Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Yes, we can (communicate)!

March 14, 2011

And now it’s time for something uplifting:

‘Of course scientists can communicate’ (Tim Radord’s Nature column)

there are reasons why scientists, in particular, should be and often are good communicators. One is that most scientists start with the engaging quality of enthusiasm. (…)

Enthusiasm is infectious, but to command an audience of readers, scientists should exploit their other natural gifts. One of these is training in clarity. Another is training in observation. And a third is knowledge. (…)

thoughts have value only when expressed, and the more clearly they are expressed, the greater their potential value. (…)

The problems for the scientist as a public communicator start with academic publishing: the language, form and conventions of the published scientific paper could almost have been devised to conceal information. (…) So to be effective communicators, scientists have to learn to stand back from their own work and see it as strangers might do. (…)

And while we have our ducks in a row, let me invoke the canard that scientists occasionally propagate about the media: that it does not appreciate scientific uncertainty. That one is especially irritating. It seems to say “I, as a scientist, wish to have it both ways. I want the privilege of knowing better than you, and the indulgence of being wrong without guilt, because science, don’t you see, is really about uncertainty.” To which the foolish answer might be “In which case, why should we listen?” But alas, people in any case listen selectively, even to the best communicators, which might be why so many Americans think Darwin’s theory of evolution is “only a theory”. Scientists are not the only people to blame for a problem in communication.

But…

If large proportions of the public believe demonstrably silly things (such as young earth creationism or that the earth is the centre of the universe or that AGW is not happening*), perhaps that’s a sign that there’s something in human nature that makes them prone to believing silly (though comfortable) things? Humans may have big brains, but we’re by and large not very good at intuitively understanding things that we can’t directly observe (that probably wasn’t a highly needed survival skill during our evolution). Or is it something in our culture? Or the education system? Or all of the above?

The problem with many of these complex questions is that the most boring and least useful answer is usually the right one: All of the above…

The real issue is perhaps not so much how to improve the journalists’ or scientists’ communication, but rather how to depoliticize the topic of climate change. Picked up at Yulsman’s,

John Fleck:

The impediments imposed by the way audiences filter what we say based on political belief systems means that our [journalists] work can only effect things at the margins.

(the same can of course be said for scientists’ communication efforts)

Andy:

(People’s) beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity.

The good news is, the climate debate hasn’t always been as politicized as it is now:

Polls show that as late as 1997, Republicans and Democrats had virtually indistinguishable views on the science of global warming. But an aggressive campaign by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks to cast doubt about the scientific evidence that human activity is warming the planet changed that. Today, public understanding of climate science reflects a deep division along partisan lines.

Undoing that division is key. I found Jonathan Adler’s thoughts interesting and thought provoking (mostly so for libertarians) in that respect.

*) Even though all of these examples taken as absolutes are rather silly/unlikely, I don’t mean to imply absolute equivalence between these examples. Jeez, since when are disclaimers needed on blogs?

Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)?

March 9, 2011

There’s a semi-continuous argument going on about who’s to blame for the lack of public understanding about climate change. I’ve discussed the communication conundrum a few times as well, and assigned blame to various quarters, e.g

The media:

The popular media often paint a false picture of the scientific debate by giving the tiny minority viewpoints equal footing as the consensus viewpoints.

Scientists:

Most scientists are very bad at talking about their scientific field in plain, understandable language.

Though of course both statements in isolation miss the broader point, which is that

there are weaknesses in all parts of the chain that hamper the communication and use of climate science: A lack of good communication by scientists, a lack of scientific literacy amongst the public, the education system, the political system, a lack of fact-checking by the media, disinformation by vested interests, etc.

Enough self-quotation. Discussions are raging at Keith’s, Eli’s (check out John Fleck’s comments), mt’s, Stoat, with very interesting discussions in the comments sections.

Eli:

John, tell your friends to get off the all scientists are lousy communicators and it’s their fault that the science is not being communicated kick and maybe we can talk.

To which many journalists would understandably reply: Exchange “scientists” by “journalists” as well while you’re at it. And both would be right.

John Fleck points out that, apart from egregious examples that exist e.g. in the opinionsphere journalism,

the data would suggest that journalists across the major press publications in the area I deal with most closely – climate change – are doing a creditable job.

Max Boykoff, now at the University of Colorado, has done the most work on this. His most recent analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change found that the British tabloid press “significantly diverged from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change,” but that what Boykoff calls the “prestige press” (NY Times, Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) pretty much gets the story right. Despite the widespread belief in a “false balance” problem, Boykoff’s most recent data showed a steady decline in the problem, such that in 2006 (the most recent year for which he’s got data, sadly), just 3 percent of the US and UK stories he surveyed did the “false balance” thing.

William puts the lion’s share of responsibility with the public:

But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertainment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.

There’s something to that. Over the years, even the evening news and the weather forecast have changed in its narrative and appearance so as to be more about entertainment than about information. Election debates. Blogs. People want entertainment and they want it now. Gimme a quick fix, quick. Next, what’s next? There’s no time for learning or reflection.

Jonathan Gilligan has a similar line of thought as William, putting the responsibility on the public to consume the information they chose to:

There are lots of great books by scientists and journalists, so why do we assume that deadline journalism is so much more important than books for getting accurate and clear information to the public?

Yes, there’s bad journalism and there are bad books, but there are also excellent examples of both and if we can’t trust the general public to figure out what’s trustworthy, then it’s game over for democracy regardless what we do for the environment.

While rather gloomy in its ending, I think Gilligan is right that news journalism (interesting discussion on that thread, esp. the back and forth between Gilligan, Kloor and Tobis) isn’t the type of medium that we can expect to cover slowly unraveling stories in any depth. But even deadline news journalism is usually put in a certain context, where such issues can be touched upon. And there’s also background journalism, science journalism, and other kinds of communication (by scientists, journalists or whomever) that could rise to the occasion.

Which gets us to the point that it’s really about. Quoting mt:

the real question isn’t “whose fault?” It’s “what now?”

“Climategate”: lessons learned

November 23, 2010

These are some of the take-home messages or lessons from “climategate” as I see it.  They are strongly related to each other, with the overriding theme being that disagreements about climate change are not so much about the science, but rather about a clash of underlying values, ideas (e.g. related to risk perception) and ideals. Scientists are caught in the middle of this trying to defend the science against various distortions (while also having their own values, ideas and ideals of course).

- There’s no strong relation between knowledge/information and people’s perceptions: Just the facts won’t do. It’s all about the narrative. Climategate resonated because it could easily be spun into the underdog fighting the mean establishment. Scientists and those communicating the science should take a lesson from this: Don’t be such a scientist when communicating with non-scientists. Tell a story rather then flooding people with facts, numbers and uncertainty intervals. Steven Mosher, in a comment at Judith Curry’s, points to another lesson to be taken from this: Focusing on the consensus feeds into this underdog-versus-establishment narrative. I think he’s got a point there, though of course it is based on a faulty dismissal of a scientific consensus as being meaningless. Perhaps we should stress that the consensus is not monolithic, but rather concerns the big picture only, and even there it is still a bell curve of viewpoints rather than unanimous agreement.

- Climate science is embedded in a wild sea of culturally differing views, where values and ideals clash. Scientists should consider this (partly hostile) public environment when communicating about climate science. Retreating in the ivory tower of academia would be a detriment to the public discussion. I think we should consider strategically effective ways to convey scientific insights to the public and policymakers.

- The animosity towards climate science is even greater than we thought it was. Those who object to the perceived policy consequences of the mainstream scientific view go through great lengths in order to try to discredit the science. This has had an effect on how scientists and their supporters communicate (or not) with the public: Many have gotten afraid for speaking out publicly, while some others have gotten more strident or even defensive. Both reactions are understandable, even though neither are useful imho.

- Not directly a consequence of climategate, though it did bring it into clearer focus, is that there are many other aspects besides science that influence one’s policy preferences. It applies to those who argue the science as a proxy for arguing the politics, but it also applies to defenders of the science; it applies to everyone. Endless arguments about sea level rise in 2100 are perhaps not so useful when the underlying disagreement is much more about different values (e.g. about valuing the present versus the future; freedom versus responsibility; how to deal with risk) than about the Greenland ice sheet. This is tricky though, because scientists and their supporters (I really need to come up with a proper word) will still feel the need to defend the mainstream scientific view against distortions. I don’t know how to best deal with that catch 22.

- The need for increased transparency and openness of data and code is now widely shared. I think this is an inevitable and inevitably difficult process, but “climategate” reinforced the importance of such transparency for public trust and credibility. It will not convince the more fanatic “skeptics” out there, nor will it prevent such smear campaigns from happening again in the future. But it will help to make the wider public, who are more or less agnostic about the topic, more immune to various accusations of secrecy and fraud. And that’s important.

- Citizen science has taken off over the last year. I’m not sure if it’s just anecdotal evidence based on my blog reading or a sign of a real trend (where’s VS if you need him ;-) but I have a feeling that there’s much more interest and participation amongst non climate scientists in actually doing analyses themselves, most notably related to the temperature record. And some good work is coming out of that. I don’t regard it as a dramatic change in how science overall is conducted (its effect is much more on the public trust and perception), but it’s an interesting development nevertheless, and a more productive way of using one’s energy than blogospheric shouting matches.

Other reading:

Visit climatesight for a good and readable summary of “climategate”. See the Yale forum for an interesting collection of scientists’ view on lessons learnt. I get a sense that overall, many of them don’t disagree with my rant about how low of an action this was. Gavin retells the story of what happened over at RC.

 

Update: The second installment at the Yale forum is up, about science journalists’s views of lessons learned. Elizabeth Kolbert’s answer to what journalism should have learned is noteworthy (my comments in [...]):

The obvious lesson of faux scandals like “climategate” is that they tend to be created by groups or individuals with their own agendas, and journalists ought to be very wary about [uncritically] covering them. The notion that there is some huge scientific conspiracy going on, involving dozens of researchers at different institutions, is pretty implausible on its face. This goes for climate science as for all other scientific disciplines. I’m not saying it can’t happen; it’s just hard to imagine how it would work. Conversely, it’s very easy to imagine why an individual or a group with an economic or political [or ideological] interest would want to claim that such a conspiracy existed. The burden of proof ought to be very high. Instead, it seems the bar was placed ridiculously low.

It’s what we know that’s most important

November 11, 2010

If we’re to be out there, we also have to be smart.

Chris Mooney offers some thoughts and advice based on climate scientists’ efforts to increase their engagement with the public and explain -and if necessary defend- the science.

Facts and framing: Both are important

When it comes to science communication, the facts are the baseline from which one absolutely cannot stray; but at the same time, we have to be aware that people respond most strongly to the frame.

Uncertainty and risk

Remember that the political attack is also largely scientific in nature, at least in terms of its framing. It exaggerates uncertainty about particular scientific studies (…) in order to distract from the big picture.

So any scientist walking into this context had better be ready for one obvious trap: Being lured into talking about uncertainty to the detriment of what we actually know.

This is in sharp contrast to what Judith Curry is pushing for: Framing the issues in terms of uncertainty and stressing what we don’t know. I am in firm agreement with Chris Mooney here. Judith’s strategy is a dead end in terms of increasing the public’s knowledge about climate change.

Conversations about uncertainty invoke a frame which in the public mind is easily confused with doubt. Non-scientists have a very different perception of uncertainty than scientists. Framing what we know and don’t know in terms of risk is much more useful in getting the message across, because it leaves less room for misinterpretation (there is less of a gap in how this term is understood, whereas “uncertain” to a layperson means “I don’t know”).

Let me stress that I’m not advocating to downplay the uncertainties. But emphasizing (let alone exaggerating) them is not the road to increase people’s understanding of the issue, where what we do know is much more important to convey (if you goal is to increase the public’s knowledge of the scientific knowledge). It is thereby useful to distinguish the different levels of confidence of the knowledge: Some aspects are virtually certain, whereas others have a wider confidence interval.

This also depends on the level of knowledge of the public. If your audience doesn’t even grasp the basics and has a very twisted view of what is scientifically known, it’s most useful to keep your message simple and focussed on the broad outline of what we do know. As Neven suggested to Judith Curry, who is invited by the Republicans to testify for the US House of Representatives:

Be sure to tell them AGW is real. Start with that and end with that, please.

Herman Daly makes the point very well that the basics of what we know is most important, “at least as to the thrust and direction of policy”. Consider e.g. this quote that I’ve often used since:

To make the point more simply, if you jump out of an airplane you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter.

If politicians or members of the public aren’t even aware that they’re (very, very slowly) jumping out of an airplane (the situation of which can only very, very slowly be changed), then details about the accuracy of the altimeter are of far less importance than telling them they’re about to go mid-air (albeit in slow motion). Don’t tell them which brand of parachute is better though. And only tell them to grab a parachute after you’ve made sure that they value their life in a somewhat similar way as you do. Otherwise you may be accused of advocacy.

Language

In the end, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t use scientific lingo and qualifications/weasel words/passive voice that are the norm in scientific discourse. If we do, the message will get lost on or misinterpreted by the public. If we don’t, we’ll be accused of hiding uncertainty/adhering to dogma/being an advocate or whatever accusation happens to be in vogue. I wrote about this catch 22 before.

It will continue to be a balancing act to be both true to the science and make the message palatable and interesting to the audience. But one thing is for sure: Talk the same way as you do to your fellow scientists and your message will fall on deaf ears. Check out Steve Schneiderand Randy Olson for some very useful perspectives on this balancing act.

Advocacy

Mooney again:

You’re going to be accused of being an advocate no matter what you do. (…) Don’t get angry, and don’t get distracted. Remember what it is that the (…) public, and political leaders, need to know about climate research–and tell them that. Tell them twenty times. And then do it again.

Don’t let your anger or frustration shine through in your communication. It doesn’t go over well (except with people who share your anger or frustration, which seems to be a major factor for blog popularity).

Science, dissent, polarization and ideology

November 9, 2010

Judith Curry has followed up her post about a positive feedback between politics and science, with which I strongly disagreed, with a number of other posts trying to explain where she’s coming from.  The latest, “no ideologues, part III”, makes a lot more sense than her previous “dogma” posts, and sounds a lot less adversarial. This post is based on my comments over at her blog (here and here).

Her thesis is that climate scientists, the UNFCCC and the IPCC seem to adhere to a certain political ideology. In the case of the IPCC that seems a bit of an absurd notion, but in the case of individuals it seems almost self evident that everybody has some sort of political ideology. She writes:

It is fine for people (and scientists) have political ideologies.  The problem comes in when you use politics to defend your science, and you use science to demand policies. This whole thing seems to me to boil down to the traditional clash of values between the greens and the libertarians.

So does this make more sense?  I think a fairly large number of scientists will sign up to believing this ideology, but few will want to be regarded as ideologues.  Are we getting closer her to clarifying this?  I think so (hope so).

I am wondering to what extent her critique would be better described as the overly defensive attitude and ‘circling of the wagons’ strategy of many mainstream scientists and perhaps the community as a whole. She has described it as such before, and to a certain degree I agree.

She gives Michael Mann (who else?) as an example of voicing a political ideology that exemplifies that of the wider community/UNFCCC/IPCC. The headings she provides above citations from Mann give a certain twist to his words though, and provide more fodder to the label ‘political ideology’. Which may give the appearance of wanting to put his words in a certain light. (perhaps for ideological reasons? – just kidding)

E.g. In #2 on the list Mann talks about what can still be done, whereas in her heading Judith characterizes it as what needs to be done.  #5 has a large disconnect between her heading (action is needed) and Mann’s retelling of historical environmental threats.

She is right though that overall, Mann’s words as quoted are not purely in the realm of science, but nor are they intended to I think. It would be helpful if scientists are more clear as to when they’re talking about science and when they’re talking about something else (their personal opinion about the public debate, politics, ethics, etc). Hansen and the late Schneider are good examples of that IMO. Some may respond that those differences are very obvious already: Why spell them out. Which has (more than) a nucleus of truth as well of course.

I wrote about distinguishing these kinds of issues in a conversation I had with Tom Fuller a while ago, about what the next generation questions regarding climate change are:

Let’s distinguish the following main issues:

- To what extent is climate change occurring, and to what extent is it man-made?

- To what extent is that (going to be) a problem?

- What can or should we do about it?

The first questions are strictly scientific; the middle has a judgment value to it (besides being also based on the forever tentative answer to the first question), and the latter is primarily a political/moral judgement (and has more to do with technology and policymaking than with climate science).

We have made much more progress in addressing the first question than in addressing the last one. The limiting factor in addressing the issues relating to climate change is IMO not a lack of knowledge about the exact nature of the changes; rather, it is the unwillingness of society to deal with (the consequences of) this knowledge. Even if, within realistic boundaries of the uncertainty, climate change is less bad than currently expected, we need to dramatically step up our policy response.

Needless to say, that last sentence is a value laden statement, based on my understanding of the science combined with my value system, risk perception and risk aversion. Or perhaps that is not needless to say? (that’s not a rhetorical question btw).

Judith responded by saying that what she has a problem with is when people or institutions use their ideology “to stifle dissent and scientific debate”. Well, who wouldn’t have a problem with that?

That’s the broad brush again. The dissent from the mainstream scientific view takes a lot of different forms. E.g. there are the arguments such as voiced by Bob that AGW is bunk because of the hockeystick and surface temperature issues (my paraphrasing). I hope you’ll excuse me for not taking such criticism all that serious, where a minor detail is blown up as if it falsifies a whole theory, not unlike claiming that gravity doesn’t exist because that bird in the sky disproves it (argumentum ad absurdum; I’m aware that gravity is a better established (though also still not 100% known) topic than climate change).

These kinds of arguments are very common, whereby the conclusion (AGW is wrong) is miles and miles apart from the reasoning that supposedly led the writer to that conclusion. Which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, they may have been really arguing in the other direction: from their desired conclusion to an narrative that fits with it. Because in the direction as the argument is stated, it doesn’t make sense.

Am I stifling scientific dissent by saying this? I would hope you agree with me that I’m not. I’m arguing against a (to me) nonsensical critique of the science, which IMO isn’t actually a scientific critique at all (though it’s dressed up to look like it). I.e. I’m not stifling anything and the dissent I’m primarily arguing against is hardly scientific (or charitably only partly scientific).

What most mainstream scientists get so worked up about are these nonsensical critiques on the science and the amount of traction they seem to have gotten.

If you have examples of where *scientific* dissent and debate is being *stifled* (no emails please), I’d like to hear about it.

As I stated before, I agree that in this highly polarized environment scientists have sometimes gotten too defensive in their reaction to the various critiques, because of course, some of the criticism does make sense, and even if the conclusion doesn’t, perhaps the premise purportedlyleading up to the conclusion contains some grains of truth. It doesn’t hurt acknowledging that.

Postscript: Simon Donner has an excellent post on the role of the blogosphere in these kinds of climate discussions and how it relates it to the themes of introspection, de-polarization and letting down our defenses. This is the road towards bridge building.

Aikido: The way of harmony. That’s me doing the throwing (in full harmony of course).

Update:

Michael Tobis has a related post, citing an interesting lecture by Mike Mann:

“We have to make it clear that the ice sheets are not Republicans or Democrats – they don’t have a political agenda as they disappear,” said Michael Mann. MT asks: “why the politicization of the non-political parts of the question?” That would be a good question for Judith Curry to ponder.

Chris Colose, who also chimed in over at Curry’s blog, has a post on her ‘dogma’ and ‘ideology’ framing. He finishes by saying:

Finally, we’re going to be endlessly stuck at a cross-roads if discussion is stifled, (…) but a glance into the refereed literature clearly shows this is not the case. (…) We’re also going to be stuck at a cross-road if you perceive the progression toward unanimous [I would have said "broad"] agreement by the informed as a sign of dogma as opposed to robustness of the conclusion. [link added by me]

Hoeveel energie -uitgedrukt als boterhammen pindakaas- gebruiken we nu eigenlijk?

September 11, 2010

Professor Van der Meer licht ons energieverbruik toe aan de hand van boterhammen pindakaas. Bedoeld voor kinderen, maar ik vind het een heel mooi voorbeeld van hoe je wetenschap dichterbij de mensen kunt brengen: Breng het in voor hen begrijpelijke taal. Verschenen in het Reformatorisch Dagblad (laat je daardoor niet afschrikken):

Als je energie op is, wat doe je dan? Dan neem je een boterham met pindakaas.  (…)

Hoe moet je dan rekenen als je elektrische energie gebruikt? Of aardgas? Of benzine? De hoogleraar introduceert daarvoor deze middag een nieuwe eenheid: alles is te berekenen in boterhammen pindakaas oftewel aantallen Calvé; een boterham met pindakaas is evenveel als 1 Calvé.

En dan is de rekensom eenvoudig. Ons lichaam gebruikt 10 Calvé per dag. Dat is evenveel als een droogbeurt met de wasdroger, 8 minuten douchen of 4 kilometer autorijden. (…)

Vervolgens neemt Van der Meer het dagelijkse energieverbruik van de gemiddelde Nederlander onder de loep. Aan gas is hij in totaal 192 Calvé kwijt, voor verwarmen, warm water en koken; aan elektrische energie 46 Calvé. Binnenshuis heeft hij bij elkaar opgeteld al 238 Calvé nodig, voor het overige komt daar nog 562 bij, zodat de gemiddelde Nederlander 800 Calvé aan energie verbruikt per dag.

Dit laat ook zien dat het huishoudelijk energieverbruik gedomineerd wordt door verwarmingskosten (in Nederland vnl. aardgas), terwijl veel mensen in eerste instantie alleen aan elektriciteit denken. Ik weet niet waar de energiekosten buitenshuis uit bestaan, maar ik neem aan dat transport voor een groot deel daarvan verantwoordelijk is. De energie die nodig was om producten te maken, voedsel te verbouwen en services te verlenen is natuurlijk ook een biggie (maar het is altijd de vraag of/hoe die verrekend worden). Ik heb de hiergenoemde getallen niet gecheckt overigens.

Wanneer de hoogleraar dat vergelijkt met het energiegebruik van 1200 Calvé van de gemiddelde Amerikaan lijkt dat mee te vallen. Het staat echter in schril contrast met de 40 Calvé die een doorsnee Afrikaan opmaakt.

Als hij het gewenste energieverbruik van 600 Calvé vergelijkt met de exponentieel groeiende wereldbevolking is zijn conclusie helder: Als zij dezelfde hoeveelheid energie willen gebruiken als wij, moet het aantal Calvéfabrieken harder groeien dan de wereldbevolking. En dat lukt vooralsnog niet.

Van der Meer illustreert het overmatige gebruik van fossiele brandstoffen in de westerse wereld door de dagelijkse consumptie van 80 miljoen vaten olie (van 159 liter) naast elkaar te zetten. Dan heb je een lint van 40.000 kilometer dat een keer rond de wereld past.

Om in 2050 de doelstelling van 50 procent minder CO2-uitstoot ten opzichte van 2005 te realiseren, moet minimaal 46 procent van de energiebronnen hernieuwbaar zijn, stelt de hoogleraar. Om dat voor elkaar te krijgen, zijn jaarlijks wereldwijd onder meer 17.750 windmolens, 80 zonnecentrales en 32 grote kerncentrales extra nodig. Hij besluit zijn relaas: We zijn er dus nog lang niet.

Een heel aardig boekje over energie is trouwens de Energie Survival Gids van Jo Hermans. Prettig geschreven, helder gepresenteerd en met interessante inzichten. Zo legt hij uit waarom het benzineverbruik zo sterk toeneemt bij hoge snelheden. Verrassend vond ik de vergelijking in energiegebruik van verschillende manieren van transport.

Ik ben vroeger wel vaker met de boot naar Engeland gegaan om expres niet met een energieverslindend vliegtuig te hoeven. Hermans toont echter aan dat –gemiddeld gesproken- een passagiersboot meer energie verbruikt per reizigerskilometer dan een vliegtuig (omdat een passagiersboot zo zwaar is en er dus relatief veel energie nodig is om maar relatief weinig mensengewicht (bv 0.3% van het totaal) te verplaatsen). Een vrachtboot daarentegen is wel weer relatief zuinig, omdat de nuttige lading voor vrachtboten vele malen groter is dan die voor passagiersschepen.

Fietsen slaat alles: Als de energie-inhoud van het extra benodigde voedsel wordt omgerekend in benzine fietsen we 1 op 500. Fietsen is daarmee ook efficiënter dan de meeste andere manieren van voortbewegen die we in de natuur zien (uitgedrukt in benodigde energie per kilometer en per kilogram lichaamsgewicht). Toch leuk om te weten als je weer op je fiets springt.

Just the facts, madam, just the facts won’t do

July 13, 2010

Climate science is hardly the only issue on which the public has a vastly different view than the relevant experts. Chris Mooney writes:

Surveys that measure the public’s views on evolution, climate change, the big bang and even the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun yield a huge gap between what science tells us and what the public believes.

But contrary to what many scientists think, more information doesn’t necessarily lead to the public accepting the scientific view:

Take climate change. The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions. They conclude, not illogically, that they’re dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance — one that can be fixed only by setting the record straight.

Yet a closer look complicates that picture. For one thing, it’s political outlook — not education — that seems to motivate one’s belief on this subject. According to polling performed by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren’t ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information. Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite — more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.”

This point was also made in a study by Nyhan and Reifler: “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions”. From the abstract:

Corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire” effect in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

I.e. as this Boston Globe commentary sais:

Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.

To avoid this from happening, Michael Tobis suggests (though arguing from a slightly different perspective, informational conformity,) that

Each of us should go digging in our souls for our inner conservative. (…)We should be especially kind to people who are conservative but sane, who understand and appreciate the science. (…) What is crucial is to get people to understand that this is real, that it is interesting, that it raises difficult questions. Even convincing them that it is a big deal is secondary. We have to make it permissible to be conservative and to respect the climate sciences.

The Boston Globe continues:

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.

Of course, both sides of a debate usually think that they are right and only the other side is driven by their preconceived notions. In reality, these kinds of mechanisms are all too human and affect everyone (though not everyone to the same extent, let me hasten to add).

Luckily, the process of science is self correcting in the sense that over time, wrong propositions will be discarded if the evidence keeps pointing in another direction. So far, the body of evidence has painted an increasingly strong picture of the direction and causes of the changes in our climate. The chances for this broad and consistent picture to be radically wrong are very small indeed. Let’s not forget either that in science, you’re rewarded for showing the consensus wrong; not for merely repeating what everybody else sais.

I remember a talk I attended about cloud formation. I asked the speaker if they had found any relationship between cloud formation and cosmic rays. The speaker replied: “No, unfortunately not”. I was slightly bemused by that reply. Why would he have wanted to have found such a correlation? I think the most likely answer is that it would have meant a good chance for a high impact article, since it would have strengthened a hitherto weakly supported theory.

In a recent discussion, I asked Jeff Id what he considered ‘socialist’ about climate science. His reply:

– Just the preferred and demanded solutions and the continued support of organizations with socialist tendencies, IPCC,UN, Copenhagen etc.

Well, that clarifies where he’s coming from. He’s afraid of

our march toward world-wide socialist governance.
and therefore the science must be bunk.

Mooney writes:

It’s critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; and in this, they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear, on the surface, to be arguing about scientific facts. Frequently, their underlying rationale is very different.

Thus, for instance, resistance to climate science in the United States seems to be linked to a libertarian economic outlook: People who resist what experts tell them about global warming often appear, at heart, to be most worried about the consequences of increased government regulation of carbon emissions.

Reflections on climate discussions in the blogosphere between Keith, Lucia and me, part 2: The role of blogs

June 14, 2010

Keith Kloor has posted part 2 of the conversation we had with the three of us (i.e. him, Lucia and me). The topic of discussion here is the role of blogs in fostering reasoned discussion (or rather staunch debate, see e.g. Bob Grumbine’s discussion of the difference). This one is much shorter than part 1.

Basically, I think blogs are conducive to a more polarized debate, partly because the anonymity of the internet.

A related point (not discussed with Lucia and Keith) is how the blogosphere differs from the science-sphere. Grumbine had some very good insights into that, retold here. On the internet, anyone can say anything; there’s no quality control, no gatekeeping. Depending on your viewpoint, that may be a good or a bad thing, compared to science. I tend to think though that your best bet to learn science is from scientists.

Reflections on climate discussions in the blogosphere between Keith, Lucia and me: The spectrum of opinions, uncertainty, risk and inertia

June 11, 2010

Keith Kloor has a post up that is an almost literal transcription of a conversation we had between him, myself and Lucia.

It’s a good initiative I find, to attempt to ‘bridge the climate divide’, as his post is titled. It’s an important theme for me as well. I’ve tried to find common ground with others before, e.g. Tom Fuller and Roger Pielke Jr.  Not that I see such a huge divide between Lucia and myself at all, but that’s also what makes such a conversation both possible, useful and enjoyable. A conversation between more extreme or more excitable voices on either side may quickly become an exercise in mudslinging; there has to be some common ground in order to have a conversation.

The crux of what I had to say is this (quoting myself):

So you have a large amount of inertia in the energy system, in the carbon cycle and in the climate system, which means if you start taking actions, it’s decades into the future until they start taking effect.

If you combine that inertia in those different systems, with uncertainty of the precise effect, and with some knowledge that it could go pretty wrong with a business as usual scenario, then you have to take proactive steps, and that’s where the urgency comes from.

In my view, it’s similar to a chainsmoker who gets told by a physician, “hey, you should really be careful, you should stop smoking if you care about your heath.” And the person says, “hey I can still bike to the town and I feel fine and my grandmother lived until she was 96 and died in a car accident.”

You can postpone dealing with smoking until you’re in the intensive care unit. But that’s a little late. That’s the line of argument in which I see the urgency of climate global warming.

I plan to go into these issues in more detail at some point.

Thanks Keith and Lucia!

Lucia’s report is here. She makes the interesting observation that

It seemed that Bart and I may disagree less when on Skype than when posting comments at Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog. That’s an interesting thing in and off itself.

Though perhaps we have slightly different recollections of our (few) discussions at Roger’s. We never were very antagonistic as far I recall, though on the impersonal internet it’s always easier (tempting even?) to be more antagonistic than one is in “real” life (insofar as Skype is real and not internet; ah well, you get the point).

Scott Denning to ICCC Heartland ‘conference’ gathering: “Be skeptical… be very skeptical!”

May 21, 2010

An excellent presentation was given by atmospheric scientist Scott Denning at the Heartland Institute gathering (ICCC 2010), amidst much ‘skeptical’ talk, which is the expected staple over there (h/t Michael Tobis). Both to Denning’s and Heartland’s credit, he was invited to speak there and his talk was apparently well received. How the audience will resolve their inevitable cognitive dissonance remains to be seen.

He makes a number of important points, which are especially apt for a ‘skeptical’ audience:

- The expectation of global warming to result from greenhouse gases is based on common sense and basic physics:

[It is] based on the idea that when we add energy to the surface, it will warm up

- Be skeptical of the claim that this extra energy will somehow magically be negated.

- Climate sensitivity is around 3 degree for a doubling of CO2 concentrations. This is based on e.g. observations from the Last Glacial Maximum, when the climate forcing was 4.1 W/m2 from greenhouse gases and 3.4 W/m2 from the difference in surface albedo (snow and ice are brighter, and thus more reflective, than water and land surfaces), and the temperature difference with the interglacial that followed was about 6 degrees C.

“No climate models required … just based on observations

(modern calculations agree … coincidence?)”

- About a quarter of today’s emissions will stay in the air [semi-] permanently! So when we reduce or stop the burning of fossil fuel, things will not go back to normal for a very long time.

- Historically, 3 degrees C warming is a big deal (e.g. for sea level rise).

- And on how (not) to frame the mitigation challenge:

Then making the obvious point that society didn’t go broke building that very system. To the contrary…

- The worst media myth of all: Without the subsidy of cheap fossil energy, civilization will crumble!

Be skeptical… be very skeptical!

He’s not afraid of sarcasm:

You’d think those un-American naysayers had never heard of capitalism …

of the magic of markets …

of the creative genius of a free people!

… or to call a spade a spade:

Alarmist politicians and pundits say:

“(…) If we stop burning coal we’ll freeze in the dark!”

Postscript:

He very effectively changed the frame of the debate:

- The science is about common sense and basic physics

- Who is being ‘alarmist’?

- Being so ‘alarmist’ about the consequences of mitigation efforts is antithetical to having faith in the ‘magic of markets’, entrepeneurship and the power of innovation.

Come to think of it, it is quite surprising that his talk was well received, as there were quite a few digs towards the common way of thinking of undoubtedly many members of the audience. I guess it was delivered with style, respect and humor, and towards the end, he provides his audience with both a mirror and a carrot. There are communications lessons to be learned here. Also, Heartland was clearly happy to have a mainstream scientist present at their party. After all, they crave being taken seriously. The real question however is, did it sink in?

A point of critique could be that he glossed over the mitigation challenge a bit easily, apparently trusting that “the magic of markets” will take care of new energy technologies being invented and implemented. Such a frame may encourage a ‘wait and see’ approach, which I deem risky. I guess a bit of skepticism is at its place whether it will happen so effortless. A lot may depend on how long we keep postponing meaningful emission reductions.

Those who most strongly oppose government intervention would be wise to call for strong early action to avoid really stringent measures becoming necessary later on.


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