Debate gives good mileage

13th August 2010 at 01:00

I really should avoid reading forum posts in motoring magazines, especially ones on the topic of climate change. There are several types of response to "Climate Change Enquiry a Scam" threads. Some give a reasoned argument that accepts the scientific consensus, agree that something has to be done and that the motorist has to modify his or her behaviour; others take a similar line but reckon that the motorist is unfairly penalised.

Next up are those who side with sceptics like Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist who believes there is political pressure to conform to climate change "alarmism". Finally, there are the conspiracy theorists who don't accept that man-made climate change is happening at all. Do some web searches on the New World Order to see where they are coming from.

Round about the time that I was getting my underwear in a fankle about ill-informed debate on climate change, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of programmes called The Infinite Monkey Cage. Presented by Brian Cox and Robin Ince, respectively a physicist and a comedian, the show was billed as a "witty, irreverent look at the world through scientists' eyes". Amusing rather than swerve-off-the-road-funny (just as well, as I listened to the podcast in my car), the programme managed, through some well-argued discussion, to subvert my belief that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes, they are not.

You can have any opinion you like on the music of Guns N' Roses, my dress sense or the styling of the Nissan Almera Tino. Travel with me and experience all three at once on certain days. What you can't have an opinion on is whether or not I can average 39 mpg in my car. Rather, to have an opinion on this, you have to study my fuel consumption data, evaluate my method of gathering said data and, if you disagree with my conclusion, either point out where I went wrong or first gather some contradictory data of your own. What you can't do is simply say: "No, it's not possible to get 39 mpg in a 1.8 litre petrol-engined medium-sized MPV with a conventional torque converter-based automatic transmission."

We have a new curriculum hitting the streets and one of its purposes is to develop scientific literacy. The experiences and outcomes encourage debate. Great, but beware the pitfalls. A media-savvy meteorologist I was talking to bemoaned the situation that occurs regularly on TV current affairs programmes. In the interests of fairness, if a controversial science-related topic is aired, both sides of the argument are presented. However, there is not necessarily any indication of the integrity of the evidence backing up each claim. One side might be backed up by masses of data, whereas the other may just be someone saying, "No it isnae."

Unfortunately, not everything in science is common sense. Some of the most important principles are counter-intuitive. A good science course should not only tell pupils "This is what we think is true", but also "Here's the evidence that it's probably true" and "Here's why you can trust the evidence".

Of course, that's just my opinion.

Gregor Steele realises he is a bit obsessive about his Tino's fuel consumption.

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