I came across a post by Jon Tennant called science, echo chambers, and why facts are never enough. The basic idea is that people don’t really use science in rational ways, that publicly scientists can often end up mainly occupying what are essentially echo chambers, and that those who want to engage the public should aim to break out of these bubbles and try to build bridges, while also recognising that simply presenting scientific facts is not enough. Listen to what others are saying and try not to appear pompous.
I think these are all fines ideas, I just don’t really think they work, not if the basic goal is to improve the public understanding of a contentious science topic like climate change. Maybe the author of the post has tried all these things and has managed to have many meaningful discussions about climate science with those who mostly dispute the mainstream view, but I’d be very surprised if they had. I realise that I can only speak for myself (and that that is only one data point) but I originally thought that civil discussions might be effective; I was wrong. I’ve tried (and still do) commenting on “skeptic” blogs while trying to remain civil and doing my best to simply be a blogger who comments elsewhere (i.e., not a pompous scientist trying to teach others); it doesn’t – in my experience – work and it simply leads to you slowly developing a thicker skin.
In four years, I can’t recall a single discussion with a “skeptic” that I would regard as having been worthwhile and constructive. Maybe some were worthwhile from the perspective of someone else observing the exchange, but that’s hard to know, or quantify. Maybe it’s just me and others would have more success than I did. I certainly didn’t always succeed in remaining calm and polite, and there are certainly others who seem to be able to remain dignified in the face of any kind of abuse. I just don’t think they really had any more success than I did and my overall conclusion is that this is not easy, and that there isn’t an obvious way in which to best engage in discussions about this topic.
What particularly caught my eye about the post was a comment about Brian Cox’s exchange with Malcolm Roberts, which I discussed here. Jon Tennant’s post says:
Look at science celebrities, like Prof. Brian Cox, who thinks that simply showing a graph to a ‘climate change denier’, a term again which I’m sure they love to be called, will be enough to convince them of the reality of it. What utter elitist, arrogant, and naive bullshit. …… One simple rule of scientific engagement that I shouldn’t even have to write here really is: Don’t be a twat about it.
Ironically, Brian Cox was a leading contender last year – on what I shall politely call a “skeptic” blog – for climate prat of the year, so Jon Tennant isn’t alone in wanting to call him names, but maybe this isn’t really the company with which he would like to be associated (I discovered that I was in the top 20 the year before as “and then there’s arseholes” – charming).
However, over-looking the irony in the above quote, I don’t think Brian Cox thought that showing a graph to Malcolm Roberts was going to convince him; his goal – from what I can tell – was to make Malcolm Roberts looks silly. People might object to this, but it’s not obviously the wrong strategy. As Jon Tennant’s post highlights, simply presenting facts is not enough, so making those who dispute these scientific facts look silly, is certainly one alternative. It might not be very nice, but I don’t think everyone has to play nice. In fact, if scientists are meant to be coming out of their bubbles and avoiding seeming arrogant and elitist, then maybe we should expect them to sometimes express their frustrations.
This is getting rather long, so I’ll make a couple of basic comments. In my view, unless someone has engaged extensively in discussing this topic publically, especially with those who dispute the mainstream view, then they should probably avoid telling others what they’re doing wrong. I don’t think anyone really knows how best to do this, especially not those who are sniping from the sidelines. In particular, attacking someone who is at least trying to address the misinformation being presented by some is particularly unhelpful. I really don’t think anyone knows what is the best strategy and so I can’t see how attacking someone who gets the science basically right, but engages in a manner you disagree with, achieves anything positive.
I think we should recognise that this is a difficult topic in which to engage publicly, that there are many ways in which people can engage in discussing this topic, and that noone really knows what is the most effective strategy. If anything, I think we should be encouraging more engagement, not less. Undermining those who are mostly right about the science because you disagree with their stratgey is, in my opinion, exceedingly unhelpful.