by Judith Curry
There has been much discussion in the climate blogosphere this past week on scientific story telling and communicating with the public.
Randy Olson has been trying for years to get scientists to understand the value of storytelling in sharing research, see especially his blog The Benshi. In an article in the Solutions Journal, Olson writes:
Right now, the field of climate science is struggling to generate support for predictions of environmental calamity that have not yet been realized. Climate models indicate a dire future, but because the predictions are not 100 percent certain, opponents have an easy time attacking and undermining their credibility. And yet, if climate scientists were to use their past accomplishments to bolster their current claims, there would be less controversy, as it’s more difficult to undermine the credibility of established achievements.
Let’s take a look at one of the greatest climate science accomplishments of the past two decades—understanding the El Niño phenomenon. In 1998, in a questionnaire given to students on the first day of my introductory marine biology course at the University of Southern California, I asked, “What is El Niño?” Out of roughly fifty students, not a single student could answer the question.
Today, I guarantee that just about every student would immediately answer that the phenomenon refers to a year in which the weather gets wacky with massive rainfalls, mud slides, and wildfires. A significant number would be able to add further details about the ocean being exceptionally warm and fishermen catching strange fish from the south, and a few would even be able to tell you it’s caused by ocean currents slowing down. More important are the benefits of this broad knowledge to the state of California—every industry, from fishing to farming to transport, benefits from our understanding of “an El Niño year” and, especially, from the ability to predict its approach nearly a year in advance.
All of that is the result of climate science. Now imagine if a positive public relations campaign were launched, pointing this out to the general public. Think of General Electric’s old ad campaign: “GE: We bring good things to life.” Imagine something similar: “Climate science: We help make sense of your world.”
The elements for building public trust are there. The only thing lacking is the large-scale instincts to take advantage of them—to use past accomplishments to build trust rather than pointing to future threats in a gambit of hope and fear.
In a world of antiscience movements, winning the public’s support for science is more difficult than ever. It is essential that scientists recognize two things: (1) There is no more powerful form of mass communication than the telling of good stories, and (2) support for science will come not from the promise of future solutions but from telling stories about solutions achieved in the past.
In a comment at Collide-a-Scape, Olson further elaborates:
And by the way, all of my essays, comments and my book are directed at trying to reach the general public, not the hard core aficionado crowd you get on serious climate blogs — it’s two different modes of communication.
The science world has never had a need to engage in large scale public relations, but that’s because the world has never been like it is today. This is not your father’s science world. This is not just the world of Twitter, it is also the world of magazine articles written last fall by journalists (Andrew David H. Freedman in the Atlantic, Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker, you can Google them both) who have nothing against the science world, but are pointing out there are major psychological flaws in the brains of all humans, including scientists, that lead to high levels of false positives and other significant sources of noise.
All of which means the time has come to take a deeper interest in understanding these basic dynamics of storytelling that we are all burdened with. And that is the key point of my essay on uncertainty [discussed on the neverending climategate thread]. Your audience is defective to begin with — we are ALL defective. That’s what the two articles point out. People don’t respond to “just the facts” in the way you wish they did. But there are ways to deal with this that do not involve dishonesty or distortion. One of which is making certain the public is aware of how much certainty you have provided them in the past.
Keith Kloor picks up on Olson’s comments at Collide-a-Scape with a post entitled: “Why Scientists Can’t Tell Their Stories.” Kloor amusingly states: “One of his movies is called Flock of Dodos, which might best characterize his view of the science community–with respect to their overall communication skills.” The comments on this thread are well worth reading, here are some excerpts:
Jay Currie states:
Absolutely right. But the key thing about understanding the oscillations and cycles in climate is that the data and methods were disclosed and intelligible. Moreover, climate scientists were modest in their claims to know what “caused” El Nino events and modest as to their claims as to being able to predict the magnitude of any given event. This transparency and modesty has meant that the climate science surrounding El Nino is trusted in ways which the CO2 conjectures are not. And, of course, when Climategate confirmed many of the suspicions surrounding some very prominent climate scientists and institutions that trust was eroded even further.
Climate scientists are always telling simple stories, mostly about their adversaries unfortunately… Whether it’s Kevin Trenberth, lumping all critics in with the ‘deniers’ or Michael Mann or Kerry Emanuel railing against ‘industry funded disinformation websites’ and the like. I guess that kind of thing works on some people, otherwise they probably wouldn’t do it. I guess I will invoke Henry Louis Mencken but appropriate slightly… “For every complex problem there is a story which is simple, neat and wrong”. Modern society, 21st C society- I don’t think is going to accept simple stories as the basis for its understandings. Simple stories are things offered by religions and ideologues, with the purpose of collapsing the complexity of reality down to very simple ideas which are then used in order to manipulate people. Modern minds are rightful to be suspicious of such stories. We’ve had a lot of experience with these things.
Michael Larkin makes a statement that I suspect that many Denizens will resonate with:
Good grief. “Stories”.
Stories can be straightforward and accurate reportage, biased innuendo, outright lies, or anything in between.
They can be allegory or myth – fabrications in a literal sense, but underlying that, indicative of great truths (or, perhaps, lies).
What is the truth about AGW? I’ve looked as long and hard as I can and don’t know. I strongly suspect no one does. Those who feel certitude on either side spout volubly from soapboxes and spare themselves no efforts in sniping.
Whatever, I’m not interested in, nor can I be swayed by, stories that appear to me to be anything else other than accurate reportage. Sometimes I have to reconstruct what seems likely to be accurate through reading a number of accounts, often conflicting, of the same topic. This is often not possible, however, so that I have to shrug my shoulders and place the issue in the voluminous folder labelled “moot”.
This explicit talk of stories (or, sometimes, “narratives”) by those on the consensus side in and of itself causes me to lean towards scepticism, and sometimes, cynicism. Just the mention of them in relation to what is supposed to a scientific issue makes me wonder what the heck kind of animal we are dealing with.
Of course, we’ve always to some extent woven narratives about current scientific understandings, and often enough those have turned out to be incorrect or just naïve and simplistic. But where else than in reference to AGW is there open and explicit airing of such notions? In the context of how to get the public to accept a proposition?
“The public”. Ah yes, a collective noun, as if the public were a monolithic beast with one or at most a few varieties of thought modes. But actually, each person is his or her own universe, with many and complex reasons for holding the views they do, and for evaluating incoming information, be that in the form of stories or anything else. And quite a lot of them, I suspect, feel patronised when the righteous convinced attempt to vomit forth little stories, in the hope they will be accepted, and in frustration at the thought the audience may be too stupid or perverse or selfish to swallow them whole.
Well, maybe it’s the fact that “stories” are on the table at all that scuppers the whole enterprise. Maybe the so-called consensualists have created the opposition they deserve by the very ways they have chosen to act – being too often dismissive, insulting, patronising, closed-minded. That awakens the same characteristics in many of their intended audience, who have become every bit as obstinate as they are. There is no way to win these kinds of vitriolic argument. The idea of “winning” is part of the problem, and completely counterproductive.
Chris Mooney has a post on DeSmog entitled “Global Warming and Snowstorms: Communication Nightmare or Opportunity?” He laments the challenges of getting the public to understand the counterintuitive idea of global warming producing more snowstorms. IMO, there are good reasons for this counterintuition (e.g. see this previous thread plus summary from NOAA), but Mooney finds that “On a physical level, the case is sublimely simple.” Mooney concludes:
I feel torn about this. On the one hand, winter snowstorms have drawn massive attention and have affected incredibly large numbers of people. They speak to everyone’s experience. Tying global warming to that would be incredibly powerful.
But at the same time, the hurdles presented are incredibly vast, and I’m not sure good scientific explanations, alone, can overcome them.
That doesn’t mean the UCS and Jeff Masters should leave this topic alone. Many people are open minded and want to know what’s going on with the climate system; and for the rest of the public, over time we may push them closer to a point where these ideas will go down more easily.
And that’s the ultimate takeaway: We need to move the public to a place where drawing a warming-snowstorm connection isn’t so challenging. I don’t think drawing the connection itself will get us there. Rather, I think other efforts, over time, will make people more willing to draw the connection.
But when it comes to talking about the Earth, the real world – the world as resource, victim, and threat – scientists and politicians often find that their conversation, which otherwise had been going well, founders.
But when it comes to the real world – biodiversity and the preservation of endangered species, air- and water-quality, natural hazards, climate change — scientists and politicians often clash. They disagree, and they get defensive. And they can’t seem to let go. Instead, both sides keep trying to justify themselves. It’s a snag and a snare – keeping them from getting on with the work at hand.
What to do?
- Switch the conversation when you notice that it is getting old, boring, or difficult to talk about.
- Look to segue into a better topic.
Specifically with regards to climate change:
In particular, we might contemplate putting aside the oft-repeated rehash of the basic science behind the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations, the concomitant global warming, and its human attribution. Even though these points are fundamental and even though our audience is not yet entirely on board, we need to move on.
Why? Because our audience, though not quite so informed and up to speed as we might like, is showing definite signs of tiring of this subject, when framed in this way. Surely we have many things we could talk about that would be far more interesting, to nearly everyone – politicians, business leaders, educators, journalists, children, even our life partners.
Prerequisite: engaging with level 2’s and level 3’s
The statement by Randy Olson: “And by the way, all of my essays, comments and my book are directed at trying to reach the general public, not the hard core aficionado crowd you get on serious climate blogs — it’s two different modes of communication.” when combined with Michael Larkin’s statement (coming from a hard core afficionado) brings to the fore the issue of epistemic levels that I raised on the Agreeing thread, where I proposed the following levels:
- Research scientist publishing papers on relevant topics
- Individual with a graduate degree in a technical subject that has investigated the relevant topics in detail.
- Individual spending a substantial amount of time reading popular books on the subject and hanging out in the climate blogosphere
- Individual who gets their climate information from the mainstream media or talk radio
What Olson, Mooney and Hooke are talking about is communicating with level 4’s. It is my hypothesis is that effective communication and engagement level 2’s and 3’s is a prerequisite to effective communication with level 4’s. Climategate was mostly about a failure to engage constructively and effectively with level 2’s and 3’s, and also skeptical level 1’s.
What are the ingredients for effective communication with level 2’s and 3’s? Here is my take, I look forward to your other suggestions:
- public availability of data, codes, and models
- transparency in assessment methods, particularly expert judgment of uncertainty and confidence levels
- blogospheric engagement with level 1’s (quick note: check out the latest level 1 entry into the climate blogosphere: Isaac Held of NOAA GFDL).
So why does this matter? The level 2’s and 3’s probably number on the order 100,000 worldwide ( I would be interested in a better estimate of this number). A small percent of the global population, but nevertheless a very important group in the context of the public debate on climate change. The failure of the climate establishment to engage effectively with this group and only focusing on the level 4’s has arguably brought us Climategate and the loss of trust. Further, the level 2’s and 3’s can play a potentially important role in the auditing and evaluation of climate science and assessment reports, and in some instances can be motivated to make primary contributions to climate in the form of journal publications.
The “noise” generated by level 2’s and 3’s who are fighting to get access to key data sets, metadata, etc. and are unconvinced by the IPCC assessments is heard by the broader public. The broader public listen to the level 2’s and 3’s. Therefore, in terms of public relations, you can’t just focus on the level 4’s and bypass the level 2’s and 3’s. Chris Mooney seems to want to convert level 4’s to level 3 (not going to happen on a wholesale basis).
Most importantly, if level 1 climate scientists can’t convince the level 2’s and 3’s, then aspects of their argument are likely to be flawed, and they should actually listen to the level 2’s and 3’s to try to understand why they aren’t convinced; they might actually learn something. Yes, particularly at the level 3, there are people that are politically motivated on both sides. But it has been a huge mistake to dismiss all level 3’s as politically motivated. And it has been a fatal mistake to dismiss the level 2’s.
New story lines for the level 4’s
Focussing squarely on the level 4’s, I think Randy Olson and Bill Hooke make important points. We need to change the storyline, or the conversation, or whatever you want to call it. The “consensus” story in particular is way past its shelf date.
Randy Olson’s idea of “Climate science: We help make sense of your world” is a good one. Focusing on subseasonal, seasonal, and interannual climate variability would be much more effective in engaging the public (not to mention provide a better foundation for building confidence in climate models and helping to develop adaptation measures that make use of such forecasts.)
BIll Hooke’s idea of switching the conversation is also a good one. The climate change story (greenhouse gases etc.) is getting boring to the public and political noise surrounding the subject is getting in the way of dealing with serious environmental and economic issues. Some possible new story lines:
- water, food and energy for a growing global population: combine energy economics and security, environmental quality, agriculture, climate change/variability in the context of a discussion of global sustainability.
- reducing vulnerability to extreme weather/climate events (e.g. floods, droughts, heat waves, tropical cyclones): infrastructure, emergency management, better forecasts and warning systems (days, weeks, months).
So does switching the conversation away from global warming mean that we should just give up on the idea of dealing with CO2 and energy policy? Not at all, there are plenty of other reasons for addressing these issues in the context of energy economics and security and environmental quality and public health. By including climate change in the context of these broader issues, we might actually make some progress towards regional and global sustainability.