The science-society interface

I came across an interesting paper by Dietram Scheufele on Thirty Years of science-society interfaces: What’s next, which focusses mostly on science communication. Although – as the article mentions – this isn’t the only possible science-society interface. Since I have an interest in this myself, I thought I might add some reflections of my own, but from the perspective of a scientist who is trying to communicate, rather than from the perspective of a scholar who studies the science-society interface.

In my experience there are, broadly speaking, two groups of scholars who focus on science communication. There are those who are actively trying to find ways to help scientists communicate more effectively. For example, the group at George Mason University, which included John Cook from Skeptical Science, with whom I’ve done some work. John has since moved to the Climate Change Communication Research hub at Monash University.

The other group are those who seem to regard their role as analysing the interface between science and society, critiquing how scientists engage publicly, and – in some sense – almost defining the appropriate manner in which scientists should interact with the broader public. The author of the above paper seems to belong more to this group, than to the former group.

Unfortunately, my interaction with the latter group of scholars has often been less than positive, which may of course reflect more on me than on them. However, I sometimes find the premise of their scholarship a little arrogant, as if they’re in some special position where they get to critique other scholars without seeming to recognise an equivalence between themselves and those they’re choosing to critique. There can also be a tendency to generalise about scientists, and to be rather dismissive of feedback coming from scientists. There are also some who have, in my view, actively hampered attempts to communicate science.

There can also be an element of irony in what is often presented by these scholars and this is somewhat evident in the article mentioned above. A common claim is that scientists who engage publicly suffer from what is referred to as deficit model thinking. The basic idea is that scientists think that science communication acts to fill some knowledge deficit which then leads to the public understanding the basic issue and accepting the policies that might derive from the scientific information. Of course, this is not how things work in reality. It is clearly much more complex, and there are many factors that infuence whether or not someone will accept a scientific position and what they would be willing to do even if they did.

However, it often seems that the scholars who criticise scientists for deficit model thinking end up doing something very similar themselves. They will imply that their field has developed a deep understanding of the science-society interface, that this is not being considered by scientists who engage publicly, and that if scientists did pay more attention to it, the interaction between scientists and society would be greatly improved. It may not be exactly deficit model thinking, but it seems pretty close. It’s almost as if these scholars don’t quite believe what their own scholarship seems to imply.

I also wanted to add something else about deficit model thinking. I’m a scientist who has spent quite a lot of time engaging in various forms of science communication. The reason I focus on trying to explain the “science” is that I enjoy doing so, I feel comfortable doing so, and because it allows me to focus on topics in which I think I have some relevant expertise. I’m not doing it because I think that all that needs to happen in order to solve various complex socio-political issues is for people to understand, and accept, the scientific information that I’m choosing to present. I’m well aware that it’s more more complex than that. I sometimes wonder if those who criticise scientists for deficit model thinking have really considered this from the perspective of those scientists who are choosing to engage publicly.

Okay, this is getting rather long, so I should wrap up. I do think that these are important issues and I do think that it is a topic that scholars should interrogate. However, if those who do so are essentially suggesting that scientists at the science-society interface should reflect on how they engage, then there may be merit in them doing some reflection themselves. To be fair, the article above does include some reflection, which is good to see. However, as I suspect such scholars would acknowledge, if your audience isn’t accepting your message, then maybe this indicates some issue with what you’re presenting, or how you’re doing so, rather than an indication that the audience is ignoring an obvious “truth”.

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120 Responses to The science-society interface

  1. Brigitte says:

    At the end of the article, Scheufele says: “. Science can only inform the difficult debates about how to move forward with these technologies (Evans, 2020). A decision about weighing all policy-relevant considerations will have to come from broad, inclusive, and—most importantly—difficult societal debates with outcomes that science cannot and should not determine (Scheufele et al., 2021b).” This puzzled me. Why all the fuss about the deficit model then? Of course, scientists can provide useful information and inform societal debates. They should not be excluded from such debates because they are supposed to wave the flag of that magical deficit model. But also: they don’t ‘determine’ societal debate. That’s nonsense. I would love to have an example of where such determination happened. Climate change? Covid?

  2. notabilia says:

    ” I do think that it is a topic that scholars should interrogate.”
    That’s kind of a ghastly scenario, scholars coming in with their coffee and doughnuts to play good cop/bad cop with the topic/perp.
    “Listen, we’ve been at this for five hours – time to fess up, topic, or we are going to have to use our special methods.”
    “Dammit, where were you, topic, and why’d you do it?”

  3. Fergus Brown says:

    I find it curious that the burden of responsibility for public understanding is placed on scientists, rather than the public. Imperfect as they are, the IPCC climate reports, having to make things clear to politicians in the face of interference from aforesaid, manage to find a way to make the issues arising from the science clear and relatively simple, and tell their audience what they need to know, and some of the consequences of the decisions they make in response. Yes, there has to be some effort to deal with the deficit in the knowledge of the audience, but this is neither patronising nor based on an assumption of specialist knowledge.
    I think it is uncontroversial to to claim that the public, in much of the English speaking parts of the World, don’t think about science and don’t want to think about it. Likewise they (we) can be indifferent to the messages (unless, like Covid, they suddenly become all-too-personal). Equally worrying is that, unlike scientists, public reaction to bad news (change is necessary) isn’t even rational, and opinions often tend to reflect predispositions rather than clear thinking.
    People will go to great lengths to avoid unpalatable truth and no amount of brilliant communication will help if we can’t even think clearly, never mind do the Maths…

  4. Brigitte,
    Indeed, that has always puzzled me. Scientists don’t have some magical power that determines how societal debates should proceed. If it does seem that scientists have some kind of “power”, then presumably this is with policy makers’ consent (in most situations, at least).

    Also (and I may express this poorly) it sometimes seems that the suggestion is that scientists should somehow “know” the correct set of values to appeal to so as to “correctly” drive societal progress. However, this seems more concerning an option than expecting scientists to mostly provide information that society can then decide to use as it sees fit. In some sense, the more you expect scientist to engage in ways that suit the societal norms, the more power they may end up having, which would then seem to contradict the basic idea that scientific information informs, but doesn’t define, what society does.

  5. Fergus,
    Yes, I find that curious too. Again, it seems slightly contradictory. As Brigitte highlights above, the overall argument is that science cannot, and should not, determine the outcome of difficult socio-political debates. I agree, I don’t think that is the role of science. However, as you highlight, there also seems to be this suggestions that scientists are somehow responsibility for public understanding of science, rather than simply being a group who have some relevant expertise and can provide relevant information that can be then used in whatever way society decides to use it.

    So, how do you decide if the public has been suitable informed and made suitable decisions? If there isn’t a simple linear relationship between information and decision making, how can one then determine if the information provided by scientists led to the appropriate level of public understanding and that a suitable set of decisions were made.

    It seems to me that if one is arguing that science cannot, and should not, determine societal responses to complex situations, then you can’t later suggest that the problem was the science communication if the decisions that were made didn’t seem suitable (however defined).

  6. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    > It may not be exactly deficit model thinking, but it seems pretty close….

    With all due respect to uncertainty, I’m hard pressed to see how it isn’t exactly deficit model thinking.

    Seems to me that much of this brand of science communication science, with the embedded underlying mechanism of causality (i.e., scientists fucking up causes distrust and public misunderstanding) largely ignores much of the science on the interface between the public and “science” in relation to polarized science-related issues.

  7. Tom Fuller says:

    Well, first, I think you do better than a passable job at communicating, moderation policies aside.
    Second, there is a way to test the thesis in question: Survey a representative sample of the population, querying their knowledge of the basics of climate change and also their sources of information.
    This is surprisingly easy to do and only moderately expensive. With a modest grant from some generous source I would be happy to do this and would welcome participation from yourself or someone you nominate.

  8. Tom Fuller says:

    Starting with what the public knows, or think they know, is key to understanding the effect of various approaches to communication. Those who rely on Rupert Murdoch’s communication vehicles can be expected to have different levels of understanding than faithful readers of the Guardian.
    As scientists of different ‘camps’ have taken different approaches to communicating with the public in the past, it should be possible to identify the effects of those different approaches.

  9. Brigitte says:

    That is a really good observation in your reply: “that scientists should somehow “know” the correct set of values to appeal to so as to “correctly” drive societal progress” – I find that so dangerous – scientists can’t and should not do that – and expecting them to do that implies an image of science that is totally topsy turvy and is quite close to propaganda

  10. Joshua says:

    I’ve never quite understood how “science communication” is distinguished from plain vanilla “communication.”

    Seems to me that effective science communication is effective communication. The idea that science communication is distinguishable seems to me to embed a kind of “deficit model,” or wrongly elevate the “science” that’s the subject of science communication in the condescending way that the author criticizes.

    If the “communicatee” is ideologically predisposed to distrust the “communicator” or reject the information being communicated, I don’t see why it would matter whether that information is about science or art or basket-weaving.

    Of course, scientists like anyone else would benefit for considering how to communicate effectively with various audiences.

    This has all been bugging me during the pandemic – where there’s been incoming on all sides towards scientists and public health officials communicating about COVID. Not to say that mistakes haven’t been made, but communicating effectively is hard. Even more so in a context of high uncertainty and deep polarization and so much at stake. What’s easy is taking potshots.

    Observing the climate wars over the last decade plus has made it so nothing about public engagement on COVID is surprising to me.

  11. Joshua,

    With all due respect to uncertainty, I’m hard pressed to see how it isn’t exactly deficit model thinking.

    Indeed, maybe I was adding too much uncertainty 🙂

  12. Tom,

    Second, there is a way to test the thesis in question: Survey a representative sample of the population, querying their knowledge of the basics of climate change and also their sources of information.

    That isn’t really my thesis. If I have one, it’s simply that many scientists engage publicly because they happen to find the topic interesting (hence, their career choices) and because they may regard it as important to communicate the information. I certainly make no claims as to the effectiveness of my communications strategies (in fact, using the term “strategies” may be a bit of a stretch).

    I don’t really have a problem with thinking about more effective ways to communicate, but in my case there is a limit to have much I can commit to these efforts.

  13. Brigitte,

    expecting them to do that implies an image of science that is totally topsy turvy and is quite close to propaganda

    Yes, I do sometimes wonder if some science-society scholars have thought through what they seem to be implying. It seems to me that the more scientists move away from simply providing information, the more you run the risk of them developing strategies that are much more strongly determined by their preferences, rather than driven primarily by a motivation to simply provide information (although, even the latter won’t be completely value free).

  14. Joshua,
    Yes, I largely agree that effective science communication could simply be regarded as effective communication. I would add, though, that – ideally – the communication is constrained by the available scientific evidence and the motivation isn’t simply to communicate whatever you want to communicate.

  15. Willard says:

    Sometimes I wonder what will happen to these researchers when they’ll discover concern trolling.

  16. Joshua says:

    > Survey a representative sample of the population, querying their knowledge of the basics of climate change and also their sources of information.

    “Sources of information” is tricky. People get information from a variety of sources, but then apply a post stratification kind of filter depending on the source and ideological predisposition. This is part of what’s deficient about the information deficit model. Information is coupled to the source. It seems to me, perhaps increasingly more so.

  17. Joshua,

    his is part of what’s deficient about the information deficit model. Information is coupled to the source. It seems to me, perhaps increasingly more so.

    Indeed. I’ve often thought that I can’t be something that I’m not. So, if people don’t trust what I say because of who I am, then so be it. I can’t really do anything about that.

  18. Willard,
    I hadn’t seen that post before. It reminds me that I have often thought (but have not been able to articulate clearly) that there seem to be some scholars who focus mostly on what I’ve called “academic criticism”. They spend most of their time criticising others, but in ways that aren’t particularly constructive, and never really do anything themselves, or provide any concrete examples of how others should really behave. It’s as if they think they get to sit on their high horses looking down on others and pointing out when things aren’t maybe as ideal as we might like (nitpicking, in many cases). Of course, they also typically target certain groups more than others. Those mentioned in the article you highlighted are classic examples of the genre, but there are others who seem to focus more on criticising others than on actually doing anything themselves.

  19. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    > So, if people don’t trust what I say because of who I am, then so be it. I can’t really do anything about that.

    Well, you can try to work on the root of the mistrust. But I would ask pretty much anyone who’s tried that in online discourse, “How’d that work out for ya?”. 😢

    Of course, those we encounter online are not likely a representative sample. And obviously, not all discourse is online, and online discourse might have limited generalizability. Maybe the patterns in non-representativeness or non-generalizability there can be identified and mitigated in useful ways. And then there is always the question of cultural overlay (we tend to focus on “the west” when that’s hardly inclusive regarding the “science communication” environment – which COVID has made strikingly clear given the broad differential COVID outcomes in the East versus the West).

    All that said, my own bias is that in general, we tend to focus on the outcomes less than the underlying problem. Imo, we need to rethink the structure of the communication environment more so than the communicators or their individual actions or the information they’re communicating. What is the real causal mechanism here?

    I’d guess this is part of the reason why in Asia, COVID outcomes have been better than in “the west.” Even breaking down the West – i. e., why the Nordics have had better outcomes than other parts of the west is suggestive to me. Of course, causality is complicated and there’s lots of confounding variables – but we might consider whether a “collective” focus compared to an “individual” focus is relevant. When people are explicitly seeking to weaponize information on a broad scale, then effective communication gets that much more difficult. Focusing on the details of communication is treating the symptoms more than the disease. How do we create a more effective communication environment (there’s no mutual exclusivity, of course – science communication influences the communication context).

    But I think we have a reckoning coming, in the west, on a larger scale. If you ask a black person in the US, our communication environment was never that great (an understatement, of course) – but nonetheless I think there is an increasing systemic dysfunction, and social media has been rather explicitly designed to feed off of that dysfunction.

    Isolating “science communication” from the larger communication context and pinning our hopes on scientists bailing us out with better communication techniques? Good luck with that!

    Measuring polarization is tricky but I’m inclined to think it’s increasing and that our communication environment is structurally disfunctional, and increasingly so in association – and that the problems stretch across communication in ways where “science communication” is only a small part of the problem. And I’m willing to suggest that a focus on the individual is approaching a balancing point at the societal level.

  20. Joshua says:

    ….more than the underlying problem…

  21. Joshua,
    I may misunderstand your point, but if it’s that the main issue is the current socio-political environment, rather than the effectiveness of the communication, then I agree. We do seem to be living through a time when there is a lot of polarisation, and trying to communicate in such an environment is very difficult. It’s one reason why I get frustrated when people suggest that if only scientists had done something different (and they always seem to know what this different thing should have been) that everything would have been better. I don’t really think this is true. I don’t think that there is simply some way in which scientists could have engaged that would have substantially changed where we are today*. There are many other factors that are outside the control of scientists who are trying the engage publicly.

    *Of course, scientists could have spent more time trying to acknowledge the arguments presented by those we might call climate deniers and could have avoided strongly criticising their scientific views. We’d then almost certainly be in a substantively different place, but I don’t think it would be a better place (for some reasonable definition of “better”).

  22. Joshua says:

    Anders –

    That’s what I’m saying. But I disagee, I think, here…

    > *Of course, scientists could have spent more time trying to acknowledge the arguments presented by those we might call climate deniers and could have avoided strongly criticising their scientific views. We’d then almost certainly be in a substantively different place, but I don’t think it would be a better place (for some reasonable definition of “better”).

    I suspect that wouldn’t have led to a substantively different place. I don’t think the approach of “skeptics” is explained by the approach of climate scientists.

    “Skeptics” are not some randomly assembled group of people. They are, for the most part, rightwingers/libertarians/tea partiers, etc. on a subset of the world’s population. There is a very strong ideological signal and that speaks to the underlying causality.

    So they were going to have largely the same trajectory irrespective of how they were treated by climate scientists.

    Obviously, calling them “deniers” or whatnot isn’t going to HELP in some constructive manner, and I don’t doubt that has exacerbated the antipathy to some degree. But my guess is that the counterfactual difference would have been marginal, not substantive. And in terms of material differences in policy and emissions and all of that, I think that a marginally different outcome re the communication environment would have likely led to no meaningful differences.

    To deal with complex issues like climate change, that involve massive forces and inertia and diverging economic and political interests on a global scale and enormously powerful vested interests, we seem woefully inadequate as a species. Our inability to avoid the current war in Ukraine is a kind of example. Communication strategies of climate scientists seems like a flea on the elephant of climate change policy.

  23. Joshua,

    But I disagee, I think, here…

    I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek 🙂 I was suggesting that we could have just agreed with those who disputed the significance of AGW, and not challenged those who suggested that we should just keep burning fossil fuels because it’s such an amazingly cheap fuel source. I do tend to think that things like the IPCC reports and the Paris agreement have had an impact on the trrajectory that we’ve ended up following. Maybe not a big impact, but an impact nonetheless.

  24. The communication battle between scientists and denialists? My money would have to be on the denialists to have the upper hand in that context because a person functioning primarily from scientist role would be inclined to be as accurate as possible in the communication to the lay person audience and a person functioning in denialist role would be inclined to be as effective as possible with communication to the lay person audience. Maybe we can come up with a less loaded term for the denialists than denialist, but it would not change the functions and focus of the two groups. There are clearly scientists who function primarily as denialists in communication with the general population. Their credentials as scientists and their command of the lingo can help them be more effective and if that is a primary concern for these folks, then it is simply part of their objective. I guess it might make sense and be somewhat neutral to call the non-scientist role an advocate. That is a less loaded term than denialist and might allow us to identify advocates that are functioning on both ends of the spectrum on climate science communication and policy. With a term like advocate, it would be possible for all of us to understand that people like JC and RPJr are not that different from a person like Wadhams or McPherson. I think I will try that idea out for a bit and think about what different people have to say and think about whether they are sacrificing accuracy for effectiveness. If/when a person does that, they are choosing to be an advocate rather than a scientist in the discussion.

  25. Ken Fabian says:

    It seems like the role of governments, political parties and of media – the principle intermediaries in the communications between scientists and public – is neglected – as if it is purely a scientist and public-as-society interaction. It isn’t.
    Apart from science based knowledge that simply emerges out of research programs, that might be reported we see governments calling on scientists to provide background on issues of significance, ostensibly to provide independent expert advice; seems to me they have some obligation/duty to pass what is important on to the public as well as incorporate it into the policies and decisions they make. When people holding positions of public responsibility and trust choose to dispute the validity of that advice it has a profound flow on effect with respect to the general public. These people have resources ordinary people do not to assist for assessing the significance as well as integrity of such advice and far less room for excuses like “it didn’t seem right to me”.
    Likewise media has (arguably) a duty to inform truthfully, both in directly reporting on emerging science based knowledge and in reporting on government and other responses to it – although I suspect large parts of it would probably dispute that requirement, where they don’t simply claim their spin and paid and unpaid opinion IS the truth.
    I am inclined to think the greatest problem in science communication with respect to the big issue like global warming is media misrepresentation – and significantly, deliberate misrepresentation.
    To say the public doesn’t trust science or science predictions whilst passing over the role of our media as”informers” in actively cultivating and promoting public distrust looks like yet more misrepresentation. To blame scientists for failing to communicate well enough is a huge misrepresentation.

  26. Ken,
    Yes, I have often thought something similar. The responsibility for making decisions lies with policy makers and the (implicit) responsibility for communicating lies with the media. So, why does is seem as though much of the criticism is aimed at scientists, rather than at policy-makers and the media and why does it seems that scientists have to work out how to communicate in this environment, rather than expecting policy makers to be informed and expecting the media to communicate effectively, and truthfully.

    I sometimes see some implying that this is just how it is and that expecting policy makers to not politics is not realistic and expecting the media to not appeal to their audience is also not realistic. However, for some reason, the same people seem to think scientists should satisfy some supposed ideal. If the latter can do so, why not the former?

  27. Dave_Geologist says:

    That’s Willard, I’d missed that excellent article despite being a regular lurker at Eli’s.

    I see it attracted the usual flock of crackpot conspiracy theorists, which links to the deficit thinking topic.

    Even when you explicitly debunk the crackpot conspiracy theorists, they just repeat their libel or pile on new libels.

    Will Storr had it right. They have to be defeated, not persuaded.

  28. I read your post, won’t have time for the linked paper till later. But, I get the feeling there was no mention of the fraudster’s cottage industry that seems to have unlimited funds, that is strategically dedicated to misrepresent and out and out lie about the science (doubt is our product). (Particularly in climate science, but also evolution and anything that might impact profit margins) If not, why not?

    Why do we allow that fundamental reality of modern living is be side stepped, time and time again?

  29. DG says “Even when you explicitly debunk the crackpot conspiracy theorists, they just repeat their libel or pile on new libels.

    Will Storr had it right. They have to be defeated, not persuaded.”

    I agree with you and Will, but I would note that as soon as you move to mindset where the other side must be defeated, you are not acting as a scientist anymore, defeating the other side is an advocate mission.

    If you want to respond to the crackpots, maybe just call them out as crackpots or bad faith actors and direct back quickly to the hard science that the crackpots and bad faith actors are trying to swamp in libel.

    I also think that the bad faith actors, the folks who just keep repeating bad science or pushing new bad science should simply be shut out of the conversation as soon as it becomes clear that they are not acting in good faith. I support withdrawing the platform to help laypersons sort out what the science actually indicates without making them get out a scorecard to start figuring out which sciency-sounding posters are really just producing and selling doubt, not understanding.

    My $.02


  30. Mike: “as soon as you move to mindset where the other side must be defeated you are not acting as a scientist anymore, defeating the other side is an advocate mission.”

    Absolutely no disagreement there. I’m talking about the communicators in what’s supposed to be a teaching/learning process.

    But I disagree with your last sentence – every contrarian deception and lie, creates a learning opportunity that’s too easily squandered, by being timid (or is it holier than thou?) and ignoring facts-of-life dirty politics, rather than figuring out how to expose it and discuss it.

    Truth, in public dialogue should start mattering again. Truth and dishonest shouldn’t be impossible issues to tackle – finishing your letter leaves me with the sad feeling that it is impossible and perhaps even silly to hope for as much.

    Engaging with the deception, using it as a hook and starting point for painting an honest coherent picture of Earth’s heat and moisture and distribution engine in action and what’s been happening with her, should be doable, if intimidating.

    Mike: “I also think that the bad faith actors, the folks who just keep repeating bad science or pushing new bad science should simply be shut out of the conversation as soon as it becomes clear that they are not acting in good faith.”

    Don’t I wish that were true.

  31. Jon Kirwan says:

    I think the vector of your post here (ATTP), is sent along an understandable vector. But much of it seemed to explain less of the variances of the difficulties at hand than some other more principal components may. So a lot of it went by me as more worrying over residuals.

    What did arise in mind while reading was this question was whether or not there has been a comprehensive study (or studies) covering a broad range of cases, and with depth, where scientists were successful in communicating effectively at the science-society interface? And then, from these cases, elucidated their common elements/rules/ideas that may distinguish their successes?

    A Dr. George Wallerstein lecture on VY CMa:

    Some scientists were very popular in their time.

    “I believe the most important thing is to awaken in the younger generation a strong love for scientific truth and ambitions, so that the purer atmosphere thus created will gradually drown out the insensitive emotional motives that have brought so much misfortune upon our current generation.”

    I’m curious what ingredients go into energizing a lay population about science and the work of scientists. I’m less interested in either the complaints and bickering about what they are doing wrong or in self-righteous opinions about how scientists should do better.

    Instead, I’d like to see detailed data sources and analyses covering a broad spectrum of cases where scientists were successful at this interface. That might be convincing.

  32. Michael 2 says:

    “However, it often seems that the scholars who criticise scientists for deficit model thinking end up doing something very similar themselves.”

    Indeed. For many it is their religion, that thing which is believed and which everyone else must also believe or else bad consequences will follow BUT belief brings salvation. I don’t say there is no truth; rather, truth is sometimes (or often) irrelevant to the formula or the method.

    This can be shown by presenting “truth” and see what difference it makes. If the truth involves the mean path length of an infrared photon at standard temperature and pressure, well, it might not be persuasive to many people.

  33. Jon,
    That’s an interesting question. I think the George Mason group (Ed Maibach, for example) have this simple mantra that says “simple messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources”. I do think that repeating things can be useful (in many case, because I don’t know what else to say 🙂 ) but the “trusted sources” can also be important. I think this is similar to Dan Kahan’s “cultural cognition” idea. People tend to trust people that they identify with. So, if those presenting the information are people that a certain group identify with, then it’s more likely to be successful than it would be if they weren’t.

    However, as I think I said to Joshua, scientists can’t suddenly become that they’re not, so if a group doesn’t identify with a particular science communicator, there may be little that they can do about this.

  34. Thomas Fuller says:

    Jon Kirwan writes, “I’m curious what ingredients go into energizing a lay population about science and the work of scientists. I’m less interested in either the complaints and bickering about what they are doing wrong or in self-righteous opinions about how scientists should do better.”

    It has happened before. NASA did it. Hell, Star Trek did it. Learning lessons from past public interest in science would not be a stupid thing.

    We have numerous technology breakthroughs that could inspire curiosity in the science behind them, ranging from nanotechnology and biotechnology to more visible advances in drones, electric vehicles, solar panels, etc.

    If science communicators spent one tenth the time showing how solar power works that they do on why solar power is important, it could interest many. Showing how drone taxis could arrive on the market sooner than self-driving cars would be fun.

    Remember fun?

  35. Tom,
    I think those are all fine ideas, but then people who work on those topics should probably be the ones doing the communicating. In fact, I think there are some trying to do what you suggest (make technological breakthroughs sound fascinating). It maybe isn’t as easy as you seem to be implying.

  36. Thomas Fuller says:

    ATTP, perhaps not. But given the sales of science fiction books and movies, it might be worth the attempt. If you look at the successes of Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov–and more recently David Brin, et al, it would appear to be a potentially more fruitful approach.

    I don’t want to paint the current crop of ‘science communicators’ as lugubrious doom criers–you are not (with some notable and regrettable exceptions). But you’re all hammering away at convincing us there’s a problem. Enough already. Write about the solutions. Show that science can (and must, at the end of the day) save us from decades of painful adaptation to a changed environment.

  37. Tom,
    My point is that I’m not convinced that those who have highlighted the problem are necessarily those who are ideally suited to explaining the solutions. I don’t think I know enough about renewable energy generation, nuclear power, the economics of energy transitions, or how to influence behaviour changes to do so. I don’t have a problem with those who are trying to do this, but it’s probably not as simple as trying to convince existing science communicators to change their focus.

  38. Ben McMillan says:

    I agree Jon’s question is interesting.

    Trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t is clearly a key element in improving science communication. This is a way to identify constructive criticism; does it offer a justified path to improvement? (some of the authors in the OP are not doing this, but not much point explaining why)

  39. Bob Loblaw says:

    This is what the communications battle is about:

  40. Thomas Fuller says:

    Mr. Loblaw, I believe An Inconvenient Trust sold over 10 million tickets, while Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It sold about 10 thousand.

  41. Bob Loblaw says:

    Mr. Fuller:

    And how many people get their climate science knowledge from Faux News and similar sources? People flock to sources that they trust, and a huge portion of them trust sources that lie to them because it provides reassurance. And many of those sources lie because they can make money from it.

  42. Thomas Fuller says:

    Hi Mr. Loblaw

    Adweek reports that Fox News gets about 1.55 million individual viewers in the past week, and about 244,000 per day. That’s slightly up from the previous week, but well down from 2020 and 2016.

    I don’t think focusing on Fox will provide answers to the conundrum ATTP has laid out.

  43. Tom,
    I’m not entirely sure what conundrum you think I’ve laid out. My post is about some issues I have with some assessments of the science-society interface. I think science communication in some contexts is complicated and that there isn’t any easy way to define the optimal way to communicate. I sometimes wish some scholars who study the science-society interface would reflect on some of their assessments that seem to somehow ignore some aspects of the complexity, but not others.

  44. anoilman says:

    Thomas Fuller says:
    “Adweek reports that Fox News gets about 1.55 million individual viewers in the past week, and about 244,000 per day. That’s slightly up from the previous week, but well down from 2020 and 2016.”

    That statement is outright wrong headed.

    The fact that Fox puts out so much BS, drives conservative politics and their narrative. The issue is that their BS winds up driving what other news outlets get questioned about, and therefore must also start looking into.

    In short, you’re being forced to watch Fox news everywhere. i.e. Not on Fox.

  45. Joshua says:

    > Write about the solutions.

    But don’t be a policy advocate (or stealth advocate) who is appealing to his science expertise to politicize policy.

    And here we see why “skeptics” never lose – because they can put forth whichever arguments they like, even when they’re in blatant contradiction to other arguments they’ve made – just so long as it’s being a victim and/or blaming someone else for the problem.

    I’m now calling it the heterodox binary thinking playbook. ‘splains a lot.

  46. Bob Loblaw says:

    I post a cartoon that sarcastically shows people choosing “A Reassuring Lie”, to illustrate that it’s hard to communicate with people that simply don’t want to listen to the message. Mr. Fuller does “but Lomborg’s movie”. I respond by mentioning Faux news and how people like hearing lies and other people like providing them. And Mr. Fuller responds by completely ignoring the issue of what people like and focusing solely on what Faux News’ viewership numbers are.

    You’d think that Mr. Fuller was being deliberately evasive and avoiding the point. Plus ca change…

  47. Thomas Fuller says:

    As it seems that I am serially misunderstood here, let me be a bit more specific. If you want to tell a story, go where story tellers go. Do what modern story tellers do. OnYouTube, mostly. But also TikTok. Those watching Fox are eerily similar to the oldies in Russia watching state-owned television. And no, you’re not going to convince them.

    The undecideds and the don’t cares don’t watch Fox. And if there is a ripple effect where Fox framed the discussion of issues, the undecideds and don’t cares don’t watch CNN or read the NY Times, either.

    People in the United States believe that climate change is real and potentially dangerous, as shown again today by yet another poll. But the top-down solutions that the climate establishment has proposed to date have garnered very little traction.

  48. Joshua says:

    > . But the top-down solutions that the climate establishment has proposed to date have garnered very little traction.

    Like I said. Heterodox binary thinking. If we have made progress in climate change, it must be because “deniers,” “climategate” Realclimate, Al Gore is fat, climate scientists shouldn’t be advocates advocates are too top down.

    Of course, it’s not because of identity orientation, like we see with every other freakin’ polarized issue, like COVID.

  49. I suggest using the George Mason formula when you have an impulse to respond to any of the denialist cranks. Short simple and repeat as needed to identify the cranks for anyone bystanders. Probably same plan with alarmist cranks. I would certainly qualify as a alarmist advocate and maybe an alarmist crank, but I don’t say too much anymore. Most of the stuff that I have been alarmed about is starting to make the news and show up in the science. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for me to stay ahead of the curve of global warming alarms anymore. Example:
    ho hum. It’s happening.

  50. Jon Kirwan says:

    I guess none of us (so far) has pointed towards detailed data sources and analyses covering a broad spectrum of cases where scientists were successful at this science-society interface.

    I believe there may have been moments in time where there were obvious successes at that interface. One that I think I lived through were a series of moments in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) leading towards the first successful landing of humans on the moon.

    There’s difficulty associated with just finding natural demarcations, I suppose. So there would need to be studies focused on collecting and analyzing observational measures to see if there may be an arrangement that exposes and illuminates definitions with a few orders of magnitude gap between what qualifies as successes at the science-society interface. If such natural boundaries can be exposed, that would be my preference when moving forward with studies (using those boundaries) to see what may then shake out in helping us understand why they occurred and how they may be predicted/reproduced.

    So I feel I may remain ignorant about even so much as having a good definition, let alone what a well-designed study (or studies) might then find.

    Does this remain an area upon which the light of science has yet to shine? If so, then all we are left with are a variety of nice-sounding suggestions and no unifying science to give us predictive power.

  51. Joshua,

    And here we see why “skeptics” never lose – because they can put forth whichever arguments they like, even when they’re in blatant contradiction to other arguments they’ve made – just so long as it’s being a victim and/or blaming someone else for the problem.

    Indeed. Whatever is done, some people will find reasons to criticise.

  52. Willard says:

    Criticizing is fine as long as it’s constructive. It could be mostly academic, but most of the times it would not be hard to see what Honest Brokers would call “stealth advocacy.” Take “top-down” as a loaded word.

    Thanks for the expression “academic criticism,” AT. You should write a paper on this. It’s about time academics realize they need to get out of their ivory towers to see how their mannerism fares in public.

  53. The message also depends on the receiver. That receiver needs to be tuned by honest curiosity, 360° skepticism, desire to constructively learn and better understand, along with a feeling of community and membership in our human society (stakeholder), to really connect.

    Unfortunately, actually tackling these climate, population, greed driven problems (that we’ve created for ourselves), requires first and foremost a collective mindset, accepting of the notion that “less can be better”. Or at least a realization this is our fundamental problem, we are living way the heck beyond Earth’s means.

    First we need to crawl before we can dream of walking and running. So long as society continues refusing to think of Earth’s needs and how destructive our expectations are, we’ll continue spinning our wheels, as the runaway below us slips on by.

    {When responding to cranks, keep in mind that it’s an audience you should be trying to connect with, the crank simply provides a vehicle.}

  54. Jon Kirwan says:

    It’s about time academics realize they need to get out of their ivory towers to see how their mannerism fares in public.

    As the cartoon provided here by Bob suggests, people live in a state of denial. Partly, because that is how one remains “sane.” Permanent death is the known end of all of us. How to cope with that fact? I’ve known a few individuals where that fact, young or old as they were, consumed their every waking moment with fear. Were they insane? Or are the people who look aside and find ways to avoid facing such facts insane? I’ve had some long discussions with a couple of psychiatrists on this topic. They both agreed that people must live, broadly speaking, in a state of denial to get by in life, once we were on common terms about the question. In fact, they were able to point to where this is “a thing” within psychology, itself. So I didn’t bring anything new to them. Quite the contrary.

    In the case of active scientists working on the frontier areas, and despite a growing body of well-understood areas… plenty of that still remains in climate as it does in uncovering new states of matter in physics, etc. (if not scientists as a general rule.) The requirements are comprehensive views that take into account the work of others, knowledge of the modern state of affairs, and most particularly a facility for facing situations as squarely as humanly possible… And I’d have to suggest that “denial” is one of those characteristics that most work very hard to resist and/or expunge as much as possible, as well.

    The longer people live, the growing gaps from diverging purposes and life-goals widen and eventually may reach a profound difference in worldviews. It’s been my experience that finding common stories and shared memes for effective communication is bordering on insurmountable. There’s just too much difference in what’s taken as axiomic and/or what’s elevated as key, important stories and memes out of which the rest flows.

    I lack hope in this regard. Which is why I’d like to see some sincere science on the topic. I might learn something useful from it. But I fear it is also lacking. So I remain in the dark and without much upon which to hang hope.

  55. Jon Kirwan says:

    What is the last emotion someone has just before the very last moments before dying a violent death (from other humans or animals?) It’s surprise. Because we live in denial, believing right up until that very last moment that something, somehow will make it possible to survive/escape and then move on. This, despite some inevitable situations which make it clear earlier that death is inevitable and inescapable.

    Surprise that it’s here. And denial the entire time up to that point.

    Natural evolution has selected for this trait.

    But science is about unnatural acts. Fighting self-deception, fighting denial, developing and strengthening a range of imagination much of which may takes us far away from what naturally flows out of our sensory systems.

    None of this says scientists aren’t human, don’t experience and/or succumb to denial, or self-deception. In every real sense, scientists are equally human. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that there is an “edge” of sorts, honed and sharped over and over and over again through long use, that allows some marginal progress, sometimes in fits and starts and sometimes in just long grueling hard work, in adding greater reach and meaning for the highly unified artifice of the body of science knowledge.

    In mathematics, we have and use precision ideas such as the concept of the point. Students in mathematics spend long hours acquiring key concepts and ways of thinking. The result is a language with a remarkable property to it. I can place into my head a very, very close approximation to the idea that was in Euclid’s head — despite our separation in time of two millenia and sharing almost nothing between us with respect to surrounding culture, language, or life experiences. How is it possible that we can achieve a way that communicates across culture, time, and place and allows for two such-isolated individuals to share a thought between them so well and with such fidelity??? It’s partly through the individual work and time spent acquiring that language and learning how to extend it. Science too is about approximation and the ability to write down theories in such a way that others in a different time, different place, and different culture should be able to replicate each others’ results. This goes even to how we learn to write down digits of significance in our very measurements, so that others not as skilled as we may be but using the same tools for measurement, can still replicate our results. I may be able to accurately read a burette in fine gradations between two marks better than anyone on the planet, but I also know that to use that skill would mean that others less skilled would not be able to use the same tool with the same accuracy. So I write down the number knowing this fact so that others, similarly trained but not quite as skilled, can still replicate.

    And this developed science edge, I suggest, is important. Because just as one cannot communicate mathematics to one not trained in the ideas of mathematics, one similarly cannot communicate science to another who lacks the developed thinking tools.

    So this means scientists are forced to use caricatures — cartoons. And these are always highly exaggerated and distorting contortions that cannot be used as valid mental tools. And those will always be susceptible to the accusation of “propaganda.” (Because, in fact, they must be.) And once scientists attempt to leave the space where the knowledge resides and turn it into gross caricatures, they have themselves moved from knowledge to propaganda; from debates about the tentative truths in science into the circus ring of propaganda where some real professionals with lots of money run the roost. And they will only get just as muddy as the rest when they do that.

    A cartoon can make a point (like the one that Bob presented.) But it cannot then be used for anything more than that. It cannot be extrapolated. So it leaves the reader/listener with a story, should they decide to find it pleasant. It gives them a fish, so to speak, but doesn’t not tell them how to fish for themselves.

    I just don’t think this is ever going to work. Understanding the language of science require work to acquire. And the public won’t spend the time. And scientists cannot sink into circus ring, either, without also losing their well-earned respectable garbs.

    Again, I’d like to see science done on how to succeed facing such a dilemma.

  56. Thomas+Fuller says:

    Mr. Kirwan, a lot of science has been done on resolving that dilemma. It is social science of course, with all the pitfalls and caveats that term inspires. Just as a starter for ten…

  57. Bob Loblaw says:

    Jon: in reading this line, “In mathematics, we have and use precision ideas…”, an example occurred to me:

    How do you explain calculus to someone that has not yet understood that a curve can have a slope at one point, rather than between two points? That a point can have a density, without including a volume around it? These are useful mathematical ideas, with great utility, but to a person that cannot grasp those ideas you lose any chance of explaining the science to them.

    And if they are convinced that they already know more than the scientists…

  58. Jon Kirwan says:

    Sure, Bob, these ideas are important and uniquely so. (I use them every single day of my life.)

    I guess the dilemma I’m trying so hard to illustrate and paint is that there is a wide gap and I frankly don’t see how to bridge it. Perhaps the few times where the science-society interface has succeeded well enough to catch the imagination and interest of a lay public, such that a significant fraction would be motivated to struggle and think and try to grasp some of what was being offered, are beyond our ability to predict today. I suspect we have very little, if any, predictive power here.

    (And I don’t mean cases where science knowledge is first turned into distorted caricatures beyond recognition. We *do* have abundant knowledge about the science of propaganda and many trillions of dollars have been spent studying and expanding that field to frightening heights of predictive power.)

    But if there is some to be found way to map science knowledge into reasoned simplifications (only so far, and no further) and to be successful in engaging society in them? I’d love to hear it. I’ve seen it happen. But I don’t understand the conditions of it. And I especially have no access to knowledge about how.

    On your sidebar about calculus. Calculus is a whole other topic. I have some personal experiences that make my perceptions somewhat odd. I always hated the Dedekind/Weierstrass work in bringing calculus into the rigorous folds of the body of mathematics. Contrary, Newton’s concepts of fluxions (his writing is crap — don’t get that wrong — but the ideas if you can dig them out were beautiful to me) were a song to me. I developed my own methods almost out of whole cloth, for years. Until Dr. Saul-Paul Sirag referred me to the work of Abraham Robinson and his non-standard analysis. It was there that I finally saw what I was working towards.

    To me, calculus is just a modest extension of algebra adding one new kind of variable which we denote with letter ‘d’ in front of them. These variables can *only* hold infinitesimal values, never finite ones. Algebra is all about finite variables. Calculus adds just one thing — infinitesimal variables. When I see “int x dx” I see little areas created by the multiplication of a finite variable ‘x’ and the infinitesimal variable ‘dx’ and that they are stacked up side by side in the integration to create a shape that I can see, for example. I don’t see “int … dx” as a pair of bookends with some expression in the middle. But that’s how Dedekind and Weierstrass layed the darned things out, from my perspective. And I hate that viewpoint.

    I was working on the very first successful re-writable CDROM, developing simulation software for optical systems so that they could avoid building things and could instead test some of them in simulation more cheaply and quickly. I’d been there just one week as a consultant and had asked a simple question on the work I was doing. Their lead optics guy answered me and walked away. But came back a half-hour later and demanded that I tell him “why” I asked that question. He called me into his office and we spoke. I felt weird and had no idea what had caused his agitation.

    It turns out that it had taken them almost a year and a half just to ask that question and he was upset that I’d just come in and saw it in less than a week working there. I had him show me on the board how they eventually saw it. And I was shocked. He could not see. He knew the rules. Knew the transforms and their constraints. But he could not *see* the transformations as highly visible geometric shapes and their evolution. It was like I could see shortcuts because these were visual things to me and he was poking around with a white cane.

    I’m autistic. I have two permanently disabled autistic children, as well. There are things about society that make no sense to me. Things that scare me a lot about irrational behaviors that make no sense to me. I’ve never been to a bar. I’ve never gone to a party. We don’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas or any other gatherings. I’ve never been to a barbeque. I cannot navigate social situations that don’t have well-understood roles. I’ve taught as a professor at the largest university in my state (Oregon.) And my class sizes were about 75 or so. But there the roles are well understood and codified. I feel as though I live in a world created by a different species of animal. And they scare me, at times. Times like now, especially.

    I have a few small strengths. Mostly, I have disabilities that bar access to much of what society offers. I leave my home perhaps once a month or so. When I was just 8, I wanted to be a “rocket ship pilot.” But not for usual reasons. But because I wanted to be as far from humans as I could possibly get and “outer space” was heaven in my mind. I later had to accept that wasn’t going to happen and decided to learn celestial navigation and sailing, as that was the best I could hope to achieve — 6 months at a time out in the Pacific ocean away from people. That also didn’t play out for me, despite it still captures my imagination. But for now, I just don’t go anywhere. Because people frankly scare me.

    If you want, read the two articles in Scientific American, November 2006, on mirror neurons:

  59. Tom,
    Maybe you can explain in what way that science has resolved the dilemma. One of the authors is also the author of the paper I discussed in the post, and my general impression that a lot of this scholarship will provide all sorts of criticisms of science communication, or the science-society interface, but never seems to really provide concrete examples of what could be done different, often seems to do the very thing they’re criticising, and doesn’t seem to consider this from the perspective of scientists who are trying to communicate. So, in what has this scholarship resolved the dilemma?

  60. Willard says:

    Thank you for your story, Jon.

    I’m on vacation right now, but I’ll see what I can do that would meet your request. Here’s a little something to get you going:

    This week, we look at a category of advertising that doesn’t try to sell you something. As a matter of fact, tries to get you to STOP doing something.

    Like littering. And smoking. And drinking & driving.

    And spilling secrets.

    I think the advertising industry have something better to sell than academic critics like the paper AT underlined. There is I’m sure good theorical work on persuasion and collective action, but I think you’re looking for something more empirically grounded. Correct?

  61. Jon Kirwan says:

    There is I’m sure good theorical work on persuasion and collective action…

    I’m not interested, much, in persuasion. There’s ample knowledge on shaping public opinion and persuasion. I don’t think that scientists should succumb (sink) to that level. When they leave their sphere of knowledge and sink into the mud-pits, they lose the battle before they begin. I’m much more interested in those cases where society is motivated to put time into their own learning because the science issues at hand are just that motivating to them.

    That’s what I consider to be a success.

    …but I think you’re looking for something more empirically grounded. Correct?

    I’m looking for predictive theory and supporting experimental result about successes where the intersection of science knowledge and social interest motivate society to put in the time and effort to advance their own knowledge and understanding. It’s happened in the past. But I want to understand what it takes. And I want it to be integrated within the processes of science. Not some disconnected blob of supposed knowledge, like reading tea leaves or tarot cards, which are completely untethered to the highly unified body of science knowledge (whether useful or not from time to time.)

    Side-bar: I look at science as Borg (from Star Trek.) Either it is Borg, or it is not-Borg. If it is integrated and unified with other science knowledge then it is Borg. If it is isolated and unsupported by science then it is not-Borg. This doesn’t mean that we might not yet come up with some other highly unified and self-supporting and internally consistent approach to knowledge. Perhaps some alien race may have done so. Who knows? But for now, science is all we have that is highly unified and integrated in a way that each piece supports, and is supported by, other pieces.

  62. Chubbs says:

    The last two posts/comments are a nice juxtaposition. Even communicating well established science can be a slog, when the message is resisted,

  63. Thomas Fuller says:

    ATTP, let’s start with an agreement that past and current communications by what I’m forced to label the ‘science establishment’ have not been directed at individuals to spur or reduce specific behavior with regards to climate change. There’s been a bit of ‘bike more’ and ‘insulate better,’ but most of that predates climate concerns, trying to deal with traffic jams and fuel availability.
    So I label that as a ‘problem’ that science should address by looking at past efforts to shape individual behavior.
    (A different problem with a different solution confronts those wishing to shape governmental policy, although trying to influence voter preferences with concerns about climate would be a part of it. Just not a huge part. A lobbying campaign apparently led by Naomi Oreskes and modeled after a ‘successful’ campaign against Big Tobacco was the first and major effort–successful in quotes because Big Tobacco sells more cigarettes now than before the campaign against them started.)
    Science could point to specific individual behaviors that would benefit the climate if changed–miles driven, adoption of EVs and solar panels, etc.
    Oh, wait–science has!
    Science would then look at efforts to get people to stop smoking, moderate their drinking, change the behaviors of pregnant women, stimulate exercise, etc.
    Oh, but wait–science has!
    On smoking:
    On behavior of pregnant women:
    On drinking behavior:
    This comment is way too long. Sorry. I’m sure you guys will figure it all out in due course.

  64. Willard says:

    > I want to understand what it takes.


  65. Willard says:

    > Even communicating well established science can be a slog, when the message is resisted

    It is always a slog. Analogies always break down. Models are not theories. Classifiers for what we take as natural kinds keep changing. Words can’t replace equations. Equations can’t replace words either. That’s notwithstanding cognitive inclinations, social cues, and all other aspects we can’t abstract away. And in the end people should remain free to buy in what you say or not.

    It takes at least two channels to communicate. Without being able to adjust it with feedback, the message would need to be universal. The quest for universal messaging seems a bit silly, if you ask me. The best we could come up with might be traffic signs. Even then there are problems, for instance the Japanese have a different conception of what’s green:

    In most of the world, red means stop, orange means caution and green means go. But Japan is notably not a signatory of the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals standardizing such things. Instead, Japanese stoplights (whether greenish blue or bluish green) have been called “blue” in official documents for nearly 100 years. Color vision tests for drivers even use red, yellow and blue. Over time, linguists and urbanists raised questions: should lights be made blue as their description suggests, or should they be accurately called green?

    Otto Neurath was the Austrian philosopher behind the idea of an isotype. That the Convention on Road signs was declared in Vienna might not have been an accident, pun intended. Related to my earlier point, he once compared science to Theseus’ boat:

    We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

    To picture communication as something that could be “scientized” is all well and good, but we need to accept that it can’t be a rational process all the way down to an immutable core.

  66. Tom,

    Science would then look at efforts to get people to stop smoking, moderate their drinking, change the behaviors of pregnant women, stimulate exercise, etc.

    Except this wasn’t simply scientists deciding to promote these particular behaviour changes. There were strong societal mandates to do so. Even though there are move to encourage people to install heat pumps, drive EVs, use more public transport, walk/cycle more, eat less meat, etc, there still doesn’t appear to be the strong societal mandate that would justify science communicators focussing on these specific issues.

    Also, I’m not convinced that this is the role of science communicators specifically. Once there is a move to encourage some kind of societal change (smoking less, for example) it seems that there are often publicly-funded campaigns to encourage these changes. Some involved may well be scientists, but it becomes more of a marketing exercise, than science communication.

    Also, as I think Joshua was implying, if scientists did take it upon themselves to decide what people should do and decided to focus their activities on encouraging these changes, then they’d probably be described as activists who were underminning the public’s trust in science. Of course, if they don’t, then they face the criticisms that you’re levelling at them. Just can’t win really.

  67. Jon Kirwan says:

    This shouldn’t be about scientists deciding for others what they should do. Or about scientists avoiding molesting others by instead choosing to stay in their ivory towers, twiddling dials and rolling balls down inclined planes. It should be about how to inspire the lay public to engage themselves to pursue more science knowledge. I don’t know how to do that. I’d like to know.

    Let me relate another true story about my own life. I wanted very much to have a telescope. But at the time, there was no low cost mass manufactured marketplace. Certainly not anything like there is today. And at the time, there were at least five active publications (I bought a subscription to all of them) directed strictly towards hobbyists interested in building their own. Just looking over my shoulder, right now, I can see one of my early books on the topic (other than the obvious 3-volume Amateur Telescope Making set): Jean Texereau’s 2nd edition of “How to Make a Telescope”, which was the part I needed most at the time in order to access the knowledge I also found in the Amateur Telescope Making series (which is in many places harder to understand for a young boy.)

    At the time, there were about 20 different suppliers of glass in hobbyist quantities, of varying glass types, and varying qualities. I bought from many of them. I spend, literally, thousands and thousands of hours making my first telescope. Then my second. And finally, a third. All this before I reached 20 yrs of age.

    Here’s the funny thing about the story. At the time I spent the peak of my time here, both designing as well as building telescopes and eyepieces and grinding mind boggling amounts of glass, I lived in a rural area where the properties were large enough to have a number of cows and horses and orchards. My grandma lived near me on 8 hectares of filbert trees (and a hectare of apples.) That’s the environment there. Small population density. Got that? And yet, two of my friends at the time from school had parents who themselves were making and building their own telescopes. One of them had gone so far as to build this magnificent machine from belts and pulleys and motors that would automatically grind mirrors from blanks!! And this was basically out in farm lands.

    There were lots of glass suppliers for me. Lots of just lay people around me to talk to, to learn from, when I wanted to make a telescope for myself that I could not otherwise afford to have. There were periodicals, as well. All of this in support of helping an eager public to learn more and to be engaged as hobbyist scientists.

    Where is all that today? Gone!

    No suppliers of hobbyist quantities of glass. The last time I called Jaegers (about 15 years ago), they didn’t understand my question and wondered to me, “How many tons of that glass did you want?” I then explained that I’m just wanting to re-engage in an old hobby and they used to help me … back in the day. They let me down gently that they don’t cater to that market anymore because there is no market.

    What about those neighbors? All gone. No one makes their own telescope anymore.

    What about those periodicals that I still have piles of here? All dead and gone and nothing else to replace them.

    What about the books that were being published and sold to such a market? Well I did run across one that I immediately bought: “Telescope Optics: Evaluation and Design: A COmprehensive Manual for Amateur Astronomers” by Rutten and van Venrooij. It’s not exactly a telescope construction book, though. More about design.

    People were engaged then. In hindsight, I can see that the development and expansion of cheap commercially available telescopes had a huge impact. But the result is that one knows only how to buy one. But they understand very very little about what they have in their hands and they therefore cannot really contribute nearly as well as hobbyist scientists since they don’t have a clue what errors their instruments possess and how those errors affect the images they collect. They’ve no idea because they have never had to sit down and figure a mirror, for example. Never seen what these errors look like, unless they are gross and obvious.

    So the base of knowledge held in the lay public today is nothing like it was, when I was a child.

    But there was a time when people put aside watching television or playing with their cell phones (should they have had any) and spent their evening time learning science knowledge, first hand.

    It happened.

    I was there.

    Anyone remember when a grocery store would have a vacuum tube tester located near the entry doors where you could take tubes from your TV set and check them out as well as buy replacements? Yup. People actually learned about opening up their TV sets (which were NOT all that safe with 25 kV floating around inside with circuits that didn’t have modern safety features) and find tubes and then work to do their own “fixing,” where possible. Didn’t shirk away from the idea. In fact, they just up and did it when they needed to do so.

    How is it that there was a time when people spent their own evenings working on projects which exposed them to science and science knowledge and where they actually learned some things. Not superficially. But viscerally. In their bones.

    What has happened?


  68. Joshua says:

    > Just can’t win really.

    Or, from another angle “skeptics” can never lose. Heterodox binary thinking, by definition, always opens doorways to a victory.

    Because the goal and only acceptable outcome is winning, being a winner.

    If you have to win then there has to be a loser. Or alternatively, if by definition there’s a loser and that loser (by definition) is always someone else then you always win. Rinse and repeat.

  69. russellseitz says:

    ATTP: In the eight years since President Obama’s Executive Order13707 established” behavioral science insights” as a basis of policy implimentation, some climate science literature has encouraged the embrace of behavioral science-based political tools.

    For example, in Climatic Change April, 2019 Ashley Bieniek-Tobasco Sabrina McCormick Rajiv N. Rimal Cherise B. Harrington Madelyn Shafer & Hina Shaikh advocate:

    Communicating climate change through documentary film: imagery, emotion, and efficacy
    We used qualitative in-depth interviews to evaluate the effects of a mass media climate change program on audiences… Weak efficacy beliefs limited intentions to enact concrete behavioral change. Outcome expectations, national-level actions, imagery, and emotional responses to stories played an important role in these processes. Explicit information about expected outcomes of various actions, and specifically successes, should be provided in order to boost efficacy and incentivize behavior.
    Recommendations for documentary filmmakers
    …Very explicit actions and their benefits must be articulated in order to impact motivation to change a behavior. This is grounded in behavior change theories like social cognitive theory and the theory of planned behavior… the importance of compelling stories and evocative cinematic imagery should not be ignored.

    Our participants found these elements particularly important for engagement and interest in the viewing experience which likely enhanced the attitude and behavior-related outcomes which aligns with work on the impact of emotion, enjoyment, and transportation on persuasive outcomes …future work should assess the role of the politicization of climate change on audience response to documentary information and whether celebrity-driven narratives encourage engagement with the issue or create further obstacles.”

  70. mrkenfabian says:

    “- let’s start with an agreement that past and current communications by what I’m forced to label the ‘science establishment’ have not been directed at individuals to spur or reduce specific behavior with regards to climate change.”

    The IPCC reports – most of the science based reports – are by government request, in order to inform their policy making; the media, the general public and various organisations and interests may be given full access but were never intended to be the primary recipients. The scientists aren’t so much choosing to aim their communications at governments as complying with their job description to do so.

  71. Jon Kirwan, I did lots of home-made electronics, hang-gliders, etc. I noticed a video a few weeks ago, somebody essentially constructing an integrated circuit with all the tools you would use in a clean room fab facility. He does many of these garage videos:

    It certainly is sophisticated but not sure how amazing it is. Many college EE departments offer a microelectronics lab, which have been ongoing for 40 years now. Once the process is down, it’s like following a recipe. Yet, it does take some initiative to do what this kid took on.

  72. izen says:

    “How is it that there was a time when people spent their own evenings working on projects which exposed them to science and science knowledge and where they actually learned some things. Not superficially. But viscerally. In their bones.
    What has happened?

    Despite the western emphasis on ‘individualism’ there has been a strengthening of institutional and cooperate influences. People doing their own repairs or working on their own devices has largely been replaced with company systems. this is partly due to the increasing complexity of the devices people have, but mainly due to the profit that can be made by replacing induvial action with corporate intervention.

    This is also where the focus on science communication and academic criticism misses the point. It matters little how many individual persons are persuaded to accept the science when there are companies and businesses that act in ‘theiir’ own interests to further turnover and profit without any reference to scientific facts or long term implications

    The task of science communication is not to persuade individuals in the current economic system, but to change the approach of large companies to take on board the science and its implications.
    Unfortunately this would involve a systemic change in the underlying structure of the corporate world view. The scientists within the major fossil fuel producers were aware of the implications of emitting large amounts of CO2 by the late seventies. But that had no impact of the actions of the business they worked within, except to promote action by some of those companies to cast doubt and disparagement on that science.

  73. Jon Kirwan says:


    (That’s what my browser copied from your post. I hope the lettering isn’t highly distorted.)

    I’ve built a small FAB for testing instrumentation I was developing for non-contact temperature measurement in commercial FABs and designed for companies like Applied Materials in the US. Mine was made from a quartz chamber, halogen lamp heated, water cooled jacket, nickel plated for reflection as I could not afford gold. And I still remember the Bell Labs kit for making a solar cell at home, from childhood experience. This one:

    What I avoided, when working with my small “garage” chamber, was gases such as silane, phosphine, and arsine — all of which were in regular use by the FABs I’d visit. Those gases are insanely dangerous.

    (I have some fun stories to tell about the crazy things done in and around FABs with respect to these gases, as well as a crazy story about the laws in the US when transporting them from State to State. Cross-border laws were quite different than within-border laws. And where you had to account for every single microgram within my State, once received, there was NOTHING to prevent a supplier from shipping me a canister of arsine TO MY HOME, so long as the transport crossed a State boundary. … And it actually happened that way, once that I saw.)

    (I was very much into ultralights, by the way. When plans for the Weedhopper first became available from a location near Mt. Shasta in California, I snapped them up. More stories here, I guess, for another day.)

  74. Jon Kirwan says:

    The task of science communication is not to persuade individuals in the current economic system, but to change the approach of large companies to take on board the science and its implications.

    I would suppose the actual goals are up to those who are sufficiently motivated to expend themselves to take up such tasks.

    But this topic (as I gathered it) is about the science-society interface. And at that moment I was mostly addressing myself to a thought (floated by Thomas as a negative-sounding idea) about scientists telling societies what they should and should not do.

    You may be in the process of changing the conversation as I saw it. Which may be my mistake.

  75. izen says:


    My comments were directed at Thomas as much as you. I find his concentration on the individual as the only component of society that needs to be addressed shallow.
    I guess I am trying to change, or at least expand, the conversation to include larger entities within the society that science needs to address.

  76. Thomas Fuller says:

    Mr. Kirwan

    It is understandable–to me at least–that you would lament the loss of skills involved in the manufacture of home telescopes, with the greater understanding such hands-on involvement confers.

    But the modern societal response to that is that it is a great blessing that anyone with $50 or $500 can buy a telescope in a store, rather than spend months and large sums building one. And again, modern society would say that, carried to an (admittedly absurd) extreme, building all of the artifacts we surround ourselves with, from pencils to computers, would be a bit time consuming and result in the loss of comparative advantage which is the foundation of much of society’s wealth.

    We do lose a lot of intimate knowledge and respect for life by buying meat wrapped in plastic rather than butchering our own cattle. I’m not denying the loss. But I’m not going out to buy land, cattle or a knife, either.

  77. Thomas Fuller says:

    If I may respond to Izen and Mr. Kirwen thinking I am concentrating on the individual, I don’t see Paul Kelly commenting much anymore–he is an activist in Chicago (I think) who has been motivating people to ‘green up’ their lifestyles through insulation energy efficiency, solar, EVs, etc. He commented frequently here and on other climate blogs a few years back.

    I always supported his efforts–as you might expect, many of the most concerned of the Climate Concerned gave him a lot of guff, saying he was distracting from the large scale efforts they felt were needed to address climate change.

    But I supported him. Not because I really believe that a few dozen households in Chicago are going to reduce our emissions, but because I believe individual actions, when they reach scale, send governments, manufacturers and the rest of the population a powerful message on what policies to adopt, what gadgets to produce and what your neighbor values.

    I miss Paul.

  78. Jon Kirwan, I would say that beryllium and hydrogen flouride gas are the two most dangerous substances in terms of scare stories. So many people with HF burns on their arms.
    Haven’t used gases such as arsine, etc but lots of solid arsenic. The arsenic chunks were too large to fit into a crucible so what happened was that we would have to use pliers to crush the pieces, using a plastic bag around our hands to catch all the shards that would break off. Did get my blood tested for arsenic levels and nothing registered.

    I have made all sorts of contraptions such as wafer polishers using a record turntable, and optical micro-focussers for photometers relating to your telescope lens-grinding stories. And of course rock polishers when I was a kid, with all the grit sizings — who would have thought that the polishing grit scaled to wafer grade?

  79. izen says:


    “But I supported him. Not because I really believe that a few dozen households in Chicago are going to reduce our emissions, but because I believe individual actions, when they reach scale, send governments, manufacturers and the rest of the population a powerful message on what policies to adopt, what gadgets to produce and what your neighbor values.”

    So you you really believe it is easier to persuade a quarter of a million people, 10% of the Chicago population, to change their habits than to change the practices of one company, ComEd, to reduce its CO2 emissions by 10% ?!
    I do understand that people are susceptible to rational argument and emotional appeals in a way that a business is not. But that just means that regulation of companies is critical in getting them to act in a rational way. Instead of simply seeking to maximise profit.

  80. Thomas Fuller says:

    Oh, Izen… sigh…

    Well, in answer to your question, yes, I do. By an order of magnitude it is easier to persuade a quarter of a million people to adopt habits that will a) save them money, b) help the environment and c) save them money than it is to a) institute regulations on ComEd or b) get them to violate their oath to their stakeholders by not making as much of a profit as it is in their power to do so.

    Haven’t we seen the evidence for this? If it were easy to persuade the fossil fuel industry, wouldn’t they have been persuaded? If it were difficult to persuade citizen consumers, would we really have so many electric vehicles on the road, so many solar panels on rooftops and so many insulated windows?

  81. izen says:


    ” a) institute regulations on ComEd or b) get them to violate their oath to their stakeholders by not making as much of a profit as it is in their power to do so.”

    Electric vehicles represent less than 1% of US road users, rooftop solar panels are less than 0.5% of households, most double glazing is the result of building regulations.

    Your assumption that the profitability of ComEd or any similar enterprise has absolute priority would seem to be undermined by the building regulations that have for the last 30 years almost ensured double glazing to meet insulation standards.
    It is an assumption that puts corporate profitability ahead of human welfare.
    It needs to go.

  82. izen says:


    I do understand that persuading ten times as many individuals to invest in an electric vehicle or rooftop solar despite the increased initial capital outlay probably being offset by the lower running cost at around the time the vehicle or solar panels become inefficient is acceptable socially. It contravenes none of the underlying structures of the consumer society.

    But given the increasing urgency of the impacts of climate change I would suggest a more radical approach. Persuade the employees of ComEd or similar businesses to collaborate and act collectively to force the corporations they work for to adopt low CO2 emission policies. Even if that represents a threat to the shibboleth of profitability. In the US this is especially difficult as worker collaboration is seen as wrong and any questioning of company profitability in favour of human welfare as ‘socialism’.
    But given the urgency of the situation it is the only way to ensure the required social change in time to stop warming to greater than two degrees C.
    Persuading individuals to change their buying habits is not going to cut it. Persuading the multinational enterprises to change their ways can.

  83. Thomas Fuller says:

    Well, Izen, I guess my point got lost in the shuffle or else we’re just fated to disagree. I don’t see politicians or regulators lining up to demand behaviors from multinational enterprises. Where it has happened–such as in Germany–the people went there first. The Green Party predated Merkel and Energiewiende. Other examples are available.

  84. Izen says “But given the increasing urgency of the impacts of climate change I would suggest a more radical approach.”

    The urgency does seem to be increasing a bit, but until folks like TWF and the GOP, in general, start to talk about the need for urgent action, I think we are wasting our time. Talking about the urgent need to make changes has not worked in my experience. It creates lots of pushback. I think we have to reduce or stop talking about urgency and wait for the conservative groups to stop reacting to our discussion and advocacy. We need those groups and individuals to start getting worried enough to take over the ‘urgent change needed’ message. We can and should pursue the personal elements of reducing our carbon footprint, but the impact is going to be slight through personal action. Bigger changes with large impacts will have to be public policy changes at nation state level. As long as a big footprint nationstate, like the US as an example, resists or refuses to make public policy changes, we are just acting in a graceful manner when we cut our personal carbon footprints. Some call that virtue signaling, but I think that is kinda derogatory framing and I prefer to think about that as living in grace, being graceful and gracious. Lots of us have been doing lots of that work on cutting personal carbon footprint for many years and still global emissions continue at levels that suggest urgency to many of us.

    The clear signal that a nationstate is taking this seriously might be seen in many ways, but a carbon tax is the most easily recognizable signal. I am ok with the idea of a carbon tax. I would like to see it setup as carbon tax and dividend with the dividend directed to addressing income inequality within a nationstate as the most important component. A secondary component might be directing tax revenues to the cost of scaling up a low carbon footprint energy system within a nationstate that collects carbon tax revenue. But my dreams for a carbon dividend go nowhere until there is a carbon tax and I can predict that there will be strong arguments made to provide tax breaks as the most logical way to distribute any revenue generated. The corporate tax rate and the personal tax rate for the top earners causes some folks a lot of concern.

    Maybe a carbon tax is happening in a lot of places? I don’t think it is happening in the nationstate where I live, the USA. I think the USA has a sort of largish carbon footprint by some accountings, but that might be offset by all the good stuff we have done for other nationstates around the globe over the past 80 years. I am told we have been a real force for good on the planet.

    When the conservative groups start to talk about urgent change needed, folks like TWF will claim they have been urging radical change all along. I will chuckle when that happens, but I am eager to see it happen. Nothing changes until the GOP and Joe Manchin feels the carbon emission problem has become urgent.


  85. Jon Kirwan says:

    I’m not denying the loss.

    I’m glad you don’t deny it. Because the rapidly increasing disconnect between what is consumed and used and the knowledge needed to conceptualize, design, and then manufacture and distribute those consumed items, in large part through the efficiencies and power of market forces and their drive towards more urban populations in their service, coupled with the availability of effectively “free energy” (which is what fossil fuels actually represent) to power it and the resulting rapidly growing population base both needed and generated in concert, has had and continues to have increasingly profound implications regarding how far the lay population in advanced nations may go in ignoring, setting aside, and disrespecting scientific knowledge.

    Their disconnect from reality is itself a key part of the problem. And it is why I’ve been zeroed in on the question of what it takes to re-engage. Or if that is even possible.

    Your admission supports my mission here.

  86. Jon Kirwan says:

    I also agree with Izen, that there are other potential interfaces to be found within the way that western countries are currently constituted in terms of private/public property ownership, wealth distribution, political power and control, democratic avenues as they find themselves from place to place, and their varying social support systems.

    In short, it may be more effective focusing also on the evident accumulated centers of wealth, power, and control found both within and beyond various systems of state. (Which not just arguably, but demonstrably, have far more wealth, power, and latitude for action than governments do — another long discussion there, though.)

    But I frankly don’t see a way to thread the needle to avoid unspeakable outcomes. I’ve concluded that humans are incapable of the necessary discussions and cooperation and that nature will resolve these issues soon enough on its own. And that the last act of the play will imitate and be indistinguishably different than that of bacteria in a petri dish.

  87. Jon Kirwan says:

    Scanning backwards, I think we’ve marked out the broader perimeters and some of the arguments within. I don’t have much more to add.

    There are many facets and it is very easy to be selective about the plane chosen to slice through the problem-space, limiting the perspectives offered and therefore also the value of answers so reached (when limited to such planes of consideration.)

    A truly comprehensive discussion that does not lose sight of any of the important and compounding issues, technical and otherwise, and keeps all of them in play is exactly what must happen if we are to thread the needle to avoid unspeakable results. And this has to happen at global scope; not at some synoptic or mesoscale. Yet such a truly comprehensive discussion is very difficult (putting it mildly) to sincerely engage.

    People will be selective about the data they consider. But it is also obvious then when one is allowed to be selective, then they could soundly conclude that the Earth is flat or that it is located at the very center of the entire universe (or both.)

    Cast in the light of principle components analysis for illustration, a consequence of selectivity about facts considered may find quite different principle components as the more important ones.

    We simply aren’t up to these challenges. We like to think we are. And as I earlier foreshadowed, we will collectively live in denial (as we must to remain sane) until the very last moments when that changes to surprise as the inevitable arrives to our collective consciousness.

    Denial is very powerful. We aren’t able to set it aside to face facts, squarely; not broadly or long enough to then also reason and act soundly in response at global scales.

    Just not going to happen.

    A quote from Wooster College psychology professor, Susan Clayton:

    “No matter how bad things are, they can always be worse.”

    True enough.

    Perhaps that is to be our epithet.

  88. JK says: “I frankly don’t see a way to thread the needle to avoid unspeakable outcomes. I’ve concluded that humans are incapable of the necessary discussions and cooperation and that nature will resolve these issues soon enough on its own.”

    That is not a cheery assessment, but I think it is accurate. I would love to be wrong about that for the sake of my children, grandchildren and great grandchild.


  89. Jon Kirwan says:

    That is not a cheery assessment, but I think it is accurate. I would love to be wrong about that for the sake of my children, grandchildren and great grandchild.

    One can mentally do two things at once: (1) remain ever-tentative, as knowledge about reality must obviously be open to future evidence, while (2) also being able to find and reach conclusions when the current weight of evidence warrants, if not outright demands, it from us. This is just about being honest with one’s self and struggling to avoid self-deception — to find the courage to face what overwhelming evidence tells us.

    We are able to simultaneously and rationally reach conclusions while remaining tentative to what the future brings (and being wrong about those conclusions.)

    It is a failing, not a grace, to be unwilling to face facts and that failing would make for a poorer scientist than a better one.

    And yes, my own grandchildren (all of them) live here with me. Similar thoughts are ever in my mind.

  90. Willard says:

    As far as facing facts is concerned, Jon, here would be something for you to consider:

    Let’s embrace crappiness.

    The Pursuit of Crappiness

    The world will never be like we wish it should be.

  91. anoilman says:


  92. Dave_Geologist says:

    Ah yes, good old concentrated HF. Diluted with H2SO4, mind. In a glass-fronted fume cupboard too, because the fumes had wrecked the extractor fan in the plastic-fronted one. At least we had an alarmed deluge shower and an eye spray for emergencies.

    On a different tack, I used to build lots of home electronics. Parts mostly from an army-surplus store so I had access to mil-spec power transistors that could be overdriven at 200% for my amplifiers. The killer for me was the advent of microprocessors and what we’d now call SOCs (off-the shelf pre-amp modules). It got boring when it became assembly, not construction and often design or design tweaks; and, per Tom, when it took ten times as long and cost ten times as much to do it the interesting way.

    Nice bait-and-switch BTW Tom. Didn’t work though. Cigarette sales in the USA. Halved, more than halved when you account for population growth. In the epicentre of Freedom Fighterdom too. Guess those fighting skills, and the corporations’ lobbying skills, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Hey, maybe we could learn something from that success?

    Ah, but you’ll say, worldwide sales. So why then the Freedom Fighters’ bête noire, Naomi Oreskes? How much influence does she and her like have in India, China, Russia or Kazakhstan? And even globally, at least pre-pandemic, it was pretty flat. Falling in women, plateauing in men. Historically, just above population growth, and just below GDP growth. And during nearly the past two decades, overall global tobacco use has fallen, from 1.397 billion in 2000 to 1.337 billion in 2018, or by approximately 60 million people. Despite a 15% increase in global population. Presumably smokers in poor countries are smoking more as they can afford more, but there are progressively fewer recruits.

    I suppose it’s not just the one Truth that’s just too Inconvenient for some.

  93. Dave_Geologist says:

    Re colour perception Willard: this podcast is well worth a listen. The Life Scientific- Anya Hurlbert On Seeing Colour.

    Enter her name in Google Scholar and you’ll find lots of papers, including on The Dress.

    One suggestion there is that the colours lie on the same 2D trend in the RGB spectrum as the range of light sources we encounter daily. The brain automatically adjusts so that we perceive the same colour for a known object indoors and outdoors, sunshine or cloud. Presumably the brain normally derives cues from off that trend that help it “choose” the “right” illumination.

  94. Thomas Fuller says:

    Ah, Dave… sigh… there are more places on this planet than the U.S.

    Depending on when you place the beginning of the anti-smoking campaign, you see the following:

    1970: 3,260 billion cigarettes per year
    1980: 4,453 b.c.
    1990: 5,328 b.c
    2000: 5,711 b.c.
    2020: 5,884 b.c.

    And those figures don’t include e-cigarettes, vaping, gum, patches or chewing tobacco/snuff.

    Curious, though–what was the bait and what was the switch?

  95. Dave_Geologist says:

    Ah, Tom… sigh… I know there are more places on this planet than the U.S. Hence the “global” bit.

    Bait, Tom: claim of an increase despite the efforts of the likes of Oreskes. I ask again: how much influence does she and her like have in India, China, Russia or Kazakhstan? Although AFAICS the actual effort was somewhere between 90% and 99% from public health agencies, tobacco taxes, measures like location-based smoking bans, and cancer-focused charities, not anti-corporate Culture Warriors.

    The switch was that in those countries like the USA or UK where that’s been going on for decades, the campaigns worked: to say they didn’t you have to go global, to developing countries where those campaigners had no real voice.

    There’s a second switch in your follow-up: ignoring population growth, especially in those developing countries where the tobacco majors sell most of their stuff these days. The null hypothesis should be that more cigarettes are sold because there are more people to buy them. To impute causation, whether to wealth increase, public-health campaigns, advertising, corporate lobbying and dirty tricks, etc., you have to demonstrate an effect beyond the null hypothesis. Even then you have to allow for possible confounders: for example, did corporate pressure or outright bribery limit advertising bans and keep tobacco taxes low, to the extent that the public-health campaigns were blunted. IOW absent those campaigns, would smoking still be rising rapidly, like it did in rich countries in the 1950s, instead of being more-or-less static?

    You also have to recognise when choosing a start point (1998, anyone?), that nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs out there and that my father’s generation routinely started in their early teens and continued for 50 or 60 years. And, TBH, mine, because I was 15 in 1970 but never started smoking, despite (or perhaps because of) 20-a-day parents. The best way to stop smoking is not to start. There’s a long tail of addicts for whom quitting is really hard, even if they’re intellectually persuaded of the message. There are some nice analogies there with climate change: for example the 50 year life of a power station or the 20 year life of a car or truck, and an unwillingness to prematurely retire investments; and committed warming in the pipeline (see my duvet comment in the previous thread).

  96. Thomas Fuller says:

    Dave, I am one of those addicts who found it really hard. But I’m proud that I did quit 14 years ago. I lost several family members to smoking and am no fan of the vice.

    I do find it difficult to understand that you can basically ignore the fact that American and English tobacco companies accepted their loss in those two countries with as much grace as they could muster because they had already turned their attention to the rest of the world. They, much like you in your comment, did the math on disposable income, rates of adoption, demographics, etc., and were correct in their estimates of future sales and profits.

    I don’t blame Naomi Oreskes for being part of the movement against smoking. I blame her for either not noticing the rest of the world or just quitting too soon. Setting their sights too low.

    There are some nice analogies to climate change in that, too. Like focusing so much attention on the developed world and waiting for some deus ex machina to solve the larger issue–the growing demand for energy in Asia, Africa and Latin America. (Not implying that you are doing so–just something I see in the world around me.)

    Be well and happy, Dave. I am not interested in a blog fight with you or anyone else.

  97. Jon Kirwan says:

    Persuading individuals to change their buying habits is not going to cut it. Persuading the multinational enterprises to change their ways can.

    Just had an opinion piece rammed down my throat by google news’ AI machine. I guess the AI thinks I must like CNN, though I don’t often read or listen.

    The body of the author’s text addresses and then sequentially disposes of ideas to gain some traction for action.

    The author finally concludes:

    None of that, unfortunately, has been persuasive.
    At least to those with the power to change the global economy.

  98. Ben McMillan says:

    The tobacco stuff reminds me of the people on twitter who claim that if the Keeling curve is going up, that means actions to reduce emissions have failed. Counterfactuals: you need them.

    I find myself noting the similarities between people who don’t want any action to make things better, and those who would like some, but think it is essentially impossible. Instead of identifying things that might work, they specialise in criticising the actions of people who are trying to improve things.

    Being unable to distinguish between more or less effective interventions on policy, because you think they are all futile, and just being ideologically opposed to any policy at all, are pretty much functionally equivalent.

    This is much like the end goal of the misinformation strategy of some dictators, where the goal is to poison the waters so much that people are just completely cynical about everything, so are unable to effectively oppose them.

  99. Jon Kirwan says:

    Another article which hits deeply home for me. Not sure how well it hits home for a continental area that has been well-developed for centuries now (EU.) But it hits deeply in my heart as I’ve seen, in my short life, the changes described by this author writing for the New Yorker:

    When the Spanish first sailed into San Francisco Bay, in the late seventeen-hundreds, the water was so clear that a sailor could look over the side of a ship and see shoals of fish swimming at the bottom. The noise made by salmon at night, as they migrated up nearby streams, was loud enough to keep people awake, and there were so many ducks, geese, pelicans, cranes, and other birds that when they took flight they darkened the sky. Elk, deer, antelope, beavers, and grizzly bears were abundant. The hills surrounding the bay were covered by ancient forests. The Central Valley—California’s most productive agricultural region, which runs much of the length of the state, between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Ranges—was a lush seasonal wetland.
    All of that began to change in 1848, when a carpenter who was helping to build a sawmill for a Swiss immigrant named John Sutter noticed something glittering in the mill’s tailrace: the beginning of the California gold rush. An emergent mining technique involved shoveling gravel and dirt into an open-ended trough, called a sluice box, then running water over it. Gold is so dense that it settles into riffles in the bottoms of the sluice boxes as the lighter material is washed away. Miners soon realized that they could get rich quicker if they built bigger troughs and increased the volume and speed of the water. They diverted mountain streams into wooden flumes and broad pipes, then used canvas hoses with iron nozzles to aim the resulting water jets at entire hillsides. That technique was called hydraulic mining. The water jets were so powerful that, according to contemporary reports, they could kill people standing two hundred feet away. Samuel Bowles, an influential New England newspaperman (who was also a friend of Emily Dickinson’s and an early reader of her poems), visited the Sierra foothills in the eighteen-sixties. “Tornado, flood, earthquake and volcano combined could hardly make greater havoc, spread wider ruin and wreck, than are to be seen everywhere in the path of the larger gold-washing operations,” he wrote. Hundreds of millions of tons of sediment were pushed downstream, burying some farmland as far away as the Delta.

    I was born in Oregon when its population was about 1.5 million, over an expanse almost exactly as large as the entire UK (250,000 km^2.) As a boy and teenager I grew up in the largest metro area in Oregon; an area spanning from Tigard in the south, north to Portland, east to Gresham and west to Hillsboro, which held perhaps 0.75 million people of the 1.9 million state population, by then. Even living in the densest population center, I could ride my bike to the sloughs near the Portland International airport (west of it) and dip a pickle jar into the water to get perhaps a couple dozen guppies and tadpoles/pollywogs in a single scoop. I would visit the Sandy river, during the times when the smelt would run, and dip a bucket into the water (or two) and have in just minutes enough fish to last me for many months’ time. There is little left of the sloughs, and what remains has no remaining fish or amphibians. It smells stale and rotten. The Sandy river? Still beautiful. But I’ve not seen any smelt. Not even when they run. Certainly not literally covering the river surface as I remember from youth. It’s gone.

    I now own land that is large enough to feature deer, mountain lion, four species of squirrels (one of them a wonderfully soft-furred Northern Flying squirrel that is nocturnal and pleasant natured when held in hand), pileated woodpeckers, bioluminescent fungi, bioluminescent beetles, and bioluminescent millipedes, as well as small rabbits, coyotes, etc. But the life here is also dwindling rapidly, too. As I watch.

    The above article includes this about the water situation in California:

    There are so many agencies, overlapping constituencies, interest groups, and simmering historical antagonisms that implementing comprehensive remedies to the biggest problems has, so far, proved to be impossible, even as those same problems have grown more dire. Farmers in the Delta sometimes worry that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and homeowners in Los Angeles are out to screw them, and vice versa. Politicians act as though they hope disaster will hold off until the day after they’ve left office. In 2011, a report published by the Public Policy Institute offered a grim diagnosis: “The result is often a game of ‘chicken,’ where the management of a declining resource becomes deadlocked.” Lund, who co-wrote that report, told me, “Everybody is watching this thing decay, but nobody wants to be the first to offer a compromise, because that weakens their negotiating position.” The ocean, meanwhile, continues to rise, and the fields continue to sink.

    The story about water told by this author is metaphorical to my life’s story here in Oregon. Been there, seen that.

    Worth reading.

  100. Jon Kirwan says:

    I find myself noting the similarities between people who don’t want any action to make things better, and those who would like some, but think it is essentially impossible.

    The similarity is superficial. Besides, the dichotomy fails. And easy-handed caricatures makes it far too easy to think not as closely as perhaps one should, I fear.

    Being unable to distinguish between more or less effective interventions on policy, because you think they are all futile, and just being ideologically opposed to any policy at all, are pretty much functionally equivalent.

    But that’s you putting words in others’ mouths. Not the actual case in every situation.

    There is also the ability to discern, which it appears from your writing you fail to allow.

    There are many who are unable to discern. No question.

    But there are some (engineers, perhaps if I might offer such as myself) who are able to make difficult discernments. In fact, it is our business in trade to make such complex judgments based upon theory, experimental result, and a variety of difficult to navigate boundary issues that also constrain the engineering problems at hand.

    Not everyone fits into box A or box B. Much as you may wish it. Some may be in box C.

  101. Dave_Geologist says:

    I don’t want to flog a dead horse either Tom. And congratulations on giving up smoking

    I do find it difficult to understand though how I can basically ignore a fact that I never ignored. Indeed I pointed out that sales growth since the anti-smoking campaigns in developed countries has depended on expansion in developing countries. But the Is-Ought dichotomy applies. Just because I highlight an observation, that doesn’t mean I approve of it, or the marketing efforts and corporate cynicism that enabled it. Which efforts are a pretty clear sign that the manufacturers agree with me: that those campaigns which allegedly didn’t work, did in fact work. BTW no-one who observed the lobbying, foot-dragging, front organisations and spurious arguments deployed as the net was tightened step-by-step, at least in the UK, could possibly buy the line that the tobacco manufactures were reconciled to losing most of their UK market and walked away content.

    And inferentially my WHO quote, implies that someone, somewhere was not ignoring that fact. Either that or those developing countries have residents who are smarter and more health-conscious than we were.

    The climate analogy is an imperfect one. I hope we can all agree that efforts to reduce smoking in developing countries, by the WHO and others, are a good thing. The climate version is trickier: do we have the right to tell Chinese or Indian citizens living somewhere hotter than Houston that for the sake of the planet they shouldn’t install air conditioning, when most of the CO2 debt is ours, and many of us are driving SUVs in cities? No-one is ignoring those developing countries. Read any IPCC, IEA or BP report. It’s a question of equity. The USA’s carbon footprint per head is double China’s, six times Brazil’s, ten time’s India’s and thirty times Nigeria’s. More to the point, it’s almost three times the UK’s. Are USAnian’s lives three times better than UK lives? Some of us can make a small percentage sacrifice but have a big impact.

    Yes there are special circumstances: the USA is a big, spread-out place, the UK is smaller than most US States. But China’s emissions are high in part because we’ve outsourced so much manufacturing. We own some of that CO2, and most of Maersk’s CO2.

  102. Thomas Fuller says:

    Dave, I’m with you on our responsibility for shipping CO2, but not on China’s. If they weren’t manufacturing our toys and plumbing supplies, do you really think they’d be sitting around on chairs, not emitting CO2?

  103. Dave_Geologist says:

    Back to colour perception. Colour Vision: Understanding #TheDress is well worth a read, along with the three linked papers in the same issue. All four are short, fascinating and open-access. There’s an analogy there to communication efforts: Deficit Model thinking 😉 . The Dress is in isolation. If you saw it in a tungsten-lit bedroom, a fluorescent-lit shop, on a sunny beach or a misty lakeside, you’d get additional clues as to where on the yellow-blue spectrum the illumination lies.

    Another paper has a related take: we’re less responsive to changes along the blue-yellow daylight axis than to off-axis variation. Our eyes and/or brains have evolved to discount variation that corresponds to illumination changes through the course of the day as being due to illumination and not to a real change of hue. Familiarity breeds contempt, so to speak. That presumably happened after we’d left the forest for the savanna, as green comes into natural forest illumination. A prediction would be that chimpanzees respond along a different, jungle-daylight axis. Wonder if anyone’s tested that? I couldn’t find anything accessible, or much of anything recent, presumably for ethical reasons, but fascinatingly, chimpanzees see and “name” the same colours as humans (i.e. the boundaries between categories are in the same places on a colour chart). That must be hard-wired from our distant past, so any national differences in perceptions of blue vs. green, etc., must be cultural.

  104. our brain only processes “vision” per the filters established by evolution in our eye structures…. good read, but requires some acceptance about natural selection and evolution.

  105. Dave_Geologist says:

    A bit of both it seems, mike, at least for colour constancy in primates, but I expect frogs are like goldfish. See this paper (I’ve only skimmed it though). Goldfish have no cortex so must do it all in their retina through cross-checking and feedback mechanisms. Primates have a hard-wired retinal component but also rely on the V4 region of the cortex*. I’ve been skimming a number of papers and it is (or was) unclear whether additional processing is done there or if that’s just the router to the conscious brain for a calculation done in the retina. Chickens have better colour constancy than goldfish, understandable in an ancestral jungle fowl which encountered not just diurnal changes but extreme light and shade. Primates ditto, I presume. Because primates regained colour vision lost by their ancestors, they may do it differently to chickens, with the brain compensating for hardware that was lost or had re-evolved differently from before.

    Fig. 1 in the paper supports my Deficit Model 😉 . Compare the top row. You need the cue from different surrounding objects to make it work, hence the simple two-colour dress in isolation being a toughie.

    * Manipulated by experimentally damaging the V4 cortex. Which reminded me, I knew a girl when I was a post-grad who experimented on monkey brains for her PhD. Drilling holes or trepanning, and inserting electrodes to see what various parts of the brain did. Hey, it was the late 70s… animal welfare has moved on I hope, and there were no MRIs available. I chatted her up at a few parties but it never went anywhere. We must have seemed like the weirdest geeks, comparing lab notes to a background of Steely Dan (no Pistols, parties were strictly punk or non-punk)! Not the best chat-up lines. What do you do? Cut open monkey brains. You? Boil hydrofluoric acid and fire X-rays or electrons at stuff.

  106. Willard says:

    Somewhat relatedly:

    In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein rejects the theory of meaning entirely while making one of his most powerful contributions to it. All language, he says, gains its definitions from how it is used in specific cases. All language is a game like chess or poker – we learn the rules by playing, not theorising or defining. So the very notion of a universal definition is an artifice, a bit of subterfuge. One cannot talk about what words really mean; one can only use them. This applies as much to mathematics as it does to ordinary words.

    Wittgenstein wants to show us that we need to stop trying to interpret language. Take the example of a road sign pointing to a village. We see the road sign and instantly understand its meaning. While there is an element of symbolic decoding involved, there is no deeper interpretive step, he says. In other words, we do not need to figure out how the sign represents reality, either in the ideal world of Plato or some subjective concept of reality in our heads. The sign could contain almost any kind of symbols, colour coding or numbers, as long as the action that people take upon seeing it is the correct one. The sign ‘shows’ us where the village is, because that is how signs of that kind are used. That is its true meaning.

    The late Wittgenstein entirely rejects his own picture theory of reality. Pictures are nice and satisfying, but usage is what actually matters. The wavefunction, on this reading, isn’t like a picture of reality at all. All that matters is that physicists now have the ability to do calculations, which lead to predictions that can be verified by measurements. The point is not the measurements themselves, however – as a logical positivist might claim – but how the physicists behave. Do they calculate in a way that leads to more and better physics? Language and mathematics are a means of controlling and modifying collective human action so that work gets done.

    This is language as culture rather than language as picture. And culture includes ritual. Like all ritualistic communities, physics contains its rules, interpretations, specialised vocabulary, a community of adherents who are admitted to the arcane arts, levels of indoctrination, and gatekeepers. While some societies relate ritual to the appeasement of gods and spirits, in science they serve to therapeutically appease our philosophical needs. Competition between interpretations is not unlike competition between clan gods, trying to achieve cultural dominance.

    Ludwig’s linguistic journey reflects the ones of so many on the spectrum are confronted with in communication.

  107. Dave_Geologist says:

    Willard, to paraphrase (the judge in the Oz trial?), “I don’t know what green is, but I know it when I see it” 🙂 .

    Now that I’ve read a bit more of the chimp paper, I see it wasn’t a perfect blank-slate experiment. The chimp was trained on 7 standard human colours plus white, black and grey, and pressed a key to classify intermediate colours (yes, those 7: RYPGOPB). So you could argue that chimps in the wild see different colours. Against that is the fact that this stuff does seem hard-wired, and activity in the eye can be detected that’s consistent with a signal-processing model of the process. Evolution tends to keep what works (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it), if goldfish do use the same mechanism for at least half a billion years. Plus the flat tops and sharp falls of the picks in Fig. 3, with narrow overlaps for ambiguous picks. If the colours were going against nature you’d expect to see a lot more ambiguity as instinct conflicted with training. The greyscale too: sharp end-points and a broad intermediate grey. IOW discrete classification seems to be a Thing. I retract my earlier suggestion that humans could have diverged from chimps since we left forest for the savanna: far too recent. Except perhaps for cultural aspects, like associating particular colours with emotions etc.

    Interestingly for the traffic lights, green is by far the widest part of the spectrum, and yellow-green and blue-green were unambiguously classified as green. I bet that’s true for all primates, and reflects the natural colour palette of the forest. Green is also the largest field in human cross-cultural colour classification (fig. 6), and blue/green the only pair with hue overlaps: one outlier culture classifies a blue-green as blue, another just-barely-blue as green.

    Fascinating! A blue do indeed 🙂 .

    I see V4 is also implicated in things like synaesthesia, so a switchboard would be a better analogy than a router, with some people getting crossed wires or a wrong number.

    On an even further tangent re the road sign, some forms of dyslexia are like that (or rather, unlike that). There’s another Life Scientific podcast with a dyslexia researcher. As I recall, in infant school we spell words out letter-by letter, but with experience we learn to recognised the word as an entity with a meaning just from its appearance. Some people never learn to do that (can’t do that, I presume). So in some ways there are similarities between English as read by adults, and pictorial languages like hieroglyphic, or with symbolic languages like Chinese or Kanji. Of course, English has so many irregularities you can’t just spell it out anyway but have to memorise it 😦 . IIRC there are detectable differences between English and Italian dyslexia as a result of that.

  108. Jon Kirwan says:

    In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein rejects the theory of meaning entirely while making one of his most powerful contributions to it.

    I’m suddenly weary.

    I spent years in daily debate about philosophy and the philosophy of science in a small email group of about 20 active scientists from fields varying from biology and microbiology to quantum and classical physics (circa 1988 to about 2000, when we broke apart for some reasons that are both very interesting and also quite directly related to climate issues and yet too long to discuss here and now.)

    Wittgenstein’s points of view figured prominently and were sufficiently challenging to me that I had to think, back then, a lot more closely about my own ways of thinking about the world. So, for that much, I have to give the man a nod. But he and I are far apart what we accept as axiomatic let alone what we conclude from reasoning out of those different starting points.

    In the late 1980’s and through to about 2000, that long, long, long daily debate consumed much of me. I read books by Popper, all the way through to Miller’s, “Critical Rationalism: A Restatement and Defence“. (A book in which I spent many long, long hours in deep thought.) These years also included spanning everything from Galileo’s writings (which are many) translated to English, to whatever I could acquire on the general topic of what science actually is or should be. I sincerely cared about the topic and the questions. So I spent long, long hours trying to find a coherent gestalt in my mind. I literally read everything I could lay hands on. (My library numbers 5000, but perhaps more than one hundred of those are only on the topic of the philosophy of science.)

    Before all this consumed me, I had in my late teens and early 20’s spent a long time with a few others (before all the above) thinking things out from 1st principles. By this, I mean reducing things to their simplest possible conceptual state and then, starting from there, adding elements to consider.

    These thoughts had led me to conclude that capitalism must ultimately fail (the capitalistic free market cost of the resources required by humans to live would eventually cross over and exceed the value that the life can contribute, as increasing populations mean increasing competition for resources that the sun can create each year as well as demand upon property and scarce resources.)

    I had also closely examined Einstein’s paper on the special theory of relativity, when I hit 19-20 yrs. At its outset is a pair of axioms relating to different frames of reference, which relate together only by one fact: the speed of light. It was from asking myself “what is the meaning of these two axioms” that I then realized the implications were quite profound. It suggests that each fermion lives in an isolated universe without time or space — no such dimensions at that level — and that the only way these separate universes interact is through entanglement due to bosonic force carriers. It is obvious then that the interactions themselves cause the emergence of space-time. So at about 20, I tumbled to the idea that space and time were emergent, from a simple realization due from Einstein’s axioms, from the entanglement of fermions. And the implications were that reality itself can be slightly different in one lab vs another, because the entanglements aren’t entirely shared — though they are very likely to be “largely shared” within our experience here on Earth. A shocking realization to me when I was so young. I also spent time considering what the universe might look like from the perspective of those bosonic force carriers.

    There is much flooding back to me with the name of Wittgenstein posted. But I am also currently overwhelmed with the flood of recollections and old discussions. I don’t know where to start.

    So I’m going to just hold short of saying more. To me this isn’t just a pithy “throw away” line, though. Your invocation of Wittgenstein isn’t a simple throw-away. Nor is it necessarily meaningful in the way that some may take it, on surface. It’s a deep topic. And there is a great deal to consider and think.

    And not everyone is going to find the same starting axioms, out of which to logically arrive at soundly reasoned conclusions.

    I guess… I just want to say, “be careful here.” There is a great deal of depth and breadth and it takes a very long time to find your way in this morass.

    Of course, I love the fact you brought this in here. There is much to be plumbed. But it is the kind of thing that requires a serious commitment and not a casual hand-wave.

    I’m off to go find and re-sort some of my books on the shelves. And to ask my wife where she put my book by Miller. I can’t find it and she’s been cleaning out my book shelves for me.

  109. izen says:

    Cephalopods, the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish, have the retina built the right way, the sensors first and the nerve connections behind. But they only have rod type sensor cells so can only detect the intensity of light.
    However they have large irregular shaped pupils which give rise to chromatic aberration of the image, so by manipulating the focus and detecting the fringing they actually have good colour vision.
    A completely different evolutionary version from chordates.

  110. Ben McMillan says:

    Scallop vision is pretty weird.

    Just chuck some pots down with different light colors and you should be able to get some decent statistics on where the boundaries are in scallop color-space.

  111. Dave_Geologist says:

    Yes, izen, I was assuming that the hard-wiring is only the same within the vertebrate or chordate clades. The most primitive chordates only had simple eyespots to tell light from dark, like modern tunicates, so the complexity fish and primates have today must have arisen independently from cephalopod eyes, compound eyes, etc. Their MRCA had none of that, hence cephalopods being back to front (oops, anthropomorphising there, cephalopods have the better design and we’re back to front). I think mantis shrimp are the record-holders for the number of different colour receptors. The bright colours of fish and reptiles is a strong hint that colour vision is early and primitive among chordates, along with the mechanisms to cope with ambient light changes. Mammals are the poor relations of the chordate world, having lost and, in some cases like primates, regained colour vision.

    And thanks re cephalopod colour vision. I’ve always wondered how they can colour-match backgrounds if they lack conventional colour vision.

  112. Willard says:

    > I just want to say, “be careful here.”

    Are you threatening me with a good time, Jon? Sometimes there’s a method behind my Climateball madness. To recall that language is a social art can help get out of loops leading to the fall of capitalism by intellectual derivation alone. And since you mentioned Popper, I would be remiss not to mention my ratio:

    The Popper Ratio

  113. Dave_Geologist says:

    Not weird at all Ben. think of it as one of those arrays of reflecting telescopes or radio dishes astronomers use to generate a large synthetic aperture. If they’re interlinked by the nervous system, scallops could have the functional equivalent of a 6-inch diameter eye.

    My initial bet would have been three colours, white, black and grey. But given that they have both light receptors and darkness receptors, perhaps they see, taraah… fifty shades of grey. But from the story we probably need to add blue. Wonder how they do that?

    What cool eyes (open access). The light receptors are on the mirror at the back, the dark receptors at the focus, on the back of the lens. So light level detection is unfocused and vague (although I suppose they might be able to get some sort of image by post-processing an array of eyes), but shadow detection is focused. Hence predator detection is prioritised over cues that might lead to better feeding grounds. Actively swimming species have more light detectors, but dark detectors are the same between swimming and sessile. Makes sense for a filter feeder with an escape response. No point knowing the grass is greener on the other side of the hill if you can’t cross the hill, but a lot of point knowing when to leap a few feet.

    Aha! The proximal receptors are more sensitive to blue light and the distal receptors to green light. So they have dichromatic vision. Five colours. White, black, grey, blue and green. Maybe six, if they can discern blue-green where there is a lot of overlap between the sensitivity spectra and both receptors fire. Primates treat that as an intermediate, but having on and off receptors rather than all on receptors might lead to a logic gate treatment, with AND as a discrete category.

  114. Jon said:

    “(one of them a wonderfully soft-furred Northern Flying squirrel that is nocturnal and pleasant natured when held in hand)”

    We had a flying squirrel home invasion. One would come in at night and open up nut jars and crawl on my arm and head when I was sleeping. Initially I thought it was a chipmunk but apparently they like to stay outside.

  115. Jon Kirwan says:

    We had a flying squirrel home invasion. One would come in at night and open up nut jars and crawl on my arm and head when I was sleeping. Initially I thought it was a chipmunk but apparently they like to stay outside.

    I had so much fun learning from my first experience with a Northern Flying squirrel, here. She was “captured” by a cat we had, but left (as it turns out) uninjured. We placed her into our “bird room” (which has a cement floor and a drain, but is located inside the home and near the entryway, and is about 20 square meters in area.) She stayed there for one week while we observed her and made sure she was okay. (It was the “bird room” because that’s where we kept finches for many years.)

    After about 3 days, I finally went in and caught her with my motorcycle gloves (unobtanium today, as mine were all-weather gear and went all the way back to my elbows and were purchased circa 1980 — can’t replace them today and I’ve asked around, recently.) She and I went into the bathrooom, where I locked the door and let her loose for a bit.

    She was the softest animal I’ve ever touched. Silky, like you cannot believe.

    But her hands! Her thumbs natually bent “the other way” than ours. After checking her out, I understood why. They are used to stretch out her skin for “flying.”

    I was also aware of the tapetum lucidum, And I had brought in a flashlight to test them out. I turned out the room light (it was night) and used the flashlight on her. I could NOT see a reflection. Nothing!! This did NOT mean she didn’t have them. She does. What it means is that they, coupled with her retinas, are so effective at trapping light that almost nothing exits. I was very much impressed. It’s probably developed out of survival, as well. (I’m guessing. I don’t know.) As reflections can also serve to allow owls to see her in the trees, at night.

    Regardless of the actual details, which I would gather a biologist specializing in them would be able to tell me, I thought I had a very interesting hour or two with her, that night.

    When we finally released her back into our woodsy area (and it is VERY woodsy), my wife and I sat on two chairs on a 2nd floor deck that also had some tree branches drooping one corner. We released her underneath/near our chairs and just sat and watched her as the sun set, that night.

    She would run over to the edge of the deck, then run back underneath our chairs. Then back to the edge. Then back to our chairs. Etc. For about 10 minutes. Then she finally climbed up the deck railing and leapt onto the nearby Douglas Fir branch. She paused a short bit up it, looked at us, chittered for a few seconds at us, and then turned and ran back into the tree and then the woods and was lost to us.

    We spend a lot of time just observing animals here and trying to provide “theories” to each other, hypotheses that attempt to explain why an animal does X or Y. Why a bird shakes in a certain way when it lands, for example. Or why it may be that a woodpecker tends to prefer dead, but standing, tree trunks for nesting. We just look, try to find interesting events that appear “significant” at the time to us, and then formulate some reason to explain what we think we observed. It’s fun.

    Anyway, thanks for the story. Best wishes!


  116. Susan Anderson says:

    lots of etc.’s to this (downthread and elsewhere) – current heatwave in progress is another item on the continuum of weather extremes that imho exceed the worst predictions to date. I don’t think we’re ready for this (never were, never will be). But I’m deeply grateful to all those who are making an effort, whether it’s wise and gentle (aTTP) or any other flavor, such as the violent frustrations of Peter Kalmus.

  117. Jon Kirwan says:

    Susan Anderson
    lots of etc.’s to this (downthread and elsewhere) – current heatwave in progress is another item on the continuum of weather extremes that imho exceed the worst predictions to date. I don’t think we’re ready for this (never were, never will be).

    There’s a wonderful paper, “The 2021 Pacific Northwest Heat Wave and Associated Blocking: Meteorology and the Role of an Upstream Cyclone as a Diabatic Source of Wave Activity”, which discusses the event I personally experienced here near the Portland area in Oregon:

    The lay article about it is here:

    The cool thing is that they’ve laid hands on the specific mechanisms involved. (Sufficiently simplified, by the way, that I feel I have a good grasp.) And the team is hoping for (asking for it, directly) climate scientists to work with them. They have efficient (cheap) means of performing certain calculations of local scope in time and space which, they feel, could be applied effectively in larger scale modeling systems with good effect. I hope they find their partners.

  118. I am north of you about 100 miles, John, so I also experienced that amazing heat wave in the PNW. It put a lot of brown needles on the forest. I am watching changes in the Cascadia forests and I think they are significant. I used to live in the woods in PNW. I sold in the mid 90s and moved to an area with fewer beautiful trees and more fire hydrants in the neighborhood. My old neighbors in the woods now keep a “go bag” ready in the summer months because getting burned over by a forest fire would be an awful experience.

  119. Jon Kirwan says:


    We are still recovering from this:

    And this following event got close enough to us that we were ordered to be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice. However, we are luckily just north of hwy 212 and there is no possible way firefighters would have allowed that to be jumped. So we were kept safe, given the energy put to hold that line. But this particular event is almost certainly due to the rapid climate changes here.

    I’ve lived here all my life, so I could easily detail the rapid changes. But I can easily summarize them by merely pointing that that there was no possible way a palm tree could have had the slightest chance here, until about 20 yrs ago. Today? They grow well. Shocking changes.

    For example, less than 20 years ago, I took this photo on my property (I still live here):

    That’s not unusual, by the way. Typical in my first 40 years living here.

    Here’s my rain-forest life:

    Now, there is this shop just one mile from me:

    That could never have happened before.

    I can assure you. Not even close. Now? Two years ago I had to cut down a few meter-diameter-at-the-base Noble Firs due to beetle and ant infestations that literally made them too dangerous (for people here) to keep. The Nobles did quite fine until the temperatures went up so much.

    Then, of course, 2021 brought the aforementioned heatwave. Unique in my entire lifetime. (Short by geological scales. But it stands out, anyway.)

  120. russellseitz says:

    There used to be a You Tube video of Naomi Down Under warbling about smoker’s rights to engage geolgical voters otherwise interested only mining coal.

    The footage was cancelled after she became part of Al Gore’s Reality Project entourage

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