Scientists as advocates and is climate change really bo-ho-horing?

There has been a broad, intense, and interesting discussion about science outreach sparked by Gavin Schmidt’s talk at AGU this year (below).

The Yale forum has a great piece on it, breaking down some of Gavin’s main points:

Scientists must be careful, however, and follow a handful of rules of engagement that will protect their integrity as a scientist as well as their rights as a citizen. Responsible advocacy is characterized by a handful of principles, Schmidt said. The individual should:

  • communicate his/her values fairly and truthfully;
  • make the connections between his/her values and policy choices explicit;
  • make sure to distinguish his/her personal conclusions from the scientific consensus;
  • acknowledge that people with different values would have different policy choices; and
  • be aware of how his/her values might impact objectivity, and be vigilant.

Irresponsible advocacy, on the other hand, can be recognized through a handful of clues. Among these:

  • Individuals misrepresent and hide their values.
  • The basis of their policy choices is unclear.
  • There’s an untested presumption that the individual’s personal scientific conclusions are widely held.

Sound reasonable? Does to me. Yet some scientists still disagree.

I know. We’ve been having this argument, literally for decades. You know what I think. I blog. I talk to the public. I make (pretty lame) videos. I think we scientists should talk about what we know. Why keep it a secret? Obviously, we should be honest. We shouldn’t lie or exaggerate.  (And the press wants to talk to us. The experts. Not spokespersons or, well, I don’t know who would be more suitable in the eyes of the outreach critics.)  So why is this still a problem for some people?

Well, one point is that scientist can talk about their science but not potential policy solutions to problems they uncover. I don’t agree. Regardless, if you’ve ever interacted with the media on an issue like climate change or overfishing, you know one of the last questions will be “what is the solution”? or “now, what is your advice for policy makers?”. This is tricky. For one, the answer is usually obvious. Duh: burn less carbon and eat less seafood. Ride your bike and have a salad for dinner. I do often give a caveat like “I’m obviously not an energy economist, but my non-expert view is that…” Although this is almost certainly unnecessary as nobody is going to change their mind on how they vote on some issue based on policy advice from scientist.

The renewed discussion has introduced some nuances into the debate.  And It must be healthy for science and scientists to periodically review the outreach landscape. Are we on track? Are we doing the right thing? Are we effective?

This is what worries me.  I don’t think that we are very effective.

We scientists keep hearing from the outreach experts how much we SUCK at outreach and how the failure of the environmental movement is partly out fault.  The thing is, we want to be awesome at outreach. We are overachievers. We want to rock the Ted talk with 1 million hits. The problem is, getting trained to do this costs about as much as getting an MBA from Harvard. And our institutions won’t pay for it. Iv’e tried to set up outreach training for UNC climate scientists but it would cost tens of thousands of dollars. Now, to add insult to injury, marine science outreach guru Randy Olsen says climate change is bo-ho-horing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What makes climate research so boring?

Olson: It’s life versus non-life. I saw it my first year of college with Introductory Ecology, studying animal interactions (interesting) and systems ecology (zzz …). The former involves living creatures (interesting) the latter involves mostly lifeless chemicals. Life is interesting. Non-life, not so much.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you sure? Hardly any field of science has experienced as much attention in recent years as climate research.

Olson: It’s kind of like how talking about the weather is generally regarded as the ultimate in boring conversation. Climate science is about temperature. Gee. How interesting.

But is it really?  I can’t decide. Iv’e been blogging about it for 6 or 7 years, thinking it was interesting.  To me,  some non-animal sciences are really cool: planetary astronomy, geology, weather, the Mars landers! And huge swaths of the public agree with me. The Minute Physics YouTube channel gets millions of views a week. People are totally into weather and I don’t think everyone thinks it is boring. Maybe in Southern California – where there is no weather – it is, but where I live, the seasons and the sunsets and the thunder storms are some of the most spectacular and inspiring aspects of daily life.

But I see Randy’s point. To fit into a narrative structure, to make it interesting, you kind of need people. Or at least marine mammals. And ideally one eating the other.

What do you think?

Check out my repost of Don Strong’s powerful essay “Ecologists and environmentalism” here.

And take a look at this: nice makeover by Randy of a sea level rise talk.

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