I’d like to draw your attention to a remarkable article by Baruch Fischhoff of CMU called Nonpersuasive Communication about Matters of Greatest Urgency: Climate Change.
Such advocacy makes many scientists uncomfortable. Of course, science itself entails advocacy, as researchers make the case for the importance of their studies, the soundness of their methods, and the robustness of their results. However, that advocacy follows the familiar norms of the scientific community. Those norms compel scientists to, for example, identify uncertainties, consider all data (and not just supporting evidence), and update their beliefs as new evidence arrives.
Public advocacy, however, follows the norms of politics. Claims should be based on fact. However, they need not include all the facts. Evidence is assembled to make a case, not to provide a full picture—let the other side provide what is missing. Uncertainty is avoided—let observers infer it from the clash of certain views. Positions are defended, come what may.
Scientists typically resort to public advocacy after concluding that, without it, the science will not get a fair hearing. One way or another, the public is blamed for this failure. It might be blamed directly, for not understanding the science, or indirectly, for falling prey to the other side’s advocates, who exploit its scientific illiteracy. Such advocacy runs the risk of winning battles over what science says, while losing the war over what science is.
There is a great deal more, with surprisingly cogent analysis of details. This is an anti-framing article in the end, but it has very cogent and detailed advice about information processing in a democracy as well. Here’s the conclusion:
Scientists faced with others’ advocacy may feel compelled to respond in kind. However, they can also try to become the trusted source for credible, relevant, comprehensible information by doing the best job possible of nonpersuasive communication. With long-term problems, like climate change, communication is a multiple-play game. Those who resort to advocacy might lose credibility that they will need in future rounds.
I’m not sure I agree. These days I am pretty confused about what I think we should do really. I think the article should not be missed by anyone with an interest in these matters, though.