Posts Tagged ‘chris mooney’

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).


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