Scientists are not salespeople!

Gavin Schmidt posted a bunch of tweets in response to a post by Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) in which he claims to illustrate how climate scientists can persuade skeptics. If you want to read Gavin’s tweets, Greg Laden has a post as does Mark Brandon. I think Gavin’s tweets present an excellent explanation of our current understanding. However, I would like to briefly discuss a different aspect of this issue.

Scott Adams’s argument seems to be that it should be easy for scientists to present some kind of persuasive/convincing argument and that they can’t is, therefore, indicative of some kind of problem. The issue with this is that this is not what scientists/researchers should be doing. The role of a scientist/researcher is to understand whatever systems it is that they’re studying. They then present their results to colleagues and others in the field, and they should also aim to engage with the public/policymakers. However, their role is not to convince the public/policymakers, it is simply to present information. It’s for others to decide if the public should be convinced and it is the role of others to do the persuading/convincing.

What motivated this was a series of tweets by Michael Tobis which encapsulates the issues. So I’ll leave it there and you can read Michael’s tweets, which are below.

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51 Responses to Scientists are not salespeople!

  1. jsam says:

    Scott also voted for Trump because of estate taxes. The privileged can be wondrously thick.

  2. verytallguy says:

    Scott Adams’ position seems to be that he is forced to be deliberately obtuse by scientists’ communal rhetorical failure.

    I wouldn’t tolerate it for a millisecond if my 13yo claimed it was his teacher’s fault he was to lazy to do his homework.

    Suggested message for Scott : own your cretinism. It is yours and no-one else’s.

  3. Suggested message for Scott : own your cretinism. It is yours and no-one else’s.

    That’s largely my view. People should take responsibility for their ignorance, or lack thereof. On the other hand, I do think that MT makes a good point about journalism failing to do its job of correctly informing/convincing the public.

  4. Let’s not forget that this is only a problem in Anglo-America.

    The problem and the answer is thus not universal, but American. This is what I think is a large part of the problem in America.

    Scientists can jump up and down, but it is not the quality of our science, nor of our communication that is the problem. Doing this better is always a good idea, but does not solve the fundamental problem.

    http://www.wolf-pac.com/

  5. toby52 says:

    “Let’s not forget that this is only a problem in Anglo-America.”

    Climate denial is not a big problem in the “Celtic Fringe” of Ireland and Scotland, though we have our own reasons (in Ireland) to be dissatisfied with the Irish Government’s approach to climate.

    IMHO, but it is for the historians to decide, a lot of the Anglo-American disease can be traced to Reagan and Thatcher putting “business-friendliness” at the heart of Government, so that any science can be dismissed when it endangers with what big business wants.

  6. verytallguy says:

    I’m not sure why we should expect journalists to be better on climate change than other subjects.

    These are the people who hacked phones, invented endless anti EU myths and pretend there’s a “war on motorists” to mention but a few. Their collective failure on climate change is a triumph of rationality by comparison.

    Adams’ pride in his idiocy and insistence on it being someone else’s fault is infuriating. A fact of which I suspect he is very well aware.

  7. vtg,

    I’m not sure why we should expect journalists to be better on climate change than other subjects.

    True, fair point. However, this would seem to suggest an even larger failing of journalism, rather than an excuse for them not being better on climate change.

  8. Journalists fail us more often, but in principle this is the job of the media. And art.

    I hope the trend to subscription- and membership-based media will put more focus on quality, which is what you subscribe to, rather than disappointing clickbait, which brings ad clicks.

  9. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Hmmm.

    =={ However, their role is not to convince the public/policymakers, it is simply to present information. }==

    This seems to me to conflict with the notion that scientists have a role as advocates. As advocates, scientists would be better off considering how to advocate effectively, and sometimes that might not\ be to simply present information.

  10. Joshua says:

    Just to be clear – I am not, except in a very indirect manner, supporting Adams’ arguments.

  11. Joshua,
    In what sense do you mean that their role is to advocate? Formally, I would argue that it is not, not if you mean advocating for specific options.

  12. Joshua says:

    VTG –

    =={ These are the people who hacked phones, invented endless anti EU myths and pretend there’s a “war on motorists” to mention but a few. Their collective failure on climate change is a triumph of rationality by comparison. }==

    Ugh. This looks to me like the kind of blanket “those people” logic that I would expect to see on “skeptic” websites.

    Journalists, in general, struggle with a lot of complex issues. That isn’t to explain away media bias towards sensationalism, but (1) there is something of a distinction between “journalists” and “the media” (a term I hate, btw, almost as much as I hate “the left” and “the right”) and (2) I see both sides in the climate wars leveraging “the media” as a form of self-victimization. IMO, the confidence of both sides for completely diametric explanations tends to signal identity-oriented bias more so than reality.

    So then, I could edumacated here. So I’ll ask you how do you measure the “collective faliure on climate change?”

  13. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    =={ In what sense do you mean that their role is to advocate? }==

    I don’t think that “the” role of scientists is to advocate, but I think that scientists can have “a” role as advocates.

    =={ Formally, I would argue that it is not, not if you mean advocating for specific options. }==

    Again, I think there is a distinction between saying that advocacy is their (singular) role and saying that scientists can can have a legitimate role as advocates (and sometimes for specific options). In fact, I think that they can play an important, dare I say indispensable role as advocates, and one of teh problems I see us struggling with now is a concerted effort to descientize advocacy (by advocates who transparently claim they aren’t advocates).

  14. T-rev says:

    ATTP:I do think that MT makes a good point about journalism failing to do its job of correctly informing/convincing the public.

    Chomsky postulates that’s not the job of the media at all. While he has a US bent, he postulates the media is about selling eyeballs to other business and has nothing to do with “correctly informing the public” about anything, this seems self evident once I look at it through that ‘lens’. Based on that, Murdoch does an outstanding job.

    I think Jefferson’s jaundiced view on Newspapers was perhaps prescient ?

  15. John Hartz says:

    I take exception to the blanket proposition that journalism is failing to do its job of correctly informing the public. As you may be aware, I have been posting links to articles about manmade climate change and related matters on Skeptical Science for quite a few years now. There are many excellent journalists producing quality inofrmation on a continuous and regular basis.

    Let us not forget communication requires two parties — a sender and a receiver. A journalist like Alister Doyle of Reuters can churn out story after story. He will, however, communicate only with those people who chose to read the stories.

  16. Andy Skuce says:

    I have no sympathy at all for Adams’ obtuseness, but somebody has to do the job of convincing lay people of the validity of climate science. This is especially true in the politically toxic environment that we find ourselves in in Anglophone countries.

    Calling It salesmanship is in many ways unduly pejorative, given the instinctive distaste that many have for the tactics and ethics of salesmen. Trump, of course, is a master salesman and who on earth wants to emulate him?

    Scientists are servants of the public and it ought to be a major part of their job to communicate their results to the general population. Science bloggers and journalists can help considerably, but ultimately they depend on the scientists. To be sure, there is still a useful role for some scientists who hate the idea of outreach, as there is for physicians with a lousy bedside manner. But, ultimately, if science is to retain its place as one of the pillars of our civilization, it has to re-establish its relevance and authority in a world in which communications have become a free-for-all, divisive tribalism is on the rise and authority is questioned.

  17. Andy Skuce says: “somebody has to do the job of convincing lay people of the validity of climate science.

    Al Gore? More seriously, the German constitution says: “Political parties participate in the political will formation of the people.” I would even say it is their main role, but hard to do when the serve their donors and need to hide that with outrageous nonsense, like that CO2 is not warming the planet.

    Next to political parties, naturally also other societal groups, in this case environmental organisations play a role. And every citizen naturally also as individual. Scientists are also citizens and are allowed to convince/advocate, but it is not their role as scientist, it is their role as citizen.

    Yes, a large part of the media is okay and I have the feeling it was getting better in the USA the last years, but there is still so much bad stuff that I feel it is fail to say that the media as a whole are failing society. Also the good journalists hardly ever seem to call out the bad apples.

  18. Eli Rabett says:

    Now some, not Eli to be sure, might point out that Rabett Run is the Cassandra of climate blogs

    http://rabett.blogspot.com/2011/03/blaming-other-guy-copying-from-guy-who.html

  19. Now some, not Eli to be sure, might point out that the unclear titles of Rabett Run are highly annoying (and make it hard to look for them when one wants to link to them).

  20. “Climate scientists have done a great job convincing almost every policy maker in the world that this is serious problem.”

    In the 1960s, exploding population was thought to be a big problem ( by many of the people who promoted the IPCC, namely Paul Ehrlich ). Not only was he wrong, he has been spectacularly wrong. Falling populations are now a bigger problem ( because shrinking population causes economic stagnation, such as in Europe and Japan ) than exploding populations.

    The same is true of climate change. Not because greenhouse gasses don’t cause warming – they do. Climate change is not a problem because population decline ( and with it, CO2 decline ) are baked in the cake. Some 75% of current CO2 emissions are from nations with lower than replacement fertility rates.

  21. Ethan Allen says:

    … the east and the west are mine … the north and the south are mine … (short cut to a single fox, looking, to me at least, as scared) …. all seems beautiful to me (as the homo sapient drives their car towards an urban center)

    The most invasive singular species ever to inhabit this planet.

    But hey, let’s all argue this all out on Twitter. 😦

  22. russellseitz says:

    Hollywood continues to rejoice in the problem of science communication, because more money can be made by scaring people than informing them :

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2017/03/distinguished-professor-jumpsthe.html

  23. Harry Twinotter says:

    ATTP, I agree with you. Scientists should try and avoid political bias when they do their research. It is up to the pollies to appoint a good set of advisors to explain the science to them so the pollies can formulate appropriate policy – I don’t expect the pollies to necessarily understand the science.

    As to Scott Adams, I think I know what his game is. Some cartoonists are notorious teases, that is how they get attention and free publicity.

  24. Springing eternal says:

    I hope Mr. Adams will update his two day old post, in light of scientist responses.

  25. Eli Rabett says:

    Dear Victor,

    It varies

  26. Journalists aren’t stenographers — they cover the news. Nor are they tutors. School is the proper place for people to learn proper science.

  27. verytallguy says:

    Also relevant to this discussion

  28. Willard says:

    Perfect, Very Tall. Let’s try it.

    Hypothesis: most journalists and scientists do a good enough job.

    Jackpot:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130729-runaway-greenhouse-global-warming-venus-ocean-climate-science/

  29. Personally, if you want to convince the public of something, I’d pay more attention to what the experienced/successful convincers are trying to tell you.

    You have one idea about what’s been done wrong, but the experienced guys have quite a different idea of what’s been done wrong.

    A certain amount of this needs respectful debate and discussion of both sides. Businessguys know that most positions are not perfect, and you can’t get anywhere useful without discussions.

    If you will, they don’t exactly think like you, and trying to change them is never going to work. They get daily feedback from their jobs that their way of thinking is what they need.

  30. Willard says:

    I’m on a roll.

    Hypothesis: when only journalists report the news, i.e. when they just quote the lichurchur, it’s seldom good enough.

    Bingo:

    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/426608/how-likely-is-a-runaway-greenhouse-effect-on-earth/

  31. Willard says:

    Too good to be true.

    Hypothesis: years of ClimateBall churnalism can save hours of reading readable reports.

    There you go:

    Water vapor is the dominant greenhouse gas, the most important gaseous source of infrared opacity in the atmosphere. As the concentrations of other greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, increase because of human activity, it is centrally important to predict how the water vapor distribution will be affected. To the extent that water vapor concentrations increase in a warmer world, the climatic effects of the other greenhouse gases will be amplified. Models of the Earth’s climate indicate that this is an important positive feedback that increases the sensitivity of surface temperatures to carbon dioxide by nearly a factor of two when considered in isolation from other feedbacks, and possibly by as much as a factor of three or more when interactions with other feedbacks are considered. Critics of this consensus have attempted to provide reasons why modeling results are overestimating the strength of this feedback.

    Our uncertainty concerning climate sensitivity is disturbing. The range most often quoted for the equilibrium global mean surface temperature response to a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is 1.5°C to 4.5°C. If the Earth lies near the upper bound of this sensitivity range, climate changes in the twenty-first century will be profound. The range in sensitivity is primarily due to differing assumptions about how the Earth’s cloud distribution is maintained; all the models on which these estimates are based possess strong water vapor feedback. If this feedback is, in fact, substantially weaker than predicted in current models, sensitivities in the upper half of this range would be much less likely, a conclusion that would clearly have important policy implications. In this review, we describe the background behind the prevailing view on water vapor feedback and some of the arguments raised by its critics, and attempt to explain why these arguments have not modified the consensus within the climate research community.

    http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.energy.25.1.441

  32. Willard says:

    One last and I leave you alone for the weekend.

    Hypothesis: teh Dilbert will finally discover that he was right all along.

    Vindication:

    Over and over again, in fact, to the point that likeability doesn’t seem to matter at all for persuasiveness.

  33. Joshua,
    Okay, I agree that they can have a role. However, that still does not make it their responsibility. If it turns out that we’ve made poor decisions because the public were not sufficiently convinced, it’s not going to be the fault of scientists for not being more persuasive.

    JH,
    Yes, I agree. There are some very good journalists and some parta of the media are doing an excellent job.

  34. David A.,
    Okay, I agree that we could do a better job of teaching science at schools, etc, but I think that’s a slightly different issue. The issue here is about presenting persuasive/convincing arguments, which – in my view – is somewhat distinct from teaching science.

  35. Pingback: Informing versus convincing | …and Then There's Physics

  36. angech says:

    Harry Twinotter says: March 11, 2017 at 3:26 am
    “As to Scott Adams, I think I know what his game is. Some cartoonists are notorious teases, that is how they get attention and free publicity.”
    Cartoonists get attention by doing good cartoons. Scientists get attention by doing good science.

  37. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    =={ Okay, I agree that they can have a role. However, that still does not make it their responsibility. If it turns out that we’ve made poor decisions because the public were not sufficiently convinced, it’s not going to be the fault of scientists for not being more persuasive. }==

    I agree that it isn’t their responsibility, certainly in an formal sense. I also agree that reverse engineering from public opinions to infer causality to how scientists have communicated is facile (and usually only serves to confirm biases).

    And then there is also the subjectivity of how people determine what = “sufficiently convinced.”

    All that said, I will repeat that I don’t see any reason why, those scientists who are inclined to advocate, shouldn’t consider how to make their advocacy as effective as possible.

  38. All that said, I will repeat that I don’t see any reason why, those scientists who are inclined to advocate, shouldn’t consider how to make their advocacy as effective as possible.

    Indeed, I agree. However, you do – in my view – need to distinguish between scientists who are chosing to communicate, and those who are explicitly chosing to advocate.

  39. Joshua says:

    Fair enough.

    =={ However, you do – in my view – need to distinguish between scientists who are chosing to communicate, and those who are explicitly chosing to advocate. }==

    As dubious as it is to assign blame to scientist-advocates for the profile of public opinion (by a ridiculously simplistic, and usually self-serving, reverse engineering-based determination of causality), it’s only that much more dubious to assign blame to informer-scientists.

  40. @Victor,

    I *like* Eli’s semiambiguous titling. Try Google with “site:rabett.blogspot.com” suffixed.

    @ScottAdams, and everyone,

    Suppose the EPA Pruitts’ of the world are wrong (they ARE, but let’s flip that), what do you suppose the costs are even if clear air capture of CO2 and adaptation measures are each 1000x cheaper due to unspecified “technological improvements?”

    Back of the envelope calculations suggest bankruptcy of capitalism worldwide, rich and poor alike, but rich mostly. The only way to hedge is BIG climate science, environmental protection, and doubling down on zero Carbon energy.

    This is why I consider this an abysmal failure of rational finance, or the extreme cynicism and short-termism of what then is The Most Selfish Generation.

  41. mt says:

    Scientists advocating policy should be careful to distinguish themselves from representing “science” as they do so. Some do not. This is the rare complaint that comes from the addlepated lukewarmers that has merit.

    We need to distinguish between various meanings of “science” as we have this discussion. “Science” can mean

    1 process: the process of learning about nature

    2 institution: the community professionally advancing understanding of nature

    3 evidence: policy relevant evidence emerging from the process

    There may be others; these are to me the most obvious ones in current discourse but I’d not be surprised to miss some. Conflating these makes the conversation harder.

    “Science advocacy” traditionally has been about supporting science 2 as institution. There is nothing unusual about advocating the interests of one’s profession.

    Trying to bring important scientific evidence 3 to the attention of the public is mismatched to the traditions and institutions of the academy, and there are good reasons to keep it that way. When we come out and try to reach the public directly about this, we tend not to be very good at it for a number of reasons. And further, despite what our opponents adamantly believe, we are systematically punished rather than rewarded for our efforts. Clearly those of us who speak out do it out of a sense of ethical responsibility. It can and does damage careers to spend time on advocacy.

    We do this because we perceive a dire disconnect between public discourse and the state of the evidence. Then we are accused of “running an incompetent campaign” and such. It’s ludicrous. There is no “campaign” for scientific evidence in climate. (I note that such campaigns do exist in medicine, and it might behoove us to understand how they are structured and funded.) But there is a well-organized and funded campaign *against* scientific evidence. That campaign merely needs to do well enough to keep the public off balance, and so far they have been terrifyingly successful.

    Calling on research scientists to fix this is ridiculous; we are showing up to a street brawl with butter knives.

    Whose job is it to help the public sort out what is established science, what is debatable, and what is utter bullshit?

    In my experience, most of the people who don’t expect this job to fall to journalists are journalists.

    I wish journalists would at least tell me whose job it is or should be. Instead they shrug and say it’s impossible. That this leaves us in an existential crisis doesn’t seem to bother them.

    We need a funded, trusted professional institution that evaluates science. We bloggers and hobbyists and a few outspoken scientists are a mixed blessing. As people constantly tell us, we’re amateurs. We’re only important at all because nobody is in a position to do the real work.

  42. Willard says:

    > Suppose the EPA Pruitts’ of the world are wrong

    Of course they ain’t, if Judy’s interpreting them correctly:

    If I am interpreting Pruitt’s statements correctly, I do not find anything to disagree with in what he said: we don’t know how much of recent warming can be attributed to humans.

    https://judithcurry.com/2017/03/11/scott-pruitts-statement-on-climate-change/

    If I am interpreting Judy correctly, she’s wrong:

    Can you square what Pruitt actually said with the […] quotes and headlines about this?

    Of course

    I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.

    Next post, please.

    ***

    > I can’t.

    Why, of course.

    https://judithcurry.com/2017/03/11/scott-pruitts-statement-on-climate-change/#comment-841496

    Perhaps teh Dilbert should try his hypnotic alpha male unlikeability on Judy and see how it works.

  43. Willard,
    Indeed, I saw that. I’m trying to think if I should make a comment there, or not. I’m leaning towards “not”. It’s a bizarrely twisted interpretation of our understanding, and of science in general. We’ve produced estimates of the various contributions to our recent warming. None of them are exactly precise, because that is probably impossible and is something that scientific research can’t really produce. However, we have distributions and the indications are that it is extremely likely that more than 50% of the warming since 1950 was anthropogenic and that the best estimates are that it is essentially all anthropogenic.

  44. Willard says:

    We’re not sure of anything therefore we know nothing. But CAGW. When will you invite me on your science committees, and what are scientists marching “for”?

    Judy’s looks more and more like a lobbying card. She’s almost whispering in teh Donald’s ear. I’m sure teh Dilbert knew that all along.

  45. Willard,
    Hmmm, yes, one of my many failings. Although, it was partly influenced by your comment and I did decide to try and make it simple.

  46. @Willard,

    It’s wasn’t my point to care, much, for whether or not JC supports Pruitt. It was my point that they are not hedging rationally. They should go through the exercise of what present day costs — even with discounting — are of their being wrong. Any reasonable approach to that valuation finds that, unless they are essentially certain climate disruption will not be bad, they’d better hedge.

  47. Willard says:

    Hyper,

    It wasn’t my point to respond to yours.

    It was my point to use your hypothetical and your mention of Pruitt to link to Judy’s latest hypothetical about Pruitt’s denial.

    I agree with your point. Why would I care about responding to it?

  48. Mal Adapted says:

    T-Rev:

    Chomsky postulates that’s not the job of the media at all. While he has a US bent, he postulates the media is about selling eyeballs to other business and has nothing to do with “correctly informing the public” about anything, this seems self evident once I look at it through that ‘lens’. Based on that, Murdoch does an outstanding job.

    I agree that Chomsky’s view is closer to correct, at least WRT for-profit media. That leaves it up to each pair of eyeballs to demand high-quality information. High-quality information on AGW is available for free, direct from trustworthy sources like the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of the UK. Yet somehow it’s the highly-engineered product sold by Forbes (“The Capitalist’s Tool”) and the Daily Fail that informs public opinion.

    As is frequently noted, people reliably prefer to hear information that enhances their self-esteem, over what amounts to a swift kick in the butt. It’s hard to present a truthful account of AGW while avoiding the implication the audience is culpable. At the same time, there’s money to be made off the public’s desire to be excused from responsibility. That’s the market Science is competing in. I wish I knew of a successful strategy.

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