"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, April 19, 2007

In a balloon

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

So there are two managers who are ballonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

"Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?"

to which the reply comes back

"You're in a balloooooon!"

The ballonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion "That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before."

Have a look at Gavin Schmidt's response to this provocative posting by Steven Mosher on RealClimate. Notice how it responds exactly to the question and is correct in every detail. Notice how it nevertheless in no way offers any assistance to the questioner.

The answer makes it clear that the denialists have no significant participation in the discussion. Unfortunately, that is one of the few points on which they agree with the consensus. They are promulgating a different model of why this is so.

There is nothing in Gavin's answer to allay the suspicions others may have that climatology is an arrogant and closed-minded community. In failing to address exactly those suspicions, it seems likely that he confirmed them for many readers.

It is much harder to explain how and why certain topics are relegated to the fringe than to assert that they have been. Confidence building is hard, but in a situation like this, confidence erosion is easy. It is better to shut up than to dash off an impatient answer, however correct.

Mosher's position, whether benignly intended or not, is well formulated and worth of a response that holds together both factually and polemically. As a polemical response Gavin's reply is very counterproductive.

I didn't start this blog because I wanted to jump on Nisbett and Mooney's bandwagon. (As far as I see it I scooped them, for whatever that's worth.) I started this blog because I see realclimate backfiring. This is a case in point.

Update: The inimitable Dr Bunny has more evidence of RC folk being somewhat at the end of their rope. I am sure I do not always follow the gist of Eli's bemused commentary, but I am equally sure there is a lot in the exchange he points to that will not do much to attract fence-sitters, to say the least.


coby said...

Interesting. I read that previously and actually thought it was a good answer from Gavin, though I admittedly did not read the whole comment it was replying to.

I understand your general point, but aside from a bit more substantiation I think Gavin's substance is indeed the correct response. I am a big believer in always agreeing with whomever you are debating as muc as possible so might have acknowledge Steven's point before saying pretty much the same thing as Gavin (absent personal experiences at scientific meetings)

Was it the tone you think causes this answer to fail?

Michael Tobis said...

Try to empaathize with the target audience.

The target audience has some inclination to believe the denialist case, which is primarily that climate science is not genuine science, and that it squelches legitimate criticism to protect its unsupportable arguments.

To this audience, Gavin has said "We do not listen to these people because they are not important to us. They are not important to us because we do not listen to them."

He has really not said "they have not said anything of the remotest interest in quite some time, and in case they ever do we will certainly take it up in earnest". That is the crucial point. It is a point that has to made with some care, because it not only has to be stated, it has to be stated convincingly.

Steven's point begins with someone's unfortunate use of the word "fortunate", and as such his point is extremely well taken.

The reason he bothers to make such a point is either because he is inclined to disbeleive in climate science or because he is inclined to convince others to disbelieve.

As such, Gavin's "well, they don't count" argument plays directly into the doubts, not the inclination to extend trust.

Think of some feild you distrust. Oh, let's go back a ways to Kirlian photography. You know if you take a lousy photo of someone in high contrast situations with a bad lens they sometimes have an "aura"? So according to some, you can study this aura for some sort of spiritual information, right?

Are you skeptical? Suppose you knew someone who said they did a study and it came up "no predictive value" and had submitted it to the Conference on Kirlian Photography who rejected it.

Then suppose the RealKirlian site said "we don't listen to him because he never publishes in a peer reviewed Kirlian journal. He is irrelevant to the actual practice of Kirlian photography. We consider it just part of the background noise."

Would that reassure you of their bona fides? (Or, as we say in Texas, would that be bonnified?)

Well, with this kinf of response we don't look any better than that.

We need to connect with the people who aren't on board.

We need to get people who think we are fools or liars to reconsider. You do not do that by being smug and terse. The short version does not work with the important part of the audience.

We don't need to lie but it's not enough to tell the truth. We need to learn some polemics. We need to establish the trust we deserve. This isn't the way to do it.

"A bit more substantiation" is at best a severe understatement. And a complete failure in acknowledging the other person's point is, as you point out, also a big problem here.

The biggest problem is that you have taken a smart slightly pissed off person and fifty sympathetic readers and pissed them off further. Lather rinse and repeat.

I think realclimate editors whoould stay off the comments section if this is the best they can do.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Well, it's a good thing *you* don't stay off your own comments section, Michael, because it was only after reading Comment 2 that I begam to think you *might* have a point.

But I'm interested in this:

"I started this blog because I see realclimate backfiring."

I take it your references to "denialists" and "delusionists" are part of a your plan to empathise with your target audience. What is that target audience, anyway?

hapa said...

i think steven mosher's style, the length of his comment, his belittling use of "2+2=4" all pointed to an intention to disrupt, not newfound indignation.

i don't want people like that to chase scientists out of the public sphere. they're never going to go away, and you can't respond to them everywhere they speak. you're suggesting that gavin smith's brevity is the cause of people believing rush limbaugh, or believing michael crichton, and that's silly. better communication skills are important, but it's much more important that more people come to the defense of scientists who are under attack by lunatics and liars.

here's the home page of the population research institute, "a pro-life educational organization dedicated to protecting and defending human life, ending human rights abuses committed in the name of family planning, and dispelling the myth of overpopulation." a "steven w. mosher" is president. here is an anti-condom policy paper. this is a serious unscientific position, to oppose using condoms in areas affected with high HIV. if it's the same person, what can you say? such a person's mind is not going to change in one small conversation.

i didn't know the name, but i could tell from the writing style that this person was an experienced right-wing writer, a very hard core person, and lo and behold, i found the name again.

whether or not the two are the same person, i think when talking to an ideologue, it's best to keep the answer very clear, and only to engage the rhetoric if you're sure you know what you're doing. engaging bullies on their terms, or in soft language, is a terrible idea.

Dano said...

My thesis was about this very thing - highlighting different benefits for different users to counsel policy-makers.

Or, to put it another way: every day this week I've presented a draft of the physical layout of my planning area to a group. Every day is a different group: business leaders, engineers, politicians, business group, today general public and engineers.

Do these groups get the same spiel? No way. Each handout packet is different, each report modified for the interests of that group.



Michael Tobis said...

re hibiscus' comment

I do not want to get into whether any individual is or is not sincere. The fact that someone is a rightwinger does not make them insincere, though if they are dogmatists they may be impervious to reason.

It doesn't matter as much as people seem to think. In these public discussions, we are not addressing the person who addresses us, except formally. We are addressing anyone and everyone who might be reading.

Of all these audiences, the most important are those who have not yet made up their minds about something we care about.

The more polished opposition is well aware of this. We had best become so ourselves.

Gavin's response to Mosher was true and correct. Along with most of the folks who understand the situation, I found myself nodding. But then I examined it not as a description from a trusted authority but as a statement from someone whose trustworthiness someone might question. As such it struck me as counterproductive.

It was not convincing. It did not establish trust very well and it seemed very capable of reinforcing distrust quite effectively.

I will not speculate whether Mosher is sincere, but let's stipulate for the purposes of argument at least that his audience is dogmatically opposed to us, and thatIn that case he would like to expand that group and reinforce their opinions. Let me stipulate as well that it is reasonable to consider this an intent to disrupt.

In that case I would call the disruption successful, as Gavin has neatly fallen into the trap Mosher has set.

I don't think scientists should shut up at all. (I am taking some risks by saying as much as I do.) I think they should not respond in a public debate in the same way they would at a post-conference beer session. The opposition knows what game it is playing. It is time we learned.

There is a generational shift in the field. The older, more established players did not enter climate science becuase they like or care about public controversy. (e.g. Toggweiler explicitly loathes the whole politics thing, says it takes the fun out of it.)

Younger scientists came into this fully expecting what we are getting, but re still letting expectations be set by a vanished, politically neutral cultural context.

Telling the truth is easier than lying, but telling the truth effectively is harder than lying effectively.

So though we greatly outnumber them, we will never keep up with the opposition in quantity. They will always be polemical professionals and we will always be amateurs, we have to take care that our confidence not read as arrogance or closed-mindedness, and meanwhile we have to actually get some work done.

It is good to try to reply to as much noise as we can manage, but it is essential that the replies be polemically effective as well as factually true.

Our responsibility doesn't stop at telling the truth. We must tell the truth effectively.

EliRabett said...

Hi Mike, you got the joke wrong, but what do we expect from a modeller?

Two physicists were riding in a hot air balloon and were blown off course sailing over a mountain trail, and were completely lost.

They spotted a jogger running on the trail and they shouted "Can you tell us where we are?" After a few minutes, the jogger yelled back "You're up in a balloon."

One physicists said to the other, "Just our luck to run into a mathematician". "How do you know he was a mathematician?" asked the other.

"Well, in the first place he took a long time to answer; second, his answer was 100% correct and third, ,it was totally useless."

hapa said...

i saw a poll the other day, which was here, and it said that in the USA, which is where we're talking about, right, the trouble in terms of actions to take is between do-it-now and do-it-later, not do-it-now and do-it-NOT.

so if you want to talk about what is the truth that needs to be told effectively and what "effectively" means when attached there, even though that's just one poll, it's something to think about, in terms of what it means to engage an angry party. there're a lot of milk-and-honey promises -- greater crop productivity, among them -- floating around in the heartland, beyond the veil of shouting loonies. penetrating that veil to present a case where near-term inaction leads to domestic vulnerability is more important that getting tied into believing that people are on the fence about the existence of the problem.

however if you're looking for it, these two have done a great job of assembling tools for talking down the dittoheads and the nearly-so.

this series in particular: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.x.

obviously it's a lot to read and i haven't myself assimilated all of it, but i think we all owe it to ourselves to take a little time learning how to de-poison the well.

coby said...

Back to the barnyard, Rabett:

"A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts: "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man below says: "Yes. You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are at 40 degrees N. latitude, and 58 degrees W. longitude."

"You must be an engineer" says the balloonist.

"I am" replies the man. "How did you know."

"Well" says the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost."

The man below says "You must be a manager."

"I am" replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?"

"Well", says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you are going. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault."

(sorry, Michael, but this post is labeled "balloon"!)

But back to the very serious issues: IMO the most important point Michael has made is that the response must be formulated for the larger audience. Who cares if steve mosher cares about substance? The few who do care but don't know much are the only ones we can hope to reach.

Unknown said...

Hibiscus: you'll find a selection of opinion polls if you click on my name: juat done a breif summary of some recent ones.

Hope this is helpful.


PS: not a bad joke, Michael; a bit better than Eli's probably.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hapa said...

(fergus: the name link didn't work, but i did find that page, with some googlexterity. i think?)

so those referenced polls, at least those closely focused on the USA, seem to show that the domestic debate is now about imminence of threat, not existence of threat. so here's an article from a couple days ago, i don't know if this is exactly what michael is saying as a larger point, but i thought this was interesting:

The lesson to take home from this is that language, or the act of framing in public discourse, and the cognitive processes that those acts utilize, are inseparable. I think this is an important lesson in part because, with a few exceptions, discussions of framing tend to focus more on the act of framing than on the frames (or representations) in people's minds, and the processes that operate on those frames (like those that produce the effects of counterfactual thinking).

in other words, as you're picking frames, and trying to avoid spinning aspects rather than pointing out the silver lining of your presented whole, if you know what i'm saying, it's important to know what impression you want to give to the audience. having a frame that says, "scientists are trustworthy," for instance, as positive as that sounds, might be less good than to say, flat out, "climate change is comprehensible, serious, and needs immediate attention."

the reason being that the flat-out phrasing definitely implies, "i know what i'm talking about," while also giving people a way to file the material you've given in their heads, to their current and future advantage. one hopes.

it seems like what needs consideration, when dealing with the public — if you want to tell people a story that they can pass on, in the telephone game of lay conversation — is to make sure that the information given is compared to the best case goal. this would anchor in the minds where our best scientific chances lie — ignoring economics, for the moment — rather than muddying people's heads with a politicized, compromised scientific case that feeds into the feeling that there is ambivalence about the severity of risk.

the cognitive study seems to me to validate vice president gore's frame of "there's a long way to go but we can get there, together" over the more common frame that many people use, "we need to be doing better" — even though better sounds like a safe harbor to offer to people who are (reasonably, honestly) doubtful, or confused about the level of risk. those people want to do something, and they're very keen to harmonize with the whole group; if they sense that the group is moving aggressively in a positive way, available evidence says they'll go along with it, even over all the amplified shouts of naysayers.

i guess the main point is, an opportunity for momentum is a terrible thing to waste. the harder we are all reaching for the best case, the more likely we'll get there, and also find economic and social answers along the way.

Anonymous said...

I'd really like to know: What is your target audience, Michael? What are you trying to achieve with this blog?

EliRabett said...

I'm going to commit heresy. I think Gavin did good. There are several issues.

First of all how to deal with concern trolls. Gavin was very straitforward in his reply, and indeed, what he described

"If, however, you go to scientific meetings like AGU and you sit in on a session where there is some conflict (real or apparent), what you'll see is not contrarians vs establishment, but a whole bunch of skeptical individuals trying all sorts of ways to reconcile the different data."

is, the way it is and the description of what the "contrarians" aka denialists are doing, was also accurate:

"It's generally not the contrarians who drive better understandings of the science, because most of the contrarian points are completely irrelevant and are used as rhetorical, not scientific, points."

In his reply to this, Mosher tries to claim that Gavin is accusing the ARGO people of being contrarians. Gavin is not having this. He directly and pointedly refutes this. He does not allow Mosher to shift and control the focus.

Now the bit further down with Mike Mann, Knappenberger and Pielke, is much the same. They are trying to shift the focus. Mann is having none of it. He could have been smoother, e.g. Well, you provided links to your blogs, anyone interested in the matter can go over there (with the exception of the poor Rabett and Dano, of course, and no one can go to Chip's place, so why the hell does he expect the red carpet at ours?). We will post on this some time soon and I promise, link to your blogs (we will say that we disagree completely with your interpretation:), but for now, please stay on topic.

Michael Tobis said...

regarding Mark Hadfield's query:

The primary subject of this blog is described in the highlighted text at the top of each page. I will elaborate in the first person, something I advise my students to avoid.

I believe that public communications have everyone on earth as a secondary audience. The primary audience here is honest, competent and serious climate scientists who are doing a relatively weak job of establishing their credibility, because they think rationally while their opposition thinks polemically.

I argue that polemics are a necessary evil in the face of a concerted and almost purely polemical opposition. Polemics constrained by truth is not easy but it is absolutely necessary.

The editors of realclimate in particular, for whom I have, on the whole, great respect, are falling into tarpits left and right. I hate to see it go on.

A week after I started making the point, I was seconded by a prominent article in Science magazine, ( 1/2 :-) ) which on the whole is good news.