The folks running the Climate Working Group summer retreat on drought were kind enough to invite me up to Santa Fe this week. I spent most of the time listening, but they also extended the huge kindness of inviting me to speak. I think they hoped I could explain the rituals of my somewhat mystifying media tribe, rituals that I know leave many scientists puzzled.
I don’t know if I was much help. My central point is that we can’t do what many scientists expect of us: make the public understand the science.
Scientists are not the only ones laboring under this misapprehension. Lots of people see the world very clearly, and believe that if the news media only was smart enough to see things this way too and share that with “the public,” whatever it is that needs fixing would be fixed.
In particular, it seems we can have little effect on the outcome of scientized political debates (climate change, nuclear waste, evolution/intelligent design) in which the policy/political actors have firm views and/or preexisting biases that are unlikely to be moved by media reporting. (This is the foundation for the question I posed this afternoon to Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbett regarding their Skeptical Inquirer piece about major media coverage of the hurricane-global warming issue.)
But if we can’t fix things, what we can do is provide a reasonable foundation of common knowledge for civic discourse, informing those who aren’t actors with firm views. And in scientific issues that have public policy implications, but that are not framed as scientized debates, while we can’t fix things, we can contribute to progress. That’s why drought seems like a sweet spot for me, an area where I can usefully explain science to the public without getting tangled in the leash.
Which brings me to my word of the day.
There is no word for the opposite of “drought.” Or, more precisely, there is a word (“pluvial”), but no one uses it. This is not the cause of our problems, but rather is a result of the fact that we don’t recognize the normal range of climate variability. When it’s unusually wet for a long time, we think of it as normal and act like it’ll go on forever. When it gets dry, we call it a “drought” and pine for its demise.
My great example was an AP story from last weekend about drought in southern Alabama. It seems to be blaming drought for the end of corn farming in the region. In southern Alabama, the period from about 1970 to 2000 was unusually wet as compared to the longer term record. They were in a decadal-scale pluvial, but they don’t’ seem to have realized it.
If you don’t notice it’s wet, you’re going to be screwed when it gets dry. It seems as though it’s worth my journalistic time to point this out. I’ve had a lot of traction on this point in recent years. But then, we’re in a drought. It’ll be interesting to see how well it works once New Mexico’s climate gets wet again.