The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Web2.0 for Planet 3.0

Following up on Wednesday's thoughts about communicating science, especially on the web.

While science is conducted in the details, policy is conducted in the whole. This is a big part of the disconnect we are facing.

It's clear that I'm not the only person who is ready to expend a lot of effort in pursuit of better approaches to communicating about the climate problem and similar issues. It also is clear that the resources available now are, while substantial, not up to the task. The problem turns out to be less lack of skill than of coordination.

There's a wide variety of ideas that have already showed up at the above-linked article.

One thing that's clear is that we don't have aggregators that are sufficiently effective. This may be a low-hanging fruit to pursue right away. But beyond aggregators we need organization. We have a great wealth of information but precious little information architecture. We talk in circles around each other, extracting no cumulative knowledge collectively, and leaving individuals running in frustrated circles.

We let the bafflegab from the opposition obscure our message and confuse our message. Here is a key strategy which both demonstrates and dominates the way nitpicking diverts form the real issues.

One is commonly presented with something very much like the following:

The questions we face are:
(1) are the current changes abnormal?
(2) if so, is the abnormality caused by man's influence?
(3) are the current changes, on balance, harmful?


One sees three interesting questions and is tempted to engage with them. However, if the purpose was not to engage but to derail policy, to engage is missing the mark. Notice how far the "questions we face" are from a fair representation of the whole picture, which in fact goes much more as follows:

1) Is there a strong basis for expecting anthropogenic CO2 increases to affect climate?
2) Is the scale of such changes likely to become very large and very disruptive, based on the best physical understanding?
3) Do the observations accord with the theory of 1 and 2 above?


(Very confident yes to all three, I believe.)

There is a natural tendency of diverting attention from the broad picture to the minutiae. Of course, the broader picture is made up minutiae, and there are problems with almost every single statement made in the whole picture. This allows people who don't actually see the reinforcing constraints of the whole picture. Geosciences are stuck with messy data: people thereby conclude that "the whole business is a house of cards. Therefore not the IPCC. Therefore emissions are harmless because not proven harmful, so let's party on until they run out!"

The illogic of this path is painfully striking to those of us who understand the situation, but it is invisible to all too many. So, whatever else is missing, once crucially important piece is a top-down view of our quandary, an organizational structure, a way for the outsider to first gather the big picture and then dig into the supporting evidence, rather than trying to claw a way up from the bottom. While it's crucial to avoid focusing on details to the exclusion of the big picture, the tools available for a top-down investigation of global change issues are simply inadequate except at the most elementary level.

What we want to do then is not to create an alarmist counterweight to the Polyannist sites. What we want to do is create tools for a community for top-down thinking in the face of organized bottom-up sniping.

I would like to see, contrary to RealClimate, no effort to separate policy from science.

Anyway, it seems clear there's enough interest to form a mailing list/online group toward the design of this sort of project. This list is publicly readable, but only writable by members.

So far I'm the only member. I'll send out a few invitations tonight. Anyone wanting in, please let me know. If I haven't heard of you please point to some URLs that support the case that you are

I am looking for people with expertise or at least a strong interest in one and preferably at least two of

1) relevant earth sciences
2) environmental journalism or science writing
3) social media
4) software development
5) public policy and international relations
6) management and coordination

who find the current situation in need of improvement, who are comfortable with quantitative thinking, and who are more pragmatic than ideological.

NB It can't be explicitly about advocacy, it has to be about truth. Any advocacy has to emerge from truth and not be written into the mission statement. Otherwise it is nothing new.

MISSION: To discuss, nucleate and facilitate the development of a set of internet based communication tools and sites, including technical and funding models. Once built, these web tools and sites would serve to improve the flow of information between the sciences, the public, and the policy sector, regarding global resource issues including climate, energy, sustainability and food security.

The range of possible information tools under the above rubric is vast, and ranges from individual blogs such as already exist to quite elaborate social media frameworks whose structure is only vaguely imagined.

The mailing list/group is intended to plan and coordinate efforts in these directions so as to maximize the availability and utility of sound information and optimize the efforts put in.

Participants are expected to value the scientific method more highly than any ideological position they may hold in advance. Above all we seek a sound and competent process, rather than any particular predetermined result.

Participation in the list does NOT constitute a commitment or even a declaration of interest to active participation in the development and deployment of the tools. People just seeking to share advice and opinions are very welcome.

I've set it up on Google Groups and called it Planet3.0 . You can apply for membership at the link.

Update: A number (that number is 34) of invitations went out but they're being held up for spam inspection and may not reach you for a few days. Feel free to just put in a request if you're interested. There's lots of people I stupidly forgot and lots of people whose email I don't know, the latter group notably including Tamino.

Note: ground rules for Wednesday's discussion apply. There's an open thread for anybody else with any sort of a bone to fry, an axe to pick or a fish to grind.

2 comments:

Marion Delgado said...

the gloom and doom opposite would say roughly the same as the lomborgs and lindzens, actually, for superficially opposite reasons, so that's a wise caveat.

Scruffy Dan said...

I've been away while this discussion has been taking place, but I think you are on to something important. The Science-o-sphere (as apposed to the denialosphere) is sorely lacking any co-ordination.

Unfortunately we will need to work twice as hard as what we say needs to be constrained by reality. Morano and his ilk face no such limitation. Still I think we have a good shot at making this work.

My application has been sent.