The science cafe: the French idea of average citizens debating great scientific issues in coffeehouses is now being tested in Switzerland--but with mixed results.

Author:Shepard, Lyn
Position:Feature
 
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There could hardly have been a timelier site for gauging popular reaction to the 'science cafe' notion than the Swiss Federal Institute for Research on Snow and Avalanches (SLF) in alpine Davos.

But to Dr. Daniel Glaser, the British Council's guest moderator, this was not the typical science cafe format. As he scanned his audience warily he saw that it largely consists of Davos-based scholars with databanks chock full of studies on permafrost. The guest speaker on 'climate change', English investigative journalist and author Mark Lynas, also had misgivings about such an audience. His book 'High Tide' describes places on earth where weather experts have verified global-warming shifts triggering alarming trends. He had hoped to address the 'average' Swiss. Yet his message remained much the same.

Climate Change

"It's something very strange, very unusual," Lynas told the Davos gathering. During a 20-minute speech he focused on places like the retreating sea of ice around Alaska. In the Alps, he noted, "Half of the permafrost has disappeared". The disturbing trend, in the journalist's words, was "suddenly causing the permafrost to melt, turning it into sludge."

In Alaska, Lynas told science cafe guests, "entire forests have disappeared" due to such recent thaws. The largest US state now spends $35 million a year to repair damage caused by climate change. "The changes were seeing now are incredibly rapid," Lynas insisted. British scientist's apparently agree on this. A scientific panel had to be cancelled recently, he pointed out, because "it's no longer a meaningful debate. They could find no scientist willing to deny global warming."

Swiss Sceptics Hold Out

A differing mindset prevails in Davos. One scientist after another stood up to challenge Lynas' findings--or the 'alarmist' way in which he interpreted them.

"It's dangerous to take extreme examples," argued one SLF staff member. "You can say that it's warming up, but it isn't happening everywhere. We think it's better to say that the climate is changing, but that we don't know" why."

Lynas retorted that some 2,000 British scientists do agree on the warming evidence and have signed a report saying so. He also objected to a suggestion that he had been 'cherry picking' in choosing his book's 'worst case scenarios'.

Inconclusive Evidence

Dr. Christoph Marty, an SLF snow climatologist, had told Swiss News earlier that warming signs could be measured, but now sees the 'evidence' as inconclusive...

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