"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, December 10, 2010

Things that Backfire for Scientists

Things that backfire for scientists in a public controversy:

- Normal scientific reticence
- Postnormal scientific participation in debate

- Scary scenarios
- Tedious precision

- Being such a scientist
- Using shallow emotional language

- Being secretive
- Being open to timewasting interrogation

- Tolerating incompetence
- Acting arrogant toward well-intentioned ideas

- Dumbing down
- Elitism

- Tightening up peer review
- Loosening up peer review

- Not reacting to attacks
- Reacting to attacks

- Talking to the press
- Not talking to the press

- Alarmism (focus on worst cases)
- Complacency (trust in nonscientists to weigh evidence)

- Criticizing the consensus
- Being quiet about non-consensus opinions

- Ignoring economists
- Engaging with eocnomists

- Not taking advice from PR professionals
- Taking advice from PR professionals

and just generally

- A rock
- A hard place

Why does nothing work? In my opinion it is because scientists are reacting. We should be steering the conversation.


Lou Grinzo said...

Yes, it is because scientists are reacting; at least that's the proximal cause. The root cause is that scientists are spectacularly ill equipped to fight a political war against a very well financed and often ruthless opponent that doesn't observe the same rules that scientists "must". Throw in the worse-than-useless current media, and I'm (almost) surprised that we haven't seen scientists burned at the stake.

As for how to fix this, I'm out of guesses and suggestions and probably as frustrated as you are, Michael.

William M. Connolley said...

> Why does nothing work?

Because you are trying to tell people things they don't want to hear. Being (ugh) proactive rather than reactive would help not one whit.

n-g said...

Another pair for the list, though it applies to taking the lead:

- Focusing on doing science
- Writing blogs

This entry's word verification, "skablamo", pretty much summarizes what happens to scientists.

David B. Benson said...

A man convinced against his will
is of the same opinion still.

Pangolin said...

If I walk into my doctor's office and ask him give me a homeopathic remedy for an infected puncture in my foot he would tell me flat out I was being an idiot. If it was my child that had the infected wound I would be hustled aside by police and the child would be treated.

There is very little doubt at this point that climate change effects will kill children in the immediate future. Why can't we call the idiots out in plain language?

Anonymous said...

I like Pangolin's analogy... even with freedom to choose and purchase of services, the professional has a duty of care to guide the choices of the client, contra Curry's policy agnosticism.

Word verif: unbug.

Anonymous said...

Most people don't really care about facts. Most people care about stuff like food, water, houses, fridges, computers, gaming consoles, etc. And money.

Most politicians are similar.

This "facts" thing is pretty low on everyone's priority list.

-- frank

Martin Vermeer said...

Pangolin, Pangolin, Pangolin... poor, poor you. You believe still in common sense, don't you?

Jim Bouldin said...

"Why does nothing work? In my opinion it is because scientists are reacting. We should be steering the conversation."

OK, hold on here please, because I believe that with that statement, you have a fairly serious disconnection about what you (and some other bloggers) are doing.

The statement itself is not the problem--I VERY much agree with it. I've in fact felt exactly that way from the moment I started reading climate blogs, my immediate (and current) reaction being "why do these people spend their time publicly arguing with knuckleheads?"

So, why DO you and others spend so much time talking about and/or arguing with Pielke Jr., Curry, Kloor, Fuller, whomever? Are these the people who've built the science over the last 150 years? Are they the ones who are building it now? Are they the ones working 10 to 15 hours a day to collect and process meteorological data, with no fanfare or notice from anyone. Or managing databases, maintaining or installing instrumentation, writing code to archive data better, strategizing on best approaches to data collection based on model insights? Lobbying congress for an improved satellite or ground- or sea-based observation system? Working to enable cross-scale integration/prediction of global-->regional-->local climate change causes and effects? Trying to determine the essential drivers and hierarchy of climate change effects on the biosphere? Developing new climate proxies or analytical methods for them?

Why do you spend ANY time on those people at all? Why does anyone? There is a vast science with a zillion person-hours of past and current work that establishes it, and you guys prefer to argue with a journalist who writes a blog or whomever???? It's ridiculous. You're NEVER EVER going to lead the game that way, because the goal of such people is to draw attention to themselves, and the more they get the more they want. And a number of folks seem more than willing to oblige.

Write articles that advertise the VAST HISTORY AND STRENGTH of this discipline, past and present, if you
want to "steer the conversation", and ignore the noise makers, of whom there is always a ready supply.

Jim Bouldin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

Jim, you are right of course.

On the other hand, you learn a lot by engaging that you can't learn by ignoring. This blog is not primarily aimed at the general public. It's never been a blog about the science; it's been about the relationship between the science and the public discourse.

I do hope to do something along the lines you describe soon.

Anonymous said...

Not only can we learn by engaging with those with whom we disagree; if we don't engage them while they do represent an important fraction of public opinion, we'll lose out in the end.

"Ignore them and they'll go away" does not work if they have reached a critical mass, which they evidently have.

The question is not *whether* we should engage; the question is *how* we should engage.

See also Randy Olson on this same topic:




Anonymous said...

MT, I think I got caught in the spam filter. Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree with Belette.

Jim Bouldin said...

Engage them and they're constantly back for more Bart. They're not in it to learn, they're in it to engage. Is this not obvious?

As for Randy Olson and his "scientists can't communicate message", no thanks, don't agree. Scientists communicate fine for the most part. Problem is, as William said above, people don't want to hear what we have to say.

Michael Tobis said...

Jim "back for more Bart" is a very interesting formulation. Yes, of course, "they're not in it to learn, they're in it to engage" is true, for the most visible values of "they". And of course, "they" as so described are doing it to play goalie, the puck being the information, and the goal being the minds of the undecided.

It's immensely frustrating to see people taken in by the game. But you engage around them, but calling them on their tricks.

The catastrophe of the last year in our corner of the world has been that "they" broke through to the mainstream media before we did. Now "they" control the discourse and things look hopeless.

So what happened to curiosity as a natural driving force in the human personality? It's certainly widespread in children.

Are we maladapted? Is there something about us that refuses to mature? That certainly seems backward.

Don't people want to refine their understanding?

It seems to me that adopting a dogmatic view is to some extent a cultural thing. It seems to me that there must be some reason we have lost ground on this front, as well.

Anonymous said...

There are many different values of "they". Certainly, some are not interested at all in learning, and engaging with them is a bottomless time sink and nothing of value is gained. Some others do want to learn, but are somehow stuck in a different train of thought (e.g. due to professional deformation, ideology, or just tough luck as to what kind of information they enountered and swallowed). Some others still are just confused. Pretty much all of the latter examples of "they" are worth engaging. Even more so, by not engaging, *we* are losing out; we end of missing the goal because there are many effective goalies out there.

A more pragmatic argument would be the appearance towards the audience: Not engaging is easily spun and understood as "they have something to hide".

If our goal is to inform the audience of scientifically valid information, we have no choice than to engage. Ignoring hasn't worked; that much is obvious.

As to scientists communicating fine:
To their scientists-peers: yes.
To non-scientific lay-people: not so much.
To scientifically interested and technically savvy skeptical laypeople: very bad.


Anonymous said...


"So what happened to curiosity as a natural driving force in the human personality? It's certainly widespread in children."

Um, curiosity is natural in children when they don't need to worry about other junk such as money. I'm not sure that curiosity is a natural condition in children of, say, Somalia (then again, I may be wrong).

Really, just read this tidbit in the Guardian about the Wikileaks leak on the COP15 negotiations:

"Perhaps the most audacious appeal for funds revealed in the cables is from Saudi Arabia, the world's second biggest oil producer and one of the 25 richest countries in the world. A secret cable sent on 12 February [2009] records a meeting between US embassy officials and lead climate change negotiator Mohammad al-Sabban. 'The kingdom will need time to diversify its economy away from petroleum, [Sabban] said, noting a US commitment to help Saudi Arabia with its economic diversification efforts would 'take the pressure off climate change negotiations'.'"

Facts? Ideally politicians will decide what's the best thing to do based on the facts of a case... but in practice, politicians don't really care about facts. Show them all the facts, and they won't budge an inch. But promise them money, or blackmail them with salacious photos... and believe me, in less than a split second they'll suddenly See The Light™.

Also, at the moment, hack writing does pay. Just think about this: Roger Bate used to get $100,000 a year... just for writing bullshit. Which can we expect to be more attractive to an average guy on the street: a $100,000 per year pay cheque, or abstract values such as "facts" and "curiosity"?

-- frank

Mal Adapted said...

> Are we maladapted?

I know I am.

Pangolin said...

Can anybody point me to a measure of climate change effects that is going slower than the worst case scientific models of ten years ago?

Michael Tobis said...

Pangolin, I think the temperature rise itself is still a bit below the projection, though much less so this year than last.

Savory Candy Bubbles said...

Part of the problem appears to be trying to appease each other (other scientists) and present a coherent and united front to the public. Because the "scientists" are not united, and we (the public) know it. Its the same way in economics right now. People reading the news have to pick and choose the economists they trust, and take what they say at face value, because I don't have time to study macro. If Dean Baker and Paul Krugman say it, I believe it, because what they have said in the past sounds reasonable to me, not because I understand the economics. (And when they disagree with each other, rare, it is on specifics.) But it is just as easy to go out and find crazy Friedmanites to listen to. And they have PhDs from Impressive University too. The public has the same problem with other scientists. I couldn't really name you a person I will always listen to on climate. Maybe in addition to blogging, someone could get a gig with the Guardian or the NYT, just writing something interesting, not too dense, on the side. Wouldn't even need to convince people of anything, but by announcing that they are the Climate Scientist of Record for a prominent "liberal" organ, people like me would read them, and perhaps decide that he/she is my "go to" person on climate, ie, that I will just accept what they say and not need to be convinced everytime because I believe in the overall veracity of their work. Now that I think about it, fat lot of good it is doing this country to have Baker and Krugman when the people in power listen to Summers and Geithner. Never mind. :( (from You can call me Elle, under another name.)

Martin Vermeer said...

The reason why nothing seems to work is simply the disparity in propaganda resources. If our side had the use of the same kind of money for waging the media war as the denialists have, we would actually be able to get away with the climategate crimes we're being accused of, falsely -- and we'd even be admired for them!

All this soul-searching on how poor scientists are at communicating with the public misses this key ingredient: fire power. We need to either get similar levels of resourcing for our PR -- and no, that money can not be taken from research budgets, obviously; I don't see where it could come from --, or somehow rob the enemy of their resources -- and I don't see how to do that either.

But hey, this isn't our "fault". It's just a challenge that fell in our laps. Remember that.

(For thought, we might be able to get by with less resources than the enemy: military scholars tell us the suppressing an insurgency requires a 10:1 superiority in manpower. We could comfort ourselves by observing that, like guerilla fighters, we know the terrain, and like a national liberation movement, we are the ones with the existential motive.)