Wherein Our Hero Slips Into Social Science Denial

It started with this article at USA Today on the Hansen et al piece that is, justifiably, making most of the climate news these days.

It wasn’t a bad report, but it did end with a quote from Roger Pielke Jr., one which I found particularly silly. It’s vanished from the page, but fortunately Morano has captured it for posterity, and he’s also quoted at NPR

Hansen says now he underestimated how bad things would get.

And while he hopes this will spur action including a tax on the burning of fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, others doubt it.

Science policy expert Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado said Hansen clearly doesn’t understand social science, thinking a study like his could spur action. Just because people understand a fact that doesn’t mean people will act on it, he said.

In an email, he wrote: “Hansen is pursuing a deeply flawed model of policy change, one that will prove ineffectual and with its most lasting consequence a further politicization of climate science (if that is possible!).”

“Hansen is pursuing a deeply flawed model of policy change, one that will prove ineffectual, and with its most lasting consequence a further politicization of climate science.”

What “deeply flawed model” argues against publication and promotion of new information regarding the risks of business-as-usual?

“Model” is the key. Roger is referring to something of a straw man, called the “deficit model”.

In reaction to this bizarre position staked out by Roger, I said on Google Plus:

“Roger argues that the way to convince someone to get off the tracks when there is an onrushing train is to not mention the train but rather to suggest a nice Italian dinner somewhere.”

It didn’t quite fit in 140 characters, so on Twitter I settled for:

“@RogerPielkeJr to get a person off the tracks don’t mention the train. Rather suggest a nice Italian dinner somewhere. http://is.gd/GmfH0u “

Roger replied:

“@mtobis Long live the deficit model of science! ;-) #socialsciencedeniers”

I understood this bizarre response in the context of arguments I’ve been having with Keith Kloor and to some extent John Fleck.

The history of the phrase “the deficit model”, and how it came to plague science journalism with a ludicrous conceptualization that the job of a science reporter is to NOT report science, is something I’m looking into.

This is not to dismiss the early development of the idea, which had a lot to offer.

It is to argue against the distortions of using the idea to effectively prevent public discourse from being based on actual evidence. You’d think most people would not be in favor of that but that appears to be what “realism” means these days.

In my view, that distortion is at least as much a story about journalism as it is about social science. Here’s an article at Scholars and Rogues which refers neither to science nor to “deficits” that has a lot to do with the dynamic. It just refers to journalism recasting its job as a sort of inferior sort of entertainment. “Saving journalism must also save an audience that doesn’t give a damn

What do you see, hear, and read on “news” websites? Aggregation sites? Twitter? Facebook? Buzzfeed? Gawker? Drudge? Do you see content news bearing significant, in-depth examination of national, regional, or local problems and priorities? Do you see accounts of planning board, school board, and city council meetings? Do you learn whether the cousin of a city official quietly got the contract for winter road salt without a bid? Have you been told of the factors in city governance that are driving up your property taxes unnecessarily?

Not so much, eh? But you find plenty of sports, entertainment news, “health and fitness” news, personal finance advice, and so on. There’s the old saw, of course, that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” But I’d argue that the public’s interest is what the public as been induced or trained to be interested in. After all, media theorists might argue, the press can’t tell the public what to think but it can certainly tell it what to think about. And in the digital age, it’s pablum.

The business of journalism is increasingly engaged, I believe, in telling readers and viewers what they want to know. The media business, of course, has always depended on an entertainment value to produce the revenue that allows journalists to produce the democratic value — what readers and viewers need to know. But until the arrival of the digital age (and how the hell is that defined, anyhow?), the balance between the two seemed a workable compromise for that First Amendment protection. Papers made money; the citizenry received a sufficient entertainment fix as well as the accountability journalism that editors adjudged necessary for readers to know to make astute political and consumer decisions.

What citizens need to know …Well, that will now play a far lesser role in saving the journalism business than the rapidly increasing digital provision of pablum.

Now that paywalls are popping up everywhere, the audience expects more: If we’re paying now, we expect a much better show.

That show is overshadowing three fundamental questions journalists should seek to address for the inhabitants of a modern democracy:

• How does the world work?
• Why does it work that way?
• What are the consequences?

But readers and viewers, I fear, have been conditioned to seek material requiring less intellectual strain. The modern audience of news media is uninterested in, bored by, unable to understand, or too damn busy to grasp accountability journalism and its importance. That audience shortcoming is beyond the scope of journalism schools to address in their curricula, foundation threats to withhold funding notwithstanding. None of these saving-journalism ideas matters if the audience remains in this condition of insensibility.

The idea that science communication is sometimes arrogant and ill-attuned to its intended audience should be no surprise to anyone. Every scientist has had his or her share of bad teachers and knows this all too well. But you can disrespect the audience by treading too lightly on their prejudices as well as by trying to bulldoze them. This is why communication is hard.

What we are up against in managing the modern world is, in fact, more than a little bit interesting. Our all-too-apparent failures to manage our society as democracy-deserving adults are interesting too. Planet3.0 is predicated on the idea that sustainability issues are interesting, that a clear-eyed consideration of our collective fate is interesting, that whatever the future will be, it won’t be boring.

But it will be challenging. The “failure of the deficit model” tells one thing only – that most people do not like to be challenged. Why not? That’s another matter.

But some of us would actually like to engage our actual circumstances. Our objective on this site is to challenge each other, not to reinforce our own prejudices. Don’t come here to be reassured that you are right. Don’t come here to yell at somebody you think is wrong.

Those of us who want better need to provide it ourselves. If you want better discourse, pitch in.

 

Comments:

  1. Roger's point is true, of course. Hansen's paper alone isn't going to result in sane climate policy. But was anyone actually arguing that it would?

    As I have said before, reducing information deficits is necessary but insufficient.

  2. What is the goal, Michael? Is it to have the public understand science better (a good thing) or to facilitate more effective policymaking (also a good thing, but not the same thing)?

    If it's just about educating the public, go for it. Journalism can serve a very useful function in keeping the public up to speed with the Higgs hunt, climate science, martian geology, and so forth.

    But if it's about affecting policy, that's where I see a problem with your way of arguing. You say, "Our objective on this site is to challenge each other, not to reinforce our own prejudices. Don’t come here to be reassured that you are right. Don’t come here to yell at somebody you think is wrong." But when Roger challenges your preconception about the way policy decisions are made, you yell at him.

    If you think better public understanding of science is important to effective policymaking, are you basing this on evidence or is it an article of faith?

    I don't see much to convince me that modern democracies work by addressing the three questions you pose (how does the world work, why, and what are the consequences). Do you have evidence that considering these questions scientifically has much to do with how Congress and the public set priorities and make decisions?

    Roger has argued that the public understands enough about climate science to know that global warming is real, is caused by human activity, and is a threat. What's holding things up is deciding what to do about that threat and how to pay for whatever actions we take.

    Analogously, everyone understands that the US can't keep running trillion-dollar deficits. Would educating the public in greater detail about accounting and economics make the federal budget process work more smoothly? I doubt it. The hang-up is deciding how quickly to cut the deficit and what combination of tax hikes and spending cuts to use. And I don't see evidence that more knowledge about the hazards of a growing debt will help with those decisions.

    So I challenge you to tell us what you would expect to get from better media coverage of climate science and to support this with evidence that policymaking in a modern democracy works the way you say it does.

    The problem I see with Roger's Climate Fix and Hartwell Paper approaches is that he diagnoses the problem correctly: political stagnation is not going to be relieved by more science. But he offers an inadequate response, analogous to acknowledging the political obstacles to producing a sensible budget and then proposing to avoid hard choices and address the deficit by funding R&D projects with the hope they will produce new technologies that will rev up so much economic growth that we can balance the budget while also cutting taxes and raising government spending. As Hemingway wrote, "isn't it pretty to think so?"

    • Jonathan, I agree with much of what you say but I think that we should perhaps pay more attention to the moral cover that manufactured doubt provides to inaction and delay. We hear constantly from the contras that uncertainty necessitates caution and that there is substantial disagreement among scientists about the human contribution to climate change. Both arguments are flat-out false and can only be countered by appealing to the science. That's not enough of course.

      Pielke Jr provides additional moral cover by claiming that one (partial) solution, a carbon tax, can be taken off the table, not because it couldn't work but because it is unpopular (Pielke: "The evidence that a high carbon tax is politically infeasible seems irrefutable, based on experience and common sense."). Meanwhile he proposes obviously insufficient measures that seem designed only to assure us that we are at least doing something. All this is justified with sophistry about supposedly hard-headed political reality and woolly notions about obliquity. (Pielke:"So the fruitful course of action to follow is an indirect approach. That approach was exemplified by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a great 18th century British landscape gardener, whose motto for successful landscaping was that once one had spied one’s objective one should then approach it obliquely.")

      Basically, his Hartwell Paper argument reduces to irrelevancies about Capability Brown and distortions about green incapability.

      http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/06/climate_of_failure?page=full

      http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/publications/special/2009.18_eng.pdf

    • To get an idea of hoe Pielkian logic works, watch how the wordplay used changes the meaning of his own evidence. In the article Pielke says:

      Australia has tried to get around this problem by subsidizing its relatively low carbon tax with broader income-tax reform -- that is, the government is returning to consumers more money than is collected by the tax. But the policy still remains wildly unpopular, with 38 percent of the public feeling worse off under the tax and only 5 percent feeling better off one month after its introduction, despite consistent strong support for non-specific action on climate.

      But if click the link, look what the article actually says:

      Poll shows carbon tax fear easing
      It found 38 per cent of voters felt they were worse off under the tax, a drop of 13 points since the last poll was taken a month ago.

      Fifty-two per cent said it had made no difference - an increase of 15 points.

      However only 5 per cent of respondents believed they were better off under the policy.

      So not only is the policy not "wildly unpopular", it also shows that once it was instituted, the people it was "wildly unpopular" with decreased significantly. And the people who said it doesn't matter increased significantly, which is kinda exactly what you would want to happen.

      Everything he says needs to be checked, the press should really take notice and stop forwarding his opinions along as expertise just because he fits their paradigm.

      whoa! -mt

    • How the heck do income tax cuts subsidize carbon taxes? It's the other way around. I know, because I live in British Columbia where revenue-neutral carbon taxes subsidize my low income and corporate tax rates. Marginal income tax rates on corporate dividend are even negative for some people here.

      The beauty of revenue-neutral taxes is that they are politically hard to reverse, since scrapping the carbon tax would lead to income tax increases. This might be one reason why a 2011 poll showed a 59% support in BC for the carbon tax, with support rising since it was introduced in 2008.

      It's disappointing that somebody who writes an article, as a policy expert, for a publication called Foreign Affairs completely glosses over the successful experience of a carbon tax experiment in North America, while concluding that such a tax is "politically infeasible". Disappointing but not surprising.

      http://www.sustainableprosperity.ca/article2864
      http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/06/28/bc-sustainable-prosperity-report-carbon-tax/

  3. "Roger has argued that the public understands enough about climate science to know that global warming is real, is caused by human activity, and is a threat."

    If this is his stance than he is quite wrong. Even now, only 60% or believe that the Earth's temp is rising. Only 45% - 50% believe that this is the cause of humans. As to whether it is a threat or not, well, it depends on what you mean by 'threat'. But this seems to go along with whether or not people are the cause. If less than half the public agrees on the basic facts, than it is not true that the "public understands enough".

  4. I remain convinced that "iron laws" of politics are much easier to bend than "iron laws" of physics. Faced with this dilemma, I suggest that redesigning politics is easier.

  5. Grypo: Your numbers are correct on belief in climate change and anthropogenic attribution.

    On the threat question: Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues published a survey in March 2012 that reported "72% of Americans think that global warming ought to be a ... priority for the president and Congress." 68% responded that the US ought to make at least a "medium-scale effort" to "reduce global warming," even if it incurs "moderate economic costs," and 61% said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who promised to impose new taxes on fossil fuels with a corresponding reduction in income taxes (i.e., revenue neutral).

    These numbers are the ones most relevant to Pielke's argument. Pielke also argues that the level of support for action on climate change and the level public understanding of anthropogenic climate change is well in line with public support for and understanding of other issues on which major policies were adopted. For example, the U.S. ratified the Montreal Protocol when there was much less public concern about ozone depletion. (Climate Fix p. 42).

    Previous surveys from the Center for Climate Change Communication, going back to 2008, have consistently found substantial public support for policy action on climate change.

    • A 2011 survey by Leiserowitz et al revealed (Q31) that only 15% believed that a large majority (>81%) of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. That statistic, more than any other, shows how successful the forces of confusion have been: 85% of Americans, apparently, can console themselves with the thought that a substantial minority of climate scientists doubts anthropogenic climate change.

      http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/ClimateBeliefsMay2011.pdf

    • Yes, I remember bringing up this poll somewhere. I was astounded by the fact that -- a margin of 3 to 1, Americans say they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate
      who supports a “revenue neutral” tax shift --.

      Besides that, someone has a polling methodology problem if over 70% of people want Congress to act on a problem that only 50% of the population agrees exists.

  6. Michael. I'm with you 100% on wanting to bend the "iron laws" of politics. I am skeptical of Roger's assertion that the public's willingness to pay for GHG mitigation is immutable, but I need evidence rather than my gut feelings if I'm going to turn my skepticism into an actual argument that Roger is wrong.

    I only disagree with you when you say that educating the public about science is the most effective way to change minds.

    • I agree with Dan that "educating the public" is part of the recipe, not all of it.

      It is important to realize, though, that the public has many parts. Some people want to engage, some want to be informed, most want to just follow their own crowd.

      Political practice is largely aimed at swinging loosely affiliated crowds at the last minute. It may be a necessary component of democracy, unfortunately, but we shouldn't pay too much mind to those who suggest that that's all there is to it.

      People who want to engage should be engaged, at the level and to the extent of their interest. I believe that works out to being important in the end. I think the success of Climate Audit and Watts Up prove that.

      I think the "deficit model" is something of a straw man. Nobody (or almost nobody) believes that there is a formal mathematics that can supercede value-based discourse and cultural processes. But if we are discussing the wrong things, we will not get to a good strategy.

  7. From In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Zizek

    “So what is the problem today? The problem is that, although our (sometimes even individual) acts can have catastrophic (ecological and so forth) consequences, we continue to perceive such consequences as anonymous/systemic, as something for which we are not responsible, for which there is no agent. More precisely – and here we are back to the logic of the madman who knows that he is not a grain of corn, but is worried that the chickens have not realized this fact – we know we are responsible, but the chicken (the big Other) has not caught on. Or, insofar as knowledge is the function of the I, and belief the function of the Other, we know the real state of affairs very well, but we do not believe it – the big Other prevents us from believing in it, from assuming this knowledge and responsibility:

    “Contrary to what the promoters of the principle of precaution think, the cause of our non-action is not scientific uncertainty. We know it, but we cannot make ourselves believe in what we know.”

    Take global warming, as already noted: with all the data regarding its nature, the problem is not the uncertainty about facts (as those who caution us against panic claim), but our inability to believe that it can really happen: look through the window, the green grass and blue sky are still there, life carries on, nature follows its rhythm … And therein resides the horror …”

  8. So, a couple things. I think scientists enjoy and are used to rigorously testing their ideas and the ideas of others in what I would consider toe-to-toe, you're-wrong-and-here's-the-proof, kind of arguments. The difference between scientists and the rest of us, me included, is that you scientists actually have proofs that can be argued, and arguably results that can be reproduced in support of those proofs. And so to that extent science continues to refine its body of knowledge and scientists, most of them anyway, would in fact get out of the way of a moving train in light of irrefutable evidence that they're about to be hit.

    The rest of us though, maybe not so much. And the enticement of a nice Italian dinner might just be what motivates us to drop our counterargument, or at least our compulsion to hold our argument, and move on to something more satisfying. Clearly science shouldn't work like that, but much of the rest of the world does.

    So what does that mean for science reporting? And moreover what does that mean for addressing policy change that might be motivated by science reporting, if that can actually happen.

    I've been engaged over the past couple weeks with a professor emeritus from a prestigious state school back east who has decided that it is his mission to motivate the public to action on issues of AGW. I find him to be a shrill voice, and not entirely logical. He will yell the name Hansen, wave clathrate phase diagrams in the air, and talk about another Permian extinction event will happen again any day now unless we accept his facts. He also questions my intelligence.

    I see that he's using drama to try to draw people in, and it's worked to the extent that I've been drawn into interacting with him on his topic for a few weeks now. Drama, make no mistake, we are addicted to it, drama attracts attention. But when the reporting itself becomes dramatic, through hyperbole, distortion, or calling upon the Permian extinction, then the message is lost. In fact more dramatically the facts are presented, the more the listener is bound to reject them.

    What I find, in my own mind, faced with shrill, and perhaps disconnected, evidence of this sort is that I want to push back, and in pushing back I want to fight, and in fighting I need to take exactly the opposite stance of this professor emeritus, which means, oh my goodness, I am starting to deny global warming. Starting to. The more my emeritus friend writes in caps, the more I think he's an idiot, I don't want to be associated with him or his ideas, and the more I feel myself shifting to the right.

    There is a psychological phenomenon I've seen written about wherein someone with a prior belief or bias, when faced with overwhelmingly contradictory facts, often tends to take an even stronger stand in favor of their bias rather than accepting the facts. And I think that's what's happening to me. But I think that is mainly in the way my emeritus friend is reporting his facts.

    Now, I will say, for me, the recent Hansen paper makes sense. I like its sober approach. But when that paper is rolled up and I'm beaten with it, figuratively of course, what choice to I have other than to take the opposite stance and fight back?

    I saw an informal summary of Hansens' paper published by Columbia.edu leads with a photo of a huge forest fire. It's like they need that bit of drama to bring readers in. But drama quickly puts us on edge, feeling that we're being knowingly manipulated, with the result being that you don't quite trust what you're reading.

    So this is precisely the kind of science reporting that I don't want. The kind that smacks us with drama to engage us, coloring facts in ways we disagree with, that makes us dig our heels in and fight back and divide us even more.

    So how then do we change the public's mind, if we cannot hit most people with the whole unvarnished truth? I don't have much of an answer other than you need to repeat your message over and over and over again over a long period of time. You tone down the drama so that the facts just become facts. You make your message part of the fabric of society by repeating it everywhere and often and by making it palatable and the alternative unpalatable. And at some point in doing that we reach a tipping point after which people can't imagine having ever believed otherwise.

    • Thanks, old friend. I knew I could count on you to be cogent and readable and thoughtful. I didn't really expect you to take Roger's side on this, though. Awkward.

      Look, as a New Englander and a Unitarian, you're steeped in one of the oldest and noblest rationalist communities in the world. And yet here you are coming out essentially in favor of mob rule. Because if the toe-to-toe is irrelevant to the outcome, the bad guys win. Without honest and passionate debate following the established mores of evidence and reason and honest impartial inquiry, all you are left with is focus groups. And we are left in an awkward position. Our planet leaks, clogs up, overheats, basically behaves like a natural system with a bunch of monkeys banging real hard on it. Our opponents' planet behaves flawlessly, or, in the event that it doesn't behave flawlessly, surely it is an Act of God. Few sensible people would opt for the planet we could break of our own volition.

      The trouble is that their planet is imaginary.

      Well, okay, ours is too in a sense. The planet we are selling is the refined vision of tens of thousands of people-years of obsessed geeks yelling at each other toe to toe about each little detail. We are heavily invested in it. Where others see a morass of details we see a tightly coupled, intricate engine moving energy around in amazing intricate swirls through a layer of liquid and a layer of gas with a sugar frosting on top. Where others believe anything, we are not in a position to believe any bot a very few things, those ideas that are consistent with the base of knowledge that each of us has as practitioners, embedded in the larger base of knowledge that is distributed in the community in a very lumpy way, but largely collected in a few dozen noggins like Ray Pierrehumbert's and Kevin Trenberth's and Jim Hansen's.

      So it's not that our planet isn't imaginary. It's hell of a lot less imaginary, though, than the planet that the opponents come up with. Look, as a sales engineer you should understand this perfectly. We describe what our product actually does. But the other company is purely a PR outfit. They can tell the customer exactly what the customer wants to hear. What they can't do is deliver.

      But if all that people decide upon is what makes them feel good, as opposed to who actually has product in the can and ready to ship, they will sign the contract with the wrong vendor.

      The enlightenment founders of the US and the founders of the Unitarian movement believed in an educated and deliberative polity. Our advance to universal suffrage needs to have been accompanied by an advance to universal education. But since then we have entertained ourselves into a stupor. The question is not which world you'd prefer. If the deniers had any chance of being right I'd jump ship in a second. But all they have is PR. We've got the product.

      My proposition is that, to the contrary, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, which is to say that we need to behave like grownups in this situation.

      However Hansen presents his results, many people will reject them and misunderstand them and willfully or inadvertently misrepresent them. It nevertheless remains Hansen's responsibility to present the results as clearly as he can. And I take it to be the responsibility of the rest of us to understand them and put them into context. And some of us may resort to colorful language, and some may slip into despair, each of us trying in his or her own way to scream bloody murder.

      Because if things are this bad in 2012, they are probably going to get very nasty. It does not please me to say this. Moreover it is not something I want to sell. I'd rather go see the new Spiderman thing, wouldn't you?

      But once you get past the horror, it's not boring. That's the hope that Planet3.0 draws on. The intellectual interest and the emotional grandeur of the problem. The whole tangle is amazing, the whole trap we have set for ourselves, so that we will willingly and unhesitatingly march not only ourselves but our whole world over the abyss. It is amazing.

      But do you really want me to shut up about it? How the hell am I supposed to do that? And how can I be convincing now? You know we tried the calm thing for fifteen years. Eventually, just as we started to break through, the bulldozer of denial, kicked into gear by a small coterie of professional liars, started up. And here we are, Kyoto in shreds, and still moving the wrong goddam direction.

      "You tone down the drama so that the facts just become facts"! But don't you see how extraordinary a performance Hansen has to make to even get on page 17. We are buried in a zeitgeist that is bound and determined to look away. When the facts are just facts, the truth will out. But when the facts are up against convenient untruths, society needs to face up to the task of actually deciding which is which.

    • Dan Thompson,

      Now, I will say, for me, the recent Hansen paper makes sense. I like its sober approach. But when that paper is rolled up and I’m beaten with it, figuratively of course, what choice to I have other than to take the opposite stance and fight back?

      Ignore the hype and try to make a judgement based purely on the merits of the paper itself?

    • "If the deniers had any chance of being right I’d jump ship in a second."

      I was having much the same thought this morning while listening to a BBC World Service report about Shell fracking in South Africa. How wonderful must it be to listen to a story like that and think: 'oh good! more energy for Africa!'

      Instead I'm worried about my nieces and nephews and their children yet to be born.

    • That's a lot to chew on. Some day I'll have to explain how sales actually works, maybe over a nice Italian dinner. Meet me at Il Fornetto?

      I love when you say, "We describe what our product actually does", but you must know that sales doesn't work that way. And I suspect that's kind of what you're seeing. People buy things for any number of reasons, but rarely because they understand the facts. Mainly, people buy because at some level it makes them feel good, it satisfies a need. If they buy the wrong product, but it makes them happy, then what? And as much as our founding fathers believed in fostering an educated and deliberative polity, they also believed in, among other things, the pursuit of happiness. You can't really stop the pursuit of happiness, so best to recognize it for what it is.

      So, I am absolutely not saying I want you to shut up. What I am saying is that we need to figure out how to be convincing over the noise and hyperbole. My professor emeritus friend, who just gave a UU service on the topic, did very little to sell the idea of how serious the situation is. In the after-service few people talked about the ideas he had presented, but rather how he presented them. His presentation was aloof and distant and erudite, and full of facts.

      I'm sorry if I'm supporting Pielke on this. While it's not your job to sell ideas about climate change to the seven billion others of us, it is your job to get the facts right, a job you do admirably, a job that requires you to do the toe-to-toe.

      So let's talk about what the messaging is really about, or what it needs to be about, if it's not about facts. I'll say it. It's about getting laid. Sooner or later it's always about getting laid. I'll put that in context for you at a later time.

      John Lennon said it, "when you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow". That's what made the Heartland Institute billboards so disarming. They knew that to tie climate change to an image of someone nobody would want to sleep with, they won a few more minds in the few milliseconds it took to process that. It's a powerful emotion at work.

      The battle is for the hearts and minds and gonads of america, and the world. Starry eyed couples will bond over the idea, and not even know what hit them, and in bonding they will come to believe it as if they've always believed it, like they've always understood it. It will become their truth. Yes, I'm saying that Climate Changes needs to be sold like Axe body wash, like Obama's 2008 Change message, like gay marriage. When sponsors get behind it and give people a reason to believe it, when there's an economic reason, or bonding reason, or whatever, that's when you'll start to see true change.

      • What I want to do with this site is just to make the conversation itself sexy.

        We may have to settle in the end for making the business-as-usual option look more like, well, I had better not say that. We have to make business-as-usual look even less sexy than Bill McKibben looks at his most gaunt and dolorous. (He should start eating more junk food.)

        But this gets us to Schneider's infamous prescription and a whole mess more trouble if we adopt it. If we make the low-carbon future look too sexy we are probably kidding ourselves at best. It's just very probably not as bad as the other one.

    • Well, I think where Schneider had some meat, if you read into his admonition, is that it's not good enough to be right. You must also be believable. Being believable is part of being sexy. I'll write more on this in a bit.

    • I look forward to it.

      But the core issue is not just winning by being sexy.

      The core issue is how society makes decisions. Even if we climate folk manage, despite the inherent unsexiness of our position, to look sexy, that is a huge win. But it is a hell of a way to make decisions.

      The important thing is not to make the zero carbon society sexy, though I'd go for it in a minute if I knew how. The important thing is to make the TRUTH sexy.

      We do not have the luxury of getting the carbon problem wrong. But we also don;t have the luxury of getting it right while getting some other complex existential threat wrong. The world is fraught with these and has no choice but to reorganize around competence.

      Of course competence itself is sexy. But faking competence is a strategy with a long evolutionary history. And fake competence is easier.

      If you haven't read Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air", please rush to the bookstore and get it and read it. Since reading it I do not think any view of the world that doesn't include Jacob Priestly's experiences described in that book is complete. It certainly should be required reading for Unitarians. The key point is that being fiercely democratic does not allow us to choose mob impulses over the informed reason. We have to overcome the mob mentality, not just channel it. And that's the really hard part.

      See also Bambi vs Godzilla

  9. Dan Thompson commented:

    "Now, I will say, for me, the recent Hansen paper makes sense. I like its sober approach. But when that paper is rolled up and I’m beaten with it, figuratively of course, what choice to I have other than to take the opposite stance and fight back?"

    A third option would be to communicate with someone other than your emeritus friend who WRITES IN CAPS.

  10. In the NPR piece Roger Pielke Jr. is quoted:

    Science policy expert Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado said Hansen clearly doesn't understand social science, thinking a study like his could spur action. Just because people understand a fact that doesn't mean people will act on it, he said.

    In an email, he wrote: "Hansen is pursuing a deeply flawed model of policy change, one that will prove ineffectual and with its most lasting consequence a further politicization of climate science (if that is possible!)."

    What is Roger Pielke's advice to us? If (in his opinion) Hansen's action, of publishing his work, is unlikely to achieve the goal of motivating action on this question.

    I am puzzled.

    James Hansen publishes a study which tells us something new. Hansen has the hope that people will learn of this new result. He has the further hope that this might help motivate action. This hope of his is one peripheral to the primary motivation which would be to inform his colleagues and the wider public. We are then told by Roger Pielke Jr. that this action of Hansen will somehow not improve the present situation, but will somehow worsen the present situation.

    How can this be?

    How can more knowledge about the functioning of our world act as a disincentive to appropriate action?

    I have a question for Roger Pielke Jr.

    If the public is fully informed of the magnitude of the existing consensus in the scientific community, if the public is informed of how our modification of the atmosphere is effecting the climate, if the public learn of the magnitude of the effect those changes will have on the common wealth of the entire world, which I expect he would admit is necessarily going to be quite negative, and if the public are then presented with the choice of voting for a government which would take substantial meaningful action, does he suppose that the reaction would then be to do nothing?

    Does he truly believe that people are so completely and irredeemably depraved?

    I want to know if that is -in truth- his considered opinion of humanity. Are we really that stupid? If so, what follows? Do we wait and see exactly how bad it gets? Shall we sit on our hands?

    If in Roger’s opinion Hansen’s actions are inadequate does he have some workable alternative plan for action?

    Is any one acting in a manner that meets with his approval?

    If so I would be interested to know who are Roger’s exemplars.

    What person or persons are the best actors in science education, and policy?

  11. I cannot accept that when the house is on fire it is not necessary to yell in whatever voice one has, or if able to be calm, evacuate the premises in whatever method is available.

    We cannot vacate this issue because some people don't like the way it is delivered; this is just one more complicated way of killing the messenger.

    re ALL CAPS, agreed that there are plenty of more rational sources around and it would be best to be informed instead of taking one's toys and going home. Pielke is particularly iniquitous in subtling undermining the message, but he does not change the truth, only prevent understanding.

    • Oh dear, typos and obfuscation, my bad. That's subtly undermining.

      And Dr Pielke Jr's skills do not include being able to change the truth. I did not intend to sound as if he had a sterling respect for scientific truth though he talks a good game.

  12. Dear Dr. Doom,

    Imagine you're right.

    That is, people starts to believe you're right about the honestly brokery dance.

    What happens next?

    I hope something big happens, because you've invested a lot in that victory.

    VERY BIG, to use the emeritus dramatization.

    ***

    My thought experiment amounts to a simple question: what's the point of winning this argument?

    If you convince me that the point is worthwhile, I might be tempted to help you finding the evidence Jonathan Gilligan is asking.

    For instance:

    > [I]f participants believe that they have a stake in the outcome and will have to live with the decision and with their fellow decision makers, they may take the discussion more seriously and try harder to reach a decision that is mutually acceptable. But knowing that the discussion ends with a decision that counts may have just the opposite effects. Participants may act more strategically, show less tolerance for opponents, and take more extreme positions. Groups such as juries that are charged with reaching consequential decisions often polarize (Sunstein 2002), whereas Fishkin’s “juries” (deliberative polls), in which the participants are not asked to reach a collective decision at all, are less likely to do so
    (Fishkin & Luskin 2005, p. 293). Theorists are not surprised that, when group discussion has little “possibility of making a real practical difference,” the deliberation is less “critical and emancipatory” than they might wish (cf. Cohen 2007, p. 234; Rosenberg 2007a).

    http://www.bids.unibe.ch/unibe/rechtswissenschaft/oefre/bids/content/e3409/e3822/e3824/linkliste3827/Thompson.pdf

    I'm not showing this quote as an evidence that could swing Jonathan, but only as an example of place one could start to dig.

  13. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, August 12, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  14. Devil's advocate here. I agree with the observations about salesmanship, but there are different sorts of pitches. The reptilian part of the brain that responds to a sales pitch aimed at the gonads also has a pretty lively response to fear. Political campaigns use this freely. Nobody wants to sleep with the Unibomber, but nobody wants to get into an elevator with him, either. And fear trumps sex -- Maslow's hierarchy of needs and all that.

    That's not to say that fear-based motivating hasn't been a disaster for environmentalists up to this point. The climate-change message has gotten mixed up with lots of fear-based environmental messages from recent decades, and people who are only marginally interested in these issues don't engage because they think we're all crying wolf. If you don't look too hard, the planet has been looking basically okay so far.

    Except that this year, it isn't looking okay any more. It's no longer about the polar bears or people living on islands that I've never heard of before. It's about freakish weather affecting almost everyone I know. When Hansen drops in to tell me that climate change is driving this, it's not like he's raising a new alarm -- it's providing the thinking parts of my brain with some rational confirmation of what my reptile brain is already panicking about.

    I think the playing field has changed in the last few months. It's not all abstractions. The wolf is in plain view. As John Lennon also said, "We just wanna change your head." Head = changed.

    And, BTW, Bill McKibben, much as I admire him, is a problematic front man.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>