Gavin Schmidt had a bit of a rant on Twitter about some political scientists find[ing] ways to blame climate scientists for the lack of progress in CO2 emission reductions.
We should dedicate February as #findaclimatescapegoat month as yet again some political scientists try to find ways to blame climate scientists for the lack of progress in CO2 emission reductions, instead of, say, politics.
— Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) February 11, 2018
This, unfortunately, led to a claim that this was typical natural/physical science arrogance towards the social sciences and that it was unhelpful to suggest that awareness of a problem alone will lead to action.
The one problem was that the original rant was really aimed at one person (the name of whom my regulars can probably guess) not at all political scientists. I will add that I think I’ve encountered more social scientists making sweeping claims about physical/natural scientists, than I’ve encountered physical/natural scientists making sweeping claims about social scientist. It is possible, of course, that I simply haven’t noticed the latter. FWIW, my own view is that social science is very difficult. Social/political systems are very complicated and, from what I can see, it is very difficult to develop solid understandings of such systems. It’s not easy to make simplifying assumptions and there are no fundamental conservations laws that help to prevent people drawing what might turn out to be nonsensical conclusions.
However, the other issue was the suggestion that natural/physical scientists think that simply making people aware of a problem will alone lead to action. I seem to see this kind of claim quite often. Not only do I not think this is true (I think most natural/physical scientists are well aware that it’s not this simple) I also have never quite understood what scientists should do that is different.
I can only really speak for myself, but my own view is quite simple. I think I have some understanding of a topic that is policy relevant and I happen to believe that making people aware of this is important. I don’t think that doing so will alone lead to some kind of action, but I still think it’s important for scientists to engage with the public and with policy makers.
What do those who criticise how natural/physical scientists engage publicly, think that they should do differently? If no action follows, should they simply stop communicating? Well, this seems rather unsatisfactory. Not only do many communications experts suggest that it’s important to continually repeat important messages, but it would be bizarre to think that such a complex issue could be resolved so straightforwardly.
Do some think that if scientists behaved differently that it would somehow lead to policy progress? I’m not quite sure how this would work, but it would also seem to be a variant of the linear model, which is what social scientists regard as not working (ironic?).
Should natural/physical scientists become more familiar with societal/political complexities? I have no problem with this in general; I think it’s useful to become better informed about these broader aspects of the topic. However, I would have thought that there were also other people who could help the overall communication process; say, people with expertise in politics/society. Maybe some social scientists.
Should natural/physical scientists move aside so as to open up the public communications landscape to those with other expertise? I think we should aim to be inclusive, but I’m not sure why natural/physical scientists should aim to make space. If we’re such ineffective communicators who have little influence, what difference would it make? If there is some other group who have an extensive understanding of how to communicate publicly and how to influence society and develop effective policy, they should be able to easily dominate the public landscape. Scientists shouldn’t need to step aside.
Okay, this is getting rather long. I think I still find myself surprised at how often I encounter people who seem to have similar goals, but who end up at odds with one another, rather than supporting one another. I’m also interested in better understanding what it is that social scientists think that natural/physical scientists should do differently, when it comes to communicating publicly. If any were willing to spend a bit of time explaining this to me, it would be appreciated.