"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thinking You've Communicated

A fascinating email from a U of Toronto undergrad of my acquaintance:
Dr. James Hansen came by the university a week or two ago and gave a presentation alongside Naomi Klein and the head of a fairly large indigenous rights organization. Had I not been taking Atmospheric Chemistry his presentation would have been nigh-impossible to understand; most of the crowd was there to see the sort of clear, journalistic style of Klein and was not prepared for the dense scientific language and tepidness with which “highly probable outcomes” are generally presented within our field. Indeed, almost everyone sitting around me expressed their utmost confusion, with a general crowd-muttering in the vein of “No, not really…” at every mention of “As you saw in Dr. Hansen’s presentation, there is a great urgency to addressing the climate crisis…” on the part of Klein.

(As a corollary [sic] to the “dangers of dense scientific language” I was provided the following real example at a writing seminar which you may enjoy):

31 July 1985

TO: R. K. Lund

Vice President, Engineering

CC: B.C. Brinton, A.J. McDonald, L.H. Sayer, J.R. Kapp

FROM: R.M. Boisjoly

Applied Mechanics – Ext. 3525

SUBJECT: SRM O-Ring Erosion/Potential Failure Criticality

This letter is written to insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem in the SRM joints from an engineering standpoint.

The mistakenly accepted position on the joint problem was to fly without fear of failure and to run a series of design evaluations which would ultimately lead to a solution or at least a significant reduction of the erosion problem. This position is now drastically changed as a result of the SRM 16A nozzle joint erosion which eroded a secondary O-ring with the primary O-ring never sealing.

If the same scenario should occur in a field joint (and it could), then it is a jump ball as to the success or failure of the joint because the secondary O-ring cannot respond to the clevis opening rate and may not be capable of pressurization. The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order – loss of human life.

An unofficial team (a memo defining the team and its purpose was never published) with leader was formed on 19 July 1985 and was tasked with solving the problem for both the short and long term. This unofficial team is essentially nonexistent at this time. In my opinion, the team must be officially given the responsibility and the authority to execute the work that needs to be done on a non-interference basis (full time assignment until completed.)

It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem with the field joint having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.

R.M. Boisjoly

Concurred by:

J.R. Kapp, Manager

Applied Mechanics

And then the Challenger exploded.

That's the rock. The hard place is that straightforward language doesn't allow enough precision for a well-informed person to be both terse and honest. Terse, honest, effective: pick any two.

Recall Stephen Schneider's famously self-violating advice:
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
What I think I am saying is that the cost of being both honest and effective is being long-winded. As the population is increasingly inclined to feel rather than to think, the window of effectiveness closes.

On the other hand, I am a bit shocked that Hansen is seen as opaque. I have seen his public talks and thought them effective. If that's inaccessible or unconvincing to students at a major research university, it's more than a little bit discouraging.


dhogaza said...

The O-Ring memo was written to engineering management, so there's really no excuse for the message not having been received and acted upon.

It states clearly that risk of the loss of a flight and ground launch facilities - that's worse than what actually happened - exists.

Management took a [poorly-]calculated risk, and the crew paid the price.

Word Verification: pleering, apparently closely related to o-ring.

Michael Tobis said...

There's no excuse, agreed.

But management gets a lot of communication. Perhaps the words DANGER OF CATASTROPHIC FAILURE REMAINS UNADDRESSED might have helped.

On the other hand NASA top brass are and were political appointees. We have seen what sort of response messages like "DANGER OF CATASTROPHIC FAILURE REMAINS UNADDRESSED" get nowadays. So it is possible that no message would have worked.

Still, the problem remains that the gap between what one says as clearly as possible and what others manage to hear is oftentimes vast.

Anonymous said...

I was at that presentation as well, and the whole thing was a little off. I remarked to others that it was a bit of a lost opportunity.

Hansen made a preliminary talk and then there was a panel discussion (and there was some other formal presentation from one of the sponsoring organiztions that was barely audible, despite cries from the audience to the speaker to that effect.)

As far as Hansen's presentation went, I too thought it did not
"make his case" for urgent action. As someone who is intently interested in the subject matter, I actually found myself dozing off at points!

I've seen Hansen present before, and this was definitely his "B" game...

Part of that may have been because Hansen was rushed. His entry into Canada had been delayed at the border, and the whole program had to be delayed and compressed because of this.

But if there was one thing that struck me, it was the way that it just didn't "make the case". In sales there is a truism that people don't buy features, they buy benefits. (I.e. They don't buy a red car, they buy a red car to get dates... Lame, but that kind of thing...). Hansen basically ran through the recent empirical data, but didn't seem to effectively make the connection to/for the audience about what all this meant to them.

I'm not even sure he touched on ocean acidification - it was a few weeks ago now - but if he had it would have sounded something like this: "Atmospheric CO2 reacts with seawater to make it more acidic. Here are the reaction formulas. Here is a graph of the data showing the recent measurement changes. This may have negative effects on calcifying organisms in the oceans like crabs and this picture of something microscopic that looks rather like a butterfly, don't you think?... Turning to glacier data, here is a graph from the WGMS. And here are some before and after pictures of glaciers that have receded..."

There wasn't enough connection to an audience member who was thinking "So what does that mean to me?" And I don't mean his examples where too far away geographically or temporally.

Now, this is/was my general impression both at the time and weeks later, but I certainly shared the same disappointment that your email acquaintance had. A lost opportunity, and I don't know why, because I have seen him make better presentations on the web.

Imho, it just didn't make any visceral connection with the audience.

Then the panel was just a disorganized shmozzle. The moderator had no organizing theme or principal. She just invited Klein, Hansen and the aboriginal leader to riff for a few minutes on whatever popped into there head at the moment, then invited a discussion amongst them, then turned it open to questions from the floor.

Last point. There was way too much grey hair the audience to generalize it as "students at a major research university".

Aaah, but now as I type that last bit, I am reminded of one other piece of the puzzle which may have something to do with matching the message to the audience. Hansen was in town at least in part for the UofT Centre for Global Change Science Distinguished Lecturer Series (2010-2011). Those lectures do tend to be targetted at a more specialized audience (Up next! "Tetraether membrane lipids from soils: new organic geochemical tools to reconstruct past climates and environments") So maybe there was some miscommunication as to the format of the lecture. Conjuecture on my part...

Anonymous said...

Um, "principle" not "principal". "Their" not "there".

One might think I am using voice recognition, but one would be wrong... Me and my fingers own those typos...

Paul Daniel Ash said...

We have seen what sort of response messages like "DANGER OF CATASTROPHIC FAILURE REMAINS UNADDRESSED" get nowadays

cf. "Bin Laden determined to strike in US"

David B. Benson said...

Somehow the title and abstract have to provide the punch up front, producing enough interest to wade through the details.

I also recommend Henry Petroski's "To EnginEER is human" for more on Thinking You've Communicated

Marlowe Johnson said...

I was at the UofT talk and was discouraged for a different reason. His explanation of the science was good but far, far, too long (in the sense that it covered many too many topics).

What dissapointed me most was his foray into climate policy where he came across as politically naive and D.C. centric...

Contrary to what he said, cap and trade was not invented by the fossil fuel lobby (google Robert Coase)...and lots is happening at the state/prov level that could have been mentioned to provide some encouragement. Instead he carped on and on about the inaction at the federal level and the need to explore options using the legal system and direct action activism. As you can imagine this sort of thing played well to the largely university/activist crowd in attendance but gives a very distorted picture of what is actually happening on the ground.

Given his campaign against coal-fired electricity and that fact that he was speaking in Toronto you'd think he'd give at least some credit to Ontario for phasing out coal...

Nick Barnes said...

The circumlocutions are not necessary for accuracy, or helpful for communication. One can certainly be both terse and accurate. For instance, that memo could have started "We could lose a shuttle, with all crew and launch facilities, to O-ring erosion."

The problem is the discourse and social modality of a workplace or industry, be it aerospace engineering or (possibly) climate science. Accuracy is often rewarded, but clarity is not. In many academic disciplines, clarity is even punished, in favour of ten-dollar words and clever allusion.

As a consultant, I try to be brief, to the point, and accurate. This has often won me repeat business, but sometimes has driven clients away: they were looking for glossy brochures, airy circumlocution, and ten-dollar words like "filiopietistic".

Chris_Winter said...

I don't really think you can fault Roger Boisjoly for the way he communicated in that memo. True, it could have been more terse and hard-hitting. But read the last paragraph again. There's no mistaking that message.

Of course, persistence is also a factor, and it could be argued that Boisjoly wasn't persistent enough when, on the eve of the launch, he and the other engineers were told to "put on your manager hat." Just as with the dispute between the TransOcean rep and the BP bigwigs on the oil rig who decided to speed things up by purging the drilling mud soonest. But in either case, it would have taken one hell of a communicator to sway bosses who perceived they had a lot to lose by not pressing ahead.

David B. Benson said...

MT --- I opine you'll like what Stephen DeCanio write in When bad economics and climate science collide.

Hank Roberts said...

> His entry into Canada had
> been delayed at the border

Any information on what happened, and which country's officials delayed him?

Marlowe Johnson said...


apparently he forgot that he needed a passport to enter Canada -- a new policy i might add instigated by the fortress america crowd...

Marlowe Johnson said...


apparently he forgot that he needed a passport to enter Canada -- a new policy i might add instigated by the fortress america crowd...

Robert Nagle said...

First, Michael, I am a big fan of your blog.

James Hansen is an excellent communicator. His letters and his recent book lay out the science fairly clearly. Maybe in person he's not so hot. I hesitate to gain my facts through Youtube, but ClimateCrock videos just do an amazing job in conveying information well and amusingly.

OT: It's curious that you haven't really mentioned the upcoming 2010 Texas governor race. Here's an article I wrote up about Rick Perry with lots of detail and citations about Rick Perry and climate change .

I'm just a layman, but reading the Attorney General's Petition for Reconsideration to the EPA was both laughable and hair-raising. The document relies on Climategate and the usual IPCC 2007 nitpicking (the pdf is here if you are willing to wade through such nonsense).

What kind of message are you sending to the world (and Texas children) when the state government churns out these flimsy political documents masquerading as science?

EliRabett said...

FWIW, Hansen is a good communicator in print, and a lousy one in person. He needs to learn how to speak to a public audience.

Nosmo said...

Judging by the one time I saw Jim Hansen in speak, he is a mediocre speaker. This sounds like a particularly bad one.

EliRabett said...

Dead sheep monotone

Robert said...

Michael - I disagree with your statement regarding straightforward language. Straightforward language allows one to be terse, effective, accurate, and even nuanced. Problems arise when a writer or speaker uses 25 words, including a few "10-dollar" words, when 10 words would do that effective communication is lost.

From the comments above, it seems Hansen's problem is that he is not an exciting public speaker. In the NASA engineers case, he was just not a very good writer.

Michael Tobis said...

Robert, I think that depends on whether there is active opposition to communication. If there is a third party who doesn't want your message understood, you have to tread with care; this is where the balance between effectiveness and precision cuts in. Language is not a perfect instrument.

Anonymous said...

What's the problem with that shuttle email? You'd have to be nuts to blame the engineer for unclear writing! How bad is it over there on that continent?
Do you really think it's bad communication skills that causes these problems and not something else?

Anonymous said...

What's the problem with that shuttle email? You'd have to be nuts to blame the engineer for unclear writing! How bad is it over there on that continent?
Do you really think it's bad communication skills that causes these problems and not something else?