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How can we know who to believe? 10 guidelines

When trying to understand the arguments and claims about climate change, there’s so much information, so many opinions. How can an ordinary person know who and what to believe? Here are ten guidelines.

1. See a claim, check the sources

We know we can’t believe everything we read. A claim is only as good as the evidence that supports it. Before we believe a claim, we need to check the information sources it is based on. If we aren’t able to do that, it is best to withhold judgment.

Read on for guidelines on how a layperson can check for truth. Even if you won’t be doing details fact checking, you may find it helpful to be informed on some of the tactics of those who oppose the scientific consensus.

2. Want to know the truth

Most of us approach a question with some opinions already formed. We can’t avoid that, but the key question is whether we will allow that opinion to force us down a certain path, or whether we are willing to allow the evidence to guide us. Our “side” is unlikely to be always right!

Our minds must be at least partly open. Fail at this point and the rest of these guidelines will be useless.

3. Cherry-picking sources?

“Cherry-picking” is drawing a misleading conclusion by selecting a few facts or statements in a source that supports an idea, while ignoring a much larger body of evidence in the same source or on the same subject.

So when a climate claim is based on a source, we need to check whether the whole paper, especially the conclusion, is fairly represented.

If we find someone misrepresenting their own sources (and it happens repeatedly in the climate debates – see for example Fact check: Craig Kelly and last summer’s bushfires, Fact check:Craig Kelly and Antarctic sea ice and Fact check: Bjorn Lomborg and bushfires) we should be especially wary of anything they say, for it too may be dishonestly based on evidence that is misrepresented.

4. False facts

Sometimes arguments are made on the basis of certain facts, and we may accept that the facts have been reported accurately, and turn our attention to the arguments. But facts can sometimes be reported inaccurately or even invented.

Check out if sources actually say what is claimed. Check references and links in articles, and search for what others report about the same “facts”. Google is our friend (here, at least!) – you may be surprised at how much a good search can find.

It can also be valuable to see how large the study was (a small sample size may not give a reliable result) and whether it was the type of study that can reasonably lead to the conclusion being made.

5. More than one source

A common tactic of those who criticise the established science is to find a paper that supports their view and quote from it without mentioning the many others offering a different view. No important conclusion should be established from just one source.

Be suspicious of anyone quoting from a single source and check it out thoroughly, including searching for reviews of that source.

6. Read the best of both sides

It goes without saying. We need to read what thoughtful people from the different viewpoints are saying. Of course we don’t need to read everyone who has expressed a view, but certainly the most respectable. How can we know what’s true if we haven’t given the truth a chance?

7. Check the reliability of each source

Not all views are equal. Some information comes from years of study and experience. Check people’s qualifications and experience as a guide to how much they actually know.

Beware fake “experts”

Climate change critics commonly put forward as experts people with no qualifications in climate science.

People who have never studied or worked in a field MAY know what they are talking about, but that needs to be carefully checked. Be especially careful of so-called experts who have qualifications in a different field than the one they are being quoted on. They may be “scientists” but they may have limited expertise in the area actually being discussed.

Only believe something on this website if we have documented it.

Peer review and academic journals

Disciplines like science, history and medicine move forwards through a process of sharing ideas and evidence so that others working in the field can analyse, test and review them. The good ideas come though these tests, the bad ideas are usually filtered out.

The venues for this testing are academic journals and conferences, and the process is peer review. The reputable journals will require papers to be reviewed by several experts before publishing.

This process isn’t perfect, and some false ideas do sometimes make it through, but the checks and balances make it very reliable.

Accessing papers

It can be hard for ordinary people to get access to academic journals because the costs can be high for a layperson without access to a university library. But there are several avenues to try:

  • Search on Google. Synopses of papers can usually be found.
  • Keep searching. Sometimes the original source requires membership or payment, but other sources may exist.
  • It is possible to get access to many papers through such free services as:
    • ResearchGate
    • Academia
    • Jstor
    • Search online for “access academic papers online” and you’ll find many more sites offering free access to academic papers.
  • If you can find a synopsis of a paper you want, copy and paste a short distinctive quote into a search engine and it is sometimes surprising what you can find.
  • Access books through Amazon Look Inside, Google Books and Open Library.

Also check the reputation of the journal. Some journals offer paid publishing with little or no peer review. Be suspicious of anything published in these, and prefer mainstream journals. You can check journal reputation by searching for the name plus “review” or “reputation”.

8. Motives and bias

It is wise to check people’s motives and possible bias. Who pays for public figures to speak out? Who funded a paper or the research? Some climate sceptic’s lists of “experts” include many geologists working for the mining or fossil fuel industries.

Sometimes the tone and style of writing is a giveaway. Is the person reporting facts soberly and allowing us to draw our conclusions? Or does a piece appear rabid and sensationalist, pressing us to take up some cause? These indications may not be critical, but they should encourage us to weigh things carefully.

9. The consensus of experts

Try to find what the majority of experts have concluded. When you are presented with an alternative minority viewpoint, search for reviews of that view to see what the other side says about it.

If possible, search out a large number of sources to get a picture of the balance of viewpoints.

Be wary of minority viewpoints and only accept them after reading widely. Perhaps we should be as sceptical about them as they want us to be sceptical about the consensus.

Also be on the lookout for minority views claiming to be as well supported as the majority view. The smoking lobby and the climate change denial movement have both used the tactic of suggesting the science isn’t yet resolved, when it clearly was and is (see Heartland Institute).

10. Recognise conspiracy claims

Do all the above and you’ll likely find opponents of the consensus arguing that the truth has been stifled by the experts and the peer review process outlined above.

In effect, they are claiming there is a conspiracy against the minority viewpoint.

It is worth considering such claims. We can ask ourselves whether the majority have a motive to suppress another view, and how it could be practically possible to do so. We should ask the same questions of the minority view.

For example, climate sceptics sometimes claim that climate scientists and the environmental movement have joined in some Marxist plot to subvert capitalism via climate action. It is actually hard to see how so many people in so many different countries and organisations could ever organise and carry off such a conspiracy.

Much easier to see how a small cabal of fossil fuel interests might flood the public media with misinformation so they can protect their financial interests.

Further reading

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.