Swim in Your Lane: How the “Public Understanding of Science” Community Fails and Betrays the Climate

UPDATE 12/2016:

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?


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.


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.


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.


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 GMOsScience 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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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 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)

Photo by Michael Hooper is in the Creative Commons (CC by 2.0)


  1. Interesting background I was mostly unaware of, although events of the recent past provide more than enough material to come to the same conclusions. Latour's realization that he was being hoist on his own petard was a rare moment in academic history. (BTW, here's his complete article should anyone want to see it.)

    I'll have more to say, but for now will just make the obvious point that it's not majority acceptance of the implications of the science we need, but rather a critical mass for sufficient action, the former just being a sign post on the way to the latter and rather distant from it to boot.

  2. There is a long history of demanding to control the interface between science and the public and not just oozing out from the PUS types (who could resist, not Eli to be sure), but also the economists (Nordhaus, Tol, etc.), political science types (well you know who) and others.

    The serious place to look for help is the marketing community, in short the Mad Men. They may be scum, but they know how to sell. Gore was effective because an Inconvenient Truth was constructed as a political marketing effort based on scientific knowledge, but designed to communicate in ways that were known to work. Climate Reality is a similar marketing effort, and thus, perhaps the best chance of bridging the gap.

  3. Thank you.
    Just an fyi, the term "pro-Earthling" is being widened to refer to "all species", which will encourage general-public to hear it as touting what's been characterized as (and does contain some of) the environment-over-humans tribe.

    If you & others (self included) believe 1% of public understands the salient facts, what are the salient facts? Can we narrow them down to the fundamentals? (your 3 pts above are indeed fundamental, maybe there should be a SkepticalScience-type additional-info levels of presentation, beyond that?) Then can we test it please?

    Also - are the George Mason CCCC reports peer reviewed? (and if so, should the term "peer" be widened to include scientists? )

    > The Public “Understanding” of Science community cut its teeth on scientific communities acting in their own self-interest. [But] Climate scientists are not acting in their own self-interest at all when they try to communicate with the public.


  4. Is there any lineage connecting the present "Public Understanding of Science" types with the branch of Philosophy of Science that launched the so-called "Science Wars" of the 1990s? I realize it's quite different in some ways, but ... they're both examples of people who don't/can't actually do scientific research claiming some dominion or higher ground over those who do.

  5. Keeping in mind that I recently voiced some thoughts not dissimilar from your point about swimming in your lane, there's actually quite a lot I disagree with here. (Note: I make no pretense of thinking my opinion is of great interest to anyone.) But let me focus on one topic:

    First, I fear it runs afoul of the old lumping problem. The communicators interested in this stuff probably aren't the ones writing the cheesy, false-balance stories you're irritated about.
    Second, what follows from that is that it's ridiculous to think that "deficit model" concerns (if I maybe lump too many things together, now) are some comforting avoidance of culpability. What's the flip side of saying "lousy stories don't have that much of an impact"? That good stories don't, either. How does that make the people working hard to write good stories feel? So it's not a comforting position to hold, it's a humbling (and potentially discouraging) one.
    To your larger point, there's a substantial amount of research showing that people cannot, to a large degree, be informed if the issue is already polarized. The polarization controls their intake of information. The reason you see public opinion being reduced to "yes/no" is not because the speakers are lazy or naive, but because the data they've seen make them think that way. Active blogosphere skeptics calling for transparency or [flavor of the day] are not representative of the rest of the public which doesn't give much of a damn. There just don't seem to be many people out there with "nuanced" opinions. For most, it truly is "yes/no". Present them with some clear climate science, and one group will say "see? yes!" and the other will say "pffft. no!" That reality seems clear.

  6. Acceptance might be enough under certain circumstances (I don't need to know how vaccines work, I just need to accept the science and roll up my sleeve), but acceptance is not enough given the circumstances currently surrounding climate communication.

    The biggest problem as I see it, with mere acceptance of climate science is that it isn't the science that needs to be accepted in order for policy to move forwards. It is the consequences of inaction that need to be accepted, unfortunately the scale of the consequences are hard to grasp, both in terms of dollar value and on the time-scales involved.

    More importantly, acceptance of the consequences isn't nearly as powerful as an understanding of what those consequences will ultimately mean, and given that mitigation is not free, mere acceptance might not be enough to convince people to vote for policies that will cost real money today.

  7. David Roberts redeemed himself today with an excellent piece <a href="http://grist.org/politics/can-climate-science-be-rendered-conservative-friendly/Can climate science be rendered conservative-friendly?.

    The answer is: "No".

    Information deficit doesn't work, they don't need no stinkin' information, especially not from when it comes from pointy-headed liberals.

    Reframing the problem as a security issue won't work because you settle security issues with big guns, not small cars or meat-free dinners. A public health framing does a little better, since conservatives love their children, too, but American conservatives haven't exactly shown a lot of far-sightedness on public health issues lately.

    Talking solutions is even less effective. The main reason that American conservatives don't accept climate change science is because they hate the solutions.

    Perhaps a class of trusted expert communicators will emerge, people who understand the science, the policy choices and can communicate all of this in a pre-Enlightenment ethical framework. Ha!

    Maybe people will gradually come to their senses, as they listen to their children and see with their own eyes that the climate really is changing. It has happened before, the once impossible became the irresistible on civil rights, on women's emancipation and it's happening now on gay marriage and drug decriminalization. It may only take another generation on climate change. If only we had another generation.

    Let's just focus on the uncommitted and the half-hearted. A big chunk of the US public is a lost cause, as are small parts of the public in other parts of the developed world. Let's stop wasting energy engaging them, except to staunch the flow of misinformation.

  8. Your good marketing guy is here, but he got buried by Kahan (about whom I agree with you, he's too full of himself) in another session at the online climate meeting (plenary this am, with Kahan, Mann, and the wonderful Tom Armstrong, just after hour 1 minute 15, here:


    Andy Skuce link is broken, but I didn't find that article any less obscurantist that the others. Too many words about a problem we all know too well. I think we should agree that endless talk is just that, full of wind and going nowhere.

  9. Frankly I don't buy what Roberts is selling.

    it’s just a fantasy that we can limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees with nothing but a tax.

    With a small tax, I agree, but with a large enough tax, this could be achieved. Mark Jaccard gave an interview on Quirks and Quarks a few years ago mentioning that even a price on carbon that rises relatively quickly to $200 per tonne would only lead to a small increase in what we pay for energy (as the price of carbon rises, we would inevitable switch to lower carbon or carbon free sources of energy).

    I'll agree that this is currently a political non-starter, but such a tax could be designed to give conservatives exactly what they say they want.

    Ultimately there are too many conservatives for me to imagine a way of solving this issue without them. Sure short term victories are possible, but the problem is large enough that short term victories are not enough.

    The good news is that I don't think most conservatives are hardcore deniers, they just listen to the wrong people. Most conservatives probably can be reached, though obviously not all of them (I have little hope of Inhofe being reachable)

  10. Most of the people do not have a clear idea of what they are saying "no", or for that matter "yes" to. I wish people could at the least have a clear idea of what it is they are rejecting, or for that matter, accepting. It is that, not some sales pitch and whether or not they buy it, that I think is what we should be calling "public understanding of science".

    I am not going to give up on the "deficit model" not only because proper discussion of the evidence in public spheres has not yet happened. (I picked up the Washington Post today and scanned it for any mention of climate. I saw *not* *one* *word*. (UPDATE - actually there was a little piece about Obama's new solar panels, and the previous photo-ops when Carter installed some and Reagan subsequently removed them. But why you would want such things was not discussed.)) But also because the whole concept of a "deficit model" arose, as I describe here, in very different science communication contexts.

  11. Here are two good communication efforts. The first just appeared, an Op Ed in the NYTimes. The Times is a mixed bag these days, but has mounted an effort to present some really excellent material as well as the usual.

    Author is one Peter Brannen, whose link is rather sparse and appears focused around Martha's Vineyard, but the front page image here is well worth a look:

    The second is Fiore's latest, off topic but bitingly clear
    "Keystone Clones: The Keystone XL pipeline is not the only game in town. There are other dirty tar sands pipelines in the works, with one close to becoming a reality. See what Tar Sands Timmy's take is on the Keystone pipeline and others. A Mark Fiore political animation." - information worth knowing.

  12. As I argued in the post I linked, I'm not giving up on the "deficit model" style of communication, either, but inherent in the definition of the deficit model is an expectation that this will result in moving the public opinion needle. (That's the sticky bit.) The evidence we have tells us that won't happen- and that includes the attempted indirect route of increasing understanding as well as the direct route of persuading.

    The concept of the deficit model is not so different from the old-school (no pun intended) classroom approach-- get up, deliver the information, the students will be buckets that receive it. We know that's not the best approach. Highly motivated students will find what they need, most will miss the boat. Simply presenting information does not, on its own, reliably result in education.

  13. Scott, it is in fact exactly the "move the needle" concept that I am objecting to here.

    The whole conversation presumes we know what "the needle" is. It is designed by politicians and soap salesmen to make their job easier. But it makes our job, of building a genuine discourse about how to put the world together in the future, all the harder. Once we boil things down to a yes/no question, or even a one-dimensional continuum, we have oversimplified the problem to the point where most of the solution space to our real problems disappears.

    The PUS community interferes with actual public understanding rather than promoting it by defining it in this shallow way.

    And while I appreciate Mike Mann's promoting this essay on Twitter, I think by buying into Maibach's "six Americas" taxonomy and saying "it's the folks in the middle that we can reach" he's contributing to the polarization and oversimplification.

    A hundred years from now there will still be humans on the planet and they will still have energy systems and food systems and resource systems. How this pans out, which could be very badly, depends hugely on what we do now. Even the most laissez-faire approach to all this is in fact entangled in international relations and realpolitik. We have to find our way through this thicket as a global community, and the only thing we know about the next century with confidence is that the year 2113 will actually arrive, most likely and hopefully with a lot of people in it.

    We have to admit that the American right has the world by the nuts, and that the less responsible parts of the fossil fuel industry have the American right by the nuts in turn. This grotesque situation seems both unsustainable in the long run and in no likelihood of fading out anytime soon. Roberts' idea that we have to let it burn out on its own has some merit - there's not much we can do to speed up its collapse by addressing it directly.

    But we can be tricked into reinforcing it. Reducing our immense predicament to a one-dimensional tug-of-war plays into the hands of those promoting stasis.

    The complexity of our situation lacks precedent, and drawing on historical experience offers limited guidance. Reducing our wild circumstance to a single dimension ("global warming yes or no") drives polarization in the name of resolving it. When the actual underlying goal of the polarization is merely academic reputation and turf, it's a pathetic, shabby, and contemptible excuse for reinforcing our incapacity to face the future.

    What we need in the long run is not persuasion, but engagement.

  14. I can't help having a recurrent daytime nightmare that all communications will have to be shut off before people realize how unreal their addictions are. Advertisers and marketing own the world. mt, I love it when you get vulgar, and what you said has the ring of truth. Somebody mentioned that when the power was off, kids found lots of other stuff to do but it only took minutes to return to their media once it was back.

    Advertising and marketing rule the world, and it's not clear anyone knows how to cut past it except in the rarefied world where we waste our time (how many people care about Maibach except us overeducated types).

    However, I was heartened by Tom Armstrong and Friday am plenary - of course that's his job, to dispense comfort on behalf of the White House, at the moment - and his strong practical sense. I know this is long, but you can fast forward to his bits in this (and skip the first 12 minutes of intro):

    For example, when he suggested the local people are the ones people will listen to - the country extension agents, etc. Of course, those are the ones the right wishes to defund.

    Evidence for the point of who listens to what in a recent argument - right was saying, you never check out Fox et al., left was saying you ignore MSNBC - both correct.

    However, ABC evening news did a good satellite special last night - that reaches a few more people. Why do we need disasters to get people's attention, and why do they forget so fast. Answer: above mentioned marketing/advertising nexus ready with instant distraction - most important thing in the world, the most recent music video, sports, etc. ...

  15. A bit of your dialogue: "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."

    Does anyone really say that? I'm confused. I just read Kahan saying that he'd only accept an approach that empowered people to make informed decisions, not one that promoted blind acceptance of scientific authority. Are are you saying that's not what he really thinks?

    This is your crux para for me: "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'."

    An interesting little snippet from this Krugman paper where he explains his approach to sticking geography into his Nobel-prize-winning core-periphery model: "in a crude sense, mainstream economics isn’t going away: like it or not, the White House has a Council of Economic Advisers, not a Council of Geographical Advisers, the World Bank hires lots of economists and not many geographers, and so on". I'd add, the World Bank has also done a great deal of world developing a finance ministry state structure where a certain economic approach is thoroughly plugged into power.

    Which is all to say - you're absolutely right, economics does claim that sovereignty. But attacking economics is not going to change that. If you've been following any of Krugman's exasperated blog posts tracking which economic ideas embedded into post-crisis politicians' ears, I guess you'd know that.

    So...? So I'm wondering what it is you're getting at. What do you think should happen? Does your article presume that changing public perception is key to achieving a successful climate policy? Or should we working out which people and institutions steer decisions? Political power is massively multi-polar; it's connection to academia equally messy and - as the Krugman quote shows - economics is the social science discipline most embedded in those power structures and thus probably the most immobile.

    Do you think we have to worry about any of that, or should... I say "we", sorry: do you think scientists should worry about any of that?

    I also suspect "public understanding" is not the main problem. I don't think political systems are currently set up to "understand" our predicament either. Last year I went to two workshops in quick succession: one clearly laying out the physical severity of what we face, where politicians were invited to talk about it (none came); the other a gathering of science/social science bods and policymakers. The two-degree target dominated the latter; it's a global governance juggernaut that rolls over everything else.

    Random point: "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."

    Yeah, it does. Loads of people at Rothamsted - the publicly funded institution at the centre of the last big GM argument whose research was threatened - have been making the case that GMO is a good tech and, by supporting public work on it, it's more likely to remain in the public domain. Conversely, most people attacking GM confuse it with "corporate control of the food system" - those two are no more intrinsically linked than "software" is to Microsoft or Apple. I'm a bit surprised to see you blur GM and corporate control as well.

  16. I think you should take a closer look at what Monsanto does and their "domination" model. I am not kidding.

    In addition, providing seeds that must be bought every year is about profit, not about helping people.

    It seems that some of the older varieties of seed now being restored are actually more effective with some of the extreme conditions we are seeing.

    Monocultures are not healthy, and that is what Monsanto promotes, a monoculture with them in the only driver's seat.

  17. It is exactly the "move the needle" concept that I was trying to move the needle on. But nevermind, I don't expect you to have read my linked post.

    "The PUS community interferes with actual public understanding rather than promoting it by defining it in this shallow way."

    You know, I asked Dan Kahan a similar question to what you're saying, namely "Is it really true to say climate science literacy and acceptance are two sides of the same coin?" This is what he pointed to.

    Conversation was about this, also relevant to your point.

  18. Ah, thanks. The funny thing is, the "Science Wars" struck the dinner table conversations during my grad student years (91-96) but at the time I was completely unaware that the philosophy student who was babbling on about how quantum mechanics was a social construct represented a larger movement. It was only years later, in the political context of some postmodernists effectively saying "Sorry, our bad, we partly enabled the right wing's total divorce from scientific reality" that I learned about the wider "war". (Of course I heard about Sokal at the time.) Anyway, just explaining that I didn't immediately recognize what the reference to Latour was about - but thanks, that lead to some interesting reading.

  19. Sorry to be going O/T... I completely agree with you - that's what I was saying. I am against corporate domination of the food system, I'm not against GM. The two are not synonymous. Loads of publicly funded research into GM is taking place and it should be supported, not attacked or tarred with the same brush (even though obviously there's some overlap between people). Here's an open letter I wrote about that last year. Computing is still dominated by closed models: originally Microsoft and now Apple's walled garden of apps. Doesn't mean you should reject computing. And I'm not saying there aren't risk issues but AFAIK AAAALLL GM scientists are very clear that they're low to non-existent...

    ... and probably no more dangerous than the previous (now untraceable) approach, which was/is to just irradiate the bejeesus outa a bunch of seeds, grow them and select favourable traits. There are plant labs where people do that because it's not regulated in the same way GM is, so it's still in some ways more practical. But few people talk about that because it's not been made into a bogeyman in the same way GM has.

  20. Yes, that's almost certainly true (your last phrase, that is). Monsanto has a mandate, enforced by an army of shareholders' rights attorneys, to operate in the interest of increasing shareholder value via sustainable competitive advantage and what you describe, if it's successful, will surely achieve that (at least in the intermediate term). And some of their abuses (imho) of the legal system are reprehensible.

    But that's not really connected to public understanding of science, it's more to do with public influence (lack thereof, actually) on policy and legal remedies. Certainly, this is a subject well worth discussing and well worth the time and effort of P3 participants to discuss. But I see it as pretty much entirely distinct from PUS and the deficit model. I had that reaction to the original quote in the post ("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."). It's a valid and worthy question for discussion but not really related directly to PUS.

    So, is the question at hand "is the deficit model really a fallacy?" or is it "what can be done to bring 'the public' to a level of demand that it can have an effect on public policy?" In my clearly informal and non-rigorous "survey" of those with whom I regularly interact, most are "sympathetic" to the climate change issue in the sense described above but have much more immediate concerns. Those who aren't "sympathetic" are typically those who don't even know there's an issue. I know, at a personal level, not a lot of people who are aware that there may be an issue but are unsympathetic.

  21. I think the first place to look for help is to people with money before we get a lot of talent involved.

    I think people with money want to fund excitiing visible projects. Further, getting the attention of philanthropists on the real issue of public misunderstanding is a problem that has not been resolved in the context of the journalists and social scientists running interference for each other.

  22. Thanks.

    re: "Can we test it please?", yes, please.

    Again there is a problem of finding the people with the bona fides in the social sciences to do the study, the people in the physical sciences who understand why the study ought to be done, and the people in a position to fund it in the same room.

    In my own experience I seem to get a fair hearing from influential people until I start asking for money. Then they suddenly realize that I stubbornly refuse to fit into any fundable category and start ignoring me. So I've given up asking for money.

    So we'll have to find somebody else to do it.

  23. Yes it is my impression that this is very much a related community of social critiques of science, perhaps not as radical as Latour etc. but cut from a similar cloth. Latour is indeed cited in the volume which I have been studying and linked above.

    But also Jasanoff is cited, and she is in the same subculture as Pielke. So while the strident leftist critique is not universal, the schoolmarmish tendency to castigate scientists seems pretty endemic.

  24. Scott, just found time to read your linked post. It's very interesting.

    Let me say, though, that I remain unconvinced that the "deficit model fallacy" is entirely valid. As with economics, I think there is a confusion of small and large signals. The experiments that are feasible to conduct in a social science lab are much too small.

    Of course you will not overcome cultural resistance with a made-up article citing an actor dressed as a professor with a made-up biography. Who would have suspected otherwise?

    We already know that cultures are shifted in a mass media age by organized mass media. If I am a Fox viewer and have seen a thousand hours of mocking climate science and ten of halfhearted defenses of it, another half hour will not sway the balance. Why do people think this proves anything at all?

    So many people forget Feynman's dictum that the easiest person to fool is yourself. I wish the PUS people would apply a little skepticism to their own cohort. But if they won't, I will, and I encourage you to do so as well.

  25. I agree.

    There are reasons, I think, that a tax is suboptimal. But if any country wants to depend 100% on a revenue neutral tax to pull their weight in the transition, I see no reason it wouldn't work.

  26. I have no idea why you say that. If you accept that "global temperature is increasing" is one of the basic facts you would like people to recognize, and that assigning a high value of risk to climate change represents a desire to see policy action (public opinion needle), this is a defense of acceptance of basic facts being firmly tied to the public opinion needle. (And thus, "conflation" not being the issue.) Taken with the mountain of evidence showing that the needle primarily moves at the whim of tribal forces rather than encountering good information about the science, you see the problem.

    Regardless, I'll drop it. I can see I'm not adding any value here.

  27. 1) This essay is overlong as it stands. It originally began with a lengthy quote of Kahan's statement of support for reasoned discourse, and my unmitigated approval of it.

    Once he starts talking about Stossel he demonstrates an incapacity to actually act in support of the sort of discourse he claims to support. I indeed do not think Kahan is serious about this stance.

    2) Who is we? Again, I am happy to use the collective noun in the sense of "us Earthlings". I feel that separating the world into "scientists" and "non-scientists" is part of the problem, not part of the solution. But we could all benefit from more science-like thinking.

    3) The changes we need are too big to defer to the usual power brokers. This is part of Roger's confusion. We need public support of a sort that cannot be had without reduction of the existing information deficit, It's not as if this stuff were dull, either, but it requires thinking at a large scale that people are not used to. Those of us who understand the outlines of the problem, then, must ignore those who say it is pointless to communicate it.

    4) Countries that accept the 2 C target are well ahead of us on this side of the pond. I think if you have acceptance of that you still need broad understanding of the actual policy implications of that. But obviously the right in the US, and increasingly in other countries, in alliance with the fossil fuel industry, is doing a good job preventing the whole world from moving forward. (It remains to be seen whether the Chinese will continue to talk a good talk without walking a good walk.)

    5) The point is that GMO scientists are, in the Tamsinesque way, not especially qualified to discuss whether the government can work these tools in a more ethical way than Monsanto, or whether they must be avoided altogether. It is all beside the point of any particular organism. And here the PUS community has been notably insightful and helpful. My point here is that they are using the same hammer and climate is a very different sort of nail.

    6) I'd like it if someone wrote a GMO article for P3 that we could nucleate a serious conversation about. I am not that well-informed on it and do not have solid opinions on it. I'd appreciate if we didn;t let that topic hijack this particular thread, though.

  28. Scott, we seem to be talking past each other. No great matter, I have seen quite a lot of that these past two days. That just means we're in the thick of things.

    Failing to understand your point I will rephrase mine in the light of what I understand of your objection:

    Clearly, those who believe things that flatly aren't true aren't going to be convinced otherwise by a single exposition of facts in print or in a lecture. Clearly those incorrect beliefs were foisted upon them by some socially dysfunctional process. And clearly those are predictive of a policy position that differs from that which I would prefer.

    On the other hand, you will find few skeptics of that sort among, say, forest fire fighters, or ski hill operators, or park rangers. That may be because that population doesn't overlap. Or it may be that by the nature of their work those people have information that is not consistent with that incorrect belief.

    Clearly such extreme misunderstanding is connected in some way with rejection. Nobody will support a huge public effort on a problem they misperceive as nonexistent. But this group, while it offers cover for the fossil fuel companies to manipulate politicans on the right and is therefore important, is relatively small. And it would not offer much cover if the vast majority of conservatives had better information.

    So I don't see how any of that argues otherwise than that what we need form a discipline of public understanding of science is how to present the science so the public is maximally able to understand it. If that process is slow and weak, that is unfortunate, but it seems clear that the objective should be to strengthen it and speed it up, not to give up and call something else "public understanding".

  29. Agreed. I kind of thought that that was what I was saying.

    I (egotistically) look at myself as a bellwether of sorts. I do so because of my lifestyle, my business, my level of understanding (less than ANYONE involved in climate science per se but more than the average layperson), my conservative leanings, etc. So, when I discuss "sympathetic but with more immediate concerns," to a certain extent I'm self-reporting.

    It's hard to see how more education will change me. And yet me and my family (there are four of us), as best I can calculate, are responsible for the emission of something like96 tons of CO2 per year. And it's not getting much smaller, despite my 52 m.p.g.

    Though my comprehension of the problem is fairly good, it hasn't changed much about what I do in a given day, week, or month. Fundamentally, it's what I refer to as the "hamburger problem." I KNOW that a diet of hamburgers and fries will shorten my life, and may make its final stages worse than they need be. But THIS hamburger won't make a bit of difference. Similarly, I KNOW that the profligate emission of GHGs will lead to a dark future but THIS individual (me) not flying my airplane, not traveling to the east coast by air to arpa-e conferences, not buying "stuff," won't make a bit of difference.

    So the problem is how to get people to act as a group against a common enemy, regardless of how well they understand the problem. The last time I know of that this happened in the U.S. was the common sacrifice during WW2. I listen to Radio Classics on Sirius XM (old time radio drama, comedy, etc.) and they not only play the old shows, they play the old commercials. You can hear ads on how to use your gas rationing tickets, etc. Was the public educated about Japan, Germany, etc.? I think the average person of that era knew little of the geopolitics, but the did know the enemy.

    Sadly, that enemy made himself an immediate threat by attacking Pearl Harbor. I'm not sure what will bring the enemy to our doorstep in this case, at least while it's early enough to matter. How will better education of the public at large on scientific issues and scientific thinking change this? We need a common enemy at our doorstep.

  30. Thanks Horatio, always the mot juste! Not sure your imagery works right side foremost, though. The more I look at this stuff the dizzier it gets. Do I mean ditzier?

    All this communication about communication is going nowhere very very very very slowly.

    Scientists think more facts will fix it. Psychologizers think better psychology will fix it. Everybody wants an honest broker, and some people are pretending they know how to do that but they are often the least honest of all. Everybody is desperately worried, but nobody's allowed to say so for fear of scaring the horses. I call baloney.

    Then ALEC and its tame tea party dittoheads are busy fixing it, as in "the fix is in." Anti-science climate jackals and vultures are busy everywhere with their carrion (this image is also backwards, but I'm sure my meaning is clear).

    For example: How JPMorgan, ALEC & The Koch Brothers Are Helping Turn Police Forces Into Corporate Goons "keeping
 undesirables (reporters and activists) at bay"


    Exposed: ALEC’s New Anti-environmental Agenda Unveiled in Chicago This Week

    Michael Tobis doesn't like Fiore, but I love those fact-filled shorties and find this long-winded stuff self-indulgent. Any kind of short presentation that pushes facts front and center is helpful. I think my link to the article about the Palisades was too light on substance.

    In any case, reaching outside one's own lane is imperative if one is to have a future beyond the next small number of decades (we could argue - I'd say two, and the scientists are plumping for three or more, decades, that is).

  31. "the problem is how to get people to act as a group against a common enemy..."

    How does this work, practically and ethically, when we have multiple issues, more than one of them is crucial, and not everyone is on the same side of all the issues? Do you pick just a single issue and limit your public position-taking to that one?
    Or do you take public positions on multiple issues, potentially alienating those who are on the opposite side of some of them?

    Would a confluence of issues coming to the fore signify a divide-and-conquer PR strategy at work?

    How should a citizen act, under these conditions?

  32. Damn that is a good question. I don't know. The only answer I have is more deserving of trust and more trust. The fundamental shift we need is social, not technological. Our problems are, as far as I can tell, solvable. Just not by us.

  33. Outside of academia I doubt many conservatives consider a carbon tax conservative. The anti-tax message has much more resonance than the pro-market message.

    Conservatism is as conservatism does, but more importantly as liberalism does not. The only climate solution of significant popularity among conservatives is nuclear power. The only thing that will change this is when a conservative bashes Obama for not supporting their climate plan.

  34. The NYT thing contains the classic phrase "some scientists believe". A red flag usually indicating failed science communication. (E.g. some scientists in fact believe AIDS is not caused by HIV.)

  35. Pingback: Another Week of Climate Instability News, August 18, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  36. ... and here's a paradigmatic example for and from whose mouth this phrase is: A crazy congressman recently wrote

    I recognize that some scientists believe that global warming is caused by failed environmental practices; however, others argue that these temperature increases would incur regardless due to the warming of the center of the earth.


  37. yes, when I went back and reread it I realized I had chosen a poor example (noted below in my ranty rant . There is so much stuff bubbling up. This, however, is something that has survived my second look:


    With respect to getting a critical mass of people working together on solutions, highly visual material supplemented with satellite pictures rates highly with me. But I fear the only thing that will work in the end will be the fear fire floods stuff. We had a lot of attention from Sandy, and MSM is treating some of the bigger events with more nuance and science these days as well. But we are handicapped by the best PR that an unimaginable amount of money can buy promoting people ignoring their lying senses and a plethora of escapist media and social models (if it doesn't make young people want to scream with excitement, it's not quite there). One of our biggest talent shows (American Idol clones) featured a coal propaganda song ...

  38. Just took the time to absorb some of your excellent points. I started out liking Kahan, but got irked when he sat on anyone else and ended up thinking he is too full of himself to notice that he's not the only good voice in the room. The more mature Tom Armstrong* managed to finesse this, but others were forced to let him have the last word. I'm not saying some of his points are not valid, just that his way of expressing them is both heavy-handed and limited to his own point of view. (Of course, we all do that.)

    *This was the session I watched carefully:

  39. It is not the message that is the problem IMO it is the lack of "money" to buy mass media that ignore any points put forth other than the status quo of the "socially enabled capitalistic" paradigm. The fundamental flaw with Western Capitalism, IMO, is the ability of the few to profit from the pollution of the commons as "We the People" are left holding the clean-up bag. Clearly privatized profits and socialized loses is a failed paradigm. Any Nation that places no dollar value on Earth's life support systems, (unless one throws a gum wrapper on the street), and lets the oceans become acidified, climate destabilized, rivers and dirt polluted and more, only to insure the GDP climbs, has become chained to oblivion in the long run. Socially enabled capitalism eats its young and is even working on the life support of future generations.
    Stop profits from the pollution of the commons. Not any job, only green jobs can begin to lift the nations of this exploited world from the morass bequeathed humanity at this point. Black jobs only dig the hole deeper. Go Green. Resistance is fatal to Earth's life support systems.
    The GOP do not support abortion with their tax money. Fine. A precedent. Why do "we" tolerate the funding with billions of our tax dollars, the ecocide of the Planet?

  40. Outside of academia I doubt many conservatives consider a carbon tax conservative. The anti-tax message has much more resonance than the pro-market message.

    On a knee jerk level no doubt that a revenue neutral carbon tax is unappealing, however that doesn't change the fact that such a tax is compatible with conservative ideology in a way that most (all?) other carbon mitigation policies are not.

  41. MT: "The point is that GMO scientists are, in the Tamsinesque way, not especially qualified to discuss whether the government can work these tools in a more ethical way than Monsanto, or whether they must be avoided altogether."

    Perhaps not, but are plant scientists not qualified to say what the impact of cultivars is most likely to be? I would say they are. There are obvious differences to assessing the impact of sticking carbon into the atmosphere - but there are also a lot of similarities, and those become stronger the further down the causal chain you get towards nonlinear risks and feedbacks.

    So I'm not quite sure I understand your point here, would you be able to elaborate a bit more? You may have strong views about the science that, as a non-scientist, it would be good for me to understand. I'm not really seeing the difference - and on a first read, it actually sounded like you're saying "climate scientists should be heeded but plant scientists should defer to the public", which makes no sense to me.

  42. "on a first read, it actually sounded like you’re saying “climate scientists should be heeded but plant scientists should defer to the public”, which makes no sense to me.

    Sort of, but it's not as capricious as it sounds.

    I'm saying that professional organizations advocating for their own interests should indeed be discounted, far more than professional organizations speaking in the public interest, more or less orthogonal to their own interests.

    It seems likely to me that both American climate science collectively and NASA/space would be much more vibrant today had there been no controversy.

    It may well be the case that some individuals within the academy benefitted in their own careers from stirring up controversy. To my eye these hangers-on mostly make centrist plays or naysayer plays rather than consensus plays. Regardless, had those cards not been on the table they'd have benefitted from something else.

    But did the field, the core interest of the professional society, benefit? This is unlikely.

    Consequently when AMS or AGU or their equivalents on your side of the pond make policy recommendations that don't directly affect their funding or workflow, they deserve a different sort of hearing than if they do.

    Crucially, our goals in this endeavor are NOT to win a particular funding battle or improve the funding environment or promote our line of business. Our goal is to ensure that the public discourse is suitably well-informed about our findings.

    The GMO scientists are probably telling the truth that specific GMOs are harmless. But they confuse that assertion (which many disbelieve) with the actual question at hand, which is how the next million years of life on earth is to be conducted, not whether we should stick carotene in our rice. . "Surely", they believe, "we can convince the public that this pretty funny-colored rice is harmless".

    This confusion is the deficit model fallacy

    Counter-GMO activists will, of course, be satisfied if people believe "GMOs, yuck!" of which "vitamin-enhanced rice, unhealthy" is surely a subset. So they are politicizing the discourse, by not challenging incorrect beliefs which support their policy. But the GMO promoters stubbornly refuse to engage on the real problem. So we have a fake debate. But here the advice of the Kahan sect to the GMO advocates is at least salient: you are not engaging the public on its real issues which are values-based not facts-based.

    The motivation of the climate science community is strictly Jeffersonian - an informed public can manage its affairs better than an ill-informed public. We seek a well-informed public. It is one thing to disagree with the public's decisions. It is quite an other to see the public blundering on the basis of some few key misunderstandings.

  43. Martin (I hope you don't mind being first-named, I have come to regard you as a friend), I asked PW about the Palisades. He has a strong interest in geology and history, and confirms point by point the facts in that article. I would love to have his understanding of geology and geography; we have a wonderful old book that comes from *his* father (a plant pathologist who must have known Tenney Naumer's granddad - how circular!).

    In fact, making associations, while mt deplores my obsession with water vapor animations, it is this physical intuitive understanding of how the planetary circulation works that is one of my fondest desires.

  44. You point to a contradiction between those who advocate that scientists should carefully frame their arguments for specific audiences and those (perhaps sometimes the same people) who say that scientists should just stick to the facts.

    Culturally-sensitive framing is, of course, nothing if it is not advocacy, since it is designed to appeal to people's prejudices--or at least not to provoke instinctive rejection reactions--in order to persuade. Advocacy isn't bad of course and it could be said that all of our arguments are advocacy, whether we make them in a peer-reviewed journal or a TV commercial.

    Somebody once told me: "Remember, we are all in sales". That seemed crass and cynical at first, but it's true. With almost every thing we say or write, we are trying to sell something; an idea, a product, ourselves.

    What I have found is that many people who decry the deficit model appeal to facts when trying to bludgeon the deficit model itself, rather than carefully framing their own case so that it doesn't threaten the cultural cognition of the people who naturally think that facts matter most. The underlying asymmetry here is that the cultural cognition people, mostly themselves liberals, seem to believe that culturally sensitive messaging is only needed for conservatives. Progressives who might be irrationally opposed to GMO's need to be clobbered with facts and the scientific consensus, whereas when you are talking about climate change to Christian conservatives, it's a good idea to dissemble on the age of the Earth, lest you turn the audience off.

    I wrote a comment on Keith Kloor's blog a few month's ago, pointing out that he believes in a softly-softly approach in selling climate science, but wields a facts bludgeon when bashing the hippies who fear GMO's.


  45. Dear Susan (... yeah!) the article is indeed not totally bad - except for this

    Some scientists believe we are now in the midst of another great extinction

    and this

    If catastrophe strikes, would future geologists find evidence of New York, a marker for our time, just as the Palisades have survived as a tombstone for another era?

    “No,” he said. “It would be eroded away fairly quickly.”

    Perhaps the jounalist wanted to show some mercy with his readers. Or, while bad news sells, really bad news perhaps doesn't. Here's what some scientist, Niles Eldredge wrote in 2001:

    There is little doubt left in the minds of professional biologists that Earth is currently faced with a mounting loss of species that threatens to rival the five great mass extinctions of the geological past. As long ago as 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is currently losing something on the order of 30,000 species per year —

    That was before climate disruption started accelerating the 6th Great Extinction... (e.g. molding Atelopus frogs). While New York might erode away, we have already made a lasting imprint in the geologic record (chemistry, fossil record). And (I know I don't need to tell you) it will get much worse. This is just the humble beginning of the obscene Anthropocene.


    mt deplores my obsession with water vapor animations

    Why that? Haven't noted.

    I don't know more than you about this stuff, but my intuitive halluzinations aren't always wrong: On the surface, Arctic sea ice is for dead matter reductionists (not - it's a complex system undergoing a phase transition possibly this very year, alas mostly hidden below the clouds). In contrast, the planetary water vapor circulation gives a much more vivid image of the liveliness of our planet. My hunch is that some spectacular (beautiful and frightening) reconfiguration of the circumpolar dance of whirls and wobbles and streams will happen these very years, marking a new epoch of climate change where climatology and meteorology meet. In time lapse this might serve the iconic image of our century, perhaps awakening a few folks like Earthrise did in 1968. Dreams! (I guess this can't simply done as a movie. And people will stay blind anyhow.)

  46. I particularly enjoy the clarity in this (both Tobis and Skuce) except for the term "deficit model" which is unfamiliar to me. In the midst of roiling information about so many different problems, I resist educating myself as to what it means.

    The idea that without conflict NASA and climate science would be more vibrant particularly resonates for me. I have chosen to do battle with some paid deniers and their tactics are disgusting and to a large extent effective. Their continuous efforts to marginalize anyone who effectively calls out their bullshit are wearying and sadly effective. In addition, they are skilled at setting us at odds with each other. Real conversations would be much richer without these diversions.

    I would note that I am not against GMOs in principle, but the Monsanto tactics move into the realm of psychopathy that we find so often in big powerful entities of control these days. It muddies the issues and prevents development of true benefits.

    Avoiding making a separate post, in case Martin Gisser is reading, yes, I didn't show him the article, just brought up the Palisades and he talked about that volcanic geology which he said extends all the way to the gut of Nova Scotia. The Princeton area that used to be underwater is the end of the Atlantic rift valley. I understand that he has been able to picture these events (upheavals?) as living things, and wish my understanding could approach that level for all the earth sciences. I wish I had known that at this end of my life I would become so fascinated by earth systems, so I would not have wasted the bits of my education along the way. My mind has fossilized and I don't absorb these new ideas the way I have come to understand line, color, pigment, and composition, which is instinctive with me, especially after years of teaching. There's nothing like trying to impart knowledge to solidify it in one's own mind.

  47. This conversation has a tendency to wander off into so many directions at once (not that it seems all that clear to begin with, at least to me) that I think you need to be precise about what you're trying to say. I don't think it's advocacy or framing or sales to tell people that their drinking water must be treated because it contains organisms that cause water-borne disease. Part of the problem is the mental baggage that each term (advocacy, framing, sales) carries with it. Telling surgeons that they need to wash their hands between patients in the 19th Century may have been a sort of professional "advocacy" but I don't think of it as framing or sales. At the time, what other steps could a surgeon take to prevent infection while working on patients? Telling people exactly how to go about dealing with real issues that follow from new accurate information about how the world works may turn into advocacy or framing or sales but that is a matter of how to deal with the problem rather than of what is going on out in the world and why you should do something.

    I have not kept up with the nature of the "problems" that GMO's are intended to solve and I don't trust Monsanto to do anything but find new ways to increase its profits. My initial presumption is that anything that Monsanto does, no matter how it may look on an immediate or superficial basis and no matter what good or bad effect it may ultimately have on others, is "sales" and the sole intention is corporate profit for Monsanto alone. I strongly, and with good reason, suspect that Monsanto's corporate charter specifically says that Monsanto exists solely to make a profit by any legal means, so what else should I expect from them? The actual science of GMO's is not an issue for me (yet).

    My impression, based on the best current (scientific) information I'm aware of, is that climate is a major problem and we must do something, and the only real question is how we deal with it. My impression of this discussion is that MT believes that people must first be informed that there is a climate problem (the water is contaminated and if you drink it you will get sick?; smoking is causing cancer?; ticks can transmit disease?) using as much basic (and, as it happens, scientific) information as may be appropriate or necessary, after which we can all discuss how to deal with it with better odds that something useful will actually be done. MT does not believe that the majority of people have this information, and that all this talk about framing and what amounts to sales and public relations is cart before horse stuff. Is that right?

    What is the best approach to this? Is it like a war, or the New Deal, or a public health "campaign" that is intended to stop a communicable disease rather than sell a new medical product, or what? A "war effort" approach seems like it requires at least one commonly held belief in a clear goal (win the war, defeat the enemy) and leadership in that one direction. Multiple issues don't count much unless one of them gets so big that the war effort is derailed. Does that fit? As for other approaches, I think one complication is that it is not like the situation where an individual person may contract a disease and thus has a specific incentive to act for their own or their family's immediate benefit even though the big picture is "public" health. It looks like it's more a "Tragedy of the Commons" situation than anything else and, offhand, my impression is that people have historically done really badly with that sort of problem. Any of that work for anybody?

  48. I think everybody's heard of the climate issue by now, but I don't think enough people understand it well enough for a sensible policy to emerge.

    I don't think the polls that show "65 % support" for "doing more" amounts to much; there's enough support for token actions, but not enough support for a serious collective effort. I think we are very far from an adequate social consensus.

    More on this to follow.

  49. Anthony Paul,

    You have done an excellent job of cutting through the BS here, and imo deserve a compliment. It is complicated by the existence of paid advocacy that has nothing to do with truth or humankind's best interests. The waters are muddied, and people like us who love to talk and write are tempted to temporize where action is what is needed. But action has been tried, and as you can see with the US House of Representatives, progress is impossible. They are planning to have some kind of show trials of climate science in September, and call in "experts" who are anything but, who have been legitimized in the halls of money and power (see Curry, Judith for example; Greenfyre put it as well as anyone, and I hear she's on NPR today, representing the phony "middle"):

    What I found is that while Curry claims to want to build bridges, she is going about it with a flame thrower. Her approach, whether intentional or not, is a recipe to make matters far worse, and it’s working!

  50. A lot of interesting ideas here but many are bereft of the help otherwise afforded by the domain known as social science. As well, the entire discussion might strike some (me, for instance*) as loaded with poorly veiled contempt for research domains outside of the "hard sciences." The juxtaposition is ironic given the motivation of the discussion.

    The problem of the Stossel equivocation rings true. The rest is not so obvious and is lacking enough known or correctly expressed variables to produce a useful result.

    The observer effect doesn't preclude hard science from making useful predictions about the behavior of gases and myriad other collectives that defy comprehensive scrutiny of any given member. Similarly, experiments can be made to yield useful predictive tools for describing the behavior of what we call living organisms, including humans. Both levels and fields of inquiry (social science being an example of truly hard science given the intelligently uncooperative nature of its subject) can be communicated in ways making them useless for the public good. One is more prone to that than the other, arguably because it's harder for us to think about, a harder subject.

    *I'm pretty sure I've said all of this before; as a spouse of a social scientist who has been forced to read N+1 drafts of publications it's hard not to be disturbed when encountering such a casserole of speculation and insult, seasoned with a dangerously small amount of knowledge. A dish mostly of what shouldn't be included, missing what should.

  51. I don't think social science is bad. I think Kahan is doing bad social science.

    I also think good social science is very hard, in some sense harder than good physical science. (We make up for it with fancy math, of course, but their domain is fundamentally much trickier.)

  52. Reading my comment now-- too late-- I think it's a bit accusatory and harsh. As my excuse I claim adverse conditioning caused by reading too many Feynman quotes in connection with careless remarks about other, foreign areas of expertise (it seems to me that Feynman's own problem was that he felt a little too free to cast judgement outside his domain but as others have noted he's hardly alone on that within his own province).

    But, damn it, I see Michael actually mentioned Feynman above! Maybe my hypothesis about my own behavior is confirmed?? 🙂

  53. Talking about global wnmriag as an individual unit is unhelpful as this encapsulates a sequence of claims with different degrees of certainty. Global wnmriag depending on the context is used to mean:

    1) Climate change
    2) Climate change with a positive delta
    3) Partially human caused climate change
    4) Partially human caused climate change with a positive delta
    5) Partially human caused climate change with a large positive delta
    6) Solely human caused climate change with a large positive delta
    7) Long term solely human caused climate change with a large positive delta
    8) The luddite apocalypseThe above are listed in order of decreasing certainty.

    Let's go over them one by one.

    (1) is by now pretty much established, with Nature/Science declaring the issue settled in a special issue in 2000. Only cranks and right-wing talk-radio hosts live here.
    (2) some models predicted regional cooling but with overall global wnmriag, lately most models report pretty much all wnmriag
    (3) there is strong evidence that CO2 emissions do not help, so again this is pretty much established.
    (4) here's where questioning the computer projections is not necessarily being a crank. The models are imperfect. However to this date, they seemed to have erred more on the conservative side than on the pessimistic side.
    (5) Contrary to what you may think from the popular press, most models claim a small positive delta.
    (6-7) Here the issues are even less settled. We don't yet have all the pieces of the puzzle and confidence in the projections drops rapidly over time. Is the system stable, in that a self-"healing" effect that could be triggered at large deltas or to the contrary is there feedback in the loop and things will get only worse as some believe? The questions here are many and scientists are working on them.
    (8) Paul Ehrlich is still wrong.

    Off topic for the thread in question, I'm afraid, and a bit elementary for this site. But the thought you are putting into the matter is most welcome and commendable. Please keep it up.

  54. Pingback: They’re coming for climate scientists! | …and Then There's Physics

  55. Pingback: Why should anyone care? | …and Then There's Physics

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