A fascinating email from a U of Toronto undergrad of my acquaintance:
Dr. James Hansen came by the university a week or two ago and gave a presentation alongside Naomi Klein and the head of a fairly large indigenous rights organization. Had I not been taking Atmospheric Chemistry his presentation would have been nigh-impossible to understand; most of the crowd was there to see the sort of clear, journalistic style of Klein and was not prepared for the dense scientific language and tepidness with which “highly probable outcomes” are generally presented within our field. Indeed, almost everyone sitting around me expressed their utmost confusion, with a general crowd-muttering in the vein of “No, not really…” at every mention of “As you saw in Dr. Hansen’s presentation, there is a great urgency to addressing the climate crisis…” on the part of Klein.
(As a corollary [sic] to the “dangers of dense scientific language” I was provided the following real example at a writing seminar which you may enjoy):
31 July 1985
TO: R. K. Lund
Vice President, Engineering
CC: B.C. Brinton, A.J. McDonald, L.H. Sayer, J.R. Kapp
FROM: R.M. Boisjoly
Applied Mechanics – Ext. 3525
SUBJECT: SRM O-Ring Erosion/Potential Failure Criticality
This letter is written to insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem in the SRM joints from an engineering standpoint.
The mistakenly accepted position on the joint problem was to fly without fear of failure and to run a series of design evaluations which would ultimately lead to a solution or at least a significant reduction of the erosion problem. This position is now drastically changed as a result of the SRM 16A nozzle joint erosion which eroded a secondary O-ring with the primary O-ring never sealing.
If the same scenario should occur in a field joint (and it could), then it is a jump ball as to the success or failure of the joint because the secondary O-ring cannot respond to the clevis opening rate and may not be capable of pressurization. The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order – loss of human life.
An unofficial team (a memo defining the team and its purpose was never published) with leader was formed on 19 July 1985 and was tasked with solving the problem for both the short and long term. This unofficial team is essentially nonexistent at this time. In my opinion, the team must be officially given the responsibility and the authority to execute the work that needs to be done on a non-interference basis (full time assignment until completed.)
It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem with the field joint having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.
J.R. Kapp, Manager
And then the Challenger exploded.
That’s the rock. The hard place is that straightforward language doesn’t allow enough precision for a well-informed person to be both terse and honest. Terse, honest, effective: pick any two.
Recall Stephen Schneider’s famously self-violating advice:
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
What I think I am saying is that the cost of being both honest and effective is being long-winded. As the population is increasingly inclined to feel rather than to think, the window of effectiveness closes.
On the other hand, I am a bit shocked that Hansen is seen as opaque. I have seen his public talks and thought them effective. If that’s inaccessible or unconvincing to students at a major research university, it’s more than a little bit discouraging.