"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Crux

My comment on the RealClimate thread on communicating science:

Of all the weeks to have limited internet access! (People who follow my writing will understand.)

I believe that the present topic is the keystone issue of the survival of civilization. I believe that the increased alienation between experts and the public during the past generation, notably in America but also elsewhere, is the single greatest threat humanity faces. It subsumes not just climate, but also food security, energy security, health, war and peace, and ultimately the preservation of any human accomplishment worth preserving. If we accept that humanity freely chooses its destiny, we had damned well better improve our competence.

From the point of view of the scientifically advanced reader likely to be found here, the crucial error is that made by Jim Bouldin in #58:

"I get fed up with people who think science is supposed to be delivered to them, by us, like a pizza at halftime of a football game. We can’t make people who don’t care and don’t want to learn, care and learn. And it ain’t in our job description anyway."

While literally true, this is the key to the problem. It ain't nobody's job description, and that is a crucial gap in how we organize ourselves.

In areas where there is little risk of social controversy, science can perhaps proceed well enough with the traditional division of labor among faculty, postdoc and grad student apprentices, and lab assistants.

Traditionally in science, modest attention is paid to "outreach", but this is mostly intended to increase the likelihood that suitably talented children will be inclined to pursue scientific endeavors. Most of the public is served by science in ways they don't directly grasp, and concrete and relatively modest engineering achievements are offered as a proxy. (The bus driver who takes you on the tour of the Kennedy Space Center is likely to wax rhapsodic about dessicated orange juice and ball point pens which write upside down.) Perhaps this is good enough.

Where controversy arises, though, the problem of outreach is dramatically different. In those cases, there will inevitably be constituencies arrayed about the science wishing to emphasize certain facts, hypotheses, and patterns of thought (e.g., "it's the sun, stupid") at the expense of others. This essentially introduces noise into the feedback control system of democratic governance, making society ever harder to manage.

In the face of this behavior, essentially opposition to clear communication of facts, the traditional outreach mechanisms of science have proven utterly powerless, and this is the problem we need to solve. It's by no means going to be everybody's job, but it should not be nobody's job. The traditional divided loyalties of the scientist, between advance of science, advance of self, and advance of institution, hardly needs stretching in yet another direction. RealClimate, for which I have the greatest respect and gratitude, is about the best one could conceivably expect under the circumstances. RealClimate is a remarkable and invaluable contribution, but it's obviously not enough.

That there are amateurs like Craven and Sinclair is wonderful. They are starting to show up on the radar, and have been grossly underappreciated by the scientific community. I've been doing my best to call attention to their achievements, and I greatly welcome this burst of publicity from RC.

But none of this is enough. At best as individuals we can match each bit of nonsense with a comparably accessible bit of sense. Fairminded but busy people will continue to split the difference. In stead of realism, we get a public and a politics carrying a strange muddled average of confusions and misapprehensions. The idea of acting as a counter to organized disinformation too often devolves into counter-disinformation.

We need not just new communication techniques but new institutions. Organizing and presenting information credibly requires professionals whose primary responsibility is to convey existing information, and not to advance some point of view.

It is time to create a profession of advocating for truth, rather than advocating for policy.

"Not being such a scientist" is not by any means a job for all or even most scientists, but it isn't a job for nonscientists either. Fundamentally Lou Grinzo's comment early in this thread has it right. We need networks of collaboration between professional communicators and informed scientists.

In some ways this is a perverse turn of events. The decisions we need to make are not about climatology. They are about energy policy, infrastructure, international relations, and fiscal policy. And traditionally, the public hasn't had much patience for these things either. The problems there are the same, even though the predictability of those disciplines is much weaker than in climate physics. What we know and how well we know it needs to be made clear and credible at whatever level of interest and effort an individual chooses to bring to bear.

It's at root a problem in pedagogy. Pedagogy in turn is a problem in media. We have new ways of presenting information. Given new information technologies, the gap between what can be done and what is being done is huge. What can be done itself is an enormous project. This is not a problem for a few individuals writing blogs or making low budget videos, though that will have to serve in the short run. We need to create institutions that can make the difference in conveying the nature of the world we are facing.

Image: Cross atop Mount Royal, Montreal


Paul MacRae said...

It's easy to see why the public are (and should be) suspicious of climate science (which is what's being discussed; the public isn't suspicious of physics or chemistry, to my knowledge).

Three of the biggest players in alarmist climate science—Gore, Schneider and Hansen--have all admitted to exaggerating their claims to get the public's attention. (I don't think this mention of the big three is off-topic here, by the way, since they have publicly admitted misleading the public.)

Furthermore, the IPCC's final reports are subject to "review by governments"--in other words, they are subject to political interference and ideology. There is nothing particularly wrong with political interference after a scientist has presented his/her findings--politicians aren't forced to do what scientists want; that's part of the democratic process. But in the IPCC's case, this political interference occurs before the report (or at least, the Summary) is released. I wouldn't believe a newspaper that was subject to "review by governments." Why would I take seriously a scientific report produced under the same conditions?

I've been researching climate science for two years for a book, I consider myself scientifically literate, and I've seen so much deliberate misinformation to the public (e.g., the allegedly threatened polar bears, the utterly phony "40,000 extinctions a year") that it's difficult to believe anything a "consensus" climatologist says without a thorough background fact-check.

Physicist Richard P. Feynman wrote, in an essay called "Cargo Cult Science":

"You should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. … I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen."

Consensus climate science has not met this responsibility to "bend over backwards" to be utterly truthful with lay people, particularly in its claims that the science is "settled" and therefore beyond error or discussion (no science is ever settled), and so it gets caught out again and again.

In short, consensus climate science is much too concerned with the political ideology of environmentalism to be credible as a source of unbiased facts. Somehow (and I don't know how since the press, at least in Canada, is entirely pro-IPCC) the public is picking up this lack of integrity. Hence, the mistrust of science in general.

Anna Haynes said...

> "It is time to create a profession of advocating for truth, rather than advocating for policy"

You're very, very right - with the caveat that this new profession will itself need an immune system.

industry "EPA Advisory Panel" site:ewg.org
- or read Doubt Is Their Product
- or look at some of the interests that have infiltrated universities.

Marion Delgado said...

This is why I like Chris and Sheril, in a nutshell. They've observed several problems: there's less money for science - there's no jobs in science compared to previous times - there's no more money for science journalism - there's a disconnect with the public - and they've dared to raise the question of whether all this can be tied together.

Just as high school is somewhat of a delaying tactic to keep kids out of the job market, some of what goes on in academia is just politics and bureaucracy - and moreso as people get older and more established.

Maybe what we should strive for is some intermediate levels of expertise in both science and communications. Just as for a while there was a push to add lots of PAs into the mix along with LPNs, RNs and MDs to fill gaps in medicine.

Hank Roberts said...

It's a shame to see the old boilerplate reposted here without citations; most of it appears to be warmed-over Inhofe blog stuff.

Michael Tobis said...

Interesting comment received in email:


Hi. Here's a quick email, as it seems "Only In It For The Gold" doesn't permit adding comments without id.

I stumbled on your post of today (2009-09-20), "The Crux", while doing a quick search to see whether twitter contained any interesting discussions of science education.

You note an institutional gap. I've noticed something similar, but coming from a different direction.

I've recently been exploring speculation that the general failure of science education and science literacy efforts is, to an under-appreciated degree, due to the breathtakingly poor quality of the stories of which science education is composed.

My experience is if I take a random topic fragment, and list n questions one would think any good introduction, K-grad, would need to address, I repeatedly then find most of the n require groveling over the primary literature, and not infrequently, working directly with specific domain experts. For example, writing about molecules for early primary school students, one surely wants to compare bonds to familiar electrostatics like balloons and hair. Fortunately, for this question, there's a scientific community which cares - the folks doing molecular simulations, because quantum and electrostatic codes have very different performance. So a few days work, a few days of their work, and one small part of an introductory paragraph can be written. But sometimes it's harder. When the question doesn't mesh well with anyone's research focus.

To a large extent, this isn't novel. And is arguably, uninteresting. Just one more point on an effort continuum. "If I had more time, I would have written the section better. With lots more time, I would have looked at how others dealt with the material. With an implausible amount of time, I might have searched the physics education research literature for ideas on better approaches. And with fantastical resources, one might, as you suggest, take a fresh look at the topic and struggle to find wonderful insightful ways to present it. And then, yes, even empirically test and refine them. But that's fantasy land, and so, uninteresting."

An open question is whether, given what would now be considered exceptionally good stories, science education success improves significantly. "Improved stories -> improved results" is uncontroversial. But "dramatically improved stories -> dramatically improved results" is unclear.

So you have something hard. Hard as in it would require a community, a literature, institutions and incentives, rather than isolated inspired individuals. A community with a background in science. But working on something of little research interest. So there's a gap. The scientific research community doesn't much care, these aren't research challenges. For someone else perhaps, but not for their field. The educational folks don't much care. They may fold easily accessible information into their stories, or often not, but they are ill equipped to hunt for it. The education research folks, while potentially interested in establishing whether the speculation is correct, would require major restructuring to then pursue it. Textbook evolution is a joke. And as for outreach, and science popularization, they can nibble at the problem, but aren't close to being able to manage the needed scale.

Michael Tobis said...

Comment received in email, PART II:

So I have a slightly different take on the issue. If the speculation is correct, then the core problem is as much one of scientific communication as of pedagogy. "[N]etworks of collaboration between professional communicators and informed scientists" might be a first step, but at least for achieving science education and literacy, inadequate. It's been reasonably argued that most of the scientific community itself is scientifically illiterate, at least for some values of literate, being largely unfamiliar with each others' fields. The challenge is then less one of better presenting accessible information, than of obtaining and organizing the currently inaccessible. With better presentation then being 'the easy part'. "Outreach" might be how the scientific research communities' contribution to a fix gets funded, but in form might more resemble survey articles, peer review, and research, than resemble current outreach. And while tech might have a major impact, for example, simulations becoming pervasive in education and their open source code becoming a literature by which it is improved, the key would still be improved content. Same old stories, new media, would seem of much more limited potential.

One could try to drive things from pedagogy and presentation back. A market for presentation creating a market for improved concepts to present. But... how much market for presentation can one create without improved conceptual content? The limited commercial work in the area, eg, "we'll sell you an accessible description of the research applicable to your medical condition", has had to address both.

If a slow fix was sufficient, we'd be all set. There are several bodies of effort nibbling away at the problem. What to do to achieve more rapid change is less clear. And even where clear, largely unfunded.

Thanks for your post,

Note to the author: if you'd like to be acknowledged by name, let me know. And thank you as well.

Hank Roberts said...

Possibly relevant -- particularly about producing a record that's accessible to the public:


"... I'm not convinced that you need a "journal" to have peer review, that it can't be embedded as another layer in whatever kind of fast-track publication system ends up being used.

If the CS community decides to go in this direction, it would be an amazing opportunity to rebuild their corner scholarly publishing from the ground up, to decide on what they truly value...."

Martin Vermeer said...

> I've been researching climate
> science for two years for a book

Yep. We need a Climatology Libel Legal Action Fund.

Mitchell said...

"I believe that the increased alienation between experts and the public during the past generation, notably in America but also elsewhere, is the single greatest threat humanity faces."

I'm skeptical for a variety of reasons.

1) In climate policy, we certainly have the situation that the experts have a consensus that many people do not believe. However, consider some other sustainability issues. For example, population or peak oil. You really don't need an expert to tell you that people will starve if they become too numerous, or that oil will run out eventually. If anything, it's the "experts" of economics who play a confounding role here, by promoting cornucopian and do-nothing ideas. So the climate situation seems unique, in that the basis of the threat is a mildly exotic causal relationship (exotic relative to common sense and everyday experience).

2) The disbelief in mainstream climatology is not universal. In American terms, it is usually liberals who believe and conservatives who do not. This disbelief is not a manifestation of a general public alienation from experts. It is a manifestation of climatology having become a politicized, partisan issue. Left and right have their own separate, self-sufficient universes of information and interpretation when it comes to any politicized issue. And I have to say that it's the right, right now, which seems the most detached from reality. A few years back the left looked like that, because it was where the 9/11 truth movement had the most traction. But the American right now encompasses global warming denial, "birthers", and healthcare scaremongering, along with perennials like religious opposition to Darwinism. That is where the disbelief is concentrated.

3) Finally, it really is the case that "expert" castes are often wrong. Insofar as the general public really is skeptical of experts as a class, rather than simply disinterested, they have some reason to be.

So, while devising some novel social practice or institution which facilitates the communication of facts from professionals to laypeople is potentially a benevolent action, a genuine way to do good, and perhaps even a very great good - I cannot believe that it is the essential answer to the world's problems.

The situation with respect to climate policy is unique, and very much has to do with one half of the American political universe deciding to disbelieve (and in this they have been assisted by the genuine inconvenience of shifting away from fossil fuels, which has provided motivation for disbelief, and by the confounding efforts of corporate denialists, who gave the scientific skeptics a *much* greater voice than they otherwise had).

Hank Roberts said...

PS, re your quote of Jim Bouldin's remark at RC, context matters.

His research and teaching page: http://www.plantsciences.ucdavis.edu/bouldin/index.htm

There is a job description that covers trying to "make people who don’t care and don’t want to learn, care and learn." -- grade school teacher.

Hank Roberts said...

ps.. google 'public suspicious of chemistry'

Bryan Lawrence said...

I know you're discussing this elsewhere, but it's also difficult when the media want to introduce controversy and we have none to offer (despite Paul's first comment, we don't have what I would call first order controversy, what controversy that's real, is second order) ...

This is prevalent across all science. See for example the concluding paragraph of

So even if you have professionals, they can't communicate with the public directly unless they can get air time (across all the appropriate media). That means we have to get the public interested in stories which aren't about conflict of one sort or another ... oh for an easy problem :-)

Anonymous said...

"there will inevitably be constituencies arrayed about the science wishing to emphasize certain facts, hypotheses, and patterns of thought (e.g., "it's the sun, stupid") at the expense of others."

Or, to put it another way:

'there will inevitably be constituencies arrayed about the science wishing to emphasize certain facts, hypotheses, and patterns of thought (e.g., "it's man-made CO2, stupid") at the expense of others.'

Thank you, Mr. MacRae, for the timely bucket of cold water which our excitable host requires from time to time!

David Duff