Farewell to Framing

I came to AGU a day early for this?

Matt Nesbitt, Max Boykoff and the euphoniously named Gwendolyn Blue formed a panel on public communication of science. I enjoyed it on the whole; Ms. Blue’s presentation in particular was delightful, but the more I think about the whole thing the more convinced I am that it missed the mark altogether.

Now this blog came on the scene pretty much simultaneous with the famous Nisbett and Mooney Nature item which discussed the necessity for “framing” science in a way that would be palatable to the target audience. I’m a sort of cultural chameleon myself, so I’m perhaps more aware than other scientists of when scientific arrogance is more likely to piss people off than to attract them. I thought avoiding P Z Myers confrontationalism was all this framing business was about.

I remain a Chris Mooney fan, but having seen Nisbett in action, I now see that the person who has staked out “framing science” as his personal territory pretty much doesn’t get science.

To be sure, I’m not sure there were any scientists in the audience. Simon Donner said he’d show up, but I didn’t see him. And much as I appreciate Steve Easterbrook, not to mention yours truly, both of whom were evident in the audience, we really aren’t your core AGU audience either. Melanie Fitzpatrick of the Union of Concerned Scientists was there, but you can’t really call her a practicing scientist either. Other identified participants were mostly political or educational types, too.

I didn’t really see any major league researchers there, so the whole episode was sort of ironically moot to begin with. That turned out to be a good thing. As you will see, I don’t recommend real scientists expend many synapses on this gang.

Boykoff kicked it off, and managed to go 18 minutes before mentioning the CRU email hacking, which I appreciated, and he did encourage participation by scientists, but he pretty much fell right into the “global warming, yes or no” frame and followed polls.

He also bought into the idea that the blogosphere was totally obsessed with the CRU business. He dismissed my point that article counts don’t tell you much on the web, and that Google search metrics didn’t show a lot of interest in the business among the real world. He shrugged and said I should trust him to compare “apples to apples”. Yeah, dude, but those are really teeny tiny apples on one side, you know?

Nisbett was also all about “global warming, yes or no”, so much that he seemed to think “communicating science” was all about communicating “global warming, yes”. He yammered about Al Gore incessantly. He mentioned the CRU business within seconds, and had called it “climategate”. He kept referring to AGU as “environmental scientists”!

This is the guy who wants to tell us about “framing”?

The worst of it was all the spin he was advocating had nothing whatsoever to do with science. We should talk about energy. About security. We should take a tip from congress who renamed “Cap and Trade” to “America’s Clean Energy and Security”. We should talk about the birds and the fishes. Well fine. What you need a geophysicist for in that case escapes me entirely.

It emerged that the panelists were confident that the public does not care about science, and that you should feed them symbols instead because they will ignore rational argument. To those who object that this is exactly what Al Gore did in his movie, they amend their position to state that you should feed them symbols and not be Mr Gore, but that otherwise what Gore does is perfect.

People in the audience had trouble absorbing all of this. The advice to scientists, then, is to dress up like scientists and deliver PR just like the PR office tells them to.

Ms Blue softened the blow a little bit. She wrapped it up with an interesting story of consensus building among a nonexpert population, with consensus facilitators and scientific documents but no scientific authorities in the room. Most of the subgroups ended up supporting a fairly strong negotiating position in Copenhagen (30% reductions by 2020 or such) but they were playing by the rules, which meant to treat the science as true. Apparently one table had a convinced denialist who had brought his own briefing book; it wasn’t stated but I imagine his table didn’t have as good a time as they were playing more by real world rules. It was an interesting experiment but it completely begged the question of which briefing book people are using, didn’t it?

In the end, the social scientists presented an audience of educators, reporters and activists with the message that physical scientists should give up any hope of influencing how people actually weigh evidence. People simply aren’t interested in scientific process. Scientists are weird and should accept that; democracy works purely on superficial and symbolic processes.

This isn’t what I read from serious skeptics, who are livid about getting symbolism when they ask substantive questions. The small group of relevant scientists are telling the truth when they say “we really don’t have time to discuss everything in detail, even with people who aren’t adamant about distrusting us; we have work to do”. The vicious circle of hostility and suspicion feeds on the opacity of science, not the excess of “information”.

The social scientists, big on frames, totally shared the frame of the denialists that climate science is about “global warming”, and presumed that AGU is about climate science. Of course, if that were true, we wouldn’t be very busy at all. We’d have answered the question “global warming, yes or no” in the affirmative already. So all we need to do now is to just sell our idea like soap. After all the other guys are doing that. If we don’t come up with better branding and clever promotional programs, is it any wonder we’re losing market share?

Well, if this is framing, you can keep it, thanks.

In a balloon

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there are two managers who are ballonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

“Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?”

to which the reply comes back

“You’re in a balloooooon!”

The ballonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion “That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before.”

Have a look at Gavin Schmidt’s response to this provocative posting by Steven Mosher on RealClimate. Notice how it responds exactly to the question and is correct in every detail. Notice how it nevertheless in no way offers any assistance to the questioner.

The answer makes it clear that the denialists have no significant participation in the discussion. Unfortunately, that is one of the few points on which they agree with the consensus. They are promulgating a different model of why this is so.

There is nothing in Gavin’s answer to allay the suspicions others may have that climatology is an arrogant and closed-minded community. In failing to address exactly those suspicions, it seems likely that he confirmed them for many readers.

It is much harder to explain how and why certain topics are relegated to the fringe than to assert that they have been. Confidence building is hard, but in a situation like this, confidence erosion is easy. It is better to shut up than to dash off an impatient answer, however correct.

Mosher’s position, whether benignly intended or not, is well formulated and worth of a response that holds together both factually and polemically. As a polemical response Gavin’s reply is very counterproductive.

I didn’t start this blog because I wanted to jump on Nisbett and Mooney’s bandwagon. (As far as I see it I scooped them, for whatever that’s worth.) I started this blog because I see realclimate backfiring. This is a case in point.

Update: The inimitable Dr Bunny has more evidence of RC folk being somewhat at the end of their rope. I am sure I do not always follow the gist of Eli’s bemused commentary, but I am equally sure there is a lot in the exchange he points to that will not do much to attract fence-sitters, to say the least.