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"
mauri pelto says
Extreme Ice Survey makes a good case that we do not need to be film makers and that collaboration between the scientists in this case people like Jason Box, OSU and Tad Pfeffer at CU help James Balog place cameras that do not just inform people of the dynamic nature of glaciers responding to climate change, but also in acquiring the time lapse images capture data that is useful. One of my favorite videos of the program ishttp://www.vimeo.com/2637775 at vimeo they have good footage, that is easier to view I think than at their website
This work can be viewed in contrast to time lapse I have acquired over the last 26 years, which certainly lacks the impact and does not convey motion. http://glacierchange.wordpress.com/
james wheaton says
What an important issue. I am an engineer by trade so only indirectly can relate.
As many in science and application fields can atest – America has a distaste for
things intellectual. Just as the A-student is mocked in high school, the scientist
is mocked by Joe 6-pack. Add to that the fact that science has some pretty
disconcerting news for those who don’t want their lives to change (drive a big
truck, eat steaks, etc).
There are ways to get to many of these people, except the ones who deny on
religious grounds. Scientists study fields like climate change because of its
implications, at least in part. So if science wants to participate in
mitigation, then it follows that effective communication to those who need to
know (i.e. those who vote) is a paramount set in the process.
This site plays a part in the process – a very important part. But it
will not attract Joe 6-pack.
I think you would lose most of the American public if you are going to tell them
that they cannot drive a big truck or eat steaks anymore. I think there is room
to sell environmentally friendly improvements in lifestyle without mandating
everyone be a vegan and drive a two seat electric car.
Keep in mind that those that are older are a very large group of voters and
they are most reticent to make changes. People still smoke cigarettes despite
all the evidence, getting someone to give up steak will fall on a lot of
Alan of Oz says
Glad to see you give a nod to Greg Craven, I have often used his videos to counter the argument that there are no good science teacher’s left in american schools.
Jim Galasyn says
Fwiw, I published my educational Spore Galactic Adventure, Global Warming Fix last month (low-res trailer here). Haven’t had a lot of plays, though, so can’t judge its effectiveness yet.
Lou Grinzo says
Thanks for posting this. I think the communication gap between scientists and mainstream voters and consumers is an immense problem, and we need to find ways to close it, ASAP.
I agree that the solution is NOT to try to turn every scientist into a top-notch writer or video director or combination researcher/stand up comedian. Speaking as a long-time writer who’s tried to reach that same audience in science and technical fields for decades, I think that that approach would make no more sense than trying to turn tech writers, like me, into true scientists. It might be entertaining, in a “driving by the car wreck” sort of way, but it wouldn’t be productive.
The solution is in collaboration. I routinely did this kind of thing when I worked for various computer magazines. Company X comes out with a Belchfire 9000 model in their line of gizmos, and it’s my job to write a short “explainer” article about it. So X puts me in touch with (you guessed it) one of the engineers who developed the product, and I have to ask a lot of questions, take copious notes, and then translate it into mainstream English and also bridge the features/benefits gap. In other words, I had to explain to my readers why the Belchfire 9000 was not just New and Improved, but what the technical changes meant to them in the real world. (In some cases, the answer to that last part was “a lot”, and in others it was “not at all, ignore this product”.)
I’m not sure how we pursue this approach. Do we need the equivalent of an online dating service that matches up writers (or directors or …) and scientists for one-off projects or ongoing work? I think something like that could actually work, as long as the whole process was sufficiently transparent and accountable.
Richard Reiss says
“…this points to enhanced cooperation among communicators and scientists as the dominant model we should be following.” Exactly. I’m co-founder of artistascitizen.org; we direct creative students and recent graduates to real world issues, in the brief period of their lives before they get paying jobs where they largely learn how to sell you sneakers and other items. As a group, they are the fastest to develop new ideas, and of course the most invested in the future.
Recently we set creative students the task of describing the risk from climate change, as framed in IPCC and MIT reports. Four finalists were selected by Ji Lee, creative director at Google Creative Lab, and they are now up on Dot Earth, where readers can vote for the winner. (The prize, from us, is $2000.)
Here’s one entry for review, a short film from an NYU undergrad who chose MIT projections as his resource:
Thoughts and comments from scientists and researchers very much appreciated. If the NYT comments system is jammed, comments can be sent directly to Dot Earth: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Our contact info: email@example.com)
I think the exchange between William and James Wheaton just demonstrated some of the challenges in communicating science.
James is right about the examples he gave – “driving big trucks” and “eating steaks.” The meat industry actually generates more greenhouse gases than personal transportation. It was poorly communicated, but people don’t need to give up eating steak (beef). What needs to be given up is the notion that meat is an every-meal sort of food. We should probably set a goal to cut back to 1 to 3 times per week. (My opinion: best way to do it is via carbon cap and trade, let the market price sort out people’s eating habits.)
As for “driving a big truck,” William immediately jumps to two-seat electric car as the alternative. However, this is really a fallacy of the forgotten middle. We have the technology for decently sized, useful cars that achieve much better mileage and emissions performance. We can also invest in public transportation, helping reduce SOV (single occupancy vehicle) transportation use of cars, which really is pretty wasteful.
What should hopefully be visible is that the politicization of climate science has made people jump on sound bites. One person hears “no more steak” and the debate shuts down. We have to better communicators, but we can’t keep blaming the mouth. We need to be better listeners as well.
As many in science and application fields can atest – America has a distaste for things intellectual. Just as the A-student is mocked in high school, the scientist is mocked by Joe 6-pack.
Yes, I moved away from the state in which I was born because education wasn’t valued if it wasn’t an MBA.
And James Wheaton makes a good point. You can’t take something away from humans. They don’t like it. This is the crux of the problem, as we run up against the wall and earth’s resources stop giving freely. Wilson’s ‘bottleneck’, if you will.
Mats Frick says
It’s such a treat to see Greg Craven getting the attention that he deserves. I’m pursuing a doctorate in marketing and take it from me, there are a lot of scientists that should read his book. The basic thing that most scientists tend to overlook is that if you teach people HOW to think instead of WHAT to think (eg. “Don’t drive big trucks…”) they will figure things out for themselves.
FTFA: “Don’t be so unlikeable (i.e. don’t play to the stereotype of the arrogant, dismissive academic or the nerdy absent-minded scientist). ”
How about the dismissive stereotype of the denialist?
FAR worse than even me.
Jan Theodore Galkowski says
So, what, should we do what the medical profession has done for years, and now mathematicians (“Numb3rs”) and have a TV weekly called “geophyz1ci5ts”?
Jim Bouldin says
Excellent review, thanks for the heads up on these books. And a big tip o’ the cap for having the machse to own up to past instances of being “such a scientist”, something most of us trying to engage the public have done to various degrees in the past, notwithstanding the conscious desire not to.
“But as our friends and colleagues are all too painfully aware, ‘tell us all you know’ is another request one should never make of a scientist.”
:) I can see that mannequin look now..
Rod Evans says
I can sympathise with your dilemma. However, if you go solely down the ‘mockumentary’ route, you might destroy much of your value. I value Realclimate precisely because it is ‘cerebral’ in that in that you do set out to give a good explanation of the basic science and provide signposts to more advanced sources (such as Ray Pierrehumbert’s book on climate science and Spencer Weart’s site on the history of global warming).
The Al Gores of this world do a good job at the ‘popular’ level. I think you should stick to your ‘niche’ market. Nobody else does the job as well as you do.
“he basic thing that most scientists tend to overlook is that if you teach people HOW to think instead of WHAT to think (eg. “Don’t drive big trucks…”) they will figure things out for themselves.”
Nope, when teaching science, it’s important to teach people how to think.
But the national curriculum in the UK is all “how to pass exams in five easy lessons”. And the US has similar problems with their targets for “no child left behind”.
And, to be honest, neither the government nor the movers-and-shakers in commerce want people to know HOW to think, they want people who can be TOLD what to think.
And Faux News is a brilliant example of that in action.
Marketing want dumber customers.
A great example of how marketing MAKES dumb is the film “Mission Impossible”. MI2 was COMPLETELY different in tone. Why? One of the complaints for the first film was “It’s too hard to follow”. I.e. you didn’t know who the bad guy was until the movie was more than half over. So in MI2, you know the bad guy before the credits roll.
Dumbed down because they don’t want to alienate the dumb among the populate.
Hit the lowest common denominator and you get the best ROI.
Hit slightly above that and you lose more people than you gain. That this method RAISES the general intelligence doesn’t register: there’s no profit line entry for it.
Anna Haynes says
> The solution is in collaboration
Yes. Through the layman’s eyes, what’s important is knowing (being readily able to distinguish) which sites reflect expert opinion vs which are disinformation – and when Climate Central and Heartland use nearly the same words to describe their offerings, words won’t cut it. And just being a communicator won’t either, since anyone with deep pockets can hire a herd of them.
But if a communicator _is_ allied with folks who _are_ empirically-verifiable experts, and can show it, that will enable the audience to grant them credibility.
We need to saturate the country with Craven’s work – show it on community TV stations and in other places where it’ll reach beyond the choir. I’ve ordered the DVD (via manpollo.org), but it’d be nice if it were already chopped up into community-TV-friendly 58 minute segments.
I’d also like to see a site giving a taxonomy of tactics used for disinformation – it’d help to immunize the audience.
Danny Bloom says
So far, this brief note on how climate denialists are similar in their denial to how the people during
WWII denied anything untoward was happening to the Jewish people in Europe at that time has caused a fuss among the denialists, of course. But Marc Morano was kind enough and just enough to post it on his
website and here:
How Climate Denialists Like Marc Morano and Anthony Watts, Jeff Jacoby, too, among other
well-intentioned by seriously misguided people, See Climate Change
Evidence and Continue to Deny It is Happening, Inspite of it all
Richard Reiss says
a better link to our experiment:
Suggestions on this or for future collaborations are welcome; firstname.lastname@example.org
Chip Knappenberger says
Interestingly, in its review of Sizzle, Variety found Pat Michaels to be among films highlights. Perhaps there is something to Pat’s style after all!
Jeffrey Davis says
The posts so far have hinted at the crux of the problem: people don’t change destructive behaviors until they’re hurt. The “Mission Impossible” aspect of AGW is that the point at which we’re all hurt enough to change willingly might not come until the climate system has passed one (or more) tipping points.
We can communicate cunningly and fetchingly or we can scream until steam vents through a hole at the base of our skulls, but we won’t be able to change human nature.
Andy Revkin says
More wisdom from Randy here:
One bottom line is that the Walter Cronkite norm of journalists handing down news to a passive public is history, and in a world with imploding journalism resources, scientists and their institutions have no choice but to get more engaged in the communications cloud (would be nice to see a “realenergy.org” blog, for instance… : ) Some more on this from Nat Academies meeting: http://j.mp/NASmediaCO2
Danny Bloom says
Well said, Jeffrey Davis, sir!!!!!! [Post no. 17.]
Ray Ladbury says
You know, I’ve gotten into some fairly interesting discussions with Joe Six-pack about science in the past. Yes, there are some who are ineducable. However, there are others who still have curiosity. Look for teachable moments–the halo around the plane as it flies over the clouds, odd weather, the appearance of a blue heron overhead. People love to understand unless they’ve managed to kill off their soul.
Wilmot McCutchen says
Scientists are losing the communications battle with the forces of militant ignorance (faith), not just on “climate change” but on pollution issues in general. When the public hears about “climate change” allegedly due to CO2 emissions from their cars and their electric power plants, they are not impressed.
It is not just the counter-arguments of the denialists that are responsible for the decreasing alarm. The denialists are not winning — the scientists are blowing it with their disdainful attitude and their inept (though accurate) terminology. What better illustration can there be than the term “climate change” itself? The climate is always changing. So what if the average temperature goes up another few degrees? Hair-on-fire retorts about ice ages and other scary results of non-linear dynamics in the atmosphere just don’t motivate like they used to, according to recent poll data.
The bearer of bad news must accept that his audience will not be pleased to hear what he has to say, so the message must be persuasive as well as merely informative.
The green team is also failing because they come across as a bunch of unrealistic lunatics. Wind, solar, biofuels, hydrogen, conservation, smart grid, etc. etc. just cannot make a significant impact within the 20 years we have left to bend the curve enough to prevent catastrophe. India and China (and the US) will not give up electric power, which depends, like it or not, on coal.
Andrew McKeon, carbonRational says
I am a laymen and I speak to lay people about climate change. I find that “telling a story” is essential to good communication about climate change. I am one of the Al Gore cavalry, but for the last two years I have been telling stories about (a) the history of the people who first theorized about the greenhouse effect, the role of CO2 and the enhancement of that effect due to burning of fossil fuel to create a warming world – and that was just the 19th century! – and (b) that climate change is not a problem, not a fact, and not predictable – that certainly gets people’s attention when they’re expecting to hear from a Gore disciple. (It’s not a problem, because it is a symptom, it’s not a fact as much as a theory – and all the knowledge in human civilization has been built on theory (Newton, Darwin, Einstein – all theorists), and it’s not predictable because what many now think will happen in 2013 was just 10 years ago expected to happen in
2070 – i.e. the disappearance of ice at the north pole in summer.
So telling a story in a way that gets people listening is what I have found to be helpful.
Hank Roberts says
Chip K 11:46 am claims that Variety “found Pat Michaels to be among films highlights.”
Check what Chip thought he read against what you see for yourself– look at the source. I commend him for citing his source, so people can see for themselves.
Here’s what I see:
“… sound man …. Marion, loudly doubtful about … warming … a real irritant … habitually interrupts … hugely impressed by the assertive, authoritative Patrick J. Michaels ….”
“skeptics actually begin to win the day, at least onscreen”
Variety is describing a _character_ in the film who is playing the part of a skeptic, and part of the plot.
See what you think, when you read it for yourself. Spin?
Nick O. says
I profoundly disagree with the underlying direction of some of the arguments here. I think we have a culture that seriously understates the importance of science and engineering, right from the very start of sending our children to school.
Part of this, I fear, is a form of envy; part is a form of inverse snobbery; many just don’t want to accept how vital and basic engineers and scientists are to our modern way of life, and how this is just going to grow and grow. Popularisation and improving communication skills will therefore not – alone – be anything like enough to change this; rather we need a complete cultural shift, that explains from the earliest age how important good science is, how important it is to be sensibly critical, how important it is to understand what is a good argument rather than sophistry or mendacious polemic, and so on.
I have to be deeply critical about my own work all the time, every damn’ day, about theory, data, algorithms, model simplifications, you name it, in a way most people, in most walks of life, don’t even have to begin to consider, let alone set about devising a method to handle and communicate. The problem is not therefore that scientists are too much like scientists; on the contrary, the problem is much more that it is very, very hard to be a good scientist or engineer, and most people don’t want to expend that effort to get into the mindset that is required, let alone do the basic learning, or acquire the skills to do it.
Apologies for the rant, please accept that this is only my view – which must also be flawed and incomplete – and that I will accept criticism from all comers on how I could view things more soundly …
Christopher Hogan says
I don’t know how to thank you enough for the link to “Climate Denial Crock of the Week”. The videos are spectacularly good. Watched one, and I just couldn’t stop. Short, focused, content-rich, easy to understand. Wonderful. My church has been looking for some avenue to get the attention of the congregation on this issue. (Because, basically, if you’re not scared spitless about the consequences for our grandchildren’s generation, you’re just not paying attention.) We’ve had little success so far. I believe playing these on a PC stationed in the commons area would not at all be a bad idea, and I will now go pursue that with the author.
Thank you again RealClimate.
Chris Colose says
I’d definitely recommend Greg Craven’s book to younger audiences (maybe also because I had a chance to act as a reviewer on some of the more science-based chapters). He has a clever way of communicating the issues in a way that is accessible, entertaining, and doesn’t lose accuracy.
Jim Bouldin says
Excellent points Nick (27). Doesn’t matter how slick the message is if the public wants not to care, or to hold on to their preconceptions of the role and nature of science/scientists, or just generally be lazy. We should do our best to communicate well, but it’s hard enough just to do good science (far harder than is recognized by non-scientists) and that is priority #1.
Martin Vermeer says
You know what’s worse than being arrogant? Being arrogant, right, and willing to rub it in.
I must say that I have become a little more philosophical lately about the apparent inability of climate scientists to get their message across. I mean, is it really their task to convince those that will not see? Isn’t their task just to lay out the science as plainly as their professional skills allow them to do — and yes, that includes such things as popular writing and summaries for policy makers etc. –, and leave journalism and policy making to those who can fairly be blamed for messing those jobs up? We all know that the real reason why scientists acquire communication skills is in order to write more successful funding applications; nothing as banale as informing the public or influence policy ;-)
Sure, it must feel bad not being able to get others to do what is clearly necessary. When dealing, e.g., with island nations and all you can do is tell the representatives that, yes, your nation is going to drown, and no, I don’t have the leverage to prevent it. That is the stuff that sleepless nights are made of. But — it’s not your fault. You cannot be blamed. Do what is within your power, lean back and enjoy the ride.
There’s enough Dr Strangelove in me to look forward to our tribe being proudly vindicated, even by disaster. Around 2040 it should be abundantly clear. My fellow inhabitants of the old folks’ home are going to hear about it!
Mats Frick says
Mark, just for the record, don’t confuse marketing with public relations. Another thing is that once there’s a pricetag on CO2 marketing will be the strongest ally of the climate cause. I’m not taking offence, I just wanted to get that of my chest. Another good source for the stories that are needed to get the point over is this brilliant article written in 1973:
I’m doing my bit passing it on to my students.
John (Burgy) Burgeson says
The problem (well, part of anyway) is not with Joe Sixpack.
The part I will focus on is the scientific culture. I am (was) part of it; I think I have the credentials to speak. Your milage may differ of course.
The scientific culture has evolved over many years to being one where people with scientific knowledge of something are not usually people who have learned to communicate well. As a result, Joe Sixpack perceives an atttitude of arrogance, of “I’m smarter than you are so shut up and listen.” Go figure. Why do you think he will listen to you? He will, indeed, follow those people who speak his language. Unfortunately many of those voices are on Rage Radio and the Faux News network.
What can RealClimate.org do about this. For a start — the short article that begins this section and the book references given are very useful.
But what is also needed is a toning down by some commenters on this site. It costs nothing to be civil — even to one who has posted for the 47th times an old argument long ago refutted. A person convinced against his will — remains of the same opinion still. (name of author not at hand – sorry).
So when the next person posts here that AGW is a hoax because crows fly west in the winter, give him a civil answer. DON’T answer him by a demand that he produce data to verify his claim. Be more subtle. Hook his adult reasoning power. For instance, you might post “Gee — that’s certainly an argument I’ve not heard before. Tell me more about it.” Or, probably better “I don’t understand your argumant.”
There are all sorts of variations. It does take more time to compose a civil answer to a poster who you think just doesn’t get it. There are probably those who say it isn’t worth the time. If so, why respond at all? But IF you have time, take it to point him to some relevant data on this site — or others. Gently, with respect.
I’m sermonizing. I know. But I’m not sorry. Your milage may differ.
Jim Galasyn says
Then there’s this interesting approach:
aaron Lewis says
Very keen insight.
The great joy of science is to have the best number – first. I think that makes Science a sport.
Do you ever think we will get science on ESPN?
I’ve been bitching about the scientific delivery of information on global warming for years. In truth, the entire message has been flawed. Instead of preaching sacrifice, the message should have been about progress, and fallacies in writing should have been avoided even though the opposition has been using them. The scientific community allowed itself to be drawn into an old political art. The opposition creates myths and shock comments so that scientists end up spending their time debunking myths instead of talking about the science. Now, scientists have completely taken off their white coats to play in the muddy fallacies alongside the opposition.
In addition, the entire global warming campaign has been flawed from the beginning. The idea of regulating conduct was doomed to fail, and scientists of all people should have foreseen it. Scientists should have been pushing for progress in technology as the solution instead of the regulation of conduct. People should not have been told to stop driving their v8 car; instead, they should have been told about a new car that is better. Instead of launching a campaign against oil companies, scientists should have promoted a new technology with a message of progress and a better future. People will resist a forced change, but they will embrace a change if they believe it makes their lives more comfortable.
Amen to what John (Burgy) Burgeson says (#34), but I’d offer some addition to his points. I’m not the Joe Sixpack type (but rather a laywer of 30 years) and I’ve responded on this site (which I read regularly) with the suggestion that there be more debate among those “responsible” persons on both sides of the issue so that non-scientists can see constructive dialogue (argument) for themselves. The last time I posted, my post didn’t make it to the list — hope this one does.
I realize there are lots of easy targets on the skeptic side (who can be picked apart thoroughly by Real Climate contributors), although the same can be said of the alarmist side (who can be picked apart thoroughly by reputable — yes they exist — representatives of the skeptical side). The problem is the responsibles on each side don’t directly confront in the presence of the non-Joe Sixpack segment of the population who want to see a genuine and constructive confrontation of arguments.
Frankly, I’m not interested in a comical presentation, nor a re-re-re-rendition of the “basic science of global warming.” I’ve seen enough of that to put me to sleep for a year. What I haven’t seen is something like Gavin Schmidt and John Christy in a well structured (and it can be) debate (or call it something else if you like) about key disagreements that go well beyond the “basic science of global warming.”
Of course, each representative would do well to consider communicating in an effective way with the audience (not scientists, but not Joe Sixpacks either), but the more important outcome is that responsible people on each side would be respectfully (presumably) confronting the positions of the other in a public forum.
Side note: I did a find for “Christy” on Real Climate, just to see how much Real Climate contributors had directly dealt with the statements/positions of someone like John Christy. Not much it seems, which suggests Real Climate contributors prefer to deal with quack claims from the skeptic side, just like the most skeptic siders prefer dealing with quack claims from the alarmist side.
George Musser says
I enjoyed Olsen’s book, too, but as much for the hubris of Hollywood types as for the foibles of scientists. Hollywood is not nearly as good at storytelling as film industry people seem to think.
What’s actually needed most is not even explaining the science but telling a human story about the expected impacts. In my study of the history of nuclear war images, it became clear that what really made a difference was fictional books, and especially movies and TV productions, that followed a normal family into the catastrophe of a nuclear war. The most brilliant scientific explanation can’t hold a candle to a child dying of radiation…
When will somebody write a gripping book, movie, etc. that follows an ordinary family into the heat waves, agricultural collapse, swarms of environmental refugees, floods etc. that scientists predict for the late 21st century? Not nearly as easy as it was for nuclear war, since (a) it’s not as spectacular & gruesome, and (b) you’ve got to run the social/technological clock forward into science-fiction-land rather than depicting a contemporary family. Still, that’s the kind of thing that would have genuine meaning for most people.
Larry Saltzman says
These books are long overdue as part of the solution to the communication problem that scientists face. I am glad to see that Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt were willing to write this review and take a long hard look at why they and other scientists are losing the battle to the scientific illiterates who are pushing the denialist arguments. But even communication isn’t the whole problem, though it is a big problem. Scientists are dealing with some profound psychological and sociological issues that are keeping them from getting the truth out to the bulk of the population, particularly in the U.S. There are strong psychological blocks to facing the truth on global warming and unfortunately all the rational arguments in the world don’t deal with that psychological reality.
Lately I have been reading a book called Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind (Buzzell and Chalquist) that deals with a portion of the psychological issues that affect human responses to global warming. I have come to realize how profoundly many of our psyches are disconnected from the natural world around us.
Ike Solem says
I’m not quite sure what you mean by “work” – are you trying to convince people that the past hundred years or so of climate science development is reliable and robust? Or are you pointing to solutions? If the former, they all work a little – but if the latter, they all fail spectacularly.
Stephen Chu made an interesting point on Jon Stewart when he said that industrialists and environmentalists tend not to work together very well – and the solution to the continuing alteration of our atmosphere is going to have to be a technical solution, in that it will require energy-generating technology on a similar scale to that of the global fossil fuel infrastructure. This will require industrialists, not environmentalists.
Environmentalists seem to run into a brick wall when it comes to proposing realistic solutions to the fossil fuel problem. The above-mentioned films don’t cover modern solar energy technology in any detail – long scientific explanations about climate change are concluded with a few comments on the need to reform the energy system in some way or other, which is never practically explained.
What would work is a program for building fossil-fuel free cities and agricultural systems, starting with one as a demonstration project. Make a film about that, and show how each fossil fuel-based process can be replaced by a renewable energy-based process, and you have a convincing film that actually provides a long-term solution to the problem.
However, due to the fossil fuel industry’s economic and political power, renewable energy has remained largely underdeveloped and progress in energy technology development has been held up overall. For fossil fuel sales-dependent nations and businesses, all that efficiency and renewables do is undercut demand for fossil fuels and drive down prices. Electric cars have a 500% efficiency edge over internal combustion engines, and that means less power used per mile traveled – and assuming energy prices remain constant, that alone would result in an 80% reduction in transportation energy sales.
For some reason, celebrity filmmakers don’t bother to explain this basic economic fact of life. Even worse, many claim that coal-burning combined with a CO2 capture and sequestration is something other than a fraudulent greenwashing program run by the fossil fuel industry. That leaves them with nothing but a doom-and-gloom story followed up with references to implausible solutions and pleas to “do something.”
In reality, governments will have to devote as many resources to renewable energy development as they did to fighting World War II if a timely transition is to be achieved, and that will still require a good deal of adaptation to a permanently altered climate.
For what looks like an example of this altered climate (unusual, at least), see:
“Tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures remain warmer than average in all of the key El Niño monitoring regions and continue to exceed thresholds considered typical of an El Niño event. These conditions are forecast to persist until at least year’s end by most leading climate models.”
“However unlike previous El Niño events, conditions are also warmer than average in the Coral Sea, off Australia’s northern coasts and in the far western Tropical Pacific, although some cooling has occurred in this latter region over the past fortnight. These regions are typically average to cooler than average during an El Niño event.”
How is this supposed to fit in with all the curious predictions about “global cooling” based on “negative phases” of, let’s see, the North Atlantic Oscillation (Latif etc.) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (Easterbrook & NASA JPL)?
Hank Roberts says
DVG, try this online debate — that what you’re looking for?
Randy Olson says
I’ve got a few thoughts in response to some of the comments here (and thanks to Mike and Gavin for the review of my book, and to all the RealClimate folks for running this very effective blog).
VARIETY REVIEW WAS BY A SKEPTIC
I completely agree with Hank Robert’s (Comment #26 above) speculation that the Variety review of my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” was probably written by a skeptic. It was sort of the good news/bad news for me — “you got a good review in Variety (yay!) but it was written by a skeptic (ugh)”. Its not hard to spot the telltale signs, as you note.
But that said, I cite the Variety review because it is reflective of the overall sentiments I received from the film world, with the website Cinemasource calling the movie, “Brilliant filmmaking,” and the American Cinematheque inviting me to be on a panel last fall that complimented the movie for managing to hybridize three genres (documentary, mockumentary, and reality). It was an experimental film inspired by “Borat” which even we were surprised with in the beginning when we did an initial experimental shoot to see if the technique of interrupting interviews would work. It did, and that is one of the major novelties of the movie.
So it doesn’t bother me to cite the Variety review (it would if the film world had been as harsh on the movie as the science world was), and the fact is we’ve had about a dozen university screenings over the past year that have all produced a great deal of laughter followed by excellent panel discussions. And nobody has walked away somehow thinking the movie is an endorsement of skeptics. In fact, one of the lead skeptics in the movie, Dr. George Chillingarian (a.k.a. “Dr. Chill”) stormed out of the premiere at the Outfest Film Festival last summer because he felt the movie was too biased against skeptics.
More importantly, the film serves a number of purposes. It puts a human face on the potential effects of major climate disaster by SHOWING a sample of the human suffering from Hurricane Katrina rather than just telling, and it puts a human face on six major climate skeptics. You may hate their guts and never want to see who these people are, but for the general public it is a useful thing to present a more three dimensional image of them and let the viewer decide, “Would you buy a used car from these guys?” (you have no reason to fear the answer to this question)
Lastly, the film ends with a solid pro-climate science and pro-climate action message. But I would also hope that the viewer can pick up on my personal disappointment with the science community and their inability communicate powerfully and effectively the seriousness of the issue. Many of you may answer this with, “Al Gore already did it,” but the fact is, he didn’t. He had two goals — awareness and persuasion. Last fall, quoted in the NY Times he very admirably owned up to what he has accomplished when he said, “I feel, in a sense, I’ve failed badly, because even though there’s a greater sense of awareness, there is not anything anywhere close to an appropriate sense of urgency.”
If you are interested in the effective communication of climate science I would encourage you to read the third chapter of my book, titled, “Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller.” I didn’t target it at the Al Gore movie, but I could have. There was a great story that could have been told with that movie, but perhaps because it was rushed into production (with a feeling of urgency by the filmmakers) it failed to tell a good story. Instead, they resorted to drawing on the character elements of Al Gore, whether or not they related to the story of climate change.
I may sound like some sort of religious zealot with what I wrote in the third chapter, but the fact is I have had life-altering experiences in realizing the importance of telling a good story in order to communicate to broad audiences, and more importantly in realizing how incredibly difficult and elusive it can be.
And if you want to get a sense of how important storytelling is, just read the comment above by Andrew McKeon (#25). He is right on the money with what he says. In the second chapter of my book (“Don’t Be So Literal Minded”) I cite a communications theorist who told me the simple principle of, “Arouse and fulfill.” That is exactly what Mr. McKeon is doing when he begins his presentation with what seems to be a pro-skeptic statement. What better technique for arousal. This is the way you begin a good story — with some means of arousal, rather than just launching a cascade of information.
There is much of the same philosophy in “Sizzle.” It’s a film that is both broad and simple enough to play as a fun comedy for college students, but also very complex at a deeper level in terms of examining how hard it is to communicate information in an age of information overload.
We will be having the New York City premiere of “Sizzle” on Friday night October 23 as the Closing Night Film of the Imagine Science Film Festival, held in Tishman Auditorium at The New School. I will be there along with three of the cast members. It would be great if all of you can join us and we can discuss this stuff for hours afterwards in some dive bar nearby.
5@Jim, sorry but this movie is way to abstract to base any conclusion about the goal you suggest.
I don’t know the best way but, you could create your own MMORPG style adventure with something along the lines of this tool http://www.garagegames.com/products/torque-3d
(let me know if you look for support and ideas) :)
The point of makeing people aware of our climate system is to make them aware of nature – the planet.
We lost the connection to the soil. This article gives a brief conclusion, why it is so hard to understand for many people, living in todays citys.
Culture Shock: Living in Ecuador, then visiting an American city
This movie does a great job … as any picture does.
It’s stuff like this compared with experience of natures anomalys what change people minds.
Gary Owens says
re 21: “realenergy.org”
Someone has apparently made such a movie, premiering next Monday:
The Age of Stupid
I’d also recommend a book and a paper:
C.P. Snow’s _Two_Cultures_
Unskilled and Unaware
My commentary on some factors in the divide:
1 – the rise of adolescence in grownup years.
Pre Industrial Revolution, children apprenticed to adults (often their parents at home), and so saw and modeled adult behaviour between real adults in all situations. There were also rituals of adulthood, e.g. now you’re a journeyman, therefore an adult and responsible for your life. Post Industrial Revolution, children went off to school, where the only “grown ups” around are teachers, in a contrived situation. Student cliques spend their time (value) in petty politics, hating the “adults” and other “other’s”, disparaging anything “responsible” and valuing the “bad as I wanna be”. Poof – at age 18 the adolescent is “set free”, with a bit of book learning, but no understanding, and no model of real adult responsibility, no ritual of “you are now responsible (period)”, and thus remains childish/adolescent long after/far more than people used to.
All the while the sub-adult is distracted by materialist baubles and clinging in the adolescent absolute way to either a fervent dogmatic religion or the counter-phobic reaction to it. So resolving hard issues is as simple as resolving whether it’s better to be a cowboy or a surfer (two high-school cliques) ;-) (e.g. impossible without loss of identity…)
2 – complexity
In concert with childishness/adolescence, the complexity of modern life seems too daunting. Rather than see what’s there, it is easier (especially if a clique leader is saying “here, I/we have all the answers”) to ignore the uncertainty/doubt of complexity and blindly follow the simplistic, instead of dealing with a lifetime of always learning (would take some humility, maturity to deal with uncertainty, …).
That includes many scientists unfortunately.
3 – chauvinism
When agriculture developed, there was now stuff to steal, crime began to pay, and armies eventually evolved to defend/overcome those defenses. Empirical observation: armies work best with one, single point of command, control & authority -> _the_ warrior king. (tactical authority of sub-units aside). _The_ warrior king struggles to deal with emerging complexity, with inefficiencies of non-standardization, with doubts about loyalty, etc. – and so _the_ warrior king promulgates _the_ way of doing things, and so people get used to _the_ singular correct way (period) – or else!. Also, the hierarchical model of management gets entrenched, as does the notion that “if you ain’t fer me, yer agin’ me” -> oversimplified issues: one way or _the_ other. Ultimately, we have today, the “Captains” of industry, fighting a war against the environment and its proponents. A war that in the polemics of war fighting, simply _must_ be fought, to loose is to die horribly, there can be no retreat. “The American way of life is non-negotiable”. Damn the peak oil, full SUV ahead.
The counter-phobic “no nukes, no windmills, no …” is the same sort of zealotry.
4 – connection to nature
As someone else mentioned, people are so removed from nature. Both in the appreciation of the ecological services it provides us, and in the beauty and other non-tangibles such as a sense of interconnectedness.
Besides, the _Captains_ of industry, in their business as war model, take from nature as cheaply as they can (including using dump space) and try to convince us their baubles are better, and failing that, appropriate nature and charge for access. So many in the consensus have the belief/attitude that nature is yucky, dirty and ought to be conquered/controlled.
5. Victimism, entitlement
Having lived in a fool’s paradise powered by cheap fossil fuels, with massive wealth, the incompetent/adolescent have found that by whining and claiming victimization, they can get politicians (adolescent clique meisters) to hand out favours (farm subsidies, cheap gasoline, etc.). To be a victim, one has to convince oneself/others that one really is powerless/hurt to be deserving, so people have intentionally dumbed themselves down as a way of passive-aggressive extortion. The sense of entitlement becomes such a part of identity that anyone talking about climate change/peak oil/population (and thence inferring that the free ride is coming to an end) is deemed a threat to the “victim’s” identity, and thus a dangerous person/enemy/kook.
G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan until ~1996 says
Andy Revkin says
It exists, and, astonishingly, it and the book have got the author an influential job.
(Secrets for sale)
Hank Roberts says
Hey Randy — re
Randy Olson says:
16 September 2009 at 5:13 PM
Actually you misread what I wrote (grin). This ain’t easy.
I dunno if the Variety reviewer is a skeptic. Maybe so.
Chip Knappenberger misstated what was in the review — he made it sound like the reviewer admired Chip’s coworker Pat Michaels — but as I read the review, the reviewer was describing how one of the characters in the movie, played by an actor, was _acting_ impressed.
At least some of the people on the screen were paid actors acting out a script — we know this. Were they all paid as actors for this, by the way? Who had control over the script?
Greg Craven says
Gavin and Michael, thanks for the nod.
This is my third attempt at composing a comment here. The first two were way overwritten, so I’ll cut to the chase here.
The book was my attempt at a game-changing idea that would breakthrough to the unengaged majority of Americans, which is where the game will be won or lost. Over the last two years of obsessive effort (starting with “The Most Terrifying Video,” going through the 7-hour “How It All Ends” video series, and ending with “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”), I have inadvertently become an expert on Joe Sixpack’s view of the global warming debate.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. So in designing a tool for prying open that 80% of Americans who are disengaged (or skeptical but reachable), I started from “How can I make the water more tempting?” and worked backwards. The book is the very carefully crafted result. It attempts to first engage (“arouse” as Mr. Olson says), then defuse the skeptical reader’s hot buttons, then prepare the reader for being willing to change their mind, then equip them for sorting through the shouting match, then value their own experiences and values, and then give them a template for making their own decision (the last chapter is “Reader’s Conclusion: Some Assembly Required”). In the Appendix, for the reader who has drawn the conclusion that massive action is needed, I give a vision for personal action which Bill McKibben generously praised by writing “the author has actually figured out what actions make sense.”
I elicited and received feedback in refining the ideas not just from the thousands of comments on my videos, but in varying degrees from James Hansen, Richard Lindzen (in fact, I’m sure our long email conversation was the catalyst for his subsequent article slamming NAS et al. http://arxiv.org/abs/0809.3762 ), Steve McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, Donald Langenberg, Ross Gelbspan, Roger Pielke (both Jr. and Sr.), Mark Lynas, Sir Robert May, Terry Goodkind (his six-page letter would blister your ears!), Richard Muller, Patrick Moore, John Sterman, Chris Colose, and Spencer Weart (both have commented in this thread).
The result may or may not be effective, but I gave it everything I had, and I’m pretty sure I’ve produced something unique, and of quality.
I now realize that my big mistake has been in pitching the book wrong.
All along, I had a very tangible target reader in mind: people who aren’t interested in reading a book about climate change. Soccer moms and NASCAR dads. They are inclined to be skeptical (they’re tired of being told they’re the problem, hostile to intellectuals, and immune from calls of doomsday because they’ve heard them their whole life and they’re still here, right?), but are reachable. They are the 80% of Americans who remain disengaged, but are where the battle—perhaps humanity’s Final Exam—will either be won or lost.
I knew all along that my target demographic was a lousy marketing choice. (A book on climate change for people who don’t want to read a book on climate change? WTF?) But because it contained the grid, I’d hoped it would hit a nerve and self-propagate, as my “Most Terrifying Video” did. I mean, 7.2 million views of a 10 minute whiteboard lecture on climate change has to be a proof-of-concept for something, right?
But when I told Michael Tobis (of “Only In It For the Gold”) how puzzled and disappointed I was that nothing had come of me giving copies to several prominent people who’d already been very helpful to me and who had tremendous audiences (such as Bill McKibben and James Hansen), Tobis replied: “It’s an odd book…. I’m not surprised Hansen didn’t know what to do with it.” That’s when I realized my marketing mistake, and finally saw where my book fits in.
I realize now that the target marketing audience is YOU. The engaged minority. You read it, realize it is a unique tool with the potential to puncture the membrane of indifference that sheaths the unengaged minority, and then you spread its ideas like crazy because you see there’s an outside chance it may blow the whole logjam apart. Maybe you buy tons of copies and hand them out to everyone you know. Maybe you blog about it, and badger every other blogger you know to do the same. Maybe you take the ideas, modifying them, and use them however you best see fit in your own channels. Maybe you use your clout to get the ear of someone in power or with media influence (same thing, on this issue) and get *them* to read it. Or maybe you don’t have access to the heavyweights, so you use your clout to just bump it one level up, and tell them to bump it another level up. Maybe you photocopy it and hand it out on street corners. (Don’t tell my publishers I said that.) I don’t care about sales or attribution or money. Just. Get. The Ideas. Out.
Having read all the comments above, I sincerely think that the vision of you guys spreading the ideas in the book to break through to the unengaged majority answers all of the concerns and “what to do” questions raised. (But then, maybe I’m just the proverbial guy with a hammer, looking at a world of nails.)
I’ve got nothing left in terms of energy, will power, or life force from the last two years of sleep deprivation, family deprivation, and Red Bull consumption (two trips to the ER for chest pains is enough—I’m done). My publisher dropped the ball on publicity, and at this point my wife and kids get all of what little life force I have left. I can’t chase this quest any farther. Bluntly put, the book needs a champion. Or, a whole lot of champions.
So tag. You’re it.
Gotta go photocopy a test for tomorrow’s class, then get home and feed the kids.
Hope I didn’t offend with my self-aggrandizing earnestness.
Scott A. Mandia says
Greg Craven’s video series is truly amazing in that it is low-tech and highly engaging. He reframes the question “Are we certain we’re responsible for global warming?” to “Given the risks and uncertainties of global warming, what is the best action to take?” Brilliant. (I can relate to him because I am far from being an expert. I am an avid reader on the subject so I feel I can represent the science that many of you are actively doing in this field.)
No good can come from finger-pointing away from ourselves. If we do not get the message across to Joe-Six Pack who will be voting for our policy-makers, then all the science in the world may not make a difference (Think the last 8 years in America). WE are responsible for the message and WE must do whatever it takes to communicate.
When we engage those that are misinformed, we must be courteous and respectful and try to bring the science to the level of the other party. We can do this and still show the data and journal citations.
WUWT won the Best Science Blog of the Year in 2008. Why? It is flashy, several articles are posted daily so there is always fresh content, and there is a sense of collegiality among the regulars. I post there as one of the few member of the Loyal Opposition and am often a target. Some folks get personal in their replies to my comments. However, there are a few there that are very intelligent, very courteous, and they have data and the occasional journal article to back up their arguments. Many times I take a deep breath before I reply and remember that I must “represent”. If my replies are professional and courteous, I believe the average person will give them the weight that they deserve, even on a site such as WUWT.
Why do I post there? If this is the most popular place for people to go to get their information, then WE NEED TO BE THERE.
My favorite blogs are Realclimate, Open Mind (http://tamino.wordpress.com/), and ClimateSight (http://climatesight.org)
We all know why Realclimate is arguably the best climate blog out there but, as I have said on other blogs, the discussions can be a bit much for the non-scientist. As an example, my wife has an MA History and is a part-time college professor. She would probably have trouble following many threads. Where does that leave Joe Six Pack?
I love Open Mind for the data analysis but the tone on that site can be harsh. Tamino has no love for ignorance. I cannot fault him on this because it is very frustrating to hear the same lame arguments over and over again. Having said that, Open Mind probably loses some credibility with Joe Six Pack just because of that tone. It is a shame because Tamino is a wizard.
If you haven’t visited ClimateSight please do so. Kate, a HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT, runs that blog and she is truly amazing! She is a shining example of how the message can be reached by a non-scientist and how this non-scientist can then turn around and educate the rest of the world.
Stepping down from the soapbox……