by Judith Curry
At the forthcoming AGU Fall Meeting, I have an invited talk in a session on Scientist Participation in Science Communication.
Here is the abstract for my talk:
Abstract: Public engagement on climate change
Climate change communication is complicated by complexity of the scientific problem, multiple perspectives on the magnitude of the risk from climate change, often acrimonious disputes between scientists, high stakes policy options, and overall politicization of the issue. The public salience of climate science is intimately connected with perceived risks and the costs of potential solutions, which are filtered through an individual’s world view and politics. Efforts to increase science literacy as a route towards persuasion around the need for a policy like cap and trade have failed, because the difficulty that a scientist has in attempting to make sense of the social and political complexity is very similar to the complexity facing the general public as they try to make sense of climate science itself. In this talk I argue for a shift from scientists and their institutions as information disseminators to that of public engagement and enablers of public participation.
The goal of engagement is not just to inform, but to enable, motivate and educate the public regarding the technical, political, and social dimensions of climate change. Engagement is a two-way process where experts and decision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, solutions and policy options. Effective public engagement requires that scientists detach themselves from trying to control what the public does with the acquired knowledge and motivation. The goal should not be to “sell” the public on particular climate change solutions, since such advocacy threatens public trust in scientists and their institutions.
Conduits for public engagement include the civic engagement approach in the context of community meetings, and perhaps more significantly, the blogosphere. Since 2006, I have been an active participant in the climate blogosphere, focused on engaging with people that are skeptical of AGW. A year ago, I started my own blog Climate Etc. at judithcurry.com. The demographic that I have focused my communication/engagement activities are the technically educated and scientifically literate public, many of whom have become increasingly skeptical of climate science the more they investigate the topic. Dismissing this group, which are often referred to as “deniers” because of perceived financial or ideological motives, misses some very important issues. Specific issues that individuals within this group have with climate science include concerns that science that cannot easily be separated from risk assessment and value judgments; concern that assessments (e.g. IPCC) have become a Maxwell’s daemon for climate research; inadequate assessment of our ignorance of this complex scientific issue; elite scientists and scientific institutions losing credibility with the public; political exploitation of the public’s lack of understanding; and concerns about the lack of public accountability of climate science; and climate models that are being used as the basis for far reaching decisions and policies. Individuals in this group have the technical ability to understand and examine climate science arguments and are not prepared to cede judgment on this issue to the designated and self-proclaimed experts.
JC comment: Presumably I was invited to give this talk because of Climate Etc. The abstract (written months ago) reflects some thoughts I have on the subject, but doesn’t really outline a talk on this topic. I haven’t given my talk much thought yet, so I’m throwing the topic open to discussion. Hopefully the discussion and my deliberations on putting the talk together will help clarify what is going on at Climate Etc.
Of relevance to this topic, Collide-a-scape has thread entitled “Is Judith Curry peddling disinformation?” which is motivated by Ludecke-Tol threads. The discussion raises some broader issues re Climate Etc. and public engagement by academics. I excerpt here some of the interesting comments from that thread:
I’d welcome Tol documenting the “damage” that he sees being done to the public by the discussion of scientific papers that are in some way flawed. An alternative view is that such discussions among experts when held in public help people to understand the process of science and its complexity, and rather than doing “damage” actually helps to build trust and confidence.
Tol’s recommendation that experts should purposely and collectively ignore papers that they don’t like is the exact recipe that led to the cliquish and insular behavior reflected in the UEA emails.
“Do you assign lousy, error-riddled textbooks for your class to read?”
Yes, absolutely. The Skeptical Environmentalist was a core reading in my graduate seminar for about 4 years. Why? Because we took on the project of critically evaluating it. I have even assigned parts of IPCC WG II
My job isn’t to tell students what to think, my job is to teach them how to think. I have no fear that their minds will be corrupted by being exposed to information that is flawed in some respects. In fact, I encourage students to bring in material to the class which we all read and critique together — I do not “filter” any such pieces, even the malarkey.
Arguments that the public or lay populace needs to be protected (or whatever word you want) from misleading information can make sense for governmental regulatory process, drug approval mechanisms and FCC guidelines for advertisers (to name a few). But as an approach to public conversations by individual experts via social media? No thanks. I prefer less pressure to filter, less group think, less cliquey experts, and more open discourse, debate and discussion. Give the public some credit, they are not as dumb and gullible as Tol (and maybe you) seem to think!
Your biggest mistake is to assume readers are empty vessels into which only selected material should be poured. Perhaps that’s the way you learned. At Climate etc, critical judgement is acquired by doing the work of thinking. Dr Curry does nobody else’s thinking for them, because it isn’t possible.
The reason so many of us enjoy the discussions there is because we are never told what to think. I am fairly certain that the only people who read the papers are those who are sufficiently informed to make a judgement. No harm was going to come to anyone – only better discernment.
Tol is not telling Watts, Inhofe, Morano or Steve Goddard to do something different. Why not? I imagine it is because he has different expectations for them. Since they post far more egregious stuff, it is clear that Tol is not reacting to all disinformation, just that emanating from Judith. This seems to me to indicate a difference in expectation – and he is explicit in suggesting she has a responsibility that the others do not.
Our future requires an unprecedented amount of interdisciplinary thinking. This in turn provides us with an unprecedented problem, the problem of recognition of authority across disciplines. These discriminations are deeply consequential, and it is the job of public communicators of science to help the public make them. And here, Judith Curry sets herself up as an arbiter of science, and fails.
By prominently stating inexpert opinion with an expert hat on Curry behaves in a way I consider unconscionable. Whether she overestimates her own capacities, or underestimates those of the substantive participants in the field, or both, she is muddying the discussion every bit as much as the willful acts of propagandists, and the clumsy contributions of marginal participants, do.
It does in fact call into question the functionality of climate science that Curry has attained to a position of repute.
But the case of a department chair with no sophistication in statistics taking on uncertainty as a cause is a profound embarrassment to the field. There is no denying this.
I think Curry should STFU, or at least stick to such matters, if any, where she has reason for confidence in what she says.
Some people would prefer a more rigid authoritarian gate keeping system, which has advantages when executed properly, and some choose to run their forums that way (ahem…RC…Tobis). Let the market sort it out.
The potential flaw with the rigid gate keeping system is who polices the gate keepers? This is arguably where the climate community and the IPCC has failed the public, and I support JC’s effort to right that wrong.
If we want blogs to aspire to some kind of authority—to be reliable sources of information—then Tol’s criticisms are right on target and Curry calling attention to spurious analysis is akin (in a distant way) to a major newspaper giving prominent coverage to pseudoscientific studies that cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccinations.
However, if we don’t view blogs as journalism and don’t treat them as sources of authority, then Tol is barking up the wrong tree. Pielke has said that he views blogs as more like the kind of discussions people conduct over beers at the neighborhood bar, and from that perspective Richard’s criticism makes no more sense than telling the crowd at the pub to leave sports commentary to the experts.
Tol makes some valid points here, but Pielke is more persuasive. People will read these blogs or not as they choose, and when a blog repeatedly calls attention to crap, its credibility and its audience will adjust to reflect this. Climate Etc. is not The Wall Street Journal, so the greater danger in Curry’s gushing over crap is to Curry’s reputation, not to the public understanding of science.
Back to the role of blogs: Tol wants academics’ public blogs to follow an academic kind of code of responsible posting. Curry wants her blog to be a more informal place where she can try out half-baked ideas and get feedback. She describes herself as a few years from retirement and not terribly concerned with her professional reputation (that’s part of her soi-disant Radical Scholar shtick). Each to his/her own. One result is that thoughtful people will take Tol’s blogging much more seriously because he’s clear that he takes care what he posts. But I really don’t see any good reason why Curry should have to run her blog according to Tol’s preferences, so long as she is clear about what she’s trying to do with her blog.
That’s not what Judith does. She does something much more subtle and, it has to be said, educational, though not all seem to be able to grasp it.
She’s a facilitator. She’s not didactic (all the best adult educators are like that – education being my professional specialty). Her purpose is not to impart knowledge from a lofty point, but to act as an enabler for open discussion and the development and exercise of critical thinking. She allows anyone with a view to put it out there, and does so without fear or favour. They will stand or fall by the force of their own arguments.
Her views, and I’m sure she has them, are neither here nor there. Genuinely sceptical people do not accept arguments from authority, so what point in her attempting to influence them?
A good adjective for Judith is “humble”. Very few have the moral integrity or intellectual courage not to try to influence through applying their own authority. In the blogosphere, she’s so far above most in wisdom that many can’t perceive what she is doing without getting a crick in the neck.
Academic freedom is an old privilege. Academics can report the results of their research without fearing that the political fall-out would affect their economic security or their career.
But freedom creates duty. Academics should not publicly mingle in discussions on topics that are outside their expertise.
In the discussion, Curry admits that she had not thoroughly considered the original guest post by Ludeke; and it also clear that she does not have any particular expertise in statistics.
Curry thus exercises her democratic right to write whatever, but fails her academic duty to restraint in public.
Nullius in Verba:
Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. The thing that bothers people about Judith is that she meets all the requirements to be a “scientific authority”, and so it completely ruins all the arguments from authority to have her sometimes batting for the other team. It’s not that people are worried the public will take these papers seriously because Judith chose to highlight them, it’s that they can’t attack them without also attacking the basis of argument from authority on which they rely. They’re peer-reviewed papers being presented by a professor of climatology. How are non-experts supposed to know what the orthodoxy they’re supposed to believe is, if you can’t trust the experts to know what they’re talking about? Or if the experts don’t speak with one consistent voice, not having “curated” away any different opinions before letting the public see it?
The problem Judith poses is not simply about what it does to her own site’s usefulness or reputation, or what confusion any snippets of “misinformation” she passes on might cause, but what it does to the very idea of gatekeepers and trusted authorities whose self-appointed task it is to separate the wheat from the chaff on behalf of us lesser mortals, and ensure we only get to see that side of the picture.
In science, no ideas are out of bounds for discussion. I’ve seen physicists seriously discuss tachyonic neutrinos and time machines and bridges to other universes hidden inside spinning black holes, and what consequences they might have. When I see some claim that nobody is allowed to question, my immediate reaction is to turn the rock over to see what is hiding underneath. The usual reason for people not liking questions is that there is something about it they don’t understand – if they did, they’d be only too happy to explain it.
But this doesn’t mean they’re being dishonest in doing so. What usually happens is that when they are taught it the teacher glosses over that part, says something plausible and moves on swiftly, and the student internalises the step or assumption as “obvious” without being aware of it. They checked the premises, they listened to the argument without any alarms going off, so the conclusion must be solid. They can’t remember exactly what the argument was, but know it must have been a good one. It’s a constant and serious danger.
So it’s a good exercise to sometimes consider crazy ideas, and construct again the chain of reasoning by which you can know it is wrong. Whether you can personally be bothered to participate in every such exercise is another matter, but it’s not a bad thing to do.
JC comments: What an astonishing and interesting range of ideas and opinions on the role of academics, expertise/authorities, and blogs. Not to mention the range of opinions on what Climate Etc. is all about. Michael Tobis and Richard Tol have an authoritarian/gatekeeping view of academics. The other people whose comments I quoted generally seem to get what I am up to with Climate Etc. (whether or not they think it is worthwhile).