by Judith Curry
The anniversary of Climategate has engendered much reflection on the climate change issue, specifically with regard to communicating and engaging with the public.
The CRU emails revealed a mode of communicating climate science, whereby consensus and peer review and the media were used in an attempt to stifle what they viewed as misinformation being purveyed by merchants of doubt.
In the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore used Naomi Oreskes’ results concerning the number of pro-AGW papers vs skeptical papers published in Nature and Science to sweep aside climate change skepticism. This sent a message not recognize any sort of “debate” about global warming, which was evidenced by mainstream climate scientists and other advocates refusing to debate skeptics.
After the release of the CRU emails, these strategies resulted in what Fred Pearce has referred to as the “anatomy of a public relations disaster.”
So what has the recent response been of climate scientists that are concerned about the dangerous impacts of anthropogenic global warming?
A group of scientists has formed the “climate rapid response team” which is described by the Guardian article:
The website by the new rapid response team of climate scientists promises to connect reporters and editors with a team of experts. In the build-up to today’s launch the three scientists behind the project – John Abraham, Scott Mandia, and Ray Weymann – have come off almost as climate science super heroes, which in a sense they are.
In the LA Times:
This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists,” said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York. We are taking the fight to them because we are … tired of taking the hits. The notion that truth will prevail is not working. The truth has been out there for the past two decades, and nothing has changed.
Here’s Mandia’s explanation for his activism (via dotearth):
The science of climate change and even the scientists themselves are under attack from a well-orchestrated and well-oiled misinformation campaign. The best defense against this anti-science offensive is to make sure that the correct message reaches a wide audience. Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future explain that scientists have failed to get their message across for a variety of reasons but mostly because we are not engaging the public on their turf. After reading that book, I became a climate change evangelist with my Global Warming: Man or Myth? Website, this blog, and more recently a Facebook Fan Group called Global Warming Fact of the Day. I have two small children and I do not like the future that I see for them or for their children in a human-driven warmer world.
Whereas the willingness of the rapid response team to engage with skeptics is a big step up from the previous strategies, is this really going to make any kind of difference? Is this kind of activism going to backfire?
In recent weeks, I have encountered very interesting analyses from Matt Nesbitt and Bill Hooke of the overall issue of communication and engagement on the subject of climate change.
Matt Nisbet’s perspective
From Matt Nisbet’s essay on “Climate scientists at crossroads: muddling the difference between public engagement and deficit-model activism”
Using language that echoes popular blogs and books, and that offers a deficit-model view of science policy and public understanding, the small group of rapid-response scientists appears to view the climate change issue via the prism of a partisan-fueled “war,” one that pits science versus “anti-science.” The antidote is to get the “correct scientific message” across to the public.
Individual climate scientists have a right as citizens to engage in partisan activism, and some have argued that they even have a moral duty to be advocates. . . Yet scientists should also be effective advocates, avoiding strategies that are only likely to sow further polarization and discord. As I wrote at Slate magazine earlier this year, climate scientists are likely to be more effective as community-based diplomats than MSNBC-style culture warriors.
In contrast to individuals serving as advocates, national science organizations, universities, and other expert institutions have a duty instead to avoid partisan advocacy and to sponsor efforts at civic education and public engagement. These efforts should seek to not only improve technical understanding of climate science, but also understanding of the social, political, and ethical dimensions of the issue. These efforts are not designed to argue in favor of any one policy or political party, but should rather provide the motivation and opportunities for citizens to connect, plan, learn, and voice their preferences on climate change.
The difference between deficit-model activism and public engagement, unfortunately, is too often confused by how science communication is discussed at popular blogs, books, in talks, in reports, and in commentary articles.
Nisbet also writes about “The need for diplomacy in the climate wars”
As Congress continues to struggle its way toward new energy legislation, climate scientists are getting a little hot. . . This time, members of the prestigious National Academies complained to one another about the “neo-McCarthyism” of the climate skeptics and lamented that “science is getting creamed with no effective response.” One researcher called for “a relentless rain of science and scientific dialog on the incredible, destructive demagoguery.” Another participant urged an “aggressively partisan approach.”
But urgent calls to escalate the war against climate skeptics may lead scientists and their organizations into a dangerous trap, fueling further political disagreement while risking public trust in science. A major transformation is needed in how scientists and their organizations engage the public and policymakers. The new direction is not to become more political and confrontational on the national stage, but to seek opportunities for greater public interaction, dialogue, and partnerships in communities across the country.
And finally, excerpts from Nisbet’s essay on “Eye on 2012: A Post-Partisan Plan to Engage the Public on Climate Change”
On one side, there will be loud challenges to climate science from Tea Party-backed Congressional members and familiar conservative voices such as James Inhofe. On the other side, there will be renewed claims of a war on science, a circling of the wagons among greens and liberals, and name calling strategies such as labeling conservatives “deniers.” The claims from both sides will be repeated and amplified at cable news, in the narratives told by many political journalists, and across the blogosphere.
The result will be further disengagement and inattention from the 2/3 of Americans who fall in between the tail-end segments of climate alarmists and climate dismissives. The likely hyper-partisan rhetoric also threatens to obscure the need for substantive discussion and re-evaluation of policy solutions to climate change, solutions that can gain support from both parties and that offer clear benefits to Americans. Overlooked will also be the need to focus on regionally tailored actions related to mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable economic growth.
As an antidote to this new era of hyper-partisanship on climate change, a coalition of expert organizations needs to step forward to promote serious discussion of policy alternatives and to provide the civic education opportunities that enable a diversity of Americans to learn, plan, connect, and voice their preferences on climate and energy policy.
The goal should not be to defend the science of climate change or to boost climate literacy, since science is not what is at issue in the policy debate, and science is not what shapes public judgment or preferences. Nor should the goal be to lobby for a particular set of policies or align with partisans on the issue.
Instead, the goals should be to promote relevant areas of knowledge beyond just technical understanding of climate science that include understanding of the social, institutional, ethical, and economic dimensions of the debate along with familiarity with the costs and benefits of a range of policy proposals. To achieve these outcomes, civic education investments necessitate promoting affective outcomes such as increased feelings of trust and efficacy; creating a new communication infrastructure and participatory culture; and recruiting citizens who can help their peers learn, connect, and plan.
Civic education and communication should be viewed as a two-way process where elected officials and the sponsoring expert organizations learn about and respond to public preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change solutions and policy options. This is especially important for elected officials. Part of the challenge in creating the incentives for policymakers to take action on climate change and to address the issue in a serious way is to accurately communicate about the nature of public opinion.
Bill Hooke’s perspective
Excerpts from Bill Hooke’s essay on “Getting out the science message”
However, when scientists attempt to engage a larger public to share their mounting concern, they frequently see the broader announcements of their findings either truncated, or squelched, or lost in the shuffle, or manipulated, distorted, and exploited for political gain or financial self-interest by elected officials, private sector groups and NGO’s.
This is vexing. In response, scientists are tempted to try to (a) amp up the volume, (b) exert greater control over the framing and content of the message, (c) prescribe a policy, and (d) complain about their treatment.
It’s not clear that this is at all effective.
Amp up the volume? Making the case more loudly, more stridently, more emphatically – will work for you, if at all, only if you happen to be the one who has the biggest megaphone. . . Scientists should know that someone will always be able to outshout them short term, and probably long-term. Why put ourselves and our arguments at the mercy of those with superior numbers, more money, and greater power?
Exert greater control over the framing and content of the message? . . . Worse yet, rightly or wrongly, our society has decided that any attempt to coordinate a message is a sign that something reprehensible is afoot. If scientists are meeting to coordinate a message, it can only mean that we’re trying to distort the truth for some nefarious end. The public has built up antibodies to this approach, from whatever quarter. It will do us no good to swear that our motives are pure.
Prescribe a policy? Who put us in charge? This is off-putting for virtually every hearer. . . Particularly when, truth be told, however good we are at our science, we’re rather naive when it comes to seeing the unanticipated consequences of policy formulation.
Complain about our treatment? Treatment of scientists by the media has at times, maybe even more often than not, been patently unfair. . . But by and large, pollsters find that scientists still enjoy a high public regard relative to other professions. Scientists are still well-paid. And so on. Usually people who are among the world’s favored few do not receive a warm reception when they complain.
Whew! Pretty depressing. Well, if these strategies are truly counterproductive, perhaps it would be worthwhile to contemplate their exact opposites. Remarkably, these look like they might be more effective.
Lower the volume. We’ve all seen this work at a personal level. In the middle of a shouting match someone will start speaking very quietly, and bring a hush over the crowd. Why does this work? Well, it doesn’t, at least not always. But it does work when the speaker has something to say that’s generally acknowledged to be especially pertinent, and/or the speaker enjoys a special reputation within the group. Scientists hold both these trump cards. We have a high reputation, and at least some of our number have some very important things to say. Nobody wants to miss them.
Leave any framing and content of the message to others. . . [W]hat I am suggesting is that we throttle back any desire to convince others of the truth of what we’re saying, or the facts of our findings, or manipulate our readers or hearers into taking actions we feel necessary. Instead, we should focus first and foremost on doing a good job of disciplining our own thought process; and then secondarily on expressing what we’ve learned with clarity, and distinguishing (following Darwin) very precisely between “facts” and “views.” We should emphasize listening over speaking. We should seek to understand before seeking to be understood. If we maintain this focus, then over time (and really relatively quickly) people will start listening to us.
Hold up all the policy options to consideration. . . [T]hose who are skilled at coming up with not one but several options, and who are able to envision the consequences furthest into the future, are held in the highest regard. . . Those who can think more flexibly, nimbly, adaptively – those who can think more – are those who are and will be valued most.
JC’s comment: There is much that individual climate scientists and the climate establishment can learn from what Nisbet and Hooke have to say.