Hard News by Russell Brown

146

Doing Science in Court

I can only express my gratitude to the Climate Science Coalition for launching its questionable legal action against Niwa in the week of the Media7 special on communicating science. It gives us much to discuss.

The CSC's decision to ask a court to rule on what it claims is a dispute over science seems highly unlikely to shed any light on the science itself – you'd need scientists for that – but it has already changed the status of the dispute, by legitimising it as a dispute, and giving new impetus to some fairly old claims.

We've already seen media coverage snap into the usual science-story mode of opposing talking heads --- which effectively elevates the claims of the CSC by giving them equal status with the views of expert agencies and researchers.

We'll see whether any mainstream journalist seeks to examine the scientific claims directly (Chris Barton at the Herald would be my pick), but for now I suspect we'll hear more of the likes of today's Morning Report interview with the CSC's Brian Leyland and science writer Gareth Renowden, in which Sean Plunket stuck with what he knew – the politics – and largely let the science drift by. (Although it was interesting to hear Leyland acknowledge that Alan Gibbs is a "friend" of the organisation, but then say he had no knowledge of any financial support from Gibbs, because he didn't look after the books.)

The CSC's official statements come fairly heavily laden with innuendo about former Niwa scientist Jim Salinger – we're invited to regard Salinger's departure from Niwa after he spoke to the press without permission as a reflection on character – and follow a series of demands for Professor Sir Peter Gluckman to be removed as the Prime Minister's Chief Science advisor, or for his title to be changed "to more accurately reflect the professor’s global warming propaganda advocacy activities."

If you want know what the claims are actually about, Renowden explained them in the course of a fairly lively rebuttal last year. And Sourcewatch has some background on the CSC.

This will be very interesting to watch unfold – and to discuss on the show, with Peter Griffin of the Science Media Centre, and, in a broader sense, Dr David Haywood, Dr Rebecca McLeod of Otago University, science journalist Alan Samson and Radio New Zealand Science producer Phil Smith.

If you'd like to come along to Wednesday's Media7 recording at TVNZ, click "Reply" (or, on System, the little envelope to the left of my name) and let me know.

UPDATE: Renowden has picked up an angle that the news media so far haven't:

The case is being brought not by the NZ Climate Science Coalition or Climate Conversation Group, but by a newly-incorporated charitable trust, the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust. The trustees are NZ CSC stalwarts Terry Dunleavy and Bryan Leyland, together with relative newcomer Doug Edmeades. An application for charitable status was made at the end of July and it was granted on August 10th. The Deed of Trust can be read at the Ministry of Economic Development’s Societies and Trusts Online site: search for “2539286 – NEW ZEALAND CLIMATE SCIENCE EDUCATION TRUST”. The stated aims of the trust (section four of the trust deed) look innocuous enough, but include a standard “do what you like” clause: 4.2.8: Such other activities and enterprises to further the charitable purposes of the Trust as the Trustees may decide. The documents sent to the press over the weekend can be read, in lightly edited form, at Treadgold’s blog.

It’s clear that Dunleavy, Leyland and Edmeades have some questions to answer. Their “charitable trust” was registered on August 10th, and within days they had lodged their legal action with the court. Was the trust formed specifically to bring the action? I understand that using a trust to bring a legal action provides some protection for the litigants if they lose their case and find costs awarded against them. But if that is the real reason for the trust’s existence, then surely it cannot be regarded as a charitable trust?

Goodness. Plenty to talk about, then.

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Meanwhile, in keeping with the theme of "communicating science", National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has published a monthly analysis that says this:

The combined global land and ocean surface temperature made this July the second warmest on record, behind 1998, and the warmest averaged January-July on record. The global average land surface temperature for July and January–July was warmest on record. The global ocean surface temperature for July was the fifth warmest, and for January–July 2010 was the second warmest on record, behind 1998.

Count the datasets, folks. There is some further commentary from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

And Skeptical Science summarises a new video from Dr James Powell.

Skeptical Science's John Cook also has interesting thoughts on communicating science, with particular respect to the site's mobile applications.

If you're aware of other useful communication tools and strategies – not only with respect to climate change – I'd be delighted to hear about them.

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