Disturbing research about the use of “narratives” in climate science papers

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.

Clocks

Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science

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.

Narrative strength vs. number of citations

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,

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This is post-normal science

Graphic explanation of post-normal science
Click to enlarge.

“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.”

— “The Post-Normal Science of Precaution” by Jerry Ravetz. An update of his “What is Post-Normal Science?” from Futures, September 1999. For more about this see Wikipedia.

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

Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change Science.“

“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.

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

Hat tip for this paper to Luboš Motl at The Reference Frame.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, My posts about climate change, and especially these…

  1. Thomas Kuhn tells us what we need to know about climate science.
  2. Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
  3. Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
  4. Paul Krugman talks about economics. Climate scientists can learn from his insights.
  5. Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.

Thomas Kuhn can help us better understand science as a social process

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Available at Amazon.

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.”

13 thoughts on “Disturbing research about the use of “narratives” in climate science papers

  1. I have posted many times on the “Climate Science” publications, style, professional expectations, and this post confirms some of my previous assertions. The conclusions have to be based on some model which is grounded in descriptive theory and then (in physical sciences, which is what my training is in), reduced to math/algorithm. The usefulness/value of the theory is borne out by the ability of the output of the model to predict experimental or other observation.

    I think the models of the Climate Scientists are still very weak.

    Note- I am very impressed with the group you linked to from Berkeley, CA who are working in the area. What is not a good sign for the academics is that their (Berkeley group) work seems superior (to me) to the academics. This shows the PR/grandstanding that is prevalent in the academic “discipline” (low discipline in my view).

    I am very much for a big budget to fund workers in the area of Climate Science, but it must go to workers with a variety of “prejudices”/interests, with a variety of modeling approaches. Otherwise we get groupthink.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. wkeview

      “I am very impressed with the group you linked to from Berkeley, CA who are working in the area.”

      As the “About the Authors” shows, all three of this paper’s authors are associated with the University of Washington. To whom are you referring?

    2. Wkevinw,

      You said: “I am very impressed with the group you linked to from Berkeley, CA who are working in the area.”

      I am familiar with the Berkeley Earth group, and have often cited their work. But they’re not mentioned in this post. How is their work relevant to this post?

  2. Goodness. Fascinating and informative. Link to Motl was very good. And the fact that these women are both Alarmists is really ironic.
    (Of course this and these won’t be read much but….)
    Thx

    Breton

    1. Breton,

      Re: “And the fact that these women are both Alarmists is really ironic.”

      Yes, two of the three authors are women. But we don’t know that they are “alarmists”. We do know that they applaud the tweaking of science papers to produce useful effects on public opinion. It’s a slippery slope. See the following quotes. Those three women are alarmists, and show how far we’ve gone down the post-normal cliff.

      “I frankly am disappointed that we’re still talking about the science of climate, because that really has been long settled.”
      — Gina McCarthy, outgoing Administrator of the EPA, interview in the Financial Times, 18 December 2016.

      “The science behind climate change is settled, and human activity is responsible for global warming.”
      — Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the EPA, in testimony before a Senate committee, 23 February 2010 (source: NY Times).

      “The time for debate has ended. Action is urgently needed.”
      — Marcia McNutt — editor-in-Chief of Science and next President of the National Academy of Sciences — in her editorial “The beyond-two-degree inferno“ in Science, 3 July 2015.

      The “science has been settled” has been said many times, but not (on the record) by a climate scientist. Note one person who did not say “the science is settled” — Al Gore. He implied it in his 21 March 2007 Senate testimony, but did not use that phrase. An NPR article accurately described his testimony as “The science is settled, Gore told the lawmakers.” But they did not put the phrase in quotes.

    2. Dell Wilson on Twitter pointed to this appearance of Al Gore on David Letterman’s show. Gore said:

      “I’ve been trying to tell this story for 30 years. The scientific debate is over. There’s a complete consensus that global warming is real, we human beings are causing it, the results are very bad headed to catastrophic, we need to fix it, and it’s not too late.”

      Google shows that as promotion for his 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, Gore gave similar statements in many interviews. Thirty years? Does he have any documentation that he was warning about this in 1978?

      The Sun Sentinel summarizes the film as follows:

      “In a nutshell, An Inconvenient Truth argues that Earth is on the brink of big, big changes. The threat of terrorism is minuscule compared to what will happen in the next 10 years if the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps continue to melt at the current rate. Oceans will rise, swamping Florida and parts of Manhattan as well low-lying cities such as Shanghai and Calcutta.”

      It’s been ten years. None of those things has happened.

  3. I have a distinct memory of Al Gore’s about to go forward and received his Nobel Prize, and saying testily to a reporter/TV cameraman, ‘The science is settled!’

    1. Don,

      Unless you saw a video of it — or read a report in the major media — I suggest skepticism. We’re buried in fake news. Quite logically so. Our ruling elites discovered our gullibility. It’s the kind of discovery that changes the course of nations.

    1. 4Times,

      Let’s look at that statement, which you consider “science fiction”.

      (a) “Climate change is among the most compelling issues now confronting science and society”

      The definition of issue: “an important topic or problem for debate or discussion.” So you believe that all these scientists — and major climate institutions — are definitively wrong so that this is not even an important subject for debate. Looks like the California Task Force To Promote Self-Esteem was a success! Do you also give predictions for the stock market and horse races?

      (b) “and climate science as a research endeavor has grown accordingly over the past decade.”

      Fact.

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