by Judith Curry
The warning signals from the planet are clear. Now is the moment for our commu- nity to adopt the rallying cry of sea kayakers confronted with conditions too challenging to handle alone: “Time to raft up!”. – Chris Rapley
Chris Rapley’s recent Commentary in Nature has been mentioned on the previous thread Activate(?) your science. Time to raft up: Climate scientists should learn from naysayers and pull together to get their message across. Some excerpts and comments:
Rapley defines the problem as follows:
Evidently, the voices of dismissal are trumping the messages of science. A significant factor in their success is an effective communications strategy, which the climate-science community has yet to learn or use. An initiative to redress the balance is crucial if policy-making is to be based on evidence, and if the risks of further prevarication are to be made clear. As politi- cal scientists Daniel Sarewitz, Roger Pielke Jr and others have pointed out, from the perspective of policy, “We know enough!”.
JC comment: ‘We know enough’ for exactly what? To understand what the scope of the risk is? To understand what decisions are best to minimize the risk, in the context of other confounding socio/economic/political issues? Heck no, we don’t know enough. We are operating under conditions of deep uncertainty.
So wherein lies the problem? Rapley seems to ‘get it’ to some extent:
A first step is to understand how the dismissal of climate change is tenable when the evidence to the contrary is so extensive and compelling. Much has been published on this by social scientists and psychologists, but that does not mean that it has been read, understood or assimilated by the climate-science community.
Part of the problem is that researchers are busy and overwhelmed by information. A lead author on one section of the upcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told me that more than 800 papers had been published on her subject in a single year, leaving little time to read more broadly. It is understandable, therefore, that there is a tendency to skip material from unfamiliar fields and authors. But to be of value to society, climate scientists need to master ways to communicate their results effectively.
JC comment: Rapley makes this comment in context of climate scientists ignoring the social science research. But it is deeper than that, in the sense the sense that very few climate scientists have the breadth to really assess the broader aspects of the science, and accept the judgements of their ‘peers’ (e.g. the IPCC) on topics outside their personal areas of expertise. Which leads to Michael Kelly’s ‘invisible hand’ whereby second order evidence (i.e. who supports a particular perspective) becomes more important than the primary scientific evidence.
There are also some uncomfortable truths to confront. The unauthorized release of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, in November 2009 — known as ‘Climategate’ — has left an aftermath that still needs to be cleared up. The climate-science leadership, fixated on delivering more of the same research and seemingly oblivious to changing realities, has lost its way. In my opinion, the community is in denial about these issues. We climate scientists — from disciplines both natural and social — need to align our purpose, re-establish our legitimacy, identify and understand our target audiences and decide how best to express our message. Above all, we need to develop a new, coherent initiative to engage collectively and actively in the political and public discourse.
JC comment: I agree 100% with the bolded text.
In terms of a solution, Rapley provides the following thoughts:
So what is a climate scientist to do? First, we must recognize and accept that, whether in discussion with decision-makers or the public, we are inextricably embroiled in the policy debate. The science is complex, the projections are uncertain and the social implications are great. We need to respond to questions that go beyond facts, such as ‘What does this mean for me?’and ‘What are our options?’.
JC comment: the problem is that scientists spent decades insisting that there is only one option.
As Roger Pielke Jr discusses in his book The Honest Broker, we need to choose the role that is most appropriate to a given situation and make that choice clear. To draw attention to the risk to food supplies of an increased probability of extreme weather events is to act as an ‘issue advocate’. To lay out the climatic consequences on the global food supply of the broadest possible range of mitigation alternatives is to adopt the role of an ‘honest broker’. There are dangers. To stray into policy-advocacy or activism is to step beyond the domain of science, and risks undermining legitimacy through the perception — or reality — of a loss of impartiality.
When faced with implacable disagreement, non-experts must decide who to believe. The issue of trust is therefore paramount. And therein lies a problem.
I propose that, as a public statement of our ideals, climate scientists should agree and commit to principles of professional conduct — possibly through an equivalent of the medical profession’s Hippocratic oath. These principles would cover standards of work, issues of impartiality, transparency of process or accessibility of data, and a willingness to engage positively with non-specialists.
JC comment: Now THIS is interesting. However, my concern is that much of the climate science community is so far gone that they can’t get past their perceived imperative to shoot down ‘deniers’ as the apogee of responsible professional conduct.
The climate-dismissive think tanks and organizations have been effective because they have understood and put into practice the insights of social science. They deliver simple messages that are crafted to agree with specific value sets and world views. Their flow of commentary is persistent, consistent and backed up with material that provides deeper arguments. Their narrative is spread and amplified by sympathetic sectors of the media and politics that they have nurtured in person.
JC comment: that is indeed an insightful analysis.
In contrast, the climate-science community delivers messages to policy-makers and the public that are often highly technical and detailed. These tend to be fragmented, emphasize uncertainty and are oblivious to the emotions and associations that they trigger. There remains a widespread reliance on the flawed information-deficit model, in which non-experts are viewed by experts as empty vessels who can simply be filled with the ‘truth’.
JC comment: I haven’t come across too many mainstream climate scientists that are over emphasizing uncertainty. The persistent attempt to paint weather extremes as being caused by global warming indicates that they are indeed quite savvy about appealing to emotions associated with each weather disaster.
Regarding the vast body of evidence on which all climate scientists agree, we need to offer a narrative that is persistent, consistent and underpinned by compelling background material. We need to appreciate that the things we climate scientists don’t agree on — nuanced disputes at the frontier of our field — are not relevant to policy-making other than to define the current limits of what we know. And we must engage with newspaper editors and politicians in person.
JC comment: now here is where I have some substantial disagreements. Its not just about disagreement among scientists, is about having credible estimates of our uncertainty and the humility to acknowledge that there are large areas of ignorance. Understanding uncertainty and areas of ignorance is essential for effective decision making under conditions of deep uncertainty. And the success of the ‘dismissives’ is not contingent on the ‘dismissive’ scientists themselves engaging with newspaper editors and politicians, but rather the boundary organizations such as think tanks and advocacy groups. So getting more scientists personally engaged with newspaper editors and politicians is a scary thought, unless they pay attention to the issues I raised in the previous post Activate(?) your science.
Some interesting insights on Rapley’s piece from Watch the Deniers:
We have done all that can be done to explain the science of climate change and there are many excellent reference sites to which people can venture if they so decide. What we need to talk about are the value question as it is the answers to these that will define who we will become and how our society will look and function.
It’s understandable that people would be uncomfortable with such unknowns. We need to be part of a community with shared values to feel content. In the “debate” over climate change, we hear predictions of how the future might look and how foolish “deniers” are for not understanding science proven over a 150 years ago.
This isn’t only counter-productive, it also dehumanises the issue completely. The global climate has changed many times before without human influence or consequence. This time it is personal. We need to make our debates and communications just as personal if we are to do the best we can for future generations.
JC comment: As the climate community continues to struggle with the ‘communication’ issue and the failure of their ‘call to action,’ we are slowly seeing some insights develop within this community. As far as this type of article goes, Rapley shows some insights.
And while we are on this general topic, lets revisit Joe Romm’s new book. Last week I wrote:
I just spotted this new post over at RealClimate, written by Mann, entitled “Language Intelligence,” about a new book of this title by Joe Romm. Well I haven’t read the book (don’t intend to), but it sounds like lessons in propaganda to me.
When I think of Joe Romm and ‘rhetoric’, the following phrases come to mind:
- ‘makes me want to put my head in a vise’
- ‘the most debunked scientist on the planet’
Both of these make me cringe. But back in the days when I was in close communication with Romm and reading early drafts of his book ‘Hell and High Water,’ I recall that he had a chapter in the book on ‘rhetoric’, which was sort of interesting. So I went to the amazon.com site, and took a closer look. Amazon’s ‘Click to LOOK INSIDE’ feature provides a substantial sampling of the book. It provides interesting historical (and current examples of powerful rhetoric. And he has clearly delved into the scholarship on rhetoric, and the book includes extensive endnotes.
The climate blogosphere dittoheads are gushing about Joe Romm’s book.
One of the reviewers at amazon.com (Lenz) makes this interesting statement;
Romm gives conflicting goals for his writing the book. At location 2033, he writes:
“My goal has been to help you become more persuasive and less seducible. If you have already begun to speak differently and listen differently after reading this book, then I have succeeded. If you are wittier on Twitter and have headier headlines, then I have succeeded.”
That goal is at best neutral in the climate change debate, since “you” in the above paragraph can be readers on either side. It might actually be an own goal. The opposition pays more attention to these matters in the first place and therefore may be expected to profit more from the excellent teaching in this book.
In contrast, the last paragraph of the “Afterword” reads:
“I did not write this book expecting to end the debasement of the political language, but rather to give rhetorical ammunition to those fighting the good fight in the face of the fiercest foes.”
That would indicate that Romm is not trying to help everybody (including fossil fuel propaganda peddlers), but only climate activists.
Is such a thing possible? Can anyone write a book that improves the “language intelligence” of climate activists while leaving that of their opponents unchanged?
It could be done. All one would need to do is apply the principles developed in this book to climate activism. For starters, show what the most effective “extended metaphor” or “frame” for the issue is.
JC comment: until they get to the point bolded above, this whole strategy isn’t going to work
And finally, Romm has just posted an article on the ‘language intelligence’ (or lack thereof) of Mitt Romney.