It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, January 26, 2009

We Need a New form of Outreach

American Thinker has a particularly compelling and polished version of the usual vile garbage, put together in what starts to look like a coherent argument. Of course it is built on the usual foundation of overvalued nitpicking:
"We can't even believe in "official" measurements, as data sets relied upon to track global temperatures have again been shown to be contaminated and otherwise compromised."
misdirection:
"Remember the sea ice that doomsters warned would soon be gone? It's now at the very same level it was in 1979."
and outright lies:
"this IPCC report, much-hyped-and-hallowed by alarmists and media-drones alike, represents the combined work of only 52 carefully cherry-picked UN scientists"
Unfortunately, amidst all this garbage they score a legitimate political point here. The public's confidence in the scientific consensus as somewhat understated in the IPCC reports is, by various measures getting worse. That part of the article is not lies.

Although Obama is closely enough connected to the scientific community that he understands the tragic dynamic behind this situation, and although he has a lot of power, he is probably not going to make much of a dent in this situation anytime soon. Yes, green jobs will help, and it does help that people see peak oil as real. The alliance between fossil fuel (especially coal) people and an especially malicious and divisive streak among market fundamentalists goes on. They are not going to make our lives any easier, and so the sort of unmitigated nastiness seen in the American Thinker article is not going away or even abating. Worse, as it triumphantly crows, it is succeeding.

We need to reinvent the relationship between science and the public. That is an absolutely crucial step and it needs to happen fast. This is outside the capacity of NSF, which likes to support what it calls outreach but does so in a structurally ineffective way.

New mechanisms for communication between science and the public are desperately needed.

Dr. Chu? Dr. Holdren? Hello?

Update: Churlish of me to complain on a day when Obama takes such strong positive steps. For which I am grateful; I wasn't aware this was coming.

And what do you expect of a country where people don't "believe in" evolution anyway? Still I hate to see these polls headed south and I think it's an important long-term goal to reconnect (or at least connect) science and society.

Update 1/28: Some related points on a comment by Gavin Starks on Tim O'Reilly's "Radar" site:

We're all aware of the emotive language used to polarize the climate change debate.

There are, however, deeper patterns which are repeated across science as it interfaces with politics and media. These patterns have always bothered me, but they've never been as "important" as now.

We are entering an new era of seismic change in policy, business, society, technology, finance and our environment, on a scale and speed substantially greater than previous revolutions. The sheer complexity of these interweaving systems is staggering.

Much of this change is being driven by "climate science", and in the communications maelstrom there is a real risk that we further alienate "science" across the board.

We need more scientists with good media training (and presenting capability) to change the way that all sciences are represented and perceived. We need more journalists with deeper science training - and the time and space to actually communicate across all media. We need to present uncertainty clearly, confidently and in a way that doesn't impede our decision-making.

On the climate issue, there are some impossible levers to contend with;

  1. Introducing any doubt into the climate debate stops any action that might combat our human impact.
  2. Introducing "certainty" undermines our scientific method and its philosophy.

When represented in political, public and media spaces, these two levers undermine every scientific debate and lead to bad decisions.

A tough nut, indeed.

8 comments:

John Mashey said...

Silly polls don't help. It is absolutely *dumb* to think that one gets any sensible answers by ranking "the economy" and "global warming".

For one, people think "I may lose my job, can't pay the mortgage, and we'll have to move", i.e., the general term translates into concrete, short-term outcomes they understand.

For global warming, they think "It will get a little warmer sometime."

I think I can predict which will come out ahead.

See my comment on John Fleck's article, for the right sorts of questions.

Marion Delgado said...

All I can report is what i've experienced, aptly enough - we need to use anecdotes, and yes, that's one reason an inconvenient truth did okay. Earth in the balance had more and better anecdotes.

We need to surpass AIC by quite a lot. Having the statistics means you potentially have more anecdotes.

Michael Tobis said...

An Inconvenient Crooth?

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate how often the tone at OIIFTG is one of seriousness, a bigger question to ask yourself is simply this: what can I do with my blog?

That most Americans really don't care about what humans are doing to the climate (and also the biosphere) is hardly surprising - I'd wager most people on the planet think likewise.

You must come to terms with the challenge presented by the human phenomenon of discounting the future. To try and convince a person to pay heed to, and to pay financially to, a cause that will most help people that the proposed payee will never meet... is very close to impossible. I do not know of any cause, other than a religious one, that has had any success in this manner.

You could try to craft an AGW-action religion, but then you'd just be proving the doubters (with their already existing claim that AGW is a "fraud" and an eco-religion) true.

It is this dilemma that I have yet to find anyone, and I mean anyone, to have a good answer to address this.

AdamW said...

"An Inconvenient Climate"?

Michael Tobis said...

Anon, you have a good point.

Cultures change, though, and our culture will eventually realize that we are discounting the future by too much. The sooner, the better, and this is what we must try to achieve.

Dano said...

IMHO one of the reasons for the strong reaction of the right to AIT is that it used one of their tactics: storytelling and simple anecdote to illustrate.

Best,

D

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"To try and convince a person to pay heed to, and to pay financially to, a cause that will most help people that the proposed payee will never meet... is very close to impossible. I do not know of any cause, other than a religious one, that has had any success in this manner."

Here's my 2 cents. Religions work partly because offer the promise of reward after life or something similar. And while climate action can result in rewards for people in their current lives, it seems that we've reached a point where we've changed pretty much all the lightbulbs that can be changed, and any further benefits from climate action can only be realized through coordinated large-scale movements.

(E.g. I've been thinking about blowing up this Web 2.0 thang and replacing it with something faster, leaner, and less gas-guzzling. No way I can make that happen by myself, alas.)