Monday, November 3, 2014

Science Communication

There’s an interesting article on Dan Kahan in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education.  Kahan, for those who don’t know, is the current guru of science communication.  His updating of the work of Mary Douglas is valuable; I always liked Douglas even though I found her politics unappealing.  There is some Douglas in my earlier writing on risk norms (for instance in Markets and Mortality).

In general, I think Kahan is right that tribal affiliation is a major impediment to communicating the science of climate change.  This is a problem for both sides—not only for denialists who see themselves fighting to save the free market against enviro-crypto-socialists but also the enviros who see the climate problem as a vindication of their disdain for economic growth and materialistic values.  Now how much the economy should be regulated and what sorts of values contribute to a good life are important questions and deserve all the attention and reflection we want to give to them, but the tribal identities people have developed around them can only get in the way of dealing with climate change in a rational fashion.

In other words, this isn’t just about anti-science Republicans or Koch-funded denialism (which do exist), but also environmentalists using the climate to act out their moralism.  Big cars are b-a-a-a-d.  TV is b-a-a-a-d.  Trying to make money is b-a-a-a-d.  Climate change is nature’s revenge on humans for all that badness.  (See more venting about green moralism here.)

It’s difficult to get green folks to stop doing this because they get reinforcement from their tribe (including their inner tribe) every time they denounce the moral turpitude of the other side.  But they should see that it’s not working and stop.

One other, more specific thought about science communication: scientists spend their life honing observation and measurement.  For them, science consists of devising and applying new methods for identifying, documenting and measuring our world.  When they think of communication, they have in mind explanations of what empirical results they’ve established and the methodological basis for them.  The assumption seems to be that public understanding of science takes the form of an unordered collation of facts about observations and methods.  We have ice cores!  Here are fluctuations in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere over the past 150,000 years!  Here is the change over 50 years in the range of a beetle that damages spruce forests!  Here is our best estimate of the relationship between global temperatures, thermal expansion and sea level rise!

But that’s not really how people think themselves through complex issues.  Rather, they need stories, and science succeeds when it supplies a compelling story that provides a structure for individual facts.  The story doesn’t have to be perfectly correct in all its particulars, just true enough that it does the job.  You can qualify it as you go deeper.

This is why I cringed when I read the latest synthesis report from the IPCC.  Of course, there is nothing scientifically wrong about their brief distillations of research into the various aspects of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon response and the like.  But this is not a story.  What I tried to do here, here and here was a stab at a story.  I’m not a scientist (just an economist), and my presentation was radically simplified even by my standards, but something like this is what might reach people who do not do science for a living.


Sandwichman said...


You appear to have omitted one tribe. I wonder which one that would be?

Just picked up Reason in a Dark Time: Why the struggle against climate change failed [past tense] -- and what it means for the future.

Skip chapter four, though. It is about "the tribe that dares not speak its name."

Thornton Hall said...

If only scientists could tell stories like economists and economists could observer and measure like scientists.

Sandwichman said...

Sophocles was damn good story-teller.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

I overheard someone say recently that man is not rational, rather that man is a rationalising creature.

If this is true (and I believe that it is) the practice therefore of science will not be found to be free from moralism and bias and wishful thinking and politics, etc.

There may not be a solution to address this human contaminated science we live (and die) with.

Bruce Wilder said...

You do realize that this post was you expressing your tribal resentments?

And, no, it isn't particularly "helpful" either, nor has it been "working" in any measurable respect.

Peter Dorman said...

Resentments against tribes? Yes. But what tribe am I a part of?

Agreed that I have zero effect on the discourse of environmentalists. said...

This does not really have to do with the issue of tribal communication within the sciences, but the pathetic state of the anti-global warming movement in politics can be seen by the US midterm election now over. I am unaware of any race in the nation where a candidate advocating doing anything serious about global warming did well against an opponent because of the issue. Certainly many such candidates won, but they generally did so in solid Democratic districts or states without the issue the main one in play.

OTOH, while it may well be that all these races would have been won by GOP anyway in this Reupblican wave year, and in some states where this is an issue, racism against Obama is also a factor, it is clear that in several main Senate races that were supposedly close and in which all of them went for GOP, with several of these among those helping the GOP to take control of the Senate, the GOP candidates played their anti-environmentalism-pro-fossil-fuel-energy stances hard with their Dem opponents strongly on the defensive and apparently losing support, even when these candidates opposing Obama's policies. Such states would include West Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana (I know, officially not over, but it looks like Landrieu will go down in the end, and she in particular was hurt over the XL pipeline issue), and Alaska (I know results not reported yet, but looks like a goner, and also to some extent, Colorado.

In this regard, I note that the switch from Dem to GOP control of the Virginia state senate last year probably ultimately came down to this issue as well. The Dem senator who quit, with a GOP replacing him in the state senate was from Southwest Virginia, poor coal country, the part of the state most like WVA, and it has moved towards the Republicans as WVA has, partly due to racism, but also strongly due to being upset at Obama's anti-coal policies.

If legislative action on climate change was dead before now at the national level in the US before, it is now doubly dead. Environmentalists may have the EPA doing something finally, but their has been a massive failure in the political arena. However, I am not going to tie this to any particular tribalism by either economists or environmental scientists, although Peter might.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Re: "legislative action on climate now doubly dead..."

It's only a matter of time, Barkley. Ten foot high storm surges along the Potomac River in Washington DC ('coming soon to your door') will also change the political landscape.

Here in North West Tasmania recently constructed public footpaths are being washed away by sea level rise over the past 5 years or so. Council are warning residents not to build anymore houses close to the beach - the advice is being ignored.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

A very graphic presentation here:
Run Away Emergency


Peter Dorman said...

Barkley, I think there is a tribal tinge to the political dynamic you're describing, although there's a lot more going on. To some extent the resistance of coal producing areas is unavoidable, although there is also an element of hostage syndrome: the coal companies still lord it over much of the region, and the public largely identifies with them. Why that happens is complex. We've seen the same thing in the Pacific Northwest with the timber companies.

But it's also true that the moralistic inclinations of a lot of greens makes the problem that much worse. If you think coal is a "bad" industry run by bad people for bad reasons, you're not going to be very sympathetic to those whose livelihoods are at stake. Supporting the workers who are most vulnerable to an energy transition is at best an afterthought to most enviros.

A different way to think of it is that coal played a central role in the industrialization and economic advancement of the US, but that coal miners and coal communities paid a heavy price. Now that it's clear we need to shut down the industry as soon as we can, they are being asked to pay still more. They are not bad people, and their anger at environmentalists, or the image they have of them (which is much closer than I wish it were), is understandable.

Why can't we recognize that climate change is an existential emergency and also respect the people who have made the fossil fuel industry powerful and productive?