"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Neutrality vs Advocacy: Must Read

I'd like to draw your attention to a remarkable article by Baruch Fischhoff of CMU called Nonpersuasive Communication about Matters of Greatest Urgency: Climate Change.
Such advocacy makes many scientists uncomfortable. Of course, science itself entails advocacy, as researchers make the case for the importance of their studies, the soundness of their methods, and the robustness of their results. However, that advocacy follows the familiar norms of the scientific community. Those norms compel scientists to, for example, identify uncertainties, consider all data (and not just supporting evidence), and update their beliefs as new evidence arrives.
Public advocacy, however, follows the norms of politics. Claims should be based on fact. However, they need not include all the facts. Evidence is assembled to make a case, not to provide a full picture—let the other side provide what is missing. Uncertainty is avoided—let observers infer it from the clash of certain views. Positions are defended, come what may.
Scientists typically resort to public advocacy after concluding that, without it, the science will not get a fair hearing. One way or another, the public is blamed for this failure. It might be blamed directly, for not understanding the science, or indirectly, for falling prey to the other side’s advocates, who exploit its scientific illiteracy. Such advocacy runs the risk of winning battles over what science says, while losing the war over what science is.
There is a great deal more, with surprisingly cogent analysis of details. This is an anti-framing article in the end, but it has very cogent and detailed advice about information processing in a democracy as well. Here's the conclusion:
Scientists faced with others’ advocacy may feel compelled to respond in kind. However, they can also try to become the trusted source for credible, relevant, comprehensible information by doing the best job possible of nonpersuasive communication. With long-term problems, like climate change, communication is a multiple-play game. Those who resort to advocacy might lose credibility that they will need in future rounds.
I'm not sure I agree. These days I am pretty confused about what I think we should do really. I think the article should not be missed by anyone with an interest in these matters, though.


Dano said...

Well, sure, but in a multipartite discourse, advocacy happens. It's human nature.

Platonic and Cartesian rules are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariner at sea, we set our course by them.

I am perfectly capable of informing decision-makers and then stepping back and telling them my opinion or when I'm being an advocate; I have key phrases I use to do this and they all know when I step out from under my 'advise and consent' hat.



Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but there is no such thing as "anti-framing". Every time we use language we frame -- it is inescapable. For reference, I suggest reading "Language as Symbolic Action" by Kenneth Burke, especially the chapter titled, "Terministic Screens".

Michael Tobis said...

Fair enough, anon, but there is a scientific frame. The substantive debate is about whether we ought to step outside it into a different frame when we communicate publicly.

The shorthand for that is "framing".

The argument is whether and how much we should emphasize matters that are good science and bad politics. The referenced article amazes me because it understands the question and nevertheless cogently argues that we should not take the bait.

I take a pragmatic view. I think the upshot of the argument is whether or not one believes that current inaction is already at the limits of disaster. If you think we have another couple of generations to sort it out, then loyalty to science wins easily. If you think urgent action is needed soon, loyalty to the planet may trump loyalty to science. An insightful elite is not much use on a dying planet.

You can't shrug away the question on semantic grounds. This is a real issue for scientists. Call the positions pro or anti "reframing" if you wish.

etbnc said...

From the first comment: "advocacy happens." Yup, I agree. Moreover, human life happens.

Too many times I've heard participants in the culture of science declare, "I can't say (or do) that, because I'm a scientist!"

It seems to me the culture of science greatly values observation, and considerably devalues participation. Observing without actively participating seems to become a habitual behavior for some folks. And I see that habitual, observing-but-avoiding-participation behavior become counterproductive when it spills over to everyday human life outside the professional workplace.

We cannot really avoid participating in our own lives. (But I see people try!) It seems to me that if we're alive and awake and firing a few neurons, then we're participating in human life, whether we acknowledge it or not. It seems to me that when we habitually behave as if we can avoid participating, it just makes our participation ineffective and counterproductive.

For me then, it's no so much advocacy that I advocate. It's authentic participation in human life. I'm advocating mature, healthy, authentic participation that integrates our professional training with our everyday lives.

What I like about the article is that it demonstrates authentic participation in human life. It demonstrates an integration of professional training with the course of human events. So do the comments here, so far. So does this blog, from what I've read so far. So, thanks for contributing that article, and thanks for participating authentically.


Kit Stolz said...

Fischhoff's analysis is impressive, but his conclusion -- the answer to the communication problem is more scientists, sp. decision scientists, social scientists, and "designers" -- is not persuasive. More is not necessarily better, just as louder in a conversation is not necessarily more convincing to listeners.

Dano said...

Kit has a good point. We go back to teaching scientists how to communicate effectively.



EliRabett said...

Like chewing gum and walking different people do different things. The mistake here is thinking that "scientists" are a monolithic group.

Dano said...

Communication is a learned skill.



etbnc said...

"Communication is a learned skill."

Yes, and I'd say communication is also a behavior.

It seems to me we humans have evolved highly sensitive detectors for behavior signals. That's part of what makes a social species, a social species, don't you think?

I strongly suspect the behavior signals that we exhibit and detect while we communicate greatly influence the way we perceive the effects of communication.

That's why I think it's important to become comfortable about authentic participation in our human interactions. I'm pretty sure our behavior signals matter a lot more than we were taught when we were taught formal communication skills in school.

Good dialog. Thanks!

Michael Tobis said...

I am not sure I agree, Eli. There is indeed a scientific frame ,as I said in my first comment to this thread.

The criticism some of our friends are leveling at Hansen isn't so much about what he says (though those who complain tend to be those who most disagree on matters of substance) but about where and how he says it. Do exhortations belong in Phil. Trans.?

I think Dano's suggestion of being clear about the distinction between the opinion hat and the fact hat is the conventional wisdom. Years ago I took note that said opinion was not common among ecologists, who regarded and surely now even more regard contemporary circumstances as an emergency.