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Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk

Filed under: — group @ 16 September 2009

Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt

The issues involved in science communication are complex and often seem intractable. We’ve seen many different approaches, but guessing which will work (An Inconvenient Truth, Field Notes from a Catastrophe) and which won’t (The Eleventh Hour) is a tricky call. Mostly this is because we aren’t the target audience and so tend to rate popularizations by different criteria than lay people. Often, we just don’t ‘get it’.

Into this void has stepped Randy Olsen with his new book “Don’t be such a scientist”. For those who don’t know Randy, he’s a rather extraordinary individual – one of the few individuals who has run the gamut from hard-core scientist to Hollywood film maker. He’s walked the walk, and can talk the talk–and when he does talk, we should be listening!

While there may be some similarities in theme with “Unscientific America” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum that we reviewed previously, the two books cover very different ground. They share the recognition that there is currently a crisis in area of scientific communication. But what makes “Don’t be such a Scientist” so unique is that Olsen takes us along on his own personal journey, recounting his own experiences as he made the transition from marine biologist to movie-maker, and showing us (rather than simply telling us–you can be sure that Randy would want to draw that distinction!) what he learned along the way. The book could equally well have been titled “Confessions of a Recovering Scientist”.

More than anything else, the book attempts to show us what the community is doing wrong in our efforts to communicate our science to the public. Randy doesn’t mince words in the process. He’s fairly blunt about the fact that even when we think we’re doing a good job, we generally aren’t. We have a tendency to focus excessively on substance, when it is often as if not more important, when trying to reach the lay public, to focus on style. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

This is a recurring theme in Randy’s work. His 2006 film, Flock of Dodos, showed, through a combination of humor and insightful snippets of reality, why evolutionary biologists have typically failed in their efforts to directly engage and expose the “intelligent design” movement. In his 2008 film Sizzle, he attempted the same thing with the climate change debate–an example that hits closer to home for us–in this case using more of a “mockumentary”-style format (think “Best in Show” with climate scientists instead of dogs) but with rather more mixed results. Randy makes the point that the fact that Nature panned it, while Variety loved it, underlines the gulf that still exists between the worlds of science and entertainment.

However, the book is not simply a wholesale, defeatist condemnation of our efforts to communicate. What Randy has to say may be tough to hear, but its tough love. He provides some very important lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and they ring true to us in our own experience with public outreach. In short, says Randy: Tell a good story; Arouse expectations and then fulfill them; Don’t be so Cerebral; And, last but certainly not least: Don’t be so unlikeable (i.e. don’t play to the stereotype of the arrogant, dismissive academic or the nerdy absent-minded scientist). Needless to say, it’s easy for us to see our own past mistakes and flaws in Randy’s examples. And while we might quibble with Randy on some details (for example, An Inconvenient Truth didn’t get to be the success it was because of its minor inaccuracies), the basic points are well taken.

The book is not only extremely insightful and full of important lessons, it also happens to be funny and engaging, self-effacing and honest. We both agree that this book is a must read for anyone who cares about science, and the problems we have engaging the public.

If the book has a flaw, it might be the seemingly implicit message that scientists all need to take acting or comedy lessons before starting to talk – though the broader point that many of us could use some pointers in effective communication is fair. More seriously, the premise of the book is rooted in perhaps somewhat of a caricature of what a scientist is (you know, cerebral, boring, arrogant and probably unkempt). This could be seen merely as a device, but the very fact that we are being told to not be such scientists, seems at times to reinforce the stereotype (though to be fair, Randy’s explanation of the title phrase does show it to be a bit more nuanced than might initially meet the eye). Shouldn’t we instead be challenging the stereotype? And changing what it means to the public to be a scientist? Maybe this will happen if scientists spend more time not being so like stereotypical scientists – but frankly there are a lot of those atypical scientists already and the cliches still abound.

When it comes to making scientists better communicators, Greg Craven’s book “What’s the worst that can happen?” demonstrates how it can actually be done. Craven is a science teacher and is very upfront about his lack of climate science credentials but equally upfront about his role in helping normal people think about the issue in a rational way. Craven started off making YouTube videos explaining his points and this book is a further development of those including responses to many of the critiques he got originally.

Craven’s excellent use of video to discuss the implications of the science is neatly paired with the work that Peter Sinclair is doing with his “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” series. Both use arresting graphics and straightforward explanations to point out what the science really says, how the contrarians distort and misinform and take some pleasure in pointing out the frequent incoherence that passes for commentary at sites like WUWT.

Crucially, neither Craven nor Sinclair are scientists, but they are excellent communicators of science. Which brings up a point raised by both Mooney & Kirshenbaum and Olsen – what role should working scientists play in improving communications to the public? Video editing and scriptwriting (and even website design!) is probably best left to people who know how to do these things effectively, while content and context needs to be informed directly by the scientists themselves. To our mind this points to enhanced cooperation among communicators and scientists as the dominant model we should be following. We don’t all need to become film directors to make a difference!

602 Responses to “Communicating Science: Not Just Talking the Talk”

  1. 451
    Mark says:

    Simon monkton asks: “Add the forcing component and the atmospheric lifetime of Co2″. So, what is the atmospheric lifetime of CO2? How do you know this?

    Are you saying that it is impossible to see how something is removed when added to a system?
    This is how they “know this”: evidence (means “that which is seen”).

    SM asks: “The feedbacks will most likely magnify in response to the continued warming and thus push the numbers up at various tipping points.” What numbers? What various tipping points?

    are you saying that the climate system is non-chaotic and reacts linearly?

    Because you seem to be implying that there would be no tipping points. If there were, then you would be unable to use this query, since not knowing when the point occurs doesn’t mean you can ignore changes that bring such a point closer

    SM asks: “When AGW reaches a certain point, we pay the price”. What certain point?

    The point at which we start paying the price.

    You don’t pay the price of smoking immediately. You start off with no ill effects. Then your lungs aren’t working as well any more. Then you may get cancer.

    Or do you deny that smoking causes cancer?

  2. 452
    Mark says:

    Skeksis says: “Dismiss what? I dismissed nothing except the use of GCMs for forecasting climate decades into the future. That is all”

    That’s like saying “I didn’t dismiss your religion, I just dismissed any religious texts as being legitimate. That is all”.

    GCMs are and can be used for forecasting climate decades into the future. How? By the same method Military Supplies Officers ensure the lines of supply are adequate, even though one day a solider may eat much more than normal, or skip meals, etc.:

    The Fuzzy Law Of Large Numbers.

    Climate is “how hot will summer be?” not “what will the temperature 14th August, 2070 be?”. The latter one is weather.

    And climate is “what is the average over 30 years going to be?”.

    I can use simulations to show what the chances of any number coming up in the lottery. And whether I’m right isn’t done by asking “which number will be 154th shown?”. You take an average of a series and see whether my average agrees.

    Just like you would do for climate.

    And GCM’s CAN DO THAT.

    But you don’t want to ask questions, do you. You just want to ignore science and avoid your errors so you deny, deny, deny. In order to do so, you refuse to learn and repeat again and again the same old bile-led exhortations of your own nurtured incredulity.

  3. 453
    Mark says:

    “Yes, I recall how reliably all those computer engineers predicted the downfall of civilization the the months leading up to Jan. 1, 2000. Those guys are so reliable???”

    Yup, if they hadn’t spent so much time and money fixing the problem, there would have been problems.

    When you’ve paid for your expensive heart surgery, do you demand your money back because you didn’t have the heart attack that the doctor said you needed the operation to avoid???

    You let this pile of droppings:

    If the science were dodgy the computer would not be possible. by that token I am bound to trust a computer engineer more than I would a research scientist, simply because the former has demonstrated what he can do in a very concrete way, whereas the latter is necessarily dealing in unknowns and uncertainty. Sorry guys!

    drag you off into fairy land.

    What ***IS*** wrong here is that this is a complete non-sequitor.

    Would you trust open heart surgery to your plumber because

    a) he’s never had an accident in a surgery in 30 years of working as a plumber
    b) he’s a darn good plumber
    c) you’ve heard about doctor shipman


    So what does making a computer tell you about their ability to predict science?


    And the computer engineer has used what the research scientist did to do his work in a very concrete way. Thus the researcher is proven right in a very concrete way by the working product someone else made.

    Or does this moron dismiss the engineers who built the shuttle because the astronaut is the one proving the rocket works in a very concrete way?

  4. 454
    Mark says:

    Skeksis opines “A good scientist would not simply dismiss contrary evidence as “noise” in a long term trend”

    And this explains why you do just this: you are not a good scientist.

    Brother working in the coal industry?

  5. 455
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B. says, “…they seemed pretty flat to me”

    Did you do a linear regression? Any other statistical analysis? Then what basis do you have for your your opinion.

  6. 456

    In many discussions, there is a choice: You can either stress the disagreements and
    differences, or you can search for common ground. Greg Craven does the
    latter very well, see eg this video of his:
    where he sais for example: “… it’s just way more productive for each
    side to refer to the other as that side prefers” and later “I point
    out that my motivations are simply pragmatic, because in my
    experience, that’s the case for a lot of you, as well, so it’s common
    ground for us. (…)What I’m concerned about is me and mine, and our
    lifestyle.” Terrific. That hits home, it hits a nerve, and more
    importantly, it hits quite a strong nerve especially with those that
    are not convinced of the urgency of the problem.

    Greg has some terrific videos, and I’m looking forward to read his
    book when I find the time. I’m a little puzzled though about suddenly
    being in the target audience whereas initially I wasn’t. Other
    science-minded people like Kate (climatesight) and Michael Tobis
    (initforthegold) both expressed a feeling of not being the target audience. It seems counterintuitive.

    Even when two people disagree (e.g. Jim Bouldin and Randy Olsen earlier in this thread), I think they can both make valid points. Most scientists are good at doing science, and are not great storytellers (with, of course, many exceptions). So they naturally resent being told to go and tell a story, especially so when they feel that they’re being (partly) blamed
    for the public confusion about the issue. OTOH, Olsen is right, that the nature of the game has changed, and that scientists who do communicate to the public better be aware of how the public filters and digests information these days.

    And highlighting one factor in the problematic chain from scientific understanding to public (mis-)understanding doesn’t necessarily mean that there are not more (important factors as well. Think of the role of the media, of politics, of the school system. And in most of these, it is the institutions that are somehow failing more so than the individuals.

  7. 457

    Mark, I’m with you 100 percent on renewables.
    You say:
    “… solar power gets the raw material delivered directly there, no need for any cars. Same with wind, tidal and geothermal.”
    Amen to that! You’ll get no quarrel from me on this.

    My initial point is that the onus shouldn’t totally be on the scientists, but that non scientists might keep themselves minimally aware of some scientific knowledge such as, in this case, the differences between several currently used means of generating electricity.
    (BTW I’m not a scientist,my field is civil engineering,and not research but as a working engineer. I’ve worked on studies involving hydopower and pumped storage, which are also an arguably(depends on who you’re speaking to :)) benign means of delivering power.)

    The better informed that the general public keep themselves, the better they can communicate with their representatives, the decision makers in Washington, and some of the effort should be made on their part

  8. 458
    Hank Roberts says:

    Wholly appropriate for the topic:

    How to talk to complete idiots
    Three basic options. Choose wisely, lest you go totally insane

    By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
    Friday, September 25, 2009

  9. 459
  10. 460
    stevenc says:

    I assume the scientists at NOAA are better trained then I in statistical methods so I won’t bother trying to check their math. I will be delighted to hear the response after you have corrected them though. I’m sure they will be quite embarrassed.

  11. 461
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hank,”Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience”–Mark Twain

  12. 462
    Mark says:

    Lawrence, there’s always SOME downsides to any form of power extraction.

    Heck the very basic form us humans have requires the deaths of thousands of other lives to maintain each year.

    So all options are balances of how much bad there is and how much good. But before all that, if it must be done at all.

    Could we use less power more intelligently?

  13. 463

    #450 Mark

    Thanks, I missed SM’s post.

    #452 Mark

    Quite correct. In the reality I was not writing about the various fixes to the software to manage the ## v. #### year. So my post was not really about the computer engineers, but rather the medias irresponsible handling of the rumors and myths that were flying about (including that the poles were going to flip that night (someone told me that would cause earthquakes and tidal-waves)…

    [fade-in, mysterious background music, the sound of wind and a porch mobile chiming in the distance… visual effect misty mix/wipe …fade to past…]


    We just left our downtown office building and stepped onto the icy streets of downtown Detroit. It was cold. We start walking toward the parking lot…


    I was in Detroit that year. The Chairman of the Board from the company I was working at as CEO came and asked me prior to the looming specter of new years eve 1999, if I had prepared? I tilted my head with a puzzled look and pondered the meaning of his question.


    He leaned toward me with a serious and concerned expression. Cut to overhead shot, black and white. We pulled our coats tighter around us and a chill wind stirred…


    He told me he had filled all his bathtubs with water (scene note for reaction: I am assuming some were expecting gravity to no longer work from the water towers to the houses), purchased a gas generator, stored months of food, etc., and then asked me if I had prepared.

    I told him I had purchased a half gallon of milk as we had run out back at my place on 17 Mile…

    – Okay, enough of that. True story though, sorry for the stylization.

    I did call a couple of the Detroit papers and one TV station in the two weeks prior to the new year and asked why they were not trying to alleviate fears of all these rumors and tell the truth rather than merely reporting the myths as they found them. I don’t recall exactly what the responses were but I remember getting the feeling that they didn’t care about trying to dispel anything, but rather were just reporting what was going on from the people ‘they’ interviewed…

    hmmm…. sounds familiar…

    another day, same old silliness.

  14. 464
    Naindj says:

    Thanks agan to be patient with me Gavin,
    So ok let’s say it is not so simplified and they use the data of Hytran (let’s be honest, I just read about it after your answer), calculating layer by layer, and with 33 wavelengths ( !! I’m impressed by the computers of today). Still, the conditions in the atmosphere are very different from the ones in laboratory (I’m thinking about the water for example), so how do you know you have 10% of accuracy ? I also read that there is controversy on the absorption of CO2 in presence of water…some say 3 W/m2, others 2 or 4…and IPCC said finally 3.7.

    They have to compare with reality at some point no?
    The problem is that the reality includes all interactions. So they compare the full model with reality, and not just the radiative process. So how do they isolate radiative process to check it?
    Is there documents on the web, talking about tuning of models? I did not find any.

  15. 465
    stevenc says:

    Oh and Mark, when you tell the scientists at the NOAA why they are idiots, make sure you use “HAS warmed” and not “has warmed” or they may not see exactly where they made their neophyte mistake.

  16. 466
    Andrew says:

    Hello everyone;

    Looking for a little help understanding why CO2 levels go up and down as they have in the past during glacial and interglacial periods. In particular it varies between about 180 to 280 ppm.

    I believe it’s because during warm periods, global precipitation is enough sequester CO2 from the atmosphere by weathering until global temperatures fall off enough so that the planet become significantly more arid.

    Then it takes 30,000+ years for the oceans to come into equilibrium with the CO2. Then a change in the earths orbit causes a slight warming which in turn reduces the oceans solubility for CO2 sufficiently so that there is a feedback mechanism and a period of global warming occurs feed by the new orbit and rising CO2 levels until temperatures rise enough to increase precipitation and start the cycle again.

    Methane is another cyclic greenhouse gas, but the mechanism is not the same since methane is not sequestered by weathering of rocks.

    I believe methane has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere and it’s concentration is more Dependant on production than anything else. So, as the globe warms from the orbital changes and CO2, methane is released from warming permafrost and more active bogs. As the globe cools, methane production is reduced and atmospheric concentrations simply follow.

    Anyhow, appreciate any correction to the above or better yet reference to a reputable source.


  17. 467

    #458 Eli Rabett

    20 words :)

    Excess atmospheric CO2 can last centuries and exchange quickly with oceans and plants. Exchange does not mean increase or decrease.

    That’s a good exercise. That’s what I tried to do on the OSS site, but I also try to say things a couple different ways and try to balance between to simple and overkill (Ockhams razor meets Einsteins limiter).

  18. 468
    David B. Benson says:

    Andrew (464) — Not the way I learned it; weathering is too slow. As the globe cools a little due to change in orbital forcing, the vast oceans are able to absorb more CO2, so the CO2 in the atmosphere is lowered. Reverse during warming.

  19. 469
    Hank Roberts says:

    Andrew — 27 September 2009 at 2:05 PM

    From the first link under Science, in the right hand sidebar.
    See also the little rectangle with the words “Start Here” at the top of the page; that’s a link you can click to open another page.

  20. 470

    Mark in 462.
    I agree again that no form of energy use is completely benign, but some are surely more environmentally friendly than others. You named some of the better alternatives in one of your previous posts.

  21. 471
    David Horton says:

    As a follow up to this piece, Gavin or someone else might look at, which is a Lomborg support act, with nonsense such as “Lomborg sites data from the World Wildlife Fund that at most we will lose 15 polar bears a year due to global warming” and “there will be 400,000 more heat-related [human] deaths annually; there will also be 1.8 million fewer cold-related deaths, for a net gain of 1.4 million lives”. When you read this stuff it seems clear that no amount of improving our collective ability to communicate science is going to overcome the forces against action on global warming.

  22. 472
    Pete W says:

    Side bar regarding the Y2K computer bug…

    I was the lead mainframe programmer on the Y2K software project team for the mid-size insurance company I work for. The problem would have caused this corporation to fail if it had been ignored. But it was not ignored because we knew what was at stake. The problem did not only affect us on 1/1/2000, but also on several other important dates. For instance on 1/1/1998 some of our computer systems that need to look 2 years into the future were affected. Other systems only needed to look at historical data and were not affected until 1/1/2001 and beyond.

    Many smart minds were put to work on it. I did nothing but work on this issue for about 3 years of my life. We reviewed every one of our computer systems and every program, determined exactly when each one would break, estimated how much work each one would require, decided which technical solution should be used for each system, and laid out time tables for what needed to be worked on when. Since the actual software repair task was menial, we hired outside contractors to do this work while our own programmers could continue developing new systems.

    This is like night and day however when talking about climate systems. We had a very high confidence level that we knew exactly what we were doing. Business software behaviors are 100% predictable and testable.

    One of my favorite memories was watching an Apple PC computer support guy on a local TV station advising everyone to just move to an Apple and their Y2K problems would magically disappear. I called him that evening and tried to have a frank discussion with him that went no where. He couldn’t believe that any Apple software could have such a bug in it. But just a few days into January 2000 and he started posting apologies and repair advice on his web site for the multiple vendor software packages that had been installed on Apple computers that he supported. – I think the lesson learned here is a very old one;


  23. 473

    Re 411, Thank you Hank, however I still think he missed that it was peered for another journal?

  24. 474
    CM says:

    Eli, John, (re #458, 467), I don’t have a better short formulation to get across the point about atmospheric residence time. But to drive the point home, I’m wondering if a juggling metaphor could work?

    The ball (CO2 molecule) doesn’t stay more than a second in the air (~ 5 years) before it’s taken up by a hand (vegetation, ocean), but the juggling (carbon cycle) still keeps the balls constantly passing through the air for minutes (centuries) on end before they get dropped on the floor (weathering, deep ocean).

    Now, your beautiful assistant (those lovely fossil fuels) tosses you a couple more balls. With a three-ball cascade you had two balls in the air simultaneously, with a five-ball one you have three or four. The increased number of balls juggled (carbon in the cycle) means more balls in the air (atmospheric CO2) at any time, for as long as the juggler can manage, despite the fact that they all still all get caught in a second as soon as they’re tossed.

    Personally, I don’t know how to do atmospheric science, nor how to juggle more than two balls, but for those who do, here’s a YouTube opportunity to “not be such a scientist”…

  25. 475
    simon abingdon says:

    #459 Eli Rabett

    ER: “Excess atmospheric CO2 can last centuries and exchange quickly with oceans and plants. Exchange does not mean increase or decrease”

    SA: “Atmospheric CO2 can increase or decrease by exchanging quickly with oceans and plants.” (13 words)

  26. 476
    Matthew L. says:

    #453 Mark
    Sorry, can’t let this one go by uncommented on:

    If the science were dodgy the computer would not be possible. by that token I am bound to trust a computer engineer more than I would a research scientist, simply because the former has demonstrated what he can do in a very concrete way, whereas the latter is necessarily dealing in unknowns and uncertainty. Sorry guys!

    drag you off into fairy land.

    What ***IS*** wrong here is that this is a complete non-sequitor.

    Would you trust open heart surgery to your plumber because

    a) he’s never had an accident in a surgery in 30 years of working as a plumber
    b) he’s a darn good plumber
    c) you’ve heard about doctor shipman

    This comment was made simply to illustrate the difference between “trust” and “faith”. We tend to “trust” those individuals or groups who have a track record of success [b]in their chosen field of endeavour[/b].

    Some people are able to have “faith” in somebody even though that person has no track record. For instance people have “faith” in religion, because the priest is a nice guy and he wouldn’t lie to them would he?

    Or it would be nice if there was a heaven, so I will have “faith” that I am going there because I can believe “six impossible things before breakfast” (Lewis Carrol, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, comic reference to the Christian Creed” – from an ordained priest no less!).

    Without a very good understanding of the science, a belief that the scientists are right [b]or wrong[/b] on AGW is tantamount to “faith” because nobody has a good track record (yet) in predicting what will happen if we (for instance) double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    This is a big problem for me and many other non-religious people who are happy to “trust” but disinclined to have “faith”. That is why I am trying to understand all this – and struggling.

    I have almost as much idea about how a computer works as I do of the science of global warming. However I build my own home computers from components and they work. My employer has several thousand computers and they work fine. So when I buy a computer I have reasonable grounds to “trust” that it will work.

    In answer to your particular questions;

    Would I trust open heart surgery to my plumber? No, because he has never done any open heart surgery and has no track record in open heart surgery. Likewise, I know of no open heart surgeons who I would trust to do my plumbing.

    We recently employed a plumber. He came well recommended by a friend of mine who used him to repair their bathroom and heating. We went round to the friends house and saw this all functioning well. So I got the plumber to fix up a couple of radiators and two toilets in our house and he did a good job. My trust in him was well founded.

    After Dr Shipman, there was a real crisis of “trust” in our medical profession here. It took a lot of repair work on the part of the National Health Service to put it right. As a consequence, my wife (a doctor) now has annual peer review appraisals, has to do about 100 hours a year of compulsory education update courses (on top of working a 40 hour week and caring for 3 children) and next year she will have to undergo annual “re-validation” exams. None of this would have happened if Shipman had not undermined our “trust” in Doctors.

    What will happen to all the climate scientists if, in 50 years time, it turns out that global warming did not happen in the way, or to the extent, they predicted?

    Probably not a lot, because all we are asking to do is conserve resources, something that is pretty sensible regardless of whether you believe AGW is taking place.

  27. 477

    OT but a question:

    It seems to me that the two biggest “smoking guns” for AGW are 1) models cannot hindcast accurately without AGW and 2) the stratosphere is cooling as the troposphere warms. I know that ozone loss also results in stratospheric cooling but not at 40-50 km so much as CO2.

    Why aren’t we shouting from the tree tops about stratospheric cooling?

  28. 478


    I trust the science (in its sphere of applicability) because it’s been proven to be succesful.
    If the scientists by and large work according to scientific standards, I think this trust is warranted.

    It’s hard to gauge scientific work based on correct predictions, as it is primarily concerned with coming up with ever better explanations for the unknown. But even then, global warming was predicted to happen before it actually did (eg by Arrhenius, 1896). In a way, it is a prediction come true. That doesn’t happen all that often in science.

    Oreskes has investigated the question of “how do we know we’re not wrong?” Excellent reading (first) or viewing (second):

  29. 479

    Further to Bart’s point, Arrhenius also correctly forecast the pattern of warming that we observe–generally greater warming nighttime than daytime, greater winter than summer, greater toward poles.

    (See original page 265.)

    (Context and human interest.)

  30. 480
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Simon Abingdon, The equilibrium amount of CO2 in the oceans is a complicated question. However, it is basically governed by the chemical potential for dissolution and the rate of overturn in the oceans. The latter is a fairly slow process. Thus, CO2 continues to rise. However, if we were to stop producing CO2 tomorrow, the oceans would continue to be a CO2 reservoir, keeping levels high for centuries. CO2 is an Millennial problem.

  31. 481
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Faith is foreign to my nature, as it is to the natures of most scientists. Unfortunately, as a layman, you have two choices: Find out what the vast majority of experts (that is, those actively publishing in the field) believe, or learn enough of the sciene that you can assess the relative merits of the different SCIENTIFIC POSITIONS. I stress scientific, because it is utterly irrelevant what the Chamber of Commerce or the Senate or the Commons thinks about climate change. It is either real or it isn’t and science is your guide.

    If you look into this issue to any reasonable depth, one thing will become obvious: the climate scientists publish; the so-called skeptics don’t. That ought to tell you all you need to know.

  32. 482
    Hank Roberts says:

    Simon A. above posts a statement of faith lacking any basis in observation.

    Eli above has stated clearly how the observed world has been found to work.

    Simon A. probably doesn’t see the difference.

    Now there’s nothing wrong with wishing. Even climatologists can wish.

    Birger Schmitz wished to know the same thing Simon A asserts from faith — how fast carbon dioxide can be cycled biogeochemically.

    But there are differences between Simon A — who just makes up the answer and proclaims it because he wishes it were so, without a time scale — and Birger Schmitz, who looked into the record of what we know about how the world works, found a time of extremely high CO2, and published a paper describing how long it took to remove it.

    You can look this stuff up. Hint: don’t rely on Simon A for any answers.
    Global change: Plankton cooled a greenhouse

    “Scientists who can perform laboratory experiments are lucky — a megalomaniac climatologist can only dream of putting an Earth-like planet in a giant test tube, pumping billions of tonnes of CO2 into its atmosphere, and registering the effects on life and climate. Fortunately, there are other approaches…..”

    He studied “the period of ‘superwarm’ conditions at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary”

    Oh, there’s another difference between wishful thinkers and scientists. Both make errors, scientists publish corrections; see the third page here:

  33. 483
    Hank Roberts says:

    Oh, here’s the other abstract on the subject.

    Anyone who reads the science and understands how long it was hot and how long it took for biology to reverse the greenhouse will understand that the problem won’t go away quickly. CO2 doesn’t change fast in nature. We’re changing it far faster than nature does short of an asteroid impact.

  34. 484
    simon abingdon says:

    #480 Ray, what if the oceans cooled?

  35. 485
    simon abingdon says:

    #482 Hank, perhaps I misunderstood Eli because he did not say what he meant by “excess” and “exchange”.

    Here are some follow-up questions which may help me to understand:

    In the context of exchanging molecules, can two isotopically identical molecules be distinguished?

    Is there a difference between the 13C/12C ratios of CO2 produced by plant (or animal) respiration and that produced by fossil fuel burning?

    13C is about 1% of the Earth’s carbon.
    CO2 is about 0.04% of the atmosphere (400 ppm).
    So the amount of 13C in the atmosphere is about 0.0004% (4 ppm).
    The total decrease in the 13C/12C ratio of the atmosphere since 1850 is reported as being about 0.15% (which I take to mean a decrease of 0.15% of a ratio which is itself only about 1%). So the decrease in the amount of 13C in the atmosphere since 1850 is about 0.15% of 4ppm (= 0.0015 x 0.000004 = 0.000000006) or 6 parts per billion.

    Leaving aside the apparent insignificance of this number, what is the justification of attributing it wholly to fossil fuel burning?

    Many thanks, Simon

  36. 486

    Simon #485,

    BTW the amount of 13C in the atmosphere is not decreasing… just its concentration is. It’s being diluted by 13C-depleted fossil-fuel CO2.

  37. 487
    simon abingdon says:

    #486 Martin, thanks. The link is where I got my information in the first place. It doesn’t seem to mention plants or animals. Is their/our (respiratory) contribution significant? And what is 13C-depleted fossil-fuel CO2? How is it distinguishable from “normal” atmospheric CO2?

  38. 488
    Hank Roberts says:

    Simon, you need to understand the difference between the isotopes of carbon, and how carbon dating works. This is basic high school physics. Can you find a textbook?

  39. 489
    simon abingdon says:

    #486 Martin, while waiting for your possible response I Googled “13C-depleted fossil-fuel CO2” and was immediately presented with [Engelbeen to Spencer] “I think we agree that the influence of the increase [of CO2] itself on temperature/climate is limited, if observable at all”(!)

  40. 490
    Hank Roberts says:

    More for Simon:

    Put “burning fossil fuel” into the Search box on that page.

    And if you want to do the math, here’s an example:

    Note these are not the very best answers, these are a couple of quick search results using your own question pasted into Google and Google Scholar.

    You know how to find this stuff.

  41. 491
    Radge Havers says:

    Oh, you scientists! Apparently this issue has roots. I just ran across this. Marcus du Sautoy in Symmetry pulls a quote from the 1800s and Felix Klein:

    The mathematical community in Germany was not particularly keen on Klein’s rather discursive style, believing it lacked the steely exactness that is so valued in mathematics. Klein disagreed. He believed that

    “The presentation of mathematics in school should be psychological and not systematic. The teacher, so to speak, should be a diplomat. He must take account of the psychic processes in the boy in order to grip his interest, and he will succeed only if he presents things in a form intuitively comprehensible.”

    He took much the same approach to mathematics in the academic arena.

    Du Sautoy then covers a bit on the differences in style in the mathematical communities of France and Germany of the time and their attitudes–i.e., French clarity vs the “rather unreadable, telescopic accounts that German mathematicians produced.” It’s a good book written for a lay audience. He tells a good story and, unlike so many others in the genre, manages to avoid being deadly.

  42. 492
    Rod B says:

    Ray(455), It’s neither difficult nor obscure. Look at the two charts (and their linear regressed (I assume) lines) and you see one goes up a little over two-hundreds of a degree, the other, with its 10-year period shifted by a year, goes down a little over one-hundreds of a degree. Put the two together and it looks like very little change over that 11-year period. Just looks pretty flat. All of which I said in 273. Of course I didn’t do my own linear regression; why would I spend time doing that? Like in another thread some time ago, I look at a red wagon and say, “looks pretty red to me!”

  43. 493
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Simon, when you state CO2 content in percent by volume, it does seem tiny, doesn’t it. However, consider that the changes we are talking about represent huge masses–much to large to be explained by changes in vegetation, etc. The amount of change in CO2 content in the atmosphere is actually only about half of the carbon released by burning fossil fuels–that is, the burning of fossil fuels is more than adequate to explain it. This, plus the isotopic signature (note there’s no C-14 in the new carbon, though that signature is obscured by the atomic era). This is very old carbon.

  44. 494
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Simon, the CO2 released by animals or decaying plants has the same 13C/12C ratio as that from fossil fuel burning. However, it is insignificant for the change in C13 content that is observed, as the biological carbon cycle is approximately in equilibrium (more precisely, it seems to be net absorbing carbon from the atmosphere).
    How we know that it’s fossil fuels and not the biosphere that is the source? The third carbon isotope, 14C, which is radioactive with a half-life of 5730 years. It is continually being formed high in the atmosphere by cosmic ray bombardment, and spreads rapidly through the biological cycle. Any biomass younger than a few thousand years thus contains 14C not much below atmospheric concentration (and the precise concentration is a means of “dating” it). Fossil fuels however have spent millions of years underground and thus contain almost no C14 — just traces formed under the influence of natural radioactivity.
    BTW “depleted” means “having a lower concentration of”. Like (235-)depleted uranium. So 13C-depleted fossil-fuel is what is produced by burning the stuff, containing less of the 13 isotope than the atmosphere at large. One can measure this with a mass spectrograph. 14C again is observed by its radioactivity.

    About Engelbeen and Spencer, what can I say? It is possible for two people to agree and be wrong together, as in not getting a consistent story along these lines past reviewers…

  45. 495
    simon abingdon says:

    Thanks to all for your considered replies to my questions. Sorry if the topics have been well-rehearsed long since.

  46. 496
    CTG says:

    #476 Matthew L.: “Without a very good understanding of the science, a belief that the scientists are right [b]or wrong[/b] on AGW is tantamount to “faith” because nobody has a good track record (yet) in predicting what will happen if we (for instance) double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

    Nobody? Really?

    Arrhenius predicted in 1896 that global temperatures would rise if CO2 atmospheric concentration rose.
    Since 1896, CO2 concentration has risen by around 100 ppm, and global temperatures have risen by about 0.7°C.

    I don’t know what you consider a good track record, Matthew, but that seems pretty good to me.

  47. 497
    Hank Roberts says:

    > nobody has a good track record (yet)

    There are already several such records in the paleo record.
    It’s happened several times, several different ways.
    What’s happening now
    can be compared to the fossil record.

    Notably, each time thus far, climate has behaved as the basic physics says it is going to do.

  48. 498
    Ike Solem says:

    For a good example of how to talk about science and technology and positive climate solutions (and let’s include technology, because all plausible climate solutions involve widespread adoption of cutting-edge renewable energy technology):

    Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity in China
    Michael B. McElroy, Xi Lu, Chris P. Nielsen, Yuxuan Wang, Science 11 September 2009:

    Wind offers an important alternative to coal as a source of energy for generation of electricity in China with the potential for substantial savings in carbon dioxide emissions. Wind fields derived from assimilated meteorological data are used to assess the potential for wind-generated electricity in China subject to the existing government-approved bidding process for new wind farms. Assuming a guaranteed price of 0.516 RMB (7.6 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour for delivery of electricity to the grid over an agreed initial average period of 10 years, it is concluded that wind could accommodate all of the demand for electricity projected for 2030, about twice current consumption. Electricity available at a concession price as low as 0.4 RMB per kilowatt-hour would be sufficient to displace 23% of electricity generated from coal.

    To repeat, “…it is concluded that wind could accommodate all of the demand for electricity projected for 2030, about twice current consumption.”

    Similar arguments based on solar potential apply to the American Southwest and North Africa and the Gobi Desert, and a similar wind study has been completed for the U.S. – likewise, it shows that wind-generated electricity can replace coal, as long as transmission is in place. Those are scientific arguments based on studies, not off-the-cuff assertions – so much area, so much conversion efficiency – it’s all pretty straightforward.

    The solutions should really be presented before the problem is – because it is a serious communication mistake to inform people of the looming climate crisis without also informing them that renewables can entirely replace fossil fuels with no loss in comfort or economic productivity – indeed, cleaner air and fewer resource wars mean that the long-term result of abandoning fossil fuels will be a great improvement in global living conditions.

  49. 499
    Ike Solem says:

    I’m tempted to stop there – but that would mean glossing over some serious problems, I’m afraid. So, stop reading now if you want to keep that warm rosy glow.

    No? Then compare and contrast those scientific arguments with the statements made by Stephen Chu in the latest Science issue:

    Coal accounts for roughly 25% of the world energy supply and 40% of the carbon emissions. It is highly unlikely that any of these countries will turn their back on coal any time soon, and for this reason, the capture and storage of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel power plants must be aggressively pursued…

    Here we have a political argument – countries will not stop using coal, so we need to invent an unspecified and unproven technological solution. (Crbon capture and sequestration is not very specific – that’s what every green plant does, for example). However, the editorial does spell out the energy agenda of the administration in some detail:

    No matter which technology ultimately proves best for new plants, we will still need to retrofit existing plants and new plants that will be built before CCS is routinely deployed. Each new 1-gigawatt coal plant is a billion-dollar investment and, once built, will be used for decades.

    Again, let’s repeat the plan: “Each new 1-gigawatt coal plant… – but no mention of any gigawatt solar or wind plants, or of the plans to build such plants in Australia and China.

    Never mind the fact that none of the “new carbon capture technology” even works, or the fact that it would have to be applied to oil and and natural gas combustion as well as to coal in order to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels. Where is the prototype? Where are the performance characteristics? I’m guessing a minimum 50% power loss to capture 50% of the emissions – which would turn gas into a clear economic loser relative to solar and wind. Except CCS is not for gas-powered power plants, just for coal-fired powerplants – and if you want to talk about CCS for gasoline-powered vehicles, well, don’t – the engineers will roll on the ground laughing when you ask them to build a Ford Explorer with onboard CCS.

    All in all, it appears to be nothing but another delaying tactic:

    There are many hurdles to making CCS a reality, but none appear insurmountable. The DOE goal is to support R&D, as well as pilot CCS projects so that widespread deployment of CCS can begin in 8 to 10 years.

    What are the hurdles, and why are they surmountable? This is one of the most information-devoid sentences I’ve ever seen on the subject – bland assurances unsubstantiated by any scientific data – and this is the United States Secretary of Energy! What about the past eight years of ‘efforts to build pilot plants’? Where is the scientific review of that effort?

    Translation: The DOE plans to continue with business as usual, and they don’t plan to invest in large scale solar and wind projects, but rather, in coal and oil shale and other CO2-intensive projects, i.e. tar sands. Like Bush, this Administration has also rejected Kyoto and has signaled to world leaders that no binding agreements will be accepted at the Copenhagen climate summit.

    Interesting, isn’t it? Texas and Saudi oil interests have been replaced by Midwestern coal interests and Canadian tar sand developers in the corridors of Washington – but to the atmosphere, it’s just the same old game. Fossil CO2 is fossil CO2 – coal, oil or gas, it just doesn’t matter.

    It is sad to see the renewable energy in the U.S. being sabotaged once again, however. The pro-coal agenda is clearly committing the country to economic and environmental devastation – and the CCS claims are nonsensical on basic scientific grounds.

    This behavior by the current government is not exactly as advertised (promised?) in the last election, I must say.

  50. 500
    Hank Roberts says:

    I agree with Ike.

    Nobody has come up with a plan that will preserve the value of coal, for those who currently own it or the rights to dig it up and burn it.

    It’s kind of odd.

    Someone who owns an acre of old trees can get paid for money as a carbon offset. But someone who owns the comparable amount of coal, apparently, can’t be paid.

    Both would be making the deal — to simply leave the carbon where it is, and it’s be easier to leave a coal seam untouched for millenia than to maintain a given amount of living timber.

    And it’s not like the people who invested in all that coal are going to give up their “rights” to its “value”

    All I can say is, it’s a good thing there was no commercial use for smallpox, or we’d never have seen it eradicated, because the people with rights to the virus would have insisted on keeping it around.