Science Meta-Literacy Trumps Literacy

I don’t entirely agree with the conclusion, but John Nielsen-Gammon makes a brilliant and important case.

He says:

At last December’s AGU meeting, I was asked to give a talk in a session on barriers, misconceptions, and progress in climate literacy, from a state climatologist’s perspective. The basic idea behind climate literacy is that, because climate is such a major policy issue these days, people need a better understanding of climate in order to make better decisions.

I rebelled.

The solution to this problem is not scientific literacy, but what I call scientific meta-literacy. Forget that dream about enabling the public to independently evaluate scientific claims on their merits – that’s just not going to happen. Instead, enable the public to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of scientific information.

John makes a fresh case against my long-held belief that science exposition is a crucial component of dealing with sustainability issues. Advocates of the “deficit model fallacy” position would do well to absorb his presentation rather than parroting the odd social science study.

I’d like to thank “Willard” for pointing this out, in the context of a resent debate he has had with Steve Mosher. Everybody knows I’m not an unalloyed Mosher fan, but in the present case I am more aligned with Steve than with John. I don’t think we can duck the responsibility to make the scientific case as clear and cogent as possible. This includes making the case seem as urgent as it actually is.

I’d suggest that John’s closing call for precision and reliability is crucial, but the implied call for the sort of dispassion that John himself displays may well be past its sell date. We are not in an ideal situation.


  1. I agree with John (as I've sort-of said before, e.g. But that doesn't remove the need for blogs like this (or mine). People also need resources for real information.

  2. While revising my notes, I am reminded of this list of false dilemmas:

    Play it safe - Take unnecessary risks.

    Know your limitations - Think your superman.

    Remind yourself it's just a job - Your job is the only way to exercise you creativity.

    Show you're the smartest guy in the room (scepticism) - Be gullible believe in everything.

    Be the tough guy (demand to see the data) - You know better than them, use your guts... all the time.

    Respect history - Don't learn from history.

    Crush early stage ideas - Assign your limited resources to every single idea.

    Been there done that (experience) - Reinvent the wheel, every time.

    Keep your mind closed - Think out of the box.

    Assume there is no problem - Assume there is always a problem, paranoia is good.

    Underestimate your customers - The customer is always right.

    Be a mentor (give sound advice) - Keep your knowledge for yourself.

    Be suspicious of the creatives - Be suspicious of the technicals.

    Act like a grown-up - Act like a baby

    If it Ain't Broken, Don't Fix It - Prevention is the best cure.

    Take position - Act like Solomon.


    I think this should cover most of the postures in ClimateBall's op-eds and perhaps elsewhere.

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