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Scientific Communication: Preach or Engage? (Judith Curry vs. AGU climate bias)

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is going to cost a lot (both in terms of dollars and effort), and it is going to produce few if any demonstrable climate results for decades to come (if ever).” 

The scientific community—or especially that part of it which holds the opinion that not enough is being done to mitigate potential climate change—is struggling with why the general public (and hence policymakers) are not heeding their call to action on global warming.

In a recent post, I pointed to one reason: the fast diminishing role that any U.S.-side mitigation would have in curbing greenhouse gas emissions enough to measurably affect global climate. This is a classic bang-for-the-buck evaluation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is going to cost a lot (both in terms of dollars and effort), and it is going to produce few if any demonstrable climate results for decades to come (if ever).

In short, a mitigation (versus a wealth-is-health adaptation strategy) is a tough sell given even the most alarming climate change projections, and becomes nearly impossible under more modest climate change scenarios.

The role of climate change science has been, and continues to be, in arbitrating between the potential climate outcomes. And although there are some who argue that the science no longer matters as far the politics go, a lot of other scientists who make at least a partial living studying climate and climate change (including myself) would like to think otherwise.

And many of us have taken the additional step of not only producing science, but also translating our results (and that of others) into more layman’s terms, describing what implications the results have on the bigger picture of climate change, and then suggesting what, if anything, should be done about it. With mixed success (depending on who you ask).

AGU Confab: Curry’s Voice of Moderation

During the annual fall meeting last week of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), several talks and sessions were focused on this theme of (climate) science communications, exploring how scientists could better get their ideas across to the public at large. The general idea being that if the public were better informed and better educated about the issue, the better would be their decisions.

Most of the AGU talks were aimed at addressing the perceived failure of climate change communications—a failure gauged by the lack of political action on the issue. After all, if the science were being effectively communicated, then the perils of climate change would be obvious, and surely the general public would be imploring their elected officials to do something about it.

Climate science researcher-cum-climate science communicator Judith Curry was in attendance of many of the AGU presentations on this topic, as well as being a presenter herself. But her take on the issue was quite a bit different than most of the presenters.

Over at her blog Climate Etc., Curry gives her opinion about many of the climate communications talks at the AGU, and also makes available her presentation.

The main gist of her talk concerns the distinction between the “linear” approach to science communication and that of a more “circular” approach. The former is more akin to preaching, the latter with engaging.

In the linear approach, the communicator is basically telling the audience what to think about a topic of the communicator’s choosing. Basically, here are our results, here is what (we think) they mean, and here are the actions that (we think) should be taken.

In the circular approach, the interests of the audience feed back to the communicator, and each takes part in the discussion. As Judith Curry describes it:

Unlike the linear model that focuses on the messenger, the circular model views the receiver as an equal partner in the communication and focuses on the process of engagement (which includes dialogue and feedback).

With the benefit being:

When a messenger actually makes the effort to understand why an individual is unconvinced, this inevitably leads to both deepening and broadening the discussion to address complexity and uncertainties. The end result can be raising the level of the public dialogue.

Judith has embraced the circular approach over the past couple of years after coming to the conclusion (with the help of insight gained from the revelations contained in the climategate emails) that her previous linear presentations backed by IPCC science weren’t nearly as clear cut as she had thought.

Her switch from preaching to engaging has not been well-received by those more inclined towards establishing a storyline and sticking to it. Said one: “Judith decided a while back that the judgment of the community on what was interesting and what was not, was not itself to be trusted.”

But as someone who has spent much of my scientific communications effort trying to illuminate things that the “community” may have not found to be “interesting,” I applaud Judith for her new-found pursuit.

Below is reproduced the narrative from Judith Curry’s AGU presentation, titled “Engaging the Public on Climate Change” (the accompanying slide set is available here), in which she explains why she chooses to tackle the issue the way that she has. It is well worth rereading. She is history-in-the-making, her’s being a courageous voice at a time when the climate profession has been going hard toward alarmism/policy activism.

Engaging the Public on Climate Change

- by Judith Curry

In his talk yesterday Michael Mann summed up the frustrations of communicating climate change in three words: WHY NO ACTION? Opinion polls show that many people are unconcerned by climate change. And there has been a failure of the public to act on the risks perceived by the climate scientists.

So what is the solution to the climate communication problem? At this Conference and in this session, we are hearing a number of ideas re improving communication:

• Better messengers?
• Clearer message?
• More exciting presentations?
• Better educated populace?
• Squashing skepticism?

These ideas for improving communication are consistent with the linear model of communication, whereby science plus communication and translation of the science, should lead to action. The current buzzword for this is “actionable science.” The communication part of the linear model generally include simplified message, appeal to consensus, effective presentation, and translation for relevance. The focus of the linear model is on the message and messenger, as a disseminator of information.

In spite of substantial efforts in communication, many people remain unconvinced.

There is another model of communication, which is the circular model of communication. Unlike the linear model that focuses on the messenger, the circular model views the receiver as an equal partner in the communication and focuses on the process of engagement (which includes dialogue and feedback).

When a messenger actually makes the effort to understand why an individual is unconvinced, this inevitably leads to both deepening and broadening the discussion to address complexity and uncertainties. The end result can be raising the level of the public dialogue.

To engage effectively with the public on the issue of climate change, we need to recognize that the public salience of climate science is intimately connected with perceived risks and the costs of potential solutions, which are filtered through an individual’s world view and politics.

The goal of engagement is not just to inform, but to enable, motivate and educate the public regarding the technical, political, and social dimensions of climate change.

In the context of a circular process, experts and decision-makers seek input and learn from the public about preferences, needs, insights, and ideas relative to scientific topics, climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, solutions, and policy options.

There is a growing community of people that is demanding such engagement, not only on the policy issues but the scientific issues as well. The idea of the extended peer community has been around since the 1990’s, from the work of Funtowicz and Ravetz. When stakes are high and uncertainties are large, there is a public demand to participate and assess the quality of the data and research. There is a segment of the unconvinced public that consists of technically educated people who want to think for themselves. They are not prepared to cede judgment on this issue to the consensus authority.Further there is a growing number of scientists and other academics from an increasingly broad range of disciplines want to bring their expertise to climate research

The size of the extended peer community associated with climate change has grown substantially in the wake of climategate, which made many lose trust in the judgement of the IPCC experts.

New information technology and the open knowledge movement is enabling extended peer communities. These new technologies facilitate the rapid diffusion of information and sharing of expertise. This newfound power has challenged the politics of expertise. Climategate illustrated the importance of the blogosphere as an empowerment of the extended peer community.

My communication efforts have targeted the technically educated scientifically literate non-experts, many of whom are unconvinced by the IPCC’s arguments. The people that I have been engaging with include engineers, statisticians, physicists, chemists, medical doctors, lawyers, and economists.

Why am I targeting this group? In terms of absolute numbers, there are a small fraction of a percent of the population. However, this group includes many opinion leaders. Failure to pay attention to this group (particular engineers interested in data quality and statistical analysis) arguably led to Climategate Further, these experts from diverse fields have much to contribute to the research, communication and the public debate.

The forum for my engagement with this group is my blog Climate Etc. at judithcurry.com. My blog is a forum for engagement of technically educated people. My role is lead with topics for discussion, many of which are suggested by participants. Sometimes I make my personal opinion known and sometimes I do not. I most definitely do not try to tell people what to think. My blog is unmoderated, where the discussion is for the most part unconstrained. I’ve tried to establish a fair place for an open debate.

The end result has been thousands of interested bloggers, laypeople and scientists interacting, arguing, disagreeing, and learning. I often feature papers that are skeptical of aspects of the consensus science. In addition to responding the concern that skeptical papers are discriminated against by the mainstream community, I find that very interesting discussions can be provoked by considering a skeptical paper.

About a month ago, I received an email from a scientist who wanted to do a guest post on two papers that he recently had published on the topic of surface temperature data. I agreed to host his post, since his papers were relevant to the discussion we had been having on the analysis of the Berkeley surface temperature data. This particular scientist was a prominent member of the German skeptic group EIKE.

One of the first comments on this thread was from an IPCC lead author who thought that these papers were deeply flawed, and thought I was irresponsible and peddling disinformation by hosting this post.

This controversy was picked up by a number of different blogs, and there was a particularly good discussion on this at collide-a-scape. The argument on this topic was a classic clash between the linear and circular models of communication: scientists as gatekeepers of information to be disseminated to the public, versus scientists as facilitators of a free-wheeling dialogue.

A well known climate scientist and blogger wrote this statement on the collide-a-scape:

“Judith decided a while back that the judgment of the community on what was interesting and what was not, was not itself to be trusted.”

My judgment on what is interesting to the broader community has been formed by actually listening to them and trying to address issues of their concern. The community that I am interacting with on my blog is interested in these issues:

• Natural climate variability and nonlinear dynamics
• Climate model verification and validation
• Data quality
• Statistical analysis, uncertainty, logic of arguments
• Scientific method and responsible conduct of research
• IPCC
• Skeptical arguments

This is a different list of issues than the climate establishment has decided are interesting. 3 years ago, I wasn’t focusing my attention on any of these issues. Over the past 2 years, I have focused extensively on these issues on my blog, and increasingly in my published academic research.

This is the difference between linear and circular communication.

So where do I see all this going? I think that social media, particularly the blogosphere, has enormous unrealized potential to:

• facilitate understanding of complex issues
• provide transparency
• identify the best contributions
• increase the signal and filter out the noise
• drive public policy innovation
• reduce polarization

Climate scientists are increasingly experimenting with the climate blogosphere, in a variety of different ways. It is something that I have found to be enormously rewarding and educational on a personal level. I will leave the impact of my efforts to be judged by others.

In closing, I will state that I hope to see many more climate scientists developing their voices and communicating publicly in the blogosphere. To quote Chris Mooney: you have nothing to lose but your irrelevance.

7 comments

1 rbradley { 12.16.11 at 9:14 am }

Chip:

It is a shame that more climate scientists did not join Judith Curry in a rethink. Gerald North at Texas A&M should have been right by her side, but his relationships, I fear, came first.

I am reminded of what Dr. North’s colleague Tom Crowley said in a Climategate 2.0 email: “I am not convinced that the ‘truth’ is always worth reaching if it is at the cost of damaged personal relationships.”

2 Jon Boone { 12.16.11 at 10:26 am }

Curry’s Socratic method, deployed reciprocally as a means of communicating information and as way to increase knowledge, has already found fertile ground in the cohort she seeks to engage. However, she still has a major hill to climb.

Too many of her colleagues remain committed to opacity and the most self-interested inquiry. When researchers stridently oppose transparency and have a financial interest in translating their “findings” into public policy, they deserve scorn–in the process tainting their “communication.”

That Michael Mann, of all people, would ask, “WHY NO ACTION?,” seems emblematic of the current situation. It would have been useful, in my view, had Curry discussed the trillions of dollars–worldwide–already recruited into “action” by governments over the years on behalf of benighted renewables technologies, SQUANDERED BECAUSE OF THEIR INEFFECTUALITY. Many climate researchers, and the politicians they have influenced, have financial ties to the development of these technologies.

Some of Curry’s six bulleted recommendations have merit. But not all. The last three seem fraught with the same potential for mischief that characterizes the present climate rhetoric. Jim Hansen and Joe Romm relish, it seems to me, “increasing the signal and filtering out noise.”

I can think of few things worse than having climate scientists picking winners and losers as they drive “public policy innovation.” Such asininity is already far too loose in the land. These folks have enough trouble in their own areas of expertise, which allows for no comfort zone. Extending their influence to policy choices seems not only problematic; it is a major reason for people to believe, with reason, these “scientists” are not doing their jobs properly.

Whenever any scientist suggests that a rhetorical goal is to reduce polarization, people should immediately clutch their wallets.

If Curry and others want to know how science should proceed, they should work to understand the methods real scientists are using to identify the Higgs boson, with their demand for 5-sigma probability. They might also look to the way the international scientific community is independently working to examine the recent (questionable) findings that neutrinos may travel faster than light.

When nascent climate science becomes mature enough to desire only basic research, I, for one, will give it more credibility.

3 Donald Hertzmark { 12.16.11 at 10:46 am }

On your last point, Rob, it is an even greater shame that so many “climate scientists” are so invested in an outcome/viewpoint that they would shed friends over upholding an ever-weakening argument.

Alas, in the real world such personal matters always will out – from Galileo to Watson and Crick.

4 Tony Fleming { 12.16.11 at 11:55 am }

Anyone engaged in any field of science these days (not just climate science) needs to be paying close attention to Judy Curry’s sage words. Her list of what is “interesting” to the broader community is broadly applicable to the conduct of any meaningful scientific inquiry.

To use just one example (admittedly a prominent one in the case at hand), among that list are several items that should be of utmost importance to those who use computer models to elucidate any complex natural process. As a geologist who has used ground-water flow models to help point analyses in the right direction, I can say without hesitation that evaluation of data quality, model verification and validation, and characterizing uncertainty are all crucial to the integrity of the analysis, and all must be effectively communicated to the end “users” of the model’s output. Or, stated a bit differently: Models are a tool, sometimes a very useful one for constraining a wide range of hypotheses. But in and of themselves, models do not constitute evidence (see: data quality), they should not automatically be regarded as a proxy for the real world (the role of verification and validation, hopefully undertaken in the context of multiple working hypotheses), and because describing non-linear processes typically requires complex multivariate models that depend on many assumptions, models may do a poor job of capturing natural variability, with the results commonly being expressed as a range of outcomes (uncertainty—which is distinct from “standard error” such as measurement error).

In short, models are an adjunct to, and not a substitute for, critical thinking and robust scientific inquiry, both by experts in the field and the broader community of informed participants.

Judy is doing a great service to the scientific community writ large.

5 beth cooper { 12.16.11 at 8:32 pm }

The wisdom of Dr Curry’s approach is again demonstrateded by the thoughtful comments above e.g. ‘ the kinds of the assumptions built into models, climate scientists picking winners and losers as they drive public policy, climate scientists committed to opacity.’ Hope the Team are listening.

6 kuhnkat { 12.18.11 at 11:44 pm }

The basic problem with Climate Science is they have been communicating PROPAGANDA instead of Science. The IPCC part which appears to be in control has NOTHING worth communicating and should be shut down immediately along with extreme cutbacks in US gubmint financed programs. Seriously, I can think of little that has been purchased with our billions worth the cost. What good science that has been done has been so distorted it will take decades to salvage if it is possible.

The continuing whining about not being able to communicate is pointless without something worth communicating.

7 Cooler Heads Digest 16 December 2011 { 01.09.12 at 12:13 pm }

[...] Cooler Heads Digest Tweet In the NewsClimategate Bombshell Maxim Lott, Fox News, 16 December 2011Scientific Communication: Preach or Engage? Chip Knappenberger, Master Resource, 16 December 2011Keystone Blue Collar Blues Lawrence Kudlow, [...]

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