Summary: A new paper provides valuable information about climate science — evidence of the politicization that helped collapse the public policy debate. The authors conclude that narratives are “used to positive effect” in peer-reviewed papers. It puts science on the slippery slope to becoming propaganda (or, in today’s jargon, “fake news”). Scientists achieve career success but destroy the public’s esteem accumulated over centuries.
By Ann Hillier, Ryan P. Kelly, and Terrie Klinger.
From PLOS ONE, 15 December 2016. Red emphasis added.
Climate change is among the most compelling issues now confronting science and society, and climate science as a research endeavor has grown accordingly over the past decade. The number of scholarly publications is increasing exponentially, doubling every 5±6 years. The volume of climate science publications now being produced far exceeds the ability of individual investigators to read, remember, and use. Accordingly, it is increasingly important that individual articles be presented in a way that facilitates the uptake of climate science and increases the salience of their individual research contributions.
…Despite this, professional scientific writing tends to be more expository than narrative, prioritizing objective observations made by detached researchers and relying on the logical proposition “if X, then Y” to define the structure of the argument.
Narrative writing, on the other hand, is commonly used to good effect in popular science writing. Both simple narratives and apocalyptic climate narratives are known to capture public attention and spur action. Moreover, narratives can influence perceptions of climate risk and policy preferences among the public, and the narrative style has been proposed as a powerful means of research to address problems of knowledge, policy, and action as they relate to climate change.
Here we explore the influence of narrative in the professional communication of climate science research, acknowledging that the perception of narrative can be subjective and context- dependent.
Relationship between strength of an article’s narrativity index and how often it is cited.
…Our results reveal that — at least among the set of peer-reviewed climate change literature included in our dataset — articles featuring more narrative writing styles are more often cited. This effect is independent of year of publication, number of authors, or abstract length.
…The result is surprising, though, in the context of professional scientific communication, in which expository styles dominate the published literature …and citation frequency is often considered to depend largely — even primarily — upon the strength of the science. These conventions and constraints would seem to eliminate any role for narrativity in professional scientific writing, but our results indicate otherwise.
…we found an unexpectedly strong correlation between narrativity and journal impact factor: more highly cited journals feature more narrative writing styles. …Whatever the reason, the message to authors is clear: up to a point, more narrative writing styles can increase the uptake and ultimate visibility of one’s research.
…Peer-reviewed scientific discourse is often viewed as a special form of communication, exempt from the qualities of narratives that humans inherently relate to. However, our findings support an alternative interpretation … evaluative commentary can be used to positive effect.
© 2016 Hillier et al, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License,
This is post-normal science
“The contrasting approach to science, still in the very early stages of development, could be called ‘precautionary’, since it is usually concerned with reacting to the unintended harmful effects of progress. Its style is ‘post-normal’; it lies at the contested interfaces of science and policy. It addresses issues where, typically, facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.”
Elegant language with a sound theoretical foundation, used to justify corruption of science for political purposes. Science has always been slanted to justify society’s beliefs; post-normal science does so openly and boldly — with industrial age efficiency.
Abstract for this paper
“Peer-reviewed publications focusing on climate change are growing exponentially with the consequence that the uptake and influence of individual papers varies greatly. Here, we derive metrics of narrativity from psychology and literary theory, and use these metrics to test the hypothesis that more narrative climate change writing is more likely to be influential, using citation frequency as a proxy for influence.
“From a sample of 732 scientific abstracts drawn from the climate change literature, we find that articles with more narrative abstracts are cited more often. This effect is closely associated with journal identity: higher-impact journals tend to feature more narrative articles, and these articles tend to be cited more often. These results suggest that writing in a more narrative style increases the uptake and influence of articles in climate literature, and perhaps in scientific literature more broadly.”
About the authors
The lead author is Ann Hillier, who has a 2016 degree as a Master of Marine Affairs from the University of Washington. Professor Terrie Klinger is Director of UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. Trained as both an ecologist and a lawyer, Ryan Kelly is an Assistant Professor in UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.
For More Information
Hat tip for this paper to Luboš Motl at The Reference Frame.
- Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.
- Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
- Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
- Paul Krugman talks about economics. Climate scientists can learn from his insights.
- Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.
Thomas Kuhn can help us better understand science as a social process
To understand the seductions of post-normal science we must understand normal science. Kuhn’s famous book provides the best description of it. From the publisher …
“A good book may have the power to change the way we see the world, but a great book actually becomes part of our daily consciousness, pervading our thinking to the point that we take it for granted, and we forget how provocative and challenging its ideas once were—and still are. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that kind of book. When it was first published in 1962, it was a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science. Fifty years later, it still has many lessons to teach.
“With The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn challenged long-standing linear notions of scientific progress, arguing that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of “normal science,” as he called it. Though Kuhn was writing when physics ruled the sciences, his ideas on how scientific revolutions bring order to the anomalies that amass over time in research experiments are still instructive in our age.”