by Judith Curry
“Get your facts first; then you can distort them as you please” – Mark Twain
The Twain quote is the lead for a post by Bill Hooke entitled Just the facts, ma’am. Bill’s post refers to a post at Greenwire entitled Scientists struggle with limits – and risks – of advocacy. Excerpts from the Greenwire article, which is motivated by a survey taken by Stanford’s Jon Krosnick:
“The advice that comes out of this work is that all of us, when we claim to have expertise and offer opinions on matters [in the world], need to be guarded about how far we’re willing to go,” Krosnick said. Speculation, he added, “could compromise everything.”
It’s been a difficult lesson for researchers.
“Many of us have been saddened that the world has done so little about it,” said Richard Somerville, a meteorologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and former author of the United Nations’ authoritative report on climate change.
“A lot of physical climate scientists, myself included, have in the past not been knowledgeable about what the social sciences have been saying,” he added. “People who know a lot about the science of communication … [are] on board now. But we just don’t see that reflected in the policy process.”
This failed influence has spurred scientists like Somerville to partner closely with social scientists, seeking to understand why their message has failed.
JC comment: in case you are wondering why I spend so much time at Climate Etc. on the social science and communications aspects of of climate change, here are your reasons. Interesting that Somerville is doing this also, but if you read the article, Somerville is taking a different approach here than I am.
“Scientists are filled with conjectures that are plausible about how people make sense about information,” Kahan said, “only some fraction of which [are] correct.”
The deficit model has remained an enduring frame for scientists, many of whom are just becoming aware of social science work on the problem. Kahan compares it to the stages of grief. The first stage was that the truth just needs to be broadcast to change minds. The second, and one still influential in the scientific world, is that if the message is just simplified, the right images used, than the deficit will be filled.
“That too, I think, is a stage of misperception about how this works,” Kahan said.
So why do climate scientists, more than most fields, cross the line into advocacy?
Most of all, it’s because their scientific work tells them the problem is so pressing, and time dependent, given the centuries-long life span of CO2 emissions, Somerville said.
It is not that scientists are unaware that they are moving into policy prescription, either. Most would intuitively know the line between their work and its political implications.
“I think many are aware when they’re crossing that line,” said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “but they’re not aware of the consequences [of] doing so.”
What has shifted has been its politicization: As more Republicans have begun to disbelieve global warming, Democrats have rallied to reinforce the science. And none of it is about the actual science, of course. It’s a fact Scripps’ Somerville now understands. It’s a code, speaking for fear of the policies that could happen if the science is accepted.
For all the focus on how scientists talk to the public — whether Hansen has helped or hurt his cause — Yale’s Kahan ultimately thinks the discussion will mean very little. Ask most of the public who Hansen is, and they’ll mention something about the Muppets. It can be hard to accept, for scientists and journalists, but their efforts at communication are often of little consequence, Kahan said.
JC comment: gotta chuckle over the Muppets
“In order to preserve a credible voice in public dialogue,” Krosnick said, “it might be that scientists such as myself need to restrain ourselves as speaking as public citizens.”
JC comment: Yup
Somerville is continuing his efforts to improve communication from scientists. Another Bali declaration is unlikely, though. What he’d really like to do is get trusted messengers from different moral realms beyond science — leaders like the Dalai Lama — to speak repeatedly on climate change.
It’s all Somerville can do. It would be too painful to accept the other option, that climate change is like racism, war or poverty — problems the world has never abolished.
“[It] may well be that it is a problem that is too difficult for humanity to solve,” he said.
JC comment: news flash – climate change is a super wicked problem.
A few excerpts from Bill Hooke’s post:
Climate scientists reading this might react in a range of ways. At one extreme, they/we might be depressed and weary. We can allow ourselves to think that we’ve got to change the world’s behavior in order to save it, and the job seems insurmountable. But there’s another option. There’s an invitation here to relax. We can realize that we don’t have to shoulder the burden of choosing options for society. Instead, we can just present facts, and let the power of those facts do their magic.
And facts do have extraordinary power. Consider this example, familiar to our community.
When the National Weather Service puts out a tornado warning, it stops there. Unlike EPA, it has no regulatory power. The next sentence on the advisory isn’t “and residents in the tornado’s path will be fined $500 for every fifteen minutes they remain outside their basements or their tornado shelters.” Quite the opposite. When we hear the warning, you and I can seek shelter in a safe room or underground…but we’re equally free to run out the front door with the videocam.
Just the facts? Feels liberating.
JC comment: Bill Hooke nails it.