Science and Technology Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 254

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 19 June 2013

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Jim Dowd

Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Mosley

Pamela Nash

Sarah Newton

Graham Stringer

Hywel Williams


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Catherine Happer, Glasgow University Media Group, Professor Greg Philo, Glasgow University Media Group, and Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer, Science Media Centre, gave evidence.

Q1Chair: Can I welcome our witnesses to this morning’s session? As you know, this inquiry is not examining the issues around climate science but how it is communicated to the public. We have a number of questions to put to you in the next hour. For the record, it would be helpful if you could introduce yourselves.

Dr Happer: I am Dr Catherine Happer from Glasgow University Media Group.

Professor Philo: I am Professor Greg Philo. I am the research director of the group.

Tom Sheldon: I am Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre.

Q2Chair: Dr Happer, you have recently published research on how the delivery of information through the media affects attitudes to climate change, energy security and so on. Could you summarise for us very briefly the findings of your report?

Dr Happer: We did an 18-month in-depth qualitative research project looking at public understanding, beliefs and commitments to behaviour in response to accounts of climate change. The research had three stages. The first stage was to establish existing beliefs, opinions and commitments to behaviour in terms of climate change-related activities. We then sought to introduce new information to gain a sense of the way new information is negotiated by audiences and absorbed into existing belief structures. We did that by using new methodologies. We introduced the information by way of constructed news reports, online newspaper, radio and television, to get a sense of the way that impacted on the formation of opinions within a group setting and also whether that impacted on commitments to behavioural change.

The third stage was to go back to our original sample six months later and ask them about the longer-term impact on attitudes and behaviours and whether anybody had gone out and changed their behaviour in relation to the information we had given them. The new information focused on the global and local consequences of climate change, with scenarios such as a massive flood in Bangladesh that led to mass immigration to Britain, and a localised flood in Glasgow. There were lots of findings. To summarise the key points about public understanding, belief and commitment, we found a great deal of confusion about climate change and low understanding on the subject. Certain polls have found that if people are given a list of causes and effects they can identify them, but in a focus group setting we found that most people, unprompted, struggled to give a consistent and accurate explanation of climate change. Maybe they would throw out key terms-"greenhouse gases" and so on-but most people struggled to give an accurate definition. We also found that climate change is used almost as an umbrella term for other environmental issues. Pollution and population growth are talked about a lot when people think about climate change. For example, there is consistent confusion about the ozone layer both as a cause and an effect. There is a lot of confusion.

To come back to the role of media in that, when we asked about where people were getting their information, television news rated very highly, but the main point about the level of confusion and where we felt it was coming from was that people were very wary of the speakers involved in this debate. There is a real lack of trust. Scientists defined as a very general group were trusted in a broad sense, but there was a real lack of trust about the science. That took two forms, one of which was that it was seen as a theoretical issue. It was very difficult to prove or disprove and the evidence was seen as woolly. As a result, the speakers involved could manipulate the data to their own ends and agendas.

Even though the scientists as a broad group were trusted, we found there was a real lack of trust in the speakers involved in the debate, and people were very cynical about the coverage of climate change. They did not see it as based on the facts but led by agendas. In this very long answer, I do not want to answer everything you are going to ask about the findings, but, as a result, we found that led to disengagement in terms of behaviours and attitudes because there was such confusion, lack of trust and conflicting accounts they were drawing on from a whole range of sources, and people were very confused.

Q3Chair: As I understand it, you found that increased engagement in topics such as climate or energy security did not lead to any fundamental changes in behaviour. Is that correct?

Dr Happer: Are you talking about increased engagement? Engagement in climate change-and I think other research backs this up-has decreased in recent years. It is seen as less of a priority. That is in a general sense, but in our specific research, when we introduced the new information, we found that in the short term people were very struck by the information we had given them, which was contextualised within the science. Quite a few of them said that it would lead them to change their attitudes and potentially their behaviours. But when we returned to them six months later and they were re-immersed in the media environment, which is incredibly sceptical-I refer to the research by James Painter, which has covered in depth the scepticism in the British press-we found that any potential for attitudinal change was diluted by that re-immersion in an environment full of conflicting accounts about climate change. In a general sense, engagement in recent years on this issue, for a variety of reasons-changing priorities, the economy and so on-has decreased.

Q4Chair: Mr Sheldon, do you have any initial observations on this work?

Tom Sheldon: We do not carry out research at the Science Media Centre. We are an independent press office for science. Our goal is to try to get more scientists engaging with the media and to try to make sure that journalists have access to the best experts and available evidence when science is in the headlines. Our focus is on controversial science. Climate change has had more than its fair share of controversies over the last few years. However, those fights and battles tend to be media or political controversies rather than scientific controversies, but we always see those media events, storms and kinds of threats as opportunities for scientists to get into the media and make their climate research better understood by the public.

In terms of public understanding of climate science, it is vital for scientists to be brutally honest with the public about their research. We want the public to hear from as wide a range of climate scientists as possible who can explain the importance of CO2 in the atmosphere, polar ice melt, ocean acidification, links between climate and weather, as has just come up with the Met Office, and things like that.

Public trust in scientists is routinely reported from surveys as very high among the professions: it is 70% and 80%. That is very much because the public expect scientists to tell the unvarnished truth about things, stripped of all politics and messaging. Catherine referred to things being seen as led by agendas. Trust in science is routinely so high because science is not led by an agenda; it is neutral. Climate data tell a very important story that needs to be heard, but the evidence itself is politically and socially neutral. Scientists need to communicate that.

Q5Pamela Nash: Do you think that a complex scientific issue such as climate change can be effectively communicated in the media as it stands today? Do you think that the reduction in the number of specialist reporters has affected the ability to do that?

Professor Philo: Yes, it can be, but the specialist reporter would not make a huge difference, in the sense that it is very complicated and not many people understand it. What you would find is that, in a situation like this, the bulk of the population is prepared to trust the science if it is clearly explained to them that there is a scientific consensus. We found that the people in our groups-it seems to be general-did not even know that there was a scientific consensus. There has been a considerable amount of confusion in the media, particularly in television. TV likes to have a debate, so it will bring on a scientist and then a sceptic because it wants to generate debate. We found an enormous amount of confusion about the issue. When people say that the science is a bit woolly, it is not woolly; it is perfectly clear to all the scientists we have spoken to-they don’t see it as woolly at all-but that impression has been created by the manner in which it has been presented in the media. Sometimes that is done deliberately; sometimes it emerges from the institutional structures of the media.

The second point that comes out from this, very importantly, is that people’s distrust is not just about climate change; it is about absolutely anything. People simply do not believe what they are being told. Scientists are in a sense still a treasured group, and one that probably has to be used much more effectively in this debate, but people in these groups said to us, "Why are you asking us? People like us will have no effect on any of these decisions." The perception people now have is that everything is done above their heads by small, elite powerful groups-corporations or whatever-who influence Governments.

Q6Pamela Nash: To be clear, are you talking about scientists here?

Professor Philo: They do not include scientists in that, no. Because scientists work in universities, they are one of the few groups that are not seen as having that kind of vested interest. In that sense they are a crucial group in conveying the information, but at the moment we don’t have any real research about the relationship between what politicians say or people who are trying to give professional advice in this area. With regard to the inputs into the media, we have no real analysis of what happens when that information goes in and how it is mediated, changed and reorganised in the media, and then how it results in actual beliefs, attitudes or change. We did the attitude and belief section, but my feeling is that there is an absolutely crucial need to work out what is in the media and how it is getting there, because none of that is being studied at the moment.

Dr Happer: There is a particular gap with television news and documentaries. Work is being done by James Painter on newspapers and the level of scepticism in the British press, but television documentaries, such as "Frozen Planet" and so on, are quite important in engaging and informing people on this issue. Currently, no work is being done in measuring or looking at the patterns and coverage on television, so it is quite limited. As Greg says, no connection is being made between the reception analysis, content analysis and production at the initial stages.

Professor Philo: You are right about the training of journalists, but in a way it is not just about having specialists; it is about having journalists as a whole better educated in these issues. Not all of them will be major climate scientists; none of us is because it is very complicated, but a lot could be done inside television and the papers as well to educate journalists in how to convey information in a clear way and what the balance of opinion is. One of the most alarming things is that, if you have 97% of scientists saying one thing, people just don’t seem to be aware of that.

Tom Sheldon: Can I come in on specialist reporters, because, in our experience, specialists make a huge difference to the way that these subjects are covered? We see time and time again that specialist science and environment reporters have a very good grasp of climate science and where the weight of evidence lies, and they give proper representation to that. You are right that there has been some reduction in the number of specialists in all quarters, especially at newspapers, but it is still worth noting that practically every major national media outlet in the UK has at least one specialist. They have been under just as much pressure from sceptic groups over the years as anyone else, but they are the best. They have access to the climate science; they have examined it for years; they have developed a very good grasp of it, and they have themselves fought for that kind of coverage, sometimes against a hostile editorial line.

There is a huge appetite for science in the UK news media. They often get prominence. Just last night on "News at 10" there was a big piece by David Shukman on climate and weather. It covered uncertainty beautifully and explained it to a mass audience at peak time. It is still getting out there. In newspapers, the way that news articles are written is generally pretty good. The daily specialist reporters routinely cover science and the environment, and the quality is quite high and the evidence well represented.

Commentators are a different kind of animal and are paid to be provocative, selective and misleading. You see a lot of very shrill and hysterical mud-slinging by commentators, but I would set that aside. They are paid to take extreme views. In broadcast media, balance in the DNA of news reporters is still an issue. It works brilliantly in politics. Maybe you disagree, but you have someone for and someone against and you have your slot on the "Today" programme, but it does not work in science when all the weight of evidence is very much on one side, as my colleagues have been saying. It is not fair to give five minutes to a climate scientist who has spent 30 years covering something and then five minutes to Nigel Lawson to say climate change is not real.

Things have improved. The BBC, especially after the Trust’s review of impartiality in science, is recommending that the weight of evidence is taken into account when considering balance, but we need intelligent, true balance. There is argument among climate scientists-of course there is. This is how science progresses. Scientists try to tear strips off one another constantly. They are the true sceptics, and where those arguments are being had is what we want to see playing out in the media.

Q7Pamela Nash: We have been talking about journalists having more science training and if they are specialists, and the difference that makes, but what about scientists having media training to be able to get their message across? First, do you think scientists have a responsibility to get their message across? Obviously, we are thinking of climate change here, but also in general. In BioCity in Airdrie in my constituency, I have been really impressed by young scientists getting business training and learning more about how to set up their own businesses, but there is no media training being given to them to get their message across. Is that something we could incorporate more in science degrees?

Dr Happer: Definitely, in terms of the profile of scientists. They have a very low profile at the moment, and part of that is to do with the retreat following the Climategate incident and possibly the kinds of responses they get from the sceptic groups, which can be quite intimidating, and a number of them have retreated. That is an issue in itself, about their willingness to put themselves in a public role, if you like.

Coming back to the idea of the sceptics, Tom mentioned Nigel Lawson. As a sceptic, that is a household name. Most people know that name and maybe attribute some credibility to it, but nobody in the groups that we did could name a single genuine expert or scientist. You have an imbalance of sceptics being household names and the scientists not being known at all to the public. If you do have a few household names-people who appear regularly and are very visible-it is very easy to attribute credibility to somebody who you know is working in this area.

We talked about the trust invested in scientists when they appear in the broadcast media or press. One of the problems is that people have no idea about the credentials of those scientists. Particularly on television, the introduction is so brief, and most people don’t have the knowledge to assess the credibility of one person versus the credibility of another. If they are scientists, where are they coming from? What is the research and background? So, yes, we think scientists should play a much greater role in communicating to the public, but there are a number of issues as to whether we could do something to combat those problems.

Professor Philo: There is a very serious issue here in relation to the responsibility of scientists. They need to think about their colleagues in medicine and the kinds of arguments and controversy that took place in areas such as cancer or HIV. Scientists put up their hands and said, "These are major public health issues." They took a lot of abuse initially and were under enormous pressure-but eventually the medical community took on a very powerful role as communicators of their own science-and still are. They are now demanding changes in tobacco, alcohol and all of those things. That is where the natural scientists have to be. They have to say that climate change is a public health issue and stop worrying as a group about the abuse that they sometimes receive or have received. They have to stop worrying about the odd programme like "The Climate Change Hoax".

Q8Pamela Nash: We could teach them that as well.

Professor Philo: I am sure that you could. There is an absolute need for them to say, "If we are wrong, the issue is that there are more wind farms; if the other side is wrong, we are talking about the potential dangers to sustainable life on the planet for large numbers of people." That is a different order of risk, and they need to come out and say that. The difficulty scientists have is that they do not have routine access to the media. I entirely take your point about training, which would be very helpful, but they do not and cannot command that access to the media. The people who can command it, with all its problems and abuse, are, indeed, the politicians, because they are seen as opinion leaders; they are what media specialists like me would call primary definers. They have routine access. What is crucial there is that access is no use without the scientists, because the population does not believe the politicians, as you know. There have been so many difficulties. I don’t need to rehearse them now, but you know to what I am referring. In our groups people said to us, "Well, if it was being said to us by a politician, I would not believe it because I would think there was a vested interest." That was said to us in the groups. What is required is an exact link between the political structures and the natural scientists. The natural scientists will give the credibility of their science to what is being said. People will believe it if it is seen as coming from the scientists and if they see the politicians being nudged by them, because this is seen as a planetary public health issue.

Chair: We need to move on.

Q9Stephen Mosley: I was interested in some of the points you made about the media previously. Mr Sheldon talked about the news broadcast last night. I do not know whether you have seen the front page of today’s Sun, which refers to 10 years of wet weather because of warming in the north Atlantic. Do you think climate change issues are more productively raised in the media through the reporting of things that people can associate with, such as changes to localised weather, or even extending it to things like energy security and the issues covered by that?

Professor Philo: The answer to that is yes. The weather is something about which people are very concerned, but you raise energy security. We did that as a second major part of our study. Catherine mentioned the scenarios to you that we created. We submerged people in an alternative news environment with stories that had not yet occurred but which we were advised would very likely occur in the near future. We showed people news programmes that we had constructed ourselves about massive floods, energy black-outs and things like that so that we could understand the triggers for possible changes in attitudes or belief. It was a completely new methodology, and it worked very well.

The most powerful was the material on energy. That immediately clicked with people, especially young people. When they thought their mobile phones, Twitter and Facebook would no longer work because of energy black-outs, they were absolutely traumatised by this and demanded instant action; they were prepared to pay more tax for it and everything else. That had an enormous linkage. People immediately saw the link and said, "If you are worried about climate change and you can solve it through sustainable things, and those sustainable things can give us energy security, it is no contest; we have to go for that."

Dr Happer: Returning to your point about weather, people are very concerned about the things that impact on them directly. One of the big concerns is energy pricing. A lot of people are struggling to pay their bills right now and that is a big issue, but the weather was the most commonly cited association with climate change when we talked about it in the first place. That was in the form of whether the people directly experienced extreme weather events reported in the media. That was the tack that Obama took in his State of the Union address when he linked the science to extreme weather events and the level of risk. I thought that was a very effective model, rooting it in the science but making the direct connection with people’s lives and the level of risks. Weather is something that people experience and make a connection with, so the answer is absolutely.

Tom Sheldon: I would agree with that. Scientists in all disciplines need to make their explanations relevant to real people, because everything you see when you pick up a copy of the Sun or any newspapers, or anything on TV or radio, has to be relevant to people; otherwise, the audience will switch off. Scientists need support from their press officers, encouragement to speak out about their work and engage with the press.

Greg’s point that scientists do not have routine access to media has typically been true in the past, but the SMC exists to try to rectify that to ensure that when science is in the news scientists’ voices are clearly heard.

We would also argue that scientists should be permitted to stick to the scientific evidence that they are coming up with in their discipline and not be drawn on what the policy decisions should be as a result of that, because those are not their decisions to make; those are your decisions to make, but policies need to be very visibly underpinned by the best available science.

Q10Stephen Mosley: We have seen figures showing that the reporting of climate change has decreased over the past few years. Should we be worried about that?

Dr Happer: There has been a sharp decline. There was a period of intense attention in about 2007 and a spike in 2009 as a consequence of the Copenhagen conference as well as the Climategate incident. One of the reasons is that politicians have been talking about it less. Whether or not that is important, we found a broad disengagement. In addition to the level of confusion people felt, there was a sense that, because climate change was not in the media because the politicians were not talking about it any more, it was less of a priority and they were thinking about it less. That led to levels of disengagement and impacted on the commitment to behavioural changes. It does make a difference. It is almost, if it is in the media, it is in people’s heads and it is perceived as a priority. Right now the economy is the top priority for most people and politicians, and there is a knock-on effect.

Professor Philo: In the groups I was in, there was an assumption that somehow it had been solved. If it was not being talked about any more, it had gone down. People were a bit puzzled. We did not tell people what we were going to talk about when we did these groups. When we said we would be talking about climate change, some of the responses were, "Oh, are you still talking about that old thing?" It is not just disengagement, but there is a sense that it is no longer an issue in some way.

Tom Sheldon: It is also because there needs to be a story-and a scandal is a story, whether it is a real or perceived one. There was a spike at Climategate because of the UEA e-mails, but when the scandal went away-this applies to all news stories-it dropped off the agenda, but individual studies can also make stories in their own right. When there are new and important pieces of high quality peer-reviewed climate science published, they need to be consistently rolled out to the press. They tell their own stories.

Professor Philo: The problem is that individual stories disappear. Even with Climategate, nobody raised that with us. The only people who even remembered it vaguely were those in East Anglia. The e-mails were from their local university and they remembered it for that reason. Nobody else had any recollection of it.

Q11Stephen Mosley: Following on from all three of those answers, can I play devil’s advocate? Government often find it easier to develop policy when they do not have hysteria on the front pages of newspapers. Could the reduction in coverage of climate change help the Government develop their policies without getting into histrionics in the press constantly?

Professor Philo: It would depend on the policy. In the case of HIV, if you want to introduce major behavioural change, in, for example, the use of safe sex, you absolutely need to take the public with you in the sense that they have to understand this is a major issue. If you want to introduce behavioural change in relation to climate change and you want to alter what people do-for example, restrict air travel or put up taxes to deal with it, or whatever- you must take the public with you. They have to perceive that this is a major issue. Some policies can be done by stealth, in the sense that people would not notice very much, but I would have thought that for a lot of the policy in this area the public must have a sense that this is an absolutely crucial, major, planet-type issue involving survival. In our scenarios what made people sit up was the notion of climate refugees. There would be a lot more people who were refugees on the planet and some might or would end up coming here. That immediately got people upset, particularly the ethnic minority groups in our study who felt themselves to be under enormous pressure anyway. They said, "Oh, my goodness, if more people come, as a group we will be under more pressure." We found that the big behavioural changes in our study came from the ethnic minority groups-people who owned take-aways and things like that. One woman who owned a take-away completely altered-and carried on altering-the disposal of all of her waste and take-away stuff. She ended up hiring a commercial company to come and do it because of what she had seen in the scenario with us.

Tom Sheldon: It is encouraging that you say it is easier to make Government policy and talk about it in Parliament in calmer times. I hope that is true. There is a lot that Government can do here. One is to continue to give a clear message, irrespective of policy disagreements between parties, that climate science and climate change are things to be taken seriously, and to keep raising them at PMQs and things like that, but also to allow media access to Government scientists. This is a problem we have come across time and time again when sometimes the best scientists across all disciplines get sucked into Government-this particularly counts for scientific advisers-and the public never hear from them again. It is crucial that those people who are advising Government, precisely because they are the best scientists in their disciplines, are given freedom and are let off the leash to communicate their work to the public as well.

Q12Sarah Newton: I want to stick with that very important point you have just made. Although I accept that, generally speaking, people are totally confused, from the evidence we have received there seems to be a distinction in people’s minds between scientists and climate scientists, and between Government advisers and Government scientists and non-Government scientists. Can we stick with that and pursue the line as to who would be the trusted voices and who is not really capturing the trust and respect of the public at the moment in this debate?

Tom Sheldon: For me, the most powerful thing is having a range of people to hear from. It is very difficult to ignore when a whole bunch of climate scientists independently, and from all quarters of the UK, or even the globe, come to the same conclusions. They are not sitting in a room deciding on what their public message is going to be; they are just speaking from their own evidence and research, telling it to the public without anyone tapping on their shoulder and whispering in their ear to say they are not allowed to say this or that. Then the public get to make up their own mind based on the evidence they have heard from an expert.

Dr Happer: The response to that is that it is very difficult for the general public to make a distinction between those different groups. When we talk to them, most have no idea whether a scientist is funded by a particular group or is backed by the Government. When they give their credentials and are introduced in the media, the background to that is not always explicitly stated. It is very difficult for people to make those decisions. In a digital environment in attributing trust, it is a very complex process of weighing up different sources and the bits of information that you can attach to those different sources. Because of the very low level of trust in politicians, we found that, if somebody is a Government adviser, unfortunately, alarm bells would ring immediately, but scientists who seem to be independently funded and come from the right place would be more likely to be trusted. It is a very complex process, and people are so confused because they cannot necessarily make that distinction; it is very difficult for them to do so.

Q13Sarah Newton: It seems that you are contradicting what Tom said, which I found very interesting. He said that the best scientists were invited to become Government scientists and Government advisers. Once they are in that situation, they are often in the best place to give the best information because the public just want the actual information about what is going on. Then somehow they stop talking; they are not out there in the media making the case. But you are saying that, because they are part of the Government, there is confusion about vested interests and the people who are trusted.

Professor Philo: I do not think that is what we found. Catherine is saying that people just would not know where they were coming from. A Government political adviser or politician would be distrusted, but not a scientist. The sense of what Tom was saying is that they would physically not be out in the media as much, but they would not be distrusted if they were.

Q14Sarah Newton: It is important for us to take away that there would be trust and the Government scientific advice would have trust among the public.

Professor Philo: Yes, absolutely.

Q15Sarah Newton: It is very important for us to understand who the trusted voice is to cut through this confusion and people’s concerns about vested interests on both sides of the argument. If we could think about ways in which Government advisers could take a more prominent role in communicating, you are all agreeing that they would be trusted.

Professor Philo: Yes.

Tom Sheldon: We do not see any conflict between advising Government and speaking to the media. In the BIS survey in 2011 on public attitudes to science, public trust in university scientists was about 82%; public trust in what were called Government scientists, whatever that means, was still running at about 70%, which is phenomenally high. John Beddington, the outgoing CSA, was quite prominent in the media. He spoke out on a range of issues and maintained a high level of public respect and trust throughout that. If you are seeing a scientist of any kind in the media, there is automatic trust in them. The public need to rely on the journalist to make the call whether or not this person is a credible source.

Professor Philo: That is exactly what we are saying. Politicians need to be seen to be acting on very specific scientific advice-

Tom Sheldon: And referring to it.

Professor Philo: -and referring to it. People will then see that that is a priority. In those circumstances, we found people were saying they would change their behaviour. We kept raising the issue of air travel, because that seemed to be an obvious one. People said they would accept restrictions or higher taxes on air travel. I was surprised that people consistently said that. As long as it was seen to be an absolute priority, they would go along with it. If it was a rule, they would obey it, rather like seat belts or something like that.

Q16Sarah Newton: You keep drawing attention to public health analogies, which are interesting. To tease this out a bit, you are making the analogy with smoking. For a long time vested interests prevented a full understanding of the public health problems related to smoking. Eventually, all the scientists supported one another and broke through it and Government started to warn the public about it. There is a huge range of public policy as a result of that, but yet each year we still have huge numbers of young people smoking.

Professor Philo: It has gone down from 70% of males to 26% of males, but you are right.1 People still smoke, but it is a very addictive drug and has all kinds of status implications beyond health. It is difficult to tell a 16 year-old, who wants to show off to his mates, that he should not smoke because he is going to get cancer when he is 70. I have done quite a bit of work in that area and it is very difficult. You can invite me back to talk about it. There are very specific ways in which you can deal with those problems in removing the status and kudos associated with smoking.

Sarah Newton: We probably ought not to go down that path.

Chair: We need to move on, I am afraid.

Q17Graham Stringer: I cannot remember now who said it, but somebody said that scientists should be let off their leashes. Is not one of the problems that, when scientists are let off their leashes and are not talking very specifically about the paper they have just written, they tend to get into even more extreme language than politicians? For instance, the previous scientific adviser to the Government said that climate change was worse than terrorism. Scientists at the university of East Anglia said in 2003 that children would never see snow again after 2010. I think you can say that was wrong. Don’t scientists become part of the political problem when they make statements like that?

Tom Sheldon: It was me who said that they should be let off the leash. I don’t mean they should be encouraged to talk outside their field of expertise but that they should be let off the Government leash, and there is one. Government employ hundreds of scientists to do Government-commissioned work in arm’s length bodies, and these people have to seek special permission to talk about their work publicly. We would argue that they have got to that position because of their expertise. What I mean by letting them off the leash is giving them the freedom to speak from the evidence and also to disagree with one another. Government are obsessed with getting a single public message out there, whereas science does not work like that. There are disagreements, and we think they should be aired quite happily.

Q18Graham Stringer: There are disagreements. The point I am trying to get at is whether in the public mind it is possible to separate the uncertainties and ambiguities about the politics and the consequential price of energy, for instance, from the uncertainties about the scientific debate. Is it possible to separate that?

Tom Sheldon: I think we should trust the public with this. The public are often underestimated in this kind of thing. They have a capacity to make up their own minds and weigh the evidence, and they want to be spoken to. I keep saying "they"-we-all of us-want to be spoken to frankly and honestly. We don’t want to be given instructions and messages. We want to hear from experts so that we can decide for ourselves.

Q19Graham Stringer: In mixing up the political debate with the scientific debate, you said previously it is not balanced to have a climate scientist appearing with Nigel Lawson, who is saying that climate change is not real. I found this an interesting comment, because that is not what Nigel Lawson says-ever-if you read his work. He says that, if you accept climate change, you need to deal with it in a different and more proportionate way. That is an illustration, isn’t it, that it is inevitable that the politics and science mix, but it is very difficult, even for somebody in the professional position you are in, to separate out those political debates from the scientific debate?

Tom Sheldon: I don’t think that is a completely fair comment, because Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation tells the story that global average surface temperatures have not risen in the last 10 or 15 years, and it uses that to undermine the evidence for climate science. I used him as an example, but there is a history in the media of reporting in this way, using false balance and putting up a scientist against someone who takes the opposite view but not from an evidence point of view and a position of having researched this area, so it is a fair point to make.

Q20Graham Stringer: We are going to have the BBC in later. Would you recommend that the BBC put up only scientists against scientists in this context?

Tom Sheldon: It depends on what you are talking about. If you are talking about what policy decisions should be made on wind farms, the Severn tidal barrage or new nuclear build over the next 40 years, no, because they are not scientific issues; they are policy issues, and then a whole range of voices need to be heard. If you are talking about the implications of CO2 levels in the atmosphere having just recently reached 400 ppm, that is something only a scientist can answer. If you put on someone who has an anti-climate change agenda for political reasons, you are skewing the debate in an unfair way.

Q21Stephen Metcalfe: Following on from that, are you concerned that the media’s relentless search for a good story, despite the truth, and the fact they want to present a conflict will undermine the trust that still remains in scientists as a group compared with anyone else?

Professor Philo: No. It undermines trust in the media but I don’t think it undermines trust in scientists. Trust in scientists remains for a number of reasons. One is that they are seen as publicly funded, quite often. It is people’s encounter with science and how they are seen. People are now going to university; there are very large numbers of people in higher education. It is not just scientists but academics. It is a question of seeing people as being somehow disinterested and having a genuine public concern. Against that is a very generalised sense that the world is now being carved up by private specialised interests and that these interests make all the decisions. To get beyond that, you need to tap into the groups that are seen as having a genuine public concern; and that is academics and universities, who still retain a very high level of credibility.

Dr Happer: You also have to be realistic and work within the confines of the media. The television and press are there to inform and educate, but they also have to bring in audiences and engage people. For instance, we talked about extreme weather as a potential news peg for stories about climate change. Perhaps that is where it comes in, because that is a way to bring in audiences in a way they can directly relate to. We are talking about the media. The audiences are there and we have to work within the confines that they have, and journalists have certain conventions beyond just balance that they have to meet. So, being realistic, we have to find ways to bring audiences in within that, I think.

Q22Stephen Metcalfe: Someone said earlier that there is confusion, distrust and disengagement because of the conflicts that the media have to create to make a good story, whereas the reality is that 97% of scientists agree on this, but that does not make a great story.

Dr Happer: But, in the case of extreme weather events, there is no particular need, as Tom said, when you are talking about the science to bring in somebody who is sceptical in that context; it is not necessary. You can have debates about the uncertainties of the science or risks, but you do not necessarily have to bring in a sceptic in that context. You still have the news peg, but there does not necessarily need to be a conflict in terms of the discussion about the science.

Professor Philo: There are many different great stories. The problem with this particular one is not so much that the media necessarily always want controversy, but they always want something new; it is as simple as that. They had a great story four or five years ago that there was a tremendous danger if it increased by 4º. Then they got bored with that a bit. The basic problem is that we have done that one. Now what is there? If another thing comes up about controversy, we will do that. We need a reorienting of the debate to say that it is still very serious. When that is said collectively by the scientists linked to the politicians, and the politicians are seen to be taking that as very specific, important and world-changing evidence, it will go back on to the major agenda again.

Tom Sheldon: In between all the controversies, of course, are hundreds and hundreds of very high quality scientific papers being published, constantly, always, about new things. By definition they are new. If you get a new piece of research using satellite data to demonstrate clearly that rates of ice loss at the poles have been accelerating, that gets into the news because it is new, important, relevant and is happening now. That is something that has not been done before. Editors are not stupid; they are not going to put things on their news programmes and papers that will bore people, yet routinely they keep coming back to these stories, so there is a great source of evidence-based information for the public.

Q23Stephen Metcalfe: You said earlier that there are people who are paid to take extreme views in the media. How is the public supposed to know which ones are being paid to take extreme views and which ones are presenting a balanced, accurate representation of the facts?

Tom Sheldon: Anyone who reads a newspaper regularly will know where to find the news and the comment, and newspapers have taken this format for years and years. Commentators tend to be minor celebrities in their own right and will take on an ultra-climate sceptic persona and be quite insulting and rather libellous a lot of the time as well. It is quite different from reading a news story where a subject or a new piece of work is presented impartially.

Q24Stephen Metcalfe: I accept that, but we as politicians know from the correspondence we receive that those who take the more extreme views tend to be believed more by the wider general vocal public. The columnist who takes the extreme view is the one who frames the debate, whether it is on climate change, immigration or the euro, rather than the balanced reporting bit at the front. People still have the tendency to believe what they read in the paper without running it through a filter to say this is written to sell newspapers.

Tom Sheldon: I would hazard the guess that the people who believe it were already persuaded in the first place, because, when I read commentators with whom I do not agree, it just makes me dig my heels in where I already am.

Professor Philo: It might also be a function of the people who are writing to you, because that is not what we found. With randomly assorted groups we did not find that; the strong people they would believe were the scientists. Some people in the BBC such as David Attenborough came up. There was a whole range of people to whom they would go and they would believe. I have to say that nobody ever mentioned Melanie Phillips in all of our groups.

Dr Happer: Jeremy Clarkson was mentioned. People would always say that he is a climate sceptic, but he is there to entertain; he is a celebrity. I agree that to an extent people are still informed by what they read, even if they approach it with the cynical view, "This is here to entertain me," but I don’t think people would necessarily go to Jeremy Clarkson for their scientific information.

Chair: Who doesn’t even know how an engine works.

Q25Jim Dowd: The question I have here is: is it possible for the Government to be considered a source of trusted and consistent information on climate change issues? The answer to that is no, so I am not going to put that to you. I am more interested in the answers that all three of you have given this morning. Why do you assume that any part of the media, whether it is electronic, broadcast, printed or online, has the responsibility or mission to explain? They have a mission to fill space, whether it is printed or electronic. Surely, they do not really care what is in there as long as something is in there.

Professor Philo: The difficulty is that they are the key source of information, especially the BBC, for what people believe on almost any issue you want to name. They have a huge impact on things like health. I did a study of suicide and looked at how a single episode of "Casualty" showing a suicide doubled the rate of admissions to hospital for suicide. Whether we like it or not, the media have an enormous impact on behaviour and belief.

Q26Jim Dowd: I am not dismissing that for a moment; it has an enormous impact. What I do not believe is that it has a mission to explain; it has a mission to survive. You said a moment ago that people trust David Attenborough. That flies in the face of any logic. It does not matter what is being explained. As long as David Attenborough is explaining it, they will believe it, in the same way that Jeremy Clarkson could advance a particular issue. The content of what he is saying does not matter. Because it is him, whether you like or loathe him-I will not say where I stand on the issue-people decide simply on the basis of the media, not the message.

Professor Philo: I would say yes to David Attenborough and no to Jeremy Clarkson, exactly because of their different positions and the manner in which they present themselves and are marketed. The BBC does have a mission to explain and a duty to inform, educate and entertain. It is not there just to fill space. As the BBC is anyway the key source of information for most people, it does have that responsibility. I think you will find that the BBC will want to show that it is fulfilling it.

Q27Jim Dowd: I am not sure the BBC does. If you take the BBC at its own evaluation, it is one of the highest organisations and establishments in the entire history of humankind. I do not necessarily share that view. Can the Government re-establish any credibility in this area?

Professor Philo: Yes, if they are seen to be acting on the best scientific advice, especially if they are seen to be doing it, not in any way for their own interests, but they constantly defer to the scientists and say, "We are having to do this," in the way that it was done with HIV and AIDS. What made that campaign so credible was the fact that, when talking about safe sex, Government Ministers looked so embarrassed. They obviously did not want to be doing what they were doing and therefore it was hugely convincing. The moment people believe politicians is when they say, "We’re doing this because in essence we are absolutely being told this is it." Very powerful voices, like that of Chris Rapley, who has worked on the British Antarctic Survey and as the director of the Science Museum, have huge public credibility. If they are standing alongside you saying, "Actually I do know about this and it is terribly important," they will believe you.

Q28Jim Dowd: The crux of it is that it is not the message but the delivery that counts.

Professor Philo: Yes; it is the trust in the person delivering it. I think that is right.

Tom Sheldon: You have given a very cynical description of what the media is for. You might say it is a realistic view, and you are right: the media do exist to entertain and sell newspapers. We have covered the BBC a little, but it is not just the BBC where you would find journalists who take a more noble view of their profession.

Q29Jim Dowd: Noble-journalists!

Tom Sheldon: They would say so, in order to get under the skin of people they perceive not to be telling the truth and make sure that they are accurate in the copy they write. I know a lot of journalists. They don’t like getting it wrong. The specialists in science, health and environment, in particular, would see part of their role not just to write entertaining, fun, interesting and attractive copy but also to make sure the facts are in there and it is a fair representation of the subject for which they are champions.

Jim Dowd: One of the great maxims of journalism, though, is, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

Q30Hywel Williams: Are the public aware that individual newspapers take a particular line on climate change?

Tom Sheldon: Are the public aware?

Professor Philo: It depends on how much they compare the papers. We found out a fascinating thing where we had a group of people who read only the Daily Record. They were absolutely convinced about climate change and were surprised there was any debate. The whole grouping was not particularly aware that there was much debate in the area and they took all of their opinion from that. We had a group of Sun readers who were different; it depends. Most people do not sample from a whole range of media, as I do, but they would be aware that there was a confusion and a conflicting debate-but from the particular media that they are sampling. If they read the Daily Mail, they would not necessarily be aware of what the Sun was saying at all. In fact they would be very unlikely to know. In fact we do not even know because it has not been properly researched.

Q31Hywel Williams: Is the perception of confusion differentiated at all by classification-that is, by what papers they read or by rural and urban people? I tend to think that people who are closer to nature might have more awareness of climate change. Is there a differentiation of that sort?

Professor Philo: We interviewed people in Norfolk whose houses were falling into the sea and things like that. They and all the people in that area were intensely aware of it because of those particular issues. Asian ethnic groups were very aware because they were worried about climate refugees. There is a series of specific interests that intensifies people’s concern with the area. Educated Guardian readers who take a particular interest in that area will have quite a high level of awareness, but we found that with the other quality papers as well.

Q32Hywel Williams: Dr Happer drew an analogy with public health. There is a theory that compliance with health messages varies according to class as well. That is why I am thinking in those terms. Chair, I have to confess-perhaps it is early in the morning-that I keep on thinking about whether we could convey the message in a more traditional way: red sky in the morning, climate change warning, or that sort of thing, which might attract a rural audience.

Lastly, is it possible to report the minority view without giving undue prominence to the evidence supporting it? I think the minority view is 3%. How do you report that without giving undue prominence to possibly the dodgy science behind it?

Tom Sheldon: I think you consider it in the same way. You have to compare it with other subjects. Does HIV cause AIDS? I could find you a scientist, probably fairly easily, who says no. As for smoking and lung cancer, there are probably one or two scientists knocking about who think there is no link, but if you were to wheel them on and give equal representation without explaining that the scales are not balanced, it would be giving undue prominence to one over the other. If you are having a big debate about it, and these are people who are publishing and they are credible sources in an area that is scientifically debated-as I have said, there are lots of those-then I think that is fair.

Chair: Thank you very much. It has been an interesting session. It has brought out some views in the Committee that I was not entirely aware of. This is going to be quite a lively session when we see some of our further witnesses. From your point of view, it would be helpful if you could keep an eye on some of the evidence sessions, and any comments you would want to make reflecting on the answers you gave today would help us immensely. Thank you for coming.

[1] The witness later clarified that, it has gone down from 82% of males to 21% of males .

Prepared 1st April 2014