This was written somewhat in haste and I never explained the title. “Swim in your own lane” were words spoken by Ed Maibach at a science blogger meeting at AAAS. This amounted to a suggestion that scientists limit themselves to science and leave public communication of science to professionals. I find this advice misplaced, and this article is an attempt to explain what it is about science outreach that the Public Understanding of Science community itself misunderstands, and to explore why they make these mistakes.
David Roberts, whom I usually think very highly of, has publicly blurted the following:
So scientists can be as studiously neutral as they want. It will make no substantial difference. The battle is over cultural identity; it will be long, and messy, and the outcome is unlikely to have much to do with how scientists behave.
David is one of the best thinkers and writers on the environment, period, so where does this nonsense come from? To be fair, while a first draft of this article was pending, David penned a much longer and rather more intelligible version of it. But as I suspected (see my comment on the first link) he is inspired by the completely baffling recent Dan Kahan piece which uses John Stossel as an example of something that “the other side” also “does”.
Shades of false balance! Stossel has long since revealed himself as utterly incompetent to report on climate. Kahan’s casting of him as “just like” the other “side” is based on what, exactly? Basically that both sides do not pay enough attention to Dan Kahan. While I can see why this would bother Dr. Prof. Kahan, I don’t see that he has made a case that the rest of us should worry about it.
What is behind this nonsense, and why does it appeal to a generally sensible and perceptive person like David?
TO THE HAMMER ENTHUSIAST EVERYTHING IS A NAIL
It turns out that there is a social science community staking out expertise on “Public Understanding of Science”. As with any social science, they have no fundamental principles on which to base their reasoning, in the sense that physical scientists can rely on mass conservation, momentum conservation and the like. The usual coherence checks of the physical sciences do not apply, and problem complexity is intrinsically enormous. One has to be very careful in the soft sciences to ensure that one’s abstractions and generalizations have utility, to define them with precision and without ambiguity, and to determine when and where they apply and where and when they don’t. This being much more difficult in the soft sciences, failures are relatively common, and in considering a given study the first thing to be sure of is whether the postulated phenomenology is the only way to explain the evidence.
A tendency, given a hammer, to call everything a nail is widespread in these disciplines. (The overvaluation of Integrated Assessment Models in evaluation of economic matters which we discussed recently is not a unique event in social sciences.)
So what is the hammer in question? The hammer that Kahan is wielding is to accuse domain scientists of being victims of the “deficit model fallacy”, and to claim that he is here to rescue us from our confusion.
My claim is that the confusion to which he refers has long since been dispelled, and that in fact it is he who is confused, confused about what climate scientists want from a discipline of public understanding of science, and insisting on delivering us the wrong product. And in this he is not alone.
To get a grip on this we have to invent a weird discipline: the sociology of the sociology of science. Let us look at the history of the “public understanding” community so we can better understand their hammer. Then we can decide whether we constitute a suitable nail.
COPUS, THE POSTER CHILD FOR THE DEFICIT MODEL
It’s important to understand that the story of the “Public Understanding of Science” actually goes back to instances of explicit advocacy for specific technologies or research domains.
The science community in the UK was granted government funds to encourage the public to continue funding science. The fact that such an expenditure of public funds is almost unimaginable nowadays in any English-speaking country notwithstanding, in 1986 a commission was formed called the Committee on Public Understanding of Science (COPUS). Its remit was:
- to review the nature and extent of public understanding of science and technology in the UK
- to review the mechanisms for effecting the public understanding…
- to consider the constraints on the process of communication
- to make recommendations
This was all somewhat euphemistic – to increase the robustness of public financial support for science writ large was the intent.
Now it strikes me that the natural mistake is to convene some scientists with a good reputation as teachers to address these questions. Of course, you will get some ideas based in experience on how to engage university students in a classroom or seminar. But students in a classroom are a captive audience and have very different motivations and interests than the general public. Further, the case at hand, science advocacy in this sense is not instruction but sales disguised as instruction. Accordingly, the professorial quasi-didactic promotional efforts will fall flat.
From all appearances, at least from what I can glean from my source (the book Successful Science Communication, Bennett & Jennings eds., Cambridge Press 2011, and especially the introductory essay) Public engagement in an evolving science policy landscape“, by Richard A. L. Jones of the University of Sheffield) this is exactly what happened.
This is unsurprising. What is surprising is the emergence of a sustained academic community from the detritus of this minor fiasco.
ASIDE: MY PAST HISTORY WITH THE “SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY STUDIES” COMMUNITY
I have to admit that I have a long-standing grudge against the sociology of science (Science and Technology Studies) community, which digging into my old usenet files may turn up. In particular there is a fellow called Bruno Latour who was doing all sorts of mischief in the 1980s and 1990s, though insofar as climate is concerned he has sheepishly and memorably recanted. For present purposes, allow me to say that I fully agree with Latour’s mea culpa – he has done us all a remarkable disservice by looking at only one side of the coin.
But since I took issue with him long ago, I am somewhat innoculated against claims to authority from “science studies” fields. Perhaps I’m again the one to be discussing yet another emperor’s garb. You may choose to discount what I say on the basis that I’m a habitual iconoclast, or you can on the other hand tentatively consider it seriously on the grounds that I was right about Latour before Latour was.
EMERGENCE OF “PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE” AS A SUBDISCIPLINE OF SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE
So, in the community of those who like to cite Latour as a serious thinker, the failure of COPUS presented them with a golden opportunity. It was, after all, an attempt by scientists to claim authority, which failed. How delightful!
A passel of more or less politically correct position papers emerged from this minor fiasco. Prominent among the critics was Bryan Wynne, who in 1990 presented a paper which I believe addressed the COPUS effort, with the eminently relativist title “Knowledges in Context” (presented at Policies and Publics for Science and Technology”. Wynne also wrote a chapter called “Public Understanding of Science” in Jasanoff et al., eds., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (1995) and is credited with coining the phrase “deficit model” in “Creating public alienation: expert cultures of risk and ethics on GMOs” Science as Culture, 10 445-481.
In short, it seems that the origin of the phrase “deficit model” was an attack on the authority of “science”, specifically, on the authority of science to justify the practice of science.
Numerous studies followed. An incident of particular salience involved biotech and genetically modified organisms. The scientific community tends to be dismissive of public concerns on this matter, something which tends to backfire.
When genetically modified crops became a controversial issue in 1999, the UK government, scientific institutions, the public, the media and industry were once more drawn into a public debate about scientific uncertainty, risks, and how best to communicate science to the public. … Monsanto, for example, still assumed that by providing the facts of genetic modification they could lead the public to accept it, not appreciating that much of the public dissent was over the ethical, social and political implications of the technology, on top of uncertainties about its safety to humans and the environment. …
The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology … put forward many recommendations as to how this relationship could be improved, not least by advocating a shift away from ‘simply giving information’ to ‘engaging the broader public about what science could and should be doing’. …
The House of Lords Report is … another watershed moment in the history of the public understanding of science in the UK.
There is a real point here, one which Steve Easterbrook has made in discussions of GMOs: while there certainly are irrational reasons for people to oppose GMOs, not all the reasons are irrational. (Do we really want to allow corporate dominance of our food supply by granting intellectual property rights on our principal crops? Not a question that scientific defense of GMOs tends to take up.) These concerns, however, are orthogonal to the science.
Essentially, then, the model that the “Public Understanding of Science” community is based on is that the “scientific community” (in practice this is generally an applied science with a technological agenda) wants public permission and approval to launch a major new technology, at least as a second best option to sneaking it into use.
There is a great deal to be said for resistance to this sort of maneuver.
One trouble is that the risk model is backwards here – the precautionary principle acts the other way round with regard to climate, but the Public Understanding of Science community does not seem willing to redesign its hammer. But it’s worse than that.
THE WRONG QUESTION
The reason that the usual methods of “Public Understanding of Science”, which apparently have achieved some success, do not apply to the domain of climate policy is fundamentally that they ask the wrong question.
I started grappling with this back in 2009, and here’s some of what I wrote on first being immersed in it recent incarnation:
Nisbet was also all about “global warming, yes or no”, so much that he seemed to think “communicating science” was all about communicating “global warming, yes”. He yammered about Al Gore incessantly. He mentioned the CRU business within seconds, and had called it “climategate”. He kept referring to AGU as “environmental scientists”!
This is the guy who wants to tell us about “framing”?
The worst of it was all the spin he was advocating had nothing whatsoever to do with science. We should talk about energy. About security. We should take a tip from congress who renamed “Cap and Trade” to “America’s Clean Energy and Security”. We should talk about the birds and the fishes. Well fine. What you need a geophysicist for in that case escapes me entirely.
It emerged that the panelists were confident that the public does not care about science, and that you should feed them symbols instead because they will ignore rational argument. To those who object that this is exactly what Al Gore did in his movie, they amend their position to state that you should feed them symbols and not be Mr Gore, but that otherwise what Gore does is perfect.
People in the audience had trouble absorbing all of this. The advice to scientists, then, is to dress up like scientists and deliver PR just like the PR office tells them to.
This isn’t what I read from serious skeptics, who are livid about getting symbolism when they ask substantive questions. The small group of relevant scientists are telling the truth when they say “we really don’t have time to discuss everything in detail, even with people who aren’t adamant about distrusting us; we have work to do”. The vicious circle of hostility and suspicion feeds on the opacity of science, not the excess of “information”.
The social scientists, big on frames, totally shared the frame of the denialists that climate science is about “global warming”, and presumed that AGU is about climate science. Of course, if that were true, we wouldn’t be very busy at all. We’d have answered the question “global warming, yes or no” in the affirmative already. So all we need to do now is to just sell our idea like soap. After all the other guys are doing that. If we don’t come up with better branding and clever promotional programs, is it any wonder we’re losing market share?
Well, if this is framing, you can keep it, thanks.
UNDERSTANDING WHERE THE BAD ADVICE IS COMING FROM
I have recently developed a better understanding of where this nonsense is coming from, after a few weeks of reading up on its history, and after a day of being exposed to no small amount of it at the Science Online Climate meeting in Washington DC today.
In particular, Nisbet at the 2009 AGU talk was big on Ed Maibach’s “six Americas” concept. At the SciOnline plenary, Maibach himself, along with two other charming and engaging panelists, discussed at great length the political question of getting Americans to “accept climate science”.
The presumption underlying these presentations, though I liked all of them better than Nisbet’s, was that people “accept climate science” if they profess themselves “concerned”.
This is, unfortunately, complete and utter bilge-water.
Most people who allow that they are concerned are very unclear about exactly what it is they are concerned about, how much they should do about it, and what the world and the various nations need to do about it to avoid what amount of risk.
We are incapable of having a reasonable public discourse on climate policy because the 99% of the public cannot put together two coherent true sentences about the state of climate knowledge. In particular, they do not understand
1) that all net carbon emissions must cease
but that 2) they do not need to stop for decades
but-but that 3) we need to start working on it now.
They do not understand that the evidence for these claims is overwhelming, precisely because for the most part they have not heard the claims and the evidence for them.
They repeat a tired childish argument with every severe event (“because of global warming”/”not because of global warming”). Some endure minor inconveniences in services of “the environment” while others do not.
There is absolutely no seriousness to the discussion because after twenty years of trying to communicate science in the presence of disinformation, we have not succeeded in conveying even a few hundred words of confident knowledge to more than a minuscule fraction of the population.
In short, there is an information deficit.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE INFORMATION DEFICIT
Just as economists, without much success to show for themselves, nevertheless claim sovereignty over the final decisions we make as a society on how to manage carbon, so do the “public understanding of science” people claim sovereignty over the question of, well, “public understanding of science”.
And climate scientists, used to the very deep hard-won knowledge they have, long forced (by the sheer asymmetry of thenumber of people on each side of the conversation) to rely somewhat on authority, are inclined to trust people who claim authority.
I am here to warn the community against this trust. The “public understanding of science” community does not on the whole understand the science all that well, and even in the exceptional cases they do not care about it very much.
We see the failure of this trust in the nature of the conversation we are forever having with them.
Climate folk: How can we get a critical mass of people to understand a dozen absolutely crucial points about the future of the planet?
PUS folk: You must not do that because it is bad. Besides, you already have 65% acceptance, so relax.
Climate folk: We may have 65% sympathy but we probably do not have 1% sufficient understanding, and even our key sympathizers make us cringe on a daily basis!
PUS: Deficit model! Deficit model! You are not listening to the experts, which is us!
The hammer that the PUS community is wielding is to accuse domain scientists of being victims of the “deficit model fallacy”, and to claim that they are here to rescue us from our confusion. Their results show that when we deliver factual evidence to people on subjects which are politically polarized, they can confidently predict that the number of “concerned” will not measurably cause an immediate change in a broad population measure.
They express this with such vehemence because they think we have failed to understand it. I have never heard any scientist address this subject who fails to understand this fact. I understand it.
I just don’t care. I can’t accept this measure as indicating that somehow scientists would be better off not explaining science, and leaving the explanations to people who obviously misunderstand the material. Obviously that would be a horrible dereliction of duty.
What I do care about is that whenever a moderately scientifically sophisticated person decides to roll up their sleeves and try to learn about the subject, they are presented with a choice between slick and polished science reporting which tells the truth at a golly-gosh gee-whiz level, the impenetrable primary literature, and a vigorous amateur community that totally distrusts the science. The professional “public understanding of science” community advises us to ignore the segment of the public that actually wants to understand science!
When we shrug in indifference to this utterly silly advice, they say we are being just as ignorant of their “social science” as we complain that others are of our hard science. But if scientists find their advice hard to conceive, it is based in the fact that our advisors are at best correctly answering the wrong question.
We are not asking for permission to do science, which is the case that they have studied and had a helpful influence upon!
We are asking for science to inform policy!
That isn’t the case they have any success in that I know of, and they seem unwilling to face this as a new topic.
They are selling “public acceptance of science” NOT “public understanding of science”. Acceptance, unfortunately, is not sufficient to the circumstance.
A CONTRADICTION – THE ABSURDITY OF THE ANSWER
One way to look at the absurdity of the answer is this: their work is self-defeating. If they have anything to say, they should not say it, because to try to convince somebody of something is impossible, and they have polling data to prove it.
THE APPEAL TO THE PRESS
Kahan makes four standard Public Understanding of Science points in a bulletted list in his essay (relink) and I think all four of them are dubious. I’m willing to discuss any of them in the comments, but for present purposes I would like to focus on one of them:
Blaming the media is also pretty weak. The claim that “unbalanced” media coverage causes public controversy on climate change science is incompatible with cross-cultural evidence, which shows that US coverage is no different from coverage in other nations in which the public isn’t polarized (e.g., Sweden). Indeed, the “media misinformation” claim has causation upside down, as Kevin Arceneaux’s recent post helps to show. The media covers competing claims about the evidence because climate change is entangled in culturally antagonistic meanings, which in turn create persistent public demand for information on the nature of the conflict and for evidence that the readers who hold the relevant cultural identities can use to satisfy their interest in persisting in beliefs consistent with their identities.
Did you get that? The fact that almost nobody far outside the tiny community of actual climate scientists has any idea of what is going on cannot be the press’s fault because people are self polarizing! Because there are only two possible positions, right? “Global warming yes” and “global warming no”. The press does not judge, it reports. It certainly has no effect.
(I even heard one speaker today speak of “global warming supporters”. Aargh! My ears hurt!)
So the fact that almost nobody has the remotest awareness of the dozen or so salient facts we need to work out a reasonably soft landing from our stupidly self-inflicted and technically solvable predicament cannot possibly be due to the fact that they have never heard a word of it.
Can you see why the press loves this Kahan guy? If you can’t, revisit Jay Rosen please.
The fact that the press has had no effect on this situation is not a defense of the press! It is an indictment of the press! It is the job of the press to convey relevant information!
(By the way if you see what Arcenaux’s article has to do with Kahan’s point, you’re better at reading this, ahem, stuff, than I am.)
I guess David Roberts is close enough to this culture to buy into it. I’m a bit shocked. Usually he has his head screwed on right.
ON SWIMMING IN YOUR OWN LANE
Aside from relying on polls that test sympathy rather than understanding, the clear message of the Public Understanding of Science community to the climate community is to stick to our knitting. Climatologists are to do the science and produce the reports, and leave it to the PUS folk to “convince” the public. Of what the public is to be convinced, one remains unsure. For all their talk (and, don’t get me wrong, their good and decent intentions) it is entirely unclear what they themselves understand.
Because of their intellectual history, public understanding of science is of no interest to them: they are interested in cases of selling acceptance, not of promoting understanding. Since we lack sufficient understanding to have an honest public discourse, they are part of the reason we cannot have a sensible discussion.
Maibach was explicit about their claim to sovereignty in the conversation. “Just swim in your lane” he said. Someone (my apologies, I can’t recall who) pointed out to me that this was a clearly turf-defensive move. “If climate scientists move into any other lanes, theirs would be the first one.”
THE FUNDAMENTAL ERROR
The Public “Understanding” of Science community cut its teeth on scientific communities acting in their own self-interest. Climate scientists are not acting in their own self-interest at all when they try to communicate with the public.
When people ask me what “side” I’m on, I like to say I’m pro-Earthling.
The IPCC is fundamentally a pro-Earthling organization, depending on the generosity of the participating institutions and individuals to produce a product of immense importance and value. Climate Science Online, similarly, is a meeting of people who want to help the world get through the impending bottleneck years intact. Thus it is disturbing to hear not only bad advice but turf-sheltering in this context.
Besides, if we wanted to be narrowly focussed we wouldn’t have become interested in climate in the first place. We have no particular lane to swim in!
Yes, of course given the vicious attacks, especially on Ben Santer and Mike Mann, it is necessary to stand up for them as human beings. But it is not the scientific community that we are defending or promoting here. It’s the planet. We aren’t looking for a green light for some expensive research proposal. We’re looking for buy-in to an immensely important and unprecedented (but not overwhelmingly conceptually complex, thank goodness) worldwide conversation.
Nobody much is helping us, and the people who are asking us to defer to them on the matter are answering the wrong question.
They are friendly and well-intentioned but they are no allies. What they do comes under “the opposite of helping”.
(8/17: Various updates for clarity)