"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, August 28, 2009

Some Big Picture Comments

By me, hoisted from the comments, about communicating climate science.

The scientific community has stood firm with climate science throughout, but this fact has had very limited recognition. The preponderance of evidence that CO2 accumulation must be not just slowed but essentially halted becomes more inescapable every year.

Yet many people believe exactly the reverse, largely under the influence of organized PR efforts intended to obscure the evidence.

Scientists have constraints on the time they have to devote to public communication and the ways in which they are expected to communicate. At present the most effective communication seems to come from a few climate bloggers, some anonymous, or from amateurs like Greg Craven or Peter Sinclair. These efforts only arose to fill a gaping vaccuum in professional communication.

However we got to this state, it has to be reversed.

I don't know as preventing the public from having or stating opinions is even possible, and its certainly not a good idea. But people who are not experts should at least keep in mind the possibility that there are other people who understand things better than they do. So that's a shift in the culture that even precedes the shift in consumption habits.

At least it is a shift back to a condition that existed when I was young, when the opinions of scientists really did carry a lot of weight in public discourse, and when real expertise was respected.

The effort to communicate real science in good faith has to be doubled, redoubled, and redoubled again. We really need for people to understand the basic ideas. It needs to be seen as unhip to have your eyes glaze over as soon as argument from evidence begins.

People need to understand that what they "feel" about something is not decisive.

I don't have a single detailed answer for how to get from here to there. I have a dozen ideas, including a couple I am keeping under my hat. I'd be thrilled to dedicate myself to any of them. People I am talking to have dozens more. What we lack is a business model.

Right now, people like Mark Morano or Joe d'Aleo have a career path open to them to muddy the waters. We need ways to create incentives for creative people to make a career advancing, rather than retarding, public understanding of science.

That is not a career in PR as we understand it. There are already environmental advocacy groups out there. I am speaking of something else; the revitalization of conversation between science and the public.


Hank Roberts said...

> career path ... business model ...


Lou Grinzo said...

This is a profound cultural shift, at least here in the US, this deeply rooted skepticism (cynicism?) regarding almost any form of expert opinion. Honestly, I can't begin to explain how the heck we got here. When I was a kid and keeping my scrapbook of manned space flight missions and memorizing every detail about the Apollo program I could get my hands on, it was different. Not only did people respect the opinion of experts much more than they do now, but they also had a healthy respect for, and a bit of shame over, their own ignorance.

How many times has anyone here experienced something like the following scenario in the last few years: You're talking to a friend, and the topic turns to a project that his/her child is working on in middle or high school. Your friend then does the typical eye roll and says, "Not that I understand any of that."

Part of this is parent bragging on a child, obviously, but there's much more to it. We've almost completely lost the notion of not liking our own ignorance, and being willing, eager even, to do something about it. Too many people today are "proud" of their ignorance and joke about it. I see this as the flip side of mistrusting experts. We don't need no steenkin' book learnin'--we're Common People endowed with Common Sense.

Dan Satterfield said...

I wish I knew what the answer is. While it exists in other places,It seems to be mainly an American problem.

It seems much deeper than a political disagreement over an inconvenient truth.

LC said...

I must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, but I have to agree with Lou and Dan. I'm profoundly pessimistic that this communication / trust problem is going to get fixed in anything like the necessary time period. It's almost like there's a whole demographic out there that's proud of being literally ignorant - i.e., ignoring reality in favor of a preferred ideological viewpoint.

I am inclined to think that a big part of the problem is in fact the information explosion made possible starting with cable TV and then exponentially increasing with the Internet - humans only have a finite amount of time to pay attention to external information, and now with the proliferation of information sources on the Internet and cable we can easily arrange to limit our intake to only folks who are telling us exactly what we already knew.

For example, when I go to the dentist or doctor or visit some clients' offices, multiple big screen TVs showing FoxNews non-stop are a common feature. Fox and many similar sources seem to feature a practice of maligning those who do not share their ideological commitments and of "creating competing experts". The routine manufacture of fake "expertise" (my retired weatherman talking-head guy is just as good as your Nobel prize winner talking-head guy) leads to distrust of all "experts" since it appears that no matter what one expert says, another expert (real or fake) can be found to disagree (however outlandish the disagreement).

In contrast, a few decades ago, media outlets were more limited and folks were in effect "forced" to receive a much more mixed bag of media input (including some information they would have found disagreeable or would never have sought out on their own), and there was a greater attention paid to actual experts with actual expertise.

My point: even if a great "reality based" information source for climate science / policy is created, the sheer number of other potential information sources will continue to allow people to easily seek out information that merely confirms their own existing beliefs, and will continue the devaluation and skepticism regarding real expertise. (I really, really don't like this conclusion one bit, and would really like to be shown wrong here.)

Michael Tobis said...

You can make a point of complaining when you are subject to television against your will.

I avoid American Airlines through Dallas, though that is my obvious connection to much of the world, because they subject me to CNN without offering any respite.

Fox is just inexcusable, but there is no reason to just put with it when you are in the customer role.

The real trick, though, is to come up with better material. (I still don't think media should be forced down anybody's throat in any circumstance, of course. This is just a matter of respect.)

King of the Road said...

L. Carey did a better job than I had done when I started to comment on this. But the debasement of "expertise" is a fundamental problem. I've blogged a bit about the tendency of people to seek information fitting their pre-conceieved political/philosophical viewpoint. There's a link at my blog to a report in physorg.com about a study showing this. And I try extremely hard to avoid it, listening, for example, to Pacifica, Salem, and the BBC for news and opinion. And Michael's blog isn't the only viewpoint I read in his topic space.

I am forced to deal with attorneys and the legal system. Whatever opinion I (or the opposition) needs on any issue, a credentialed expert can be hired to express it in testimony. This ranges from legal through psychological through medical through industry related technical issues.

I was going to mention the proliferation of information sources and the consequent ability of anyone to dwell in a collection of people of like-minded philosophy but L. Carey covered that as well.

Wandering through the Direct TV offerings gives little hop of improvement, pride in ignorance is on the rise.

David B. Benson said...

MT --- You are a customer at the Dallas airport.


EliRabett said...

It helps when the first essay you read in your honors seminar is a new piece by Richard Hofstadter, the paranoid style in american politics

EliRabett said...

Connect the dots.

The worm is turning more than you think but you gotta get out of the habit of offering RP an olive branch. He will only club you with it.

Be forthright as in We (James and I) have pointed out that your magnum opus rests on quicksand. In other words it is not worth anyone's time.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Doomed, futile, and (in the way you keep phrasing it) insulting to those who actually do it.

Environmental groups are not "PR" organizations, and do not do "PR". Treating them as if they are somehow the left-hand versions of the Tobacco Institutes of the world is just reflexive hippy-punching, which may serve to position you somewhere in some imaginary middle, but has no actual truth value.

I remain skeptical about your entire project for this reason. The scientists that I see as effective public communicators don't have this reflexive disdain for the environmental groups, and desire for greater perceived objectivity through separation from them. Instead, they see their role as communicators as being expressed through, or at least in cooperation with, these groups.

Steve Scolnik said...

Any attempt of good information to drive out bad had better take into account Gresham's Law.

Hank Roberts said...

Rich Pukalsky is a smart guy who's been well worth reading for a long time.

In other news, well, this is ... scary ...


And in yet other news, did I ever suggest you take a look at George Mason U.'s "stats.org" site? They're an interesting site set up to provide journalists with prepackaged opinion about science.

Interesting particularly if you compare their summaries for journalists with actual public health journal articles on the same subjects generally.

Like this one:

Global warming survey
Climate scientists agree on warming, disagree on dangers, and don’t trust the media’s coverage of climate change
S. Robert Lichter, Ph.D,
April 24, 2008

Sourcewatch nails'em:

Steve Scolnik said...

Given one Dr. Siegfried F. Singer's previous association with GMU, the stats.org news is not shocking.

Hank Roberts said...

Oho. Now, seriously, this is a relevant business model:


Copyright (c) 2009 Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law

14 Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 281
Author Jeffrey M. McFarland*

-- it begins ----
"Public companies in the United States do a poor job of disclosing to investors how climate change affects their businesses. 1 Despite repeated requests from investor groups for more disclosure, and despite increasing public interest in the effects of global warming, poor disclosure persists. 2 This Article summarizes some of the efforts to improve disclosure of climate change risks, and recommends elements of a mandatory disclosure system for climate change risk disclosure under the securities laws."

Mostly paywalled, but someone in academia or corporatia will know how to get a copy.

Hank Roberts said...

Oh, and here's that business model for lying to people, the one the climate scientists are fighting -- watch for the Supreme Court to reverse its current limits on money business spends on political PR. Get the best government money can buy.


Put this and the previous post together. Remember, _business_ needs good accurate information, internally and in the market. Politics needs what business wants people to believe.

Principle being illustrated is this: democracy is a necessary precondition for a free market system to be created, but a market is indifferent to democracy and will displace it in doing business.

That's why the business model for giving accurate information to people probably goes through the SEC and business judgment.

Heck, I know businesses are still able to buy consultant reports that tell them what they want to hear -- stuff like "CO2 lasts as much as a century in the atmosphere" -- and to a business that's no big deal, so they believe they can stop fossil fuels in the future, any time they choose without longterm adverse effects on the business.

Stopping that bullshit would be remarkable. And it'd make the markets smarter too.

Hank Roberts said...

More on the business model:

Hank Roberts said...


"In an effort to help people find great stuff to read in Google Reader, we approached leaders across a variety of fields and asked them what they read online. ... second edition of Power Readers. ... expanded from Power Readers in Politics to include journalists, techies, fashion critics, foodies and more.



Anna Haynes said...

re Hank's
> did I ever suggest you take a look at George Mason U.'s "stats.org" site?

The Lichters (cofounders of STATS ) are another instance of "risk"[downplaying]-type folks with a national defense/spookfunding-smelling background - both were Senior Research Fellows at the Research Institute for International Change at Columbia, aka the Research Institute in Communist Affairs, where Zbigniew Brzezinski had been Director.

Robert has a PhD in government from Harvard and did a postdoc in politics and psychology at Yale; the late Linda had a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia.
We are not talking scientists here.