It’s been a little less than three years since I started discussing the failures of climate communication on this blog. In that time, it has gone from an obscure obsession of my own to the front pages of newspapers around the world.
It’s been about a year and three weeks since I moved from being exasperated about how the press has been handling climate science to being genuinely angry. It’s been about a year and a week since my anger landed me fifteen minutes of fame on the Glenn Beck show.
So it was about a year ago that I came to understand that truth had enemies. Others have been investigating the details of how the enemies of truth corrupted the conversation. I for one find that particular topic of less interest – the fact that the conversation has been corrupted is clear, and the underlying methods are fairly obvious once one starts to look at it from an informed perspective.
That anniversary is corresponding with a unique moment in the history of climate science, and perhaps an unprecedented moment in the history of science altogether. The entire field is now fed up, and now understands its responsibilities in ways that it has neglected in the past. Whether this will suffice is another matter entirely.
I have personal affection for a few journalists and admiration for many, as I do attorneys and economists, and yet for all three fields I have limited tolerance for their traditions and their ethical outlook. Indeed, attorneys and economists have played their parts in the present absurd flirtation with cataclysm. But, pace Shakespeare, it’s the journalists I would be done with first.
See, here is my old pal Andy Revkin up to his old tricks. “Should Scientists Fight Heat or Stick to Data?” A good question. So, whom does he consult? Matt Nisbett and Randy Olsen. I’ve already professed myself shocked at the shallowness of Nisbett’s understanding of the problem. He comes to the table with:
When scientists and advocates, motivated by these biased perceptions, take action by responding with tit-for-tat attacks on climate skeptics, it takes energy and effort away from offering a positive message and engagement campaign that builds public support for climate action and instead feeds a downward spiral of “war” and conflict rhetoric that appears as just more ideological rancor to the wider public.
These positive messages include redefining climate change away from just being an environmental problem, to being a national security, public health and economic problem, with policies that would lead to societal benefits in these areas rather than just perceived economic sacrifice, hardship, and costs. The recent Luntz report provides evidence in support of this message strategy.
Um, ‘scuse me? Scientists do not offer positive messages, campaigns, or appeals to public support. That isn’t our job, y’know. Scientists offer evidence. Now he goes on to say
Moreover, when scientists inaccurately presume that climate skeptics have singlehandedly swung polls in the direction of public disbelief — and then adopt a warfare posture and “fighting back” strategy against skeptics — they call further media attention to the original “ClimateGate” event and feed the preferred narrative of skeptics.
which may look like good advice, but see, four months ago we had every expectation of ignoring the whole thing, except perhaps for supporting Dr Jones, the immediate victim of the crime. (Yeah, there was a crime, remember?) So Nisbett offers advice for a more reasonable world than the one we find ourselves in.
On the other hand, Randy Olson gets it the other way round.
What [Nisbett has] written here is great, it’s accurate, it’s admirably dispassionate, but it’s also written with the assumption that the general public is a bunch of heartless robots. There comes a point where the public DOES want to see the science community stand up for themselves.
and there I agree with him, but again there’s this odd disconnect with reality as any person educated in science would see things:
Gore is ultimately “a scientist” when it comes to communication instincts. You can see it played out in his movie and two books as he’s slowly come to the realization that you need something more than information to reach the masses.
Um, wasn’t the problem with Gore’s movie that it was a bit shallow and manipulative? That certainly is my problem with his recent campaigns. So here we have contrary advice, accepting the idea that scientists are involved in “campaigns” but suggesting we had better get emotional. Olson, remember, wrote Don’t be Such a Scientist, which advises us to ignore matters of substance. Fine, and policemen should ignore the law and firemen shouldn’t be so hung up on combustion.
In case you think there’s not really a pattern here, check out Revkin’s latest, wherein Tom Yulsman makes some sensible observations, like this one:
Some of it also reflects what I take to be a truly breathtaking naïveté. For example, George Woodwell says this: “If the opposition opens an issue, make the issue theirs, and so hot that they have to let go.”
As if a group of climate scientists can make it “hot” enough to force the likes of Marc Morano to let go. Even if they could, they’d basically be turning themselves into Morano. And a lot of good that would do for their standing in the eyes of the public. (Moreover, any scientist who thinks he or she can beat Morano at his own game is in for a very rude awakening.)
but concludes thus:
We’ve had more than 20 years of communication of climate science. … And thanks in part to Web 2.0, today there is more varied and voluminous communication on the subject than ever before, including some very effective efforts by scientists. Yet with all of that communication about climate science, we still do not have substantial policy action. So might it be that the problem has not been a failure of a communication, but a failure of policy?
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for more and improved communication of climate science, both by scientists and journalists. But I do not believe this is the key that will unlock better policy outcomes.
So the fact that the public has the story drastically wrong is not the fault of how the story has been communicated? Exactly whose fault is it then?
And now, people are advising scientists to take the advice of “PR professionals”. Well, I am pretty much unconvinced.
So where does this leave us? Basically, deeply confused. We really are left to our own devices and our own ethics. The fact is that the message nature tells science is clear enough, and the message science tells society is monstrously garbled, largely by the intervention of malicious agents with political skills, and somewhat by the peculiar ethics of intervening institutions, notably politics including political activism, law, economics and journalism. The beltway professions, in short.
These are people who believe in culture, and disdain physics. They may, in unguarded moments, refuse to cross the street in front of a speeding truck, displaying that they still maintian some respect for physical reality, but they have little concept of physical reasoning. While there are a few important exceptions, in theior professional lives they understand and convey the problems of physics, chemistry and biology as aspects of human culture. Consequently, the connection between genuine experts and interested amateurs is mediated by people who understand neither, and the opportunity to stir up massive distrust is greatly enhanced.
The solution is for trained scientists to learn to write, not for journalists to learn to explain science. They are culturally misaligned. They do not report the facts. They report people’s opinions about the facts. But the physical world is not swayed by clusters of opinion.
It is time to reinvent journalism altogether. This is well known. Steven B Johnson cogently argues that each journalistic niche will have to develop its own institutions and way of doing business.
And here is the secret sauce:
Science journalism in the future will mostly be conducted by scientists.
I plan to participate vigorously.
Blogging is good but blogging is not enough. The best conclusion I can offer is what Dr Andrew Sun said on nature.com last year in the consequential month of March:
Scientists deal with only hypothesis, by means of experiments. We live with hypothesis, with uncertainty, with the unknown. The public do exactly the opposite. How would you expect the readers be pleased with a science news that fails to confirm or ensure anything for them?
No one is really interested in science except scientists. Modern society is only trying to eliminate this hopeless situation by creating additional interesting by-products of science. But improvement from this situation should not start from trying to present in any way the ongoing frontier research. Steps should be followed instead. A systematic, long-run agenda is needed. Unfortunately, no media dedicates itself in this career. They sell themselves to the readers, not just us. Why should they listen to only us instead of the majority of the readers? The majority of taxpayers, not the professional minority, lead the society, especially in the more democratic western world. That’s why scientists have no reason to blame others. Instead, they should stand outside their comfortable, automatic justice of peer-reviewed community and face the vast majority of public by themselves. Otherwise more shits happen.