Narrative and Science in the Debate on Climate Change

By Professor Ugo Bardi
Reprinted with kind permission from his blog Cassandra’s Legacy.

Copyright is retained by the author.

 

 

The remarkable success of the anti-science position on climate change is due in large part to the development of a successful narrative plot that casts scientists as evil schemers against the public. The attempts made by scientists to respond with scientific evidence to the attacks have not been a success. Recently, the work of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) group has provided some further insight on the mechanisms of this conflict.In the “Aeneid“, the Latin poet Virgil tells us all the details of Cassandra’s unsuccessful attempt to fool Ulysses’s plot of introducing a wooden horse full of Greek warriors inside Troy’s walls. The Trojans were not stupid; they were fooled by a trick. On the beach in front of their town, they didn’t find just a wooden horse but a distressed Greek soldier, naked and bound. The Trojans believe him when he tells them that he is a victim of Ulysses and that he was left there as a sacrifice for the Gods. He tells them that the Greeks had admitted their defeat, leaving the wooden horse on the beach as an offering for the Gods before sailing toward home. The Trojans take the wooden horse inside the city and that will be their end.

This story is, of course, a piece of fiction, but not just a fairy tale. Virgil was a genius of literature and the Aeneid is a masterpiece of all times. The story of the wooden horse shows us all the elements of the human way of preferring fiction to facts. The Greek traitor triumphs because he tells the Trojans a good story that contains what they want to be told: that they have defeated the Greeks and that the Greeks are evil. Virgilio even goes on to show us how the scientific method is not enough against a good story. He tells us of how a Trojan, Lacoon, hurls a javelin against the horse demonstrating that it is hollow from the noise that is heard. But that’s useless. Stories are just too powerful to be overcome by just facts.

That we are deeply dependent on fictional elements in our perception of reality is nothing new. We see it again and again in the political debate; all based on fiction. The successful politician is the one who is able to cast reality in the form of a good story; identifying the bad guys and proposing their punishment (at present, the bad guys seem to be the scientists). It is the plot of basically all fiction: bad guys fight good guys and the good guys win; it is so simple as that. Fiction appears to be actually becoming reality in the sense that it is acted upon as if it were reality (read this if you are not convinced).

The case of the “BEST” (Berkeley earth surface temperatures) study tells us something of how the debate on global warming is cast in fictional, rather than scientific, terms.  The BEST study had a considerable media resonance, especially because of previous declarations of skepticism of the lead scientist of the team, Richard Muller. The study was also sponsored by institutions that had previously supported the denial of the standard interpretation of the climate data. But when the BEST results came out, they confirmed the previous result. That is, that the Earth is warming.

Global warming skeptics were clearly taken by surprise by the BEST results and their reaction tells us a lot on their way to approach the question. I had expected that they would fall in good order to their second line of defense; that is to saying that, “yes, global warming exists, but it is not caused by human activity”. Instead, they reacted with a vicious counterattack against the BEST study and its authors, with Richard Muller turning almost overnight from hero to traitor and being vilified in all possible ways (see, e.g., this image). Anthony Watts, of the blog “Watts up with that,” had initially declared about BEST that “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” But when the results came out he changed his position and his site is publishing almost daily attacks against Muller and the BEST study (see, e.g. this one).

It was already clear that the debate on global warming was not a scientific debate, but it is starting to be clear now how remote from science the position of the skeptics is. Their whole interpretation of climate science pivots around a single narration. It says that a group of evil scientists manipulated the temperature data in order to show a warming that doesn’t exist. They were caught red-handed when their private emails were made public in what we call the “Climategate” scandal.

You see how this story has all the elements needed to triumph over facts. It tells people what they want to hear: how the bad guys (the scientists) were defeated and that there is nothing to worry about global warming. No wonder that the denial side doesn’t want to abandon this narrative. It would not be the same thing for them if they were forced to battle climate science on the question of whether warming is caused by human activity or not. That becomes a battle of facts vs. facts as there is no equivalent fancy story that tells us of how evil scientists are (actually, there is one: it tells how scientists ignored the data showing that the “medieval warm  period” was warmer than the present time. But this is a far less effective story than the Climategate one).

There are so many elements that show that the Earth is warming that it is almost unbelievable that skeptics can have so much success with their denial. It is not so much because they are especially smart; it is mainly because scientists are poor communicators and have neglected the importance of the emotional content of the message. So far, scientists have been assuming that all they had to worry about was facts and their scientific interpretation – this is the way the IPCC reports are made. Someone else, then, would build a narrative on the scientists’ work. We are discovering that the world doesn’t work that way; not any more, at least.Narrative is a powerful way of conveying messages. It exploits channels already open inside the human mind. It is through narrative that you can call up the good that exists in human beings; their capability of working for a good cause, of acting together, of helping those in need. Just think of the Gettysburg address and you’ll see how a real leader can use a powerful narrative approach for a good purpose. We have plenty of ways to develop a narrative that is not in contrast with science. And we have the most wonderful story of all to tell; it is the story of an entire planet that spans billions of years and which we are just beginning to understand.

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The BEST study may also do something more for us: it may provide us with a specific counter-narrative to be used against the “Climategate” one. If you ever were engaged in a debate on global warming, you surely were confronted – at one moment or another – with someone saying “but I heard that climate scientists had confessed that they had manipulated the data.” Up to now, all you could do to counter this statement was to use facts; you could only answer, “there is no evidence that scientists manipulated the data”. But that is pitting facts against fiction and, as we saw, fiction wins. With the “BEST” results, now you can say something like, “you know, the same people who said that scientists had manipulated the data commissioned a study that was supposed to prove that. And, funny, the result of that study was that the data were good! The Earth is really warming“. Isn’t it a good story to tell?

 

Comments:

  1. Excellent article. I can see Randy Olson smiling in the background.

    I think it's abundantly clear that just the facts won't work. (http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/just-the-facts-madam-just-the-facts-wont-do/)

    Scientists may loath that fact and its implications, but Bardi offers a way amidst the Scylla of dry facts and Charibdis of empty stories: "We have plenty of ways to develop a narrative that is not in contrast with science."

    That's the challenge: Combining both elements (true to the science and a powerful story).

    That's exactly the kind of strategic thinking we need to engage in.

  2. Fantastic piece, a few thoughts. First, I'd separate out the words 'story' and 'fiction'. The latter implies the story is necessarily false. In the case of the republican war on science, it does contradict reality - it is indeed a fiction - but it's important to remember that we use stories to shape our reality, guide our thinking and even organise ourselves.

    The Dark Mountain project started off with precisely the aim to 'question the stories that underpin our failing civilisation, to craft new ones for the age ahead and to reflect clearly and honestly on our place in the world.' Examples abound of how we use story and myth even to support distributed production and landscape management (here's me looking at three examples of that.) One can't help but wonder if language evolved as a distributed resource management tool...

    Recently I've been focusing my attention on one 'skeptic' here in the UK, trying to see how far reason goes. So far, not very encouraging - and it's been noticeable just how much a coherent 'story' of the type described here has been presented to me. (It's also, so far, been impossible even to make the basic statistical point about the right period for detecting warming trends.)

    Question: is it necessarily true that the stories we use to make sense of reality must be coherent overall? Meaning that, for any one person to reject a part, they're faced with the cognitive dissonance problem of pulling apart the coherent picture they held? Or can we have stories that give us the flexibility we're going to need in the coming decades? I guess that's a question Dark Mountain is asking.

    It's still vital for factual rebuttals to be on-record, but I wonder about the role of story-forming in relation to what Diane Coyle calls "the silent majority who don't have strong views about climate science, who are vaguely worried that it might be true, but not to the extent of wanting to make large material sacrifices" (economics of enough p.58). The guy I'm arguing with: if he's locked in a solid coherence, perhaps there's no chance of anything changing. Everyone else with less invested at present? Ultimately that's where the important battles are going to be fought.

    It's not a dichotomy, which is why I think the word 'fiction' should be quickly dropped. You can build stories on a bedrock of scientifically-discovered reality. But getting the stories out there? Who knows how that's done.

    Now I think of it, there *are* several quite coherent stories about climate change that I have a number of problems with, and that might help to explain why there's such a vitriolic reaction. P3 has been getting stuck into a set of them: consumption-led growth is the problem, the whole capitalist system needs tearing down and building up from scratch... I worry that we're already losing just the flexibility we need. Diane Coyle's book is good on this stuff, I'll report back when I'm done.

  3. First, thanks to the editors for publishing this piece of mine. I hope I can give a contribution to this blog; our task is very difficult but we need to do our best given the situation.

    So, I was re-reading my piece and, yes, there is much to discuss on this subject. I am sure that some idiot, out there, will take it as an excuse to claim that "WARMISTS ADMIT THAT CLIMATE CHANGE IS A FAIRY TALE."

    Nevertheless, I still think that it is important to make the point that we need to transform facts and scientific models into action. This morning, there came to my mind Martin Luther King, when he said "I have a dream". He didn't say: "I have a scientific model". So, at this point we have more than enough in terms of scientific evidence. Now we need dreams.

  4. The previous comment was from Ugo Bardi; sorry for the nickname "Gelderon52," it comes from an old computer game and I use it sometimes. But I'll see to change it into something more understandable

    UB

  5. Hmm. The central questions to me are 'Should scientists be rhetoricians?' and 'How far should scientists go in practising rhetoric?' I think Dr. James Hansen did experiment a bit with rhetoric, as when he said,

    Einstein said to think and not act is a crime. If we understand the situation, we must try to make it clear. I decided six or seven years ago that I did not want my grandchildren to look back in the future and say "Opa understood what was happening, but he didn't make it clear."

    though this seems much muted when compared to Van Jones's fiery speech where he said,

    We pull out of the ground death. We burn death in our power plants. Why do we get shocked when we get death in our sky as global warming, death in our oceans as oil spills, death in our children's lungs as asthma and cancer?

    I don't know if it's a good idea to get scientists speaking like Van Jones, but I think there's a sweet middle between the dry clinical language of scientific discourse and the impassioned oratory of unbridled activism which scientists can strive towards.

    -- frank

  6. I have nothing against rhetoric, but there is a problem with empty rhetoric and oversimplification, and it's not just a theoretical one.

    I'm working on an essay. It ties into my discomfort with Ugo's piece as well.

  7. The term "rhetoric" has taken a negative ring today. But, in ancient times, it was simply a set of guidelines and rules to be effective when arguing. Apart from the definition of the term, anyway, the way I see the question is that using a narrative approach doesn't mean to use flowery language or elaborate figures of speech. It means to understand that we need to communicate and that communication is a two way process that involves human beings on both sides. Not even scientists think in terms of equations (did I remember correctly that it was Einstein who said that? Anyway, I am sure that he said that imagination is more important than knowledge)

  8. Orestes (Naomi, that is, not some Greek) had the Story: a bunch of guys (mostly white male millionaires?) making Billions of Dollars selling Carbon pay tens of thousands of dollars to a bunch of word-smart guys with no scrupples to lie to the rest of us.

  9. Well, I'm not convinced by Ugo's narrative, which is to say that I don't believe the problem lies with the story teller and but rather with the unpalatable moral of the story itself.

    It's hard to convince anyone to do anything difficult now to reap a reward later; it's hard enough to save for retirement, to diet, to give up smoking. Yet all of these are easy-to-understand actions that pay off predictably, with benefits for you personally and without too much of a delay. The problem with climate change is that: it's hard to understand; the results are uncertain; the benefits will accrue to other people, mostly yet unborn and after you die; but the costs are yours and you have to pay them now. No wonder that people react to such a challenge by either rejecting it or, perhaps worse, by making feel-good but ineffectual gestures (as we will likely see at the upcoming conference in Durban).

    Perhaps if Michael Mann and Phil Jones were as charismatic and entertaining as Richard Alley maybe Climategate wouldn't have had the traction that it did. If we could rerun recent history in this way, conceivably there would be some measurable difference in public opinion polls but I doubt that we could ever measure the difference at Mauna Loa.

    I sometimes think that those of us who are concerned about climate change are borderline autistic, worrying about some abstract threat while normal people just get on with their lives. No wonder we're shitty storytellers. Which, I suppose, rather supports Ugo's message...

  10. Andy - it is hard to convince people, but it is the story, or the narrative that does so, if it happens. The other side has an easier time because they aren't really asking for anything. I agree that the other side has provided a better story, but I don't don't think we should expect scientists to play that role. They have a hard enough job already. Maybe a few have that skill naturally, but we need people with other skills to step up. I've said before that we need a good movie. Not a Day After-type disaster flick, but something that digs deeper and connects. Change probably comes more from culture that facts in cases like these, and it is that culture that will eventually deliver the change, whether or not in time.

  11. IIRC it remains the case (in survey results) that scientists are the grouping in whom the public places far and away the greatest trust. Ugo, that would seem to contradict your thesis somewhat. Could you address the point?

    Also, bear in mind that we're talking about fundamental and unprecedented global change, led by a grouping (scientists) that has had limited historical involvement with policy change of any sort. The response obtained so far is arguably not that bad, albeit not fast enough. Lots of folks, I'm afraid including me, have concluded that a faster pace will require extensive attribution of disasters to human causation. This explains the hard push to do just that with recent extremes, although I suspect the disasters we've seen so far don't add up to enough to push the collective panic button. They may soon enough, though.

  12. IIRC it remains the case (in survey results) that scientists are the grouping in whom the public places far and away the greatest trust.

    That may be true, but I suspect that the general public's understanding of the word "scientist" includes pretty much every wacko who calls himself a "scientist" or who gets called a "scientist".

    And the plutocratic think-tanks like to capitalize on that by calling every climate inactivist that comes along a "leading scientist". And so they'll happily call Bjørn Lomborg a "leading scientist", Christopher Monckton a "leading scientist", Anthony Watts a "leading scientist", ...

    Which means Bardi may still be correct: the real scientists -- those doing the actual work -- are having trouble getting their message across.

    -- frank

  13. Many people trust their priest or pastor, but don't do everything they say either. Science can establish a foundation, but other factors need to take it from there. Most people need a gut feeling, not abstract knowledge, to motivate significant changes.

  14. I think you need the right 'story' for your infinite variety of listeners. And it doesn't have to be told by scientists.

    The listener that strikes me is my 86 year old mum. Pah! we've always had droughts and floods in Australia she says, nothing to do with climate change. But ... she also says it's a disgrace, an absolute disgrace, that Germany produces more of its power from solar than we do here in Australia. Germany! Cold dark cloudy Germany!

    If 'they' had any sense we'd produce all power in Australia from solar, just look around you. .... and on, and on. And she made sure that the first thing we would do on moving house was to instal PV. Yes, mum.

    There are lots of receptive listeners around. We need as many messages as possible to strike a chord with as many listeners as possible.


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