"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Best Comment on the UEA Emails

From Balloon-Juice:
One the one hand one can hardly deny that East Anglia shot itself in the groin when the story bubbled for so long without their input. But really, what did you expect would happen? We pay scientists to do science. Especially given the effort that it takes to talk intelligently about climate science*, we don’t pay them very much. I have worked on grants from NOAA, the agency that also funds climate research. The idea of our lab or our department retaining a worthwhile PR firm would certainly amuse the staff who scrambled every year to find money for cookies and coffee at our weekly seminars. The money for scientists to do anything that isn’t science just isn’t there. If you want professional PR to defend science then you have to fund it with something other than the grants that fund the science itself. Forcing researchers with a day job to act as the front line against Exxon’s army of professional denial firms, in the media, is ridiculous and sad. It’s like asking Sidney Crosby to defend Pittsburgh by way of competitive corndog eating.
A bit irritating, in that the above-quoted paragraph summarizes the main point of this blog better than this blog has ever managed. Still, credit where it's due. Balloon-juice describes the whole predicament perfectly.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think scientists should even do much PR in the usual sense.

I do think we need to make our case, diligently and calmly. Let the attention-deficient press scurry hither and yon over this or that collision between a golfer and a fire hydrant or whatever captures the popular imagination or is force fed to it in any given week. Meanwhile, though, we need mechanisms to actually explain to people what is going on. Nobody, not the press nor the institutions of science as they are currently constructed nor any independent organizations have anything remotely suitable to the task of getting the message across.


Marion Delgado said...

While I agree with you about the quality of that summation, it's really, really depressing.

More and more, I try to follow John Mashey's advice. And also Chris Mooney's to a lesser degree.

I think my experience in the non-internet world explaining and defending vaccination will really serve me well. It requires patience that used to be beyond me, as well as a willingness to repeat, repeat, repeat, with the only change being refining what you say for effectiveness and pithiness.

William T said...

Michael - I know you have an opinion, but Joe Romm is doing a good job channeling the fightback - see the Nature response he's highlighted here.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"When the emails hit the news on Friday morning, the university appeared completely unprepared. There was no statement, no position, no one to interview. Reporters kept being fobbed off while CRU’s opponents landed blow upon blow on it."

I think "no position" is the key phrase here. The advantage that the inactivists have over actual scientists is that they don't need a consistent position. They can say any nonsense they want, even if it contradicts everything else they say, as long as it agrees with the core tenet of Very Not The IPCC.

The fact that the inactivists' PR movement consists of a huge network of "independent" groups makes things even easier for them -- because it means each of these groups can move (semi-)autonomously without waiting for directions from On High.

-- bi

Alastair said...

I agree that it is a good analysis of the problem but ...
it does not answer the question!

Scientists such as Prof. Jones and his ilk do not have the training or the inclination to be propagandists, but that is what is needed in to put over the scientific view in "The Carbon War". So where do we find the people that are needed?

You don't have to look far. Both journalists and Greenpeace would be only too willing to help, but most scientists feel that dealing with them is wrong. Until climate scientist accept that the only way to get their story across is to allow the press to tell scary stories and suppress their doubts, just as the opposition does, then scientists are fighting the most important war in the history of mankind with one arm tied behind their back.

bernie said...

Judging from the likes of Felton Communications and Hoggan there is plenty of top flight PR talent available. It is simply inaccurate to suggest that this is a one-sided PR battle.

Michael Tobis said...

There is some nontrivial green PR from the likes of DeSmog, Grist, and Mr Gore's We Campaign. That helps balance out the politics but does not constitute much public education in the actual scientific grounding of the matter. That indeed is my greatest complaint about Mr Gore, who despite his seriousness of purpose and diligence perpetually falls under the sway of short-term political thinking, to the great cost of us all.

On the other hand, the connection of RealClimate to Felton is essentially a transfer of a few tens of dollars per year for web hosting and is about as red a herring as could be.

The RealClimate scientists along with a few blogs like this one are 100% amateur productions and are not only unremunerated but actually end up as a real cost on productivity in activities that are rewarded in science. That's the problem.

bernie said...

I beg to disagree that the Fenton Communications role at RealClimate is a matter of a few dollars.
As for PR battles - how about Richard Black at the BBC. He has a pretty potent PR role. Take a look at the current piece: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8392611.stm Look at the CRU emails that reference the BBC and Black in particular. Mann and Jones are smart guys. They are just as smart about PR and influencing public opinion as the fossil fuel guys.

P.S. I do appreciate your letting my post through.

Michael Tobis said...

Regarding Felton, provide evidence or drop it please.

Regarding the BBC piece, I think that a journalist not swallowing the "climategate" spin on EAU email hack in reporting on the Copenhagen meeting does not constitute "PR" for an alternative position.

In any case, you clearly miss the point. The point is that science cannot fight a PR battle against anti-science, period. Science is always going to be the tortoise in the race. The rabbit may be overconfident and crazy, but the tortoise has to plod ahead. As things are presently constituted, the tortoise has other things on its mind.

Horatio Algeranon said...

Speaking of the ADD press:

Climate of Intrigue

Unknown said...

Extending Marion's excellent thought, not only is the summation depressing money-wise, but getting up to speed, IMHO, to make a run at actually communicating well will take a decade.

Do we have a decade?

And the larger picture, which we see in this country every day, is that we cannot address our problems. We can't even get a decent health care bill. The Big Money has screwed it all up and there is no conscionable way anyone could vote for that. It is that way with every large problem we try to address where there isn't a clear threat under our noses or poised as a suppository. We simply as a society aren't equipped to do this. IMHO.



David B. Benson said...

My limited experience with attempting to communicate th essense of climatology to the great unwashed is that I can hardly do better than quote Jim Galasyn:
Fundamentally, climate science is based on well-understood principles of thermodynamics. Before humans burned the sequestered carbon (fossil fuels) and released CO2, Earth was in radiative near-equilibrium with space. Humans introduced a sudden, 500-gigaton excursion in the global carbon budget. Because CO2 is a “heat-trapping gas”, Earth is now in disequilibrium with space. To return to equilibrium, the atmosphere must warm.
The rest is details. Interesting details, to be sure, but the basic thermodynamics have been understood since Svante Arrhenius published in 1896.

Nobody (so far) has doubted the veriacity of this quotation. (maybe one fairly far gone sole.) But I think it would be better if shorter (and more pointed).