My Little World (and Yours, Too)

I have an essay on sustainability aimed at a broad audience. It’s now up on Grist.

I’m quite pleased with it, at least as a start. The analogy that the article builds on can be useful in many ways and I hope it catches on.

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What not to do about Prometheus

I am struggling with my organization of the blogroll, per Heiko’s complaint in a comment that I’ve misplaced around here somewhere. I think Heiko is reasonably fair-minded, and it’s good to have sensible opposition. Maybe, in some old-fashioned dialectic, we can even learn from each other. Anyway I put him on the “good climate blogs”, because he is always worth reading.

What I am struggling with is Prometheus. In my opinion Roger Pielke is a post hoc arguer, choosing a position based on a political calculation and then defending it, [Update: this is still my impression but given my confusion about the number of Roger Pielkes on the scene I am reconsidering it] rather than proceeding from evidence to conclusions. Consequently, he is sometimes very cogent and sometimes very counterproductive, depending on whether he started from a sound position or otherwise.

I am splitting the difference by not blogrolling him at all, partly compensated by my objections when he was [temporarily] removed from the blogroll at RC, and partly excused by the fact that anyone interested in climate blogging will come across Prometheus eventually anyway.

Anyway, Pielke was treated very shabbily by RC of late and has not been shy about saying so. This intemperate behavior at RC does far more damage than any half-baked laundry list Prometheus comes up with about what’s wrong with the WGI report. [Update – I have confused RP Jr with RP Sr, and I withdraw this with apologies. Google for Pielke and “scientific errors” to see the article to which I was referring.]

It’s bad enough when a random delusionist gets this treatment.

To treat a prominent academic in a relevant field in this way is, hmm, how to put this mildly, hmm, hmm, let me limit myself to “counterproductive”

Simply censoring him would be cause for concern, but yelling at him, openly censoring him, and not giving him room to respond is another matter. This behavior by RC editors is worse than no RC at all. It isn’t Pielke that looks bad in this exchange.

Communication and the Market for Lemons

“In a market where the seller has more information about the product than the buyer, bad products can drive the good ones out of the market.”

In an article on Wired, Bruce Schneier attributes this observation to economist George Akerloff. He discusses the implications for computer security products, which need not concern us here.

A Slashdot reader summarizes neatly: “when deep quality metrics are unavailable, customers will base their decisions on shallow metrics instead.”

What does this have to do with our interests here? In attempting to communicate science in the face of organized opposition we have a fundamentally different task than is conventionally true of science outreach. In the past, scientific communication with the public had to overcome indifference, but now we have to overcome opposition. In other words, we are in a competitive situation.

We have the quality product, but producing the shoddy competition is easier and cheaper. The buyer (the lay person, the journalist, the politician) has only weak signals on which to base their decisions.

It’s not enough to be good, my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Adair, once told her class. (This is the single fact I have retained about Mrs. Adair.) You also have to look good.

I’ve never forgotten this advice, and it took me a very long time to forgive it. I disliked it from the beginning, as many scientists and other intellectual types are wont to do. She is right. This is because it is difficult for the lay person to process the deep information. We must take care that our shallow information is in good shape as well.

There are a lot of ideas competing for everyone’s attention these days. We can’t get the real dimensions of the sustainability problem across to people if they don’t listen. They won’t listen if they think we are a bunch of half-crazed hippies.

Once we start offering advice, we have to project calm authority, and that means we have to look like what people imagine scientists to look like. (I think this might be set mostly by the demeanor of medical professionals, the closest thing most people see to a scientist.)

I don’t like it, but it seems to me that in the end Mrs. Adair was right.

Earth Day in an Airplane

The fates have a number of plane flights between Austin and Montreal lined up for me from which I can envision no escape. In addition to the jarring culture shock of abrupt transition between two such dramatically different cultures, I found myself struggling with feelings of guilt and excess as I changed planes in Chicago on Earth Day.

I’m not sure what else I should report about it, except how the newspapers handled Earth Day.

The entire front page of the Montreal Gazette was taken up by mea culpas about how the newspaper itself had environmental damage (though the idea of, well, giving up on paper wan’t examined very deeply.) There were no other stories beside this rather pointless introspection.

The Montreal Star, by the way, has long since folded. Montreal can barely support a single English language daily at this point. I mention this because, if you come across a copy of the Star for the first Earth Day, though, you will find a picture of some earnest teenagers picking up garbage from the street, myself among them.

There was prominent and thoughtful coverage in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The National Post (of Canada) prominently featured a columnist on the front page with the usual denialist talking points mercilessly mocking the idea of anthropogenic climate change.

The front page of the Chicago Tribune had no mention of earth day whatsoever.

I think the difference of opinion between the US and everywhere else is that the US is not coming to grips at all with the fact that there might be a serious sustainability problem. The difference in emphasis was very striking.