This. Is. Not. Science’s. Job.

My title is a paraphrase of something Michael Tobis said during the marathon Twitter discussion about RCP8.5, which I thought I would use to discuss something about science communication that I’ve mentioned a number of times before. During the RCP8.5 discussion, someone highlighted an article they’d written about how to best communicate about climate change. Specifically, their argument was to tell a positive story. I largely agree.

However, their article also included the following:

The time is long overdue for scientists to learn to tell as compelling a story about energy, climate change and resource scarcity as do advertisers or lobbyists.

This is where I disagree. As the title of my post suggest, this is not science’s job. There’s nothing wrong with scientists thinking of ways to communicate about science effectively, but science communication is not really about persuasion. In a formal sense, science communicators should not be thinking like lobbyists or advertisers; they’re not trying to sell a particular idea, they’re simply trying to provide information.

This is not to say that others shouldn’t be thinking about how to craft a convincing message, or even that a scientist shouldn’t become an activist/lobbyist. However, expecting scientists to do this in general seems to completely miss what a scientist’s job is; it’s to do research so as to understand some system and – ideally – to then communicate that research, in the scientific literature, at conferences, and – if appropriate – to the public and to policy makers. Being able to do so effectively is indeed a benefit, but the focus should be on making the information accessible, not on how to make the presentation more persuasive.

However, there also seems to be an element of irony in these kind of suggestions. As I mentioned, this article was highlighted during the somewhat contentious discussion about RCP8.5, which included claims that it was mainly being used to generate headlines and to scare gullible people. This illustrates the other problem with scientists being encouraged to generate as compelling a story as advertisers or lobbyists do; they have to do so while also appearing to satisfy all the expected norms of science.

My impression is that when people suggest that the scientists develop compelling stories, they have a pretty good idea of what kind of compelling story they mean. They want compelling stories that suit their narrative, not any old compelling story. This is the other problem. Scientists aren’t necessarily experts at how to deal with something like climate change, nor are they ones who should be making these decisions. How can they know what they should be persuading people to do, or accept?

I’m completely in favour of scientists thinking about how to communicate effectively and there are a number who are excellent communicators. However, science communication should – in my opinion – be based on trying to make the information as accessible as possible, not on how to make the message most persuasive. There’s nothing wrong with activists, or anyone else with an explicit agenda, thinking about how to persuade people to accept their arguments, but that’s not the role for science communicators. If we fail to adequately address climate change, it’s not going to be because scientists were insufficiently persuasive, it’s going to be because people who should have been able to understand the information, failed to take it seriously enough.

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83 Responses to This. Is. Not. Science’s. Job.

  1. dikranmarsupial says:

    Scientists are not salespersons, and the value of climate science to the public debate on climate is diminished by any attempt to tell a compelling story, rather than to present the scientific picture as faithfully as possible. If it isn’t compelling, we have a duty to say so, and talk about the uncertainties etc.

  2. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    Just curious how you reconcile this post Steve Schneider. quote that “skeptics” so love to take out of context.

    Also…

    The time is long overdue for scientists to learn to tell as compelling a story about energy, climate change and resource scarcity as do advertisers or lobbyists.

    I’m confused about what a compelling, and presumably positive?, story about resource scarcity might look like. Any ideas?

  3. Joshua says:

    …post with that Steven Schneider quote that “skeptics” so love…

  4. Joshua says:

    You might drop off a nitpick for Chris…Kahan isn’t a psychologist.

  5. Joshua,
    Stephen Scheider’s full quote was

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

    Of course, this is my interpretation, but I’ve always taken it to mean that science communicators have to make decisions about what to say. You can’t present all the information in some public engagement event. So, in some sense you can try to present a story that will be interpreted by the audience in some way. However, as his quote suggest, the intention should be to be both effective and honest. There will always be some judgement about what to present and each person might have their own view as to how to be both effective and honest. However, I do think it has to be both.

  6. Climate scientists are ground zero for the climate crisis. The rest of us have to listen carefully and try not to fall in our Dunning Kruger abyss when this topic gets discussed. Climate scientists and journalists are the only groups I can think of who are obligated by their professions to raise the alarm about the situation we are in. Arrayed against the proper presentation and discussion of the climate crisis is the well-funded public relations machinery of the industries who benefit from the creation and continuation of the climate crisis. This public relations machine has been wildly and tragically successful at delaying action to address the climate crisis. Journalists are often employed within corporate infotainment structures that have an interest in maintaining the status quo that overrides a journalism ethic of getting an important story out. In this situation, we end up with climate scientists being the only knowledgeable group that exists within our society to get this story out. If getting this story out is not the job of climate scientists in this situation, whose job is it?

  7. The energy analysts are often freelance consultants. They have to act as detectives given the amount of obfuscation that exists in trying to extract data from oil companies and nation-states that largely control that information. The more insight that they can gain the more they can advise customers on energy trends. They tend to be media and business savvy for that reason, which is a much different role than a climate science researcher. That’s a bit of the battle we were seeing on that RCP8.5 Twitter thread

  8. You aren’t wrong, but you are incomplete IMO. People are problem solvers and they expect science to be actively engaged in finding the solution to the problem.
    The solutions aren’t the job of climate scientists, but this means they need to be off the front pages of the newspaper and replaced with those engaged in research on the solutions .
    That isn’t happening. In small part because of low-sensitivity “contrarians,” in larger part because climate scientists are also activists for specific solutions and policies which are either clearly unsound or irrelevant without functional alternatives, and in the most part because engineers and scientists have several options that look promising but aren’t ready.

    The basic consensus then in the west at least is to replace coal with gas, keep existing nuclear running, do R&D on next gen nukes, bio fuels (for electricity and air transport), and batteries for ground transportation. Continue to improve solar and wind efficiency and cost, with the understanding they’ll be bit players (~30% if even necessary at all) in a modern world.

  9. dikranmarsupial says:

    “The solutions aren’t the job of climate scientists, but this means they need to be off the front pages of the newspaper and replaced with those engaged in research on the solutions .”

    On which pages should climate skeptic scientists appear?

  10. Yup, I nominate jeffnsails850 to tell Judith Curry to get off the front pages with her hurricane prediction consultancy!

  11. ecoquant says:

    I pretty much agree it’s not science’s job. It’s enough of a job to be able to provide accurate information and communicate knowledge. Once the cross is made into being an engineer, however, the normative comes squarely into the wheelhouse. Now, while this may not involve dictating how things should be, engineers by temperament love to fix things. This may entail helping people figure out how much it’ll cost to fix things, or choose among alternatives. This may entail helping people figure out how much it’ll cost to not fix something. It does entail being objective and honest, and if a situation arises where earning a fee begins to compromise that, such as if a client asks that something be misrepresented, engineering ethics demand terminating the relationship and, if appropriate, contacting appropriate authorities.

    This still isn’t politics, however, or advocacy. Sure, as ATTP indicated, scientists and engineers can advocate. But they are not acting in their professional or vocational capacities when they do.

  12. Scientists have been effective communicators in the past, ranging from Carl Sagan to Charles Darwin. What differentiates the scientists of today from prior periods? Steven Jay Gould wrote best sellers. So did Stephen Hawking. What did they do right that current scientists are either not doing at all or doing wrongly?

    I have written essentially this comment for over a decade, on MT’s blog, Collide-a-Scape and on my own blogs, as well as Examiner.com. Probably here, too. I have yet to see anybody take a serious stab at answering the question. It honestly seems to me that you (collectively) haven’t even read the popularizers, let alone studied what made them successful.

    Writing popular science books was never the ‘job’ of Hawking, Gould, Sagan or Darwin. But it was a bit more than a hobby. Ceding the popular science playing field to McPherson, Wallace-Wells, Oreskes, Klein and Conway does not appear to have served you well.

    I tried in my most recent effort. Sadly, I think it fell short because although I’m pretty good at the popularizing part, I am not a scientist. And as I have remarked to the point of tedium, it truly seems to me that scientists allowed people even less conversant with the science than I to grab the microphone from reluctant and busy scientists and issue forth with their screeds.

    Oh, well. Maybe the next crisis will go more smoothly.

  13. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: Well said!

  14. Tom,

    Steven Jay Gould wrote best sellers. So did Stephen Hawking. What did they do right that current scientists are either not doing at all or doing wrongly?

    How contentious was their science? Did it suggest that people might have to change their way of life, that we might need to re-design key parts of our infrastructure, that if we didn’t do so their may be serious negative consequences? I really don’t think the issue is that current scientists are incapable of being as effective communicators as people like Sagan and Hawking. I think the issue is that it’s a much more difficult message to present.

  15. ecoquant says:

    @thomaswfuller2,

    Another factor is that the audience has deteriorated, with shrinking attention spans, and preferring video and the like over reading. I have not done a formal study of this.

    I do know that it shows up when my company tries to hire, and there’s an excellent reason why many of our candidates are from other countries rather than the United States.

    That said, I recently offered a “Climate Science for Climate Activists” course, and got a group of 8 people to more or less sign in for each of 6 sessions, each lasting 60-90 minutes, once per week. This was done online, and was interactive, backed up by recordings of the classes when people had conflicts and could not attend. There was even modest homework which some did.

    This isn’t for everyone, I guess. But, facts are, you can’t really dig a lot of this without delving down into some of the scientific details. The important ones are not that hard. But if an audience does not even like to read, I don’t think there’s much that can be done about that.

    And, based upon the experience, I’ll probably offer the course again.

  16. ATTP, I believe that Charles Darwin’s subject matter was more than a little contentious and foreshadowed even more radical change than that foreseen for climate change. And I know that Gould’s punctuated equilibrium was the subject of lively discussion for more than a decade.

    I don’t think the message is at all difficult to present. I have managed to do so in broad strokes (befitting my non-scientist status) without difficulty and without notes to children, adolescents and even adults.

    The problem as this non-scientist sees it is not that climate science is overwhelmingly difficult to explain. The problem is that it is long. It covers a wide variety of topics, each of which need to be introduced adequately and the importance of each part needs to be explained.

    But other scientists dealt with similarly complex topics successfully. Why not you?

  17. dikranmarsupial says:

    “What differentiates the scientists of today from prior periods?”

    Nostalgia. There are plenty of good science writers now, such as Olivia Judson, David Hone, Anthony Martin, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (although the quantum book wasn’t so great), Enrico Coen (just looking at a few of the popular science books I liked enough to keep hold of).

  18. Tom,
    I don’t think it’s all that difficult to explain. The difficulty is getting people to accept the significance of it.

  19. ecoquant, our comments crossed. You make good points, I would counter by saying that both books and movies get longer every decade and people dive into them whole-heartedly. Game of Thrones books averaged–what–650 pages? Harry Potter the same. 50 years ago the average length of a novel was 288 pages. Binge watching on Netflix can occupy entire weekends of ordinary lives. Movies used to be about 90 minutes long.

    People will invest the time if you entice them and then engage them. I submit that climate writers and explainers have tried to do neither.

  20. Actually, a point about Darwin is that he didn’t publish his work until about 28 years after his voyage on the Beagle. It might now be well-accepted, but it wasn’t as if it didn’t take time. I’m pretty sure that within the next decade, or so, the significance of climate science will be very well accepted. If we had plenty of time to deal with this issue, that might be fine. Maybe we don’t, though.

  21. ATTP, I disagree. People in Flint are now very well educated about lead in the water. Children in schools across America understand the importance of active shooter drills. On this side of the pond, people look at serious issues and understand the significance. I doubt if Americans are different from people elsewhere. Well, we may be thicker. In more than one sense of the word.

  22. ATTP, climate science has been a subject of spirited discussion since 1998. That’s 20 years now. And you seem to forget that in the developed world, most of climate science is widely accepted by the public. It is the policy prescriptions that are not.

  23. Mitch says:

    What people don’t seem to understand is that we had an effective science and policy mechanism up until a couple decades ago, when certain political factions decided to break it when they didn’t like the results.

    Prior to about 2000, if there was a science/policy question, congress would ask the National Academy of Sciences 1) is the science they were concerned about correct? and 2) what were the policy options. That broke soon after the turn of the century. My favorite example of that is when Congress asked NAS about the hockey stick and Mann’s paper, but when the response was that Mann was mostly correct, Congress ignored the report:
    https://www.nap.edu/read/11676/chapter/1

    Similarly, there was an Office of Technology Assessment with congress, until New Gingrich killed it off for not telling him what he wanted to hear (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Technology_Assessment).

    Now the discussion has been reframed as “Scientists aren’t communicating effectively”. It takes two to tango–it is essentially impossible to communicate with someone that doesn’t want to hear.

  24. Tom,
    I’m not really following your argument. If we wait until a problem is obvious, then it’s pretty easy to convince people that it’s a problem. The challenge is convincing people to do something before it becomes a major problem.

  25. “Yup, I nominate jeffnsails850 to tell Judith Curry to get off the front pages with her hurricane prediction consultancy!”

    I’ve never seen Curry on the front page of the paper. Maybe page two if someone in Congress hauls her in to talk about the urgent need for bad policy.
    Hurricanes? She predicts the season. Where I live, that’s important information.
    The Front page of my paper (The Washington Post) is a story about how the US is already destroyed, based on RCP8.5, and apparently explaining the urgent need to replace the nukes that power DC with a few million acres of solar panels. Not one of which is currently planned. Though they try to blame the current occupant of the White House, they can’t explain why the guy who was there for the previous 8 years didn’t plan any either.

  26. Tom,

    And you seem to forget that in the developed world, most of climate science is widely accepted by the public. It is the policy prescriptions that are not.

    That’s kind of the point. Those who argue that scientists should be more persuasive are suggesting that it’s our job to convince people of the need for the policy prescriptions. As you suggest, scientists have done a pretty good job of explaining the science. That people aren’t convinced of the need to do anything as a consequence of this understanding, is not the fault of scientists.

  27. ATTP, what problems were Darwin, Gould and Hawking addressing? None. And yet they attracted wide audiences and their ideas passed into public acceptance fairly quickly.

    I would suggest that what climate writers / explainers are doing is not trying to convince people to do something before climate change becomes a major problem. I think they are trying to leapfrog the other issues people already accept as pressing, if not paramount, and to commandeer resources that people feel would be better used elsewhere. Perhaps climate scientists don’t spend enough time reading or watching popular media.

  28. Tom,
    Firstly, Darwin waited 28 years before even publishing his ideas. Secondly, the point is not about acceptance of the science, but acceptance of the consequences of the scientific information. I think scientists have done a pretty good job of explaining the science. It’s not, however, their job to convince people to do anything because of what the scientific information implies. That’s really all I’m saying. If we end up not effectively addressing this issue, it’s not going to be because scientists weren’t persuasive communicators.

    Can I ask that you actually read my responses before writing your next comment?

  29. dikranmarsupial says:

    jeff I notice you didn’t answer my question. On which page *should* climate skeptic scientists appear?

  30. ATTP, I do read your responses before replying.I don’t think it’s relevant how long Darwin took prior to publishing–again, his science did not address any public policy issues.

    And we agree–the public does not as yet accept the consequences of what climate science has shown us. I suppose you can blame the public. However, I think the scary tone and hectoring nature of (the decidedly non-) popular messaging is equally responsible. I don’t blame climate scientists for that. I blame those in the media, lobbyists and activists. But I also know that I am blaming them for acting exactly like the media, lobbyists and activists always act. So without blaming climate scientists, I am happy to point them to an area where they can act as a corrective.

  31. Tom,

    I don’t think it’s relevant how long Darwin took prior to publishing–again, his science did not address any public policy issues.

    This is precisely the issue. If time isn’t a factor, then acceptance will simply happen once it’s obvious. It’s not always the case that time isn’t a factor.

    I suppose you can blame the public.

    I’m not blaming the public. All I’m saying is that this is neither scientists’s fault, nor their responsibility.

  32. I agree with you that it isn’t the fault of scientists. I’m not sure about the responsibility. If McPherson et al are stepping on your message, who do you think should clean it up?

  33. Mark B says:

    “ATTP, what problems were Darwin, Gould and Hawking addressing? None. And yet they attracted wide audiences and their ideas passed into public acceptance fairly quickly.”

    Depending on how one asks the question something like 30% of Americans reject Darwinian evolution outright.

  34. Mark B, that’s true. And yet evolution and its consequences have triumphed in terms of policy, education and in the media. 30% just isn’t that many at the end of the day.

  35. jeffnsails850, I’m sure Curry knows how to communicate in a civil tone

  36. Tom,
    In what way has evolution triumphed in terms of policy? Alternatively, what do you think the impact would have been had society taken much longer to broadly accept evolution?

  37. Joshua says:

    Tom –

    I just remembered I was going to get back to you on something but don’t remember what it was. Do you remember? If so, could you throw up a link?

  38. ATTP, evolution is accepted in the curriculum, in biology and anthropology. The metaphors it throws off echo through every walk of life. Of course religious fundamentalists dispute it, ignoring the example of the Catholic church. They ignore a lot of other things as well.

    The impact of a broad rejection of evolution would have been retarded progress in those fields and a lingering of power amongst established religions. I guess…

    Joshua, you wanted to repeat some questions you asked me in an earlier thread. I’m afraid you’ll have to do the donkey work of looking them up.

  39. I will ask again: If getting this story out is not the job of climate scientists in this situation, whose job is it?

  40. ecoquant says:

    @smallbluemike,

    It’s someone’s job who will be listened to, ultimately by policy makers, and, some, the general public.

    Scientists have been telling the United States government about this for over 50 years:

    If policymakers don’t care about the future of the people they are charged to protect and care for, and if the people themselves don’t care what’s going to happen to them, their kids, and their grandkids — which is a perfect legitimate way to read our collective lack of inaction — it is pretty foolish for scientists to try to care more about them than they do about themselves.

    The frustration of climate scientist and fluid dynamicist Dr Emily Shuckburgh at the end of this interview (from 2013, by the way) speaks to everyone who has championed this cause:

  41. russellseitz says:

    ATTP

    I ceratinly must agree. Climate policy controversies has been through several iterations of a=the process that culminates in its polarization into cheerleaders and jeerleaders, and I can but iterate the conclusion of an article I wrote in 1990, when a Washington policy quarterly invited me to expain the state of controversy just prior to the creation of the IPCC to the first Bush administration:

    “at all times , and in all polities, science politicized is science betrayed.”

    Ecoquant

    You should read the rest of that 1965 White House report:

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2019/04/and-godfather-of-solar-radiation.html

  42. John Hartz says:

    Despite the best efforts of climate scientists, not much has changed during the past two plus decades…

    “One theory of government is that it only reacts to a crisis; trouble comes when we cannot even agree on what a crisis is,” Ivins wrote in a 1995 column about Congress’ lukewarm response to the threat of global warming.

    https://www.texasobserver.org/molly-ivins-on-climate-change-deniers/

  43. ecoquant says:

    @russellseitz,

    I think I’ll pass at 300 pages. They could have been more concise. Besides, it wasn’t intended to be definitive, and what was at stake, if Homo was actually sapiens, ought to have unleashed a torrent of funds for scientific investigation comparable to the Apollo Project. It didn’t, and so begins the tale.

    Also, 1965 was already 10 years into knowing this could be a serious problem, after Revelle.

    I’ll spare myself. The message is, essentially, sentient humans really do not care what happens to them or their offspring, if they can drive a really cool BMW down the highway instead.

    Alas. All species go extinct. There is some righteousness to that.

  44. ATTP: “I’m pretty sure that within the next decade, or so, the significance of climate science will be very well accepted. If we had plenty of time to deal with this issue, that might be fine. Maybe we don’t, though.

    It already is for decades, except for Anglo-America and the far right.

    That the rest of the world does get it is a clear sign that scientists and how they communicate is not the problem.

  45. thomaswfuller2: “ATTP, evolution is accepted in the curriculum, in biology and anthropology.

    I know you guys throw a hissy fit each time the consensus is mentioned, but climate change is also accepted with academia and part of relevant curricula.

  46. Climate “sceptics” have a wide range of suggestions what is wrong with climate science, many of them contradictory, what they all agree on is that it is not a problem that deserves much policy priority.

    Still they attack scientists, not the policies. They would like climate to remain to be seen as a scientific problem, communicated by scientists. I have long argued we will make progress when scientists are no longer the dominant voice.

    It looks like we finally arrived at this. In America we have the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal and a finally hand full of Congress people who are not systemically corrupt, in the UK we have the Extinction Rebellion and in continental Europe we have high school students striking every Friday for climate action.

    Finally some first Republican politicians are suggesting that they also need a plan to handle climate change that fits their ideology. The leader of the populist conservatives in Bavaria calls for lower taxes on trains and higher ones on planes and for making climate protection part of the German constitution.
    https://www.cleanenergywire.org/news/bavarian-merkel-ally-says-climate-action-belongs-german-basic-law-media

    There is nothing better than no one listening to scientists because they are working on solving the climate problem.

  47. Willard says:

    > If getting this story out is not the job of climate scientists in this situation, whose job is it?

    Those whose job is to write stories:

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

  48. Chubbs says:

    Googling “Carl Sagan climate” indicates that his climate writing/videos hasn’t had much impact either.

  49. Terrence says:

    Idiot, we are all scientists and populous
    Alike , when it comes to the death of our habitat ie an earth that can sustain animal ( including human ) life .

  50. Chubbs said:

    “Googling “Carl Sagan climate” indicates that his climate writing/videos hasn’t had much impact either.”

    Is that with quote marks included in the search or not?

  51. Communicating the science and the building climate catastrophe continues to be the job of scientists because:
    1. They have the knowledge and expertise to speak clearly and accurately about the science.
    2. Other potential classes of folks who could communicate the science and building climate catastrophe are compromised and/or are failing to communicate the science and building climate catastrophe effectively.
    3. Other potential classes of folks who might be interested in communicating the science and building climate catastrophe are not vetted to the extent that peer-reviewed scientists are and are more subject to speaking out strongly from their opinions or biases from within a Dunning Kruger black hole of expertise.

    I get that it is frustrating that clear communication of the science over the past 50 years has not been very effective at guiding public policy, but that does not change the basic facts about accurate knowledge of the subject and obligations to communicate the public health and ecosystem dangers that are arising.

    Sorry, that’s the job. Journalists may pick up and amplify your stories, but even the best of the climate journalists won’t match the special knowledge and standing that the peer-reviewed, professional/active scientists have in this realm.

    Keep up the good work. Don’t shirk. Don’t waste a lot of time complaining about how hard the job is. Hey, it’s climate science. If you wanted an easy ride, you should have gone to work for the Pond Institute of Skin Moisturization or the Tobacco Institute or taken a job doing as science advisor/administrator for one of the fossil fuel companies. Much less frustrating, I am sure.

    Mike

  52. Willard says:

    > Don’t waste a lot of time complaining about how hard the job is.

    Nice strawman. Scientists are simply not the ones who write stories. You know what’s a story, right?

  53. Dano says:

    Since the early-mid 1990s I’ve argued that Science must do a better job communicating its findings to the world.

    Whether that is by taking communications classes, having a layer of communicators like Peter Sinclair, or educating everyone in the world (or a combination). Whatever it is, something must be done 30 years ago.

  54. Dano,
    I think it has done a remarkable job. We’ve had the Paris agreement. Virtually every government in the world has accepted the need for action. The problem is that they haven’t followed through. For some reason, some think this is a result of poor science communication. I think that’s simply wrong. I think the science communication has worked. What hasn’t worked is the steps that should – ideally – have followed from that. This is not, however, the responsibility of scientists.

  55. Willard says:

    FWIW, vintage 2011:

    A journalist is responsible for what he writes; a scientist is responsible for what he mumbles; a reader is responsible for what he reads; if that is true, all this hurly-burly is tired and [jejeune].

    The conclusion regarding to the blogger is left as an exercise to the reader.

    Let the reader be aware that this case might prove difficult, more so if the reader is also a scientist and a journalist.

    http://rabett.blogspot.com/2011/03/blaming-other-guy-copying-from-guy-who.html?showComment=1299724804232#c4494867473538424461

  56. [Mod: You know the rules here. We moderate. There’s a moderation policy page and a comments policy page.]

  57. John Hartz says:

    There are a myriad of mechanisms to for climate scientists to communicate climate science to the general public. Here’s a nice example of one such mechanism.

    Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

    I believe that the first article produced by this collaboration is…

    Climate Q&A: will we be less healthy because of climate change? by Alexandra Macmillan, The Conversation NZ, Aug 7, 2019

  58. paulski0 says:

    Joshua,

    I’m confused about what a compelling, and presumably positive?, story about resource scarcity might look like. Any ideas?

    Interesting question in the RCP8.5 context. The positive story on that front is that RCP8.5 won’t happen because fossil fuels are already starting to run out. Yay!

    Of course there are some of the “rational optimist” frame of mind who have argued both that fossil fuels are an effectively infinite resource so we shouldn’t worry about fossil fuel scarcity “alarmism” and that we don’t need to worry about climate change “alarmism” because fossil fuels are about to run out.

  59. The framing regarding fossil fuel resource scarcity boils down to realizing that high-grade high-EROEI FF are rapidly depleting with the question of whether we are willing to exploit low-grade low-EROEI FF at the expense of burning up the planet.

    Climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert effectively communicated this framing via the mainstream press in 2013.

  60. [Mod: When it says “Mod” at the beginning, it’s not Willard.]

  61. [Mod: We don’t debate moderation in the comments.]

  62. [Playing the ref once more. -W]

  63. Tom,
    I don’t really know how to explain this more clearly. As highlighted in the moderation policy, discussing moderation is itself worthy of moderating. You’re welcome to contact me privately, but the ideal is that you take a deep breath, count to ten, and – if what you wanted to say was really important – try again. I realise that I’m violating my own policy by posting this, but I thought I would at least try to explain things.

  64. Angry Scientist says:

    How about scientists stop worrying about how they present a story (whack had led some to falsify says), and follow the scientific method. Stop setting out to prove an agenda, stop telling a story, just study what is and publish the results. If the results don’t agree with what you expected, YOU PUBLISH THEM ANYWAY!

  65. Angry,
    I’m not quite sure what argument you’re responding to. Are you suggesting that scientists shouldn’t engage publicly other than through publishing scientific pspers?

  66. Chubbs says:

    Paul – without the quotes. Results depend on search engine. Here is a circa 1990 video.

  67. izen says:

    Scientists describe the problem. And can often describe the end state that needs to be reached to solve it.
    They are not the right people to design or implement the solution.

    Two examples from the past.
    Lead compounds in paint and petrol and CFCs in insulation and refrigerants.

    Both were first discovered to be problematic by scientists and the nature of the solution was obvious.
    The use of the chemicals was dangerous and must be discontinued.

    How to achieve that end was NOT a problem of heavy metal or atmospheric chemistry.
    It was a matter of global political will to overcome the economic interests in continuing with the status quo.
    Given the central role of fossil fuels in the economic system the opposition to the political and economic changes required for a solution is that much greater.
    Capitalism does what is profitable, not what is needed.
    Solving that problem is not something scientists with knowledge of atmospheric thermodynamics are qualified or have the power to do.
    However wonderful their communication skills.

  68. lerpo says:

    Scientists have been effective communicators in the past, ranging from Carl Sagan to Charles Darwin. What differentiates the scientists of today from prior periods?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mu1PicT0TMU>Here are Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking on climate change

    Here is Carl Sagan’s original essay on the dangers of climate change.

    Here’s part 1 of Richard Alley’s three part program on climate change.

    Here’s Katharine Hayhoe

    If Sagan and Hawking set the bar on science communication then clearly we’ve had great communicators in the past. For my money we have great communicators now. Somehow there are still about 25% of Americans who reject the science outright.

    My guess is it’s not about how effectively the information is communicated. It’s the disinformation that’s the problem.

  69. ecoquant says:

    By the way the report written for LBJ had Revelle as it’s principal author and a copy can be found here:

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/11KNkShHOmeylAX6TViCmxt5ZZSt6XY_X/view?usp=drivesdk

    It’s 70 pages long, not 300.

  70. I agree with Izen: “Scientists describe the problem. And can often describe the end state that needs to be reached to solve it.” As the problem becomes more apparent every day around the world, this approach will eventually be sufficiently compelling to bring action. It may be too late at that point in many regards, but that may not be within our control. (maybe this is a problem that our species and it’s dominant model of civilization are not capable of addressing successfully?)

    It’s a shame that this task is similar to the rock task assigned to Sisyphus, but that’s the job. Keep doing the science. Describe the problems and describe the end states need to address the problems. Rinse and repeat. Don’t get discouraged. Expect to get smeared if/when you are doing the job very well.

    I also agree to some extent with lerpo when he guesses “it’s not about how effectively the information is communicated. It’s the disinformation that’s the problem.”

    It’s hard to tell as compelling a story as the advertisers and lobbyists if you play by rules that make disinformation and propaganda off limits. The rules for advertisers and lobbyists do not necessarily require the same level of ethical constraint and consideration as the rules for scientists reporting to the public about science.

    I think on that matter, the best we should hope for is a partnership between the active climate scientist community and journalists to identify disinformation and propaganda in a forceful manner. Simple pithy refutations with scientific backup, if needed, might be effective at devaluing the disinformation and propaganda.

    In that regard, I would suggest something like this: SOS – Snake Oil Salesperson – let the buyer beware. Call them what they are: snake oil salespersons.

    The link that Willard provided was a good read, so I will cut and paste it here: http://rabett.blogspot.com/2011/03/blaming-other-guy-copying-from-guy-who.html?showComment=1299724804232#c4494867473538424461

  71. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09959-4
    Snake oil salespersons get cited more often than is reasonable and/or makes sense. This is what we are up against in trying to get out the compelling story that creates action and change. Why does this happen? It probably ups comments, sharing of stories to peddle the story that mainstream science is wrong, so it sells, as in puts eyes on screens, creates clicks, etc. The job of many folks who profess to be journalists is to peddle their wares, to serve the corporate machine that provides the paycheck and pays the mortgage. The study makes a discrimination between mainstream sources and other sources. We can suggest that folks should be careful about their media sources. That should be an easy sell, right?
    From the study: “Here we show via direct comparison that contrarians are featured in 49% more media articles than scientists. Yet when comparing visibility in mainstream media sources only, we observe just a 1% excess visibility, which objectively demonstrates the crowding out of professional mainstream sources by the proliferation of new media sources, many of which contribute to the production and consumption of climate change disinformation at scale. These results demonstrate why climate scientists should increasingly exert their authority in scientific and public discourse, and why professional journalists and editors should adjust the disproportionate attention given to contrarians.”
    As readers and members of the media-consuming public, we might want to identify certain stories, authors and certain media sources as snake oil venders, but, as Churchill said, ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.’” That’s a hard nut to crack.

  72. ecoquant says:

    The outrageous gets covered more because the media wants to sell soap

    And the public is predisposed to the luckwarmers and denialists because they just want to feel good, and the news from reality is anything but.

  73. ecoquant says: “The outrageous gets covered more because the media wants to sell soap

    That makes it hard to say that journalists should do the job. Leading to people saying that scientists should do what the journalists do not.

    We should talk a lot more about how we get or media system in a better shape. I would not mind subsidizing media outlets which are not owned by corporations or oligarchs, but get their funding from membership fees. We could double the fees as a subsidy.

    High quality public media also helps to keep the commercial parts of the media at a better quality level. It is a historical accident that we do not have a public press; that could be something to fix.

    ecoquant says: “And the public is predisposed to the luckwarmers and denialists because they just want to feel good, and the news from reality is anything but.

    That surely is a factor, but the clear differences between Anglo-America and the rest of the world make clear this is just one factor.

  74. ecoquant says:

    @VariabilityBlog,

    VV says: “That surely is a factor, but the clear differences between Anglo-America and the rest of the world make clear this is just one factor.

    I surely don’t know, but I suspect it’s a combination of having been on top of the heap for so long and now, being told your success is at the price of extreme potential harm, that the audiences don’t like the story. I think, too, it throws serious doubt upon the inherent superiority of representative democracy as well as exceptionalism. For example, I don’t think the U.S. Constitution in its present form is up to solving this kind of problem. There are many reasons for that, but it would not surprise me at all if, at least in the USA, who takes on its solutions are corporations who have everything to lose from the effects of climate disruption being visited. That’s not all of them but, I daresay, it’s most. Even the banks are getting into the picture: They surely don’t want to lose wealth.

  75. Sz1lard06 says:

    A little bit on-topic: new Pew research on “Trust and Mistrust in Americans’ Views of Scientific Experts”. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/08/02/trust-and-mistrust-in-americans-views-of-scientific-experts/

    A wealth of detail about who trusts which kinds of scientists and for what reasons. For me the most surprising thing was that the general trust level is at 86+ and rising a little, despite all the rampant denialism. Anyway, higher than any of the other groups identified.

    The biggest partisan divide is over environmental research scientists: p3, 47% of Dems/lean Dems, vs 19% of Repubs/lean Repubs trust them to provide fair and accurate information.

    That’s a much bigger gap than for any other scientist category. To me it suggests an obvious point – if you want to get broader buy-in, you need to try to decouple the message from partisan baggage.

  76. ecoquant says:

    @Sz1lard06,

    The trouble of course is that it’s easy to “trust” astronomers, astrophysicists, and deep time geologists, or mathematicians, for that matter, because, well, anything they say or study is widely separated away from the here and now and what people care about. On the other hand, environmentalists and, my profession, statisticians are deeply engaged in the here and now and often swept up in policy, whether on the impacts of town development upon ecosystems, or the overwhelming evidence for considering gun deaths and harm as a public health matter.

    It’s easy to support science and technical opinion which has no effect upon your life and outlook.

  77. ecoquant says:

    On this subject, I wanted to recommend and cite a paper by Dr Lynda Walsh, “The visual rhetoric of climate change”, from 2015, whose citation is: WIREsClimChange2015, 6:361–368. doi: 10.1002/wcc.342.

  78. John Hartz says:

    ATTP: The findings summarized in the following article will reverberate for quite some time to come — probably deserving of a new OP., or two, or three… .

    Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change

    A book titled Discerning Experts explains why—and what can be done about it

    by Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer & Dale Jamieson, Observations, Scientific American, Aug 19, 2019

    Two key paragraphs from this in depth article.

    “In our new book, Discerning Experts, we explored the workings of scientific assessments for policy, with particular attention to their internal dynamics, as we attempted to illuminate how the scientists working in assessments make the judgments they do. Among other things, we wanted to know how scientists respond to the pressures—sometimes subtle, sometimes overt—that arise when they know that their conclusions will be disseminated beyond the research community—in short, when they know that the world is watching. The view that scientific evidence should guide public policy presumes that the evidence is of high quality, and that scientists’ interpretations of it are broadly correct. But, until now, those assumptions have rarely been closely examined.

    “We found little reason to doubt the results of scientific assessments, overall. We found no evidence of fraud, malfeasance or deliberate deception or manipulation. Nor did we find any reason to doubt that scientific assessments accurately reflect the views of their expert communities. But we did find that scientists tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold.”

    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/scientists-have-been-underestimating-the-pace-of-climate-change

  79. Thanks to JH for posting about the scientific underestimation of climate change. My takeaway was about the three factors causing systematic underestimation:

    “Among the factors that appear to contribute to underestimation is the perceived need for consensus, or what we label univocality: the felt need to speak in a single voice…

    A second reason for underestimation involves an asymmetry in how scientists think about error and its effects on their reputations. Many scientists worry that if they over-estimate a threat, they will lose credibility, whereas if they under-estimate it, it will have little (if any) reputational impact. In climate science, this anxiety is reinforced by the drumbeat of climate denial, in which scientists are accused of being “alarmists” who “exaggerate the threat.” …

    The combination of these three factors—the push for univocality, the belief that conservatism is socially and politically protective, and the reluctance to make estimates at all when the available data are contradictory—can lead to “least common denominator” results—minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete. ”

    The reality is that the climate science community has had a consistent bias to underestimate global warming. That’s pretty clear from the article:

    “Consistent underestimation is a form of bias—in the literal meaning of a systematic tendency to lean in one direction or another—which raises the question: what is causing this bias in scientific analyses of the climate system?”

    It is not the job of climate scientists to match lobbyists and PR campaigns that prevent appropriate public policy on climate change, but it is certainly the job of scientists to recognize when they have clear bias in the way they report the science and its impacts.

  80. ecoquant says:

    @smallbluemike,

    Yes. But I wonder if there is a methodological bias to the underestimation. I’m interested in this, because I’m a statistician and quant.

    As an analogy, without an understanding of the process of diffusion of innovations, analysts — even smart analysts — tended and tend to underestimate the adoption of solar PV. This is because they underestimate take-up rate, and then, via Swanson’s law, cost decreases. As a result, they base their projections by fitting various curves, typically linear ones, to past data.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations#/media/File:Diffusion_of_ideas.svg

    Now, there’s no rule or experience in climate projections comparable to diffusion models. Even with ensembles of climate models, it is difficult to say how good projections will be, especially since these have (historically, but less and less) left out fiendishly complicated pieces, like dynamic response of ice sheets.

    But there might be something like the “imitators” term in the climate system, and I sometimes wonder if such fits could be made empirically. I don’t have a comprehensive enough understanding of climate science to tell.

  81. eq says: “Yes. But I wonder if there is a methodological bias to the underestimation. I’m interested in this, because I’m a statistician and quant.”
    Maybe, but I would not be the right person to attempt to answer that question. My guess is the methodology/basis for the bias is as described in the article. I agree with JH that this book and linked story warrant thorough review, discussion and analysis.

  82. John Hartz says:

    ecoquant: The findings presented in the article and book are all about the decision-making processes of climate scientists in general and within the IPCC process in particular. The biases that may or may not be built into climate models are not included in this particular analysis of human behaviour.

  83. ecoquant says:

    I didn’t wish to imply there were any biases in climate models. Sorry if I did. I meant process.

    Specifically if IPCC or other projections underestimate what’s seen after they are made, this results in residuals. I’m simply suggesting these residuals could be harnessed to create a meta-model or support boosting.

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