Why won’t scientists debate the issue of climate change?
There is a problem with debates. It’s called sweat.
Vice President Richard Nixon lost the first ever televised Presidential debate to his opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy. At least that’s the conclusion the television audience reached, and it very well may have cost Nixon the Presidency.
Reflecting the impacts of a recent hospitalization, Nixon went on camera twenty pounds underweight and pale. Refusing professional makeup to improve his complexion, he instead opted to have “pancake” makeup applied by his own people to diminish his 5 o’clock shadow. By contrast, Kennedy was tanned, well rested, and in good shape. “I had never seen him looking so fit,” Nixon later commented. JFK’s serious mannerisms also contrasted greatly with Nixon’s frequent smiling. And then there was the sweat. Nixon wiped sweat from his face multiple times throughout the course of the event.
The visual disparities hit home. The television audience saw Kennedy, fit and focused, winning the debate handily over his pallid and peaked counterpart. However, the non-visual radio audience, hearing only the verbal exchange, gave Nixon at least a draw if not the outright win. But the tide had been turned. JFK went on to win the election by one of the narrowest margins in history.
How often have we heard the axiom, “It’s not what you say but how you say it?” Studies by renowned psychologist, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, found that listening audiences give considerable weight to a presenter’s body language, particularly when those bodily actions conflict with the spoken message of the presenter. In these instances, audiences give much more weight to the body language of the speaker than to the spoken words themselves, preferring the former by as much as 93%. An unpolished presenter can be very unconvincing, even if the message itself is sound.
And, if you haven’t noticed, many scientists aren’t exactly role models for public speaking.
Then there’s the parity problem.
Debates are designed to give equal voice to opposing sides of an issue, even when equality is not necessarily warranted. A survey early last year of scientists specializing in Earth sciences revealed that 97.4% of those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change agreed that “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures.”
By placing both sides on an equal platform, you are already lending undue credence to an opposition voice which represents only a minute fraction of those with the most expertise regarding the subject at hand.
If I were skeptical and could sway public opinion with an equal sparring of a well-manicured and primed opposition voice representing only 2.6% of the expertise on a complex subject against a typical publishing climate scientist representing 97.4% of the expertise, I would be clamoring for a debate as well.
But while debates are useful for determining political policy, they are very ill-suited for determining scientific matters. Science is not a matter of opinion, and debate on the science of climate change is rightfully confined to the peer-reviewed literature. Science is about the message, not the messenger.
A public debate on the science of climate change makes no sense. And no amount of antiperspirant will change that.