I wanted to write another post about the recent paper by Sharman and Howarth that considers why climate scientists and skeptical voices participate in the climate debate? This is partly because Reich suggested that maybe there is something to learn from it, which is almost always true.
However, I do want to promote Michael Tobis’s post that very nicely describes why the public understanding of science community betrays the climate. It’s always possible that physical/natural scientists don’t understand what is being presented in other fields. However, I do think that if one field is going to study another, there is merit in them understanding why some might have issues with what they present.
Anyway, back to the paper in question. I did reread it and some of it is indeed interesting. In particular, the sections on perceptions of a dominant other and debate participation and framing are worth reading. However, since I want to keep this reasonably short I just want to make a couple of personal observations about their discussions and conclusions. For example, the paper says
CSs were acutely aware, and often made uncomfortable by, recognition that much debate centred on policy disagreement rather than the science itself. If the actor-subject interaction in public discourse were to be renegotiated (i.e. politicians debating policies rather than CSs, or CSs actively choosing to debate the policy implications of their research), it may reduce the exhaustive nature of the debate where dead-end arguments are being held precisely because they do not make explicit what is actually being debated….
Absolutely. In my experience this is indeed a major obstacle. Many discussions do indeed seem to confuse policy with science. The problem, though, is that it seems virtually impossible to avoid this. Even explicit attempts to stick, for example, to discussing science, invariably end up with one party invoking Climategate, Michael Mann, Al Gore, the intermittency of renewables, or something else that is largely unrelated to the science specifically. If all parties could indeed define what it is they’re discussing, and aim to stick to that, it would indeed improve the tenor of the debate. I doubt that this is possible and my cynical side suspects that this is more a feature than a bug.
The paper also says
This research also shows that whereas inevitable differences of worldview exist, greater commonalities also exist than may be acknowledged in public forums. Building on cultural interpretations of the many different understandings of climate change, we suggest that a focus on potential overlaps between underlying (and/or manifestly expressed) rationales behind climate opinions may encourage constructive discussion even with actors who had previously engaged in purposefully antagonistic exchange.
Well, yes, I suspect this is true. Most of those involved publicly seem to have similar levels of education, and seem to come from countries with similar levels of development and similar cultures. It is no great surprise that many of those involved have much in common. I doubt that my general values differ greatly from those with whom I’ve argued. I also doubt, however, that pointing this out would make much difference. It seems quite common for one side to define the values of those on the other side simply of the basis of whether or not they accept mainstream climate science. Pointing out that their judgement is almost certainly wrong, typically makes absolutely no difference. Concern about climate change does not mean a lack of concern about poverty, hunger, world health, future economic growth,…… but try pointing that out to someone who has just claimed that it does.
So, there are some interesting comments and discussions in the paper. Before I started engaging in this topic I would probably have agreed with much of what was suggested. Now, however, I think it’s unrealistic and maybe a little naive. I don’t think there is really much desire to reduce the level of antagonism. As I think I may have said before, if people really wanted to improve the standard of the debate, it wouldn’t be all that hard. Simply stop maligning and insulting everyone with whom you disagree. Find some positives, even if you do regard much of what they say as wrong. Be a little less confrontational. Basically, try to behave as you would if you were talking face-to-face. I certainly don’t always succeed in this regard, but it is still a goal; one I often fail to achieve. My guess, however, is that many have no interest in doing so and that the antagonism is a feature, rather than a bug.