by Judith Curry
A new series on Climate Change Communications: Taking the Temperature.
Kirk Engelhardt has started a new series at scilogs.com on Climate Change Communications: Taking the Temperature. Yours truly is the inaugural interviewee. My interview is Part 1 of what promises to be a series of 10+ interviews with climate researchers.
Here are excerpts from my interview (I didn’t include some material that is repetitive from my recent posts):
How do you view your role in communicating science?
Climate science has become hotly politicized, with many scientists playing an advocacy role. I regard my role as to speak up for the integrity of climate research, including reminding others that climate change is a very complex, wicked problem associated with deep uncertainties. My blog Climate Etc. provides a fair and open space for debate on the science, the impacts, proposed solutions and the politics.
In your view, how has your role in communicating science changed in the past 10 years?
I first became active in communicating science in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, when I coauthored a paper on hurricanes and climate change that was published in Science two weeks after Katrina made landfall.
While global warming was mentioned only obliquely in the paper, the press focused on the global warming angle and a media furor followed. Our 15 minutes stretched into days, weeks and months. Academic guerrilla warfare broke out between our team and scientists that were skeptical of our research, all of which played out in the glare of the mainstream media. I took a step back and tried to understand all this craziness and learn from it. I even wrote a journal article on this, “Mixing Politics and Science in Testing the Hypothesis that Greenhouse Warming is Causing a Global Increase in Hurricane Intensity.” Following the publication of this article, I spent a fair amount of time commenting on blogs that were discussing this paper, and landed on some skeptical blogs where I became a fairly regular commenter.
When the Climategate emails struck in November 19, 2009, I was interacting closely with the skeptical blogosphere where the story was breaking. I tried to calm the waters, and posted 3 essays in the blogosphere.
My engagement in the blogosphere stepped up considerably following Climategate. In August 2010, I decided to start my own blog so that I could discuss topics of my choosing, and not merely respond to queries from journalists or questions being posed from the blogosphere. Major themes on my blog include uncertainty in climate science, decision making under deep uncertainty, and the sociology of climate science.
Do you think it’s important for scientists and other researchers to be directly involved in outreach activities? If so, why?
I personally think that academics need to grow their impact outside of a small community of scholars in the ivory tower. There is growing concern about the fundamental value proposition of the large amount of public funding invested in research universities. Too often, scientists focus only on their peer academics, and ignore the potential public interest in their research – e.g. from industry, policy makers, students and life-long learners. Outreach activities from academic researchers are important to support economic competitiveness, public health and safety, and sound decision-making. Unfortunately, academic researchers aren’t rewarded from their universities for outreach activities, and there has been little support from universities in guiding faculty members to be effective in outreach.
Have your outreach activities had an impact on your scientific research? Are there any examples of positive or negative impacts you’ve experienced personally?
Commenters on my blog have provided me with countless links to publications that I otherwise would be unaware of. My blog posts have resulted in 5 invited papers related to the philosophy of climate science (a new area of research for me). I have also found two new research collaborators through my blog. Most importantly, my blog stimulates me to think about big picture issues, which is the opposite of the more reductionist mind set with which I had been approaching research problems. Engaging in social media has helped develop my writing/communication skills and abilities to synthesize, integrate, and provide context.
With regards to the ‘negatives’, there are certain global warming ideologues that are influential members of the scientific community that regard me as the anti-christ, or at least as a heretic. This makes getting fair reviews of my papers a bit of a challenge (but I have been able to work effectively with editors to counter this). By speaking out and challenging the consensus, I have almost certainly eliminated myself from further professional recognition (e.g. awards) and future administration positions.
What do you consider to be the most effective and ineffective ways to disagree about scientific topics?
If you have done a really careful job of assessing uncertainties, you substantially narrow the scope for disagreement. Acknowledge the disagreement, put forward the arguments from both sides, and state why you find one side more convincing. An ineffective way to disagree is through arguing that there is a consensus on your ‘side’. The most ineffective, and offensive, way to disagree is to call your opponents ‘deniers’, ‘anti-science’, etc.
The more insidious way for a majority group to marginalize dissenting scientific arguments is through the gatekeeping associated with the peer review process. This is a particular concern of mine since professional societies have been writing issue advocacy statements that ‘legitimizes’ the gatekeeping.
Public trust in science is critical. What role do you believe both consensus and disagreement play in building or eroding that trust?
Credibility is a combination of expertise and trust. Without trust, scientists lose their privileged position in public debates. First and foremost, scientists need to be honest, and this means not hiding uncertainties or exaggerating impacts. Attempting to manufacture a consensus by marginalizing anyone who disagrees with you will lead to loss of public trust.
If scientists are careful about assessing uncertainties, then the space for disagreement is vastly reduced. Philosophers and social scientists are beginning to pay attention to these issues. For scientific progress, it is important to challenge the consensus. However, for urgent social problems, some consensus is needed on how to proceed. The challenge is for tension among scientific plurality, dissent, and consensus making to work productively to advance the science and support decision making.
What lessons have you learned from your outreach activities, and what advice do you have for other researchers who want to do more outreach?
Listen – you need to understand and respect the people you are trying to connect with. Be honest, and don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’
Focus on engagement – the two way street – rather than unidirectional communication.
If you have become an issue advocate on a topic related to your research expertise, make sure you understand the line between communication and propaganda.The use of ‘science’ to serve propaganda has a negative impact on the public perception of science and its trustworthiness. Scientist/advocates irresponsibly involving themselves in propaganda damage the public trust in science. Don’t sacrifice your professional integrity for the sake of issue advocacy or 5 minutes of fame.
And finally, communication with the public can be contentious, so be prepared to be attacked by people whose preconceived notions and favored policies seem threatened by your communication efforts. Honesty and integrity is strong armor, so don’t be intimidated!
I thought Englehardt asked a series of very good questions, I look forward to seeing how others respond to them. I’m also very pleased to get exposure through this to the broader science communications community. I look forward to speaking more with the proprietor of scilogs.com, Paige Brown Jarreau.
I will post collections of future interviews in this series, should be interesting.