AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIX , No. 2, Fall 2007

History of Climate Science Useful for Understanding Current Controversies
By Spencer Weart

One of the most popular sections of AIP’s Web site is “The Discovery of Global Warming” at history/climate. It receives nearly 500 visits a day, ranking third after the Center’s well-known Albert Einstein and Marie Curie exhibits, although it addresses a radically different audience. Whereas most Center exhibits are aimed at students from elementary school to college, the “Global Warming” site, a collection of extended essays on aspects of the history of climate science, is used primarily by well-informed adults, including many scientists. Whereas the other exhibits are... well, exhibits, with as much space given to images as text, the “Global Warming” site is mainly text (over 250,000 words), extensively footnoted with links to a 1,900-item bibliography. It is thus less like an exhibit than a thick scholarly book.

Unlike the essays in any published book, however, the three dozen Web pages are connected at appropriate points by more than 700 hyperlinks. Thus a reader can quickly check, for example, how a finding in oceanography related to a development in computer models, and how that in turn related to scientists’ hypotheses about the rapidity of climate change, and how that connected with popular images of catastrophe. Unlike most books, the Web pages are readily found on leading search engines. And unlike any book, the Web site can easily be revised as often as needed. Originally mounted in 2003, the Web site now incorporates the findings reported in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other recent developments.

Halfway through three of the essays, a diligent reader will come upon a request to click on a link and fill out a brief survey form. About 3% of those who look at one of these essays not only reach that point but respond. Asked for their occupation, fewer than one-fifth check off “student,” but traffic on the site during the periods when students are writing term papers is twice as high as the summertime traffic, so they may be less inclined than adults to respond to the survey. Many respondents identify themselves just as “concerned citizen” or the like. Other occupations reported ranged from energy-company publicist to environmental activist, as well as lawyer, farmer and “unemployed, mentally ill.” However, the most common occupation reported was scientist—a group that should indeed be the primary audience for history of science. Only a minority of those were climate scientists. Engineers and teachers are also common among the visitors.

The great majority of the respondents, whether scientists or not, said they were drawn to the site by the current controversy over climate policy. Most wanted to inform themselves about the current state of climate science. Many of these were trying to form an opinion of their own about global warming; many others had already made up their mind, and were looking for ammunition for their debates with others. Some visitors said they had come in search of specific information, and indeed our tracking software shows a significant fraction of visitors were referred to the site by search-engine results for technical terms. These visitors may not have found the detailed data they sought, but many were drawn into reading the history anyway. After all, one reason for reading any history is to gain a deeper insight into current concerns.

A very large majority of the survey respondents said the Web site was giving them part or all of what they had come to find. Typical comments: “It’s nice to know some history to put it in perspective.” “Helps me understand the nuances of what is usually treated in mass media in an extremely broad and unintelligent fashion.” “Your history seems that it might provide a way of building confidence in who to believe is on the right track, without politicizing the subject.” “Teaching the subject historically helps students to understand how and why apparently matter-of-fact questions have been the subject of so much uncertainty and controversy.” “ It helps to gain more appreciation of the science if one has a sense of the history of it.”

Historians of science should be encouraged by such comments, which reflect just what we hope to achieve. There is evidently a large population that can be reached on the Web (and often only there) who can benefit from historians’ work.

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