"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Long Strange Trip

It's been a little less than three years since I started discussing the failures of climate communication on this blog. In that time, it has gone from an obscure obsession of my own to the front pages of newspapers around the world.

It's been about a year and three weeks since I moved from being exasperated about how the press has been handling climate science to being genuinely angry. It's been about a year and a week since my anger landed me fifteen minutes of fame on the Glenn Beck show.

So it was about a year ago that I came to understand that truth had enemies. Others have been investigating the details of how the enemies of truth corrupted the conversation. I for one find that particular topic of less interest - the fact that the conversation has been corrupted is clear, and the underlying methods are fairly obvious once one starts to look at it from an informed perspective.

That anniversary is corresponding with a unique moment in the history of climate science, and perhaps an unprecedented moment in the history of science altogether. The entire field is now fed up, and now understands its responsibilities in ways that it has neglected in the past. Whether this will suffice is another matter entirely.

I have personal affection for a few journalists and admiration for many, as I do attorneys and economists, and yet for all three fields I have limited tolerance for their traditions and their ethical outlook. Indeed, attorneys and economists have played their parts in the present absurd flirtation with cataclysm. But, pace Shakespeare, it's the journalists I would be done with first.

See, here is my old pal Andy Revkin up to his old tricks. "Should Scientists Fight Heat or Stick to Data?" A good question. So, whom does he consult? Matt Nisbett and Randy Olsen. I've already professed myself shocked at the shallowness of Nisbett's understanding of the problem. He comes to the table with:

When scientists and advocates, motivated by these biased perceptions, take action by responding with tit-for-tat attacks on climate skeptics, it takes energy and effort away from offering a positive message and engagement campaign that builds public support for climate action and instead feeds a downward spiral of “war” and conflict rhetoric that appears as just more ideological rancor to the wider public.

These positive messages include redefining climate change away from just being an environmental problem, to being a national security, public health and economic problem, with policies that would lead to societal benefits in these areas rather than just perceived economic sacrifice, hardship, and costs. The recent Luntz report provides evidence in support of this message strategy.

Um, 'scuse me? Scientists do not offer positive messages, campaigns, or appeals to public support. That isn't our job, y'know. Scientists offer evidence. Now he goes on to say
Moreover, when scientists inaccurately presume that climate skeptics have singlehandedly swung polls in the direction of public disbelief — and then adopt a warfare posture and “fighting back” strategy against skeptics — they call further media attention to the original “ClimateGate” event and feed the preferred narrative of skeptics.
which may look like good advice, but see, four months ago we had every expectation of ignoring the whole thing, except perhaps for supporting Dr Jones, the immediate victim of the crime. (Yeah, there was a crime, remember?) So Nisbett offers advice for a more reasonable world than the one we find ourselves in.

On the other hand, Randy Olson gets it the other way round.
What [Nisbett has] written here is great, it’s accurate, it’s admirably dispassionate, but it’s also written with the assumption that the general public is a bunch of heartless robots. There comes a point where the public DOES want to see the science community stand up for themselves.
and there I agree with him, but again there's this odd disconnect with reality as any person educated in science would see things:
Gore is ultimately “a scientist” when it comes to communication instincts. You can see it played out in his movie and two books as he’s slowly come to the realization that you need something more than information to reach the masses.
Um, wasn't the problem with Gore's movie that it was a bit shallow and manipulative? That certainly is my problem with his recent campaigns. So here we have contrary advice, accepting the idea that scientists are involved in "campaigns" but suggesting we had better get emotional. Olson, remember, wrote Don't be Such a Scientist, which advises us to ignore matters of substance. Fine, and policemen should ignore the law and firemen shouldn't be so hung up on combustion.

In case you think there's not really a pattern here, check out Revkin's latest, wherein Tom Yulsman makes some sensible observations, like this one:

Some of it also reflects what I take to be a truly breathtaking naïveté. For example, George Woodwell says this: “If the opposition opens an issue, make the issue theirs, and so hot that they have to let go.”

As if a group of climate scientists can make it “hot” enough to force the likes of Marc Morano to let go. Even if they could, they’d basically be turning themselves into Morano. And a lot of good that would do for their standing in the eyes of the public. (Moreover, any scientist who thinks he or she can beat Morano at his own game is in for a very rude awakening.)

but concludes thus:

We’ve had more than 20 years of communication of climate science. … And thanks in part to Web 2.0, today there is more varied and voluminous communication on the subject than ever before, including some very effective efforts by scientists. Yet with all of that communication about climate science, we still do not have substantial policy action. So might it be that the problem has not been a failure of a communication, but a failure of policy?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for more and improved communication of climate science, both by scientists and journalists. But I do not believe this is the key that will unlock better policy outcomes.

So the fact that the public has the story drastically wrong is not the fault of how the story has been communicated? Exactly whose fault is it then?

And now, people are advising scientists to take the advice of "PR professionals". Well, I am pretty much unconvinced.

So where does this leave us? Basically, deeply confused. We really are left to our own devices and our own ethics. The fact is that the message nature tells science is clear enough, and the message science tells society is monstrously garbled, largely by the intervention of malicious agents with political skills, and somewhat by the peculiar ethics of intervening institutions, notably politics including political activism, law, economics and journalism. The beltway professions, in short.

These are people who believe in culture, and disdain physics. They may, in unguarded moments, refuse to cross the street in front of a speeding truck, displaying that they still maintian some respect for physical reality, but they have little concept of physical reasoning. While there are a few important exceptions, in theior professional lives they understand and convey the problems of physics, chemistry and biology as aspects of human culture. Consequently, the connection between genuine experts and interested amateurs is mediated by people who understand neither, and the opportunity to stir up massive distrust is greatly enhanced.

The solution is for trained scientists to learn to write, not for journalists to learn to explain science. They are culturally misaligned. They do not report the facts. They report people's opinions about the facts. But the physical world is not swayed by clusters of opinion.

It is time to reinvent journalism altogether. This is well known. Steven B Johnson cogently argues that each journalistic niche will have to develop its own institutions and way of doing business.

And here is the secret sauce:

Science journalism in the future will mostly be conducted by scientists.

I plan to participate vigorously.

Blogging is good but blogging is not enough. The best conclusion I can offer is what Dr Andrew Sun said on nature.com last year in the consequential month of March:

Scientists deal with only hypothesis, by means of experiments. We live with hypothesis, with uncertainty, with the unknown. The public do exactly the opposite. How would you expect the readers be pleased with a science news that fails to confirm or ensure anything for them?

No one is really interested in science except scientists. Modern society is only trying to eliminate this hopeless situation by creating additional interesting by-products of science. But improvement from this situation should not start from trying to present in any way the ongoing frontier research. Steps should be followed instead. A systematic, long-run agenda is needed. Unfortunately, no media dedicates itself in this career. They sell themselves to the readers, not just us. Why should they listen to only us instead of the majority of the readers? The majority of taxpayers, not the professional minority, lead the society, especially in the more democratic western world. That's why scientists have no reason to blame others. Instead, they should stand outside their comfortable, automatic justice of peer-reviewed community and face the vast majority of public by themselves. Otherwise more shits happen.



Tom said...

This is exactly right. Scientists should be doing the communicating. Even scientists who don't agree with me should be doing the communicating. Get all the self-appointed 'communicators' off the stage and do it yourself. You. We will probably disagree at many points along the journey, but if your position, your data and your hypotheses are correct you will win the day. Nobody will win it for you.

Now go get 'em.

Unknown said...

in the monbiot piece mentioned in the post there is a link to this nature article

what are your thoughts on it and its approach to communication.

jules said...

"So it was about a year ago that I came to understand that truth had enemies."

Lucky you, spending so many years in such blissful innocence! I found out the same truth about truth in around 2003. I wonder if some people never find out...

Michael Tobis said...

Well, with lawyers that is part of the job description... By extension manufacturers of shoddy products, yes, I suppose I always believed in those as well.

Jules, tout de meme I am sorry, it sounds like it may have been quite a painful discovery, but you did not appear permanently damaged the last I saw of you.

Pangolin said...

Again. Thank You.

It makes a difference to me that you do this.

Deech56 said...

For some reason I have been thinking back to the whole US isolationist movement of the 1930s and early 1940s (up to 7 Dec 1941). There was a whole group of people, led by prominent individuals, who believed we could ignore a potential threat - that the political world could spin out of control but we would not be touched.

I think it will take a climactic Pearl Harbor to shake us from our complacency.

Anonymous said...

Sun's article, however nice, is still confusing to me. Basically, his thesis is that the public by and large is not interested in science, so if you want scientists to engage in science journalism, they will also have to walk away from the 'just the facts' approach in order to reach the public. How do they prevent then to just become the same as the bulk of journalism already is?


guthrie said...

A couple of things occured to me as I read your post, which is actually a huge topic and tricky to pull apart.
Firstly, the problem with a niche is that it doesn't reach people. For appropriate action to take place, either sufficient people need to be reached to create political pressure from the ground up, or power hungry maniacs need to be reached in order to use their power sensibly. The latter are surely more likely to be reached by niche journalism than the former.

Secondly, the more pain scientists in general feel, the better. But the problems are more systemic, in journalism, the media, the drive towards money and practical uses in universities, rather than encouraging curiosity about how the world works.

Thirdly, there is more than enough room for discussion about climate change as a physical phenomenon and about its impacts and therefore what people value. As has been said before, people bring their value preconceptions to the table, thus many dismiss climate change because they don't like the idea of control of carbon emissions, rather than acccepting the reality of the changes and therefore either arguing that we don't need these pesky ecosystems and poor people can adapt or die, or that there are more free market ways of doing things which fit more with their outlook.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Michael, you continue to misrepresent my views. You write, "Roger Pielke Jr. has constantly argued that scientists should stay out of policy altogether." I have said no such thing and argued to the contrary, that scientists have an obligation to connect to the policy process. My book, The Honest Broker (Cambridge, 2007) discusses different modes of engagement. Could you correct your post? Thanks!

Michael Tobis said...

The sentence referring to Roger Pielke has been removed at his request. Roger should bear in mind that many of us have no idea what he is going on about a lot of the time.

This may not entirely be our fault.

crf said...

"So the fact that the public has the story drastically wrong is not the fault of how the story has been communicated? Exactly whose fault is it then?"

I think he is saying that the reason public views about climate change do not match what science shows is not so much because of disinformation in press or internet, but more because this has been coupled with near total inaction by politicians. It's hard for the public to believe in a truth when everyone with power, all over the world, has almost totally ignored it! Believing in inaction is psychologically safe! (You see the same phenomenon in health care "debates" in the US.)

Concrete action (even if initially it were only symbolic or half-measures) would likely shift public perceptions greatly.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me that Roger brought up before that public support for policy measures doesn't seem to be strongly influenced by the public perception of climate change. The poll he quoted (sorry, no link available at my fingertips) did indeed seem consistent with (dare I use that phrase?) what he wrote.

I find this highly surpising, but perhaps the policy process is not as intricately linked to perceptions of climate change (along the warmist-skeptic ruler) as I (and I suspect many others) often think?


Phil said...

Funny about RP Jr's misrepresented views. The allegedly erroneous view is exactly the conclusion I came to after reading his Prometheus blog for a couple of years. In the end I gave up on him.

Michael Tobis said...

Bart, regarding Sun's comments, I don't agree, or at least I interpret it differently. I see it as a call for a long range strategy, in which the message of science is largely chosen by scientists as a first rank responsibility.

The short term seems to me to be lost. We only have the long game left to us. We should learn from our present failures and aim for something better. It will take an organized and coherent effort, and decades.

Michael Tobis said...

Amazed that Revkin is retweeting this article. Bewildered.

Horatio Algeranon said...

As far as journalism in general and Revkin in particular, Horatio wrote a ditty about that a while back.

RE: Prometheus

Horatio posted there for a while (under his real name) back when he was naiive, before he realized that on Prometheus, rhetorical "gotcha-points" were as important as (if not more important than) logical arguments based on science.

Mark said...

A sighting of the reclusive jules! But is it really James in disguise?

Please let's not turn this into a discussion about RP Jr.

On the topic (more or less) that's a very though-provoking and interesting post, MT. Thank you

jules said...

Usually it is a case of "tl:dr".

Michael Tobis said...

the inscrutable orient strikes again...

Hank Roberts said...


Name mtobis

Hank Roberts said...