On Credibility: As Many Walks as Talks

Reposted with permission from Bart Verheggen’s site. Bart retains copyright.

There are at least as many walks as talks

In the previous thread a discussion ensued about how to gauge someone’s credibility. Tom Fuller said that a

message needs to be evaluated by the normal criteria we use for messaging.

1. Is the message credible and coherent?
2. Are the messengers credible and coherent?
3. Are the actions of those who preach and believe the message consistent with the implications of their message.

This was echoed by Paul Kelly. Especially the third point got a lot of discussion. Steve Fitzpatrick had brought up that issue as well:

anybody who believes that CO2 driven warming presents a serious threat to humanity ought not be regularly jetting off (with enormous CO2 emissions!) to exotic destinations like Tahiti for climate science conferences. Climate scientists who want their (un-welcomed) message of extreme future warming to be well received must be (and must be perceived as) more pure than Ceasar’s wife.

To which I replied:

The physics of radiative transfer and feedbacks are not the least dependent on whether climate scientists fly to Tahiti or not.

If you can only address a problem when you’re pure as the driven snow, than no problem will ever be addressed.


The more complex the chain of cause and effect, the more more complex the third point [walking the walk] becomes. If someone says that too much coffee is bad for you, but in the meantime downs 8 cups a day, I guess he can say he’s addicted (and perhaps he is). His message will however lose credibility indeed. But would you care to venture a guess how many people drink more coffee than they think is good for them? People don’t always act in accordance to what they (think they) know. It seems a little too easy to dismiss someone’s message because they too possess that very human trait. And then I’m only talking about drinking coffee. In a complex area such as climate change, people have vastly different perceptions on how it should be tackled and on their own role in that. Projecting how the messenger should behave, and then dismissing them because they don’t, is sometimes a little too convenient of an excuse to dismiss the message I think.


The fact is that taking the message and really following up on it, may well push you into the area of “activism”, which then becomes an easy way to attack the message and the messenger itself. Good examples are the attacks on Al Gore for investing in sustainable energy and doing CO2 trading, and those on Jim Hansen for demonstrating against coal mining.

I.e. communicators are damned if they do and damned if they don’t walk the walk. It’s so easy to condemn them for not walking the walk you had in mind. And if they walk too much, they’re to be dismissed as “activists”.

Willard extends my coffee analogy to include Irish coffee:

The preach what you teach or the walk and talk argument pertains to public relations, not communication per se. When an alcoholic says to me that alcohol can be bad for you, I tend to believe that person. But I am not sure I would take an intemperate drinker for my nation-wide week of soberness.

Andrew Adams:

the central message of the “climate consensus” is that AGW is real, that the consequences are likely to be serious and it needs to be addressed. The extent to which this means we have to change the way we live is more debatable, there really is no consensus about the specific policies which are required in order to combat AGW

Even people who agree on the science and on the needs to address AGW, can disagree vehemently about *how* to address it. That is actually the discussion we should be having in society.

Andrew on the wider context of credibility and behaviour:

In any debate on a question of science the messengers should surely be judged primarily on the extent to which they can support their arguments with references to established science – that is what gives the message credibility and coherence. (…)

And of course scientists are not the only messengers, there are others (such as yourself) and their credibility should equally be held up to scrutiny. (…) It is often suggested that the whole furore, controversy etc around the subject of AGW is down to the actions of climate scientists and others who advocate action on AGW as if the “skeptics” have no responsibility for the situation or no agenda of their own. This is nonsense – they have an active roll in this saga and they have to accept responsibility for their actions. Even if they have an electric car.

If someone is claiming that as an individual I should be taking specific actions then obviously I would expect them to do the same, but otherwise I’m really not interested in examining the lifestyles of those who support action on AGW.



  1. And, let me guess. Those who abjure all those nasty carbon emitting activities and become suitably pure as the driven snow and are therefore acceptable as messengers?

    Jumping out of seat with eager hand raised, I know, miss, I know, let me answer.

    Yup. They want us all to go back to living in caves.

  2. Jeremy Hardy gave a nice example that might come in handy in "climate scientists shouldn't fly" arguments. This is UK-related, but the point's clear enough: `I don't remember before the mass privatisations of the eighties, Tories boycotting the phones, gas, electricity, water or anything made from steel. And to this day, conservatives will post a letter, phone the fire brigade - even use the NHS.'

    Handy only if, of course, the person criticising climate science happens to think government-funded services are a Bad Thing. Curiously, that appears to be the case more often than one might assume possible due to chance alone.

  3. To begin with, climate scientists that go to conferences to communicate about their work .. they need to do that, simply to develop the science. What kind of alternative is it to give up having conferences just because flights to conferences also contribute to climate change?

    It is like asking climate scientists to stop breathing, as by breathing they breathe out CO2. If climate scientists should avoid contributing to climate change, the only alternative would be suicide. But maybe developing the science, communicating it, and convincing the world to change is more efficient?

    This is just a nonsensically unfair rhetorical trick to try and destroy the credibility of the science by pointing out that in living their life they also contribute to climate science. Like about every human being on earth does.

    It is a combination of a false dichotomy, and a pure old fashioned ad-hominem attack. The attack cannot change anything about the basic message about CO2 and climate change.

  4. Classic polit stupid. Shoot the messenger.

    Another example (NCSE news Dec. 21 2011):

    The two antievolution bills on the horizon in New Hampshire have now been prefiled in the state House of Representatives. House Bill 1148, introduced by Jerry Bergevin (R-District 17), would charge the state board of education to "[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism."

  5. Hmm, still in the business of refuting the likes of Fuller, Kelly and Fitzpatrick, Bart? There's something less than constructive sounding in providing fora for such people at this late date, especially to discuss a denialist meme that was stupid the first time it was ever mentioned.

    Idle question: Do folks from that neck of the political woods believe that credible opposition to taxation can come only from tax evaders?

  6. Fuller's third criterion is more about dissonance than hypocrisy. All of the criteria apply to communication in general. Stand up comics, who Fuller saw a lot of as a comedy club manager, build their acts using them. The criteria are critical for achieving the audience's willful suspension of disbelief, the essential element of successful communication.

    Here is a message that meets the criteria. For a variety of reasons, fossil fuel use should be replaced in this century. The faster it happens, the better. Luckily. for the first time in history, the technology exists to begin to make it happen. It must happen from the bottom up.

  7. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Did Nero's fiddling make Rome burn any faster or slower? Unlikely. Since around 1970, atmospheric CO2 has been increasing at an annual rate of about 1.75 ppm. Has any of this talk the talking or walk the walking had any effect on the annual rate of atmospheric CO2 change? It would appear not. Was Nero happy fiddling his life away while Rome burned; are all these talk the talkers and walk the walkers happy fiddling their lives away while the planet burns. Let the next generations worry about it.

  8. Steve,

    The three individuals you mention each have very different ideas about climate science and about mitigation. But this blog post isn't about them; it's about an argument that is often used (not just by them, but by almost everyone in one way or the other).

    I thought it an interesting and important (because the notion is so widespread and intuitive at first sight) discussion in which these indivuals happened to participate.

  9. Bart, I second Steve. Medunno if Fuller is stupid or childish or just a classic denialism pathology or perhaps payed by the fossil fools. Anyway providing fora and serious attention to such folk is mostly a counterproductive waste of time and space and just adds to the noise.

    Meanwhile, after many years of wasted words, the technical term BS got introduced in the "debate". (I guess it was Al Gore who started it in a secretly taped talk - which alas sounds like it took him a Martini too much to get the word over his lips...)

    That is some progress in the "debate"!

    But I want more. Give me mockery. Give me satire. Don't shoot the messengers, shoot the sick heads.

    The only productive use of the likes of Fuller is production of laughter.

    [ Avoiding endless flame wars with Fuller is one of the trickier aspects of my trying to promote this site and its aims, given Fuller's past, er, fascination with me, and the huge gap between, let's say, the way he thinks and the way I think. Consequently this comment has been held up in moderation while I ponder it. I reluctantly let it through, because the role of mockery in this debate is actually something worth considering. The problem is that the people we are inclined to mock are human beings with feelings as well as, often all unwittingly, agents of our decline. Fuller's obtuseness can be funny at times. I hate to be boring and stodgy but I also don't want to be mean or childish - we want to leave that turf to the opposition after all. I am even reluctant to mock the frankly ludicrous target of Lord Monckton who is obviously delusional. But it may be worth mocking a congressional party that invites delusional people to testify as expert witnesses. I wish it were obvious what to do. -mt ]

  10. Here are a couple of "pot, kettle, black" instances to savour. Non-climate related, though, but might be a good talking point if attending the Heartland Institute ICC.

    Libertarian idols Freidrich von Hayek and ohjectivist Ayn Rand both availed of Social Security when it suited them.

    Details here: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/09/friedrich-hayek-joins-ayn-rand-as-a-hypocritical-user-of-medicare.html

  11. A climate scientist flying to a conference to present her latest research is likely to do far more to help address the problem than, say, an oil tycoon flying to Hawaii to play golf. So if any of the people arguing this line genuinely do accept a need to reduce air traffic, the next logical step is to conclude the climate scientists should be the last people to be asked to do this. If the climate science is correct (the premise of the argument) then we need them to keep doing the science to the best of their abilities. If the climate science is not correct, then it doesn't matter how much they fly. Either way, Tom and friends fail logic.

  12. Why isn't the climate message "winning" with the public is the question often asked on climate blogs. This is part of the answer. What I’d like readers of planet3.0 to understand is that if a communicator or his message fail to meet these criteria, it does not mean that he or his message are wrong, or evil, or hypocritical or unworthy. It simply means the communication will be less effective.

  13. Two kinds of messages:
    1) Moral messages
    2) Reporting of facts

    You may shoot messengers of 1).
    But 2) is a totally different thing.

    AGW is 2). It has moral implications of course, but that's totally secondary. Shooting the messenger here indicates that you're not getting it, or that you're intentionally confusing the audience. That's why I used the polite term "polit stupid".

  14. Paul, I fail to grasp your profound logic.

    So what you're saying is, climate scientists jet off to exotic locations to present their work, therefore we must not rely on top-down action to curb fossil fuel use?

    Sounds like the kind of logic that a stand up comedian might use.

    -- frank

  15. This hits on the wider issue of what to do when you are a member of an unsustainable society.

    If you choose to live a sustainable life then you need to step out of that society, for to continue to live within it and by its rules requires partaking in activities that lead to you exceeding what would be an equitable level of carbon emissions.

    But if you do choose to remove yourself from that society you no longer have influence on it. By remaining within the society you can effect far greater change than you can ever hope to do by cutting your personal contributions.

    What I would like to hear is that concerned climate scientists are exploring ways in which they can continue to do their work effectively whilst reducing their environmental impacts, as should anyone who is part of any organisation.

  16. Frank,

    I don't know who brought up scientists flying in airplanes, but it wasn't me. I have no problem with it, and it certainly has nothing to do with my strong support of a bottom up approach to mitigation.

    You and others here misunderstand what this discussion of communication criteria is about and, I think, Bart's position on it. I have a comment from five hours ago that is in non member moderation that may make it clearer to you.

  17. Paul Kelly:

    scientists flying in airplanes [...] certainly has nothing to do with my strong support of a bottom up approach to mitigation.

    Then why on earth do you present your "It must happen from the bottom up" mantra as if it somehow addresses the "climatologists jet around in airplanes" objection?

    -- frank

  18. I'm not sure other commenters apprehend the point of this post, which arose over whether there are flaws in climate communication. Fuller presented criteria for successful communication. A lively discussion ensued. Once it was established that criterion three is not about hypocrisy or pointing fingers, folks with a wide spectrum of political, climate, and policy viewpoints - including Bart - pretty much agreed the criteria are valid and Andrew Adams presented a message that met the criteria. The conclusion is that to improve climate communication, it is a good idea to keep the criteria in mind.

  19. Many good comments.

    Re the point that Steve E brought up:
    For scientific work face-to-face contact between scientists is important, and thus flying off to conferences is part of the job. I don't think that scientific knowledge is the limiting factor in mitigation efforts though, so whether this carbon footprint is paid off climatologically speaking is not immediately evident (at least not the in the short term). More or less the same argument can be made about Al Gore: He has probably done more to put climate change on the agenda than his carbon emissions amount to. Difficult comparisons of course.

    Martin Gisser makes an imortant point: Distinguishing the science from the politics. For a political message ("should") it makes much more sense to expect someone to walk the walk. For a scientific message ("is") such an expectation doesn't make any sense.

    OPatrick mentions the inevitable tension between wanting to take part in society vs not wanting the footprint that goes with it. I think a lot of people struggle with this one.

    All of this doesn't mean that walking the walk is unimportant to the effect one's comuncation efforts aimed at climate literacy has. As unfair and unlogical as it is, it probably does influence one's impact. Which is I think the point that Paul kelly is making.

  20. The question is, "influence one's impact" compared to what? Obviously, if we match the outcomes of our actions against some seraphically ideal world where people can communicate climate science without eating, breathing, or sitting in cars or buses, then anything we actually do is going to fall short of the ideal.

    But the ideal simply doesn't exist. In the real world, there are trade-offs. Can we at least recognize this fact, instead of self-flagellating whenever we find ourselves falling short of some impossible ideal?

    -- frank

  21. Frank,

    I don't think we disagree. I'm fully aware of trade-offs between ideals and the real world (see e.g. this post).

    That doesn't mean that there are no lessons to be learnt by considering what an ideal situation could look like. That's actually an important focus of this web-venture if you ask me.

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