first choice is to shut up and soldier on. Just keep doing the science. The second choice is to get vocal and go into bat for their science.

Dr Sarah Myhre is a paleoceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle. That means she digs around in the mud at the bottom of the sea to discover what the mud tells us about climate -- past and present.

Myhre wrote recently that "This is the time for a gut-check. Our job is not to objectively document the decline of Earth's biodiversity and humanity". As Myhre sees it, climate scientists should be doing whatever they can to get their research out there into the public domain.

"It's so important right now," she told HuffPost Australia. "I think about this every day. I think about it on the way to the bus, I think about it on the bus, I think about it at lunch... how important is the role that scientists can play?

"I think scientists have to be brave. And what I think is brave is scientists coming forward and articulating the science that they're doing, or the science that they're part of, to audiences that may not want to hear it.

"You might say 'there's something unethical about that, you just took the science and spun it'. The thing is, I have evaluated that and and we are trying to communicate with as much integrity as possible.

"It is worth being a vulnerable human being and saying 'I don't want this future and I don't want it for you as well'."

Myhre spoke to HuffPost Australia recently for Episode 2 of Breaking The Ice, our podcast series in which we profile climate scientists and discover how they're coping with studying the most controversial topic on earth.

Click below to subscribe to the Breaking The Ice podcast by HuffPost Australia on iTunes.

Myhre is an excellent speaker who said she's taken numerous science communications courses. Interestingly, the Australian Science Media Centre told HuffPost Australia that this is becoming increasingly normal.

"Scientists need to learn the art of communication from an early stage of their career in order to compete in the highly competitive world of research as well as to communicate their findings to the public," AusSMC CEO Dr Susanna Eliott told us.

"Many research institutions are starting to take communication skills more seriously... and there are now science communication courses in many undergraduate science degrees.

"In areas like climate science, communication becomes even more critical because the impact on society is large and there is so much at stake.

"Knowing how to talk to the public in a way that engages rather than confuses or frightens them is fundamental and needs to be learned early on."

One big problem with the way climate science is communicated is that the problems of a warming world seem distant from our daily lives. We feel empathy with that polar bear on her shrinking iceberg, and with that tiny Pacific nation facing permanent inundation. But without being selfish about it -- how does all this affect us?

Sarah Myhre has the gift of linking the impacts of climate science to everyday things like the food we eat and the leisure pursuits we all enjoy.

"The things I relate to lifestyle -- eating salmon, skiing, picking raspberries in the Pacific northwest -- those things are all on the table in a future of climate warming," she explains in our podcast.

And how is Myhre coping with the largely anti-climate science mood created by the current U.S. government?

"It's rough out there," she admits.

Episode 2 of Breaking The Ice with Dr Sarah Myhre is out now and you can listen to it here.


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