Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

The Messenger Matters: What to Do ? (3)

By: RickyRood, 15:40:GMT den 13. september 2010

The Messenger Matters: What to Do ? (3)

The first article in this series was motivated by a Republican candidate for State Office coming to my office to talk about climate change. The previous two entries in the series (one, two) have focused on the identification of the evolving political nature of climate change and what that means to knowledge-based education and communication. I have argued that scientists, generically, are not well positioned to participate in ideological confrontation and are easy foils for savvy political strategists. This leads to a dilemma - there is a need for communicating correct information about climate change, but at least a subset of this communication serves to fuel the political cause of those who oppose using resources to address climate change on a political or ideological basis. It is easy to make things worse.

One of the common points made in political arguments is that scientists sustain arguments about the threats of climate change because it is a way to keep funding coming to the field. This is a classic conflict of interest argument, which does not, intuitively, carry a lot of substance. For example, as Steve Schneider pointed out, if scientists were truly vested in a conspiracy to enhance and maintain their funding, then they would not state that global warming is “unequivocal” (IPCC 2007). It would be a lot smarter to say that we think global warming is important, but we need to do a WHOLE lot more research. For scientists to state that warming is “unequivocal,” and that we really need to pay attention to impacts often works against the obvious self-interest of the climate scientist. Such a position empowers new fields of expertise and their constituencies. In a tight budgetary time this pulls money away from science. But like the knowledge of climate change itself, if too much effort is made to counter the conflict of interest argument, then this only serves to fuel and spread the political argument. (“More research” is quite often a political tactic to delay action.)

There is a point to be extracted from the above. The messenger is important.

The role of the scientist in the communication of scientific issues and their possible consequences is complex. Scientists open themselves up to the conflict-of-interest criticism if there is even an indirect link between what people say and the way they get their funding. However, scientists are required by the scientific method and, de facto, contractual obligation to report their research. In their reports they need to write why the work is novel and important. Being novel and important does contribute to sustained funding - as it should. On top of this there is constant pressure from agency program managers and politicians for scientists to communicate their results in a way the public can understand. There was a time period when I was in the government where it was stylish to be asked the question “so what?” The implication of this question was that you must go beyond saying something is important, but you must say why it is important - often we were told, “so your mother could understand it.” In addition to these motivations and demands for scientists to communicate broadly, there is also the role of advocacy. There are some who see issues as so important that they move beyond the purveyors of objective knowledge to advocates of particular points of view (Scientists as Advocates).

Earlier in this series I put forward the notion that scientists needed to be cognizant of their role in what is now political discourse and, perhaps, to seek to do no harm. This requires scientists not only to understand their audience, but to also understand where their point of view is perceived to lie. Assume that one determines that they are engaged in a political exchange. Then given that the IPCC report has been politicized, authors of the IPCC report are by definition engaging in a political discussion. Being in a political discussion the role of correct facts and consideration of complete knowledge becomes complex. Not only does the aforementioned role of factual knowledge in science-motivated political issues come into play, but the IPCC author is a political voice motivated by a perceived partisan defense of their position and their work. Careful accurate statements by a scientist in such a position is likely to do little good, and careless statements are likely to generate new tendrils of the political argument and contribute to escalating personal attacks and attempts to discredit the messenger.

The messenger is important, and the most obvious way past the problem of the politicized messenger is to expand and diversify the messenger base. Perhaps the easiest diversification of the messenger base is to engage a far broader cross section of voices from the community of scientists. There are experts outside of the community of IPCC authors and the lead authors of classic papers. These voices bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge – different ways of stating ideas. Often these voices are young, the next generation, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us.

The idea of the inclusion of new voices in scientific communication is almost simplistic; however, it is not easy to achieve. For example, journalists and reporters naturally come to the expert and the people at the top of the author list. They come to people who have made news, perhaps have a history of controversy or the notoriety of an advocate. In this case, if there is to be diversification to new voices, then making that happen might fall to the scientists themselves - scientists opening the paths to new voices. Sometimes this requires a harsh personal accounting of where a scientist sits in the political and communication environment, followed by self-imposition of boundaries. Am I doing good? Am I doing harm?

The role of translators between the climate expert and a particular audience is growing. The audience ranges from the general public to people in business, in government, in nongovernmental organizations, in academia and education, and even to climate scientists from different sub-disciplines of climate science. Translators are often needed in complex problems. The experts in the field may or may not be good communicators, and they are often not comprehensive and objective.

Traditionally, a subset of journalists stood as translators, but the past decade has seen great changes in journalism. We have the democratization of journalism with the emergence of, for example, blogs; the decline of structured, editor-supervised journalism; the emergence of point-of-view journalism; and the identification of virtually all authors as representing a point of view or a political position. In many instances, I strive to serve as a translator in these blogs/articles, and I have made the deliberate decision in my research career to translate between fields.

A natural question arises in this search for translators and honest sources of information: are there ways that we can organize to provide a source of substantiated, vetted, and unbiased climate information? Ideas of community wikis and community-certified blogs emerge. (see Judy Curry’s controversial take on this) This will be explored more in future articles, but such a self organization has, potentially, profound implications for the process of peer review and role of the professional societies. Such an approach is, perhaps, a democratization of science, which would change the role of the expert.

The widest diversification of the messengers of climate change comes from the active inclusion of people who are positioning themselves to adapt to climate change and to address the changes in energy policy that are necessary to affect climate change. I have mentioned several times the paper by Daniel Farber that concludes that scientific investigation of climate change warrants legal standing in U.S. courts (Trust, but Verify). I have also discussed the positions articulated by Jim Rogers the CEO of of Duke Energy. Responses to climate change can be found in national security, energy distribution, municipal climate action plans, the insurance industry, etc. These are people and organizations who have looked at the knowledge, looked at the evidence, and have started to align capital and human resources with the solution space. These are the stories and the messages that need to be brought forward. Diversification of the messenger community outside of the community of scientists and academics and government researchers not only brings forward voices who are responding to the body of climate-change knowledge, but also untangles conflict-of-interest perceptions and provides concrete examples of the translation of climate science to action. This is where some principles of organization need to be focused.

r

Pakistan: I am certain to maintain an interest in Pakistan far longer than the average disaster attention span. My youngest sister Elizabeth is Counsel General in Peshawar so I keep an eye on the news. We remain at the start of this flood, and we are just beginning to realize the consequences. Attention to the Pakistan flood is moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com



Figure 1. U.S. State Department blog on Pakistani floods Washed out bridge in Pakistan. The U.S. has helped replace several bridges in remote regions in the northwest of Pakistan.


Updated: 13:32:GMT den 03. Oktober 2010

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Who is the Audience? What to Do ? (2)

By: RickyRood, 23:15:GMT den 01. september 2010

Who is the Audience? What to Do ? (2)

At the bottom is a short Pakistan update.

In the previous article I argued that much of the “opposition” to climate change was politically motivated or politically aligned. With such political positioning a communications and education strategy motivated by the opposition only feeds the political argument. This is especially true in “crisis situations,” where reactions to the crisis serve to build and perpetuate the crisis. Then some become vested in maintaining the crisis, including those whose primary goal is to seed doubt – which is the purpose of the political argument. Casually, therefore, it makes some sense to step back from the argument and, perhaps, seek to do no harm.

More generally, if the way scientists, individually and collectively, decide to communicate is based upon and focused on the points raised by political opposition, then this seriously compromises the ability to move forward with knowledge-based action. Why? As argued and substantiated in the previous article, the correction of factual misstatements often does not make things better and can make things worse. This means that the energy expended in making the arguments of correction is largely wasted, and the messages that enter into the public dialogue are largely defined by the political opposition. This does pose a dilemma, which I will get to below.

I return to the research of Anthony Leiserowitz and colleagues who investigate how the public perceives climate change. This research divided the U.S. into Six Nations as indicated in Figure 1.



Figure 1: From Center for American Progress, Global Warming’s Six Americas. Here is a June 2010 update and more figures.

Focusing only on the “Alarmed” and “Concerned” communities, together, they provide an actual majority. This suggests that, in fact, the science-based study of the Earth’s climate, projections of climate change, and the potential consequences have been communicated and accepted as substantive. On top of this, it is reasonable to add to this informed group the people listed as “Cautious,” yielding quite a large majority of people who have at some level heard and are receptive to the issue of climate change. The “Cautious” group is split across Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Not only does this suggest “success” from the point of view of “the scientist,” but it has implications for communication strategies as well as moving forward.

With regard to communication strategies, the target of communication might naturally be those in the “Cautious” group. Therefore, rather than reacting to the message of the “Doubtful” and “Dismissive,” it is perhaps worthwhile to respond to the questions of “Cautious.” Hence, we need to know the questions of the “Cautious,” and these will not be only questions about scientific investigation.

With regard to moving forward, the results in Figure 1 show a majority of people are “Concerned” or “Alarmed.” Under the assumption that these people do not hang on in quiet desperation, there should be a substantial amount of actions and intellectual energy focused on developing and implementing solutions. Therefore, the extraction of knowledge from these evolving activities serves not only to promote creativity and accelerate the development of solution paths, but also to diversify the base of people who are advancing climate change as an important issue. This takes climate change out of the realm and culture of scientists, making the message more broadly concrete, and revealing more and more opportunity that comes from addressing climate change as a societal value.

Above, I mentioned a dilemma. On one hand I am advocating that scientists (perhaps others) disengage from the political argument. I base this argument on the idea that participation in the public political argument often makes the problem worse; this includes the correction of untrue information and errors. Yet aren’t we required to make these corrections? It is important to assure that there is knowledge-based information, and that this knowledge-based information is regularly refreshed. It is important that there is education, both formal and informal. It is important that we constantly improve the ability to communicate the essence and the substance of complex problems. Explicitly, the dilemma is both the need to “correct” incorrect information, with the realization that the correction of incorrect information does not lead to knowledge-based reconciliation of disagreements.

What is required to bring some rationalization of this dilemma is, again, the recognition of the political motivation to the opposition, and to set that political opposition into its proper context. It exists; it can be identified, and the level of response is then tailored to what it is. If the political opposition is continuously engaged; if it is allowed to define the strategies of communication and education; then it serves to erode the science-derived knowledge base. This is, perhaps, a generalization of Edwin Friedman’s Fallacy of Empathy, which is that an excess of empathy towards an individual propagates through an organization and exaggerates the (usually negative) influence that that person has on the organization. Success requires the containment of the political (and emotional) argument, and the separation of the education and communication functions from this political and emotional argument. This is a difficult, but necessary and doable, proposition. And, as argued above there is a ready audience for this message. (Do I dare invoke the Silent Majority …. No.)

The point of this blog is that to move these issues forward it is necessary to avoid the lure of the political argument and the personal attack. It is critical to identify the receptive audience, and it is critical to target substantiated information to this audience. On the flip side it is important to minimize the harm of participation in the political argument, and it is important to avoid having the political argument define the communication and education mission of the importance of climate change.

At least 2 more in this series.

r

Previous entry in series: What to Do (1): Politics and Knowledge

Pakistan: Update My youngest sister Elizabeth is in Peshawar and sent me the following link to a blog of a 17 year old from Pakistan, Report From a Pashtun Teen: The Flood by SHER BANO. Elizabeth said this was an excellent description of how it was.


Attention to the Pakistan flood is moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative. (Pakistan Flooding: A Climate Disaster)

Here are some places that my sister has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. Organizations she sees.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

Portlight Disaster Relief at Wunderground.com

Elizabeth says that it is better to send money to the organizations doing the relief work than to try to organize shipments of goods.



Figure 1. MODIS Image of Indus River on August 11, 2010 from NASA Earth Observatory. Follow the link to NASA sight for more images, including a pre-flood image of the same scene.


And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at climateknowledge.org

Updated: 12:31:GMT den 03. september 2010

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About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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