My comment on the RealClimate thread on communicating science:
Of all the weeks to have limited internet access! (People who follow my writing will understand.)
I believe that the present topic is the keystone issue of the survival of civilization. I believe that the increased alienation between experts and the public during the past generation, notably in America but also elsewhere, is the single greatest threat humanity faces. It subsumes not just climate, but also food security, energy security, health, war and peace, and ultimately the preservation of any human accomplishment worth preserving. If we accept that humanity freely chooses its destiny, we had damned well better improve our competence.
From the point of view of the scientifically advanced reader likely to be found here, the crucial error is that made by Jim Bouldin in #58:
“I get fed up with people who think science is supposed to be delivered to them, by us, like a pizza at halftime of a football game. We can’t make people who don’t care and don’t want to learn, care and learn. And it ain’t in our job description anyway.”
While literally true, this is the key to the problem. It ain’t nobody’s job description, and that is a crucial gap in how we organize ourselves.
In areas where there is little risk of social controversy, science can perhaps proceed well enough with the traditional division of labor among faculty, postdoc and grad student apprentices, and lab assistants.
Traditionally in science, modest attention is paid to “outreach”, but this is mostly intended to increase the likelihood that suitably talented children will be inclined to pursue scientific endeavors. Most of the public is served by science in ways they don’t directly grasp, and concrete and relatively modest engineering achievements are offered as a proxy. (The bus driver who takes you on the tour of the Kennedy Space Center is likely to wax rhapsodic about dessicated orange juice and ball point pens which write upside down.) Perhaps this is good enough.
Where controversy arises, though, the problem of outreach is dramatically different. In those cases, there will inevitably be constituencies arrayed about the science wishing to emphasize certain facts, hypotheses, and patterns of thought (e.g., “it’s the sun, stupid”) at the expense of others. This essentially introduces noise into the feedback control system of democratic governance, making society ever harder to manage.
In the face of this behavior, essentially opposition to clear communication of facts, the traditional outreach mechanisms of science have proven utterly powerless, and this is the problem we need to solve. It’s by no means going to be everybody’s job, but it should not be nobody’s job. The traditional divided loyalties of the scientist, between advance of science, advance of self, and advance of institution, hardly needs stretching in yet another direction. RealClimate, for which I have the greatest respect and gratitude, is about the best one could conceivably expect under the circumstances. RealClimate is a remarkable and invaluable contribution, but it’s obviously not enough.
That there are amateurs like Craven and Sinclair is wonderful. They are starting to show up on the radar, and have been grossly underappreciated by the scientific community. I’ve been doing my best to call attention to their achievements, and I greatly welcome this burst of publicity from RC.
But none of this is enough. At best as individuals we can match each bit of nonsense with a comparably accessible bit of sense. Fairminded but busy people will continue to split the difference. In stead of realism, we get a public and a politics carrying a strange muddled average of confusions and misapprehensions. The idea of acting as a counter to organized disinformation too often devolves into counter-disinformation.
We need not just new communication techniques but new institutions. Organizing and presenting information credibly requires professionals whose primary responsibility is to convey existing information, and not to advance some point of view.
It is time to create a profession of advocating for truth, rather than advocating for policy.
“Not being such a scientist” is not by any means a job for all or even most scientists, but it isn’t a job for nonscientists either. Fundamentally Lou Grinzo’s comment early in this thread has it right. We need networks of collaboration between professional communicators and informed scientists.
In some ways this is a perverse turn of events. The decisions we need to make are not about climatology. They are about energy policy, infrastructure, international relations, and fiscal policy. And traditionally, the public hasn’t had much patience for these things either. The problems there are the same, even though the predictability of those disciplines is much weaker than in climate physics. What we know and how well we know it needs to be made clear and credible at whatever level of interest and effort an individual chooses to bring to bear.
It’s at root a problem in pedagogy. Pedagogy in turn is a problem in media. We have new ways of presenting information. Given new information technologies, the gap between what can be done and what is being done is huge. What can be done itself is an enormous project. This is not a problem for a few individuals writing blogs or making low budget videos, though that will have to serve in the short run. We need to create institutions that can make the difference in conveying the nature of the world we are facing.
Image: Cross atop Mount Royal, Montreal