Confusing metaphorical warfare with policy substance

Matthew Nisbet, in Slate today, gives thoughtful voice to my growing frustration with the way my friends in the science community have been approaching the climate politics and policy discussion of late:

The problems begin when scientists overestimate the influence of climate skeptics and their corporate backers. When legislation and international treaties fail, and polls show a decrease in public concern about the environment, the “climate deniers” take the blame. Yet the efforts of James Inhofe, Glenn Beck, et al. represent just a few of several factors shaping public doubt and policy inaction. More important, perhaps, are the poor state of the economy, competition for political attention from the heath care debate, and confusion over colder weather. We’re also faced with a widespread distrust of government that makes explaining complex cap-and-trade proposals that much more difficult. And it doesn’t help that long-standing rules in Congress allow individual members to block substantive legislation.

Given these factors, it’s not surprising that communication researchers, including me, have their doubts about the relative impact of Climategate on public opinion.

My frustration is that some of the smartest and most talented people in this discussion seem obsessed with the warfare right now, with smacking down every thing said on the Internet that they view as wrong, as if a) they could somehow succeed in ending bunk, and b) if all bunk ended, then their preferred political/policy solutions would follow.

I think both “a” and “b” are wrong. Bunk is Darwinian, and will always be there as long as the potential solutions to a given problem conflict with the values and interests of some part of the body politic. And even if bunk was somehow banished, the underlying values that spawn its existence (see “the Darwinian nature of bunk“) would still play a central role in the pursuit of political/policy solutions.


  1. Wait – back in December, Nisbet was arguing that “Climategate” was an important wake-up call for climate scientists, and that it showed that scientists were doing it wrong. So now there’s research that says that Climategate didn’t matter much to the public, and Nisbet is using it to argue that scientists are doing it wrong.

    Nisbet is really frustrating. Communicating science is really important. But no matter what data exists, Nisbet uses it to make the same argument: scientists are bad at communicating. That’s fine – we ARE bad at communicating. Some of us want to get better. But saying “scientists are bad at communicating” doesn’t help much. It’s like science professors complaining about kids who can’t do math, without doing the hard work of helping people improve.

    Nisbet teaches communication. I wish he had real solutions (beyond “incorporate civic science literacy into introductory courses” – I do this, and it’s not as easy as Nisbet’s arm-waving implies).

  2. John, you actually fell for this?

    Let’s back it up a bit. Science, even including political science and economics does not compel any policy, but it can give you a pretty good idea about the consequences of a course of action (aka policy), including the dread, no action. To be useful, policy makers have to respect the scientists and their expertise.

    You might recall the nonsense about “death panels” last summer, when Obama and Co, took the attitude that no one would be so stupid as to believe that nonsense. Wrong, it got traction with a small group and seeded a much larger push back. The moral, which Nisbit should know, is you let nonsense get traction at your own cost. Nonsense doesn’t need a majority, it just needs a loud claque (look at the damage the vaccine denialists have caused, let alone the time and effort they consume. Nonsense needs to be stomped on and ridiculed, fast.

    To give you a better idea of the game, read both of the links (and the comments) in Eli’s post about bird whistles

  3. I agree with much of what Eli says.

    “My frustration is that some of the smartest and most talented people in this discussion seem obsessed with the warfare right now ..”

    I share your frustration but disagree with this sentence. If the smart and talented people were smart and talented about diplomacy and negotiation, they would not be acting the way that they are. These people are smart about parts of science and ignorant about human interactions. To me, what some of the warring sides are doing is equivalent to showing up in cutoffs and flipflops with a tennis racket and expecting to beat the Arizona Cardinals in football. I would like it is the scientifically smart decided to learn the game of influencing public opinion effectively. Dismissing the public as ignorant and then expecting the public to support your position does not seem to be working. Internecine warfare is not working either.

    Just a thought.

  4. This whole approach mistakes the purpose of science communication under conditions of controversy, of which climate change is neither the first nor the last important instance.

    The issue is not getting people to DO something. Though it certainly is reasonable for individual scientists to participate in politics, that is not the business of science as an institution or a culture or a process.

    The issue is getting people to UNDERSTAND something. What they do about it is bound to be better if they understand the main points of what is going on than if they don’t. The problem is that the propaganda has moved off arguing the sorts of issues that can’t be decided objectively and onto the ones that can.

    This is profoundly maladaptive. It must be resisted to the extent possible. If that extent is small, we need to try all the harder.

    So this sentence:

    ‘When legislation and international treaties fail, and polls show a decrease in public concern about the environment, the “climate deniers” take the blame.’

    is form the point of view of defenders of science entirely beside the point.

    Whether the public is increasingly or decreasingly concerned about the environment is not a question that science should decide. What is actually happening to the environment, however, is very much a scientific question. As a citizen I can only argue that the problems we see are important if the public actually sees the problems.

    If they don’t, that is not a matter of politics. That is a failure of science and of journalism, and, frequently, a success of malicious and propaganda.

    The fact that this doesn’t show up on policy polls misses the point. Ask around on what people think the facts of the matter are, and compare with what the experts actually say.

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