Cassandra Science at Planet under Pressure

[This article originally appeared on the De Gemeynt website, author retains copyright]

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but she was cursed: no-one would believe her.

At the Planet under Pressure conference in London (end of March), it’s difficult to avoid thinking of an additional pressure to the ones treated at the conference: the pressure of scientists trying to get the message across.  Their insights tempt them to play the role of Cassandra, the ancient Greek beauty who was granted the gift of prophecy, but who was cursed so that nobody would believe her.

The body of knowledge in Earth System Sciences in the broadest sense, is impressive. Yet, most scientists at Planet under Pressure feel their knowledge is hardly translated into actions. Below the surface, frustrations can easily be sensed. Frustration may provoke scientists to even stronger formulate their messages, and choose words that fit better in the realm of societal and political discussions than in the scientific domain: ‘We must’, ‘we should’, ‘an imperative to act’, ‘we can no longer afford waiting’ and comparable phrases are frequently used to mask frustrations.

However understandable, these expressions are unlikely to be effective. The audience may think that the scientist using these terms have a political agenda. This perception undermines the scientific credibility, whether the scientist in question has a political agenda indeed or not. My take  is: they don’t; most scientist don’t even really understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes. And to the extend they do, they are doing a lousy job in terms of lobbying and influencing the public and policy debate. Otherwise, more scientists would realise that overstating is not really effective in getting the message across.


The risk of being perceived as someone pursuing a political agenda is one pitfall, a second one is reinforcing communication efforts without changing the nature of the communication.“We should communicate more/better”, is quite often heard. Underlying assumption is that giving more and better information will lead to better listening and different choices. However, if you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got. People just don’t change their convictions and belief systems, let alone their decisions and actions, on the basis of more information. Interesting enough, some psychologists and sociologists gave exactly that message at the Planet under Pressure conference, in a couple of parallel sessions, such as the one chaired by prof. Heinz Gutscher. Co-operation and collective action builds on trust, said Gutscher, and if that is lacking, giving ever more information has zero or even counterproductive effects.

Imperatives or options
The third pitfall may even be more problematic: communicating science in terms of imperatives actually undermines the politicians’ sense of responsibility. Although some politicians may be risk averse, the key role of politicians is to choose, not to blindly follow someone else’s view. Who would need politicians if science would automatically lead to policies? It doesn’t. Therefore, imperatives can easily be laid aside, and are likely ineffective. They disempower politicians, instead of adressing them in their key role and responsibility: chosing and negotiating options.

There were some good examples of presenting the science in a more open way, in terms of a variety of options and their consequences, and including the scientific uncertainties. A subsession on fisheries and oceanic ecosystem governance demonstrated that: a science-based mapping of goals, options, timing and uncertainties made clear what the actual choices are, and helps making progress in decision-making, even in a situation where governance is still ruled by the 1609 pamphlet Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) by the Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius.

The best and most effective ways of communicating science therefore seem to be those that separate knowledge from decision, that provide policy-makers with options instead of imperatives, and with ‘what if’ instead of ‘will happen inevitably’.

Avoiding Cassandra?
These three pitfalls tend to reinforce themselves: the more is known, and the more frustrated scientists get by not being heard, the more tempted they may be to overstate, to provide even more information, and to use imperatives, all by all lowering communicative effectiveness. Cassandra indeed, and highly applicable to the Earth system science brought to the table at Planet under Pressure. The way Wikipedia puts it in the Cassandra lemma could be the motto of a next Planet conference: She (Cassandra, or: planetary science) is a figure both of the epic tradition, and of tragedy, where her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the ironic condition of humankind”.

(borehole items)


  1. Jan Paul, it's good that things are working out in the Netherlands.

    I think in a sane place, scientists, politicians, and stakeholders will voice their concerns, weigh the options, and push forward a solution that's equitable to all (including the laws of physics).

    Some places aren't that sane though, e.g. the US. (Of course, "the time to act is now" also fails in the US. But it fails for vastly different reasons.)

    -- frank

  2. Frank,

    Actually, things are not working out well here. Here in the Netherlands too, unfortunately, the debate is increasingly influenced by denial stuff 'made in the USA', e.g. in the Heartland Factories.

  3. btw, Frank: thanks for your reaction on my original Cassandra Science post at De Gemeynt blog. I got the idea that it was spam, though, and it ended in the trash bin. Feel free to repost it, and I'll accept it this time.

  4. (OK, this wasn't part of my original comment.)

    And at least in the context of the US, it's useful to look at why Heartland's "unreasonable" approach is winning.

    I think it's due to the overall craziness of the US in general. Federal politicians seem to have trouble listening to any advice that doesn't come with promises of power or money (or sex). And much of the public sees policy-making as some sort of baseball game, where the all-important thing is to Defeat The Other Party, rather than to, say, safeguard the rule of law.

    Of course, neither power, nor money, nor sex, nor Defeat For The Other Party aren't things that the climatological community are going to offer.

    (Yes, I'm this cynical. But I don't think I'm that far from the truth, if the abuses that Glenn Greenwald has documented are any indication.)

    -- frank

  5. I sometimes wonder if this measured approach I have often seen advocated is effective at all. Isn't this what the scientific community, with a few exceptions, has been doing for the past 25-odd years? How's that been working out? I have frequently seen the claim by deniers that if things were really so far along that drastic action was required to avoid very real danger to humanity, the scientific community worldwide should be up in arms, protesting in the streets like Hansen. Maybe they're right. How long do you suppose it will be before it comes to that? Another 25 years? I hope not.

  6. Frank, it's perhaps not a particularly U.S. craziness. It's the human ego. And the ego is held in high regard in U.S. culture (incl. economic ideology). The ego constantly defends itself against outside reality. The twists and distortions of logic, science, ethics, evidence, etc. the ego can perform in its desperate fight for self-respect can be truely amazing and disheartening.

    The funny thing, here in Germany I find most resistance against climate science in the heads of the more "alternative" (if not hippie) types. My last deeper debate ended with an artist friend asking in desperation "why then reincarnate?". Close second to these types of deniers are the elderly German Wirtschaftswunder pensioners/profiteers who can't accept their wealth and luxury is built on "killing our grandchildren".

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